That night, after the party was long quiet and the great ballroom a shadowy battlefield of discarded glasses, tumbled over gilt chairs and slumping candles, Harl dreamt of Eris.
He’d been brought to his bed by Cole after he’d taken the pot boy’s privilege and helped himself to the remains of the Ellinostrum wine in all the forgotten glasses. Cole’s gentle mockery of the state he was getting himself into as he wove his way between the equally merry groups of city and sea-voln had turned to concern as Harl’s city-voln face had started to turn a green hue. Cole had then escorted him away from the dregs of the party and half carried him down the corridors of the great house back to his guest room. They were almost of a height these days, but still the older man could hook an arm about him and shuffle his feet towards a quiet room and the deep pisspot waiting under his bed there that might catch whatever was going to come out of him.
Cole had helped him to the bed and had placed the white china bowl in his hands, and he had hung his head over it, letting out a groan but nothing else.
“Why did’ya used to do this?” Harl asked when his breaths weren’t rasping bitter acid over his tongue. “Why did’ya do this for fun?”
“It seemed better than the other option.” Cole said, leaning back against the flowery wallpaper and smiling darkly.
“What’s th’other option?” Harl asked in a quaking voice, wondering what could be worse than this spinning room and blanket of fog in his head.
Harl had looked up at the man then, the lengths of his fringe sticking to his sweating face, wretchedness etched into the lines about his eyes as he looked at the stranger in front of him. Dark grey hair and grey eyes. Just like his now. A city-voln speaking with Cole’s mouth, every gesture that bit more alien to him coming from the face of a broader, much more stockier, city-voln. Tall, but not lean. Cole but not Cole.
“Don’t work like that. Tersia said it eases off over time. We’ll be back to how we were soon enough.”
“Change…” Queasiness staggered him and he bowed his head to the piss pot again, but still nothing came.
Harl shook himself and spat bile into the bowl. He wanted rid of what Tersia had given them. Wanted rid of the booze too. He spat again, another wave of nausea hitting him at the same time and he pushed it out with his phlegm. It was a pale pink colour in the white of the piss pot. He spat again, thinking it might be blood, but it got no darker, no redder. He felt something shifting within him, his jacket loosening as his body made the change back between city-voln and woods-voln.
“Harl?” Cole said, questioning, looking closer as auburn flowed from the roots of his hair to the tips. He felt his face narrow, his cheekbones sharpen slightly, and his ears and eyes become more sensitive even in the candle lit darkness of the room. Cole’s city-voln features became more apparent to him, even more glaringly wrong. The man came closer.
“Did you do that?” He asked, a hand reaching out to nearly touch the new red of Harl’s hair.
“Ugh.” Groaned Harl. “The room is still spinning.”
He realised a moment later that his hand had bridged the distance that Cole’s could not, and was now clasping his forearm to stop himself spinning. Cole’s hand eventually returned the grip.
“You’ll be okay. You’re just not used to drinking. It’s a good lesson as to your limits though… you should always know what you can handle and what you can’t.” Cole was talking quickly, ignoring their clasped hands. “Wouldn’t go back to the same wine next time if it makes you throw up this time. You’ll associate the smell and the taste with that and it’ll bring it on all the sooner. Or don’t drink at all. That’s always an option…”
Harl smiled, and then suddenly pulled the preparation Tersia had tricked them into drinking from Cole, just as he’d done with the lady Ellinostrum, bringing her to an immediate panic. Cole did not panic, but his eyes did widen as Harl drew Tersia’s trick out from his body. He felt the urge to spit again and more pink fluid joined the rest in the pisspot. Tersia’s precious powdered god bone in water lay there in the bowl, wasted. And then Cole began to change back as well. His hair had always been dark, fooling some that he was a city-voln, but as the preparation’s effects no longer worked on him he regained his tall leanness, his high cheekbones, his fierce green eyes. Harl released his hand as the man felt himself over for the changes that his body had just gone through.
“Better.” Slurred Harl, the queasiness fleeing and leaving a warm comfortable feeling, not unlike the first effect of Tersia’s preparation. He felt… happy.
A shadow passed over Cole’s face. “What else can you do, Harl?”
“Maybe I can make you feel as I do, without you even having t’drink.” He reached out for Cole’s hand again, but he pulled it away, walking a few steps back to regard the slumped lad on the edge of the bed.
“I don’t need that feeling anymore.” Cole went to the door, pushing it properly closed. He’d been too busy near carrying Harl to do it before. “Harl. Tell me about the first crescent and what happened there.”
“You know.” They hadn’t spoken fully about it before, and Harl felt no need to do so now.
“I know a ship sank, taking down sea-voln wives and Denosian slaves with it. I know I waited for you to return after finding your bed empty. I know you staggered your way to the Ellinostrum house in the third crescent rather than coming back to the Cant of Lios.”
“Yer know then.”
“They say a ghost sank the Lion in Armour.”
Harl groaned and pushed the pisspot to the floor, near spilling it. “Ilv’Andri… she… I…”
“The Denosian slave-girl?”
He looked up at Cole in despair. “It weren’t the ghost. It were me! I called it. Made it help me. Help me!” He repeated the words he’d charmed into the monster. And Ilv’Andri had sung her song to Lios and the child in the monster had remembered the castle and… and…! Tears ran down his face as he remembered.
“I want more.” He said in a raw rasping voice, shades of his higher pitch wailing through like they hadn’t done for months. “Go back and get me more!”
Cole looked confused.
“You said you drank when you didn’t want to remember!” Tears became sobs. Through them he heard Cole moving about the room. He felt a hand on his shoulder, pushing him gently into the bed after he took off Harl’s servant’s jacket, and then covering him over with the sheets.
“You should sleep. We can speak on these things in the morning.” Cole’s voice, close. Harl opened his eyes to see Cole still with his hands on the coverlet, drawing it up about him. Cole looked awkward, uncomfortable. He’d never done this before. Never tucked in a child of his own, or cared for another adult. Never stood by as fever wracked someone he cared for. Nor whispered comforting words.
“Yer never done this b’fore.” Harl mumbled, his eyes already heavy and yearning for darkness as he lay there.
“No. No, that’s true enough.”
Moments later the room was dark and Cole was gone. Or perhaps it was more than moments that had passed, the room seem long empty of his presence. Harl turned over again, and returned to fitful sleep.
Then Harl dreamt of Eris.
They were in a large marble clad room, pillars spaced out and marking out the edges of its length. She was approaching him clad in dark leather armour and bearing a fine bow, the end of its notched arrow glistening with a poison. He was sat on the lowest step of a dias, a bright shining golden throne with open lion’s mouths atop the legs behind him. He sat casually, unperturbed that death at the end of an arrow was in his near future. He felt as though he cared about very little.
He raised a hand as she got closer. Not to stop her. A greeting for his death.
He seemed to want her arrow through his chest. But there was something strange about her walk, an odd crooked limp to her movements. And was her path also crooked? She appeared not to walking directly to him, but at an angle, heading towards something she looked at up and over his shoulder.
He turned to look back and saw that the throne was full of the twisting black shape of a cursed ghost of Lios. Some of it was solid enough to sit in the throne, drifting limbs and smoke tumbling around the shape of voln in the middle of it. And it was that person at the centre of it all that Eris was aiming her death dealing arrow at, not him.
“Wait!” Harl tried to shout, recognising the face forming amid the shadows on the throne. A woods-voln. Fysiwon.
But the arrow, greened all the way from head to feathers, pierced the ghost which wailed and greyed before tumbling into dust. And the warrior-girl kept walking onwards until her boots, one dark brown and plain, and one black with beautifully ornate patterns tooled into it, crunched through the powder that remained of Fysiwon and carried on to the back wall of the throne room where she easily clambered up the wall using the same claws in her hands that Harl had. She pulled herself up into the high reaches of the room where shadows dwelt and then disappeared.
Harl moved himself from where he’d reclined so casually against the steps and quickly knelt down beside the remains of his friend. Some of him had not crumbled so easily, some of him had retained the shape of a part of a hand, or a corner of his face. Harl lifted up his friend’s eye and recoiled as it suddenly burst back into life, vibrant and green as he had never seen it. Green like Cole’s eyes.
He woke with a start, coming to consciousness and a thickness in his head that hurt when he moved. He groaned.
A figure moved in the shadows of the room, stirring from a chair.
“Cole?” Harl asked blurrily. But it was a woman. Tersia. She came to sit at the end of his bed.
“I have no immediate cure for your head. But when you can, join me and your companion in the solarium and I will have a hot restoring water and sweet loaves ready.”
The thought of food churned his stomach, but he nodded anyway as she stood to depart. It took him time to wash his face and run fingers through his hair in his current state, but at least he was almost entirely dressed already so he didn’t need to carefully pull on his shirt over his tender head.
He found Tersia and Cole waiting as she’d said, and took his place by the lady again.
“You smell like the arch-priest of Emphon.” Tersia said wrinkling her nose.
“At least I don’t look anything like him anymore.” He mumbled under his breath. He found himself avoiding Cole’s eyes, and not entirely knowing why.
“Yes, the change doesn’t last long unless you drink more.” She sipped then from her own delicate glass, urging Harl to drink some steaming hot water from a sturdier pot, but with some Liosinium lemon floating in it. He avoided the sweet loaves on the delicate plate in front of him.
He glanced at Cole over the rim of the pot as a memory of taking the change away from the tall man came back to him. Then their clasped hands. Cole pushing him down on to the bed, and making sure he was covered. Then a dream. A nightmare.
He was aware of Tersia watching them intently, but Harl found he could not break his glance with Cole. So he was the first to look away. “Why have you brought the boy from his sick bed, Tersia?”
“Well, I need reports from my eyes and ears.” Tersia lounged back against the couch, leaning closer to Harl. She watched Cole as she traced a fingertip along the outer edge of Harl’s ear. “Tell me everything.” She said to him, still gently touching Harl and making a rush of confusing thoughts jumble in his head all at the same time. He didn’t entirely dislike her touching him, but still he moved his head away from her hand.
“Let us tell you then,” began Cole, “Of everything we saw and overheard last night.”