'Praise be to Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, and blessed be the Ascended Martyr.' Those were the words on lips of the faithful: Blessed be the Ascended Martyr, and woe betide you if you thought otherwise. The word Unbeliever had become a death sentence on the streets in those days.
Gangster, soldier, priest. Governor, knight, and above all, Queen's Man.
Once, Tomas Piety looked after his men, body and soul, as best he could. Then those who ran his country decided his dark talents would better serve in the corridors of power.
Crushed by the power of the Queen's Men and with the Skanian menace rising once more on the streets of Ellinburg, Tomas Piety is forced to turn to old friends, old debts and untrustworthy alliances.
Meanwhile in the capital city of Dannsburg, Dieter Vogel is beginning to wonder if the horror he has unleashed in the Martyr's Disciples might be getting out of control.
With revolution brewing and tragedy and terrorism running rife in the cities, Piety and Vogel must each weigh the cost of a crown.
Release date: August 4, 2022
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Priest of Crowns
Those were the words on the lips of the faithful: Blessed be the Ascended Martyr, and woe betide you if you thought otherwise.
A gibbet stood now in the gallows square beneath the castle walls, its current crow-pecked occupant there a week or more. A sign hanging from that cage was painted with the single word that had become a death sentence in Dannsburg in those days.
‘Did we do him?’ Bloody Anne asked, her voice quiet in the crowded square.
I could only shrug. We might have done, I supposed, although there was little enough of the man’s face left to recognise since the crows had been at his flesh. Who knew? It didn’t really matter, truth be told. He was dead, and that was all there was to it.
Unbeliever. That accusation was just another weapon in the arsenal of the Queen’s Men by then, along with Collaborator, Traitor, Queenkiller: death sentences, all of them, in a city where death was as cheap as sex and sour wine.
Those were the times we lived in.
‘Aye, well,’ I said after a moment. I paused to spit at the ground beneath the gibbet as was only proper. ‘We should get back.’
We had Oliver and Beast with us for muscle, of course, and I’d brought my adopted son Billy along, just to get him out of his room at our inn for a while. Even so, curfew was coming soon and it wouldn’t do to be out past that without a full complement of the crew and some official business to be about.
The Provost Marshal walked a thin line, and I thought he knew it. After the Princess Crown Royal’s spectacular self-immolation on the balcony of the royal palace, word had spread fast that she had ascended to the heavens to lead her nation to victory from her new divinity. Word had been spread, anyway, and any who doubted it . . . well.
That was the word on the streets of Dannsburg, and it boded well for no one.
There had been no state funeral for the Princess Crown Royal: she was the Ascended Martyr, after all, a living saint, which apparently meant she wasn’t actually dead, for all that I had seen her burn down to her tiny skeleton. That made little sense to me, but I supposed it was a theological matter and I was merely an army priest grown too large for himself in this insane new world. What would I know of such things?
I had seen a theocracy before, in Messia, but only once we had blasted and starved it into surrender. I had certainly never lived under one, and had never expected to. It seemed I had been wrong about that.
As a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows my word carried more weight than ever among the common people now, and I thought Lord Vogel knew that. I thought it worried him, too. He didn’t fully trust me even then, I was sure of it, and he was right not to.
That evening I was wearing a new set of robes, complete with the heavy black cowl that marked the chosen of Our Lady. I could see the respectful looks the common people gave me as they passed us in the square. Whoever was watching us on behalf of the house of law could see those looks just as well. I didn’t know who that was, but I knew fucking well there would be someone. There always was someone watching, and always someone to watch the watcher: such were the ways of the Queen’s Men.
Oh, there was no way Vogel knew what I had discovered about him, or what I suspected – I would have been swinging up there in a gibbet next to the unfortunate unbeliever if he had, I knew that well enough. But he guessed there was something, for all that he was my boss and the most powerful man in the country. Seated as he was on the Prince Regent’s throne, there was some friction in our relationship.
I looked at Anne, driving that thought from my mind. ‘How’s Rosie?’ I asked her.
Anne hawked and spat under the gibbet as I had done, and Billy copied her.
‘I don’t like it, Da,’ he said.
I could only agree: I didn’t fucking like it either, but there we were. I glanced at Anne. There was an angry set to her shoulders and I liked that even less.
‘Let’s go back to the inn, and I’ll tell you,’ she said at last.
Together we made our way back to our lodgings at the Bountiful Harvest, Oliver and Beast flanking us to keep the jostling crowd away. I was starting to wish I hadn’t asked her the question.
The Bountiful Harvest was very respectable and very expensive, in a good part of the city, and given how much I had paid the innkeeper the previous year, I reckoned I all but owned it. Aye, his establishment had been bombed for his trouble on my account, but I had made that right with him with gold, so no real harm done. No one had been killed, anyway, and that was good.
The innkeeper dipped his head respectfully to me and Anne. ‘Evening, Sir Tomas,’ he said, and I acknowledged him with a lazy wave of my hand.
So help me, I had grown into this role as knight and courtier, but I supposed it wasn’t so very different to what I had known before back in Ellinburg. Always act like you own the place, I had found, was a fine strategy in any business.
Billy went off up to his room to study his books, and I followed Anne across the crowded common room. Once we were alone in the private dining room that served as my office I repeated the question.
‘How do you think she is?’ Anne growled.
‘It’s part of her job, Anne,’ I reminded her.
Anne turned on me then, and unconsciously, her hands fell close to the hilts of her daggers.
‘You put my woman back in a whorehouse,’ she snarled at me. ‘How the fuck do you think she is, Tomas Piety?’
‘She’s a spy, Anne,’ I said, ‘and that’s what she’s doing now: spying, not whoring.’
‘She grew up in a fucking whorehouse,’ Anne reminded me. ‘She was sucking cocks when she had barely nine years to her. Heinrich pulled her out – and then he put her straight back into another one in Ellinburg because he needed a spy there. I pulled her out again – we did – and now she’s right fucking back there again!’
Anne was purely furious, and I took a step back despite myself. The long scar on her face twisted the corner of her mouth into a snarl of rage, and the look in her eyes was murder.
‘She’s not working, Anne,’ I assured her again. ‘Not that sort of work, anyway. I made Iagin promise me.’
‘Don’t matter, does it?’ Anne said. ‘She’s back there – back in some stinking stew with the drugs and the violent punters and the other girls’ misery and split lips and pox and vomit. After everything she’s done for you, Tomas, you make her do this.’
‘She’s tougher than you give her credit for,’ I tried, and I remembered Rosie and how she had looked at me when I told her what I needed. Her eyes had been hard as nails.
‘Aye, Tomas, if that’s what you need me to do,’ she had said, and that had been all she had made of it.
‘She’s tough, aye,’ Anne said now, her gaze boring into mine. ‘She’s tough the way scar tissue is, covering the pain of an old wound. Don’t mean she’s never been hurt.’
I choked back an emotion I couldn’t afford to have at that moment and glared right back at her, remembering the misery of her own past, and of mine.
‘Who hasn’t?’ I demanded. ‘Who fucking hasn’t?’
Anne met my glare for a long moment, then looked away. I had her there, and I could see that she knew it.
‘Aye, well, that’s as may be,’ she conceded eventually.
Rosie was her woman and she loved her, I understood that, but we were all in the service of the Queen’s Men and we all served the crown in our own way, each as we were best able. Spying and whoring were what Rosie did best, after all, although I swore then that if Iagin did actually have her whoring, I would break his neck myself. He had promised me that she wouldn’t be, and I had believed him, but Iagin was a Queen’s Man and the promises of the Queen’s Men were made of smoke: of could and might and possibly. I knew that from bitter experience. I liked Iagin well enough, but liking a man and trusting him ain’t necessarily the same thing. I liked Major Bakrylov, for Our Lady’s sake, but the gods only knew I didn’t trust him.
It had been the major’s idea, in a way.
Major Bakrylov wasn’t one to frequent stews, what with him not liking women in that way, but one of his captains very much was, and he liked one stew in particular. The Warm Welcome had once been owned by Mr Grachyev and was now of course effectively owned by Iagin – all of Grachyev’s businesses were since we’d unleashed Beast and had him beat Grachyev to death in his own bed the previous year. That was done with, though, and Iagin had taken over Grachyev’s empire smoothly and with no arguments. In truth, it had been his all along, of course, and Grachyev only a front to hide the doings of the Queen’s Men. I guessed Leonov and his strong-arm boys might have had something to do with the ease of Iagin’s takeover, but that was his business and so long as it got done it was nothing I needed to concern myself with.
Anyway, the point was, this captain of Bakrylov’s liked this stew very much indeed, and as it turned out, so did the newly installed Archmagus Ritenkov of the house of magicians. Of course, it wasn’t the back-alley midden Anne made it sound like; in Dannsburg, some of the whorehouses were almost palatial, and that included this one. Much like the Horn of Plenty, where Grachyev had met his end, this place had hostesses, not whores, and a bed for the night was almost as expensive as The Royal Inn, just outside the palace gates. That was where visiting dignitaries who didn’t warrant accommodation in the palace itself lodged, and its prices were legendary. I didn’t think Rosie would be facing pox and vomit in The Warm Welcome, and any client who attempted to hurt his girls would be likely to be found floating in the river the next morning. I knew that wasn’t the point, though: Anne didn’t like her woman being there and I could understand that, but it needed doing all the same.
Archmagus Ritenkov was an unknown quantity, and the house of law didn’t like unknowns. The truce that had been drawn up between us and the house of magicians after the civil unrest of the previous year was in the house of law’s favour to the point of blackmail, but it wasn’t watertight.
That civil unrest had been of our own making, of course, but that mattered little to the Provost Marshal. Details mattered very little indeed to a man who had to find the time to be Lord Chief Judiciar and the Provost Marshal of the Queen’s Men and sit the Prince Regent’s throne at the same time. Lord Vogel painted his vision with a broad brush in those days, and it was up to his Knights of the Rose Throne to take care of the details. That was Ailsa and me, Ilse and Konrad, Iagin and Sabine.
Sister Deceit and Brother Blade, Sister Torment and Brother Betrayal, Brother Truth and Mother Ruin, the Knights of the Rose Throne, under the word of Father Secrets: Dieter Vogel himself.
Between us we fucking ran Dannsburg, and by extension, the country itself – to Our Lady with the governing council; most of them were in our pay anyway, whether they knew it or not, ours through bribes or blackmail or straight out having them on the payroll. We manipulated them in ways that ensured they never agreed anything we didn’t want them to; they spent most of their days in endless arguments about things that usually didn’t even matter. The ruling Crown Prince, formerly and briefly the Grand Duke of Varnburg, was a lad with ten years to him, and Dieter Vogel, the Lord Chief Judiciar, was his regent under the emergency powers granted to him by a law he had almost certainly written himself.
He would remain so until a two-thirds majority of the governing council elected one of their own to assume the position, and we had enough influence in the council to ensure that would never happen. That lot couldn’t even vote a two-thirds majority on what to have for dinner – and that was exactly how the Provost Marshal wanted it.
I was officially a member of the governing council myself, of course. I was Councillor Sir Tomas Piety of the North Ward, legally entitled to sit upon the bench and cast my vote in matters of state. And that night I had business in a whorehouse.
I alighted from my carriage outside The Warm Welcome shortly before midnight, Anne and Beast and Emil beside me. It was long after curfew by then, but everyone knew curfew only truly applied to the working classes. As well as Anne, I had a carriage and a coachman and two heavily armed footmen clinging to the backboard, so even if the City Guard didn’t know me, I was obviously someone, and in Dannsburg in those days, that was good enough. Being out after curfew was punishable with a fine brutal enough to send any commoner straight to debtor’s gaol, but ‘punishable with a fine’ means ‘legal for rich people’ and it always has done, so there were no concerns there. It was only gold, after all, and I could draw on more of that than I knew what to do with. The house of law was nothing if not rich.
If it came to it, I carried the Queen’s Warrant, and that was an official licence to do absolutely anything, with the full unconditional backing and funding of the crown. That was the power of a god indeed, in Dannsburg.
‘I hate this fucking place,’ Anne said.
‘It’s not so bad,’ I assured her. ‘Iagin looks after his girls.’
‘She’s not one of his girls,’ Anne growled. ‘She’s my woman and she shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be having to do this.’
‘She isn’t,’ I assured Anne, and I prayed to Our Lady that was true.
Our Lady didn’t answer payers, I knew that, but I thought this time I was right. Rosie was there to spy on Archmagus Ritenkov, that was all, and that was in Iagin’s interests as much as it was in mine, after all. He had promised me he had set Rosie up above his working girls, as the madam of the house.
‘Evening,’ the man behind the desk said as we entered. ‘Is m’Lord looking for company tonight?’
‘Aye, perhaps,’ I said, giving him a long look up and down.
He was clean and well-dressed, smooth-shaved and almost respectable-looking, but even so, he had the look of a veteran about him. Of course he had. Almost every man who had between twenty-two and fifty years to him was a veteran, and a good number of women too. The last war wasn’t so very long ago, after all, and only old men and beardless youths hadn’t fought. They, and the women who had stayed behind, had worked the factories and the fields and kept the nation from collapsing. I could see the look of Abingon in the man’s eyes as he met my gaze and I thought we understood each other. I wasn’t wearing my priest’s robes that night but I shrugged my cloak back from my shoulders to let him see the Weeping Women at my belt, the beautifully crafted twin short swords that I had named Remorse and Mercy.
Anne stood at my shoulder and said nothing, and the brothel-keeper, looking from me to her, obviously took her for my bodyguard. I was dressed as a rich merchant despite the blades nestled in their finely tooled leather scabbards hanging heavy on my hips. In those days most merchants employed hard veterans as personal guards. One look at Bloody Anne was enough to tell a man she was that and more, and not to be trifled with.
‘How do m’Lord’s tastes run? I can offer you the company of—’
‘I’d rather speak to the lady of the house,’ I interrupted. ‘No offence, you understand, but I’d value a woman’s opinion.’
The man just shrugged and rang the small silver handbell that stood on the counter. He was obviously there for muscle more than business anyway, and didn’t look like he had taken my words ill.
Rosie swept out of a side room and greeted us in the reception hall. The bawd’s knot was proudly displayed on her left shoulder in yellow cord and her working smile was plastered across her face. She wore a gown far too fine for a common hostess, however much they charged, and she kept her chin tilted at a haughty angle that implied status and demanded respect. All the same, when she saw Anne she wiggled her hips in that way she had, and tossed a lock of bright red hair back from her face.
‘How can The Warm Welcome entertain you, m’Lord?’ she asked, and I could feel the eyes of the man behind the front desk on her. ‘Maybe you, ma’am? Maybe both of you? Our house is very accommodating, just you ask anyone. I can find you a fine brown Alarian, a blonde Skanian, a dark southerner – just you tell Madame Rosie what you’re looking for and I’ll see you’re happy.’
‘Rosie—’ Anne started, but I cut her off with a look.
‘Rosie sounds like just who we’re looking for,’ I said. ‘Both of us, if you’d be that accommodating?’
‘Oh, an excellent choice,’ she said.
‘That costs double,’ the prick behind the counter said, but I knew he must be one of Iagin’s men, so I put up with him.
He had a job to do, and I supposed I couldn’t begrudge him that. I dropped three silver marks down on the counter in front of him, more than it should have been, but I would never have shamed Rosie by coming anywhere close to underpaying. His eyebrows rose, but I waved my hand dismissively and turned away. I was dressed richly, after all, like someone who could easily afford it, which, in truth, I could. Anne looked like my bodyguard, aye, but many rich men have strange sexual habits and what was a brothel-keeper to say about it if he thought I wanted her to join in? Fuck him, he would take my silver and hold his peace about it if he knew what was good for him.
We followed Rosie up the creaking wooden staircase to her room.
As soon as the door closed behind us she was in Anne’s arms.
‘Lady, but I’ve missed you,’ Rosie said, when they were done kissing. ‘Are you well?’
‘I’m the one should be asking you that,’ Anne said, and I thought she sounded a mite choked up. ‘I hate you being here.’
‘It’s fine,’ Rosie said, but she took a slight step back and smoothed her dress to avoid meeting Anne’s eyes. ‘I’m working, that’s all. Doing my job, like Tomas wanted.’
I took a breath, let it out slowly.
‘What news about our mutual friend?’ I asked, to avoid asking the other question that none of us wanted to hear the answer to. Neither of us needed to know exactly what work she had been doing, unless she felt the need to tell us. I offered up a silent prayer to Our Lady that she didn’t, for Anne’s sake.
‘He’s a regular,’ Rosie said. ‘Always sees the same girl. Maira, her name is – an Alarian lass. He’s daft for her.’
‘How does he treat her?’ Anne asked.
‘Well enough. Never hurts her, pays on time and tips well. As customers go, he’s about as good as they get.’
‘Anything we can use?’
Rosie shook her head. ‘Nothing special,’ she said. ‘He just likes to fuck and have his cock sucked, like most men do. Nothing out of the ordinary.’
I grimaced for a moment in irritation. I had been hoping for some strangeness or perversion, something we could use against him for blackmail, but we were out of luck there. The new archmagus was a widower and had no children, and there was no shame in visiting a stew, not in Dannsburg, there wasn’t. If all he wanted was what everyone else did, then there was nothing to be made of it. I supposed that was good, in a way. This Archmagus Ritenkov might well be a man I needed to make a friend of in the fullness of time, but I kept that thought to myself. That was in Our Lady’s hands.
‘Well, there it is then,’ I said. ‘I dare say the Old Man won’t be happy, but if he’s got nothing to hide, then he hasn’t and that’s all there is to it.’
‘Maira thinks he’s quite sweet, actually,’ Rosie said. ‘Silly girl, but then, she’s only young.’
‘How young?’ I asked, seizing on that.
‘Nineteen years to her,’ Rosie said, and that was no use to me either. ‘It’s no good, Tomas. He’s lonely, that’s all. There’s no harm in it.’
‘Aye, it seems not,’ I had to admit.
I sighed, and thought of the newly founded house of magicians that had appeared in Ellinburg the previous year. It sounded like this man Ritenkov was someone I needed to meet, and I said as much.
‘Not here, though,’ I said before Rosie could suggest it. ‘He doesn’t need to know that I’ve had him under observation, or how much I know about him.’
‘If you want to meet him, then just have him arrested – that usually does the trick,’ Anne said, and I didn’t need to strain to catch the edge in her voice.
Bloody Anne wasn’t easy with what we did in the Queen’s Men, I knew that much, and she was growing less and less easy with it as time passed. I wondered what that would mean in the times to come. She was my best friend, my right hand. She was a soldier and she had become a gangster and a businesswoman and an enforcer for the Queen’s Men, but she was no spy and she never would be. I glanced at Rosie and caught a hint of the same thought crossing her flinty eyes. Rosie was a spy to her bones, and a fucking good one at that.
I gave her the ghost of a smile before I replied, ‘No, Anne, there’s no need for that. I have an old acquaintance in Dannsburg, a wealthy patron of the university and a friend of the house of magicians. I am sure she can be prevailed upon to arrange an introduction.’
‘You remember Lady Lan Yetrov, don’t you, Luka?’ I asked him once we were safely back at the Bountiful Harvest.
We had passed a patrol of the city guard on our way back, ten men in polished half-armour with clubs in their hands and swords at their sides. Their surcoats would have showed the red and white of the royal arms, had there been light enough to see. Since the port city of Varnburg closed its harbour to trade with Skania, there was a desperate shortage of lamp oil, which came from the great whales the Skanians hunted in their frozen northern oceans. Now much of the city lay shrouded in darkness after sunset.
Their corporal had looked at my rich carriage and looked away, and nothing had been said of curfew or of fines. As we passed them, I saw they were leading three vagrants in manacles behind them. Homelessness was a crime in Dannsburg, worse even than being poor and out after curfew. Three offences and they’d swing for it. I wondered what dawn would bring for those men, and thought of the gallows square.
‘Aye, ’course I do,’ Luka said, bringing me back to myself.
He had investigated her the previous winter on my instruction, and discovered that since her husband’s unfortunate death, she had become a patron of the university. To my surprise, she was using her newly inherited wealth to invest heavily in academia and learning. There’s a thing I’ve noticed about people, especially rich people: the face they present in public is often very different to their true selves. Lady Lan Yetrov had been, on the surface, a shallow socialite with little on her mind but diamonds and society balls and gossip.
A pointless, insipid little social climber, I remembered Ailsa had called her once, but it appeared she had been mistaken about that. Even my lioness could be wrong upon occasion, I realised, and I took cold comfort from that thought.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I want to meet her again. Nothing conspicuous, you understand – no invitations that might be intercepted, just a chance encounter somewhere. Find out when the next social engagement she’s attending is, and get me invited too.’
‘I can do that,’ Luka said.
I knew he could, or I wouldn’t have fucking asked. As little as a year ago it would have been impossible, of course, but now I was both a knight and a member of the governing council. Ridiculous as it might seem, Tomas Piety, the bricklayer’s son from the slums of Ellinburg, was a man of society in Dannsburg now.
I took a sip of my brandy, then asked, ‘What’s the lay of things south of the river?’
Luka had a woman by then, a widow from the south of the city, and he was quite taken with her. He had certainly been spending a fair bit of his time in that part of Dannsburg, the part where Ailsa had once told me decent folk didn’t go.
He puffed his cheeks out and sighed. ‘Getting rougher,’ he said. ‘The City Guard don’t cross the river if they can help it. In Grachyev’s day his crew kept the peace, such as it was, but not so much these days. I have to watch my step there, I’ll allow.’
I grunted and poured us both another brandy. ‘Iagin’s not on top of things, then?’
‘He’s a busy man,’ Luka said. ‘The Old Man’s got him working round the clock trying to keep this new cult he started in some sort of check, and I’m not sure he’s managing it.’
I wasn’t sure that he was, either.
Praise be to Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, and blessed be the Ascended Martyr.
I might have been the first to speak those exact words, building on Sister Galina’s religious ecstasy when the Princess Crown Royal burned to ashes before our eyes, but it had been Iagin who had seized on them.
That is fucking perfect, he had said, but I wondered if he still agreed. Zealots might have their uses but they were a bastard to control, as the house of law was fast learning.
If we are to have war, then let it be a holy war, Vogel had said. Nobody fights like the zealot, after all.
Aye, Provost Marshal, and nobody is a bigger pain in the balls, either. The new cult, the Martyr’s Disciples, was proving to be somewhat problematic for the house of law, for all that it was of our own making. I had to allow that made me smile.
‘What?’ Luka asked.
‘Oh, nothing,’ I said. ‘I was just thinking I might take a stroll south of the river tomorrow night, see how it is for myself.’
Luka grunted. ‘Aye, well, that’s your business, boss. Take a couple of the lads with you if you do, though, eh? There’s no Guard there, as I say, and I don’t think your Queen’s Warrant will be impressing anyone either.’
That was interesting, I thought. ‘Why’s that then?’
‘You can’t have forgotten what your friend Bakrylov did last year,’ Luka said. ‘Leading a cavalry charge against peaceful protestors on the city streets? The Coronation Massacre, the common folk are calling it. There’s bad feeling, to speak lightly of it.’
I remembered it well. Major Bakrylov had led a mass charge of the army and the Dowager Grand Duchess of Varnburg’s Sea Guard against a mostly unarmed protest of students and supporters of the house of magicians. They had clashed on Coronation Avenue in the stately heart of the city near the palace itself, and it had been a massacre indeed. Vogel had ordered that charge himself.
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘I remember.’
‘Martyrs were made that night, in the eyes of the common people.’
‘Don’t use that word,’ I cautioned him. ‘The Ascended Martyr rather takes precedence.’
‘Not with everyone she don’t,’ Luka said. ‘Remember how many people she killed from the royal balcony when she ascended to Heaven or whatever the fuck it was she’s supposed to have done? Not everyone is exactly feeling worshipful, Tomas.’
I met his eyes for a long moment. Looking back on what had happened, I could see how they wouldn’t be. That was an interesting thought.
‘The common people always have the greatest love for the royal family,’ Luka went on. ‘I’ve never really understood that, but there it is. There were people’s husbands, wives, mothers, sons in the square that night and a lot of them never came back home again on account of the precious Ascended Martyr.’
‘I’m definitely taking a walk tomorrow night,’ I said, and even then I could feel the beginning of an idea forming in the back of my mind.
Gods help me, what was I thinking?
I went the next evening. I’d allowed Anne the night off to be with Rosie, but I had Beast and Emil with me and I didn’t think I’d come to any harm. Once we’d crossed the bridge I soon began to see what Fat Luka had been talking about. I didn’t see any violence but I could feel it in the air, that sense of pervading danger that all soldiers soon develop. They do if they want to stay alive, anyway, but that wasn’t the only thing making me uncomfortable.
I confess I felt something of a fool, but these things happen. I had been drinking beer rather than brandy before we left, wanting to keep a clear head for the night. I seldom drink beer in any quantity, and the simple fact of it was that I badly needed a piss.
‘Stop here for a moment,’ I told the lads as we passed the mouth of an alley. ‘There’s something I need to do.’
They nodded in understanding and I walked a few paces into the dark alley while they guarded its mouth. I was about to unlace when I felt a hand grab my arm from a shadowy doorway.
‘Give me your purse, you old cunt.’
I turned to look at him. Barely fourteen by my reckoning, with a pitted, rusty blade in his hand. I looked at him, and in that moment I understood him, for I had been him once, in a way. I feigned fear, reached into the folds of my cloak as though doing as he said and closed my hand in a reverse grip around the hilt of Remorse. I punched my arm forward as hard as I could and smashed the pommel of the sword straight into the bridge of the lad’s nose. He cried out as it broke with a wet crunch and the blade in his hand clattered to the ground.
I had him by the throat a moment later, and was shoving him backwards into the
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