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Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

When sorrows come they come not single spies, but in battalions.

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

PART FOUR: "Before the Hunt"

 

One night before London.

Archie considered himself in the looking-glass again. A fiery redhead stared back at him, his tousled locks glaring enough in hue to mark him as some kin or clansman of Rory's. Hair, brows, and moustache looked natural enough, but the beard was a disappointment. Despite the effort of nearly three weeks, it was--sparse. He had thought so before this night, and even the henna did not improve its appearance.

Behind him he saw Grant studying his reflection as well, her dark brows tilting quizzically. Archie ruefully fingered his unsatisfactory effort. "It's not--" he began.

"No, perhaps not," she agreed slowly.

Carmichael's reaction was similar. He put his head to one side briefly, then rubbed his jaw with the back of his knuckles in his habitual sign of dissatisfied thought.

"Maybe--not," he remarked consideringly.

"Attract too much notice?" Archie suggested.

"Possibly." His commander nodded slowly. "Wait on it a bit--we can always ask Old Nick what he thinks."

The inn where they were spending the night was about thirty miles from the outskirts of London--by this same time tomorrow their traveling would be over. They had reserved another private parlor; while Grant had helped Archie with the henna, his other colleagues had been seeing to tasks of their own. A dispatch packet from Kilcarron had actually reached them on the road; Caillean and Jamieson had decoded it to find individually-designated instructions. Archie turned away from studying the mirror again to join his companions.

"Here," Ferguson said, sliding a stack of cards across the table to Archie. "You'll be Mr. Andrew Lennox. Milord is having something else official-looking made up in that name if he needs to send you to sniff round the embassies or any such place."

Such as the Admiralty? Archie wondered, but remained silent. No need to volunteer any information or speculations at this point. "Lennox"--that should be easy enough to remember, and so should "Andrew": a common enough name in Scotland and one, which conveniently began with the same letter as his true Christian name.

Ferguson's glance now turned to Caillean. "We'll need another name for you, too, and then we can both get to work on your cards. Something not too different from Dunbar might be best: Duncan, Dundas, Drummond . . . "

"No." The veto was spoken before Archie could recall it.

For an uneasy second he felt himself the focus of every eye at the table, then Ferguson shrugged and moved on.

"An exotic Highland lassie then. MacDonald? -- no, too notorious. MacTavish?"

Caillean shook her head. "Too outlandish."

"MacAulay, MacAlister---"

"No." The rejection, this time, came unexpectedly from Carmichael; the whole table fell silent again.

"My mother's sister," Caillean said, with a discernibly strained attempt at patience, "married a man named Munro. Will that do?"

She relaxed visibly at the lack of subsequent objections.

*****

Although the agents rose early the next morning to resume their travels, the last leg of their journey took longer than they had anticipated. A light but steady drizzle was falling--not enough to make the road unusable, but sufficient to slow their progress and make those remaining thirty miles feel like sixty.

Thirty miles. Archie stared out at the rain-washed world without really seeing it. In some ways, those thirty miles represented an immeasurable distance from his past . . . in others, it hardly seemed far enough. Just like those two-and-a-half years since Lieutenant Kennedy's "death" in Kingston were at once a blink and an eternity. Long enough, perhaps, for the first, rending pangs of grief to subside, yet not so long that the pain could not be brought to the surface, albeit dulled by the passage of time.

Like a residual ache when cold weather came, Archie thought, absently rubbing the place on his torso where a pistol ball had ended one life, yet served as an unlikely midwife to another. The wound had healed fully--time, nature, and Latour had seen to that--but there were occasions when the resulting scar informed Archie that it did not like the damp or the cold. Well, it was late spring in London: temperatures would soon be warmer, the rains mild rather than torrential. And if the twinges from his scar became too uncomfortable, he could--he acknowledged reluctantly--seek out Latour. Closing his eyes, he sank into a light doze . . .

. . . and awoke just as they reached their destination at last, the carriages turning into an enclosed courtyard and coming to a halt before a massive brick residence.

It was mid-afternoon, Archie discovered, consulting his pocket watch--although the overcast sky made the hour seem later. On descending the steps, he also found that the rain had stopped, though the ground was still damp underfoot. A cluster of liveried servants was descending upon the carriage, scrambling to unload the travelers' baggage.

Squinting through the gloom, Archie took careful stock of their new accommodations: a very large town-house, imposing without being ostentatious. This looked to be a quieter section of town--not the fashionable first stare of the ton who could usually be found in Park Lane and Berkeley Square. The impression left by this house, its surroundings, and its neighbors was that of moneyed, well-bred discretion.

Reflecting its chief occupant. And Kilcarron was there, watching the arrivals, Archie realized suddenly. To his own annoyance, he could not have said if the earl had only just appeared or had been present all along. He saw the spymaster approach Carmichael, the two exchanged a brief word, then Kilcarron left the courtyard. Carmichael stood still, looking after him, then turned at a quick hail.

Doctor Latour was striding rapidly towards Carmichael. Archie lowered his eyes in a careful study of the flagstones, maneuvered himself closer in what he hoped appeared a random fashion: near enough to catch their words but not sufficient to attract Latour's attention and launch the physician's habitual queries about his health. He was successful enough in this endeavor to overhear some of the exchange.

"That's what I was told," Latour was concluding. "Anything further we'll hear tomorrow morning."

"And how's he taken it all?" Carmichael jerked his head in the direction of the departed earl.

"As you'd expect. He's not best pleased."

A snort from Carmichael. "Who would be? And what the hell was she even doing there?"

"That's another matter for the morning," Latour was saying as the two moved away from the others; Archie realized abruptly that he was the last one remaining in the courtyard, save for the servant with the patient expression waiting by his trunk.

"Mr.--Stewart," he gave his name as an agent. "Would you be so kind as to show me to my room?"

*****

The bedroom was perhaps a touch larger than his quarters back in Edinburgh; the furnishing similar but slightly richer: bed, nightstand, writing desk, and chairs, clock, mirror, and washstand. A basin, towels, and a jug of steaming hot water had all been left on the latter; Archie washed his face and hands, drew the curtains across the window, stripped down to his shirtsleeves and dropped thankfully onto the bed. Between the various anxieties associated with their upcoming mission and the sometimes less-than-comfortable places they had lodged, nights of unbroken sleep had been infrequent on their journey. It was a relief to know that they had finally arrived and would not be expected to move again in the immediate future.

A light tap on the door roused him from slumber. "Yes?" he called, sitting up and swinging his feet to the floor. Hearing no answer, he rose, went to the door, and opened it.

A maid was standing outside, holding a tray. "Would you care for supper, sir?" she asked.

"Yes, thank you." Archie took the tray from her and set it on the desk; the maid was gone when he turned around. Seating himself, he consumed the light meal that had been prepared for him, then washed his hands again and considered himself in the mirror. The beard . . . he was even more disappointed with it since the moustache had proven so satisfactory. Unless Kilcarron was adamant about his keeping it, Archie decided he would look forward to shaving it off!

Resuming his waistcoat and jacket, he left the room in search of his colleagues.

*****

A buzz of voices led him to a large room on the first floor--the equivalent, perhaps, of the common room in the Edinburgh division's residence. Inside were perhaps three dozen people: all of Archie's fellow travelers, two or three agents he'd crossed paths with in the last two years, and the rest--must be from the London divisions. A noble fireplace dominated one side of the room, there were desks and chairs grouped comfortably in corners and by windows: Kilcarron's agents drifted about each other in small, conversational clumps. There was a slightly feverish air to the gathering that Archie recognized as characteristic of the very beginning or end of a mission. Scanning the crowd for a familiar face, he spotted Rory holding a mug; the younger agent grinned when he saw Archie and began making his way across the room to join him.

Just as Rory reached his side, a shout arose from one corner of the room.

"Again!" Carmichael rose from his seat in a nearby alcove, and tossed a handful of coins down on the table. "How'd you do that?"

His recent adversary was also on her feet, facing him. "I told you," she retorted, with the air of one repeating an old argument. "I cheat."

She looked to be Carmichael's age, or even a touch older: a dark woman in an uncompromising grey dress, with what looked like a dowager's lace cap pinned over her hair.

"And I've told you," Carmichael declared, with the air of one being publicly provocative, "I don't believe it."

"Don't believe I cheat?" the woman challenged. "Or don't believe you're not clever enough to catch me at it?"

Amusement rippled through their audience; Archie realized suddenly that this was indeed a performance aimed at spectators.

"What I believe, Smitty," Carmichael captured the woman's hand; Archie blinked, recognizing the name Jamieson had mentioned in the carriage, "is that you say you cheat, and then you don't, only to drive me mad."

He brought her hand to his mouth, carefully kissed each finger, ending with the thumb, then turned it over and kissed the palm. Smitty pulled her hand free, glaring, when he had finished.

"Carmichael," she said ominously, as Archie's commander took possession of her other hand, "if I were a dozen years younger, I would give you the hardest time--"

"So I forgot your damn birthday." Carmichael was subjecting the second hand to the same treatment as its fellow. "What will you do about it, then?"

"Ohh!" Ladylike or not, the sound that came from Smitty's throat was unmistakably a growl. Pulling off the lace cap with her free hand, she then reached forward and caught the nape of Carmichael's neck, pulling his mouth down upon hers in a display that met with whoops of spectator approval.

Archie blinked again, finally realizing how much Jamieson had left unsaid. Beside him, Rory snorted impatiently. "They'll be keeping that up all night!" He flushed when Archie turned to look at him with quizzically raised eyebrows. "Well, that too, but I meant . . . that!"

He gestured in the direction of the senior agents, now locked in an embrace at the center of a growing silence.

Silence . . . Archie looked around, located the source of the spreading, austere quietude even as Carmichael and Smitty disentangled themselves.

Kilcarron was standing in the doorway, flanked by Latour and two servants bearing trays of glasses.

"Good evening." The earl's calm voice was even more remote than usual. "All agents will meet tomorrow morning in the upstairs library at half past eight."

"All agents, sir?" Smitty's voice was identically cool and formal. "Including the at-large assignments? They're on duty tonight."

"Early for them," another agent, well-dressed and past middle-age, spoke up.

Kilcarron's voice was arctic. "All agents, Commander Smith. They will be prompt--or they will be sent for."

Wincing inwardly, Archie found he did not want to consider the consequences for any subordinate "sent for" by the earl. Kilcarron resumed.

"Agents, if you would." At his signal, the servants wordlessly passed among the crowd, who accepted their drinks in equal silence; Archie was irresistibly reminded of the stirrup-cup taken before the hunt.

As one, the assembly raised their glasses, waiting on Kilcarron's word.

The earl's voice, when he spoke, was not loud but it seemed to fill the entire room. "To Commander Seaton."

"To Seaton," the company echoed, and drank.

In the hush that followed, Carmichael's empty glass struck the bricks of the fireplace and shattered with the crack of a pistol-shot.

*****

INTERLUDE

Scotland, 1785

 

The final toast had been made to the health of the new couple; the bride had disappeared with her female relations to change into traveling-clothes. He had slipped into the gardens, away from the remaining guests, not ready to depart, but desirous of solitude and aware of the need to examine his own sentiments.

Still a faint regret. But-- a greater satisfaction in what he had achieved. When he had first become aware of Cecily's shy affection, he had discovered the greatest hazard was his own desire to reciprocate. The vivid memory of his uncle's words had ordained matters otherwise.

"Beware what hostages you leave to fortune," the older man had told him that last year, when they had spent every day together and he had learned all the working details of the organization. "She was twenty-three years old, and the boy not even two. I'd meant to tell her everything, that weekend in the country, so that she understood the likelihood of danger---it was the merest chance I wasn't with them in the carriage."

Hearing his uncle's description of that long-ago ambush he had taken the intended lesson: the life he was destined for allowed no risk to the innocent. Especially not one this precious. Ian's sister . . . .

It had been a two-year campaign. He had avoided most social gatherings where Cecily might be present, and remained elusive at any affairs they did both attend. He had considered the field of suitors with an eye as tactically fierce as any matchmaking mama's and slipped in a word here and there to winnow away the chaff.

And now his victory. She was happily bound to a worthy young man who could keep her safe, not one whose work would expose her to unsuspected and deadly danger. His campaign had succeeded. Yet he was aware of a slight emptiness as he considered his own future.

Still reluctant to encounter Ian, or any other of his fellow guests he continued along the flat, stone garden walkway until the path turned in upon itself and ended at the low stone wall, and the simple bench by the fish-pond.

Someone with what seemed an equal desire for solitude was already there, her face detached and serene. Still unseen for the moment beneath the shade of a willow tree, he considered her without speaking, recalling other memories: the rigorous, demanding intellect---as merciless as that of any male tutor---that had guided both Ian and himself through history, geography, and mathematics during the summer holidays away from school; the ceaseless hunger for current information; the talent for organization that had made her invaluable to the family, not only these last months as they planned the details of Cecily's wedding, but in countless other logistical and domestic matters that had led to the welcome continuation of her tenure long after her youngest charge had left the schoolroom.

Clearing his throat slightly, he stepped away from his shelter.

"Miss Seaton."

"Mr. Crawford!" She looked up, her face thoughtful. "Oh, no, forgive me. It's 'my lord of Kilcarron', is it not? Since the spring?"

"That's no matter." He waved his hand dismissively, some uncanny instinct suddenly taking him over. "I would like to discuss a certain matter with you. Miss Seaton, forgive me if this sounds odd, but . . . might I interest you in a situation?"

 

END PART FOUR