Baron Eugene Everette was having an interesting week – certainly the most interesting in recent memory. Sometimes life had a way of surprising him. The gods certainly had a sense of humor.
But “a problem is just another opportunity,” his grandfather had told him – and he was certainly an opportunist. It was all about how you viewed it. Events could always be shaped and molded to suit you. He just had to take hold and bend it in the right places.
“Eugene,” his grandfather would say, “There are two types of men in this world; the Lions, and the Sheep. Lions like you and I take destiny into their own hands to get what they want. Sheep never try to change their destiny and therefore will never be great.”
Sitting in Grandpa’s lap, little Eugene had asked: “I’m a Lion, sir?”
“You were born a Lion, Eugene. But being born a Lion is not enough. You have to act like one, too. Just look at your father.” Grandpa had grown very still as he said this. A crawling anxiety grew in Eugene’s guts. “Your father is no Lion,” he spat, “despite being born of my loins.”
Little Eugene had looked up at his Grandfather’s face to see it darkened with rage. “Don’t ever let me see you becoming a Sheep.”
Seven-year-old Eugene was paralyzed by those dark eyes. “No, sir.”
“No sir, what.”
“No sir, I will not become a Sheep,” he peeped, affixed in place with terror.
“I will not become a Sheep.”
“I will not become a Sheep.”
I am a Lion, he thought to himself as he sat down to eat. I will take this situation and handle it – bend it to my will. Some Sheep will be trampled in the process, but that is what great men do.
I will not become a Sheep.
A large breakfast was spread before him now. A crystal glass held an amber liquid, next to it a kettle of tea. He was halfway through a week-old newspaper when Duncan Le Treu entered the dining room, armed to the teeth as usual.
“Duncan,” the Baron said as he peaked over the paper, reading glasses perched on his nose. “Sit! Join me for breakfast!” With a wave of his hand he sent a servant hurrying to prepare another place at the table.
“I’m not hungry,” Duncan said.
“What’s that got to do with it?” The Baron chuckled as he removed his reading spectacles and placed them on the table.
“Alright.” Duncan sighed and unslung the rifle from his shoulder, leaning it against the table as he took the seat offered to him.
“Any of that fancy coffee?”
The Baron clapped his hands. “Your lips to god’s ears.” He turned to another servant: “You heard the man.” They scurried off to do their master’s bidding, who was now sawing neatly into a sausage with fork and knife.
“M’lord,” Duncan said, “something needs to be done with that trespasser. He’s trouble.”
The Baron dabbed at his lips and chin with his napkin before returning it ceremoniously to his lap. He pointed his fork at Duncan from across the table. “Opportunity, Duncan.”
“That man is opportunity. Opportunity just waiting to be seized.”
The Baron leaned back and took a sip of his brandy, looking deep into its contents as though it would show him something.
“He’s a Ranger, Duncan.”
A servant returned with the steaming pot of fresh coffee. Duncan had forgotten he had requested it.
The Baron dismissed the servants with a wave of his hand.
“That’ll be all.”
They filed out quietly, leaving the two alone.
“You can’t be serious,” Duncan said.
“Don’t tell me the thought never crossed your mind.”
“All the more reason to get rid of him, then.” Duncan sipped at his coffee, frowned, then reached for the sugar. “Why didn’t he tell us he’s a Ranger? It would have been in his best interest. He didn’t so much as mention it. In fact, he didn’t tell us much at all.”
The Baron smiled and shook his head, waving his fork in a tut-tut motion. He swallowed his food.
“Duncan, you’re a fighter, not a politician, so I forgive you for not thinking like one. That man told us a great deal of information.” He leaned forward, counting off on each thick finger. “One: we know he is travelling north – I don’t think he was lying about that – and what do we know is south of us?”
“And further past that?”
Duncan frowned. “Fairfield. But that’s at least for-”
“Exactly,” the Baron cut in, leveling a greasy fork at Le Treu. “Only a Ranger can survive that journey on foot – and alone at that. So that gives us another vital piece of information:” he raised a second finger “he’s a Ranger.”
Duncan took a long sip of his coffee and leaned back in his chair, adjusting the curved knife on his belt. “Okay, so he’s a Ranger travelling north from Fairfield. We still don’t know why, or how much he knows about us.”
“We don’t need to know just yet. The fact that he wasn’t willing to divulge that information to us means,” he lifted a third finger, “it must be very important. Information like that,” he leaned forward, a gleam in his eye. “is worth a fortune in the right hands.”
“But we’ll need to know eventually, and we can’t keep a Ranger imprisoned in the dungeons forever. He’d get out sooner or later. And we’re screwed if The Reach finds out about it. The Host won’t accept the ignorance card, either. Not without consequences.”
The Baron played absentmindedly with the remains of his sausage. “You make a good point.”
He massaged the bridge of his nose, deep in thought. Duncan let the moment pass in silence, using it as an opportunity to sample the raspberry jam on a biscuit. All this scheming made him hungry.
“We have one thing in our favor,” the Baron said, breaking the silence. “his wounds. He certainly won’t be going anywhere for a while. which gives us plenty of time to get the truth from him. Did you see the look on his face yesterday? The man can barely focus for ten minutes in that condition.”
“I wouldn’t rely too heavily on that bet,” Le Treu countered. “The herbalist is sure to get him back on his feet faster than you expect.”
“Damn that whore,” the Baron growled. “I need him to remain weak and enfeebled while I question him. She’s liable to put the fighting spirit back in him before I get a chance.”
“Maybe we should be going after her then? Tell her to keep him injured. Threaten to take something of hers?”
The Baron considered this. “No, she’d never agree to that. She knows we want him alive, and she could use that as a bargaining chip. Goddamn goat-fucker. Whatever we do it has to be without her. We’d have the ignorant mob rioting at the doors because of her.”
“And if she gets in the way?”
“We’ll cross that road when – if – we get to it. For now we need to focus on what we can do with Mr. Monroe.”
“Think he was lying about his name?”
“I’m not sure. Probably. I’ll check in with some contacts in The Reach to see if they know anyone by that name.”
“Can you get a list of all the active Rangers?”
The Baron rubbed at his smooth, freshly shaved cheeks. “Maybe. I’m hesitant to dig too deep, though. I don’t want to draw too many eyes, especially when we have one of their own imprisoned.”
“Just say we were treating his wounds,” Duncan grinned.
The Baron pointed his fork at Duncan again with a broad smile. “Ah! We’ll make a politician out of you, yet!”
A twinge of anxiety the Baron as he, once again, realized just how dangerous his compatriot was. I’m in a goddamn viper pit. A Ranger in the basement and the world’s greatest killer in my dining room.
I need to keep this dog on a firm leash.
Le Treu lowered his voice, despite it being just the two of them in the room. “If the Ranger knows about the bandits, it’s all over, and he’ll have to die.”
“You’re probably right about that. You should question them today if you get the chance, find out if they had a run-in with him.”
“What about the Ranger?”
“I’ll question him more this morning.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“No. You said yourself if he found out about the bandits we’d have to kill him, so you should leave town to find that out first while I question him.”
Duncan looked like he might argue the point, but he let it go after a moment’s hesitation. “Alright.” He stood, drained the rest of his coffee, and grabbed the rifle on his way out. “See you later today, then.”
“Alright then. Good luck, Duncan.”
A smile spread across the Baron’s lips as Duncan strode out the door. That Ranger is an omen of things to come, he thought to himself. Great change is about to happen. Time for the Lion to go hunting.
A knock sounded at the side door to the dining room. The door opened, and in walked a tall stick of a man, sharply dressed in a black court doublet and breeches. His long-fingered pianist’s hands were covered in silk gloves, clasped neatly before him. His hawkish face regarded the Baron with a slight bow.
“My lord, it is nearing eight-thirty. Shall we proceed to the dressing room?”
“Aster, forget all that. I need to visit our guest in the dungeons before anything else. Strike while the iron’s hot, and all that.”
Aster frowned even more than normal. “My lord, your schedule was specifically planned with your -”
“Oh, very well. But let’s make it quick. Let me pick your mind on the way, at least.”
“I am at your disposal,” the vulture-like gentleman replied, holding open the door for his master with a professional flourish. The Baron raised his bulk from his chair, his dishes and utensils left neatly arrayed on the table.
Aster followed the Baron out of the dining room and down a long hallway echoing the sounds of whispers and shuffling footsteps. Sunlight struck the walls in intervals through the evenly-spaced windows. Outside, the clatter of horses and barking of dogs could be vaguely heard.
“Tell me, Aster, how would you go about dealing with the trespasser we have locked in the dungeons? I need him to remain in a weak and enfeebled state long enough to question him, but I can’t afford to torture him. Not directly, at least.”
They walked in silence for almost ten paces. The Baron did not hurry the Head Steward, but rather let the silence pass with an almost religious sanctity.
Finally, Aster spoke:
“In the Book of Philosophy it is written: ‘A human’s sharpest tool is neither sword nor plow, but their own mind. Some are sharper than others, but all are keen enough to cut themselves. All the mind needs is a good enough reason – and it will tear itself apart. ’”
The Baron grunted. He would need to unravel that bit of wisdom in his head. They came to the end of the hallway and entered the dressing room, where several fresh sets of clothing were laid out on the bed for him.
“So how would that work,” the Baron asked as he began to undress. “Lock him in solitary confinement until he cracks? We still would need to send the herbalist to keep his wounds from festering.”
“Hmmm. A tricky conundrum indeed,” Aster replied with a quiver of excitement in his voice. The Baron selected an outfit and went about pulling it over his thick stomach.
“Am I correct in assuming the gentleman in question is greatly suffering from his wounds?”
“That’s right,” the Baron said as he tugged on his breeches.
“In a great deal of pain, is he?”
“I would think so, yes.”
“Splendid. Might I suggest a course of action, my lord?”
“Out with it, Aster. What do you have in mind?”
He knelt to tie his master’s boots as he told him of his plan. It was rather genius, the Baron thought to himself.
This interesting week was about to become positively remarkable.