“Geb is a bloody idiot!”
Harl entered their shared room to find Cole pacing and fuming. “It worked in Bara.” He said quietly.
“Bara’s different. Jerekyn needed the Light of Lios as much as it needed him. He was the spider in the middle of the web, pulling on everyone’s thread. He had something on everyone, including them in the temple. And gods only know what has happened there since Jerekyn died!” Cole slowed his pacing, “And Geb aint even a Jerekyn.”
“He’s been good to us.”
“True. And that’s why we should be leaving. He’s been playing with bloody fire enough as it turns out, without having two sharp ones under his roof bringing the Eyes here!”
Harl sat as Cole went back to pacing, muttering and rubbing the stubble on his chin.
“Going south takes us along the coastal road and the roads are where the creatures are. North are the mountains. We could skirt them but that takes us into the woods north and west of Bara, and nearer poison greened arrows. East we get back to Bridge and whatever the fuck has happened there. We could stick to the farms to the west and south of there again…”
“And then to Bara again, retracing our steps?”
Cole stopped and looked at him. “No… no perhaps not. Tralis perhaps. It’s a deadly chaotic place, but less maybe than the woods-”
“We’re woods-voln though. Couldn’t we go back to your people…?”
Cole stopped and stared at him. “I… I…” the tall man stumbled over his words. “I don’t know them anymore.”
“You don’t remember your greening?” They’d never spoken of this and Harl curiosity had always been a bright green flame in his heart. “Perhaps they were my mother’s too… once…”
There was a strange look in Cole’s eyes that Harl did not understand. “I remember.” He said finally. “I just don’t know if they will know me. I’ve only ever ridden the roads and walked the streets. I am a woods-voln by blood but not knowledge.”
Cole sat down heavily on the bed opposite Harl’s. “I’m not the one to take us into the woods. We’d be dead within an hour.”
“We survived before. With Dren.” Harl said it quickly, already trying to block out the memory of that expedition and what had happened to Eris.
Cole noticed his regret, and tried to move him on from it. “Aye, true. But that weren’t the same as walking through the woods trying to find a greening that might’a moved on a thousand times. Garre might do. In the South and too close to Liosinium for my liking, but there’s a good black market we can thief for and put this bastard gods nonsense behind us-”
He was interrupted by a knock at the door. Cole grabbed his dagger from a drawer and slid it into the waistband of his trousers at the back, gesturing to Harl to do the same. The sea-voln knife was curved and difficult to hide there, but Harl found a way to catch it about the string tied about his waist. The fox’s skull wasn’t welcome by the patrons in the Cant, so he’d been leaving it with their other belongings. And now, as Cole cautiously opened their door, its empty eye sockets watched their worried faces.
The woman was waiting on the other side, her two brothers standing either side of her with their hands resting on the hilts of two fine rapiers sheathed at their waists. Neither made a more to draw them.
“Peace.” Said the woman, curtseying slightly. “I came to talk.”
“Peace.” Cole agreed, but his sharp eyes ever-watched the two brothers. “Peace and no blades… so therefore I am free to tell you that you’re a fool, lady. Just like Geb.”
“Worse than Geb perhaps.” She smiled ruefully.
“Come on in. It’s as much as you’d expect from lodgings above a sea-voln tavern.”
The woman, for all her fine dress, seemed unperturbed and took Cole’s seat on his bed.
“I suppose you’ve had strange women in here before.” She said, boldly looking deep into Cole’s eyes for his reaction.
“No, I have not.” The tall man replied bluntly. “But if you’d prefer not to give me a name, I’ll understand.”
She smiled. What had she seen in his response to make her smile, Harl wondered. “I am Tersia Ellinostrum, and these are my brothers Terstrum and Tersium.”
Cole frowned. “Children of Tersian Ellinostrum?”
“Yes, my father preferred to name us for him. I think it sounds rather ridiculous, but there we are.” She looked at Harl, “My father was a leading merchant here in Emphon. I am surprised that your friend knows of him.”
“I’ve done… business in Emphon over the years. And sometimes I needed his approval to move about the city as I needed. Not much happened here that he didn’t know about. Until he passed away of course.”
“Oh, he might have given you that impression. But my father did not know about everything happening in his three crescents.”
“Indeed. He obviously didn’t know he’d spawned Lios damned heathens.”
She nodded, smiling that rueful smile again. “No, indeed not. But there were other things he didn’t know about.”
Cole looked at her steadily. “Which bastard gods get your prayers Tersia Ellinostrum?” Harl heard a strange emphasis on the first part of her name, and he looked at Cole in confusion. The two brothers shifted their weight by the door, but Tersia just smiled and withdrew a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her stained lips.
“A few. Some you might not have heard of.”
“The Lone One. The One Who Walked the Borders. The Crowned One, or She who once healed-”
“Loners, wanderers, outcasts, and healers?”
At his words a memory of Eris Atta-Sutith came into Harl’s mind.
“True enough!” The woman laughed and her brothers by the door relaxed a little more. Tersia seemed to seek courage before she spoke again. “And… and She Who Was Once He.”
Harl frowned, some of those bastard gods were unknown to him. But there was something in the way that Tersia said the last’s name. Cole merely nodded and spread his hands apart to his sides in the sign for peace.
“You know of these gods?”
“Some. Not the last.”
There was something passing in the air between the two of them that Harl did not understand. But soon Tersia was smiling again. “I came to your rooms with purpose.”
“I imagine so.” Said Cole.
“You will be thinking of leaving now. Now that Geb’s secret is revealed and the Cant of Lios becomes a more dangerous place?”
“Where is there to go?” Cole said darkly.
“I have some experience in hiding secrets. I came to offer you the hospitality of my house.”
“With respect, I imagine having two sharp ones under your roof will bring you attention you’d best be without. Just like Geb.”
“There are ways to hide who you are. Ways to become someone else.” She stood and walked towards Cole, an elegant hand drifting towards his dark hair and moving a strand or so of it. “Your fierce green eyes will be the hardest to change-”
He swatted her hand away and this time the brothers came into the room to be stopped by a gesture from that same elegant hand.
“Your friend’s hair can be covered over in a darker hue-”
“Why should we trust you?” Harl spoke finally, letting Cole remain to stew in his annoyance at her touch. “Bastard gods lover or not, you are city-voln. You can have no love for woods-voln.”
“Like Geb? He took you in after all.” She sighed and straightened her heavy skirts. “Of course, if you think another city would be safer. Or perhaps the woods?”
“You forgot the mountains and the sea.” Smirked Harl.
“Neither of which hold a great love for woods-voln. You are a pair out of place my friends. And of all those in Emphon… perhaps out of all voln… I can understand that. And I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to learn more of the bastard gods from you. I have a hunger for more knowledge of them… especially now that they walk our streets!”
Harl’s cheeks burned red but Cole was calm and spoke with sarcasm. “You don’t truly believe that, do you? Aint those stories just the tales of city and sea-voln with nothing better to do with their time?”
Tersia paused, thinking before she spoke, “There are ghosts walking the streets. That much is un-denied. Prophets too. Why not the bastard gods?”
“As if Lios would allow that.” Cole mocked.
“Perhaps he cannot stop it. Something is in the air good woods-voln. Something has changed.”
Cole sneered. “Sounds like prophecy.”
She laughed gently, a low harmonious sound. “Mere observation.”
Their conversation felt like a duel played-out between masters, and Harl had the strong impression he was missing some of the key parries and thrusts. There were words behind words here, he was certain of it. But what decision would Cole make?
“What do you think, lad?”
He was shaken out of his own thoughts at Cole’s question. “Whu-what?”
“I’m asking what you think?”
With the eyes in the room turned to him, Harl felt his red cheeks returning. What should he say? There were few enough welcoming places for woods-voln, and at least the lady’s enthusiasm for the bastard gods extended to them. But might it mean the end of their night time jaunts? That might also be for the best. As Cole had declared, a week or more and they’d likely be found and strung up by the guard. And their thievery served no real purpose since they had work enough. Tersia’s hospitality would mean even working in the tavern was redundant. But this had been their home for over a year, and there had been happiness in the routine…
“You wear a black eye and dried blood has turned black on your forehead. It would be safer behind the gates of the Ellinostrum household…” Tersia urged.
“No… thank you.” Harl shrugged, carelessly wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. She was right, a scab had formed there. “Your invitation is appreciated.” He gave a bow, bringing a rich laugh from the woman’s throat.
“My door remains open. Now that dear father has passed into Lios’ glory I am the master of the house and can choose my own guests.” She moved towards Cole, offering the back of her hand as though she expected him to do something with it. Harl was surprised to see the tall woods-voln bow down and touch his lips to the back of her hand. “Ah, so not entirely heathen then?”
“No, not entirely without manners, my lady.”
She swept towards Harl, offering her hand again. Harl copied Cole and placed his lips in the same spot on the back of her hand. At the same time he urged his strange power through the places where their flesh connected. “Do not betray us.”
The two brothers were startled, but a dazed Tersia watched Harl straighten up again. “You believe that I would?”
“No, of course not.”
They made their good byes and the two of them watched the three siblings depart through the thin walled corridors that separated the rooms above the Cant of Lios.
“Well.” Said Cole simply, and threw himself down on his bed to stare at the flaking ceiling.
“Did I do wrong?”
“No, lad.” Cole sighed. “The road ahead is unclear and for once I’d almost take a touch of prophecy to see where we could be safe. And happy.”
There was a note in Cole’s voice. Happy. Harl had charmed him into pursuing happiness and for a year or so it had been found here in this simple life at the tavern. But now?
“Maybe happiness is a fool’s wish for woods-voln.” Cole swung his arms back and under his head to rest on them. “Sleep soon.” The man’s eyes were closing.
But Harl was wide awake, even after long hours as a pot-boy in the tavern. He waited until Cole’s breath was steady and slow, and eventually made his way to their dingy window. The rooftops were calling him. More than that, the bastard gods were calling; the urge to play their role was an itch within him that he did not think that Cole felt in the same way. But it was also a very specific itch…
Captain Kranen was dealing with the attention of the guards now, and there were two ways that game might play out. Either he’d finally set sail to sell Ilv’Andri and the other Denosians in Liosinium, or they’d be confiscated in Emphon. But there might be a way to ensure that the latter kept the golden skinned girl here where Harl might visit her. Cole wouldn’t be pleased about his plans, but thoughts of the girl in the cage haunted him. As he slipped out of their room he was thinking of the loose hairs from her braid floating in the breeze, dark strands of it floating about her fierce green eyes.