Coffee Break Read – A Conversation at Table

Somewhere in the North of England, Autumn 1642.

Sometime later, Gideon was sitting with a bowl of mutton stew and a cup of aquavite from the bottle. The stew tasted strange, flavoured through with some spice he did not know, lemony but not unpleasant. Having served him, Zahara sat down opposite him. There was food and a cup before her but she left it almost untouched and watched him eat. He offered her the bottle of spirits but she shook her head.
“I thank you. I do not drink strong spirits.”
“So what are you doing here? Have you been here long?”
“I travel with the Schiavano. We came here four weeks ago,” she said simply. “From Holland.”
“You are – married?”
The question made her smile and even laugh softly. A laughter as sweet and natural as water bubbling from a spring
“No, I am not married. Are you?”
“Not yet. I have neither name nor fortune to tempt anyone to be my wife. And as things are it is unlikely I will have for many years.”
“A wife – or a name and a fortune?”
“Both. No reasonable family would commit a daughter to a man with no solid prospects.”
The girl looked at him, her head slightly tilted, as if puzzled by his answer.  She seemed to be weighing his words with care and when she spoke it was as if she had given the matter grave consideration and was announcing a verdict.
“But love is not reasonable. It is reason that always seeks a profit. Love just gives and asks nothing in return.”
Gideon found himself smiling – but whether at her intensity or her naivety, or simply because she looked so appealing, he was not sure.
“Which would be wisdom, were it not that profit is the purpose of marriage for any of substance. Indeed profit is the purpose for just about everything in the world.”
Under the lappet cap her eyes seemed huge gem stones set in the cameo of her oval face.
“And what,” she asked, as if she was striving to learn and his answer really mattered to her, “is the purpose of profit?”
It was an almost surreal question, the kind Gideon had only been asked in earnest in his student days, with his friends well in their cups. From a woman, he had only the experience of such being asked mischievously, in mild flirtation over the dinner table, where the intention was clearly just  to provide an opportunity for flattery or witticism. She looked as though she was about to add something more, perhaps to explain or expand upon the question, when a light tread on the stair interrupted her. A shadow crossed her face and she stood up quickly.
“I must take some food to Shiraz.” Then she was gone slipping nimbly from the room.
“She is a beauty, is she not?”
Philip Lord sat down at the place she had left and breathed in the steam rising from the stew. His appearance had been transformed again – hair restored complete with lovelock, looking impeccable. He wore peacock blue callamanco, slashed with white silk. It had silver points, each studded with a single sapphire. Boots of grey leather with silver buckles that matched the points and a fine silk shirt. It would have been adequate at court, over-dressing for dinner at a manor house, but here – Gideon thought it was crass and unfitting.
“She is pretty,” he conceded. It did not appeal to discuss Zahara with Philip Lord. The blond man nodded and poured himself a cup of the aquavite.
“She is also forbidden fruit, My Giddy One – you would be wise not to forget that, it is one of the few crimes for which the Lord has no forgiveness.”
“Your ‘property’?” Gideon said, irritated at his proprietorial tone and angry at the assumption behind it.
Lord nodded, watching his guest with appraising eyes.
“I bought her in Algiers.”
Which was not the reply Gideon had expected. Lord raised his cup in a silent toast, eyes above the rim as peacock bright as his clothing, before downing its contents in a single draught. Gideon watched as a second cup instantly followed the first and then was refilled a third and fourth time, before being left full upon the table.

From The Cat’s Head by E.M. Swift-Hook

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