Half a dozen knights sat at rough benches or sprawled on their pallets on the grubby floor, stuffing their coarse faces with stew and beer and talking in crude soldier-speak: dirty jokes, extravagant lies about their fighting prowess, the quantity and quality of women they had recently pleasured. The Archpriest had heard it all before, and would rather stick forks in his eyes than listen to any of it again.
He tried to hurry through, but the knights were not so lax or tipsy as they pretended. Two of them rose and barred his way as Flambard approached the door leading into the corridor.
“What can we do you for, lordship?” one grinned, wiping mutton stew from his mouth.
Flambard clenched his fists and quelled his temper at the man’s insolent attitude. As the Queen’s guardians, the knights enjoyed a privileged position and could be sarcastic to anyone they pleased.
Within reason, thought the Cardinal. Just let this one overstep the mark and I’ll have him cleaning out privies for a year.
“I am here to see the Queen,” he replied in his most autocratic tone. “As you well know, since I visit her regularly. Let me pass.”
The knights stayed fixed in place, as did their grins.
“Past form is irrelevant,” said the stew-eater, “as you well know. Tell us the password and you can go through.”
“Password? Do you know who I am, young man?”
“Of course, my lord Archpriest, but these are uncertain times. We trust no-one.”
The Archpriest swelled with anger, increasing his resemblance to a furious overgrown toad. “Trust?” he roared. “What the fuck are you talking about? Do you dare imply that I am capable of treason?”
The knight could see that he had gone too far, and his companion edged away from him as he tried to make conciliatory noises. Flambard was having none of it.
“On your knees, little man!” he howled, jabbing his forefinger at the floor, “on your knees before your master!”
His luckless victim looked around for aid, but all his brother knights were studiously examining their fingernails, the walls, the ceiling, anything but him. He gulped and slowly dropped to his knees.
Flambard glared down at him with loathing. The clergyman’s heavy face was white with rage and there was a speck of foam at the corner of his chopped-liver lips.
He drew the jewelled knife hanging from his hip and slashed the kneeling man across the cheek.
The knight yelped and clapped a hand to his face. Flambard watched in sudden horror as dark red blood welled from between his victim’s fingers and trickled across the back of his hand.