Harl was drowning. Drifting down through green tinged sea water and trapped in a cage right next to Ilv’Andri. She looked on at him in horror, her golden hair had turned into the waving fronds of sea-kelp. It wove in front of her terrified face and caught its knots between her fingers as she reached out for him. Begging, desperate.
He woke with a start, caught up in fine cotton sheets that had been drenched with his sweat instead of sea water.
An old man looked up from the small but many paged book he was reading and stared at Harl through small gold rimmed lenses perched on the end of his nose. Harl sat up, realised his nakedness and pulled the sheets about him.
“Tersia Ellinostrum.” He said quietly, a question.
“You are indeed in the household of the lady Tersia.” The man said slowly, and Harl looked about to see it was likely true. Fine patterned walls in plumb and black flock. A large wooden framed bed with a canopy covered in sweeping silks. And then there was the old man himself. He wore a jacket too fine for the first crescent but in a deep burgundy cloth of a hard wearing kind. And Harl thought his patient tone came from years of serving, not of being served.
“What happened… at the harbour?” Sickness spread in his belly. He asked but he remembered anyway.
The man nodded. “Lady Tersia said you would ask, but she insisted that she speak to you about that. I am merely here to see you cleaned and dressed for her presence. I am Gregoris, the Ellinostrum seneschal.”
The ‘seneschal’ placed his book down on the night stand by the bed and gestured towards wardrobe with a liver spotted hand. “All the clothes you will need are in there, lad.”
Harl swallowed dryly, trying to forget the feel of sea water forcing itself way down his neck. No. No, that never happened to me, he thought. That had happened to Ilv’Andri. Because of him. Another young girl hurt… killed because of him.
“Lady Tersia will meet you in the solarium once you are… presentable.”
Another word that was unfamiliar to Harl, and he assumed it was some room, but he was distracted by the measured eye the city-voln man was running over him. He found himself glaring back.
“No need for that face, boy. You need more than a new set of clothes.”
Gregoris reached up and pulled at a cord with a lump of bronze at the end shaped into a roaring lion’s head. Moments later a serving girl in apron and cap darted into the room, eyes flickering towards the strange guest before obediently looking to the floor as she spoke with the seneschal. He gave her orders and sent her on her way.
“Shaving things. Water to bathe with. Go.”
While they waited for her return Harl found his eyes looking to the book. He’d seen books through the thick glass of the temple windows in Bara; the fattening priests working at desks, hunched over this large tome, or that. And then there had been Orinius’ great ledgers of numbers of course. But this seemed like neither. Small, gilt edged, with numerous pages. A strange little thing.
“I see those sharp eyes. Not enough gold there to be worth stealing, lad.”
“No, it’s not that… I just… is that a Light of Lios?”
“Is that the only book you know of lad?”
“I’ve known books of numbers. But they were larger. And I’ve seen a Light of Lios once or twice.”
“Well, yes. This is no book of numbers. Nor is it a Light of Lios. Or, rather it is.”
Harl must have looked confused because the man laughed a little, but not unkindly.
“It is not the current Light of Lios. This is one from, oh, maybe a hundred years back or so. Stolen from a temple library once upon a time and found its way into my own hands through various others’.”
“I don’t understand.”
“All those books lining the shelves of the fancy temple libraries… they’re all the Light of Lios. Sometimes it has just the one volume, like this old one. Sometimes many. It depends on how verbose Lios is feeling when he dictates them.”
‘Verbose’. Another word he didn’t understand. Harl got the impression that this old man enjoyed holding his superior knowledge over others. He might be a servant, but there were ways he could feel like a lord. Harl was just about to find a way of flattering that ‘lordliness’ and getting on the better side of this man when two serving girls re-entered the room, bobbing quickly, and then leaving their burdens in the room. Two porcelain bowls, one larger than the other and both covered with towels and one bar of soap, and both steaming with hot water.
“Clean yourself and dress. I will return in a few moments to help you to finish your toilette.”
Another bloody word Harl didn’t know! But he feigned gratitude, at least until the man had left. Then he wiped himself over with a cloth wetted with the soapy water out of the larger bowl. In the wardrobe he found an outfit to match the lordly servants; a soft white linen shirt, well-fitting tan breeches, a plain neck-cloth, worn boots, and another jacket in the same burgundy as Gregoris’. He dressed quickly, but left the jacket with its two ridiculous ‘tails’ still hanging there.
Moments after he had finished tying the length of cream cloth about his neck the old man returned. He nodded when he saw him, as though he’d expected Harl not to wear the jacket.
“Very good.” He took the other bowl and gestured for Harl to sit at a wooden chair. “But we have to do something about that… ‘scruff’ about your cheeks.”
Harl rubbed his fingers over the slight growth. It was soft and barely there, and he’d been mostly ignoring it. Cole never much bothered with shaving, only doing it when he could be arsed and then rarely. He most often had a dark stubble… Cole! Harl had come here with little thought of leaving his companion behind, out of his mind with grief and exhaustion. But Cole would be back at the tavern and wondering what had happened to him. Wondering if he’d drowned with the rest of Kranen’s cargo and crew!
“Don’t you worry, woods-voln. Don’t you worry. First we deal with this growth on your face, and then you catch up with the lady Tersia and your friend.”
The old man was skilled with the razor he drew from his pocket. And even though Harl held his breath as the sharpened steel swept across his face and through the soapy foam there, the man made no mistakes. The man chatted about his years of doing this for the Ellinostrum sons, and how Harl would have to pick up the habit. Or how he could grow a moustache in the style of the button men; a comment that felt meant to rile him up for Gregoris’ amusement. After the old man was done, he held up a polished mirror and Harl stared at his own face. There hadn’t really been that much to shave, and the difference wasn’t all that great from what Harl could recall of his image seen occasionally in the flecked and warped mirror that Cole had at their room at the top of the tavern. But he noticed an emptiness in his own eyes. They were still a rich green but flat and exhausted.
And there, above one eye, was a black scab from his earlier ‘adventures’. He rubbed at it.
He then realised that the thin line curved above his eyebrow was flat flesh and not a scab. It was like the flesh on his arm that had filled in the teeth marks left by the farm-voln dogs. Another change because of this power within him…
“You’re handsome enough now. For Lady Tersia’s presence at least. And your companion obviously never cared for your looks much if he was happy letting you gad about in such rough clothes!”
There was a judgement in his words that Harl ignored. Bloody snob! But clean skin and clean clothes were pleasant. Now he needed food and drink… maybe even something stronger to kill some memories for a while.
“This ‘solarium’?” He asked, “How do I find it?”
“You don’t ‘find’ things in the house of the Ellinostrum. You are shown to where you need to be, and then you wait there until you are excused and someone else, myself most likely, can guide you to where you should be next.”
Harl looked to the doorway where Cole was leaning with an amused expression on his face. He was freshly shaven as well, and unlike Harl, he’d donned the jacket that made him look like a servant of the house. “I can guide him too. I’ve had two days to acquaint myself with this labyrinth of a home. And Lady Tersia has given me the run of her house.”
“Two days?!” Harl exclaimed, ignoring Gregoris’ sullen look at Cole’s claim of having the run of his precious bloody territory.
“You’ve slept like a bloody babe, lad. Gregoris here has been watching over you though, making sure you were well enough. Sweet really.”
Gregoris huffed and stood to bow. “Take the lad to Lady Tersia if you must woods-voln, but don’t make out I was the only one on watch duty!” He left, sweeping up his copy of the Light of Light into an angry fist as he went.
“Ignore him. He’s just annoyed at the influx of woods-voln into his precious house.”
“You found me here?”
“Tersia sent for me when you arrived at her door, half dead like a drowned puppy.”
Harl nodded, pushing aside for a moment the strangely comforting image of Cole sitting where Gregoris had been and watching over him as he slept. He didn’t deserve that comfort. “You know what happened in the harbour?”
“I’ve heard parts of it. I’m sure Tersia wants the whole of it. She’s been firefighting the breakdown of the crescents for the past two days. The city-voln and the sea-voln are at each other’s necks, while fretting about the possible invasion of murderous horrors from the waters of the harbour, and wondering when the bastard gods are going to call out their secrets again.” He grinned darkly.
The latter most likely wouldn’t happen all the while the two of them were in Tersia’s great house and under the watch of Gregoris. Harl grinned back at Cole.
“Hide that smile when you’re with Tersia. And don’t forget to bow, or to stand if she stands or enters the room.”
“We have to play nice?”
“There’s a lot of things we’re going to have to do to pay our way here. We can’t return to the Cant of the Lion. The first crescent is a mess and the second is suffering. We have to dig in here for a bit until Emphon can settle or we can think on where we go next.”
“You want to leave Emphon?” In the last year it had become something like home. It wasn’t Bara, but then in Bara he’d been walking the streets instead of holding down a simple job with a… friend.
“If you do.” Cole looked away, suddenly awkward. “Damned charm you put on me…” he muttered and Harl realised that chain was still about him. But what had been his wording? Something about being happy? And still he came back for him. With him he was happy?
“Enough now.” Cole dismissed the conversation and the topic abruptly. “Tersia’s bound to have been told you are up and about. She won’t be happy being kept waiting. You have to help me keep her sweet. I’ve been doing my best, but you’ve got a better way of knowing what people want than I do, and I aint never given much of a damn to find out from them.”
Harl nodded. “Take me to the ‘solarium’ then, good sir.” He bowed as he’d seen Gregoris do it. Not florid, but polite and subservient. Cole’s face was unreadable as he led him out of his guest room and into the halls of the Ellinostrum estate.