The city of Strana was situated overtop the confluence of two rivers, the Olga and Merrywater, which continued on as the Olga to join the Great Mother River about a hundred kilometers downstream to the west. The Mage Tower rose right out of the water in the middle of where the two rivers joined.
Approaching the city from the north, the men entered the section of Strana on the north bank of the Olga. This was the same area they had stayed in the night before. It was definitely on the rougher, more rustic, side of things with big stockyards for cattle, sheep, and horses at its outskirts. At the river were the docks for the many barges that travelled the Olga river both upstream and down. Along the bank were the northside’s biggest structures: three large wooden grain elevators. A little to the west was Strana’s ironworking quarter, which belched coal smoke from sooty smokestacks.
On the north bank of the Olga was a five-meter-tall stone foundation for the Tower Bridge, which rose high above the river with a graceful arch to allow barges to pass underneath. It was wide enough for two coaches to pass without interfering too badly with the pedestrians to either side. At the other side of the arch, the bridge connected with the Mage Tower, and looped once around it in an elegant ramp down to lower bridges from the Tower that spanned the Merrywater River to either side. The entire Tower Bridge was made from Dwarf cut and set stone and was as beautiful as it was strong.
Across the Olga, on the east side of the Merrywater, was Strana’s posh southeast side. This was fully encircled with a fortified stone wall and housed Chetterton Palace, the King’s city residence, the House of Lords, and the awe-inspiring Cathedral of Saint Bethlam with its attached campus of the Royal Institute of Theology. On the west side of the Merrywater was the southwest side: the sprawling city of Strana proper.
The bridge between the Mage Tower and the southeast side was normal enough, sitting fairly low to the water with narrow, yet attractive, one- and two-story stone buildings on either side of its central thoroughfare. The much wider bridge from the Tower to the southwest side was something unusual, though.
Almost a hundred meters in width, the bridge was built up as though a part of the city, having stone buildings and narrow lanes and alleys with tiny courtyards. This was Bridgetown, Strana’s infamous pleasure quarter. Being over the water and not, strictly speaking, part of the city itself, Bridgetown was more in the sway of the Mage Tower and the gangs that serviced and exploited its denizens in their dives. Where Bridgetown connected to the Mage Tower and the narrower bridge to the southeast side, it opened up into a kind of square that sloped down to the water’s edge in series of wide, stone steps. In this square was a colorful open market, selling all manner of magical trinkets and gear, as well as spell components. Smaller river boats could be moored there as well.
Over the years, Brother Simon had railed much at the lads about the evils of Bridgetown. Their excitement at being on the cusp of visiting it was palpable.
“Wow,” Dungar said lamely as they stopped to take it all in at the top of the cobbled grade to the Tower Bridge’s foundation on the north bank.
“Indeed! There is it, lads! Everything you have been led to expect and more!” Mannis said, gesturing widely as though the whole scene was his. “But, first things first. We need to book passage and get the horses settled. The stables are more reasonable here on the northside.”
“There’s no toll on the bridge?” Choke asked.
“Good question. No, there isn’t. Free passage and trade is what Strana and the Mages are all about. So let’s get going so we can partake of it properly, right?”
The first stop was a stables and livery where Mannis arranged to have his horse stabled for a week and Knuckle’s, Pinch’s, and Choke’s for the night.
“One night, boys,” he said, holding up his finger. “That’s what ye get from me here. After that, it’s on yar own copper.”
The lads assured Mannis he was being more than generous.
“What about my horse, brother?” Dungar asked.
“Well, he’s coming with, yes? So, next stop is the docks where we shall arrange for that.”
Mannis threw his bow case and quiver, along with his saddlebags, over his shoulder and they strode out. Choke left his spear and shield with his horse at the stable, as Pinch did with his bow and quiver. At the docks, Mannis booked passage for himself, Dungar, and Dungar’s warhorse on a barge leaving that night. The shipping clerk was not thrilled about taking care of the warhorse until then, but Mannis slipped him a copper and he assented to it.
With all the business taken care of, the young men struck out across Tower Bridge on foot. At the top of its arch, they stopped to take in the view again, looking west down the Olga river.
“Oh, look! A Dwarven golem barge!” Mannis said, pointing it out downstream.
The wide, shallow-draft vessel was lumbering upstream towards them. At its front there was a raised deck with a large ballista in its center and crenulated wooden shielding for crossbowmen around its outside. At its rear was a wide paddlewheel, inside of which a large stone golem drove the wheel by endlessly climbing it like some kind of hamster.
Created and used by Mages and Dwarves, golems are automatous humanoid figures generally formed of clay, stone, or iron. Able to perform simple tasks, and to fight devastatingly in combat, golems are a clear sign that their owners are not to be fucked with.
“Stron’s balls! What the fuck is that giant fuckin crossbow thing?” Knuckle exclaimed.
“That? That’s a ballista. As you say: basically a giant fuckin crossbow. That’ll shoot a spear a good couple hundred meters. That, plus a couple of Dwarves on crossbows up there are a guaranteed bad day. Never mind if they let that golem out to play. That thing could pull yar arms and legs off like yar a frog. Don’t mess with the Dwarves,” Mannis said.
“Golem? What?” Knuckle asked.
Mannis pointed it out, causing a great deal more noisy excitement from Knuckle, who had somehow not noticed it. Once Knuckle had settled down, Mannis continued:
“Okay, its lunchtime and I’m starved. There’s something I’ve been dreaming about nonstop since the last time I was in Strana, and now it is time!” Mannis rubbed his hands together eagerly and licked his lips. “Since ye lads have been so agreeable, I’ll treat ye. The Maythorns were plenty generous, after all, so I can afford it!”
Where the Tower Bridge reached the Mage Tower, it did not connect to it. Maintaining its full width, the bridge looped around the Tower once with a gentle enough grade to bring them to the lower level of Bridgetown and the southeast bridge.
The ramp opened up in the Bridgetown square. To their left was the wide entrance into the Mage Tower. Further back from that was the bridge to the southeast side. In front of them, the square stepped down to the water’s edge, and to the right were several lanes leading into Bridgetown itself. The square was filled with stands and booths selling a dizzying array of magical kit. Around its edge were many patio bars and restaurants. The whole scene was crowded and lively, with a good number of robed mages and apprentice students in the mix.
Looking into the entrance of the Mage Tower afforded another wonder. Inside was a wide space with elegant stone columns and vaulted ceilings. Beyond that was a gorgeous atrium with large fountains and flowered paths. Way across the atrium could just be made out more columns and stonework. It took just a second to realize that this internal space was very much larger than the external area of the tower.
“Woah. What the fuck?” Pinch said, staring into the Tower as he swayed slightly.
“Yes, a right mindfuck, isn’t it?” Mannis said. “Okay then, a penny tour. That is the Mage Guild, obviously. Enter if you dare. I am told they do tolerate visits if you have business, but I’ve never risked it. That is,” Mannis pointed out the bridge to the southeast side, “Merrywater Bridge. The bars, restaurants, and shops there are all high-end. Our first stop will be down there. The Merrywater Bridge leads to the southeast side, which is where all the quality folk hang their hats. There is a gatehouse down at that end, and the guard are pricks about letting people through.”
Mannis then gestured to the right:
“That, as I suppose ye’ve guessed, is Bridgetown. Once we’ve had a bite to eat, we’ll head into there for a bit of fun. One thing: I know we’re all strapping goons used to having our own way in the world, but things are different here. Ye need to mind yar manners. Any of these robed dweebs wandering around could be a powerful enough mage to turn yar pecker into a serpent and have it bite yar balls. Also, once we’re in Bridgetown, don’t fuck around with the locals. It isn’t that hard to dispose of a body when yar cellar is the river flowing under ye. Right?”
Mannis led them about halfway down Merrywater Bridge to a charming, two-story eatery called, The Scorched Apprentice. It had a big wooden sign carved in relief and painted with a comical picture of a young wizard in the midst of a fire spell mishap. It being lunchtime, there was a line of robed and otherwise well-dressed men and women waiting to get in. Many of them glowered at the lads in their armor and weapons as though they were the worst of boors for merely existing. Mannis ignored this.
“This is worth the wait. Trust me,” he said.
It took about half an hour for them to be seated upstairs. Being built on the side of a bridge, the establishment was quite narrow. However, the second floor overhung the water a good amount, allowing for a comfortable enough space. Seated in a corner booth overlooking the Merrywater River, the lads had a splendid view of the cathedral. They were all quite content to sit quietly and take it in until the waitress got around to them.
“I shall order for all of us, yes?” Mannis said to the lads. “I wouldn’t want ye fucking up yar first experience at The Scorched Apprentice.”
“So five large reuben sandwiches with pan-fried potatoes, then?” the waitress laughed.
“Indeed! And don’t forget: five pints of the fishtail stout!”
“Why is it called fishtail stout?” Knuckle asked.
“Because it’s brewed with fishtails in. What d’ye think?” the waitress replied, deadpan.
“It’s marvelous. Trust me,” Mannis said. “As well, my dear, could we have a double order of the spicy chicken wings, if you please?”
“Coming right up. Going all out are we?”
“What can I say? It was a fine, lucrative journey here, and the boys deserve a treat. Particularly since they’ve only just escaped the clutches of a bunch of monks out in the arse end of nowhere.”
“Where’s that, exactly? Just so I know to avoid it,” the waitress asked, warming up to Mannis.
“Never heard of it.”
“And that is just as you would want it. I assure you,” Mannis finished, giving the waitress a friendly wink to let her get back to work.
“Well she’s a delightful little thing. I might have to eat here again when I come back through after dropping ye off,” Mannis said to Dungar after she had left.
“Uhhhh… Mannis… about that,” Pinch interjected, prompted by Knuckle elbowing him in the ribs.
“What are yar plans for when ye get back?” Pinch asked.
“Well, I shall be going back out to Dunlop to help father. You know, the usual,” Mannis answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. His eyes, however, were sharp as he looked over Pinch, Knuckle, and Choke in turn to read their expressions. Then he smirked.
“I suppose ye all, or at least you two,” he gestured to Pinch and Knuckle, “are hoping that I could take ye on. Or, maybe, put ye in touch with someone who would.”
“Oh, hells yeah!” Knuckle exclaimed.
The waitress returned with their five steins of stout then. She set them down and assured them she would be right back with their chicken wings. They all shared a toast.
“Fishtails, ye say?” Dungar said, licking some froth from his lips.
“Indeed. I was surprised myself. But it works, yes?”
“It does that.”
They drank in quiet until the waitress returned with their wings. These were a lurid red that was quite shocking for the Pekot boys. Taking in their reaction, the waitress laughed right at them.
“Oh dear!” she exclaimed.
Sneaking a glance around, Choke realized that most of the other patrons were paying close attention to their scene, although doing so in a less obvious manner than the waitress.
“Take care boys: these are dangerous!” she said. “Real Alquinian peppers to make them! Grown in the Mage Tower, though. We got a guy. Dig in! I wanna see it!”
Watching how Mannis proceeded, the lads all grabbed a wing. Their reactions were predictable, and the waitress and others patrons all had a good laugh at their expense. Knuckle looked for a second like he would take exception to being the butt of such hilarity, but Mannis’ genuine and friendly amusement was contagious and Knuckle was soon was laughing along with all the others as he fanned his tongue with his hands.
“Stron’s colossal cock and balls! What are these!” he bellowed.
“The stout! The stout helps” Mannis assured him, draining his own stein. “Keep the stout coming!” he ordered the waitress, who laughed her way downstairs.
When they were rearmed with more stout and had got past the novelty of the spicy wings, Mannis settled down and gave them a serious look.
“Okay, boys. Here’s the deal. I like ye, so I’m going to tell it to ye straight. You are all good lads, and some of the finest young talent at killing that I’ve ever laid eyes on. And that’s a problem for me.”
Mannis left a long pause before continuing:
“Because, with what ye are, if I didn’t like ye, I would string ye along to keep ye in my back pocket for some bullshit or another. But that wouldn’t be right. Ye lads deserve a real situation. But I aint in a position to give ye one.”
“What about father?” Dungar asked.
“What about him? Ye think I’m in so tight with him that I don’t have to worry about my own place? Look at what he’s got me doing here with you. Listen: at best, I’m presently the off-the-books death technician of the outfit. And I can’t use three men-at-arms yet. Maybe in a few years, sure. Once I’ve moved up in the world a bit. And, I’m sorry lads, but I’m not about to bring the three of ye around to hand ye off to someone else to make use of. There’s only so many teats to go around. So, whatever ye do, don’t come to Dunlop. I won’t take kindly to it. Right?”
Obviously deeply disappointed, Knuckle and Pinch nonetheless met Mannis’ eye and nodded.
“But what are ye worried about anyways? Ye’ve all been offered a situation, right?” Mannis said, glancing at Dungar as he did.
“What? Sir Gareth?” Knuckle asked.
“Sir Gareth? No. He’s father’s man, of course. I mean, if ye want to be grunt soldiers, then I suppose ye can look him up. But that’s not a life I would embrace, if I were you. No. There’s that other thing that yar raven offered Bartholomew here. With the Holy Stoners up in the hills at Spaggot. With that crank, Barrelmender,” Mannis said.
Both Knuckle and Pinch whirled on Choke, who was looking sharply at Mannis.
“Spaggot? Barrelmender? What the fuck is he talking about, Choke?” Knuckle barked.
Choke irritably held his palm up at Knuckle and shushed him.
“How do you know about Barrelmender?” Choke asked Mannis.
“Everybody knows about that fucker. He’s the raven they got up there in Spaggot, holding it down for the Holy Stoners. Or, I guess ye mean how did I know about the offer for ye to go and work with him? He told me, of course,” Mannis gestured to Dungar.
“Yeah, Brother Willem told me that he was setting that up for ye before we left. When he told me that I was to be the one to go to the Academy. I was worried about what was to become of ye, so I asked about it,” Dungar said.
“So why the fuck are we just hearing about this now?” yelled Knuckle, gesturing at Pinch and himself.
Choke closed his eyes and took a measured breath before looking Knuckle dead in the eye:
“Because, Knucklehead, Brother Willem made the offer to me. And the both of you are not acting like men that I would bring along on something like that.”
“Are ye fuckin serious?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? Are you? You both made it clear to me that you’ve had enough of ‘all that Holy Book crap.’ Didn’t ye? Well, going to work for Brother Barrelmender would be more of that, wouldn’t it.”
“Cool down, lads. Cool down,” Mannis interjected. “Look, here’s our sandwiches. If this doesn’t put a smile on yar faces, I don’t know what will. Thank you ever so much, my dear,” Mannis smiled at the waitress as she finished setting down their plates.
“No problem, hon. So how are them wings treating ye?” she asked the table.
“Oh, they are something. My whole head feels like it’s buzzing, or something,” Dungar said, doing his best to ignore Choke and Knuckle who were staring murderously across the table at each other.
“Well, if ye like that, just wait until tomorrow!” the waitress said, prompting a guffaw from Mannis.
“Wha’d’ye mean by that?” Pinch asked her.
“I would hate to ruin the surprise. Ye just wait and see. And ye can think of me when it’s happening to ye.”
“Oh, how marvelously perverse! I think I’m in love!” Mannis laughed.
The waitress gave him a wink and left them to it.
As angry as Knuckle and Choke were, the smell of the food brought them around. It was a marvelous feed.
“Ohhhhh! This is so good!” Pinch moaned, munching on his sandwich.
“I know, right? The cuisine here really is a revelation. It’s like my stomach is getting a blowjob,” Mannis said.
“Yuck,” Choke said. Mannis laughed at him.
They stayed quiet until their eating had slowed down and they were nursing the hoppy pale ales that Mannis had ordered to round things out. Then Mannis again struck a serious tone:
“Listen now, the three of ye. You guys are a great team. Ye don’t want to be breaking that up,” he said, looking straight at Choke as he did. “But I understand that ye’ve gotta get yar boys in line, so you do what ye need to do.
“And you two,” he now gestured to Knuckle and Pinch. “Don’t ye fuck an opportunity to go to work with the Holy Stoners. That would be a dim move. There aint a better fuckin situation for the likes of us than working for the Church. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Pinch was taking in Mannis’ words earnestly, but Knuckle’s scowl was deepening by the second and he looked about ready to argue. Mannis cut this off by thrusting his finger right at him:
“No, you fuckin meat-head. Shut up and think about it for a second. If ye can. Ye remember the Raven’s Roost? How they treated all of ye there? They loved you guys. Ye think they’d react that way to some of Sir Gareth’s soldiers? To caravan guards that are half a fuckin bandit at the best of times? No way.”
Mannis stopped to let Knuckle think this over. It seemed that he was managing it. When Knuckle was about ready to speak again, Mannis cut him off again:
“When ye ride with the Church, it’s the best of everything. Ye get the best pay, the best gear, and the smallfolk kiss yar ass wherever ye go. It’s a no-brainer.”
“Yeah, but… I wanna fuck,” Knuckle finally replied.
“Is that all yar worried about? Shit, Knuckle, ye aint gonna be a priest or monk. It’s this sad prick that’s gonna have to take the vows,” he gestured to Dungar. “Ye boys are just gonna be goons. And goons need to fuck. Everybody, Church included, knows that.”
“I don’t know. Brother Simon—” Pinch started.
“Is fucked, whoever he is,” Mannis interrupted. “That cloister ye were raised up in aint the real world. Think about a military situation. Being in charge of warriors and sending them out into the world to do evil. To keep ye from running wild and raping all the good Stronian women of the world, the bosses, Church or not, look the other way if ye keep yar fucking sensible and respectable. That’s the way of it.
“And, while we’re on the topic, there is no better way to attract pussy than to have a stable job with coins in yar pocket. Then it’s the husband hunt game, and they will lay out their traps and snares. The trick is sampling the bait without getting hooked. You get settled in with a proper Church situation and the games shall begin. Count on it,” Mannis finished.
“Good advice. Thank you for your council,” Pinch said.
“Yeah. Thanks,” Knuckle seconded. Then he looked at Choke glumly. “Well, I aint gonna beg.”
“Nor should you,” Mannis interjected to save Choke responding. “And if he decides not to take the two of ye along with him, then ye should head to Spaggot anyway and present yarselves to Barrelmender for his consideration. But Bartholomew here is just playing it close to the vest to let ye know who’s in charge. And I don’t blame him a bit for it. It’s just as I would do if I had to control the likes of you.”
Having clearly said everything he had wanted to about that, Mannis turned to his brother and eased back in his chair with a smirk.
“Now. Brother. We have not had a chance to talk properly about what ye got up to with Clara. How was she?”
Dungar flushed. After some hesitation, he said:
“I thought ye said it was bad form to talk about sex after it is finished.”
“I did say that. And it is. But where in the hells would ye get the notion that I’m one for good form in such matters? I’m the devil-may-care rogue of this outfit and don’t ye forget it. And I want to know what Clara was like. I could never get into that. Anise always waylaid me for her own lustful pleasures before I could get anywhere near her. And I’m not about to fuck up a sure thing for an uncertain prospect, however tempting. So?”
Dungar stared into his ale miserably as Knuckle and Pinch leaned in close with rapt attention. Even Choke, despite himself, felt his guts tighten as his cock hardened at the thought of Clara, fresh-faced, pert and lovely Clara, rolling around with Dungar in the wildflowers.
“I don’t know,” Dungar said.
“Oh. I see,” Mannis replied. “Oh, dear. Did ye fuck it up somehow? I wouldn’t have thought ye did. She seemed well-pleased. Like a woman whose scone has been nicely buttered exactly to her liking.”
“No. It’s… It’s… Okay, fine! We didn’t fuck, alright? She didn’t let me,” Dungar finally hissed at them, keeping his voice as low as possible.
“What?” Knuckle guffawed. “Well, what the fuck were ye doing with her, then?”
“We were fooling around, sure. And I was kissing her with the tongue and then on her neck and ears, just like ye told me to,” Dungar said to Mannis. “And that warmed her up plenty, and she let me take her bodice down and lick and kiss her tits and nipples and all that.”
“All that? What, she has something more going on in that area?” Mannis asked.
“No! You know, just all over there, I mean. Like ye said. And she loved it. But every time I tried to get up under her skirt she wouldn’t let me. She said she’d never done that before.”
“Clara’s a virgin?” Mannis said, looking genuinely surprised.
“That’s what she said.”
Mannis looked thoughtful for a long moment.
“Huh,” he finally shrugged. “Who’d a thunk that? Well, that’s a surprise.”
“So, let me just get this straight,” Knuckle said, looking deeply disappointed. “Three picnic lunches and one whole night in an inn together, and alls ye did was fool around with her titties like some kind of giant baby? What the fuck, Baron?”
“Well, no. It wasn’t just that. She said she felt bad for me, so she took care of me with her hand. A bunch of times. It was pretty good!”
“That’s better than nothing, I suppose,” Mannis said. “Tit play and dry handjobs. Reminds me of my days as a youngster behind the sweetmeats tent at the fair. Ahh, Sally. What tits she had, too. Just marvelous. Well worth all the chafing my poor fellow had to suffer at her hands. But back to Clara.”
“Really?” Dungar moaned.
“Yes. She never once let ye put it in her mouth? That surprises me. Her sister is really good about that, and sisters usually share their knowledge about such matters.”
“Yes. Dumbass. Virgin or not, after saving her from goblins and respecting her boundaries, a blowjob is really the least that she could have done for ye. Selfish girl. Ye didn’t even ask?” Mannis laughed.
“Well… no. That’s… that’s not right. She’s a nice girl, ye said. Her mouth is lovely.”
“Yes. It is lovely. It surely is! Her sister’s is, too.”
“Anise. She did that? But they’re nice girls, ye said.”
“Yes, I did. And what could be nicer than doing that for someone? I was a gentleman about it, after all. I washed up and asked politely. Oh, you fool, Dungar! If ye’d just asked, I’m sure Clara would’ve put her mouth on ye at least a little bit. Her type just loves pleasing on her own terms.”
“But she’s so pretty and nice.”
“Yes she is. Exactly. Okay, then, I see those monks have fucked all of ye up worse than I feared. So listen up all of ye,” Mannis addressed the table.
“What a woman will or will not do for ye has absolutely nothing to do with how they look or act or what they say or their social status or anything. How a woman is going to behave in bed is a complete unknown until ye get them there. Some of the shiest, prettiest, nicest, most prim and proper girls I have ever known have, without hesitation, done some of the dirtiest things I could imagine. All I had to do was ask. And there have been times when, out of forlorn desperation, I have taken a ride on a village mule, you know, a woman everyone’s been on, only to have her refuse to do anything beyond laying there dead-eyed like a starfish.
“And let’s get something else clear. Whatever you and someone else want to do with each other is fine. It’s all fine. Ye’ve both already sinned the second ye touch each other out of wedlock, right? So ye may as well make the most of it and enjoy yarselves afterwards. Just ask for what ye want politely and be a gentleman about it if they refuse. Maybe they’ll warm up to it later. Better just to put it out there and try yar luck. Because ye never know.”
Mannis looked over his pupils, who were all lost in their own thoughts at his words.
“Okay, then. Here endeth the lecture,” Mannis said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. Then he stood up from the table. “So, where to next?”