Midway through the dinner, between the fish and carvery courses, a footman went to the head of the table with a tiny silver tray. He gave a note to Leo. "My lord," the footman murmured.
The entire table fell silent as everyone watched Leo read the note. Casually he tucked the slip of paper into his coat and murmured something to the footman about readying his horse.
A smile touched Leo's lips as he saw their gazes fastened on him. "My apologies, all," he said calmly. "I'm needed for a bit of business that can't wait." His light blue eyes held a sardonic glint as he glanced at Amelia. "Perhaps you could have the kitchen save a plate of dessert for me? You know how I love trifle."
"As a dessert or verb?" Amelia rejoined, and he grinned.
"Both, of course." He stood from the table. "Excuse me, please."
Win was gripped with worry. She knew this had something to do with Merripen; she felt it in her bones. "My lord," she said in a suffocated voice. "Is it-"
"All is well," he said at once.
"Shall I go?" Cam asked, staring hard at Leo. It was a novel situation for all of them, Leo as a problem-solver. Novel especially to Leo.
"Not a chance," Leo replied. "I wouldn't be deprived of this for the world."
The Stony Cross gaol was located on Fishmonger Lane. Locals referred to the two-room lockup as "the pinfold." The antique word referred to a pen where stray animals were kept, hearkening back to medieval times when the open field system had still been practiced. The owner of a lost cow, sheep, or goat had usually been able to find it at the pinfold, where he could claim it for a fee. Nowadays, drunkards and minor lawbreakers were claimed by their relatives in much the same way.
Leo had spent more than a few nights in the pinfold himself. But to his knowledge, Merripen had never run afoul of the law and had certainly never been guilty of drunkenness, public or private. Until now.
It was rather bemusing, this reversal of their situations. Merripen had always been the one to collect Leo from whatever gaol or strong room he had managed to land himself in.
Leo met briefly with the parish constable, who seemed similarly struck by the arse-about of it all.
"May I ask the nature of the crime?" Leo inquired diffidently.
"Got himself good and pickled at the tavern," the constable replied, "and went into a real Tom-'n'-Jerry with a local."
"What were they fighting over?"
"The local made some remark about Gypsies and drink, and that set Mr. Merripen off like a Roman candle." Scratching his head through his wiry hair, the constable said reflectively, "Merripen had plenty of men jumping to defend him-he's well liked among the farmers here-but he fought them, too. And even then they tried to pay his bail. They said it wasn't like him, getting foxed and brawling. From what I know of Merripen, he's a quiet sort. Not like the others of his kind. But I said no, I wasn't taking bail money until he'd cooled his heels for a bit. Those fists are the size of Hampshire hams. I'm not releasing him until he's more than half-sober."
"May I speak to him?"
"Yes, my lord. He's in the first room. I'll take you there."
"You needn't trouble yourself," Leo said pleasantly. "I know the way."
The constable grinned at that. "I suppose you do, my lord."
The cell was unfurnished except for a short-legged stool, an empty bucket, and a straw pallet. Merripen was sitting on the pallet, leaning his back against a timbered wall. One knee was propped up, his arm half-curled around it. The black head was lowered in a posture of utter defeat.
Merripen looked up as Leo approached the row of iron bars that separated them. His face was drawn and saturnine. He looked as if he hated the world and all its inhabitants.
Leo was certainly familiar with that feeling. "Well, this is a change," he remarked cheerfully. "Usually you're on this side and I'm on that side."
"Sod off," Merripen growled.
"And that's what I usually say," Leo marveled.
"I'm going to kill you," Merripen said with guttural sincerity.
"That doesn't provide much incentive for me to get you out, does it?" Leo folded his arms across his chest and regarded the other man with expert assessment. Merripen was no longer drunk. Only mean as the devil. And suffering. Leo supposed in light of his own past misdeeds, he should have more patience with the man. "Nevertheless," Leo said, "I will have you set free, since you've done the same for me on so many occasions."
"Then do it."
"Soon. But I have a few things to say. And it's obvious that if I let you out first, you'll bolt like a hare at a coursing, and then I won't have the chance."
"Say what you like. I'm not listening."
"Look at you. You're a filthy mess and you're locked up in the pinfold. And you're about to receive a lecture on behavior from me, which is obviously as low as a man can sink."
From all appearances, the words fell on deaf ears. Leo continued undaunted. "You're not suited for this, Merripen. You can't hold your drink worth a damn. And unlike people such as me, who become quite amicable when they drink, you turn into a vile-tempered troll." Leo paused, considering how best to provoke him. "Liquor brings out one's true inner nature, they say."
That got him. Merripen flashed Leo a dark glance that contained both fury and anguish. Surprised by the strength of the reaction, he hesitated before continuing.