It happened before he was even really aware of what he was doing. There was a rush of that same warm pleasure through his veins and the taste of it in his mouth as his features softened and his leanness changed to city-voln stockiness. The candle light coming towards him recovered from its sudden surprised stagger, and the white figure behind it finally spoke through her fear.
“Sorry! For a moment I thought you were… its silly really, now I see you clearly! But for a moment I thought I saw red hair.”
He bowed low, feeling how differently his body moved as a city-voln. “The shadows play tricks, my lady.”
But his hair had been red for the mere moments before he’d reacted to the appearance of Alisaya Ellinostrum and her candle in the corridor. Barely a breath had passed from either of them before Harl had instinctively called up the memory of the drink Tersia had given them and the change that it had made in him and Cole. Now he stood before Tersia’s cousin as a low-born city-voln servant. Still out of place walking the corridors of the house of Ellinostrum in the deep of the night, but at least he wasn’t a woods-voln.
“I-uh, I was just…” Alisaya began, struggling to form lies on her tongue. She was wearing a long white night dress and an over-shift. And she was wondering the corridors of the guest quarters looking for something. He made a guess at her purpose and felt sympathy for her. More so when he recalled that she was going to be wed to Dren Rickarn.
“Was my lady looking for the kitchens? Perhaps for a warm drink to help you sleep?” He threw her the life line and then waited for her to take it. She paused and looked about them. They were just at the junction of two corridors, turning from one to another had brought them almost into each other. To Harl’s left and right there were doors to rooms he hadn’t been in. Further on were his rooms and Cole’s. But if he recalled a’right, Alisaya had the best guestroom, which was a flight of stairs upwards. A room which took up near a quarter of the entire floor. The guest rooms were smaller, more functional rooms. He didn’t know who had the others, they were empty for all he knew.
He watched her looking past him. She then glanced up at him, anguish in her eyes. “I was… I was looking for Terstrum’s room-” she flushed red.
“My lady” He interrupted her. “You should not say that to me. I should not know that.”
She nodded, looking shameful. “I know. I know it is improper. It is a sin.”
The pain in her voice made his heart ache. As a pretend ‘bastard god’ he’d revealed sin after sin in the crescents of Emphon. But this… this wasn’t like those dark secrets he’d brought to light. He’d been there when Terstrum had declared his feelings for Alisaya; standing there like a stupid shadow and be careful he wasn’t seen to be staring at the two city-voln in the gardens as the ridiculous party went on.
“Why are you wandering the halls?” Alisaya finally said in a quiet voice. Was she trying to discover some secret of his to hold against him? But her eyes were innocent of scheming. Instead, she seemed like she was lonely.
“Sorry! I never asked.” She went on, “What is your name?”
He thought quickly. “Dresick.”
She smiled, and it was both shy and warm. “Pleased to meet you Dresick. I don’t believe I met you on my last visit, but that was perhaps some two years back now.”
“I have been here eight months, truth be told.” He lied.
“And you are walking the corridors as well, because…?”
Then he saw the trick of it; saw the insecurity in her as well as a painfully raw loneliness. He knew then how to both smooth things over and to get out of this situation.
“I could not sleep either. There is someone I think of too.”
Alisaya nodded, her eyes begging him to go on.
“But it cannot be…” He pulled on memories of Ilv’Andri and Eris to paint his face with sadness.
“Oh! You poor boy!” She was perhaps not even a ten year older than him, but she looked at him with the tenderness of a mother. There had been times when his mother had looked at him like that.
“And you cannot be together? You are certain?”
He thought of Eris and of the last time he’d seen her, in Bara. She’d wanted to kill him.
Alisaya sighed for him, her breath pushing the flame on the candle into a sudden dance. “I cannot be with Terstrum either. Except maybe…”
“For one night?” He saw where her thoughts had taken her. They’d even got her up and out of her own bed to look for Terstrum’s. He cursed himself under his breath. His trick had gotten him all the more enmeshed in this encounter.
Alisaya blushed in the candlelight and he felt bad for wanting to get away.
“Am I scandalous? Tersia says I should be once in a while, but I’ve always done what is expected. I can never be like her. Maybe because I know how hard she has fought to be able to live as she wishes-” She stopped herself and took a deep breath. “Her gods give her courage. They make her brave and daring. In Liosinium I live closer under the eye of Lios and still I do not draw from him the same strength they give her. Even though he has gifted me so much, I feel nothing for him. But the bastard gods do not call me either. Oh, am I very much a sinner to be thinking about Lios in this way?!”
She seemed to want so much from him, but Harl in his guise of faithful city-voln servant could not speak out as he wanted to. No, no you are not a sinner, he would have told her. No more than anyone who has found a moment of joy in someone else. Not that I know much of that! He wished he could be off somewhere else with Cole, asking him about what he should say. Not that he knows much of that! But that was a cruel thought and he regretted it. Cole’d also not had a life that could have brought him many blushes, nightdresses, and ‘scandals’. And Cole had become someone he wanted to have around. Someone he would miss if he could no longer travel with him, wherever they were going to go next. He knew that Cole felt the same, otherwise the charm would not have kept him with him. Ah, but Alisaya… what should he tell this woman who was creeping through the house and disturbing his own sneaking?
“I’m just a servant, it’s not my place to say. Only…”
He sighed, and whispered blasphemy to her waiting ears. “Seems to me that the bastard gods lived and loved and died. Lios never does any of that. Sure as blood is blood we voln are more akin to them who suffer than a gold faced god who can’t even crack a bloody smile.”
Alisaya put a hand to her mouth to cover the smile that grew there. “Dresick!” She exclaimed, giggling as quietly as she could.
The name wasn’t his favourite for all that Dresick had tried to do, and he regretted giving it to her, but still he gave her a small bow. He made a decision as he looked back at her. “Walk with me? I can show you the way to where you were headed.” He asked, and she nodded.
They passed time in a comfortable silence as Harl escorted her through the corridors. Most servants were a-bed in the dorms near the kitchen in the lowest level of the house. Since Tersia’s party and their change back into woods-voln sharpness Harl and Cole had mostly kept themselves to their minor guest rooms; only coming out when summoned by Tersia via Gregoris and when they were assured of a quiet path to the solarium or her own grand room on an upper floor. They weren’t prisoners, but their presence was a quiet one. That quietness had lead Harl to seek out escape in the night, much as he had done back at the Cant of Lios. His feet still took him into the night and the shadows, even when his domain was limited to the inside of the house of the Ellinostrum. He just didn’t pretend to be a judging bastard god within its walls.
They finally reached the great curving staircase of the house’s first hall, which wound its way upwards opposite two great oaken doors. Harl and Alisaya were overlooked by stern faced patriarchs of the family, their faces carved into the very bricks of the hall themselves, interspaced with the eye of Lios. Faded lions in thick gold thread hunted across a great blue rug under their feet as he quickly took her towards a door leading to the eastern side of the house and another spiralling staircase that was much smaller, but which took them upwards to one of the towers.
“He’s up here?” She whispered as they went round and around the circle of the stairs.
Harl had explored this tower and knew that Terstrum and Tersium had rooms up here, both liking the best view over the three crescents. He smiled encouragingly back at her and then brought her to Terstrum’s door. He watched her heart falter as she raised a hand to rap knuckles on the door and then stopped.
“Go on.” He whispered, gently placing his hand on her forearm where her over-shift’s sleeve had tumbled down and revealed a pale arm warmed up by the candle’s flickering. “Be brave.” He charmed her then, pushing a little of his will on her through his touch. To let her do what she desired. “Be strong.”
She nodded, and gently knocked at Terstrum’s door. Moments passed before a bleary eyed young man, still wearing his britches and with his shirt untucked and his hair a mess, came to open it. Even in his disguise Harl took a step back into the shadows. But he needn’t have bothered. Terstrum could only see Alisaya, even if his eyes were just awakening to the light after being asleep.
“Ali?” He whispered. “What are you doing here?” There was hope in his voice.
“Please. Please can I come in?”
“Of course. I fell asleep at my desk… I was writing a letter. To you. I was trying to say goodbye. I will leave tomorrow.”
“Leave? Where for?! You cannot have thought to risk the coastal road?!”
“North perhaps. Skirt the mountains’ feet and head to Bara.” He reached out and took her free hand in both of his. “I cannot stay and watch you walk away.”
Alisaya’s face calmed for a moment before she passed Harl the candle in its earthern holder.
“Thank you for your assistance, Dresick.” She returned her gaze to Terstrum and allowed him to lead her into the room, the door closing softly behind them.
Walking back to the guest quarters, ignoring the stuffy looking ancestors emerging from the walls themselves in the great hall, Harl thought on Alisaya’s choice. Again, he thought it no sin. But still, she would likely still have to wed Dren. There were obligations city-voln put upon themselves that he could not fathom, but still they were as binding as heavy chains. Even though his freedom was different within the walls of the Ellinostrum house, staying here was his decision. He felt freer than Alisaya, for all her city-voln privilege.
He found himself back at his room and found that he was tired all of a sudden, his wander-lust draining from him as he came back into the dark of his room and shuffled over to the soft bed. But there, lit only by the slight light coming in from the moon outside his window, was the fox’s skull he thought he’d left at the Cant of Lios. A smile touched his lips as he looked the macabre thing over. Cole must have retrieved it.
Estille, damn her, had gotten it back for him one other time. Seemed like the thing was bound to return to him. He placed it on a chest of drawers and went about undressing for bed, only remembering after he’d begun to remove his clothes that his body was that of a city-voln. That pulled a small laugh from him and he shook his head in wonder at what he’d managed to do. By the bastard gods, life was strange! He urged the change from himself, feeling the same pale pink liquid building up in his mouth to be spat out into his pisspot. The rest of him settled back into the slighter form of a woods-voln as he snuck into his sheets, before letting sleep finally take him.