It had started with trinkets, small expensive things like pearl earrings or a wealthy city-voln’s gold filigree nosegay pin. But the real fun was in finding secrets. The book that Harl had stolen for Jerekyn years back in Bara now made sense as the secrets of Emphon opened themselves up to him and Cole. And again, they could be recorded on paper and parchment. But left this time at the scene while declaring the truth in the name of the bastard gods.
The woman with the young girl curling her hair had near enough stolen the child from an impoverished relative. Slavery wasn’t at all forbidden, but it was controlled and limited to Denosians or those too poor to pay for their repentances to the temples. Not relatives in need of true charity. A sign on her door bearing outlines of the gods told everyone what she had been doing, and soon the city guard were looking into it. After that, Harl and Cole had found hidden memoires and diaries to plunder in the fine houses of the third crescent. And they set their secrets free. A man who’d killed his brother over a small slight woke one day to find the bastard gods painted onto the bricks of his tall townhouse. When he reported the blasphemy to the guard they noticed the long bodies of the gods were all pointed towards a bricked-up window in the attic. Bones were found in the dust up there.
At first the guards were loath to follow the signs of the bastard gods, but again and again they pointed to crimes and sins long hidden, and the city-voln paid attention. Afterall, revealing them to the light was Lios’ command and their duty. That it meant that some people – guilty of mind perhaps – had begun to see the bastard gods as dark cloaked shadows following them in the evening twilight was an unfortunate superstitious consequence. But at least it was reducing the number of unexpected and unexplained deaths in the city.
And more and more Harl heard the bastard gods discussed in the Cant of the Lion. Often still with disgust; most of the sea-voln spitting into the sawdust at any mention of the impure gods. But sometimes there was also curiosity.
“I heard that one o’them damned bastard gods named a man of the third crescent who’d sent counterfeit coin to the temple’s treasuries.”
Harl was listening in as he collected beer mugs and pots, weaving in and out of the seated city and sea-voln with his swift hands picking them up before the clutter was even noticed.
“Now why would a bastard god give a shit about gold for Lios?” Geb from the top of the table, leaning back in his grand chair and watching his court of city and sea-voln. A calm voice of reason, but still the whispers carried on.
“I heard tha’Captain Kranen of the Lion in Armour is in trouble with the third crescent for holding Denosians in the harbour for so long. There’s fine types there, with papers for ownership, who’d bite of the hand of their other half to have a Denosian slave, and he keeps saying he’s bound for Liosinium but ne’er goes.” The speaker was a grizzled sea-voln with a fine long beard. Captain Halgin of the Lion Rampant. A rival slaver and one who’d be well-pleased to see Kranen in trouble. “I heard the bastard gods appeared painted on the side o’his old shit heap of a ship, w’words saying he was keeping the Denosians for ‘imself.”
Geb snorted. “And again, why would the bastard gods give a shit about Denosians and who gets to beat them? You ask me, all this bloody nonsense is all due to some some third crescent shit with a pot’o red paint whose working his way about sorting out his grievances.”
“Aye, maybe.” Another, but a city-voln. “It wouldn’t be the first time the third crescent’s imploded because of dratted politics.” This was Lorus Pierson, a city-voln who’d come to the second crescent from Bara as a poor scribe and made a good enough living helping the slavers with their accountings. He kept himself to himself usually, so Harl was surprised to see him at the long table with the other gossipers. Harl fetched the pots back to the kitchens, nodding at Cole who he passed on his way, and returned as quickly as he could. Cole grabbed him as he rushed past and jammed two bottles of rare Tralis vernoush into his hands. “For Geb’s table.”
Harl nodded and went about pouring the strong liquor. A few of Geb’s friends covered the tops of their cups and pots. They’d rather serve themselves than have a woods-voln do it. But Geb ignored them and thanked the lad for the booze.
“You’re happy with the two of them? The man and the lad?” An old sea-voln sneered. “Happy with them being here… now?”
“The prophets can go take a long walk off a short jetty. They’re good workers.”
“They’re bloody heathens!” The other man snorted.
“Well, if the bastard gods are truly walking the streets then perhaps my two woods-voln can ask them to walk away from my tavern.” Geb smiled and threw back his vernoush.
“Blasphemy” Muttered the first and few others nodded.
“I aint about to suck the titty of the One Who Enraged the Seas if that’s what you bloody well mean. But there’s no harm in my sharp friends.” Geb glared at the other men and the subject was dropped. They returned to other tales of city-voln in the third crescent who’d discovered their most secret sins displayed for the world. Harl half listened to the story of the blacksmith whose clients had found him beaten black and blue, tied up and ranting about unnatural figures in hoods. Bastard gods.
“More likely just some villains come a-looking for coin. Gods don’t use their fists.”
“Lios used a sword-” But the speaker was hushed. And the storyteller carried on.
“Turns out the blacksmith later confessed to making ill-use of his apprentices. Very ill-use.”
“City-voln.” Said a sea-voln with disgust and then held up his hands in pacification as the few city-voln about the table glared at him. “All’s I’m saying is that a’board our ships we know how to deal with perverts.”
“Lios don’t exactly smile on that among the city-voln either, as well you know Ebrigg.”
“There’s a world of different between an absent smile and a hung neck.”
Their talk meandered on to other topics. The arrogance of the third crescent. The coastal road and the lack of trade with Bridge in the last year. The doom of Bridge the last time around and what other cities they expected Lios’ rage to rain down on at some point. And that brought them to the growing number of prophets in the city, a favourite topic. Harl just continued his swift cleaning, mopping around patrons sleeping in pools of their own booze, while keeping ears on the conversation at the table. Eventually the sea-voln headed back to their ships in the first crescent and the city-voln made their way to the rickety houses in the second, yards from the tavern down dark ways.
Geb sighed and raised himself from his grand chair, checked over the few sleepers and helped himself to coin from their ragged pockets for their night’s keep, as was his custom.
“Boy.” He flipped a silver Lios to Harl. “Keep yer mouth shut. Hear me?”
Harl assumed he meant about the conversation on the long table and nodded as he leant against his mop. Cole was wiping down the bar as Geb came over to join him there.
“Fucking fools.” The older man grumbled. “Not fit to lick the boots of me ol’Captain. Used to be the sea-voln coulda changed things…” He stopped that thought. “You be careful Cole.”
Harl’s heart stopped. Did he know what they’d been up to?!
“Why’s that, Geb?” Cole said calmly in a disinterested voice. But was his heart pounding as greatly as Harl’s?
Geb sighed. “Because sharp bones’ll be the first to break if there’s thought the bastard gods are gaining converts in the city.”
“And are they?”
“Time will tell.” Geb looked about at the sleepers, seemingly thinking. Suddenly he seemed to come to a decision. “Change o’mind. Get them out now will you Cole?”
Cole nodded, dried his hands, and set to work rousing the men and helping them to the door, using some of that new lean muscle he’d gained in the last year. Harl looked at Geb with concern; the old man always let the sleepers stay asleep. Geb noticed his look.
“You watch your tongue if we have guests tonight.”
“Guests?” A few other of the Cant’s staff emerged from the kitchen to help with the cleaning. City-voln, sea-voln, all of them had found a place at the tavern.
“Aye. Could be. Could be.” He turned to one of the other pot-boys. It was Feyd, a scrawny sea-voln lad who’d once told Harl that he’d had a choice of the depths of the sea or the second crescent when he’d been caught on the women’s deck of his birth-ship. Not much of that had made sense to Harl at first, until he’d learnt about the hidden women aboard each ship. Feyd’d only been trying to find the mother he’d assumed he still had somewhere down there on that deck. “Go tell them.”
Feyd nodded, abandoning his cloth and rushed out of the tavern into the dark of the crescent.
The bustle of tidying and cleaning continued, and Harl got himself near to Cole. “You know what this is about?”
Cole’s brow was knotted. “Geb’s always played his cards close to his chest. Get on w’your work lad.”
Eventually a soaking wet Feyd returned and whispered into Geb’s ear, who muttered a quick ‘aye’. Moments later three figures entered the tavern, hooded and similarly wet.
“The sea’s wild tonight.” Said one, almost cautiously. The voice of a woman but low and strong.
“Aye.” Said Geb. “As well she might be.”
The strangers removed their hoods, revealing three city-voln. Two were men and one was a woman, and all three were so alike as to be siblings. They sat themselves at the same long table were Geb had been holding court earlier.
“Cole. Come and sit.” Geb said simply, taking his own rightful place at the head of the table.
“And the other?” Asked the woman, looking straight at Harl. She was a stern-faced lady with a long regal nose. She and the men were grey of eye and dark of hair like most city-voln, but they shared that same feature. She wore a dark dress under her cloak that covered her from neck to wrist, but Harl noticed small patterns picked out in marcasite. He smelt money.
“He’s just a lad.”
“He’s woods-voln too. Sit, boy.” She gestured regally to a chair by her. “You have nothing to fear from us.”
As Harl sat the woman took wine that was offered to her by Feyd. She dipped one finger in the red liquid, and began to draw the outline of a bastard god’s arms, shoulders and head on the wood of the table, just as Estille had done in Bara. Cole snorted. “Geb you need a bell if you’re going to be about this nonsense. A bell to mark the change in the tavern.”
“You’ve been to Bara.” The woman asked Cole, her eyes penetrating as she judged his response.
“Aye. Nearly died there too. And in no small part because of people like you who know what that bell really means.”
“We are not a firm. We are… believers.”
“Could be just as bad.”
“And you… are you believers?”
Harl nodded, Cole just folded his arms and leant back in his seat. “I’ve seen things. Maybe I believe. Doesn’t mean I worship them like you lot though.”
“We all worship in our own way.” Said one of the men. Her brother?
“And you Geb? You are really sucking on the titty of the One Who Enraged the Seas after all? Should’a known when you named a bastard god I hadn’t heard of before…”
“The sea-voln are said to have all been believers before.” The woman spoke for Geb, who was pensively silent. “With the bastard gods walking the streets of Emphon some are returning to the old ways.” She lay a hand gently on the sea-voln’s arm.
Harl bit his tongue. He and Cole bloody well knew that there were no real bastard gods in Emphon!
Cole laughed, refusing the wine as it was offered to him. “Some tricksters are showing the guard how to take their hands from their cocks and actually arrest some real criminals and you believe the bloody bastard gods have returned?!” He laughed again. “A week or more and they’ll be found and strung up, sure as blood is blood!”
“We don’t believe that. We believe this is the beginning of the return of the bastard gods. We believe that the ghosts are a part of that too.”
“You spend a damn lot of your time believing.”
She smiled and it softened the sternness of her face. “That is not untrue, good woods-voln.”
Cole stood, nodded his thanks to Geb. “I aint good, and I aint sure I’m a believer. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend the night on my back sleeping instead of on my knees praying.” Cole stood and quickly strode to the stairs at the back of the tavern. But when Harl went to follow him the woman grabbing at his hand and stopped him. For a moment there was a look of surprise on her face as she felt his palm, and the hard shapes underneath the skin there. Harl summoned his charm as quickly as he could.
“There is nothing strange about us, lady. Nothing at all.”
“Now Harl, she never said that. Not at all! She just wants to make you feel welcome-” Geb began, but the woman waved his concerns away.
“Let the boy decide. He’s just an ordinary boy like you said.”
“I meant that he was young…” Geb looked confused, but the woman released Harl and he went up the stairs after Cole, leaving the believers to their conspiracy in the main room below.