From The Cat's Head by E.M. Swift-Hook.
Somewhere in the lands of the County of Durham in the year 1642.
Philip Lord raised his cup in a silent toast, eyes as peacock bright as his clothing, downing the contents in a single draught. Gideon said nothing as a second cup followed the first and then was refilled a third time, and a fourth before being left upon the table.
“So, tell me, why are you still here?” Lord gestured expansively towards the door. “The way is open, no chains restrain you, your horse is rested and well fed and no doubt you have friends and family eager to embrace you to their collective bosom and make noises of shock and outrage about how ill you were treated.”
Gideon felt a surge of anger and forced himself to contain it, he knew this was deliberate – the baiting. It was the same baiting an opponent in a litigation might offer, but touching different nerves. What he could not fathom was the reason for it. He sipped his own aquavite and put the cup down with exaggerated care.
“I do not like to be taken for a complete fool even if I may have seemed one to you. We don’t all live in a world where trust and loyalty are playthings – or counters in a game.”
Lord laughed aloud.
“Oh but we do. It is simply that some do not wish to see that is so. But honesty is a refreshing change and has its own value when you come to trade. And I do not take you for a fool, Lennox. I take you for naïve and ill-informed. You are clearly no fool, for you are sitting here now.”
“You had ordered Shiraz to knife me if I left,” said Gideon softly. “You were hardly going to let me see your secret cache and walk out again.”
Lord picked up his spoon and poked at the stew as if expecting to find something in it that might move.
“Sumac,” he said at last, “if you were wondering. And no, Shiraz had no orders to harm you. His orders were to protect you – if he could. He is very good, but there were four men waiting to kill you if you returned to your lodgings and I told him only to save you if he was sure he could get out alive himself.”
Gideon felt a cold lump begin to form in his chest, he half rose to his feet pushing down on the table.
“Four men? Who would -?”
Then he sank back down as realisation hit.
“Be glad, My Not-So-Giddy-One, your wisdom in remaining has saved us one more problem. When they raked through the ashes of the alehouse, they found your ring on one of the bodies. You are already dead to the world, grieved over and mourned.”
Gideon barely registered what he was being told. One thought remained in his mind.
“Coupland is like the flower on the buttercup, bright and eye-catching, drawing the attention and holding it. But the true business of the plant lies in the plain green leaves – and the most important part is the root, out of sight, hidden deeply. Pick the flower and the plant yet lives, pluck most all its leaves and it will not perish – but cut the root and it dies.”
“You make it sound as though there is some grand conspiracy going on,” Gideon said, not willing to believe that it could be so The other man looked at him and shrugged lightly.
“You think there is not? An interesting view to come from one fresh from the hotbed of Hostmen politics. But have it your way: Sir Bartholomew, acting alone, set you up to be murdered by me. He then set in place a backup plan to ensure that if by chance you escaped that fate, you would still die. I would have thought that might just pique your curiosity – I know it would mine in your place.”
“I only have your word for that,” said Gideon, but without real sincerity.
“Then take your horse and go back to Durham. You might even have a day or two before they realise the mistake.”
Lord frowned at the spoon he was holding and set it down. Then, pulling out his knife, stabbed at a lump of mutton and started eating. Gideon watched as Lord first ate all the meat, then finished the rest with a spoon, finally wiping the bowl with a piece of bread. Pushing the bowl away he looked up, an expression of mock surprise on his face.
“It seems I don’t have anywhere to go and from all I have learned so far what happened is not about me. It never really was. It is about you. You have the answers.”
The turquoise eyes narrowed slightly.
“Perhaps it is that I do. But do you have the right questions?”
“I don’t know – shall we try a few and see?” Gideon said trying to match Lord’s tone. “Am I here because it amuses you to sit there in superior smugness and gloat? Are you bored with the girl and find Shiraz a bit short on conversation? Or do you just want a foil for your ready wit – someone to play with who can’t bite back, because you just have to be cock-of-the-walk?”
His voice rose as he spoke, but the other man remained expressionless. Only after Gideon was silent did Lord give a slight smile, drain his latest cup of aquavite and get smoothly to his feet.
“But of course. Why else would you be here? Now, since that is all cleared up we have an appointment to keep in the morning so I might suggest an early night.”
With that he went up the stairs, out of sight. A few moments later Gideon heard the sound of a door being opened and closed – and the distinctive clatter of a key being securely turned in a lock. He wondered, viciously, if Philip Lord had to make it a habit to lock himself away at night to avoid being murdered in his sleep.