As exciting and lively as Bridgetown had been during the day, it was doubly so now, with what seemed to be even more people packed into its lanes and alleys. The glamoured signs and advertisements cast an otherworldly light over the chaotic goings on. Many of the magical effects featured detailed illusionary figures doing quite suggestive things. The lads stopped for a while to gape at a hovering, animated portrait in lurid pinks of a topless woman sensually mouthing dirty talk at them.
The lads took their time wandering up and down the whole stretch of Bridgetown, enjoying the sights and the banter with the touts and women who worked to entice them. The atmosphere remained titillating, lively, and fun wherever they went. There certainly were dangerous and unsavory characters lurking around everywhere, but they were relaxed and simply keeping an eye on things. Their counterparts, the city guardsmen, were out in force too: patrolling in small squads that seemed to be enjoying the scene as much as everyone else.
“Okay, I want a beer,” Pinch said. “We should hit one of those streetside counter bars down on the west end of the bridge.”
“Yeah, good call,” Knuckle said.
Choke nodded agreement, having already decided himself that those establishments had seemed the ones least likely to bring unexpected expense or trouble.
The bar they chose was literally just that: a long bar with a series of stools right at the edge of the street with a ragged canvas awning overhead. It had a few customers drinking ale with a number of working women who were definitely of the lower order of their station. An ale was four copper, double the price of a country inn, but still quite cheap for Bridgetown. The lads tipped the lady bartender a copper each and settled in to nurse their drinks.
“Okay, so, five copper a drink! Could be worse. That means we can swing ten each. That’ll be fine to keep us going until dawn without getting pissed,” Pinch said.
Of course, the women at the bar soon started with them, trying to get them to buy them drinks to pour out on the ground when they were not looking. The women teased and cajoled and then got rather nasty when the lads continued to refuse them.
“Fuckin deadbeat shitkickers! Just come to looky-loo, huh? Aint good for nothin!”
“We have come to have a drink, is all. And that is all,” Choke answered levelly.
“Yeah, fuck you, ye jink!”
“No. Thank you kindly for the offer, miss. But, no,” Choke finished.
The lads took their time finishing their drink and then went for a couple more walking circuits of the crawl. Then they stopped in a similar streetside joint for another beer after which they took another stroll. This time they stopped to eat some dubious meat on sticks from a cart vendor. Just then it seemed the perfect treat.
Standing there eating in their relaxed manner, the lads had become part of the scenery. Choke and Knuckle in their chainmail with their swords were not at all out of place; many of the punters were men-at-arms. The people working the street had long since pegged the lads for what they were and mostly let them be.
Another leisurely roadside beer and stroll and the boys had made it halfway to dawn, feeling in their element. This time as they walked, they were joined by a pair of pretty young women. Unlike the other women around, these girls were dressed in respectable frocks and seemed like normal people.
“Well, hello there boys! How do ye do?” one of them said cheerfully.
The Pekot lads returned the greeting with the same polite dismissiveness they had been giving everyone that night.
“So, watcha doin now, boys?” the girl pressed.
Pinch fielded this one:
“Listen, ye seem like lovely young women, so no offense, but we don’t want any tonight, okay?”
The girls laughed, which was lovely. The one that had not yet spoken replied:
“Well that’s good, because we aren’t selling any! We just thought ye boys looked like fun. Were we wrong?”
“Oh, of course not! We are all kinds of fun!” Pinch answered.
“Good! So why don’t ye lads buy us a drink and show us?”
“To what end?” Choke interjected.
The girls frowned at him in unison. “What?”
“To what end should we buy you drinks?” Choke repeated.
This gave the girls pause.
“Well, I dunno,” the first one said. “Whose end are ye talking about? Yours or ours? Yours would be the pleasure of our company. Ours is: we want a fun drink after a long day of work, and I make it a policy never to pay for my own drinks if I can help it. And I do like my burly bumpkins. Which ye all are. In spades.”
“So this is all about your pleasure, is it?” Pinch asked her.
“Well, yes it is, Mister Man. Because, like I said, we aint selling nothing here. And so the natural order of things is set right between us. You are the burly bumpkin boys. We are the ladies. And at this stage of things yar job is to make us happy, not the other way around.”
“Yeah,” her friend interjected. “First ye make us happy, and then, if yar lucky, we make you happy.”
“But don’t get yar hopes up,” said the first with a winning smile. “I don’t think any of ye are that lucky. So how about that drink? We know a nice place that’s quite reasonable.”
“I am sure you do,” Choke said. “So, you mentioned work. What is it you two do?”
“We are maids and servers at the Regent Hotel on the eastside. There was a formal banquet that went very late tonight. So, does that satisfy ye, sir?”
“And why us?”
“Why not you? Like I said, I like my burly bumpkin boys. Yar rough in all the right places and sweet as honey in the others. I’m Olivia by the way. And what are we to call you boys?”
“I’m Knuckle,” Knuckle said as he bulled his way in to claim the hand that Olivia was offering to Choke.
“Charmed, I am sure. Knuckle. What a stupid name you have!”
“I’m Deloris,” said the other, presenting her hand to Choke.
Choke and Pinch introduced themselves as such. Olivia and Deloris accepted the introductions with manners that suggested a higher station of life than the other women they had been dealing with that day.
“So, there we have it. Strangers no longer. So why is it you boys have such stupid names?”
“We have proper Stronian names, sure. These are just our earned handles from the older lads we came up under in the orphanage,” Pinch said.
“Ah. I see,” Said Olivia. “Well, Knuckle is obvious. It suits ye. What’s with Pinch? That’s an odd handle.”
Pinch blushed. “It’s embarrassing. I went through this phase where I was stealing food from the kitchen and the cook would pinch me black and blue when he caught me at it. Pinches for pinching, he said. It’s stupid.”
“Most nicknames are,” Olivia shrugged. “And Choke? What is the story with that?”
With Choke only glowering at her, Pinch stepped in to fill the breach:
“Well, Strangler had too many syllables, I suppose.”
“Oh. Well then. Enough said. So how about that drink, Choke? It’s getting late, and we have sunk too much time into you to go and cultivate another prospect. You owe us at least one after all this hard work you’ve made us do!”
Choke scoffed, but soon relented even despite himself.
“Well, okay. But just one or two and that’s it. Our funds are limited and we’re not getting into any funny business.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t dream of leading ye astray, good Stronian boys that ye are!” Olivia laughed. Then she presented her arm to Choke for him to escort her.
“Okay, then. Lead the way, my dear,” Choke said as he gave her a slight bow and offered her his elbow, more than a little surprised at this sudden desire to charm her.
Deloris insinuated herself between Knuckle and Pinch both, and the five of them set off on the next phase of their night.
The bar the girls took them to was just a little better than a hole in the wall, but it was comfortable enough. It had a little bar and a small lounge comfortably lit by oil lamps on the walls and candles in wax-encrusted wine bottles on the tables. The only person there besides the bartender was a grubby patron at the bar. The bartender, a skinny, middle-aged man with horrendous teeth greeted the girls with a wide grin.
“Olivia! Deloris! It’s been too long, me wayward lasses! Where have ye been keeping yarselves?”
“I know, Leren. It has been too long. But we are here now, and that is what counts,” Olivia said.
“And it looks like ye’ve done very well for yarselves tonight. According to yar predilections, I mean,” Leren the bartended laughed.
“Well, I do like my burly bumpkin boys. I do that,” Olivia said, gesturing for Choke to seat her in the lounge.
“Okay, hold up just a second!” Knuckle said, unhitching his sheathed greatsword from its shoulder mount. “Before we get going here, how much are drinks?”
“All drinks four copper, sir. We have pints of beer, glasses of wine, and cups of gin. All four copper,” Leren said.
“Well, ye weren’t lying, babe. This place is reasonable! Four coppers a drink and indoors with real seats to boot! Sold!” Knuckle grinned as he propped his greatsword in a corner and plopped down in a chair in front of it, leaving Pinch and Choke to get the ladies seated properly.
When they were all seated, Leren brought over a tray of little plates that he had been preparing behind the counter. One for each of them: with half a pickled egg and a little chunk of cured ham. Olivia and Deloris ordered themselves wine and the lads each had a beer. When the drinks were served, they all shared an effusive toast. Then they settled into comfortable conversation.
Deloris was mostly silent and contented herself listening to Knuckle and Pinch prattle on, competing for her attention. At their end of things, Olivia renewed her focus on Choke. Fascinated by his Scythan race, she peppered him with questions about his upbringing and education. This was deeply unsettling for him. Choke had never thought he would be of interest to any woman, least of all one as pretty and charming as Olivia.
After about half an hour they ordered another round. The friendly banter continued, with Choke slowly becoming more comfortable with the notion that, somehow, Olivia was really into him. When they were almost finished their second drink, another patron came in and sat down at the bar. As he did, the grubby fellow who had been silently swilling gin immediately drained his cup and left.
The new patron was of normal height with a thin, lanky build. Nonetheless, he had the bearing and look of an experienced fighter. He was handsome, with a finely sculpted beard and a good haircut. He was wearing a mid-thigh-length black leather jacket over a blood-red linen shirt and black wool trousers. The clothes were all finely tailored. His black eelskin boots shimmered in the flickering lamp and candle light. His fingers glittered with rings.
The well-dressed man quietly ordered a beer and sipped it with his back to the lounge.
With their second round finished, Choke and the other lads could no longer ignore the call of nature. They went in turn down a short, narrow set of stone stairs at the back of the lounge to a landing with two small doors. The unlocked one was the bathroom, a tiny little room with an outhouse-like seat with a hole over a short drop to the flowing river beneath.
When Choke returned from taking his piss, the well-dressed patron had turned around on his barstool and was bantering with Knuckle and Pinch in a relaxed way.
“Pekot?” the man was saying. “Never heard of it.”
“It’s out near Dunlop way,” Pinch said.
“Oh, that would explain it. Well out in the sticks there, ye are. And all three of ye orphans?”
“Close enough, anyways,” Pinch answered.
“But taken in and trained up by the battle monks. That was a lucky turn for ye. What order was it, ye said?”
“Brothers of the Holy Stone.”
“Never heard of them. But then I don’t run in them circles. I’m Terrence, by the way.”
Pinch, Knuckle, and Choke all introduced themselves as such. Terrence nodded politely to each of them in turn without making any move to stand up and offer his hand.
“So, what brings ye to Strana? Ye boys looking for work?” Terrence asked them.
“No, we were just dropping a mate off to a barge. Tomorrow we’ll be heading back,” Pinch answered.
“Something like that,” Choke cut in.
Terrence’s manner was friendly and relaxed enough, but there was something about him that Choke did not like. Leren the bartender was puttering about as normal, and Deloris and Olivia were sitting quietly with smiles, but they were all very tense. It took Choke just a few seconds of observing the scene to realize that all three of them were profoundly frightened of this man.
“So, Choke, yar a Scythan, huh?” Terrence said.
“Originally. Now I guess I don’t know what I am.”
Terrence chuckled at this. “Yeah, I guess not. But there’s nothing wrong with being an original. And ye keep working on this hard look of yars and ye’ll be able to cure constipation just by skipping a blink or two. All three of ye, ye look right scary, if ye don’t mind me saying. A proper handful.”
“Yeah. Okay,” Knuckle finally said after an awkward pause.
Terrence continued to stare at the lads with an amused gleam in his eye, taking some private amusement from knowing something they did not. Then he seemed to come to the decision to let them in on the joke.
“So, yar down from the country to see yar friend off. One night in Strana! Have a night on the town and see the sights! Have ye had a good time?”
“Oh, definitely, sir,” Pinch said, the first of the three to crack and show that he was deeply intimidated.
“That’s good. It’s good ye’ve had a nice time. Looking back, it’ll make this easier to take,” Terrence smiled malevolently.
“What? It’ll make what easier to take?” Knuckle said with a growl, his hand dropping to the head of his footman’s pick on his belt.
“This,” Terrence waved his hand around the bar. “This scam ye’ve gotten yarselves caught up in.”
Knuckle blinked like an oaf, looking between Leren and the girls with ever-deepening confusion. Pinch was frozen like a rabbit, poised on the razor’s edge of fight or flight. Choke closed his eyes and sighed deeply before asking Terrence:
“Yeah. And don’t get me wrong, it sure aint the worst fuckin thing that could happen to a hick in the city. Not by a long stretch. Believe you me. But still unfortunate. Sure to leave a sour taste in yar mouth on yar long road home. Wherever the fuck ye said it was.”
“What’re ye fuckin talking about?” Knuckle yelled at Terrence, his confusion predictably beginning to roll over to anger.
Still leaning back against the bar, Terrence held both his palms up towards Knuckle with a friendly smile on his face.
“Okay, big man, don’t go getting yar parties confused here. That would turn an unfortunate situation for ye into a tragedy. Yar trouble is not with me. I am but a bystander in this. And I am unarmed.”
As Terrence finished saying this, he dropped his hands and drew a beautiful stiletto from his left sleeve. He scraped the blade over his neck with a smile before sliding it back home and picking up his beer.
“Unarmed? Ye just fuckin flashed a sleeve dagger at us man!” Knuckle barked.
“A dagger? No, I most certainly did not. I am an unarmed man. Your eyes must be playing tricks with you. My rings do glitter so, after all. And whatever ye wanna believe about what ye think ye saw, meditate on this: If I were to allow you to see something that I’ve got up my sleeve, what do you imagine that I might be holding back that ye don’t know about? That the likes of you could never anticipate.”
Terrence let them sit with that and come to understand, each in his own time, what they might be dealing with here. When Knuckle seemed to be almost there, Terrence continued:
“So. Knuckle. Follow the lead of yar two friends and settle down. Let’s not go turning this larceny into murder.”
Having basically understood what was happening almost immediately, Choke had to wait while Knuckle got his head around it. He spent this time watching Olivia, who was now staring at her hands clasped in her lap. Finally, she looked up and met Choke’s eye.
“I am sorry, Choke,” she said calmly.
“Was any of it real?” he asked.
Olivia nodded sadly. “Sure. We’re both hostesses on the eastside. And I really do like ye. This was fun. I enjoyed myself tonight.”
“But ye still lured us into whatever this is.”
“Yeah, I did. It’s a cold world, Choke, and I don’t wanna end up working this strip like most girls have to. So yeah, we played ye. And yar gonna pay the man what he wants, one way or another, and go back home the wiser for it. Terrence is right: there are much worse things that could have happened to you here. They still could. So watch yarselves. I’d hate to see ye get hurt. I do, after all, like my burly bumpkin boys.”
“Okay, so, if we’re all on the same fuckin wavelength now, maybe we can move this along, huh?” Terrence said. “I’ll walk ye through it and ye can make a properly informed decision about how ye wanna handle it.
“This guy,” Terrence pointed to Leren behind the bar, “is the one running this scam. Like I said: I aint got shit to do with it. So, Leren, tell the lads how much they owe ye. What’s their tab?”
“That would be five silver and forty copper. Or, five hundred and forty copper, if ye prefer,” Leren said with a terrible smile.
“What?” Knuckle shouted. “Ye said drinks were four copper here!”
“That they are. Two rounds for the five of ye is ten drinks. That’s the forty copper.”
“And the five silver?”
“That’s the seating charge and the plate of food, which ye all ate. One silver each,” Leren said.
“What? Ye never said a fuckin thing about that!” Knuckle shouted, standing up and stabbing his finger at Leren across the room.
“Well, of course he didn’t, Knuckle. Thus the scam. So, sit the fuck down and I’ll walk ye through this,” Terrence said, his manner never once shifting from friendly.
Once Knuckle sat back down, Terrence continued:
“Your situation is this: you owe Leren here five hundred and forty copper. And being goons aint gonna help ye a bit. No one here is gonna fight ye for it. If ye were just a normal rube, Leren would bring in some muscle with a crossbow and lean on ye. But you aren’t normal, and this is a business. You owe them money. He’s gonna call the guard.”
“The guard? When you’re the one ripping us off?” Choke said.
“Yeah. And who do you think they’re gonna side with? Who you got in yar pocket in this town? Nobody. This is a fuckin local business. In Bridgetown. The whole place is a fuckin scam, and people like you are the grease for the machine.”
Warming up into his speech now, Terrence’s bearing shifted. There was no longer any pretense at friendliness, only terrible potential; like a tightly coiled steel spring poised to be triggered to some dreadful purpose.
“So this is it. You owe. And ye can fight, sure. Try to bully yar way out of it. But then yar gonna be committing assault, or even murder, over a refusal to pay a legitimate debt to a local business. And you don’t seem the type for that.”
“We can’t pay it. We don’t have the money,” said Choke.
“I don’t think Leren gives a fuck. D’ye give a fuck, Leren? No. See? He doesn’t give a fuck. And the guardsmen outside aint gonna give a fuck neither. Any of your swords, or chainmail, will more than cover it, I’m sure,” Terrence finished.
“Yeah, fuck you, guy,” Knuckle snapped. “Fuck that! What if we just walk the fuck outta here and keep going? Who’s gonna stop us then?”
“I’m guessing the guardsmen outside, is what,” Terrence answered calmly.
“Guardsmen outside?” Knuckle parroted.
“I see yar the deep thinker of this fuckin outfit. Yeah, the fuckin guardsmen. When I come in, where do you think Leren’s man went? The one at the bar. Leren signaled him and he went to get the muscle,” Terrence said.
“Okay, then. So we owe. And we have to pay. I understand this,” Choke said. “But what I don’t understand, sir, is your part in all this.”
“Me? I am just a concerned local business leader who has an interest in preserving the peace and harmony of his community,” Terrence said with a predatory smile.
“And you just happened to pop into this shithole tonight for a beer? Bullshit,” Choke said.
“No, of course not. Like I said: I am a businessman. I am here to do business. Excuse me, while I attend to some.”
Terrence turned away from Choke and addressed Leren:
“Leren, do you think it is true that these boys don’t have the coin to pay their tab?”
“I think that’s so, Terrence.”
“So that means ye gotta bring the guardsmen into it. They’re gonna rob these guys of everything they like the looks of, and then pay ye a pittance of the value,” Terrence said.
“Yeah. That’s usually the way of it.”
“So, I’ll tell ye what. How’s about I buy their debt off of ya. Five forty, was it? I’ll give ye five silver for it.”
“That sounds good to me, Terrence,” said Leren.
“Great! D’ye want coin now, or just take it off of this week’s collection?”
“I don’t need the coin. Ye can credit me,” Leren said.
“Okay. I’ll let Nick know so he doesn’t do something unfortunate when the purse is light.”
“I would appreciate that, Terrence. Thank ye.”
“I’m sure ye would!” Terrence laughed. Then he turned back to Choke and the lads. “Alright then, boys. So, it looks like ye owe me five hundred and forty copper. Pay up.”
“I told you we can’t. Do you want our swords?” Choke said murderously.
“Now, Choke, it is funny that ye should put it that way. In a matter of speaking: I do.”
“And if we refuse? Are ye gonna call in the guard on us?”
“The guard? No. I don’t fuck with the guard. Guys like Leren gotta use the guard. Debt collection is kinda my outfit’s thing. I’m set up for that. But let’s not get unpleasant here. There’s no need for it. Don’t think of this as extortion. This is a business oportunity for you lads. A chance to make some real coin. Because I have a proposition for ye, and it’s gonna pay a lot more than the five silver ye owe me now.”
Terrence took a long moment to let this sink in. Then he stood up.
“Put the beer on my tab, Leren. Boys, let’s leave Olivia and Deloris here so that they can get their share from Leren. Good work girls! I got my eye on you. We should work together sometime. Okay, boys, let’s go have a drink somewheres nice. My treat. Then we’ll talk some real business.”
With this, Terrence left the bar, trusting that the boys would follow him without doing anything stupid. He was right: they did.