“Alas the giddiness of poor Gideon! How old are you? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? What did you do to upset your patron so young? Seduce his only girl-child? Lose him money in a venture? Mess up a lawsuit?”
Gideon kept his face schooled to stillness but on the last, the turquoise eyes glittered.
“Oh my Giddy One! So that was it – and you have seized this chance to ‘redeem’ yourself, to return covered in glory, only now you realise you have been sent to place your neck in the lion’s jaws.”
The voice had lost its playful tone and hardened into steel. One golden brown hand moved slightly, long fingers caressing the complex weave of the sword hilt. Gideon tried very hard not to be intimidated. He tried to imagine that instead of posing a real and lethally physical threat, this man was simply another clever adversary in court.
“I believe this is not a suitable opportunity to give you the message.”
“Ah, I see now,” the other man said quietly. “My reputation precedes me as a cold-blooded killer – quick to anger and seldom in full control of my wits. There – your face betrays the truth of it. But that charge is not entirely true. I am always in full control of my wits. I give you my word I will not kill the messenger in a fit of pique, however I do need to hear the message. That is not something about which I can allow you any choice.”
Gideon drew a slow breath and knew himself defeated. Too late he realised he had been defeated from the moment he had admitted to bearing the message – probably even from the moment he had stepped into the alehouse.
“Alright. I was to tell you three things. Firstly, that your old friends will not welcome you home; secondly, that the documents no longer exist and thirdly, that nothing has changed and you would be wisest to leave the country again.”
Philip Lord nodded and then looked expectant.
“That is it. There was no more,” Gideon assured him.
“Did your mother not tell you that lying is only for lawyers, physicians and whores? ‘No this won’t cost very much’, ‘Yes, you will feel better soon’ and ‘Oh my! I have never seen one that big before!’. But – wait, I forget, you are a lawyer. You, my Giddy One, are telling fibs – and warts will grow on your tongue. Tell me the part that – being not entirely unintelligent – you have just realised you don’t want me to hear.”
In court, Gideon had seen the expression on the faces of men condemned to hang. He had seen some stand still as rock and receive the news as if they were deaf. He had seen some cry out and be dragged away sobbing. He had seen some possessed of incredible anger and try to lash out in fury. One, a boy of twelve, had simply stood there as if unable to grasp the inevitability of it and asked ‘Why?’ over and over as they took him away. Which was exactly how Gideon felt at that moment. But, being not entirely unintelligent, he also knew that speaking the words made no difference now – they were already implicit in the message he had delivered, indeed in the whole business he had foolishly become involved with.
“He said that if you did not leave immediately, he would take severe remedial action.”
Lord’s face fell with a mummer’s exaggerated expression of regret.
“Oh poor Giddy One, and you here all alone and no one the wiser as to where you might be. The only one who knows where I am to be found. Tell me, what is it like having to speak your own death sentence? And you an honest lawyer too, such a rare breed.”
Pushing himself away from the wall Lord drew the basket-hilted sword in a single smooth action. Gideon stared numbly at the blade, noticing the runnels carved into it near the hilt. He recalled his fencing master telling him those marks were not for decoration, they were to make it easier to pull a sword back out of a dead body.
“But you said…” he protested weakly, trying to rise from the bench even as a strong hand pushed him back down. Irrelevant information pushed into Gideon’s conscious awareness: how the shadows caught the other man’s profile, painting the aquiline nose and strong, clean-shaven, jawline in caricature on the wall beside them. The dispassionate look in the turquoise eyes that seemed to view him as no more or less of an object than the bench he sat on. The way the sword itself moved, flowing with an elegance and naturalness as if it were a living extension of the hand that held it.
“I say many things and not all of them are true. But, if it means anything at all to you – I am truly sorry that I have to do this.”
Gideon closed his eyes, feeling shame at his own cowardice and waiting for the pain to come. In all his vivid imaginings of the ways death might eventually visit him, the one in which it caught him in the filthy back room of a cheap alehouse had somehow been missed out. He tried to pray, but couldn’t get past ‘Oh God!’.
He had time to realise he had been holding his breath uncomfortably long, when the scuff of the door to the common room opening was drowned out by a loud grunt – the sound an ox might make when pole-axed, as was the heavy thud that came a moment later. The scream that followed was feminine and hysterical. Then the door slammed closed, the scream stopped abruptly and pandemonium broke loose. Gideon could hear benches and tables being overturned, men shouting and feet running. Opening his eyes, Gideon found himself, against all sense and expectation, alone in the small room.
Even more unexpected – he was alive.
From The Cat's Head by E.M. Swift-Hook