He stood in front of the door, anxiety rising in his throat with some bile. Cole watched him, waiting.
“It aint locked.” The man said in a low voice.
Harl mutely nodded, staring at the familiar pitted planks of wood and cheap pig iron bands lying across them, his head lowering and his unwashed hair falling into his eyes.
“You want me to wait outside? She won’t bloody well want to see me again.”
“I don’t… I don’t know if I want to see her.”
Cole sighed. At first Harl thought it was in annoyance, but then when the man spoke, he realised it was from some kind of sadness, coming from deep inside him and flowing out in an exhale of breath. “If you can look me in the eye and not stick that dagger in my damned guts, I think you can deal with your mother.”
Harl looked down at the blade in his hands, the rough leather strap twisting round the grip and the misshaped metal of the pommel. He slid it into the belt that the traitorous Estille had given him, fitting it in next to the fox’s skull. Harl nodded and Cole finally opened the door.
Familiar smells wafted towards him. The mould on the walls. The stone dust on the floor of the passageway. Rancid meat stewing somewhere in a lodging room. The lavender water the women washed with when they could steal a few bunches from gardens in the nicer quarters of the city. The beer and sweat of male strangers.
He led Cole to a door that was more paper than wood, covered over with a drape drawn across to one side by a length of rough twine.
“She’s on her own. She brings this down if she’s with someone.” He whispered.
“I can stay outside.”
Harl ignored the suggestion and pushed open the door. They’d never locked it. They’d never had anything worth stealing.
A woman lay on the bed across from the door, naked under water stained sheets.
His eyes sort out the parts of the room he remembered, instead of looking straight at her. The other papery door that lead to a shadowy space, a tiny cupboard that had once been his room. The lock on it was on the inside so that he could lock himself in. The jumble of clothes that never got washed, but which he’d played hide and seek in when she’d first been teaching him how to disappear when the men came. The blackened kettle on the small fat stove. It used to whistle when it was ready, and that always make him laugh when he was small.
The woman had rolled over and sat up, not caring that her sheets had drifted down from her scrawny and bruised body. Harl looked away from her naked breasts, but not before seeing that she was a city-voln; greasy dark grey hair stuck up away from her head in different directions, and dead grey eyes stared at them. Looking them both over in fact, and calculating.
“It’s two copper for the boy. Three if you want to watch. Five if you’re joining in.”
Harl closed his eyes and breathed slowly through his mouth.
Cole spoke for him. “Cover yourself up. Where’s the woman who lived here before? The woods-voln?” He was calm, cold.
“Gone, months back. Left all her stuff! I never nicked it or nuffink!”
“Where did she go?”
“Dunno. Went mad the bitch next door said. Kept going on about some terrible mistake she’d made. Aint we all made’m I said, no reason to stop working” She laughed, a hacking thing that became a cough. “But then, she aint got other mouths to feed, ‘as she. Least I heard she aint.”
Through his anger and grief Harl looked back at the thin door to his room, remembering the mouth that she’d had to feed, hidden in there for so many years. Then his breath caught in his throat for a second as he saw a tiny grubby hand reaching around the door to pull it closer to closed. He fought down a building rage at the woman and focussed on what they needed to know again.
“Please.” Harl began. “Please, you have to know where she went. Did she leave the city?”
The city-voln woman laughed. “Leave the city? Just because she got tree-sap for blood don’t mean she was going anywhere out there!” She glared at the two of them, narrowing eyes dulled by some balm or other. Just then their features must have come into focus for her.
“Sharp blood!” She hissed. “Make that ten copper for the boy. And I aint doing both of you!”
Cole drew out his crossbow and the woman was so far gone she didn’t even notice the lack of a bolt in it.
“Sir! Please! I aint one of them that’s hates woods-voln, I swear it! But if I been with one of you I gotta make sure my other gents don’t know! It’s tricky!”
“We don’t want you.” Cole said flatly. “But you’re sure she’s still in Bara?”
“Can’t be sure, no! But no one leaves the city unless they want to pierced all through with your bloody voln’s arrows! Red hair and sharp bones mean nothing if she’s been lying with city-voln. The really sharp ones in the woods don’t like that. No, not at all!”
Cole nodded, and replaced the crossbow in its holster. “Very well. Let’s go, lad.”
Harl nodded, but stopped. They’d earned some coin since starting working for Jerekyn, and he kept his coin purse on the same loop of leather as the skull and now the dagger. He fetched it off of there and weighed it in his palm, watching the woman’s greedy eyes following the fatness of it. No doubt calculating how deep into dreams she could buy her way with what was inside.
He held it forward, ignoring Cole’s disapproval. But as she reached out for it, he grabbed her forearm with his other hand. Crushing it with the grip of his hand.
He locked eyes with her, his green to her grey.
“What are you going to do with this?”
“Food I guess. Take a break from lying on my back I s’pose.”
He held her harder, refusing to let her look away from him. “Tell the truth.”
“That is the truth, I swear by Lio-”
“Tell the truth!” Tell the truth! His mind echoed his words, repeating them over and over, forcing them out through his arm, his palm, into the tacky skin he held tight with his right hand. Tell the truth!
Her eyes, already clouded by whatever she was taking, flattened even further, the blacks of them growing as she spoke. “Going to spend it on whatever gets me out of my head and out of here. She’ll cry. But then she always does.”
Rage flooded Harl’s veins. “No. No you are not! You are going to use that money to help your child. Anything that she needs! Food. Clean clothes. And you aint ever using that stuff again! Sure as blood is blood. Do you hear me!”
She nodded dumbly and he released her arm. Red welts in stripes from his fingers marked her, a strange sheen of moisture over them. Sweat he thought for less than a second as he rubbed his own damp feeling hand against his trousers. He threw down the coin purse.
“Good. Come on.” Harl turned to the silent Cole and walked towards the door as the woman got up and started moving about the room, gathering clothes to wear with a brisk busy-ness. She left the purse where it had fallen.
Harl was silent as they retraced their steps back out into the piss stinking courtyard sitting between sloping tenement buildings, and Cole, not one for many words any way, let him be quiet. The urgency drained from them, the two of them walked streets and alongside canals without a certain destination, guided only by Harl’s feet that still remembered these streets and their mazes.
Eventually they were walking alongside the city wall in the south, where it towered over them. It had collected the forgotten things of the streets in piles at its base. Bones; animal likely. Rotting vegetables. Discarded parchments. Rolling bottles and scraps of fired potter’s clay. Metal shavings and charcoal. Tinder and fluffs of wool. The remnants of the workings of a growing city. Harl let his feet kick through some of the piles as they walked. Finally he stopped, a destination having formed in his head finally as the eddies and currents of the city’s forgotten waste and trash had brought him here.
“Gate.” He said simply, hands in his coat’s pockets, nodding towards the great southern gate of Bara. “You can leave that way.”
Cole stopped too, looking over towards where five guards stood, the last hours of the night shift being shared between them as they stood about a fire in a brazier, moaning about the cold as they warmed their hands.
“This where we part then?”
“Jerekyn’s dead. No one to make you my handler now. I’ll watch out for the Lios-fuckers by myself, I’m thinking. Find my mother in the city too. You go back to drinking, or buying children, or whatever.”
Cole nodded, his thin face betraying nothing. “If that’s what you want.”
“Yeah, that’s what I want.”
The man rubbed long fingers over the stubble on his face, thinking. Then he started walking towards the gate.
“You’re going? Just like that?!”
Cole turned back. He arched an eyebrow, but his mouth was still a serious line on his long face.
“You were! You were just going!”
“Tell me, Harl. Tell me what you want me to do? I aint nothing but a dumb order taker, so fucking give me an order.” He didn’t raise his voice, even though he swore. Maybe it was because the guards were just there. Or maybe it was because he didn’t need to. Even Cole’s quiet voice had the tone of command in it, no matter what he said about just following orders.
“I need… I need you to help me find my mother.” Harl’s voice was weak.
Cole nodded. “I can do that. It’s a better job than drinking or buying children. How are you going to pay me though, lad?”
“Fuck you Cole!”
“Good.” He said simply. “Be angry. But a man who needs to give orders has to put that anger into a command. Focus it down into cold words no one can refuse.” He moved forward and grabbed Harl’s right hand before he could react, grasping it in his own rough fist. “Order me like you did the city-voln woman in your mother’s rooms.” Cole looked into Harl’s eyes, fierce. “Do to me what you did to her!”
“Let go!” Harl gasped, still trying to keep his voice down with the guards so close by.
“You are different. Orinius was bloody well right!” Cole hissed, his face paling.
“Stop.” The word resounded through his blood, channelled again through his hand into Cole’s palm, and the man was silent, his eyes darkening. “You are going to help me find my mother. And you are not going to tell anyone what I am doing to you now. Or about this and what it means. Whatever it means!”
Harl used his other hand to push up his sleeves, revealing the marks on his right forearm just above where they were still locked into a hard hand hold.
“What are you doing there?” A voice came from by the brazier. “Get away from here! You can’t be going about selling yourself right where we can see yer!” Disgusted noises followed from the other men.
Harl released Cole, wiping away the dampness from his hand on his coat this time.
“We have to go.” He hissed to the dazed man, who just nodded once.
They walked back into the crooked spaces between the jumbled buildings of Bara. Cole was nursing his bruised hand, seemingly distracted. But when other guards looked towards the two lone figures, he quickly made sure to block their view of the boy at his side.