An hour into Tersia’s party and Harl was certain that her trick with the drinks hadn’t even been necessary. Perhaps if he still had his red hair he would have drawn the eye. But as a servant, wearing the same dark red coats as all the others of house Ellinostrum, his existence was barely noted long enough to make out what voln he was. A slight nod might be given to him as he brought a tray of drinks to a crowd of men, but conversations quickly continued without interruption. Their heads did not turn to him, their eyes did not really see him.
There were the sea spray hardened sea-voln in worn jackets and with un-brushed white beards and hair. And then there were the city-voln of the second and third crescents, both trying to outshine the other with their finely tailored long coats or waistcoats. A few women hung on their arms, ornaments as carefully chosen as the men’s outfits for the night. And among the city-voln there were also priests, glaringly obvious in their heavily ornate robes depicting eyes or lions, and in some cases newly worked designs of the shadow like ghosts. Women flitted about with them as well, laughing at their dullard jokes and casting doe eyes at them. But they never stayed at the priest’s sides for long. Allegedly the priests of Lios were too dedicated to their god-king to ever take a wife. But a woman for a ‘while’ seemed an option. There were of course no sea-voln women.
Harl was serving five city-voln men who stood looking about the great ballroom with the ambitious and hungry looks of second crescent denizens who wished to move up to the third crescent when he saw Cole at his tasks. The woods-voln… the city-voln now, was also serving a tray of drinks, but to a gathering of priests who were flapping about something, their hands gesturing wildly as they discussed gossip that had their faces red and steaming. Cole sent him a sly smile as he ensured every man in the group calmed his flailing hands long enough to replenish his drink.
Tersia drifted near Harl as he watched Cole. She’d traded in her high necked blue gown for a black creation shot through with silver threads. As she moved they glinted, but the overall effect was conservative. It did not make her quite as invisible as Harl’s servant coat did for him, but he had already seen how many times she appeared to arrive unexpected amongst a group of men and then slowly turn their conversation towards a direction she desired. Her subtle dress marked her as no threat; a noble lady being suitably modest. But their underestimation of her meant that she had already half won the battle before they even knew that it was one. He admired her for the way that she had worked out the trick of dealing with these loud and opinionated men.
“Are my guests happy?” She whispered to him.
“Hardly, my lady.” Harl admitted. “The sea-voln are near riot, and the city-voln are too busy working out how the ‘incident’ might be turned into a way to climb up the ladder of the crescents.”
She nodded. “As expected. Emphon has ever been thus. But now I shall put into effect a further part of my plans for this evening.”
“Will you drop the ground up bones of a bastard god into their drinks to make them more compliant?” He whispered back viciously. Tersia smiled, then covered it with what looked like the stern face of a mistress of a house giving an order to an underling.
“I enjoy your sharp tongue, little fox.” The name made him start. His fox head skull was likely back at the Cant of the Lion, and never to be recovered. Tersia continued to scan the crowds in her grand room, but whispered to him again. “And tell me, does your companion also have a pleasing tongue?”
Harl knew she was asking something other than what she appeared to be asking, but he refused to go along with her game. “Cole can also be sharp of tongue, it’s true.”
Tersia held in her laugh and retained her disinterested pose. No servant should ever amuse her that much. “I will return to my task. But do let me know if Cole asks after me.”
She swept off, joining a group of sea-voln nearby, their surprise at her arrival again turning to obedience when she took the ring leader of the group gently by his arm and led him to a second crescent trader amid his own group. It went on like that for a while as Harl walked the room. She would break up one group, or merge it with another, charming and delightful as she introduced people with needs to those with the ability to meet them. Priests met city-voln who could provide discretion and certain entertainments. City-voln were introduced to sea-voln who had ways to transport their goods discretely. Sea-voln were introduced to priests with compassion for their lost ships, and access to hierarchies that could petition the god-king to dip into his treasury to help.
Harl was just by a newly mixed group of priests and city-voln when he heard the words ‘bastard gods’. There was a debate, as he hovered near by with his tray of drinks, about whether the ones who had revealed the secrets of Emphon were the bastard gods returned, heathen believers, or something else entirely.
“They have put prominent city-voln in the city gaol. And you think that they are sent by Lios?!” One priest was exclaiming.
The city-voln making the provocative claim smiled and took another glass from Harl. “Think on Cristia Gerdella.”
Another spoke. “But that’s exactly the beloved’s point! She’s been punished for forcing her niece into slavery instead of aiding her relatives! And those alleged ‘bastard gods’ put her there!”
“She was breaking the doctrine of Lios. As was the vile blacksmith. As was the woman who murdered her husband. These ‘bastard gods’ have been doing the work of the priests if you ask me!”
The priest harrumphed, his jowls wobbling. “Lios demands that we uncover such secrets, true enough. But his forgiveness is unbound! These bastard gods gave their victims no chance for heartfelt repentance! They receive it now of course. I visited Cristia myself only the other day to weigh her sin in the cold brick walls of our gaol. And she will return to polite society once she has made her restitutions-”
“To her niece, or to the coffers of the temple’s treasury” mumbled another, showing dangerous levels of blasphemous thinking. He held up his hands in the symbol for peace as the priests turned to look at him. Harl recognised him as Loras Pierson, the scribe, who he’d first seen sat with Geb and sea-voln at the great table in the Cant of Lios.
“To both of course.” Said the priest firmly. “Repentance needs sacrifice. And, for many, coin is the greatest sacrifice that they can make. Cristia Gerdella is a woman of great riches, and little else. Pierson, have you not been reading your Light of Lios?”
“It is my ever-present companion.” Loras drew out a copy from his green coat. It did indeed look worn and well-read. “And you, Fervus, do you carry the Light with you?”
The priest reddened and indignantly replied. “The word of Lios is engraved in my heart! I do not need to carry a book with me! And perhaps if the other men of Emphon were as dedicated as I, then we would not have had the disaster in the harbour! The ghosts are here to punish us, and in much worse ways than some pretend bastard gods accidentally doing the work of Lios ever could!”
Others in the group nodded, and Harl’s interest waned as the priest continued to hold court with the like-minded priests. He was railing forth on the failings of the first and second crescents of Emphon in particular as Harl returned to where Gregoris held his own court over the supplies of drinks and glasses for the evening. The old man nodded and allowed another servant to refill Harl’s tray. Harl suddenly felt as though they’d not left the Cant of the Lion; as though he were still the pot boy skivvying after men in their cups.
Which reminded him to look for Cole. The tall man, broader now in city-voln guise, was working his way from group to group as well, drifting close enough to pick up un-careful words and too loud whispers. He nodded at Harl as he noticed his watch of him again, and Harl turned back to his own work. His path this time took him around the edges of the great room where a few covered tables allowed the older members of the party to take a seat for a while. There he walked past long windowed doors framed by drifting and very fine curtains. Outside was a tamed garden of plain grasses controlled and bordered by areas of stone covered paths and flagstones, as well as a very large and domineering water fountain. It was there that he saw a pale figure lit by the moon and the star-voln. They sat turned away from the party inside the great house and seemed focused on something in their hands.
He stepped out onto the stone gravel path and walked confidently towards the figure, trusting in his city-voln face and the burgundy servant’s jacket he wore. He did however shake his hair over the black skin on his forehead, something that the power in Tersia’s drink had not removed. All evening he’d been making the same motion, the same adjustment of his hair and covering of the mark, and the move had become second nature.
He reached the figure and saw a woman in her third decade. She was definitely cradling something in her lap and was completely engrossed with whatever it was. Curiosity flared within him.
He drew his tray down towards her. She took a glass, her eyes skimming over him before looking away and back to what was entrancing her.
She was city-voln, but different to the other women brought here by the great and good of Emphon. Her clothes were as rich as theirs. Richer even. But unlike the others she had an unfashionable weight to her. She wasn’t fat as such, just more rounded than most of the ladies he’d known or seen. True, city-voln women never ran as lean as woods-voln women, who hunted for their meals or starved as his mother had done in Bara, but they weren’t often as soft and curved as this lady. Not that she wasn’t fair. Perhaps her curves added something to her attractiveness that stern thin ladies like Tersia lacked. But for all that she looked sad, and alone.
He snuck a look at what was in her hand as best he could without gaining ill attention. It seemed to be a ring of keys. Bright, golden keys. A shiver ran through him as he remembered the masters and their great clanking collections of keys for the lads’ cells. But although these were almost as large, they were also far more ornate. These did not open doors in the tumbled down and destroyed castle by the sea.
He went to go, to take his dark memories away.
He paused, fear hitting his heart. Had she really seen him?
“Stay. I’ll want another in a moment or so.”
“I could leave it…” He began.
“Just stay. Please.” She looked up at him with soulful grey eyes. There was something about her face that was familiar. She was softer in her features than Tersia, but was there a similar length to her nose. The determination in her voice when she told him to stay also sounded not unlike the lady Ellinostrum.
So he stood awkwardly by the woman in her pale cream gown. She might have wanted him to stay but she made no effort to speak with him. The keys seemed to be all that she was interested in. But then she quickly covered them over with her skirts as another figure approached them. Harl recognised Terstrum Ellinostrum, Tersia’s brother.
The woman raised a hand to allow him to kiss the top of it, a warm smile spreading on her lips.
“Cousin.” Terstrum said with a rich warmth in his voice as well. “You have abandoned Tersia’s party.”
“As have you cousin.”
Harl felt himself forgotten as Terstrum took a glass from his tray without looking at or acknowledging him, and then took his own seat by his cousin.
“Tersia will be disappointed.”
“Tersia will not notice. Oh, hear me well, I appreciate your sister’s hospitality, and she has been a gracious host this past month. And her vanguard was well appreciated on the king’s roads. But this night is not about hosting her cousin from the south.”
Terstrum nodded. “True enough. This night Tersia plays the healer, mending with words what cannot be allowed to unravel.” There was admiration in his words, genuine appreciation. “And when that is done she will return to entertaining you as is right.”
“I do not ask for much entertaining, Terstrum! I am pleased only to be in the company of my dear cousins.”
“And away from your father, perhaps?” Shrewdness in his words.
The lady was quiet.
“Forgive me, Alisaya. I did not mean to raise bad thoughts…” He sounded upset at hurting her. Harl tried not to shuffle uncomfortably. He should leave these two to their words, but she had bloody well told him to stay!
“No, Terstrum, you are right. I am pleased that Tersia insisted I be allowed a few months within Emphon to be with you all. Before…” She stopped herself.
“Before the wedding.” Terstrum finished for her, sounding cold all of a sudden.
“Yes, before the wedding. And I am grateful that father allowed me even that after the long ‘negotiations’ he has gone through to arrange it.” There was a hardness in the way that she said negotiations. What did that mean, exactly? Bartering and bargaining were common enough on the streets, but was there something similar for city-voln to be wed?
“A year or more of your betrothed making ever more greedy demands is not a ‘negotiation’.” Terstrum moved forward a little, reaching out for her two hands to hold in his own. “My sister offered me and Tersium the lives we wanted out of love when father died. I never wanted what she wanted. I was never ambitious. And she was welcome to my claim on the estate. As far as I was concerned I never wanted it. But I did want a family of my own who I could love in a way that he never could.” Harl knew he meant their father. “And she promised me the choice of any hand that would have me. Any I chose.” He looked down at where their hands were joined.
“Cousin.” Alisaya said with warning in her voice, but she did not remove her hands from his.
“Our blood does not prohibit the match.”
“No.” Her voice was quiet, her face as pale as her dress. “No. Lios might agree to the union. If only because uniting the two branches of Ellinostrum might reduce our influence over both Emphon and Liosinium. I have no brothers or sisters, the Liosinium branch would end.”
“So…?” There was a quiet desperation tightening his voice.
“Father would not allow it. And he would cast his influence to the priests whispering in Lios’ ears. We would never receive the god-king’s blessing on the union.”
“Tersiallus Ellinostrum has been trying to wed you off since you were sixteen! I have been a fool for not knowing earlier that I… I loved you. But even now our match could still be made!”
“He wants me wed to Captain Rickarn. He thinks the alliance with an up and coming Captain of Lios’ guard will strengthen our branch of the family.”
Harl felt the same shiver run through him that the keys had started. Dren?! Dren Rickarn was going to marry this gentle lady? A vague memory of Dren gloating over some dowry he was angling for sparked in Harl’s mind. That had been more than a year ago. Dren had obviously not given up. Alisaya Ellinostrum must be bringing a bloody great load of coin with her!
Terstrum stood suddenly, frustration and annoyance bubbling over. Harl moved carefully out of his way as he paced, and kept his face in the dark shadows of the garden. It was then when he saw Tersia approaching down the path, a shawl over one arm.
“What’s this? Are you letting our dear cousin freeze in the gardens Terstrum?” Tersia settled the material over Alisaya’s shoulders. She gently wiped a tear away from the woman’s cheek.
“One thing you promised me Tersia! One thing above all else and I would stand aside and let you claim the estate!” Terstrum paced.
“You let me reclaim the estate, dear brother, do not forget. It was mine at first, before our darling father passed me over for you.”
“Love. All I wanted was love. And you promised me that!”
“I promised you a choice. More than that is not in my power to give you.”
“Our uncle makes this alliance for her because of you! Because he wants to usurp you!”
Alisaya was holding her hands against her cheeks as she held in her tears. “Please, please don’t argue for the sake of me!”
Tersia turned to her brother. “And you think he would have let you run the Emphon interests? He knows how little you have ever cared for them. How little you desire to scheme and plot! He would have brushed you aside long before now even if you’d kept your claim!”
Terstrum was about to answer when something fell from where Alisaya sat. The keys. They jangled and spread out on the gravel by her feet.
“What are they?” Terstrum began, but Tersia was already sweeping them up and returning them to Alisaya.
“Careful cousin, these should not be seen.” She turned back to look at Harl, her eyes throwing blades at him. “And you saw nothing!”
Harl bowed. But he had seen them. What doors did such keys open?
“Tersia?” Terstrum asked, but it was Alisaya who answered.
“They were a wedding gift from Lios.”
Terstrum paused, then spoke in a quaking voice. “You… you were received by the god-king? He gave you that? In person?”
“It was given to me through his arch-priests.”
“Alisaya has been chosen for a great honour. And if her wedding does not go ahead that honour will be taken a’back. Along with her freedom. Think on that, brother mine. Come now boy, leave my cousin and my brother to their cups.” Tersia took two glasses from Harl’s tray and passed one a piece to Alisaya and Terstrum. Her brother started to drink his almost immediately.
Harl walked with Tersia back towards the house. He did steal a second to look back at the couple, catching the moment when Terstrum cupped Alisaya’s tear stained face and placed a chaste but loving kiss on her lips.
“But you asked me and Cole to be your eyes and ears this evening.”
“I don’t need extra eyes and ears to know my darling fool brother has finally realised he loves Alisaya.”
“Why didn’t you tell him before she became betrothed to this ‘Captain Rickarn’” He tried to make it sound as though he didn’t know Dren. Didn’t know exactly what he was.
“I made a mistake. I thought he had more time. Gods, it took this ‘Dren’ a bloody year to settle on a figure from my wretched uncle. He had time enough! Let this be a lesson to you boy. Speak the words your heart shapes before it has to be silent.”
Harl nodded but he was certain his heart shaped no words. Regrets maybe. For the loss of Ilv’Andri. For what he had done to Eris. It was her face there in his mind’s eye, and more often than Ilv’Andri’s. Did that mean that he felt about her as Terstrum did about Alisaya? Even in Bara she’d been not much more than a child… and yet, he thought of her often. He felt confused.
Cole was standing just outside the great doors as they reached them, hiding just out of the view of Tersia’s party. Tersia greeted him with a pleased smile.
“How fares my other spy?” She said in a low voice as they reached him, drawing even closer to him to let the words carry to him and no further. Harl wondered if he was to be ignored by another couple canoodling in the dark!
But Cole stepped a little away from Tersia, and received a frown for it.
“I’ve served wine to blowhard priests, slavers, and fat merchants all night. When might the serving staff be allowed to retire?” His last words were excessively formal, and Tersia frowned further.
“Do as you wish!” She pushed past him, returning to the party with a smile spreading out on her face as she walked. A smile that was as real as Harl and Cole’s disguise.
Cole shrugged, and in the darkness of their place just outside of the great hall, where fat candles were slumping but still twinkling with light, he took Harl’s tray and passed him a glass of his own.
“Drink up lad. Sure as blood is blood no one else will offer you a sup tonight.”
Harl drank the liquid in one go, pushing down a cough as the fiery liquid scalded his tongue and then the back of his throat. Warmth spread through him and he smiled at Cole. “You upset Tersia.”
“Aye. But she can stand a bit of humility.”
“We’re her guests.”
“She tricked us.”
“True.” Harl ran his other hand through his dark grey hair. “I miss the red. This don’t feel right to me.”
Cole was quiet, looking at him with his own changed, grey eyes.
“Come on. Earn your keep.” Harl said gruffly to Cole. “There’s secrets to be found out, and drinks to be served. Do you know for example that the older Ellinostrum boy loves his cousin? But she’s to be wed to our old friend Dren Rickarn?”
Cole’s face paled in the moonlight.
“And that she has some golden keys given to her by Lios himself.”
“Gods. And all I’ve learnt this evening is which whores are bedding which men of the second and third crescents!”
“Useful information I suppose…” Harl began, but they were interrupted by Gregoris appearing by the great glass doors, a stern look on his face. Harl earned a dark look for the glass in his hand, but the man said nothing as he turned and walked back into the party. Both of the disguised woods-voln followed him, feigning meekness.