The Red Knight: the toughest Abbess in fantasy is here!

The world has been described, the battle with the Wild has begun . . . today, meet one of the toughest characters in The Red Knight. Not the knight himself, but the fabulous Abbess. Tough as nails and smart as a tack, she’s the fantasy equivalent of James Bond’s M – with the one-liners and authority to prove it. So with no further ado, the floor is hers (and watch out for just a touch of magic and romance too!) . . .

The rest of the ride along the banks of the Cohocton was uneventful, and the company halted by the fortified bridge overshadowed by the rock-girt ridge and the grey walls of the fortress convent atop it, high above them. Linen tents rose like dirty white flowers from the muddy field, and the officer’s pavilions came off the wagons. Teams of archers dug cook pits and latrines, and valets and the many camp followers – craftsmen and sutlers, runaway serfs, prostitutes, servants, and free men and women desperate to gain a place – assembled the heavy wooden hoardings that served the camp as temporary walls and towers. The drovers, an essential part of any company, filled the gaps with the heavy wagons. Horse lines were staked out. Guards were set.

The Abbess’ door ward had pointedly refused to allow the mercenaries through her gate. The mercenaries had expected nothing else, and even now hardened professionals were gauging the height of the walls and the likelihood of climbing them. Two veteran archers – Kanny, the barracks room lawyer of the company, and Scrant, who never stopped eating – stood by the camp’s newly-constructed wooden gate and speculated on the likelihood of getting some in the nun’s dormitory.

It made the captain smile as he rode by, collecting their salutes, on the steep gravel road that led up the ridge from the fortified town at the base, up along the switchbacks and finally up through the fortress gate-house into the courtyard beyond. Behind him, his banner bearer, marshals and six of his best lances dismounted to a quiet command and stood by their horses. His squire held his high-crested bassinet, and his valet bore his sword of war. It was an impressive show and it made good advertising – ideal, as he could see heads at every window and door that opened into the courtyard.

A tall nun in a slate-grey habit – the captain suppressed his reflexive flash on the corpse in the doorway of the steading – reached to take the reins of his horse. A second nun beckoned with her hand. Neither spoke.

The captain was pleased to see Michael dismount elegantly despite the rain, and take Grendel’s head, without physically pushing the nun out of the way.

He smiled at the nuns and followed them across the courtyard towards the most ornate door, heavy with scroll-worked iron hinges and elaborate wooden panels. To the north, a dormitory  building rose beyond a trio of low sheds that probably served as workshops – smithy, dye house and carding house, or so his nose told him. To the south stood a chapel – far too fragile and beautiful for this martial setting – and next to it, by cosmic irony, a long, low, slate-roofed stable.

Between the chapel’s carved oak doors stood a man. He had a black habit with a silk rope around the waist, was tall and thin to the point of caricature, and his hands were covered in old scars.

The captain didn’t like his eyes, which were blue and flat. The man was nervous, and wouldn’t meet his eye – and he was clearly angry.

Flicking his eyes away from the priest, the captain reviewed the riches of the abbey with the eye of a money-lender sizing up a potential client. The abbey’s income was shown in the cobbled courtyard, the neat flint and granite of the stables with a decorative stripe of glazed brick, the copper on the roof and the lead gutters gushing water into a cistern. The courtyard was thirty paces across – as big as that of any castle he’d lived in as a boy. The walls rose sheer – the outer curtain at his back, the central monastery before him, with towers at each corner, all wet stone and wet lead, rain slicked cobbles; the priest’s faded black cassock, and the nun’s undyed surcoat.

All shades of grey, he thought to himself, and smiled as he climbed the steps to the massive monastery door, which was opened by another silent nun. She led him down the hall – a great hall lit by stained glass windows high in the walls. The Abbess was enthroned like a queen in a great chair on a dais at the north end of the hall, in a gown whose grey had just enough colour to appear a pale, pale lavender in the multi-faceted light. She had the look of a woman who had once been very beautiful indeed – even in middle age her beauty was right there, resting in more than her face. Her wimple and the high collar of her gown revealed little enough of her. But her bearing was more than noble, or haughty. Her bearing was commanding, confident in a way that only the great of the land were confident. The captain noted that her nuns obeyed her with an eagerness born of either fear or the pleasure of service.

The captain wondered which it was.

‘You took long enough to reach us,’ she said, by way of greeting. Then she snapped her fingers and beckoned at a pair of servants to bring a tray. ‘We are servants of God here – don’t you think you might have managed to strip your armour before you came to my hall?’ the Abbess asked. She glanced around, caught a novice’s eye, raised an eyebrow. ‘Fetch the captain a stool,’ she said. ‘Not a covered one. A solid one.’

‘I wear armour every day,’ the captain said. ‘It comes with my profession.’

The great hall was as big as the courtyard outside, with high windows of stained glass set near the roof, and massive wooden beams so old that age and soot had turned them black. The walls were whitewashed over fine plaster, and held niches containing images of saints and two rich books – clearly on display to overawe visitors. Their voices echoed in the room, which was colder than the wet courtyard outside. There was no fire in the central hearth.

The Abbess’s people brought her wine, and she sipped it as they placed a small table at the captain’s elbow. He was three feet beneath her. ‘Perhaps your armour is unnecessary in a nunnery?’ she asked. He raised an eyebrow. ‘I see a fortress,’ he said. ‘It happens that there are nuns in it.’

She nodded. ‘If I chose to order you taken by my men, would your armour save you?’ she asked.

The novice who brought his stool was pretty and she was careful of him, moving with the deliberation of a swordsman or a dancer. He turned his head to catch her eye and felt the tug of her power, saw that she was not merely pretty. She set the heavy stool down against the back of his knees. Quite deliberately, the captain touched her arm gently and caused her to turn to him. He turned to face her, putting his back to the Abbess.

‘Thank you,’ he said, looking her in the eye with a calculated smile. She was tall and young and graceful, with wide-set almond-shaped eyes and long nose. Not pretty; she was arresting.

She blushed. The flush travelled like fire down her neck and into her heavy wool gown.

He turned back to the Abbess, his goal accomplished. Wondering why the Abbess had placed such a deserable novice within his reach, unless she meant to. ‘If I chose to storm your abbey, would your piety save you?’ he asked.

She blazed with anger. ‘How dare you turn your back on me?’ she asked. ‘And leave the room, Amicia. The captain has bitten you with his eyes.’

He was smiling. He thought her anger feigned.

She met his eyes and narrowed her own – and then folded her hands together, almost as if she intended to pray.

‘Honestly,  Captain, I have prayed and prayed over what to do here. Bringing you to fight the Wild is like buying a wolf to shepherd sheep.’ She looked him in the eye. ‘I know what you are,’ she said.

‘Do you really?’ he asked. ‘All the better, lady Abbess. Shall we to business, then? Now the pleasantries are done?’

‘But what shall I call you?’ she asked. ‘You are a well-born man, for all your snide airs. My chamberlain—’

‘Didn’t have a nice name for me, did he, my lady Abbess?’ He nodded. ‘You may call me Captain. It is all the name I need.’ He nodded graciously. ‘I do not like the name your chamberlain used. Bourc. I call myself the Red Knight.’

‘Many men are called bourc,’ she said. ‘To be born out of wedlock is—’

‘To be cursed by God before you are born. Eh, lady Abbess?’ He tried to stop the anger that rose on his cheeks like a blush. ‘So very fair. So just.’

She scowled at him for a moment, annoyed with him the way older people are often annoyed with the young, when the young posture too much.

He understood her in a glance.

‘Too dark? Should I add a touch of heroism?’ he asked with a certain air.

She eyed him. ‘If you wrap yourself in darkness,’  she said, ‘you risk merely appearing dull. But you have the wit to know it. There’s hope for you, boy, if you know that. Now to business. I’m not rich—’

‘I have never met anyone who would admit being rich,’ he agreed. ‘Or to getting enough sleep.’

‘More wine for the captain,’ snapped the Abbess to the sister who had guarded the door. ‘But I can pay you. We are afflicted by something from the Wild. It has destroyed two of my farms this year, and one last year. At first – at first, we all hoped that they were isolated incidents.’ She met his eye squarely. ‘It is not possible to believe that any more.’

‘Three farms this year,’ said the captain. He fished in his purse, hesitated over the chain with the leaf amulet, then fetched forth a cross inlaid with pearls instead.

‘Oh, by the wounds of Christ!’ swore the Abbess. ‘Oh, Blessed Virgin protect and cherish her. Sister Hawisia! Is she—’

‘She is dead,’ the captain said. ‘And six more corpses in the garden. Your good sister died trying to protect them.’

‘Her faith was very strong,’ the Abbess said. She was dry eyed, but her voice trembled. ‘You needn’t mock her.’

The captain frowned. ‘I never mock courage, lady Abbess. To face such a thing without weapons—’

‘Her faith was a weapon  against evil, Captain.’  The Abbess leaned forward.

‘Strong enough to stop a creature from the Wild? No, it was not,’ said the captain quietly. ‘I won’t comment on evil.’

The Abbess stood sharply. ‘You are some sort of atheist, are you, Captain?’ The captain  frowned  again. ‘There is nothing  productive  for us in theological debate, my lady Abbess. Your lands have attracted a malignant entity – an enemy of Man. They seldom hunt alone, especially not this far from the Wild. You wish me to rid you of them. I can. And I will. In exchange, you will pay me. That is all that matters between us.’

The Abbess sat again, her movements violent, angry. The captain sensed that she was off balance – that the death of the nun had struck her personally. She was, after all, the commander of a company of nuns.

‘I am not convinced that engaging you is the right decision,’ she said.

The captain nodded. ‘It may not be, lady Abbess. But you sent for me, and I am here.’ Without intending to, he had lowered his voice, and spoke softly.

‘Is that a threat?’ she asked.

Instead of answering,  the captain reached into his purse again and withdrew the broken chain holding a small leaf made of green enamel on bronze. The Abbess recoiled as if from a snake.

‘My men found this,’ he said.

The Abbess turned her head away.

‘You have a traitor,’ he said. And rose. ‘Sister Hawisia had an arrow in her back. While she faced something terrible, something very, very terrible.’ He nodded. ‘I will go to walk the walls. You need time to think if you want us. Or not.’

‘You will poison us,’ she said. ‘You and your kind do not bring peace.’

He nodded. ‘We bring you no peace, but a company of swords, my lady.’ He grinned at his own misquote of scripture. ‘We don’t make the violence. We merely deal with it as it comes to us.’

‘The devil can quote scripture,’ she said.

‘No doubt he had his hand in writing it,’ the captain shot back.

She bit back a counter – he watched her face change as she decided not to rise to his provocation. And he felt a vague twinge of remorse for goading her, an ache like the pain in his wrist from making too many practice cuts the day before. And, like the pain in his wrist, he was unaccustomed  to remorse.

‘I could say it is a little late to think of peace now.’ He sneered briefly and then put his sneer away. ‘My men are here, and they haven’t had a good meal or a paid job in some weeks. I offer this, not as a threat, but as a useful piece of data as you reason through the puzzle. I also think that the creature you have to deal with is far worse than you have imagined. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s far worse than I had imagined. It is big, powerful, and angry, and very intelligent. And more likely two than one.’

She winced.

‘Allow me a few minutes to think,’ she said.

He nodded, bowed, set his riding sword at his waist, and walked back into the courtyard.

His men stood like statues, their scarlet surcoats livid against their grey surroundings. The horses fretted – but only a little – and the men less.

‘Be easy,’ he said. They all took breath together. Stretched arms tired from bearing armour, or hips bruised from mail and cuirass.

Michael was the boldest. ‘Are we in?’ he asked.

The captain didn’t meet his eye because he’d noticed an open window across the courtyard, and seen the face framed in it. ‘Not yet, my honey. We are not in yet.’ He blew a kiss at the window.

The face vanished.

Ser Milus, his primus pilus and standard bearer, grunted. ‘Bad for business,’ he said. And then, as an afterthought, ‘m’lord.’

The captain flicked him a glance and looked back to the dormitory windows.

‘There’s more virgins watching us right now,’ Michael opined, ‘Then have parted their legs for me in all my life.’

Jehannes, the senior marshal, nodded seriously. ‘Does that mean one, young Michael? Or two?’

Guillaume Longsword, the junior marshal, barked his odd laugh, like the seals of the northern bays. ‘The second one said she was a virgin,’ he mock-whined. ‘At least, that’s what she told me!’

Coming through the visor of his helmet, his voice took on an ethereal quality that hung in the air for a moment. Men do not look on horror and forget it. They merely put it away. Memories of the steading were still too close to the surface, and the junior marshal’s voice had summoned them, somehow. No one laughed. Or rather, most of them laughed, and all of it was forced.

The captain shrugged. ‘I have chosen to give our prospective employer some time to consider her situation,’ he said.

Milus barked a laugh. ‘Stewing in her juice to raise the price, is that it?’ he asked. He nodded at the door of the chapel. ‘Yon has no liking for us.  The priest continued to stand in his doorway.

‘Think he’s a dimwit? Or is he the pimp?’ Ser Milus asked. And stared at the priest. ‘Be my guest, cully. Stare all ye like.’

The soldiers chuckled, and the priest went into the chapel.

Michael flinched at the cruelty in the standard bearer’s tone, then stepped forward. ‘What is your will, m’lord?’

‘Oh,’ the captain said, ‘I’m off hunting.’ He stepped away quickly, with a wry smile, walked a few steps toward the smithy, concentrated . . . and vanished.

Michael looked confused. ‘Where is he?’ he asked.

Milus shrugged, shifting the weight of his hauberk. ‘How does he dothat?’ he asked Jehannes.

Twenty paces away, the captain walked into the dormitory wing as if it was his right to do so. Michael leaned as if to call out but Jehannes put his gauntleted hand over Michael’s mouth.

‘There goes our contract,’ Hugo said. His dark eyes crossed with the standard bearer’s, and he shrugged, despite the weight of the maille on his shoulders. ‘I told you he was too young.’

Jehannes eased his hand off the squire’s face. ‘He has his little ways, the Bourc.’ He gave the other men a minute shake of his head. ‘Let him be. If he lands us this contract—’

Hugo snorted, and looked up at the window.


The captain reached into the palace in his head.

A vaulted room, twelve sided, with high, arched, stained glass windows, each one bearing a different image set at even intervals between columns of aged marble that supported a groined roof. Under each window was a sign of the zodiac, painted in brilliant blue on gold leaf, and then a band of beaten bronze as wide as a man’s arm, and finally, at eye level, a series of niches between the columns, each holding a statue; eleven statues of white marble, and one iron-bound door under the sign of Ares.

In the exact centre of the room stood a twelfth statue – Prudentia,  his childhood tutor. Despite her solid white marble skin, she smiled warmly as he approached her.

‘Clementia, Pisces, Eustachios,’ he said in the palace of his memory, and his tutor’s veined white hands moved to point at one sign and then another.

And the room moved.

The windows rotated silently above the signs of the zodiac, and the statues below the band of bronze rotated in the opposite direction until his three chosen signs were aligned opposite to the iron-bound door. And he smiled at Prudentia, walked across the tiles of the twelve-sided room and unlatched the door.

He opened it on a verdant garden of rich summer green – the dream memory of the perfect summer day. It was not always thus, on the far side of the door. A rich breeze blew in. It was not always this strong, his green power, and he deflected some with the power of his will, batting it into a ball and shoving it like a handful of summer leaves into a hempen bag he imagined into being and hung from Prudentia’s outstretched arm. Against a rainy day. The insistent green breeze stirred through his hair and then reached the aligned signs on the opposite wall and—

He moved away from the horses without urgency, secure in the knowl- edge that Michael would be distracted as he moved – and so would the watcher in the window.

The captain’s favourite phantasms depended on misdirection more than aethereal force. He preferred to add to their efficacy with physical efficiency – he walked quietly, and didn’t allow his cloak to flap.

At the door to the dormitory he reached into his memory palace and

leaned into the vaulted room. ‘Same again, Pru,’ he said.

Again the sigils moved as the marble statue pointed to the signs, already aligned above the door. He opened it again, allowed the green breeze to power his working, and let the door close.

He walked into the dormitory building. There were a dozen nuns, all big, capable women, sitting in the good light of the clerestory windows, and most of them were sewing.

He walked past them without a swirl of his scarlet cloak, his whole will focused on his belief that his presence there was perfectly normal and started up the stairs. No heads turned, but one older nun stopped peering at her embroidery and glanced at the stairwell, raised an eyebrow, and then went back to her work. He heard a murmur from behind him.

Not entirely fooled then, he thought. Who are these women?

His sabatons made too much noise and he had to walk carefully, because power – at least, the sort of power he liked to wield – was of limited use. The stairs wound their way up and up, turning as tightly as they would in any other fortress, to foul his sword arm if he was an attacker.

Which I am, of a sort, he thought. The gallery was immediately above the hall. Even on a day this grey, it was full of light. Three grey-clad novices leaned on the casemates of the windows, watching the men in the yard. Giggling.

At the edge of his power, he was surprised to find traces of their power.

He stepped into the gallery, and his sabaton made a distinct metallic scratch against the wooden floor – a clarion sound in a world of barefoot women. He didn’t try to strain credulity by willing himself to seem normal, here.

The three heads snapped around. Two of the girls turned and ran. The third novice hesitated for a fatal moment – looking. Wondering.

He had her hand. ‘Amicia?’ he said into her eyes, and then put his mouth over hers. Put an armoured leg inside her thighs and trapped her – turned her over his thigh as easily as throwing a child in a wrestling match, and she was in his arms. He rested his back plate against the ledge of the cloister and held her. Gently. Firmly.

She wriggled, catching her falling sleeve against the flange that protected his elbow. But her eyes were locked on his – and huge. She opened her lips. More there than simple fear or refusal. He licked her teeth. Ran a finger under her chin.

Her mouth opened under his – delicious.

He kissed her, or perhaps she kissed him. It was not brief. She relaxed into him – itself a pleasing warmth, even through the hardened steel of his arm harness and breastplate.

Kisses end.

‘Don’t take the vows,’ he said. ‘You do not belong here.’ He meant to sound teasing, but even in his own head his voice dripped with unintended mockery.

He stood straight and set her on the ground, to show that he was no rapist. She blushed red from her chin to her forehead, again. Even the backs of her hands were red. She cast her eyes down, and then shifted her weight – he watched such things. She leaned forward—

And slammed  a hand into his right ear. Taking him completely  by surprise. He reeled, his back hit the wall with a metallic thud, and he caught himself—

—and turned to chase her down.

But she wasn’t running. She stood her ground. ‘How dare you judge me?’ she said.

He rubbed his ear. ‘You mistake me,’ he said. ‘I meant no hard judgment. You wanted to be kissed. It is in your eyes.’

As a line, it had certainly worked before. In this case, he felt it to be true. Despite the sharp pain in his ear.

She pursed her lips – full, very lovely lips. ‘We are all of us sinners, messire. I struggle with my body every day. That gives you no right to it.’

There was a secret smile to the corner of her mouth – really, no smile at all, but something—

She turned and walked away down the gallery, leaving him alone.

He descended the stairs, rubbing his ear, wondering how much of the exchange had been witnessed by his men. Reputations can take months to build and be lost in a few heartbeats and his was too new to weather a loss of respect. But he calculated that the grey sky and the angle of the gallery windows should have protected him.

‘That was quick,’ said Michael, admiringly, as he emerged. The captain was careful not to do anything as gross as tuck his braes into his hose.

Because, had he taken her right there against the cloister wall, he would still have re-dressed meticulously before emerging.

Why didn’t I? He asked himself. She was willing enough.

She liked me.

She hit me very hard.

He smiled at Michael. ‘It took as long as it took,’ he said. As he spoke, the heavy iron-bound door opened and a mature nun beckoned to the captain.

‘The devil himself watches over you,’ Hugo muttered.

The captain shook his head. ‘The devil doesn’t give a fuck, either,’ he said, and went to deal with the Abbess.

He knew as soon he crossed the threshold that she’d elected to take them on. If she’d decided not to take them on, she wouldn’t have seen him again. Murder in the courtyard might have been closer to the mark.

Except that all the soldiers she had couldn’t kill the eight of them in thecourtyard. And she knew it. If she had eight good men, she’d never have sent for him to begin with.

It was like Euclidean geometry. And the captain could never understand why other people couldn’t see all the angles.

He rubbed at the stinging in his ear, bowed deeply to the Abbess, and mustered up a smile.

She nodded. ‘I have to take you as you are,’ she said. ‘So I will use a long spoon. Tell me your rates?’

He nodded. ‘May I sit?’ he asked. When she extended  a reasonably gracious hand, he picked up the horn wine cup that had obviously been placed for him. ‘I drink to your eyes, ma belle.’

She held his gaze with her own and smiled. ‘Flatterer.’

‘Yes,’ he said, taking a sip of wine and continuing to meet her stare over the rim like a proper courtier. ‘Yes, but no.’

‘My beauty is long gone, with the years,’ she said.

‘Your body remembers your beauty so well that I can still see it,’ he said.

She nodded. ‘That was a beautiful compliment,’ she admitted. Then she laughed. ‘Who boxed your ear?’ she asked.

He stiffened. ‘It is an old—’

‘Nonsense! I educate children. I know a boxed ear when I see one.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘A nun.’

‘I do not kiss and tell,’ he said.

‘You are not as bad as you would have me believe, messire,’ she replied.

They gazed at each other for a few breaths.

‘Sixteen double leopards a month for every lance. I have thirty-one lances today – you may muster them and count them yourself. Each lance consists of at least a knight, his squire, and a valet; usually a pair of archers. All mounted, all with horses to feed. Double pay for my corporals. Forty pounds a month for my officers – there are three – and a hundred pounds for me. Each month.’ He smiled lazily. ‘My men are very well disciplined. And worth every farthing.’

‘And if you kill my monster tonight?’ she asked.

‘Then you have a bargain, lady Abbess – only one month’s pay.’ He sipped his wine.

‘How do you tally these months?’ she asked.

‘Ah! There’s none sharper than you, even in the streets of Harndon, lady. Full months by the lunar calendar.’ He smiled. ‘So the next one starts in just two weeks. The Merry month of May.’

‘Jesu, Lord of the Heavens and Saviour of Man. You are not cheap.’ She shook her head.

‘My people are very, very good at this. We have worked on the Continent for many years, and now we are back in Alba. Where you need us. You needed us a year ago. I may be a hard man, lady, but let us agree that no more Sister Hawisias need die? Yes?’ He leaned forward to seal the deal, the wine cup between his hands, and suddenly the weight of his armour made him tired and his back hurt.

‘I’m sure Satan is charming if you get to know him,’ she said quietly. ‘And I’m sure that if you aren’t paid, your interest in the Sister Hawisia’s of this world will vanish like snow in strong sunshine.’ She gave him a thin-lipped smile. ‘Unless you can kiss them – and even then, I doubt you stay with them long. Or they with you.’

He frowned.

‘For every steading damaged by your men, I will deduct the price of a lance,’ she said. ‘For every man of mine injured in a brawl, for every woman who complains to me of your men, the price of a corporal. If a single one of my sisters is injured – or violated – by your Satan’s spawn, even so much as a lewd hand laid to her or an unseemly comment made, I will deduct your fee. Do you agree? Since,’ she said with icy contempt, ‘Your men are so well disciplined?’

She really does like me, he thought. Despite all. He was more used to people who disliked him. And he wondered if she would give him Amicia. She’d certainly  put the beautiful  novice where he could see her. How calculating was the old witch? She seemed the type who would try to lure him with more than coin – but he’d already pricked her with his comment about Sister Hawisia.

‘What’s the traitor worth?’ he asked.

She shook her head. ‘I do not believe in your traitor,’ she said, pointing on the enamel leaf on a wooden platter by her side. ‘You carry this foul thing with you to trick fools. And I am not a fool.’

He shrugged. ‘My lady, you are allowing your dislike for my kind to cloud your judgment. Consider: what could make me to lie to you about such a thing? How many people should have been at that steading?’ he asked.

She met his eye – she had no trouble with that, which pleased him. ‘There should have been seven confreres to work the fields,’ she allowed.

‘We found your good sister and six other corpses,’ the captain countered.

‘It is all straightforward enough, lady Abbess.’ He sipped more wine. ‘One is missing when none could have escaped. None.’ He paused. ‘Some of your sheep have grown teeth. And no longer wish to be part of your flock.’ He had a sudden thought. ‘What was Sister Hawisia doing there? She was a nun of the convent, not a labourer?’

She took a sharp breath. ‘Very well. If you can prove there is a traitor – or traitors – there will be reward. You must trust that I will be fair.’

‘Then you must understand: my men will behave badly – it is months since they were paid, and longer since they’ve been anywhere they might spend what they don’t have. The writ of my discipline does not run to stopping tavern brawls or lewd remarks.’ He tried to look serious, though his heart was all but singing with the joy of work and gold to pay the company. ‘You must trust that I will do my best to keep them to order.’

‘Perhaps you’ll have to lead by example?’ she said. ‘Or get the task done quickly and move on to greener pastures?’ she asked sweetly. ‘I understand the whores are quite comely south of the river. In the Albin.’

He thought of the value of this contract – she hadn’t quibbled at his inflated prices.

‘I’ll decide which seems more attractive when I’ve seen the colour of your money,’ he said.

‘Money?’ she asked.

‘Payment due a month in advance, lady Abbess. We never fight for free.’