The sweaty mess of congested and dull looking buildings squatted next to each other like little trolls by the river. With no bridge to hide beneath they got wetter and darker from the falling rain. Fat, heavy drops were not enough to wipe the grime from their bodies and Ace and Spade looked at each other warily, both concerned about going further.
“We don’t have a choice, Spade,” Ace argued, his stomach rumbling loudly in tandem with the thunder. The protruding mound of his belly stretched his ceremonial robes almost the point of comedy. He hadn’t ate a good meal since he had left the City of Three and it was beginning to put an edge on his usually jovial manner. “Torrdunaigh wouldn’t let us in, remember? Worried about spies, see?”
“Of course I remember, idiot!” Spade snapped but instantly regretted it. He hated being so harsh with his rotund friend. He had “thin-guilt” for as much as Ace ate, so too did Spade, yet he was two feet taller and seven times as thin. “I wish this war would hurry up and end. Civil war, eh? Nothing civil ‘bout it.”
He had been dismayed to be turned away from Torrdunaigh. Ace and Spade were not rich men and couldn’t afford the Toll fee to get a ship directly to the wide, sprawling docks that housed a thousand ships directly next to the continents capital. He had thought as men of the robes, or so they appeared, that they would gain access unfettered. He had even been concerned that the imposing Janus Dome would be too much for him to deal with and he would have had to have left of his own volition. They were both already weary after walking down the coast all the way from Bor Bay, the closest destination they could afford, and the ferry hadn’t been exactly pleasant.
“Come on now, need to get out this rain,” Ace said, his stomach rumbling again. It wasn’t that he missed the Order of Aurora and his kinsmen in the Kindred of the Sacred; it was more that he missed the feasts. The long tables laden with pigeon stuffed with cranberry, honey treated lettuce, lemon branches dipped in chocolate and large Fluttahburrah wings dipped in sweet and spicy sauces were what had attracted him to religion in the first place. But things were differnet now. It was no secret that the Kindred of the Sacred were openly opposed to the Kindred of the Royals and were supporting Herthallin and his allies against the Queen. If they had had a few more coppers they would have purchased new clothes and maybe not set off so many alarm bells. Spies were real threats and wearing the colors of the enemy was not a clever move. But Ace and Spade were not clever men.
Walking into the pub they were instantly gratified by the wave of heat that welcomed them. The humid combination of roaring fires and bodies so packed together you could smell each others breath was better than a dripping nose and a wet arse. The clientele, Spade noticed, were as fearsome as the stories told. Everyone knew that Blackbrack Town was a Highwayman’s stronghold. The North Strong Road that linked Torrdunaigh to the Second City was riddled with robbers, bandits and thieves, south of the Links of the Light Towers. Only the fearsome Dons that lived in the North had kept their section of the rode properly policed. Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizarine had been long absent from any true responsibilities of government. Only no that the Sahrail was changing the world a cloud at a time had she truly embraced her role. But her eyes were trained south, to the continent and her navies, not along the only road that bound her island together.
Hostile stares and sarcastic wolf whistles ushered the two men closer to the bar.
“What can I get you lads?” the crusty woman with one arm and no hair asked while looking the strangers up and down.
“Do you do Fluttahburrah wings?” Ace asked, his stomach rumbling once again.
“Do we look like a restaurant in Tollton?” she laughed, while looking at Ace like he was some shit covered pig, escaped in through a door that shouldn’t have been left open. “We have ale and bread, you want something fancier then I suggest ‘ye bugger off somewhere else.” The bar erupted in roaring laughter at the barmaids joke and she pottered off towards the dirty looking tap that the beer came out from.
Finding a table by the window, Ace and Spade sat down and picked the mould from their bread.
“Better than the rain, eh Ace?” Spade tried to joke. Ace looked ready to cry at the measly morsel he was about to have as a “meal”. “Perk up. We’re free men now! No one will be looking for us here.”
“Something to hide boys?” a stern looking man with a metal star on his chest turned from his compatriot and placed his hand on the table. “This isn’t a place to be hiding from the law now.”
“We… erm… we don’t want any trouble now,” Spade said while looking to Ace for support. Half eaten bread hung limply form his mouth as his sad eyes looked at the situation without much interest.
“No trouble,” he spat half heartedly, spraying the man with crumbs of saliva sodden bread.
“How would you boys feel like doing a job for me? Grant yourselves some absolution for helping a stranger out,” his voice was deep but cajoling. Absolution was absolutely the correct word to use for Ace and Spade. The Kindred of the Sacred was all about absolution and confession and bowing before the idols. “Give you some coin for your trouble too. Buy yourselves some real nice meet and fish, fresh from Lake Wilfene.”
“Lake Wilfene? That’s … that’s almost two hundred miles from here!” Spade said.
“You better get going then! Got a package for you both to deliver to my friend up in Tollton,” the way he spoke made it seem like they had already agreed.
“But there’s highwaymen along that road! We might be injured … or worse,” Spade said.
“There’s highwaymen in here too and I don’t like it when my new friends don’t do as their asked.” Ace felt hopeful at the thought of a few coins and all the hearty meals he could buy, the guilt at breaking the law overpowered by his desire to start a new life. Spade felt more cautious, more intimidated and most of all, more eager to live outside the law. What had following the rules ever done for him?
So with the rain slanting into their face with the wind trying desperately to blow them back towards Torrdunaigh, Ace and Spade began walking the North Strong Road to Guinevere Bridge and Tollton. Ace carried they heavy and clanking bag that had to be delivered with the threat of the highwaymen ringing in his ears.
“Don’t be looking in that package now. I’ll know if you looked and I’ll take your peepers for nosying.”