Harl watched the stars floating in the harbour. Some were reflections of actual stars, others were just lanterns tide to masts, moving on the gentle waves. And between the sea and the sky there was the blackness of the coastal road following the ins and outs of the cliffs lying between Emphon and the ruins of the castle to the south.
But out there tonight, on that winding path that had brought them here over a year ago, there were more twinkling stars that were twirling and speeding away. More lanterns, but carried by the men the Crescent City had sent again to hunt the ghosts. From his vantage point on the roof of the Cant of the Lion he was able to see each point of light riding out and then disappearing when their path turned them more inland. He did not expect to see them return. The first sending hadn’t either.
The City-Lords were fools for sending any hunters at all. Sending at night to try to avoid Lios’ eyes in the city was an even greater foolishness. In the morning the prophets that paced the three crescents would be screeching again about the foolishness and sinfulness of the voln, and the hunters would never return as though to prove it. Here in the second crescent, where the water had met the land and had pushed the ribs of its dead ships some way up the steep earth to be rebuilt as houses and taverns, the poor city-voln and the land walking sea-voln were of a mind about the ghosts haunting the woods around the coastal road. Leave them be, let them eat the woods-voln.
The few that had made it to Emphon had swallowed a few drunken sea-voln, that weren’t quickly missed, before wailing and flailing their way out of the city again. But in the third crescent the mighty houses were made out of defendable mountain stone and filled with arrogant and wealthy city-voln who were far enough from Liosinium to see the ghosts as a pest to be dealt with before they ruined the trade route with the south. The arrival of the prophets had made a few lowly city-voln piss their breeches, but it seemed that those in their fortress like houses behind gate and lock had lost enough faith in Lios to not give a shit.
And as for the woods-voln in the city… the two of them watched on in dread. But it was tinged with bemusement. They knew what the ghosts were and the sight of bounties being advertised, as though the poor tortured creatures could be captured by any voln, was odd to them. Their adopted city as a whole was strange to both of them, even now, a year after they’d arrived, two near dead and near starving fools slumped on the back of Pie. The three parts of the city where the sea-voln and city-voln mixed to different degrees were so different to the flat Bara and its mazes of rich and poor, that the two woods-voln had stumbled in finding their way on the streets for a while. The Cant of the Lion was the first place they’d come to that hadn’t been full of knives for their throats or roaring sea-voln raging at their green eyes. The tavern was run by a city-voln called Geb who’d chosen the difficult life of maintaining peace between city and sea-voln within its walls while also turning a profit. He’d been the one to turn the daggers away from the two wretched creatures who’d stumbled through his door in the midst of a downpour. Geb was a good man, and had made space at his table for the two strangers.
A year or so on, and both Harl and Cole worked for the Cant of the Lion, Cole as a regular barkeep, and Harl as a pot boy in the kitchens. The work was messy and hard, but it came with a space in the vast attic of the Cant, shared rooms made by thin dividing walls under the upturned hull of some ancient ship, the bodies of barnacles still dotting the outside. Cole and Harl had gotten one to themselves as none of the other sea-voln staff would share with them, which suited them both well enough. Days had become weeks, and soon a year, and the two of them had settled into a life of routine and regular meals. Harl had worried at first about Cole serving drinks all night long, but the tall man had never taken another drop after the death of the castle. Harl had expected him to be more haunted than ever, but he seemed like a man freed. The tall man was happy.
And he would be returning soon. Harl crawled along the hull of the ship and flipped himself back into their room by their window, the retracting claws in his hands making it easy to hold himself onto the wood. Inside were their two beds, a small stove with a pipe leading to the window, a door to where the chamberpot was kept, and a small set of drawers where they kept their weapons and a pouch with a couple of silver coins in it to please any curious thief. Their store of gold coin, reclaimed by Cole from the ruins of Orinius’ study in the castle, was lodged in a hiding place no dull sea-voln eyes would find.
Harl had just shucked off the last of his outer clothes and darted under his sheet when the door opened and a weary Cole came in.
“Your breath is too fast, boy.” Cole said as he sat on his own bed. “Why pretend to be asleep at all?”
Harl opened his eyes and looked over to where the other woods-voln was dimly lit by a lantern that he’d turned up slightly by his bed. He was pulling his leather boots off one by one and looking plainly at Harl. A year and some months of decent food and of pushing barrels full of white ale up from the first crescent, the harbour, uphill to the Cant of the Lion had taken away some of his leanness, replacing it with healthy and strong muscle. The dark bags he’d worn under his eyes were gone with the drink, and his eyes were clear and focused. Clear enough to know that Harl was feigning sleep.
Cole shrugged and removed his shirt, its cheap linen spattered with beer and sweat stained. The scar. Harl tried not to stare but it was a constant reminder that Cole had been a prisoner in the castle too, and had not escaped unscathed. Harl absent-mindedly rubbed at the two half-moons of teeth marks on his skin, black skin where dogs had once dug their teeth in. Neither of them had escaped completely unscathed or unchanged.
“I’ll be in the kitchens early tomorrow.”
“And if you’re tired come the ‘morrow that’s your problem not mine. What were you up to anyway?”
Harl shrugged this time. “Watching for the hunter’s lanterns.”
“Bloody fools.” Muttered Cole. “The ghosts in the woods should be left alone. Finally. They’ve earned that.”
It was odd to hear Cole defending the ghosts. The monsters. The creatures from the rooms in the castle. His own room had contained one of them, and it had attacked him, leaving him with the huge scar on his torso that Harl could see now. But time had changed Cole. After the fall of the castle he’d begun to talk about the escaped monsters sympathetically. After all, they both knew that they’d just been children, like themselves, brought to the castle against their will. With the fall of the castle something in Cole had been healed and he no longer hated the poor things as he had. Not that they weren’t dangerous still.
“They’re going to get themselves killed.” Harl said, and Cole nodded, knowing he meant the hunters.
“The third crescent is worried about the ghosts stopping trade along the coastal road. We haven’t had a trade caravan from Bridge for weeks.” Cole stood and stretched before pushing down his breeches and slipping under his sheet. Harl averted his eyes from the naked man across from him.
“And how will you fill your evening after Geb releases you from your duties in the kitchens?” Cole lay on his back, staring up at the curved ceiling.
“What do you mean?”
“Sea-voln by the name of Tarad came into the Cant this evening. Mentioned he’d seen another woods-voln walking the jetties in the first crescent around seven bell a few days back.”
Harl pushed down the memory of his fear from the first time he’d tried to walk out over the sea water. It was still a hungry beast to him, and any foolish step might dunk him in, and he was certain, as sure as blood is blood, that swimming in that salt stench water would be different to swimming in the canals of Bara.
“Could’a been someone else.”
Cole laughed. It was still a strange sound to Harl, but becoming more familiar.
“Lad, there’s only two woods-voln in all of Emphon. We both know that. What takes you to the harbour? Looking for a ship to Liosinium?” There was a tension in his voice that concerned Harl. The charm… Cole was worried about the charm… would he have to leave with Harl as he’d been forced to stay with him in the castle? But Cole was happy in Emphon, surely happy enough to let Harl go alone if he wanted to? But no, Harl wasn’t looking for a ship to sail away in.
“Did Tarad mention the Denosians?”
“Aye, he did. I wondered if you would mention them to me.”
“Eventually”, admitted Harl, thinking of Orinius. The Denosian scholar had run the castle for Lios, and he and Cole had been friends of a sort… once. Cole did not need reminding of him and of the end of that friendship.
Cole laughed a little again. “And the Denosian girl?”
Harl blushed, pleased that Cole was still staring up at the ceiling. “It’s nothing. I spoke to her just once, that’s all. The Captain of the Lios in Armour won’t let me back again unless I pay him coin.”
“Is that so…”
“I aint paying for her company! She aint a whore!”
“But she is a slave, yes? In a cage?”
Harl was sitting up. “She aint a whore!”
Cole sat up too, revealing his scars again. “I didn’t say… look, boy, I’m only saying she’s Denosian, she’s going to be taken south at some point.”
To Liosinium. Was that why he was asking about Harl looking for a ship? Did he think he would follow her? He barely knew her! She only knew a few words of their tongue, so their ‘conversation’ had been stilted and-
“I just want you to remember that the next time you go talk to her. Prepare yourself.”
Harl was confused. “I can’t talk to her again, I told you, the Captain wants coin.”
“Then take it. It’s as much yours as mine.” Cole lay down again, closing his eyes. “Give him some of our gold and you’ll be able to talk to her all a’day and a’night. If talk is all you want. Though he might not sell you more. He’ll be hoping for a lord of Liosinium with a fatter purse no doubt.”
Harl fought the urge to shout at Cole again. The Denosian girl was no whore!
“Or take it and go to an actual whore. Gold’ll buy you more than several visits of a city-voln girl here. Or several whores. You’re of age.”
Harl found his mouth empty of words.
“Do as you will Harl. I’m up early to roll barrels up the hill from the first crescent tomorrow. Sleep well.”
Cole rolled over, the thin sheet falling down enough to show Harl the ripple and lines of muscle that shaped the man’s back before he turned the lamp down. In the darkness Harl thought on the Denosian girl. Her name was something like Ilv’Andri in her tongue. A pretty name for a pretty girl. She was gold of skin like Orinius, but while it had made him look sickly, on Ilv’Andri it made her look like a painting of a goddess. Her hair was long and pale, left free of braids and trailing over her shoulders and arms. Her eyes were amber coloured, like none he’d ever seen before. She was… beautiful. But caged. Where she could do little to entertain herself apart from sing the cant that had brought about her separation from the other Denosians in the first place.
In the last year Harl had learnt a few things about sea-voln. For one, you never saw female sea-voln on land. The cant that Evad had sung on his canal boat was a bastardisation of the cant that the women of the sea sang; they called on Lios to becalm the seas and those of the finest voices were most protected. Ilv’Andri had picked up the cant on her journey on the slavers ship, and it had made her more precious than any ordinary slave. And it had been her singing that had brought Harl to the Lios in Armour while he’d been exploring the first crescent. It was unearthly, as though several choruses of nightingales were singing together, their melodies trickling over each other.
The Captain of the Lios in Armour, Kranen, had been in the midst of deciding what to do with his doubly precious cargo when he’d found the woods-voln in front of her cage, entranced. Harl was within a breath of charming him into letting her go, but his wiser thoughts – sounding not unlike Cole in his head – had won over. A woods-voln might just about make it alive through the cities and the roads, perhaps even find a place like the Cant of Lios to live. But a Denosian… a Denosian was slave marked by their golden skin. And Harl couldn’t be-charm every single sea, farm, and city-voln in the world! Instead, he relied on his words, finding the trick of it in explaining to Kranen that he had been moved by the girls’ songs of Lios and was merely wanting to hear more the glory of the god-king from her lips as he converted from his previous heathen ways. Kranen might not have entirely bought it, or maybe he just saw an opportunity to make more coin even before he sold the girl. Either way, he couldn’t go back without a golden gift for the Captain.
And Cole wanted him to take it to him. That confused Harl. As did the talk of whores.
But he put his puzzlement to one side long enough to let sleep claim him too.