Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battle's lost and won . . .

            --William Shakespeare, Macbeth

PART THIRTY-SEVEN: "The Last of the Hunt"

A slow drifting.  Then, floating up towards consciousness, like a swimmer breaking the surface of a dark lake . . .

His shoulder hurt . . . that made some sense once he remembered the sudden flash of light on metal.  But his head hurt too, which was a little confusing. 

Archie cracked his eyes open, slowly and cautiously. There was light, but it did not seem too strong to bear. He felt the familiar firmness of a mattress beneath him, then, as he attempted to move his arm, the slight stiffness of bandages impeding his movement.

Opening his eyes a fraction wider, he perceived two men gazing down at him from opposite sides of the bed.  Carmichael and Latour. 

Oh God. Archie resisted the temptation to close his eyes and feign safe unconsciousness.  But his waking had already been noted.

Carmichael's face was unsmiling.  "More guts than sense."

Archie swallowed, moistened his lips, and found that speech was possible. "Where--?"

It was Latour who responded this time. "Back at headquarters. You've been unconscious for the last few hours -- you didn't even rouse when we moved you."

"How is -- Milord?"

"Better off than you," Carmichael retorted.  "And who gave you orders to risk yourself without leave? That's what commanding officers are for."

Archie tried to fight back.  "And how long -- would I have had to wait for a direct order?"  He heard Latour give a dry chuckle in response.

Carmichael glared at the physician. "You hold him down, I'll thrash him."

"I was the closest," Archie defended himself. "I saw it first."

"So you made yourself a patient voluntarily," Latour observed, with chilly disapproval.

"You'd have done the same," Archie protested, looking from the physician to his commander.  "Either of you."

"I'll trade with you," Latour remarked to Carmichael, "when your arm gets tired."

Carmichael nodded, glanced severely at Archie again, and proceeded to administer sterner chastisement. "I'd not have wanted to explain this to your wee wife."

"Oh." Archie winced, then complained, "That hurt.  Almost worse than being shot."

"It should," Carmichael retorted.  He relented enough to lend a hand as Archie turned over onto his good shoulder and struggled to sit up.  Once upright, he looked quizzically at Latour.

"Why doesn't--?"

"Your wound hurt more?" the doctor finished.  "It was a very small pistol. In the eye or the throat or directly upon a vital organ, the impact might have been fatal, but otherwise--" he shrugged. "You were fortunate.  The bullet struck here," he touched Archie's good shoulder in the same spot, "passed through the flesh cleanly and missed the bone.  You did more damage to yourself in striking your head against the desk when you fell.  Which does not mean your actions were wise, prudent, or advisable, and I trust they will not be repeated."

"I hope they will not need to be," Archie replied.  "You said Kilcarron was well.  But what else happened, at the DeGuises'? I seem to have missed the last act."

Latour and Carmichael exchanged a glance, then the latter replied, "The Vicomtesse is dead."

Archie's eyes widened. "How?"

"Minard.  Trying for Old Nick was only half of what he intended.  He reached the Vicomtesse and--" Carmichael drew a finger across his throat in an unmistakable gesture.

"Unfortunately, his captors had not searched him for knives," Latour filled in. "And as he was a physician, death was instantaneous."

Archie winced again, able to picture the scene all too vividly.  "But--why?"

"Why else?  To keep her from telling us more." Carmichael's face was bleak; Archie shivered a little.

"And Minard himself?"

"In custody, for now," Carmichael said.  "And the Vicomte is giving further evidence to the Admiralty--quite a story he has to tell."

"Apparently, Marie-Lucille Mailleux, the Vicomte's true betrothed, died of consumption, in Switzerland, over a year ago," Latour added.  "Claude Minard aided and abetted Marie-Louise's impersonation of her sister, and she continued her Bonapartist activities under her assumed identity.  Vicomte DeGuise revealed them both to the authorities." His tone became dry. "He has not, to my knowledge, yet disclosed how long he himself has been party to this imposture."

"Almost certainly before tonight," Archie said. "But I suppose he got tired of the business, or he wouldn't have pulled that trick with the necklace."

"What necklace?" Latour asked sharply.

"The one the Vicomtesse--Marie-Louise--was wearing in those sketches," said Carmichael. "Stewart here said he saw the Pearson girl wearing it at the ball."

"But if the Vicomtesse had truly been Marie-Lucille, she would not have had the necklace in her possession," Archie explained. "When Marie-Louise ran away as a girl, she took the necklace with her. Only she never sold it." He paused to think the matter over. "I suppose the Vicomte found it among her things after they married--and used it to further his own scheme, of getting rid of her."

Carmichael shook his head. "He plays a deep game, that one. I wonder he didn't end with his throat cut too!"

"Doubtless Minard regrets that as well," Latour remarked, taking hold of Archie's good wrist and pressing his fingers against the pulse.  "Not too rapid," he observed, several seconds later. "Your speech is lucid, and you appear to be in full possession of your senses--"

"Such as they are," Carmichael put in.

"Therefore, I see no reason why you may not be permitted a visitor," the physician concluded.

"A visitor?" Archie tried to sit up a little straighter. "My wife?" he asked hopefully.

Carmichael grinned, not without sympathy. "Old Nick--he said he wanted a word with you once you were awake again. Sorry, Stewart."

*****

"Agent Stewart." The earl looked as unruffled as ever; one would never think, to look at him, that his life had been in grave danger mere hours ago.  "I am relieved to see that you have not sustained serious injury."

Archie lifted his good shoulder in a slight shrug.  "Dr. Latour says that it should heal soon enough--provided I follow his instructions."

"One disobeys them at one's peril," Kilcarron remarked, with a trace of dry humor.  He took up a stance at the foot of the bed, his cool blue gaze meeting Archie's questioning one.  "Again, I must commend your work on this investigation.  It appears that many--including myself--have additional cause to appreciate your efforts last night."

"Call it -- a debt repaid," Archie suggested, taking a perverse satisfaction in the double meaning.

Kilcarron raised a single brow. "Just so," he agreed.  "And given the circumstances, perhaps the time has indeed come to discuss certain -- compensations."

"Compensations?" Archie tried not to sound too startled. The knowledge that he had at last repaid the earl for Kingston--and all that had followed--was satisfying in itself. After two years the balance finally seemed to hang level between them; he had not thought of a more tangible reward.

"Indeed. As you have distinguished yourself in this London operation, you may wish to consider a permanent transfer here." Kilcarron smiled faintly. "I believe that Commander Smith would be quite pleased to have you in her division, for a number of reasons."

Not the least of which might be provoking Commander Carmichael, Archie reflected.  All the same, he could not help but feel somewhat gratified by the news. However . . .  "I -- do not know if I can give you an answer at this time," he admitted. "There is so much to consider."

"So there is," the earl conceded tranquilly. "And you may wish to speak with a certain person, before making a decision of this magnitude." Moving away from the bed, he crossed to the chamber door and opened it.  "I believe he will see you now, ma'am," he added, to the young woman standing there.  "If the two of you will pardon me?" he continued and bowed himself out of the room.

Intent on each other, neither Archie nor Medora noted his departure.  She had paled visibly at her first sight of him but at his smile, some of her color came creeping back.

"My rose," Archie began.  "I am sorry that we never had our second dance."

She managed a smile in return at that. "Only get better, and I shall promise you every dance for the rest of our lives."

"Done."  Archie held out his good arm to her and she came to perch on the side of his bed.  She had exchanged her ball gown for a dove-grey muslin frock that looked to have been borrowed from someone else, but the pearl ornament still gleamed, forgotten, in her dark hair.  He found the effect incongruous but oddly charming.  "How ever did you come here?"

"The earl brought me, in his carriage," she replied.  "It must have been around two o'clock.  He sent a footman to escort me to the drawing room. He was waiting for me there--he informed me that the investigation was over and that you had been injured."  There was a momentary quaver in her voice. "And he offered to take me to you. On the way, he explained to me what had happened, in the library tonight."

Archie took her hand in his own.  "I am so sorry you had to hear, like that."

She shook her head.  "No, no--it was far better than it might have been. I would much rather have known than not known."

"You heard nothing then, beforehand?"

"Not a word. Nor any gunshots, either. The music must have drowned out all else from downstairs," she said. "The ball was still going on when we left, in fact."

"Good God!"

"I suppose the Vicomte would have had to say something at some point. I can't imagine continuing the ball indefinitely, when there had been a death in the house," she concluded somberly.  "Poor Julia. And poor Edmond too--I doubt he knew anything about this, either."

"Likely not," Archie agreed. If there had been a plethora of suspects in this investigation, there had also been some genuine innocents--and they were to be pitied.  "It's a proper coil, my rose, and it's only beginning to be straightened out, I'm afraid."

"But the worst is over, isn't it?" Medora sounded more wistful than optimistic.

Archie squeezed her hand. "I pray so.  At least things appear to be under control now that Kilcarron and the Admiralty know the full story about the DeGuises." Trying to lighten the mood, he added, "Milord's pleased with my work on this case--he's even offered me the opportunity of a London posting."

"London?"

"He and the London commander seem to think that I would work well with the division here."

"I don't doubt that," she said staunchly.  "Only -- would it not be a great risk for you?  I'm thinking that there are still so many people who cannot be safely told yet. Like Georgy and her family, like the other Halsteads . . ."

"And then there's my family, and the Admiralty . . . " Archie sighed.  "London division does work closely with Whitehall.  And I confess, I do not relish the idea of having to look continually over my shoulder, hoping that nobody remembers a certain disgraced naval lieutenant.  So perhaps the time is not -- right for a London posting."

"Perhaps not," she conceded. "At least not yet. In fact, it might be safest to leave things as they are, for now."

"Agreed."  Archie shifted uncomfortably in the bed, licked his lips.  "Then -- will you come to me, in Edinburgh?"

Twining her fingers with his, she raised his good hand to her own lips and kissed it. "To the wide world's end."

It was going to be all right. Somehow or other, they would make this work.  Exhausted but relieved, Archie moved over a little on the bed to make more room for her.  Taking the hint, she lay down carefully beside him, her head resting against his good shoulder.

"I feel as if I've aged ten years in a night," she remarked with a sigh.  "Pray do not make a habit of getting shot, dear heart. I do not think my nerves could stand it."

Again, Archie heard the betraying tremor in her voice, despite its light tone, and flushed guiltily. "I am so sorry, love! I promise to be more careful in future. Would it help if I told you that this is the first real injury I've received in more than two years?"

She glanced at him searchingly. "Truly?"

"Truly. Intelligence work is more often dull than dangerous--at least my part in it has been."

She sighed. "I wish I could say that reassured me, but it doesn't.  Especially if the earl thinks so highly of your abilities. But I suppose I should be used to this, by now. I feared for you when you were in the Navy too. This is just -- another form of the service."

Archie kissed the top of her head, breathing in the fragrance of her hair. "I wonder you don't rue your bargain."

"I wonder that too, sometimes." Her crooked smile took the sting out of the words. "Especially since I had another offer, not too long ago. Entirely unexceptionable and quite free of all but the usual mundane hazards of married life. The sort of offer any sane woman would have accepted with alacrity."

"Indeed?" Archie raised his brows.  "And how did you respond?"

She smiled up at him with melting sweetness. "I refused it, of course."

******

INTERLUDE

The Dame Fortune, 1804

 

". . .I am deeply grateful for your loyalty and your many years of friendship, as I am sensible of the honor you do me in asking to be your wife.

And yet, I must regretfully decline your offer. As dear a friend as you have been to me, I feel I cannot return your affections as whole-heartedly as you desire and deserve. I have experienced that depth of feeling for but one man, and to offer you anything less would be a grave injustice. What I felt for my late intended is exactly the sort of love I wish you to experience one day. You are too good and kind a man for this not to occur.

Dear Peter, you deserve a wife who can love you freely and unreservedly, whose affections are not forever shadowed by the past.  Perhaps just such a wife awaits you in America. I pray that may be the case and that you will have many wonderful years together.  Please accept my heartfelt wishes for your health and happiness.

God Bless You,

Medora Tresilian"

Not for the first time, the lines blurred slightly before Peter Carrisford's eyes. Also not for the first time, he contemplated tearing the letter into bits and scattering them upon the sea.

But something had always stopped him before, just as it stopped him now.  She had not given him the answer he had hoped for--and yet he could not hate her for her refusal.  It might be easier if he could.  But she had written with such sincerity, expressed such concern for his future happiness, that he could not but be moved despite his disappointment.

She had asked God to bless him, and, perhaps in time He would.  Folding the letter carefully, Peter replaced it in his breast pocket.

A week out of Southampton.  The seas had been only a little choppy in places; they were calm now, and the salt breeze blew cool against his face.  Peter closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, letting go at last of his lingering resentment.  Before him lay a new country and a new beginning:  who knew what he might find there?

A muffled curse, uttered with a surprisingly refined accent, roused him from his reverie.  Opening his eyes, he turned to see a tall, thin man making his none-too-steady way towards the rail, just a few feet away.

Seasick, perhaps? Automatically, Peter approached to offer assistance.  "Are you unwell, sir? I can help you to your cabin, if you wish."

The other man shuddered and gave a faint shake of his head. "Thank you, but no." He spoke with the pure diction of a born aristocrat.  "I have spent the better part of the last week below, casting up my accounts."

Peter winced in sympathy.  He had been blessed with a fairly strong stomach himself but there had been times on this voyage when he had felt somewhat queasy as well. 

"Today is the first day I have managed to keep anything down," the stranger continued.  "So I was determined to make my way above decks, if only to breathe sweeter air."

"Entirely understandable," said Peter.  "I've heard that standing with the wind in one's face helps as well," he added.

A corner of the stranger's mouth lifted slightly. "As have I."

They stood together in almost companionable silence, watching the westering sun cast a trail of fire over the leaping waters.  Bathed in its ruddy light, the stranger's face lost some of its sickly pallor.  He was not a bad-looking fellow, Peter noted idly. His clothes were rumpled and there were fine lines about his eyes and mouth, accentuated perhaps by his recent sickness, but most would have considered his features pleasing.  His hair was a rich, reddish brown that Peter's sister Lydia would have described as chestnut and his eyes, narrowed against the sun's rays, were a vivid shade of green.

"So, where are you bound, if you don't object to my asking?" Peter inquired.

"Boston, for a start," the stranger said, after a pause almost too brief to be noticeable.  "Then, on to New York, perhaps." He smiled suddenly, with unexpected charm. "They say that America is the best place to begin anew. Perhaps Dame Fortune," he touched the ship's rail almost affectionately, "will smile on me there."

Peter smiled as well. "I suspect everyone on board this ship hopes that as well.  My name is Peter Carrisford, by the way," he added, extending his hand.

The stranger hesitated for a moment, then accepted the proffered hand. "Ainsley. Justin Ainsley."

 

END PART THIRTY-SEVEN