An Atikan Interlude - Part II

This story was released on July 7, 2019. Let’s get into some intrigue about a young King Janus!

The Cistern Brewery

Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.
— Martin Luther

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“It is time that we speak frankly about them, Charles.”

“Well,” replied Brother Mountpence, “I do not feel like that is the case, Your Grace. I told you how touchy they can be. Especially when it comes to discussing our benefactors.”

“Remind me who the King in this exchange is again, please?”

Charles Mountpence adjusted the blue cloth sleeves of his habit and inclined his head in respect to his monarch. Janus, the impetuous young upstart who had just been crowned, was not exactly the man his father had been. Poor breeding, no doubt. His mother was some bumpkin pupped in the shadow of the Spears, an uncouth country noble named Petunia, of all things. Still, Brother Mountpence had plans – grand plans, at that – and in order to succeed in those plans, he needed to be appreciated by the King for his obsequiousness.

“What would you like to know, Your Grace?”

“Well, for one, why in the name of the Christ-man is your beer so good?” The King gestured to the great room before the pair. They were standing at the mouth of the Cistern Brewery, one of the most beloved places in Isha for anyone with a belly and a taste for beer. Beyond the enormous doors bubbled massive iron cauldrons under which bonfires had been lit. Tending the flames were men dressed like Charles – blue robes with an orange ring surrounding a white droplet painted on the chest. Great gouts of steam were billowing out of the cauldrons, bringing with them the smell of sweet wort and fragrant hops.

“Perhaps Your Grace would not take the name of our Lord in v- pardon me, Your Grace. I forgot myself for a moment there.” Brother Mountpence inclined his head in mock humility once more. “You must forgive me, Sire. It has only been days since the Coronation and I keep falling back into my old habits as your Tutor.”

“Think nothing of it, Charles,” replied the King good-naturedly. “It is the Red Tradition, is it not? They have enchanted it?”

Offering a pained look, Brother Mountpence motioned for quiet and led the King into a sheltered alcove beneath a wooden stair just inside the doors. It was a place where they would neither be heard nor disturbed.

“Yes, Your Grace. You surmised correctly. The beer is enchanted. They give us a draught to add to the beverage. One of great addictive power. It does make the beer taste quite lovely indeed.”

“Ale is donkey piss next to wine, enchantment or not.” Janus looked to the Brother for some negative reaction to the pert words spoken against his product, but he was disappointed to find none. “So, what is the purpose?” Janus asked, running his finger along the gold-trimmed belt that kept his fine purple velvet pants aloft. He was having trouble getting used to the foppish dress expected of the King of Thrairn. He preferred the old way, when he actually had a say in what he was to wear each day. Now it was Manservants and Maids dictating chamber habits, every single one of them a potential spy for the Red Tradition. A formerly free Prince, he was now an enslaved King. A slave, with masters whose powers went beyond anything the King could imagine. He had decided that he would learn all he could about the means of that enslavement. “Well?” he added, expectantly.

“You must understand, Your Grace,” replied Brother Mountpence, “I am not a Red Mage. I do not know all of the answers.”

“Ah, piss off, Mountpence!” said the King, laughing. “I saw how familiar you were with that one who came by when the Inner Council was convened. Marius, I think? He is a v… v…”

“Vizier, Your Grace.”

“Yes, a Vizier. He runs the Tradition! You are telling me you are so close with a man like that and are not completely informed about what is going on?”

“You are more astute than you seem sometimes, Your Grace.”

“I know you are a bit of an arrogant bastard, Mountpence, but you mean well by the Kingdom, so I will ignore the implications of that comment. I am your King. See that you do not make a mistake like that again.I shall see to it that you regret it.”

Brother Mountpence looked upon the King again, his eyes widening slightly. He was quite used to treating the King as an inferior, given the boy’s age – fourteen – and the fact that the middle-aged Cistern Brother had been teaching him and noble boys like him for nearly a decade. The reality was that, even with the Red Tradition’s fetters on Thrain authority, the King could do things to him without need for the Mages’ approval. Things that would make his life miserable. A hanging was out – such a decision required approval of the Inner Council. But he could have Charles spend an afternoon in the stocks. Or order a whipping. Or, worst of all, he could withhold the Bishop’s mitre the ambitious creature so desperately craved. Sufficiently chastened,the Monk decided to give the boy whatever he desired.

“The Red Tradition relies on the Church of the Christ-man to supply it with belief. It needs belief to maintain some spell, as far as I understand it. A spell that keeps the world a bastion of Order. This spell means everything to the Mages – it is a bulwark against Chaos itself. Or, so I have been told.”

“You must understand, Your Grace,” whispered Brother Mountpence, “the Church of the Christ-man is not really about what it seems to be about. Certainly, there was a Christ-man. And certainly, he was a good and holy man. But he was indeed only a man and not a one of us in the Church would ever tell it differently. He gave us an outline, a way of understanding ourselves. The old Gods of Thrain, the Gods of Liseria and Erifracia, the strange divinities in Kashya and Atika – these are all abominations. They take power away from human beings and place it in ideas. What we do in the Church – we take power away from human beings and keep it in human beings. Albeit different human beings than those who gave it.”

“But how? How is power transferred?”

“It is as simple as believing something to be true, Your Grace. The Red Tradition’s magic does the rest. There is more power in the human mind than in a million bonfires,” Brother Mountpence said, gesturing to one of the fires beneath the brew cauldrons. “Most people live and die without ever becoming aware of this truth. But if they did, Your Grace… The spell that the Red Tradition has woven on this land is about control. Before the Tradition, even before the time of the mad Emperor Traximus, but especially then, magic was a part of reality, as plain as bread or fish is today. Gods and goddesses roamed the land, free to gather worshippers and power. It was a time of great wonder, but also a time of great darkness. A Mage in those times could just as easily suture a wound with his mind as he could make a man’s blood boil within his flesh. The Red Tradition rescued us from anarchy.”

“People need to believe in something, Your Grace,” finished Brother Mountpence. “It is as natural as breathing. We provide that outlet, and the Red Tradition uses that power to maintain control. A spell the like of which that they have cast upon Thrairn would never have been able to remain in place throughout the centuries without this unwitting Serf or that Baker or this Lord or Lady showing up for worship on Sun’s Day mornings.”

“Hmm,” said King Janus, folding his arms and looking out past the Brother. “Why the beer, then? Certainly there is nothing Godly about beer.”

“Indeed there is, Your Grace,” said Brother Mountpence, ensuring to keep humility in his tone. “Think about the less-than-devout Farmers and Farmhands, the Squires and Knights, the Cobblers, the whores and johns – the men and women who keep this Kingdom going every day of the year. Most of them do not come to Sun’s Day service. Religiosity is anathema to these people of the world. You would sooner find them sleeping off a drunken stupour from the night before with venereal fever preparing to strike. These heathens believe in the thrill of the weekend. Instead of a Saviour, they prefer the suds off the top off an ale. Instead of a Christ-man, it is a drunken romp in the hay with a stranger. They live lives without Piety, and yet they remain human beings. And, be they noble or commoner, be they conscious or unconscious of it, the human being wields the power.”

“Believe in a God or believe in a tankard, it does not matter to the Red Tradition,” continued Brother Mountpence. “What does matter is who has the best God or the best beer, the one most worthy of belief. There is a reason we burn those that seek to undermine our Faith – Heretics and dissenters – on the pyre, and why we make the Red Tradition’s ale the best. When people believe in what we offer, the strength of the spell – and consequently the Red Tradition – is cemented and fortified.”

“I know that we are at war with the Liserians and their strange customs are banned, but what of the Kashyans?” asked Janus. “Or the Erifracians? They have their own Gods that they bring with them – the elephant-headed man, the women with four arms and a thirst for blood, Yaruz, the djinn. And there are many more taverns in the city than White’s Public House. What of the pints of Bitter Rodrick, Stout Eric, Amber John, Blonde Bobert, and the rest of the brews flowing in all of the other alehouses?”

“You certainly have done your research, Sire,” said Brother Mountpence, inclining his head to his King. “I am impressed. Even the Tradition knows that too tight a grip on things cannot be sustained. People need the illusion of Liberty, however slight the truth of it might be. Anyone who tastes of Cistern Ale will be forever bound by its spell – the other beers cannot command even a fraction of the belief than a tipple ensorcelled with Ephestor’s Folly. The Church of the Christ-man commands most spiritual hearts in Thrairn, but if ever there was a concern for the ascension of another God in this realm, well… the Bishop is entrusted with the sacred Pogrom.”

The King nodded. And then, seeing something through the door behind the Bishop, he smiled and waved someone over.

“Robert! What brings you down to such a place on a sunny Odin’s Day morning? Trying to get a mug of your beloved ale straight from the source?”

Striding towards the pair with an exaggerated swagger came a boy who seemed a few years older than the King. Nearly a man, he was dressed in finery, though it was not nearly as ostentatious as that worn by Janus. He wore a long sleeved frilly white shirt, a leather jerkin, black hose, and black shoes with a silver buckle. He was handsome – more handsome than the boy King – though Janus secretly hoped that this fact would change as he grew into his own.

“A bit early for that, Janny – erm, I mean, Your Grace. Forgive me – I am still not used to the change.”

“Already forgotten, Robert,” replied Janus, beaming. “I was just having a very interesting conversation with Brother Mountpence about–”

“Your Grace,” interrupted Charles sharply, “You know that there are certain things which are not permitted to be shared.”

The King looked up at his former Teacher, seemed to consider his words for a moment, then he turned back to Robert.

“The Red Tradition, Robert,” said the King. “Certainly, you have heard of it.” Without looking at the Monk, Janus put his hand up to the man and said, “If you tell me to stop talking about ‘our benefactors’ I will have you put in the stocks for a fortnight, Mountpence, believe it.”

“Very well, Sire,” sighed Charles. “Perhaps a lesson in the cost of defiance will be educational.”

“Are you going to give me this lesson, Charlie old man?” laughed Janus shrilly. “An old soft cock like you? Though perhaps not all that soft, if the rumours about your late-night ministrations to the flock at the Cistern Orphanage are to be believed.”

Brother Mountpence reddened and looked down. He did not have many chinks in his armour, but the boy knew his greatest weakness and had no qualms about turning the dagger.

“Let me be clear, Monk: tell the Tradition anything about this conversation, and I will make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born,” added the King before turning back to his friend.

“As I was saying, Robert, let me tell you a story,” he began. “It concerns the great secret of Thrairn.”

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Brother Mountpence blew on the ink, folded the parchment, and carefully stuffed it into the envelope. Closing the letter, he looked over to the blue wax warming in the little tin boat suspended above the melted mess of a candle. Then he picked up the brass signet ring and glared at the little relief cut into the metal on its face. A ring surrounding a droplet, it was the unmistakable symbol of the Cistern Brotherhood. The image recalled the organization’s motto: ‘We hold the waters that sustain the Kingdom.’

What rot, mused the Monk, sitting back in the chair before his desk. The Cistern Brothers were nothing so grand. They were thralls to the Tradition, same as the Church, same as the Royal Family. At least the King and his ilk had some power, limited though it might be. As nothing more than a Monk, he was a Peon tasked with maintaining the secret structure of Thrairn. He would do as he was bid, no matter what the personal cost. What Janus could do to Charles paled in what was in store for him if the Red Praetorian caught a whiff of the breach.

Janus’ retribution would not doubt mean that the Bishop’s office would be forever out of his grasp. Less than a week after his former pupil’s Coronation, and he had already placed the Monk in an inescapable situation. All so he could tell the older boy, whom it was clear he loved to impress, about the ‘great secret of Thrairn.’

A child. A fucking child on the throne. The boy had wrecked his plans as if they were a stack of toys in his play room. Charles grit his teeth and glanced up from his ruminations. Sighting the filled tankard, he reached up and downed the ale in one go. He belched and let the pleasant synergy of booze and magic to course through his being, then Brother Mountpence picked up the boat and poured some of the melted wax onto the envelope. Waiting a moment for it to harden slightly, he then pressed the signet into cooling blue seal.

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“Viktor Pynn, at your service, Your Grace,” said the red-robed man, bowing exaggeratedly low. He stood before the King in his throne room, a dozen mute and visored White Guard standing next to him and lining the walls behind him. “Although, perhaps it is better explained the other way around? You, at my service?” The Mage straightened and tittered at his joke.

“I know what Mountpence has to say about you types,” said the King, gesturing to the blue-robed man standing to the King’s left. “I do not fear you, nor do I fear the Red Tradition.”

“Ah, yes,” said Viktor, smiling a crooked smile at the King. “I feel that perhaps then that it is education of a different type that you need. Ilya?”

At the red-robed man’s words, the closest White Guard walked forward, drew his mace, and swung it at the King’s face, stopping just before one of the vicious spikes set into its metal head pierced his eye.

“Whom do you – whom does the White Guard – serve?” asked Viktor, looking to the men standing around the throne room.

“The Red Tradition, Sire,” said a dozen gruff voices in unison.

“Ah, my Liege, it appears that you have had a bit of an accident,” said Viktor. He pointed to the King, his titter dropping a few octaves into a hearty guffaw. The boy was gripping thesides of his throne, his knuckles white. His purple hosen were darkened around the crotch. Some piss had soaked into the red upholstery near the front of his seat.

“I am the Red Praetorian,” said the Mage, clasping his hands behind his back and advancing on the King. The White Guard who had threatened the King stepped back to let him climb the three steps to the dais upon which the throne rested. “You have spent your early days living under an illusion, my Liege. You thought that your father, that jelly-minded buffoon, was the ruler of this land. He was no more than a gilded puppet. It is your lot to follow in his footsteps.” The Red Praetorian came to rest just inches from the throne. “Now, get off your fancy chair and down on your knees, boy.”

Terror had pushed out every single scrap of the arrogance that normally found its residence on the King’s countenance. He looked desperately to the visored men in battle gear for an ally. He found not a one – they all stood mutely, staring straight ahead. It was as if statues had replaced his corps of bodyguards. Not wanting to press the red-robed villain any further, King Janus Aquester complied with his demands.

The Red Praetorian, for his part, simply continued to smile as the piss-soaked lad trembled onto all fours. Viktor had made a special trip, just for this occasion. He had asked Ilya, his most trusted white cloak, for a favour in anticipation of his own arrival at court. He instructed the man to tell the Stablekeeper to refrain from mucking out the stables for a few days, at least until Viktor could come by and clomp through the filthy hay for a few minutes. All the while, he had relished the thought of what was to come next, here in the throne room. The grin nearly split the man’s freckled countenance. He raised his boot to the King’s face.

“Go on then,” said the Red Praetorian, his orange hair seeming to rise up of its own accord, wreathing his head in a puff. A faint buzzing noise and a heaviness pervaded the room, almost like the way the air feels before a lightning storm. “Have a lick, Your Grace.”

On the sole of the shoe, Janus could see a few strands of hay sticking out of a thick layer of horse dung. The patty was still wet, and the stench from that distance nauseating.

“I will not!”

With that, the heaviness fell out of the air and the buzzing ceased. The Red Praetorian’s hair fell limply back to his head and his smile evaporated.

“And here I thought this was going to be a quick lesson,” said the Mage, turning to one of the White Guards by the entrance to the throne room. “Bring the boy in.”

The white cloak complied, pulling open the massive brass handle set into ornately carved oak that was the door to the throne room of Castle Isha. Through the portal marched a pair of more white-cloaked men. They were dragging Robert Brace, the King’s best friend and the boy to whom the young Regent looked up with wide-eyed wonder. He had cast the sort of spell that older boys tend to unconsciously and involuntarily cast on the younger ones, belying their own competence at life. Robert always seemed like he knew what he was doing. It was only later that Janus would realize that the older of the two was as clueless about life as most people on the face of Clovir. But there, then, during Janus’ lesson on the power structure of his Kingdom, Robert was as a God to him.

A broken God. His face was bashed into a pulp, purple and swollen and bleeding. The older boy stumbled as he was pushed by his captors. His finery, a light blue velour jerkin over a black shirt, was stained dark brown with dried blood around the neck and chest. His arm left was twisted in a strange manner. He was barely conscious, his eyes half-shut. He fell to his hands and was given a kick in the arse.

“You fucking cunt!” screeched the King. He looked up at the Red Praetorian, hatred boiling over.

“That is the spirit, my Liege! Your anger is music to my ears – the best emotion, as every Red Mage worth his salt knows.” Viktor glanced from the King to the beaten teenager. “You should be proud of your friend, Janus! He took what was coming to him with Grace.” Then, becoming mock solemn, he turned back to face Janus. “You can save his life, you know.”

“What are you talking about? I am the King – you shall not kill him!”

“How you cling to your delusions, Your Grace!” The Red Praetorian tittered again. “I shall do as I please. You think these men are your Bodyguards?” He asked, gesturing to the white cloaks again. “They are my Soldiers. They do as I bid. As will you.” Viktor tented his fingers and cracked his knuckles before turning to face Robert again. “Are you going to save him or not? Defy me once more and his death will be on your conscience, not mine.”

The King considered the scene before him once more. The piss down his front, once as warm as he was, had begun to cool, sending a shiver through the boy’s body. The vulgarity of a Mage before him, the implacable White Guard who had betrayed him, his best friend near death – this was the complete opposite of what he had dreamed of not one week before. Before he was crowned, before life had gone from care-free and wonderful to whatever it was now.

He would submit. But he vowed to himself that he would never forget this.

The King closed his eyes and inclined his head. Before a moment elapsed, the smell of horseshite stung his nostrils once more. The King of Thrairn stuck out his tongue.

It was an eternity before the taste left him.

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“You must forgive my counter-part’s manner,” said Marius, Vizier of Divination, one of the three men that led the Red Tradition. “He tends to get a little overzealous at time, though make no mistake: we do not apologize for what occurred.”

They had agreed to meet on neutral territory, with Brother Mountpence acting as the intermediary. The location chosen was the place where the entire ordeal had started, where King Janus had decided to ignore the Monk’s warnings about speaking about the Red Tradition with outsiders. They stood in the Cistern Brewery, though not again in the massive room with boiling cauldrons and Monks shouting commands to one another. Instead, they had found some space in the fermentation chamber, where enormous barrels called foedors, filled to the brim with Cistern Ale, were stacked against the wall. Within, the beer was maturing into the tipple that would soon be placed into kegs and sent off to White’s Public House, though not without receiving a ‘special’ treatment courtesy of the Red Tradition. A not-unpleasant aroma reminiscent of sulfur and hay, the bouquet of fermentation, permeated the chamber.

“You must understand – we cannot allow the people of this realm know who and what we are. The spell that keeps Chaos at bay, the enchantment that keeps Order in this land, depends wholly upon secrecy. If people knew of the true state of affairs, Chaos would likely regain a foothold. And once it found that, Kronos, Lord of Chaos, would enthrall the weaker among your people. He would use them to emancipate himself and the world would end in fire and blood.”

The King simply nodded curtly. He had experienced a humiliation beyond imagining at the hands of Viktor Pynn, that mincing piece of shite. He had imagined his revenge so many times by the point of the meeting with Marius that it had become difficult to focus on aught else.

“But we are not completely without mercy, Your Grace,” continued Marius. “Allow me to explain. Your friend cannot be permitted to live in Thrain society as a noble. He knows too much. You – it was always necessary that the King of Thrairn know the truth, for obvious reasons. Your Inner Council – our voice in Thrairn – they must know. The Commanders in your Coloured Orders, they are permitted the secret as well. As is the White Guard, as you might imagine. And the Cistern Monks.”

“Sometimes I joke with my counterparts about the size of this conspiracy,” Marius continued, taking a seat on one of the upright ale barrels that had been placed in the corner for that purpose, “that it is unbelievable that it could ever hold. But then again, we have men like Viktor - they are a necessity. The Red Praetorian, Keeper of the Law. There are few who would even dream of crossing him, after having met him.”

Brother Mountpence watched impassively as Marius delivered his speech to Janus. The King had begged the Monk to intervene on his behalf. Marius was an old friend of the family’s – his father’s friend. And before the current Lord Mountpence, he was his grandfather’s associate. And even before that, it was whispered. And yet, with black hair, an unlined face. He looked barely more than 25. Charles believed utterly in the rumours: Marius was a Necromancer. There was no other way of explaining his continued youthfulness. But whatever dark magic in which he engaged, he still seemed to have a soft spot for the Mountpence clan. Knowing how nihilistic the Mage was otherwise, there was almost certainly a story behind this fondness. But it was immaterial – what was material was that Marius had agreed to help him. He smiled as Marius approached the key moment.

“You have two options before you, Your Grace: we can erase young Master Brace’s memories and forbid you from ever discussing the Red Tradition or true magic with him again. I know he is your closest confidant, so this might not be a preferred course of action for you. The other option is that we can bring him into the fold. He has no real natural talent with magic, but, based on his performance at the Thrain Collegiate, he does seem to be quite the academic. I suspect him to be quite the apt Pupil.”

Marius glanced at Brother Mountpence and gave him a smile. “There is a price for option two, however. Owing to some niceties of the operation of magic in this land, the Red Tradition cannot order you to make decisions regarding the clergy. We depend on the belief of the masses, but their belief must be untainted. They must at least have some semblance of agency with regards to dedication of their Faith in the Church of the Christ-man. Beer as well, but we have managed to bend the rules somewhat with Ephestor’s Folly. You, the King, as a somewhat independent party, may make decisions regarding who leads the Church. The Bishop is your man to select.”

King Janus looked from Marius to Charles Mountpence. “I suppose you want me to choose this craven creature to be Bishop. I would sooner lick shite from your rabid dog’s boot again, Mage.”

Charles’ eyes nearly popped out of his skull as he fought to control his reaction. Marius waved him down.

“Your Grace, consider this very carefully. As Bishop, you and Charles would barely have dealings with one another, except at a handful of ceremonies throughout the year. Mostly show for the devout. The alliance of Church and State in this realm is sacrosanct, after all. But other than that, you will be free. Free enough, anyway. You must follow the Inner Council in all things, of course, but the Red Tradition is not exactly next door to you. Our Keep is days away, near the Crooked Spears. Once I leave here, for all intents and purposes, we will become mostly invisible to you.” Marius paused and gave the King a warning look. “Unless a problem arises again.”

“So,” said the King, leaning against a foedor. “You have something I want, and I have something that you do. If I agree, if Robert goes on to become a Red Mage, how would that be any different than not being able to talk to him about the true nature of power here? He would be at this Keep of yours – days away, as you say. I would never see him.”

“He would have to go to the Red Keep for study,” replied Marius, “that much is true. It would be several years before you saw him again. But I would have him posted here in the City, at your side as an Emissary if you would like. The position does not exist now, but we could create it for you.

“As I said, the Red Tradition does not consist entirely of men like Viktor,” finished the Mage. “We would prefer to have a… if not a warm one, then a working relationship with the Crown. Agree to my terms and follow the rules and you will never ever have to even dream of something like what happened yesterday again.”

“I suspect that I will be dreaming about it for some time to come, Mage,” said Janus icily. “You speak of Order, and you keep around monsters like that.” He paused. “Fine, I agree. I would like to see Robert once more before he goes, however.”

“Excellent!” said Marius, standing and absently brushing the seat of his robe. “Make no mistake, though, Janus: Viktor is a better representation of Order than any of the three of us in this room. Order is control, and I have yet to meet a man or a Mage that he has not been able to bend and snap like a twig. Pissing your pants like that: there is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Brother Mountpence silently thanked his old friend for two things: the Bishop’s mitre, as promised, and that final dig at this little shite of a King. He snatched up three tankards and began filling them from the tap on the side of one of the smaller barrels on the wall.

“Let us share a drink then, eh?”