Tersia was lounging on a low long couch when the two of them arrived in the ‘solarium’. Against the dark velvet of the furniture she wore a fine high necked gown in many blues drawn in at the waist by a thick leather band. Harl was baffled to see broad leaves of green framing her as she reclined. The woods were inside the great Ellinostrum house? The small park that their temporary home had overlooked in Bara had been strange enough within the walls of the city-voln. But Tersia had made something even more akin the wilds he and the other lads of the castle had been taken through under the command of Captain Rickarn. She saw his bemused look and raised a long pale arm to stroke the nearest green blade.
“Scandalous, isn’t it?” Her grey eyes sparkled above her long nose. “There are many such scandalous things in the house of Ellinostrum.”
Cole made a low snorting noise and threw himself down on the other couch that face hers, lounging just as casually, one long leg slung over its arm. “A few bits of green don’t make you a heathen woods-voln.”
“True enough. But look closer.”
Harl focused on the plants. There were fronds springing from pots, and small spikey growths bunched together on artfully arranged rocks and beds made from dirt. And… he narrowed his eyes. And there was one slab of grey stone deep among the roots that was planted upright and not at a slant. And there, painted on in some faded brown colour was the outline of a bastard god. Old. Not much more than the shape of the arms, shoulders, and head with little to say which god was being revered.
“Ah, you see it.”
“Bloody hard to miss.” That was Cole, sneering a little. But really it had been well hidden among the green shadows. “How long has that been there?”
“Not that long. But the paint was what I could find when I was just eleven and creeping about the workings of the kitchens and the scullery. Not very well done, but good enough for the piece of slate I stole from the broken stable roof. It stayed under my bed for fourteen years.”
“Until your father died and you planted all this green in his solarium.” Harl realised.
“It used to be cold, even in the summer with the sun high in the sky. It was always his place, under his rule. I changed things. That’s what I do. I change things.”
Cole nodded, and then looked up as Gregoris entered with drinks for them all.
“The boy is standing like a fool, my lady.” Harl half expected his blunt tone to earn him a punishment, but it seemed that the servant spoke freely to his mistress. Cole made no move to make space for him, but Tersia sat up and straightened her skirts so that there would be a place. She looked at him thoughtfully as he sat close to her.
“I see Gregoris has used his skill with the blade.” The man had left them to their conversation by then. Harl rubbed his face. It was smooth, true enough.
“The lad barely needed it.” Said Cole, sipping at whatever had been brought for them by the ‘seneschal’.
“You did though.” Tersia met his eyes, and he looked away.
“Aye, maybe. Not much call for the soap and blade in the second crescent.”
“You whispered prayers to the bastard gods at eleven?” Asked Harl, uncertain of his companion’s reaction to Tersia’s attention, and wanting to change the subject. “How can that be? How would you know of them in Emphon?”
Tersia smiled. “You are right. My education involved many of the right and proper things for the child of a rich man of the third, or first if you’d asked him, crescent. Riding, writing, dancing, sword-fighting.”
“Sword-fighting? For a daughter…?”
Tersia continued, ignoring the question. “There was absolutely no teaching on the bastard gods or on how to draw them. But whispers reached my ears anyway. It was Terstrum who first heard that there were a few sea-voln who sang their cant to the bastard gods as they braided their ropes. That there were city-voln in the taverns who slipped him coins… when he stole in there for sips long before he was sent to the second crescent officially by my father for his further education… and that those coins came with a quick blessing from the One Who Watches Over Children, mumbled before they realised the danger of it. Tersium was the one who encouraged me to find the bastard gods when my crying woke him one night…” She paused on that memory and then carried on, staring deep into Harl’s eyes. “And now the bastard gods have answered all those whispered cants and mumbled blessings. They’re here in Emphon!” There was real belief in her eyes, and Harl felt guilt twist his guilt.
She ran a gentle fingertip along the black mark on his forehead. “Change is coming. Two woods-voln in the second crescent. Bastard gods stalking the shadows. The… event in the first crescent.”
The guilt became a stabbing pain. Ilv’Andri.
Tersia didn’t notice his reaction. “The first crescent is broken. The sea-voln have never lost so many before, and never at the hand of… whatever those things are. The prophets and priests claim them as ghosts, scorned by Lios. And so, the Church and the Sea are on the verge clashing, with the City churned up under them.” Her eyes were feverish bright.
“I think you enjoy the chaos.” Cole said languidly.
“I do not! Not at all!”
Cole made a dismissive gesture and Harl stared at him. Whatever had been his cup seemed to be gone, and he was more relaxed than Harl had seen him in a long while. Harl frowned, he was drunk! After all this time!
“Oh, what brings such a fierce look to your face, Harl Woods-Voln?” Tersia murmered.
“Cole doesn’t drink. Not anymore!”
“Ah. Well you see, it’s not your tavern’s usual fare that he’s been drinking.”
Poison?! Harl stood quickly, reaching for a sea-voln dagger that was likely at the bottom of the harbour.
“Peace! Peace.” Tersia insisted. “It’s not harmful. And its effects in the first part are merely a warm feeling of calm.
“City-voln do not use poison!” Hissed Harl. Cole looked at the two of them with dreamer’s eyes.
“Only because they cannot get any from the woods-voln, trust me. But it is not a poison!”
“I am well, Harl.” Cole said, reaching out a hand for him, but being too far away for them to touch. “I feel… safe.”
“What have you done to him?!”
“Well, I had hoped you would both drink so I could explain the plan when you were both in the arms of the one I give my prayers to.” Tersia sighed. “But very well. I shall have to convince you to drink it seems.”
Harl crossed his arms. “Good luck.”
“Well, it would have gone better with She Who Was Once He running in your veins. Very well, to the convincing… I need your help. I did not lie when I said that the Sea and the Church are to clash over the land of the City. I am doing what I can to hold the three crescents together. A bribe here. A donation there. Whispers in the right ears about secrets I have held for them. And tonight I will bring together certain players for a party-”
“The city is about to clash and you are throwing a party?!”
“Somethings need a certain touch. And I need eyes. I need allies among the snakes and the weasels I’ll be talking into peace.”
“We’ll help.” Said Cole, with what looked like the smallest of kind smiles on his lips.
“Are you certain it’s not booze he’s been drinking?”
“Certain. It’s a preparation in simple water of a certain white stone an agent of mine found in an area southwards along the coastal road. Near what you would have known of as the ‘castle’.”
A shiver ran through Harl and he shook off the horror her words birthed in him. “A stone?”
“A weathered and petrified bone in fact. With certain properties.”
Harl remembered his mother atop of the bones in the ossuary. White paste on her face and in her hair as she prophesised. “The bone from a bastard god?”
Harl looked at Cole. “So, he’s about to prophesy? Oh, he’ll not be pleased about that when it wears off.”
“‘Prophesy’? Oh no, nothing like that. First off, the drinker becomes extremely compliant and happy. Useful in itself of course, but it wears off too soon to be all that helpful in the long term. But the second effect is the one which I take advantage of.” Harl realised then that the lady had been drinking as well from the small golden cups. “The second effect is far more interesting.”
She leant forward towards Cole and whispered breathily to him. “Change yourself. Change yourself into a drab grey creature of limited mind and of limited interest to others.”
Harl went to move towards him but Tersia warned him back with a hand. Cole sat up then, a shiver running through him as he focussed on a spot somehow through and beyond Tersia. And then Harl saw silver run through the man’s hair as the shade turned from dark almost black to dark grey. The piercing and guarded green eyes Harl knew well clouded over into a dull grey as the sharper angles of the man’s freshly shaven face softened and shortened. A city-voln sat before them, still tall and lean, but bulking out even as they watched, into a broader and more threatening shape, the seams on the servant’s coat that Tersia’d had him wear straining a little.
Harl saw his eyes cleared from the effects of the drink. “Cole?”
“You bloody bitch.” Cole muttered, the sound of his normal voice odd out of the mouth of a city-voln.
“Ah, so the sweet acquiescence has faded.” Tersia shrugged. “Now I shall have to ask nicely.”
“You could have done that before!” Harl snapped.
“I need your help.” Tersia said earnestly, but Harl was doubtful. She spread her hands out wide, showing her palms in the sign for peace. “I need you both to play the part of city-voln servants of our house.”
Harl grabbed at her hand and forced his power through their touching skin. “Tell the truth!”
But her already starry grey eyes did not flatten as he’d seen them change in others. She looked at him in curiosity. “What is this? What are you trying to do? I feel something…”
He frowned, and suddenly a thought occurred to him. Instead of pushing, he started to pull. To take out of her whatever was stopping him from charming her. A panic rose in her eyes as she felt the tide between them shift and change. Cole stood and started towards them, lumbering with city-voln limbs he was unused to. Harl waved him away.
“No! Please! No!” Her begging was raw in its honesty and heart-breaking, and he let her hand go. She quickly grabbed at whatever little was left in her cup and swigged it back. “Gregoris! Gregoris!”
The servant returned too quickly, he must have been just outside the solarium. He took one look at his mistress and sprinted back out of the room. Tersia was already reaching for Harl’s untouched cup when Gregoris quickly returned with another which she drank down just as quickly, her hands trembling.
Harl smiled. Her distress had bothered him at first, but now not as much. In fact, he felt happy. Happier than he had done in a while. Content. He knew he had taken something from Tersia and now it was inside him. But he was at peace with that.
Tersia, breathing slower now, looked at him intently. “How? How do you have it now? You haven’t drunk the preparation…”
“I took it.” He said slowly, wrapped in the softest sheets and blankets in his mind.
“Bloody idiot.” Muttered Cole.
“Yes, yes, you took it! Can you change too? Can you shape yourself as your friend has done?” Tersia asked.
“Why were you scared? Was it fear of not feeling like this? Or was it fear of changing… back?”
The same shiver ran through him as he concentrated on city-voln features. Afterwards he felt heavier, more solid. But his mind was clearer. “You drink of the bastard god to change yourself.” Tersia looked sick at the revelation of her greatest secret. Harl continued. “My mother spread it on her skin to see the future. Or what she thought was the future.”
“Fascinating.” Tersia breathed. “I hadn’t heard of another bone. The one I have, the little I have, I paid out near half my father’s fortune for. Perhaps all the bones have different effects…”
“Enough!” Cole snarled, and the rage on his broader city-voln face made him look entirely like a stranger. “You tricked us into drinking!”
“I meant what I said, you could have asked.” Harl stated again. “Are we stuck like this now, is that a part of the trick?”
“It will fade over a day or so. Long enough for you to help me. If you will?” She looked up at Cole with desperate eyes. “I’m just trying to save Emphon.”
“Half your father’s fortune, you say? Maybe we’ll take the other half as our payment.”
“No. We don’t want that.” Harl said firmly.
“Lad? I think we might.”
“No. We’ll help you. And you’ll keep us safe here until we know what we do want. Might be some money. Might be a way out of the city. But no more lies or tricks.”
She nodded, and Harl saw tears at the corners of her eyes. Had they been city-voln grey before she’d started taking drinking the stuff? Was she really Tersia Ellinostrum at all?
“I suppose you’ve not been able to trust many people. Your brothers. Gregoris. Other servants. But you can trust us. I promise. And we will be your eyes and ears tonight.”