Harl’s feet sprang over the supple wood of the jetties, but he held both his fists clenched as he contained his fear of the sea water below him. One tight fist held nothing, but the other had a golden coin jabbing its pointed edges into his palm. He’d taken it from their hiding place while the sun was low and few voln were loitering about the Cant of Lios. Even then he’d had a full morning and afternoon in the kitchens, cleaning greasy pots to the grim faced cook’s liking in the sweltering kitchens, before he could finally get down to the first crescent. Cole had been asleep when Harl had started his day, but as he left the woods-voln was briskly washing himself from a fat bellied barrel of rain water by the back gate. A sea-voln was smoking his pipe in the courtyard away’s away.
Cole nodded, seeing him, and whispered. “Keep it hidden.”
Harl had wondered how he’d known, but he’d just nodded back, tightening his fingers about the flat golden Lios hidden in them. Cole’s face was damned near unreadable, and Harl couldn’t tell if he was pleased or not. So Harl had just picked up his heels and gone about his mission in the first crescent anyway.
Now, running towards the shadow of the Lion in Armour as it sat at its mooring amidst other traders and slavers, he considered some more Cole’s insistence that he spend their coin on this. Or else on whores. A year or more together and Cole had never taken any of their monies to spend on conversation or… elsewise. There were whores in the second quarter, down on their luck city-voln who walked behind the prophets and mocked their screeching as they jiggled their… tits at them. A dangerous sport. The city guard were no fonder of the prophets than the whores, but it’d turned out that the holy men had vicious backhands and the whores often ended on their backs on the cobbles, flailing amid their silk rags. The prophets, the Mouths of Lios, had started turning up a six month back or so… the name had immediately reminded Harl of things, and people, in Bara he’d rather forget. He avoided them as much as he could.
He realised that the gangplank was touching his toes. A fat sea-voln was lounging over the railing by the top. Captain Kranen grunted when he saw Harl far below him.
“Talk costs. You got coin this time?”
The first time he’d scaled the side of the ship to find the source of the singing, and was found sitting cross legged in front of the girl’s cage up on the front. This time he held up the coin between thumb and forefinger for the man to see.
“A Lios for you.” Harl said, ignoring the envious looks of the sea-voln working about him. White hair and beards were the common mark of the sea-voln, as though the sea bleached them. Up close some even had crystals of salt among the tangled hairs.
“Put that away, lad. Up here, where it will be safe in me coinpurse.” Kranen laughed and it was a dark sound.
Harl near leapt up the plank, deftly catching Kranen’s hand as he reached out for the gold. “I should not make you give her up, but I can make you deal fairly with me and with her.” He forced his will upon the man, and watched his eyes go flat. They sharpened again as the coin was put in the purse tied about his voluminous waist with ship’s hemp.
“Waddya want then? I aint going to let you lie with her. I can get a thousand more coins like that from a right proper city-voln of Liosinium who has the god-king’s permission to have a Denosian slave. You carry no such writ, have no such coin. She aint going to be yours.”
“I want to be able to talk with her, whenever I want to. Let her sing if she wishes.”
“Her cant’s for the sea.” There was confusion on Kranen’s face, the sun browned creases around his eyes tightening.
“I ain’t going to stop that.”
The sea-voln grunted. “Heathen like you ain’t going to appreciate the cant, no matter what shit you spun into gold after the last time you were by!”
Harl wasn’t surprised that his honeyed words had failed to impress the Captain. “What harm is there in letting me listen?”
“It’s your gold. Good gold like that could get you bedded a thousand times over. And the boy wants words and singing! Ha!”
There were a few sea-voln on the deck who listened with stern faces as the deal was struck. They watched him suspiciously as he walked to the ladder leading up to the raised section at the front of the ship, above the captain’s own quarters. All the watchers were male of course. Somewhere deep down in the belly of the ships were the female sea-voln, so he’d heard. He wondered if they were also white of hair and salted by the sea, but then he was by her cage.
Kranen had settled her there once he’d heard her sing. Alone, and by the front part of the ship. He must have believed that from there she could have the most effect on the deadly sea they were journeying over before coming to Emphon for restocking and rest. The others of her kind… her ‘voln’?… were crammed into a larger cage at the back of the ship, all seven of them sharing one space not much bigger than hers, but with no bed or even blankets to cover their golden skin with. Ilv’Andri had a small cot made up for her, lying up against the bars nearest the pointy part of the sea-voln craft. She was treasured. All because one day she’d opened her mouth and used her Denosian tongue to sing Lios’ praises.
She was gazing out to sea, her amber eyes scanning the horizon to the west and north. Last time she’d told him about where the Denosian’s came from. Somewhere out there to the there was another land, another place where she’d said there were grass covered hills instead of farms and woods. The Denosians lived there happily enough, until the sea-voln caught them and then traded them for gold in the South. Like Orinius. Like Ilv’Andri.
She turned as he sat down crossed legged in front of her cage. She was kneeling, turned towards the sea beyond the crescent harbour. He tried to avoid looking the same way, the expanse of the sea too terrifying. And she sang to it! There’d been a storm and the cantors had been brought up from below the decks to sing Lios’ praises to the water to be-still it. Ilv’Andri had raised up her own voice, mimicking the sounds, the language, she heard from the women. Her voice had raised her up in the eyes of the Captain. It wouldn’t save her from the life of a slave though. Either on board the Lion in Armour or in Liosinium, her fate was set.
“H’arl” She said plainly. Her voice was accented in a way he wasn’t familiar with and when she said his name there was a slight pause between the H and the rest just as there was between the two parts of her own name. It must be a Denosian thing.
He smiled, feeling like a fool. “Ilv’Andri”
“K’ranen let you back.” She could speak the tongue of the voln well; she’d made an effort to move quickly beyond mimicry to understanding. She was smart. Too smart to be a slave.
“I talked him into it.” He didn’t mention the golden Lios. No doubt Kranen would at some point, but for now he wanted her to think… well, that there was some freedom in their conversation. She had little enough.
She nodded. With only Orinius for comparison it was hard to know if she was normal looking for a Denosian, but he found her far more appealing than the crooked old scholar! She was slight, too slight. No doubt the sea-voln made little effort to feed their slaves well, in order to save coin. And she was short, giving the impression that she was younger than Harl, but they’d worked out between them that they were of an age, or near enough. However, since she did look younger there was almost something of Eris about her… ignoring the golden skin and eyes of course… but Harl put that thought from his mind. They were different! For instance, Ilv’Andri’s long light golden hair flowed over her shoulders rather than sticking out in many direction from a roughly done plait! And the sea-voln had given her some thin white shift to wear and a long white woollen cloak that was drawn about her in the chill of the northern city. She was nothing like Eris, who, last time he’d seen her, had been glaring at him in patched woods-voln leather armour! And she certainly had none of Eris’ rage that she aimed towards him!
“How are you H’arl?” Her words were still stilted.
“Well enough. I came to see how you are though.”
“Well enough.” She smiled, but her amber eyes still looked sad. “Soon K’ranen will make a choice.”
“Yes. The ship on the water to the southern city.”
“Yes. There maybe I sing for the god-king?”
“Kranen said that?”
She shrugged, her shoulders thin and sharp. Maybe next time he could bring some more food for her. “Slave either way. But perhaps to sing for Lios will bring K’ranen great fortune for life. So he says.”
Harl near flinched when she spoke about being a slave. Even if he pretended not to buy her time with coin, the cage was still there.
“I sing for you, good fortune for you?”
“I’m not sure that’s what Kranen means. If he pleases the god-king he thinks he will have good luck. Do you have a god in your lands? What do you call your land? Are you voln? Would you be woods-voln or city-voln?” The questions started pouring out, and he could see she was confused as his tongue skipped on.
“God? This word I don’t know. Lios. God-king. These words the sea-voln say but they are not words from my home. And voln? You are voln. You call us Denosian. That is your word. We do not call ourselves Denosian. We are just people. You have so many names. Sea-voln. Woods-voln. We are just people.”
Harl smiled. “It might be simpler if we were like that too.”
“But you are.” She looked confused again.
“The sea-voln are different to the woods-voln… to the city-voln, the farm-voln, the mountain-voln…” How could he explain, her people must not live in different places, with different faces? “You see how I have red hair and green eyes… and the sea-voln, well they all have white hair.” He remembered the sea-voln Evad, the stinking captain of a tubby bellied canal boat floating on the river Bar. He’d been very clear on his disgust about the idea of the volns mixing. Even if he’d also bragged about bedding Denosian whores, and the wonders of their bodies, and what kinds of things they’d do to save their lives… Harl tried not to look at her with those thoughts in his mind, but his face betrayed him with a red flush.
“Do only woods-voln make red faces? I’ve never seen the sea-voln do that.”
“No, that’s something… never mind. So all Denosians are golden skinned? You don’t have some with dark hair, and some with red, or some with amber eyes and some with green?”
“We look different. Some are gold like your coins, some are more like the smaller copper coins. Some have dark bronze hair. But we are all the same people.”
“Who lives in the woods, and who lives in the cities?”
“The people do.” Again, she looked confused. “In the biggest cities there are more people. But they are in the north, far from the coast. Only the brave or the foolish living in the south…”
Where the slavers come. “Were you foolish?”
She sighed and looked again to the sea. “Do you want me to sing for you?”
“Can you answer my question? If the south is dangerous…”
“There are reasons some go to the south. My choice is my own.”
“But now you are a slave!” Harl was sitting up, coming closer to the bars. “That was not a choice!”
She looked at him steadily with her rich amber eyes. The wind was stirring her hair, and again he was reminded of Eris. There was the same determination on her face, even if Ilv’Andri’s features were more delicate than the woods-voln girl’s. Ilv’Andri was beautiful. Eris was… striking, perhaps. Why was she in his mind again? He guessed that he had reason enough to remember the Atta-Sutith, after what he had done to her…
“You think about something else.” Ilv’Andri was perceptive.
“Its… something from a long time ago.”
Ilv’Andri nodded. “Everything ends up being a long time ago.”
“Is there someone…” He blushed again at asking about that part of her past.
Ilv’Andri giggled at his redness, and it was a warm, pleasant noise. But it was interrupted by the sounds of shouting coming from below the ship. Harl groaned.
“What is it?” She was looking about, moving towards the edge of the cage to try and see.
He listened to the commotion with his sharp ears to try to make out some of the words. They were familiar. He began to quote, more from memory than from what he could hear above the shouting of the sea-voln “One of the bloody Mouths of Lios is blabbing down on the jetties. ‘We will bring his word to all the cities, and the sins that summoned the ghosts will end. Like the mixing of the volns, which is an especial abomination unto Lios!’” He was reciting some of the same blather he’d heard from the prophets in the second crescent.
“Some of these words I do not know.” Ilv’Andri said.
“Perhaps it’s for the best.”
“Please tell me.”
“It’s about how the voln should not mix. That they should not… breed. The crazy men say that the ghosts on the coastal road are here because of our sins… our badness.” He was embarrassed all over again at having to explain ‘mixing’ to her.
She still looked confused, and he was about to explain when Kranen clambered his immensely fat body up the ladder to where Harl stood in front of the cage.
“Boy, gold or not, the prophets are spoiling for a fight and I aint having no Lios damned woods-voln on me ship! I’m a true and pure god-king fearing man!”
“Will they hurt you?!” Ilv-Andri slipped a hand through the cage to touch Harl’s shoulder, gaining a sharp slap on it from Kranen. The man turned suddenly and doubled over in pain, holding his gut.
“What did the bitch do to me?!”
“I’m guessing you know that slapping her aint exactly ‘dealing fairly’ with her? Isn’t that so?” Harl smiled smugly.
“Lios damn you, what nonsense is that?!”
“Ignore me. But the next time you hurt her its gonna hurt in that immense belly of yours. So, think on that.”
“Get off me ship. And bring more coin next time!” He groaned as another wave of pain his him as the charm punished him for trying to extract more money after their agreement had been made.
“Its easier just to deal fairly with me and her!”
“Bugger off lad!” the fat Captain swore through the pain, slapping out a hand to hit at Harl this time. But Harl dodged him, bowed elaborately at Ilv’Andri, and darted for the gangplank. Smugness was wiped from his mouth though, after he’d danced down to the bottom of the gangplank. He found himself facing three mad eyed prophets standing at the bottom. All three raised an accusing finger to point at him, their robes embroidered with leering pink mouths flapping down from their arms as they shouted as one.