Tomas Piety has been many things: soldier, priest, gangster...and spy. As Tomas's power grows, the nobility better watch their backs, in this dark and gritty epic fantasy series.
People are weak, and the poorer and more oppressed they are, the weaker they becomeuntil they can't take it anymore. And when they rise up...may the gods help their oppressors.
When Tomas Piety returned from the war, he just wanted to rebuild his empire of crime with his gang of Pious Men. But his past as a spy for the Queen's Men drew him back in and brought him more power than he ever imagined.
Now, with half of his city in ashes and the Queen's Men at his back, the webs of political intrigue stretch out from the capital to pull Tomas in. Dannsburg is calling.
In Dannsburg the nobility fight with words, not blades, but the results are every bit as bloody. In this pit of beasts, Tomas must decide once and for all whether he is truly the people's champion...or just a priest of lies.
About the Author
Peter McLean lives in the UK, where he studies martial arts and magic, and volunteers at a prison, teaching creative writing. He is the author of the Burned Man urban fantasy series.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Peter McLean
Five hundred corpses.
That had been my wedding gift from Ailsa and the Queen’s Men. From this woman I called my wife. Five hundred or more burned and blackened corpses had been pulled out of the smoking rubble of the Wheels after we bombed it into Hell, that Godsday afternoon.
I still hadn’t forgiven her for that.
I hadn’t forgiven myself.
That was six months past now, and Ellinburg was in the grip of a summer heat. The river stank even worse than usual, but still the people of Dock Road came out to watch us pass. We were on horseback, Jochan and Bloody Anne and Fat Luka and me, and everyone had come out onto the streets to see us. We were the Pious Men, and in Ellinburg we were received like princes.
Six months ago the Wheels had been a wasteland of devastation. On my wedding day Ailsa’s company of army sappers had all but destroyed the district with enough blasting powder to start a war. Or perhaps, as I hoped, to prevent one.
The butcher’s bill had been horrific, and to my mind that bill was laid squarely at Ailsa’s door.
If we cannot stop this infiltration there will be another war, and we will lose. There will be another Abingon, right here in our own country.
Ailsa had told me that, and she had swayed me to her cause and to the service of the Queen’s Men with those words. With those words, and with threats. It was that or hang, I knew that, but when I thought of how the streets had looked the day after our wedding I couldn’t help but feel that Ailsa had brought Abingon to the Wheels herself, in the service of the crown.
My wife had done that, this murderous stranger I was forced to share a house with. To share a life with, whether I liked it or not. It was that or hang, and that was no choice at all. That was what the Queen’s Men could do.
I had vowed then to rebuild, and I had done that.
Dock Road ran through the heart of the Wheels, and a year ago it would have been unthinkable for me to be there. The Wheels belonged to the Gutcutters, everyone knew that, but on my wedding day all that had changed. The Wheels was mine now, and the docks too. All of eastern Ellinburg belonged to the Pious Men, and that was good. It was good, and business had never been better, but it was still a long way from being safe.
“I can see two faces that shouldn’t be here,” Bloody Anne said quietly, her voice raspy from years of shouting orders and the smoke of blasting powder. “The top of Fellmonger’s Alley, you see them?”
I glanced casually that way as I waved to a shopkeeper I recognized. He was behind on his payments, that one, and from the look on his face I could see that he knew it. No one fell behind with their payments on my streets, not if they knew what was good for them. I was the new boss of the Wheels, and I needed everybody there to understand that.
“Aye,” I said. “I see them, Bloody Anne.”
One of them was a resin smoker and petty thief who I had kicked out of the Stink a year ago. The other I knew worked for Bloodhands. I had to force myself not to shudder when I thought of that name. He called himself Klaus Vhent in public these days, but he was Bloodhands and he was a nasty piece of work and no mistake. He had been Ma Aditi’s second in the Gutcutters, but I knew he was more than that.
The Gutcutters had been wiped out on my wedding day, but the Skanians very much hadn’t and more to the point neither had Bloodhands. That man who had called himself Ma Aditi’s second in the Gutcutters was the Skanians’ head man in Ellinburg. He was something like a Queen’s Man himself back in Skania, far across the sea to the north, or at least he was working directly for someone who was. Worse than that, I knew he had the ear of the governor. He was a man who ruled his gang through simple fear, a man who commanded the loyalty of his men by holding a knife to the throats of their hostage children.
We might be done fighting, but that didn’t mean we could afford to grow complacent.
I let my hands fall to the hilts of the Weeping Women as they hung heavy at my belt. They were a pair of beautifully crafted shortswords that I had looted from a dead colonel after the last battle of Abingon. I had named them Remorse and Mercy, and thinking about Bloodhands had made me very much want to stab someone with them.
I couldn’t do that, though, not here. Not in front of people, not anymore I couldn’t. I was a prince in Ellinburg, and princes have men who do that sort of thing for them. I shot Fat Luka a look.
He nodded and let his horse slow until he was riding behind the rest of us. He was still no horseman, but he was getting better at it. More to the point, he knew where Cutter was in the crowd, which was more than I did.
The man could be virtually invisible, when he wanted to be, but I knew Cutter was following us on foot. He was an unremarkable-looking fellow with a little less than forty years to him, lean and wiry and bearded like so many working men in the Wheels and the Stink. He was just another face in the crowd in his nondescript laborer’s clothes.
Cutter was my brother Jochan’s man, not mine; I still had no idea where Cutter had come from or what levers moved him. He had certain skills, though, skills I knew he hadn’t learned in the army.
Luka rode up beside me again, and I looked at him and he gave me a short nod. That was done then, and there was no need to spare it another thought. Those two faces wouldn’t be seen in the Wheels again. Or anywhere else, for that matter. That would make Bloodhands think twice about trying to spy on me on my own streets.
The spies aside, our ride out went well enough. The Wheels was mostly on its way to being rebuilt by then, and many of the factories were back in operation. Those factories paid their taxes to me now, not to the Gutcutters, as did every business on Dock Road. That was good. I had never thought to see the day when the Pious Men controlled so much territory. I was rich, richer than I’d ever been, and one of the most powerful men in Ellinburg. Those things pleased me a great deal.
Every business in the Wheels had paid their protection money to Ma Aditi for years, of course they had, but come my wedding day she hadn’t been able to protect them at all. She had been too busy having her head cut off. That had been Cutter’s work too. Afterward, when the Pious Men came calling, with coin to rebuild and promises of a better future, those businesses had fallen into my lap like so much ripe fruit.
Oh, how Governor Hauer hated that.
“Good turnout,” Bloody Anne observed.
“Aye,” I said, and I was unable to stop a smile of satisfaction from crossing my face. “It is.”
“Everyone loves you, Tomas,” my brother Jochan said, but there was something in his tone that made me give him a look.
He resented me, I knew that well enough, and more than that he resented Anne’s place at my right hand. He still thought he should have been my second, for all that he was fundamentally unsuitable for the role.
“That they do,” I said softly. “That they do.”
I hadn’t wanted to return home afterward, but then I usually didn’t. Ailsa would be at home, after all, and I was in too good a mood to want to spoil it by seeing her. I went back to the Tanner’s Arms with Anne and Luka instead. I would take the company of people I knew I could trust over that of a Queen’s Man any day of the week. I didn’t know where Jochan went; he just said he had something to do, and he gave his horse to Luka and headed off on his own. He should have had a bodyguard with him, of course, but Jochan hated that. I suspected that the thing he had to do was get blind drunk and start a fight. It usually was.
Still, we were back in the heart of the Stink by then, the original Pious Men streets, and I knew he wouldn’t come to any harm. Someone else probably would, before the night was out, and tomorrow it would cost me silver to make it right with them. That happened too often these days, but Jochan was Jochan.
Cookpot met us in the stable yard and took the horses, a smile lighting up his round, sweaty face as he stroked my black mare’s nose. Cookpot had been a soldier once, and a Pious Man for a little while, but life as a groom suited him better. He was hurt in the mind, where it doesn’t show, hurt by the things he had seen and done, but the horses brought him some peace. I felt like I had owed him that much, at least, after what I had put him through.
The three of us went into the Tanner’s through the back. Hari was behind the bar, still leaning on his stick but a lot stronger than he had been six months ago after he had taken the terrible wound that had nearly killed him. Black Billy was on the door, his heavy club hanging from his belt and his shirtsleeves rolled up to display dark-skinned arms that were almost as thick around as my legs. He grinned at me as we came in, and I gave him a nod across the crowded common room. Borys was there too, I noticed, playing dice with Mika. Borys was an older man, thoughtful and trustworthy, while Mika had a sharp intelligence to him that you’d never have guessed from looking at him.
They were good lads, all of them. They were my Pious Men, but before that we had been in the army together. We had fought together in Messia and then in the Hell that had been Abingon, and we had fought together again to reclaim my streets here in Ellinburg. I would have trusted any man of them with my life.
Hari lined up brandies on the bar for us, and Luka took his and went to talk with Mika and Borys. I picked up my glass and the bottle both. Bloody Anne and me took my usual table in the corner, the one no one else ever sat at, however busy the tavern was. Simple Sam saw to that, and he came and stood there now with his back to us and his thickly muscled arms folded in front of his barrel chest to say that we weren’t to be disturbed. He was a slow lad but a faithful one, and the sheer size of him brooked no arguments.
“Did you see the bodies?” Anne asked me. “On our way back, I mean.”
I nodded, and smiled with grim satisfaction. The two men had been sprawled at the end of Fellmonger’s Alley with their throats slit and their blood sprayed up the wall behind them. That was what happened to spies, on my streets anyway. That would send a message to Bloodhands all right, and that message was a simple one.
Stay off my streets, you cunt.
I wondered if they had even seen him coming.
Cutter would be back at Slaughterhouse Narrow by now, at the boardinghouse he ran in my name. That place was nothing special, a cheap and run-down flophouse for traveling slaughtermen and the skinners and laborers who followed them, but he seemed to like it there well enough.
“What do you make of Cutter?” I asked Anne.
“Can I be honest with you about this?”
“You’re my second and my best friend, Bloody Anne,” I said, and I smiled at her. “I’d like to think you can be honest with me about anything.”
She sucked her teeth for a moment, the long scar on her face puckering and drawing the corner of her mouth down into a twisted half-scowl.
“He gives me the fear,” she admitted at last. “I know he’s part of our crew, but . . .”
She took a swallow of her brandy.
“Go on,” I said, after a moment. “Say what’s on your mind, I won’t take it ill.”
“But he’s not, is he?” she said. “He’s your brother’s man, and that’s all he is. It’s been a year and more and still he don’t mix with the others. He doesn’t go to Chandler’s Narrow and he’s never in here. He doesn’t talk or joke or gamble or rough about like soldiers do. I know we aren’t soldiers anymore, not exactly, but . . . you know what I mean, Tomas. No one even knows where he’s from, or what he likes to do, or anything. The man hardly seems human.”
I nodded slowly.
“Aye,” I said. “He’s been a Pious Man for over a year, and he’s made no friends among the crew. Has anyone tried to befriend him?”
Anne frowned at that, as though the thought hadn’t occurred to her.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “Truth be told, I doubt it. He’s not what you’d call likable.”
He wasn’t, at that.
“Aye, well,” I said. “Perhaps you might put it about that someone should try.”
“So long as it doesn’t have to be me,” Anne muttered.
I laughed and refilled our glasses.
“I wouldn’t do that to you,” I said, but I could see that she meant it.
There was something about Cutter that would make anyone uneasy, and I didn’t like not knowing what it was.
I had to go home eventually. I rode, with Desh and Emil and Bernd as bodyguards. They were new lads, and while Emil was a veteran from some other regiment the other two had been too young to be conscripted. None of them were Pious Men yet, but they were working out well enough. Desh especially showed promise. He was a young Alarian lad from Hull Patcher’s Row who seemed prepared to do almost anything to earn a place at my table. That was the sort of man I wanted.
I let myself into my great house off Trader’s Row, startling the footman who had obviously been dozing in his chair in the hall. Stefan was there too, but he definitely hadn’t been asleep.
He lowered the crossbow he was holding and gave me a nod when I stepped into the hall.
“Evening, boss,” he said.
He was a solid man, was Stefan, if an unimaginative one. He was a soldier right down to his bones and no mistake.
“All quiet?” I asked him.
He inspected the mechanism of his bow for a moment, not meeting my eyes.
“No one’s bothered the house,” he said.
“She’s still up, then?”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It was late by then, well after midnight, and I had hoped Ailsa would have retired for the night by the time I got back. It seemed I was going to be disappointed about that.
Ailsa. My wife.
I nodded, and opened the parlor door. She called it the drawing room, and I knew I was supposed to do the same, but to my mind a parlor was a parlor however many chairs it held. I still hadn’t discovered why she called it that, nor learned to draw either.
She was sitting by the fire with a lamp burning on the low table beside her chair and her embroidery hoop in her hands. Her smoothly powdered face remained expressionless until I had closed the door behind me.
“Where in the gods’ names have you been?” she demanded.
“Good evening, my love,” I said, and I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
“Don’t try my patience, Tomas.”
I poured myself a brandy from one of the bottles on the side table and turned to face her with the heavy crystal glass in my hand.
“I told you we were riding out into the Wheels today,” I said. “We did that, and then I went to the Tanner’s for a drink.”
“Your place is here,” she snapped.
“And my friends are there.”
Ailsa put down her embroidery and glared at me.
“Sit down,” she said, “and I will try to explain this to you one more time. I am your wife. I know that I am your wife in name only and we care not one rotten fig for each other but only we can know that. Servants gossip, Tomas, and neighbors peep between their shutters, and it is well known that you are almost never here.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose between my finger and thumb, idly wondering what a fig was. Something rotten, it seemed.
Ailsa was an aristocrat from Dannsburg, and I was the son of a bricklayer from the Stink. The longer our sham marriage went on, the more the distance between those two things became plain to me. I sighed and looked at her.
Ailsa, the Queen’s Man.
Oh, yes, she was that all right. Ailsa was a knight, of a very specialized order of the knighthood that answered directly to the crown. She was a diplomat and a spy, a master of the false face, and she was a tactical genius. She had planned and arranged the bombing of the Wheels herself.
She was responsible for the deaths of over five hundred people on our wedding day, and those were just the ones I knew of.
If three people die in a fire it’s hard news, and if ten die then folk call it a tragedy. But five hundred? There comes a point where it’s just a number, where your mind can’t accept the reality of what happened. Abingon had been like that. If she had done that then Our Lady only knew what else she had done before I met her. A murderous stranger, I had thought her that morning, and as I looked into her dark eyes I felt the truth of that.
“I am almost never here,” I started quietly, “because I have a fucking business to run!”
I knew I shouldn’t be shouting, not where the servants could hear us, but over the last six months she had worn my patience thinner than an old linen shirt. There had been a time when I had thought I was falling in love with Ailsa, but that had been before the Wheels. Now the distance between us seemed too great for that. The distance, and what she had done. Ailsa was concerned with politics and the crown’s orders, not with business, with the Skanians and with what society thought of us. The Skanians were one thing, but as far as I could see society in Ellinburg consisted of Governor Hauer, who was a cunt, and a small collection of factory owners and guild masters and pointless minor aristocrats. I didn’t give a fuck what any of them thought of me.
Ailsa ignored my outburst.
“Your business interests me where it concerns the Skanians,” she said. “Otherwise, not at all.”
“Cutter killed two of their spies this morning,” I said.
“While you were there?”
“I’d ridden past by then but aye, while I was there.”
Ailsa hissed with irritation. “Distance yourself, I told you. You’re a respectable businessman now, Tomas, or at least you must appear to be. You know as well as I do that Vhent has the governor’s ear. How would it look to society if he were able to implicate you in any wrongdoing?”
I stared at her. Klaus Vhent was the name Bloodhands was using in public, and as she said it seemed he had got himself close to Governor Hauer. That implied the governor was taking Skanian coin. I knew that, and it concerned me greatly. Society didn’t.
“For the Lady’s sake—” I started, but she cut me off.
“We’ll speak in the morning, when you have a clear head,” Ailsa announced.
I thumped my glass down on the side table and glared at her. It was tempting to keep shouting at her, but whenever I did that she made me regret it one way or another. Besides, shouting at a woman who could order me hanged with a word wasn’t something that I’d call wise. I drew a breath and forced myself to nod at her.
“Aye,” I said. “We’ll do that. I’m going to bed.”
I left her to her embroidery and slowly climbed the stairs to the upper floor where our adjoining rooms stood at the end of the corridor. Adjoining rooms, I supposed that was something. At least no one expected me to lie down with my murderous lioness of a wife, and I was grateful for that. Sharing a house with her was trial enough, never mind a bed. I had always thought that owning half of Ellinburg and living in a big house off Trader’s Row would have made me happy, and to an extent it had, but I had never stopped to consider who I might have to share that house with. Me, married to a Queen’s Man? It was preposterous, unthinkable, and it had stayed that way right up until it had suddenly been forced upon me. I sighed and shook my head, and walked down the corridor past the room where Billy the Boy slept.
I tried to be quiet, but either I woke young Billy or he hadn’t been sleeping anyway.
“Uncle Tomas?” he called out as I passed his door.
I paused, then opened the door and looked inside. The lad was in bed, but he was obviously wide awake, and the lamp on his nightstand was burning. There was a big leather-bound book facedown on the blankets that covered him, and a quill and ink beside the lamp.
“Hello, Billy. I’m sorry if I woke you,” I said, although I plainly hadn’t.
“I wasn’t sleeping. I was working on my notes.”
“Aye, well that’s good,” I said, “but a young lad like you needs his sleep.”
“I don’t sleep much,” Billy said.
No, that didn’t surprise me.
I had moved Billy in with us shortly after the wedding, as my adopted nephew. He called us Uncle and Auntie, but he was still the orphan boy I had found in the ruins after the sack of Messia, the boy our regiment had taken in. The boy who had learned the cunning and given Old Kurt the fear.
The boy who had torn a Skanian magician inside out with the power of his mind.
“Aye, well,” I said, for want of anything better.
“I heard you and Auntie Ailsa fighting,” he said.
“Fighting? No, not that. Just words, Billy, how husbands and wives have sometimes. It’s nothing to worry about.”
That wasn’t strictly true, of course. I thought it very much was something to worry about, but that was nothing young Billy needed to hear.
“You should be friends,” Billy said, his young face solemn and serious.
He had somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years to him by then, no one was really sure, but on occasion he spoke wisdom beyond his years.
“We are,” I assured him.
“Everyone needs a friend,” Billy went on. “Even Cutter.”
I blinked at him.
Billy was a seer; I knew that. Billy was touched by the goddess, for all that Old Kurt insisted he was possessed by some devil from Hell. Billy was touched by Our Lady and that made him holy, to my mind. Sometimes Billy saw things no one else could see, and when he said a thing would be so he was always right. Even so, it made me shiver to think he seemed to know what I had been talking to Anne about that evening, half the city away.
“What makes you say that, Billy?”
“Cutter,” Billy said again. “He’s lonely. I’ll be his friend.”
If I had to choose a friend for my adopted nephew, then a professional murderer more than twice his age wouldn’t have been my choice. Billy had that tone in his voice, though, the way he sounded when he knew that a thing would be so. I looked at him.
“Are you sure about that, Billy?” I asked him. “I know you get on well with Hari and Black Billy and Desh, but Cutter . . . well, Cutter isn’t like the other men in my crew.”
“He isn’t like Sir Eland, either,” Billy said, and he sounded certain of that.
I nodded. Sir Eland liked young lads, that was no secret, but he had only tried it on with Billy once. Whatever Billy had done to him that night had been enough that he had left well alone after that.
“Well and good,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean he won’t hurt you.”
“He won’t,” Billy said. “Not for no reason.”
I blinked at him, but he had picked up his book again by then, and taken up his pen. He bowed his head over his work, whatever it may have been, and it seemed that was to be the end of it. The pen scratched softly against the velum page.
Billy could write but he seemed unable to read any hand but his own, and I still couldn’t understand how that came to be. Old Kurt had had no answer for it either, I remembered.
Touched by the goddess, I thought.
The boy’s fucking possessed, Old Kurt had told me once.
I looked at Billy, sitting up in bed with the lamplight casting half his face in shadow, and wondered if perhaps we were both right.
“Good night, Billy,” I said, and closed his bedroom door behind me.
The three of us sat down to breakfast together the next morning, an intimate family group in the smaller of our two dining rooms with only Salo our steward, Ailsa’s lady’s maid, two footmen, and a houseman to attend us. Being outnumbered by servants seemed ridiculous, to my mind, but then I wouldn’t know how these things were supposed to be done in polite society.
“I’ll go and visit Cutter today,” Billy announced.
I was drinking a shallow bowl of steaming hot tea while the steward served my food. It was something made from smoked fish and eggs, so far as I could tell, and little grains that could have been anything. The tea at least was good, for all that it cost a queen’s ransom even without the import tax that I didn’t pay. I would have been happier with small beer and black bread or salt pork, but of course Ailsa wouldn’t have heard of that at her table. That was for commoners and servants, apparently, and that meant I wasn’t allowed it even though she plainly regarded me as both of those things.
“Take one of the footmen with you, and Stefan,” I said.
“I don’t need anyone,” Billy said, and I supposed that was true enough.
“You’ll do as you’re told,” Ailsa said. “You must never leave this house unguarded, Billy.”
It seemed we were of a mind about that, if nothing else.
Billy shoved a forkful of fishy eggs into his mouth and scowled.
That was the way my brother found the three of us when one of the other footmen showed him into the small dining room.
“Fuck a nun, Tomas,” he laughed. “What the fuck are you eating?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
I tossed my fork down and turned to look at him. Jochan smelled of brandy, and he had a black eye and a scabby cut on his left cheek, and his knuckles were grazed and raw. I could see that I had been right about how he had spent his evening. I could feel Ailsa quietly simmering at his language, but I ignored that.
“Tea?” I asked him.
“Fuck off,” he said good-naturedly, and pulled another chair up to the table.
“What’s the lay of things?”
“Well enough,” he said with a shrug. “There’s been no noise from the Northern Sons about those couple of cunts yesterday, so there’s that.”
The Northern Sons, that was what the Skanians were calling their new operation in western Ellinburg. Bloodhands was their boss, I knew that much, but beyond that we had been hard pressed to learn anything about them. Fat Luka had sent his spies into Sons territory, but more often than not they went out and didn’t come back. With Bloodhands as their boss, that didn’t surprise me.
I thought about what Cutter had done to the two spies in the Wheels yesterday. He had killed them, aye, but at least it had been quick. I doubted that Fat Luka’s men had fared half so well in the hands of the Northern Sons. Rumor on the streets was that Bloodhands liked to flay people alive, and that that was how he had earned his name. I didn’t want to think about that, though, not while I was eating. Or at all, truth be told.
“Brother-by-law, can I send for something for you?” Ailsa asked, her voice like cracked ice. “Salt pork and small beer, perhaps? I dare say there are both, in the servants’ kitchen.”
I knew she meant it as a cutting insult, but that was what Jochan had for breakfast every day, and he took her at her word.
“Aye, thanks,” he said, without looking at her.
I would hear about this after he left, I knew.
“Billy’s going to visit Cutter later,” I said.
“What the fuck for?” my brother wanted to know.
“He’s lonely,” Billy said.
Jochan paused and looked at the boy.
“Aye,” he said after a moment, and he looked uncomfortable about it. “I’ll allow that he might be, I suppose. I haven’t . . . spent much time with him recently. He’s an odd one and no mistake.”
I frowned at that. I had never had the opportunity to speak to my brother about Cutter before, not without looking like I was prying into a past that perhaps didn’t bear close inspection. All the same, that sounded like an opening.
“He is, at that,” I said. “You never did tell me where you met him.”
“Messia,” Jochan said, and then the footman brought his pork and a mug of small beer and he busied himself with it, ending the conversation.
I made myself look at Ailsa, and I didn’t like what I saw in her face.
“Can I go, Uncle Tomas?” Billy asked me. “I’ll take Stefan and a footman if I have to.”
“You have to,” I said. “And aye, you can.”
The lad jumped down from the table and hurried out of the room, calling Stefan’s name. A few minutes later we heard them leave the house.
“You shouldn’t let him leave the table before we have finished breakfasting,” Ailsa said. “It’s bad manners.”
“If you’re waiting for me to eat that you’ll be here for fucking days,” I said, waving at the cold fishy eggs on the plate in front of me.
Jochan snorted laughter, and I stole some of his pork and we both sniggered like the young boys we had once been. I felt close to my brother then, if only for a moment. That moment lasted right up until there was a great crash from the hall, followed by the sound of running men.
We were both on our feet in seconds. Ailsa disapproved of me wearing the Weeping Women in the house, so I was unarmed, and Jochan only had a dagger on him. He would have come with bodyguards of his own, of course, even if he didn’t like it, but there was no sign of them now. A moment later the door of the small dining room flew open and six of the City Guard stormed in with bared steel in their hands.
“Tomas Piety,” their sergeant growled, and pointed her blade at me. “We’re taking you in.”
I told Ailsa and Jochan that it was all right, that I was just going to see Grandfather.
That was what it was called, in street cant, when you were arrested but it wasn’t bad. I hoped that was true. If it had been serious, if I was being taken in for real, surely they would have arrested Jochan as well, and probably Ailsa too. Going to see the widow, that was what it was called when it was serious. I don’t know what would have happened if Governor Hauer had tried to take a Queen’s Man to see the widow, even without knowing who she was, but I doubted that it would have been anything good.
I let them march me out of the house and into the warm summer’s morning. Jochan’s two bodyguards had been Borys and Emil, and they were outside, with another four guardsmen covering them with crossbows. It had been raining earlier and now the cobbled streets around Trader’s Row glistened wet under the light of a watery sun.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“This is about my orders to take you in,” the sergeant said. “Now shut up.”
I gave her a sideways look. I didn’t know this one, and that concerned me. Most of the governor’s crew, under his chief bullyboy Captain Rogan, were career guardsmen. I knew all the officers by sight, or so I thought, but I didn’t know this one. If the governor was hiring new muscle, then I had to wonder who they were and where they had come from.
The guardsmen led me up Trader’s Row to the governor’s hall, and I didn’t resist. It would have been pointless, with six armed and armored men around me and me in my doublet and shirtsleeves without so much as a pocketknife in my hand.
Oh, what will the neighbors think? I wondered, and smirked to myself. Fancy going out in public without a coat.
“I don’t know what you’re fucking smiling about,” the sergeant growled. “Rogan wants you.”
I nodded, and held my peace. She had already told me more than she should have done, and that was good. Rogan wanted me, which meant I wasn’t being flung straight into a cell. Rogan worked for the governor, but he was also a good customer of mine at the Golden Chains, and he owed me gambling money. The Golden Chains was the best and most exclusive gambling house in Ellinburg, and I owned it. He played a dangerous game, did Captain Rogan. I thought it would only be a matter of time until Hauer started questioning where his captain’s loyalties lay.
They marched me across the cobbled road to the area of smooth flagstones in front of the governor’s hall. There, another two uniformed guardsmen stood on duty outside the great iron front doors. The royal standard that flew from the roof of the building flapped sullenly in the wind, its bright red darkened by the earlier rain. I was ushered inside. The sergeant searched me before having me thrust into a small office off the main hall.
Captain Rogan was waiting for me, sitting behind a cheap desk with his big, hard hands resting on the scarred wood in front of him.
“Thank you, Sergeant Weaver,” he said. “Dismissed.”
“Morning,” I said.
“Don’t be cheeky with me, Piety,” he said. “I told you I’d get you, and I have.”
I wasn’t in irons and his men hadn’t arrested my family alongside me, so I very much doubted that. I looked at him, at his broken nose and the flecks of iron gray in his hair, and all I could see was the man who regularly lost large sums of money at my gaming tables.
“Have you?” I asked. “On what charge?”
“It’s well known that you import poppy resin,” Rogan said. “That’s illegal.”
“I’ll allow that it is, Captain,” I said. “However, I import nothing. I’m a city businessman, not a merchant. I have no ships, and no men to sail them.”
“Your bloody Golden Chains is the heart of the poppy trade in Ellinburg,” Rogan accused me.
“That it is,” I agreed. “As you would well know, being there so often yourself.”
“I don’t smoke the fucking poppy,” Rogan growled.
He didn’t, at that. Captain Rogan was a hard man and a ruthless bully and he had his vices, but the poppy wasn’t among them. Gambling was his weakness, and there he was weak indeed.
“I don’t believe I said that you did. I don’t recall saying that at all, Captain. Not yet.”
“No one would believe that.”
“Wouldn’t they? That would rather depend on who agreed with my version of the story, to my mind.”
Many of the richest and most respected members of Ellinburg society were customers of the Golden Chains, and some of them were greatly in my debt. Some were by now slaves to the resin they smoked as well, and they knew I controlled their supply of the drug. Addiction is a strong enough lever to move almost anyone, which was why Ailsa had been so insistent that I enter the poppy trade in the first place.
Rogan glared at me, but I had him and I could see that he knew it.
“You can argue it with Hauer,” he said. “If you drag me into this . . .”
“I have no cause to do that,” I said. “You play right by me, Captain, and honor our agreement, and I don’t see that I ever will have.”
Our agreement was based on bribery, pure and simple, and those bribes funded Rogan’s gambling habit. He sucked his teeth for a moment, and nodded.
“Our agreement stands,” he said.
Rogan took a small handbell out of his desk and rang it, and two guardsmen hurried into the cramped office. They led me back out into the hall, and Rogan got up and followed. I was taken to the governor’s office through the servants’ corridors and up a back stair, not the grand staircase that I had climbed when I had attended a ball there in the spring as the governor’s guest. That message wasn’t lost on me.
It was still short of midmorning so the governor was at least sober, although from the look of his face I suspected he was feeling the effects of the previous night’s wine. He scowled up at me from behind his desk as Rogan pushed me down into the chair across from him.
“Thank you, Captain,” Hauer said. “You may leave us.”
I felt Rogan’s hesitation. I was unarmed, but Governor Hauer was a poor specimen, physically. He didn’t have many more years to him than I had myself, but he was fat and weak and unhealthy from too much rich living. I could have killed him with my bare hands if I’d had a mind to, and I could tell Rogan knew it.
“Is that wise, m’lord?”
“Get out,” Hauer snapped at him.
I heard heavy footsteps, and then the door closed behind me as Rogan left the room.
“Governor,” I said.
“Tomas Piety, here you are again,” Hauer said.
“That I am, although I’m at a loss as to why.”
“The poppy resin, as you well know,” Hauer snapped.
“As I explained to the captain, I import nothing,” I said. “What may get past your customs men at the docks is your problem, Governor. Trade within the city is fair game, as per the terms of our agreement and the taxes that I pay you.”
Those things were both true, if unrelated. The poppy resin I sold at the Golden Chains was smuggled into the city by road from Dannsburg, by Ailsa’s agents. If I could keep the governor’s attention focused on the docks and the tea ships from Alaria, then that was good. I didn’t approve of the poppy trade but it brought in a fortune, and once I had managed to convince Ailsa to keep it off the streets and confined to the idle nobility, I had just about managed to make my peace with it.
“Taxes are one thing, but this is too much, Piety.”
I leaned across the desk and met the governor’s stare.
“I pay you enough in bribes for you to overlook anything,” I reminded him. “I’m overlooking some things myself, Governor, after all. Your association with Klaus Vhent, for one.”
“Vhent is a businessman, the same as you,” Hauer said, a slight flush creeping up from under the collar of his doublet. “He heads the Northern Sons, that’s all.”
“It seems to my mind that you’re closer to the Sons than is healthy, Governor,” I said.
“For the gods’ sakes, Tomas, I am trying to keep the peace.” Hauer sighed and slumped back in his chair. “Vhent was Ma Aditi’s second, as you well know. When she . . . died, he set up his own operation. I have to keep an eye on him, you understand that.”
“You told me something, last year,” I reminded him. “You told me about these Skanians you were worried about. That they were people like the Queen’s Men, you told me, in their own land. Are you sure you know who you’re associating with?”
I thought that he probably did, but I couldn’t prove it and I couldn’t know for sure.
“You dare to speak to me of the Queen’s Men?” he hissed.
This is why I’m really here, I thought. This interview isn’t about poppy resin. It never was.
“The Queen’s Men sought you out,” he went on. “ It seems to me that happened close enough to the carnage in the Wheels for there to be a connection.”
“I had nothing to do with that,” I said. “I was getting married on that terrible day, Governor, in front of Father Goodman and all my family and friends and half the Stink beside. I have explained that. At length.”
“Yes, and isn’t that convenient? On that one day in particular you have unshakable proof of where you were and who you were with.”
I held the governor’s stare and said nothing. He knew very well I had been behind the bombings, but he couldn’t prove it and to my mind he never would. Ailsa was no fool, I had to give her that much.
“How is your lady wife?” he asked suddenly.
I forced myself not to blink. He didn’t know who Ailsa really was, I told myself. He couldn’t know.
“Where is she from, again?”
“Dannsburg,” I said.
“She doesn’t have the look of Dannsburg to her.”
She didn’t, at that. Ailsa was obviously of Alarian descent, but she was from a wealthy, aristocratic Dannsburg family nonetheless. That carried a lot of weight, out here in the provinces, and Hauer seemed to be going out of his way to cause offense.
“She’s a lady of the Dannsburg court,” I said. “A very respectable lady. You would do well to remember that.”
Hauer met my flat stare and swallowed. He was close to crossing a line with me here, and I could tell he knew it. Ailsa was my wife, after all, painful sham though that may be. To openly disrespect her to my face would be a step too far. I wouldn’t be able to let it pass if he did that.
“A lady of the court,” he repeated, and I nodded slowly.
If anyone remembered there had been an Alarian barmaid working in one of my taverns last year, well, who was to say they were one and the same woman? The Ailsa I had married was nothing like the funny, flirty, common girl who had worked in the Tanner’s Arms. She was a master of the false face, as I have written, and for all intents and purposes those were two totally different women.
None of my crew would say otherwise.
Hauer let me go after that, having no other option bar throwing me in the cells without charge. He couldn’t do that without facing dire consequences, and he knew it. I had spent a night in the cells back in the winter, and when I had finally been released Bloody Anne had been waiting for me with some two hundred folk from my streets around her. A mob like that rioting on Trader’s Row would have been disastrous for Hauer.
But it was Ailsa who was waiting for me that day, in our carriage with two of the footmen and Desh for muscle. Our house was barely ten minutes’ walk from the governor’s hall, but of course I was in my shirtsleeves and how would that have looked? I stepped up into the carriage with her and thumped on the roof to get the coachman moving.
“What happened?” she asked me.
I looked sideways at Desh and gave my head a tiny shake.
“I’m well,” I said. “A misunderstanding about business, that’s all.”
She nodded and held her peace.
We stayed silent until we were back in our parlor or drawing room or whatever it was called and the door was closed behind us.
“Hauer knows,” I said.
“He can’t do.”
I sighed and poured myself a brandy. I offered Ailsa one, but she shook her head.
“No, perhaps not,” I allowed, “but he suspects something. He knows very well that what happened in the Wheels was my doing.”
“Of course he does, he’s not a complete idiot. The important thing is that he can’t prove anything, so it doesn’t matter.”
“No, but he’s still picking at it like a scab, and he’s started asking questions about you,” I said. “I don’t like it.”
“I don’t like anything Governor Hauer does, but everything in its time. What of his association with the Skanians?”
“I brought it up, in a roundabout way,” I said. “He knows who Vhent works for, I’m sure of it.”
“I agree,” she said, “and that will be his downfall. However much they’re paying him, he must realize that Dannsburg will notice what he’s doing eventually and send . . . well, someone like me, to put a stop to it. He clearly intends to make himself rich enough to flee the country before that happens. He’s a fool if he thinks there is anywhere in the world he could run to that is beyond the reach of the Queen’s Men, but that’s beside the point. What he doesn’t know is that I’m already here, and two steps ahead of him. I won’t see Vhent rebuild the Skanian hold in Ellinburg, whatever it takes. Destroying the Gutcutters was only the first step, Tomas. These Northern Sons now control most of the west side of the city, and we need to drive them out. It’s time to ready the knives.”
I could only stare at her as the realization sank in.
She wanted more bloodshed.
Even after the Wheels, she still wanted more. I remembered how it had been at Messia, after the sack, the starving people living like animals among the ruins. I remembered Abingon, the fires and the choking dust, plague and the bloody flux. I remembered the screams of the wounded, and the inhuman howls that came from the surgeons’ tents loud enough to be heard even over the endless pounding of the cannon.
I felt cold then, cold to my bones.
Was my war never going to end?