“Happy Solstice, Your Majesty.”
The man who spoke wore clothes that might be described generously as less than festive. His neatly trimmed beard, wire-framed glasses, and perfectly tailored, yet bland coat made one wonder if he knew what a celebration was at all.
“The earth travels once more around the sun tilting this hemisphere to a point where our days are shorter, and while the science of it is all very fascinating, I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate,” the King said, looking up from his book. The city below him was taking the occasion of this shortened day to celebrate, and while it was tradition, it was not one he favored. Rather it was something left over from another age and another time. For hundreds of years they had understood the astronomy, and there was no mystery left on which to build their ancient festivities. But still, he allowed it as a gesture of goodwill, understanding that men and women needed the occasional night to drink and relax in order to continue functioning at maximum capacity.
“Of course,” came the reply.
“Was there something you wished to share with me, Ren?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. We’ve had a message from the Engineer. It appears that the new bridge will be finished just before the new year along with the dock reconstruction. Everything appears to be moving along according to plan.”
“Well, that is the point of a plan, is it not? To move along, in the correct order, and on time?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. Of course. Foolish of me to mention it.”
The King leaned back and looked out over the city below him, dismissing his assistant with a flick of his fingers. Towers were rising quicker than he ever imagined, and the city was alive and moving in ways it never had before. Scaffolding covered a third of the buildings, the harbor was in a constant state of improvement, and the rivers were finally free of sewage. The bridge was as massive and glorious as he had been promised, and it would be spoken of around the world for decades to come. Even amid the revelry, the city was growing, and as it did, it was growing better: safer, stronger, and more efficient. As he stared out at his life’s work he even managed to feel some of the gratitude that was typically prescribed by those of a religious nature this time of year.
Yes, his city was getting better every day. The Project was working and his name would be forever remembered. And once it was done here, once the Capital was a shiny tribute to a new world, it would spread to the far ends of the earth. Poverty, hunger, and war would vanish in an age, and they would triumph. Even as the cold winds blew through his open window, bringing in the smell of the sea, he knew it was true. Everything was getting better, and there was nothing that could stop him.
And yet, when he turned to look north at the snow-topped peaks of the Great Mountains, he felt that tickle at the back of his mind that had been bothering him more and more these days. He knew that many people and places were resistant to change, but there was one city nestled against those ancient peaks that plagued him more than the rest. He knew the Engineer had her own reasons for wanting its destruction, as did His Holiness. And yet he had left it alone for so long, most often reasoning that the economic repercussions of any attempt at change would be more detrimental than they would be useful.
And yet, what if there was a way to do both? What if there was a way to bring that backward town to its knees while filling the royal coffers instead of the other way around? What might it mean for the Project if he could kill two birds with one stone? Turning back to the room, he pulled the thin cord that hung by his desk, sounding a bell in the antechamber. Just a few seconds later, Ren returned with a questioning look to find the king smiling oddly in the dim light of the flickering gas lamps.
“Ren, send me the Engineer.”
“But your Majesty, it’s nearly two in the morning. I’m sure she’s sleeping at the moment.”
“I’m sure she is.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” the servant said, backing out of the room and closing the door behind him. The king turned once more to look out the window, his newfound smile never once leaving his face. This might work out after all.
It was snowing when Maggie woke Tedrow.
“It’s time,” she whispered as she shook him. “Everyone is asleep and I can smell it from here.”
His eyes shot open and he was out of bed as quickly and quietly as a cat. He pulled on a thick wool cloak and slipped his cold feet into fur lined boots. His sister lifted the hood up over his face and then did the same with her own. She opened the door, making sure to look carefully before waving him out into the hallway with one finger. Together they stood at the top of the stairs listening to the sounds below. Tedrow thought he could hear the snow falling outside, but that was ridiculous. Snow only made the sound of silence.
Maggie listened for the sound of talking. It was nearly three in the morning, but even late at night some of the girls were often awake, gossiping about their customers or complaining about the day’s work. Tedrow sometimes listened when he couldn’t sleep, and while he rarely understood, their chatter was most often comforting. That night it was silent, and they crept down the stairs, through the sitting room, into the kitchen, and then finally out the back door of the massive inn. The cold white drifts crunched under their heavy boots as they stood in the falling snow looking up into the cloudy night sky.
The smell of beer was overwhelming. Tedrow wrinkled his nose while Maggie opened her mouth as if she could breathe it all in at once. Is there anything in the world that smells better? The snowflakes were giant and so thick they covered everything in sight, piling high on rafters, barrels, and old stone walls until there was nothing that wasn’t painted white by their gentle falling. The twins made their way around the stable and down the pathway to the back door of the Brewery. Maggie slipped her knife into the lock, clicked it open, and then slid into the room where the fermenters had finally stopped bubbling.
Tedrow turned to her with a frown.
“Are you sure it’s ready?” he asked, his nose still wrinkled in concern and doubt.
“Of course it is,” she replied. “Can’t you tell? Did you bring your cup?”
He shook his head, but Maggie pulled a large wooden mug out from under her cloak and smiled. When she turned the spigot on one of the hundreds of kegs, the beer frothed and gurgled as it filled her cup. She closed her eyes, raised it to her lips, and took a long deep drink before handing it to her brother. He looked at it with a raised eyebrow, but he drank as well before handing it back.
“Let’s have more!” he shouted, the worry leaving his eye in an instant.
She nodded as she turned the tap once again. She could feel the warmth in her legs slowly rising up her body, and before she knew it was she trying not to giggle as the beer sloshed onto the hard-packed floor.
“I could drink this forever!” she sang as she spun slowly around in the warm dark room. By the time she filled their mug for the third time, Tedrow was sure the snow was jingling with the sound of bells. He closed his eyes as the room began to spin, and for a moment all they heard was their own laughter.
Winter in Beertown means the winds are cold and the beds are warm. Wood comes down from the mountains all autumn long until it’s piled so high you can walk from stack to stack without ever stepping foot on the ground. The brewery and malt house run year round, and the fires and furnaces can be seen as far south as Rivertown when they light up the cold night skies in brilliant hues of gold and red. The inns stay full, the music is loud, and the people feast on the two things the town is best known for: beer and pleasure.
Nestled into the stone face of the mountain, the Brewery is where a castle would be if there was anything there to defend. Its low walls and tall chimneys are made of red brick brought from the south, and all winter long you can smell the ale brewing. The inn that connects to the brewhouse is warm and welcoming, and it houses the finest women in the north. If you’re looking for comfort, good drink, and hot food, then the Beertown Brothel is the place to be.
For over five hundred years Beertown had prospered, both as a center of commerce and as the largest producer of beer in the world. The river flows from the mountains, through the town, and then down into the Southlands and finally the ocean. Barges bring beer to the big cities on the sea and produce and fine goods up to Beertown. The grain is shipped up from the plains four times a year on barges so large they nearly span the river, and the entire town comes out to watch as it’s unloaded onto huge wagons and carried up the hill to the malthouse. Children run alongside the large draft horses, and once the grains have been delivered, the workers are allowed a respite in the Brothel free of charge until the sun comes up the next morning.
The tree-lined streets wind down the hill from the brewery in long, slow, meandering rows, and the houses are tightly packed from the mountains to the river. The waterfront is lined with taverns and weigh stations, trade houses and artisan shops, and the endless cafes that sit on the banks are full of old men and women no longer interested in the other delights of town. Gas lamps are lit at night, brightening the winding roads and the riverfront all the same, and music and laughter can be heard until the early morning hours.
There are no slums in Beertown, and there have never been. Since the first inn was built fifteen generations ago, every person has been put to work in one way or another. The town’s reputation grew so quickly that there was always money to be made assuming a person had any inclination at all, but the houses and businesses were technically all the property of the Brewer family. They built the docks and the first homes. They loaned money for the start of every business, and for generations, they were woven so deeply into the fabric of town that they were stronger than any Duke or King could be.
Beertown was Brewertown, and everyone knew it.
On the fourth day of the eleventh month, when Brendan was head brewer, he walked into the conditioning room to find his children passed out on the cold hard floor. He smiled warmly as he shook his head before leaning down and picking them both up at the same time. The twins had turned ten just weeks before, but this was the first time they had gotten into the beer. It was clear from the empty mug and the dripping spigot that one of them had tapped a keg of the Winter Ale, and between the two of them had drunk enough of it to sleep long and deep. Brendan carried them out through the snow, in the back door of the inn, up the steps, and into their room where he placed them back in their respective beds.
It was only when Maggie opened her eyes that his smile faded.
“Pappa, I want some more,” she whispered before falling soundly back to sleep. Tedrow on the other hand showed no sign of waking. His father pulled up the cover, kissed him on the forehead, and closed the door behind him.
Something was not right.
It’s nothing, he thought, as he shook his head and walked down the hallway to his own quarters. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something important had happened, but each time an idea came to him he shook it off as imagination. The twins were ten years old, it was far too early to be looking for signs of anything.
His wife sat at her desk by the window looking back and forth between the falling snow and her steaming mug of coffee. The hot drink was an expensive commodity, but one that Charlotte wouldn’t live without. In front of her lay her papers, detailed accounts of the inn and brothel, that she kept in meticulous order. While her Knack was small, it was incredibly useful. Charlotte could organize a room full of kittens without blinking an eye, and her skill came in handy more and more each day.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when he walked in.
“I didn’t say anything was wrong,” Brendan grumbled.
“You didn’t have to, dear. I can tell by the way you walk. I can tell by your sigh and the way you hold your hands. Plus, you’ve been outside. So, what is wrong today?”
“I found the twins in the brewery, passed out after drinking the Winter Ale.”
“Well good. It’s about time Tedrow started showing some interest in beer. If he’s ever going to be as brilliant as his father, he needs to get to learning.”
“Tedrow isn’t the one I’m worried about, and if he’s no better than I am, we’ll all be in trouble.”
“Don’t be silly,” Charlotte said. “You’re the Brewmaster and everyone knows it. But what are you truly worried about?”
Brendan let out a deep sigh as he picked up his wife’s coffee and stole a sip. He slouched down into the chair next to her and propped his feet up on a bench, kicking his wet boots off in the process. The room was warm and his large frame fit easily into the overstuffed chair. All of the furniture was more than a hundred years old, but the Brewers were famous for comfort along with everything else, and there was nothing in the Inn or the Brothel that was even slightly severe. Broken things had to go, and while austerity might be fine for some, it has little use in Beertown.
“Maggie woke up briefly as I was putting her to bed, and she had that look. It was just how I was after the first time I broke into the brewery on my own. She opened her eyes and stared right at me. She said that she wanted more.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing. Tedrow probably drank most of it anyway.”
“She should have been too hungover to talk! They must have drunk enough beer to put down a horse, and there she was sleeping happily and murmuring about more ale. The mug was in her hand. And she had been dancing, Charlotte, I could see their steps in the snow. It’s not right.”
“They’re just children dear, and besides, maybe it’s just her Knack appearing early. So what if she can drink? I’m sure things will change.”
“If anyone is going to have that Knack, I’d prefer it be Tedrow, but maybe you’re right. Why is it we don’t get a choice in these matters because I surely wouldn’t have chosen my beautiful talent if there were other options.”
“Brendan, your Knack is as strong as anyone’s, and for your position, it’s incredibly helpful. Imagine if talking to crowds frightened you instead? You’d never get through a single festival, let alone manage the men and women who work for you. We don’t get to choose our gifts, but that’s how it is. Imagine being in the south where their Knacks have all but vanished?”
“Of course, dear. Sometimes I just wonder what it would be like if any of these Knacks had any real strength left to them. If the best we do is just a little bit better, then what does it matter?”
“Just be grateful we have any Knacks at all, and stop doubting so much. Our children are kind and smart, and what else would you expect? They do take after us, don’t they?”
Brendan laughed at his wife’s constant good humor, but the worry never left his mind. His children would be the future of Beertown no matter what anyone wished, and all he wanted was for one of them to have more of a Knack than he did. Was it too much to ask that they be wiser, smarter, and hopefully more skilled than their father?
For more than ten generations the brewery had been passed down from father to son while the Brothel either went to a daughter or wife depending on their inclination. Yes, there was a time nearly a hundred years ago when a single daughter was born, and yet she married a man who took their name and business. He was rumored to be a distant cousin, but it didn’t matter. The Brewery became world-renowned under his care, and the Brothel never had such good years. The Brewer family was Beertown, and while the twins were a blessing, it didn’t make him worry any less.
Charlotte tried to ease his worry by reminding him of the Winter Festival, and that his obligations lay elsewhere, but still he was troubled. No matter what their children’s inclinations were, in time Tedrow would take over the brewery and Maggie the brothel.
Brendan was still grumbling to himself when Toby entered the room to go over the final details of the feast. The entire town would come up to the Brewery that night, and those who couldn’t fit in the giant hall would line the streets and fill the surrounding pubs. Keg after keg would be rolled down from the conditioning room, and the beer would flow thicker than the icy river. Each year the Brewmaster made something special for the festival night, and it could only be drunk then. By the time morning rolled around, all the beer must be finished, or what was left would be dumped into the river as an offering of thanks.
For nearly a century the river didn’t get a drop, but the last few years had been different. No matter how hard he tried, Brendan’s Winter Ales had been less than perfect. He spent more time each year on the recipe, but come the morning after the feast, he watched in dismay as the final measures were poured out into the cold waters of the mountain river.
“We have twelve large bucks put to spit, two hundred chickens, eight pigs, and enough game birds to feed everyone twice. The cook has been working for three days to prepare the bread and pies, and of course, there’s smoked salmon and baked cheese. Assuming the beer is ready, I believe you’ll find the hall is prepared.” Toby looked down with a sheepish grin before turning to Charlotte. “And it appears we have two young ladies with birthdays who wish to claim their Prize.”
“Two?” Charlotte asked, raising a brow. “This will be a festival to remember. What are their prospects?”
“I’m no expert, Mother, but they are quite lovely.”
“You think every girl is lovely, Toby.” Brendan smacked him on the back so hard he nearly fell over. Recovering quickly he turned to them both with a bow.
“Only because it’s the truth, Brendan. There’s beauty everywhere, especially in this house,” he said with a wink at Charlotte.
“Yes yes, we all know how you feel about this house. Now come with me while we check the beer. It better be tastier than last year or Charlotte’s Prizes will have a room full of angry men bidding on them.”
“Don’t drink more than a gallon or two, Dear. You know how you get when you taste the Winter Ale too early. Look what happened to Tedrow.”
Brendan grumbled, but grabbed his Second by the arm and dragged him out into the hallway. Together they made their way down into the inn which was just beginning to wake up. The bartenders were sweeping the hall, and a few of the girls were adding wood to the fire. Some of the decorations had been put up the night before, but this morning the serving boys finished hanging them with sleepy eyes, only enlivened by the prospects of the evening.
The two men walked across the huge yard between the warehouse where the kegs were conditioned and the main part of the inn. The yard was square, and while full of empty barrels, broken carts, and large piles of spent grain, it was pleasant in the early morning light. Even outside the fires from the giant furnaces could be felt, and the air had a hint of warmth to it that was as refreshing as it was familiar. As they crossed the yard, Brendan looked up at the snowy peaks that rose high above him and smiled up at their beauty. The snow had finally stopped falling, but the mountains and trees were coated in white that shone like crystal. They stopped just long enough to breathe the crisp air before they unlocked the door and stepped inside.
“My children have already sampled this year’s batch, but since they’re both ten and asleep, I suppose we’ll have to make our own judgment. Are you ready, Toby?”
The younger man smiled so widely he looked feral, and he watched with anticipation as Brendan filled two mugs with the dark Winter Ale. The head was thick and smooth as it spilled down over the side of the cups, and it let off a rich aroma of chocolate and spice. They raised it to their mouths and inhaled the strong smell before gently tasting the foam.
“Good so far,” Brendan said with a grin. “Now let’s see how we did.”
Their eyes opened widely as they raised the mugs and took their first sip. It started with rich coffee malt and a hint of vanilla. It was soft in the mouth and full on the tongue. As they swallowed, the bitterness from the hops carried hints of cherry and a wintry crispness that was almost startling. It ended with a trace of smooth caramel that left them wanting more.
They stared at each other, and without another word, they drained their mugs. Brendan filled them again and this time they sank down onto fur covered chairs and placed their cups on the tasting table. The room was dark this time of day, and while a few workmen ran about behind them preparing the kegs for the festivities, it was generally quiet. Once the ale was brewed and the barrels were filled, there was little left to do but enjoy it.
“It’s good Brendan,” Toby said. “It’s damn good. You’ve outdone yourself. It’s definitely better than last year, there’s no doubt of that.”
“Last year was terrible,” Brendan grumbled.
“No, it was just unique.”
“It’s only saving grace was that it went down easily, and was strong enough that no one cared after the first pint. But this? This is good. In fact, I think it may be delicious.”
“People will talk about this Winter Festival for years to come, and I don’t just mean because of the girls.”
“Forget the girls, this beer may be my best,” Brendan said with a smile as wide as it was sincere.
“Another few mugs of this and I might forget everything,” Toby said, raising his glass in a toast. “To a Winter Ale fit for the King of the Mountains! At least if there was one.”
They raised their cups and watched as the foam spilled over the sides, down onto the table, and onto the packed earth floor. After twenty years as Brewmaster, Brendan had finally made something worthy of the name. He may not have the Knack for brewing like his ancestors, but this was a damn fine beer and it would be one hell of a fine festival.