SELECTION FROM

Priest of Lies

Peter McLean

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?”

He shrugged.

“Cutter,” Billy said again. “He’s lonely. I’ll be his friend.”

If I had to choose a friend for my adopted nephew, 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.

Priest of Lies