The King's Man
by
Rhiannon

Chapter One

And the rain it raineth every day...

 

Will Deveraux was angry. He was angry with the weather, which was foul, with his orders, which were ridiculous, and with the innkeeper, who had solicitously shown him into a comfortable back room and then proceeded, as far as Will could tell, to forget that he existed. Most of all, however, he was angry with the man in front of him, nothing of whom could currently be seen but a pair of long legs stretched out to the fire from the depths of the most comfortable chair in the room.

Guido di Cesare had stalked in out of the rain without a word, shaken his wet cloak all over Will and the room, taken the seat in front of the fire, stretched out his long legs, lit his pipe, and closed his eyes. He was currently ignoring Will as successfully and peacefully as the innkeeper seemed to be.

"Di Cesare!" snapped Will irritably, hoping to jolt him out of his dreamy reverie.

The legs did not even twitch. Will glared at the chair, from which a plume of smoke was rising, and considered finding a bucket of water to throw at its occupant. After a pause, a faint, sleepy murmur came from the depths of the chair.

"Hmm? What?"

"Has it occurred to you that this whole damn thing is ridiculous?"

Guido di Cesare sighed. He had been travelling from Scotland to Portsmouth over the last week, stopping at various paces to gather the information he needed, and he was exhausted, damp, irritable and mildly travel-sick from the coach he had been forced to travel in for the last part of the journey. He was in no mood to tolerate his commander's bad temper.

"Will, if it weren't ridiculous, we wouldn't be the ones doing it," he said tiredly.

Will Deveraux appeared to be on the verge of an explosion. Already reddened by the flames, his face became crimson.

"But have you read the orders?" he shouted, finally losing the last traces of the uncertain control he had so far retained over his temper. "Do you realise what they're asking?"

Guido sat up in the chair with a small sigh of effort, and took his pipe out of his mouth.

"As I understand it," he said sardonically, "we are to get on a nice big ship with a great wooden box full of papers. We then get this lovely unobtrusive box across the Channel to a man in France, whose name we don't know, whose loyalty we can't be sure of, and who just happens to be in an extremely well guarded garrison post. If it goes to plan, and we're not dead, disgraced, or being hung as spies, I assume we'll come back on the large ship to this miserable bloody port where I've never known it to stop raining for more than two days at a time. I imagine that if His Majesty's Government are feeling particularly grateful to us, they will then send us back to France on another wonderful bloody ship."

Guido looked at his companion quizzically. "An accurate summation, Deveraux?"

Will smiled wryly. "Exceptionally accurate, di Cesare. Quite exceptionally. Apart, that is, from the wooden box. That was last time."

Guido smiled.

"Poetic license?" he suggested.

Will sat down in the chair opposite Guido, and stretched his still-wet feet out to the fire. Guido studied him covertly. The scars on the right-hand side of Will Deveraux's face were fading, but the effect was still jarring, dragging one eyebrow and the side of his mouth on a slant across his face. He looked as though the world were a permanently sarcastic joke, and Guido felt the usual irony of the situation, that Will, whose whole being was honest and untainted by bitterness, was condemned to have another man's sneering nature imprinted on his face. His thoughts must have shown, for he came back from his thoughts to find Will's grey eyes fixed on him.

"Woolgathering again, di Cesare?" he enquired amicably, and Guido laughed quietly, averting his eyes from his commander's face and gazing into the fire.

Will took a deep breath. "Guido, listen," he began. "This is not your war, you do not have
to -"

He broke off abruptly as the innkeeper entered, looking flustered. "What?" he snapped, in no mood for interruptions.

Guido leant back into the shadows of the chair again with a little sound of relief, relighting his pipe and hiding his expression with a cloud of smoke. The innkeeper looked worried.

"Sir, there are two gentlemen downstairs, waiting for the weather to clear. They are to cross to the same ship as you."

Will looked at him blankly. On another man that would have been disconcerting enough, but with Will's permanently arched eyebrow, it completely unnerved the innkeeper, who came to a complete, panic-stricken stop.

"Yes?" asked Guido impatiently from the chair, and the innkeeper looked even more terrified as he was apparently addressed by a pair of legs and a plume of smoke. He swallowed hard, and continued.

"Would you gentlemen mind sharing their company until the boat can leave?" he babbled nervously.

Guido sighed. "Yes," he said truthfully. "However, it is cold, wet, and your main rooms are quite repulsive. Convey our compliments to these two...two?"

The innkeeper regained some control. "Officers, sir."

"How precise," murmured Will amusedly, and Guido fought to contain his laughter.

"Officers," he agreed blandly. "Quite. Well, as they are officers, I suggest you show them up before they become insulted."

The innkeeper, sighing in relief, turned and left, only to hear Will's voice bellow down the stairs after him,

"For God's sake, man!" The innkeeper stopped on the stairs, and waited.

The voice continued: "Send up some wine before we all die of thirst!"

*****

The two officers in question were waiting downstairs, soaking wet and becoming increasingly irritated.

"I really don't see why we have to wait," grumbled the taller of the two, trying to wring the water out of his cloak without putting out what was left of the miserable fire. He shivered as the wind swept through one of the dilapidated window-frames. "God, this place is revolting!"

"We're waiting because it's polite," said his companion dryly. "They're being asked because it's polite. We may freeze to death in the name of politeness, but at least the formalities will have been observed."

Horatio turned his head away from the fire and tried to glare, but found his attempt impossible, and found himself trying not to laugh instead. Archie, dripping wet and trying to hide his smile, watched his friend's struggles with amusement.

The innkeeper puffed back into the room, looking even more flustered than when he had left them. Horatio regained his composure with an effort.

"Well?" he enquired sternly, sounding so similar to Pellew, giving orders, that Archie had to turn away to the fire in order not to laugh, and the innkeeper stood there with his mouth open, reduced to a state of complete panic. Horatio rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and wondered what on earth he could do to get any sense out of the man.

A voice carried through the open door.

"For heaven's sake, don't wait for the man to string a sentence together. Unless you want to freeze all night by that pathetic excuse for a fire, come up and join us."

Guido di Cesare stood in the warped doorway, his dark face unreadable. Dressed all in black, and half-hidden by the shadows, he looked as though he had been cut out of the night, and imprinted against the doorframe by someone with a strong sense of the macabre. Horatio turned slightly, and met Archie's eyes. All amusement had fled from his face, and Horatio realised that they were thinking the same thing:

This man is not just a spy. He's a trained killer.

*****

Guido, standing in the doorway, saw the expressions of the two young men change when they saw him, and his mouth twisted up in resignation. He knew exactly what he looked like, when it was dark - the foreign assassin, a risk to all concerned, a possible threat to their beloved country. He wondered what they would say if they knew the truth, if they knew what Will and the others called him. Then his mouth flattened out, and he shrugged. The two men in front of him were young and idealistic, he thought bitterly. They would never believe him.

Guido clutched the doorframe, letting the splinters dig into his concealed hand, and fought his anger with pain, fought the urge to give in to who and what he could be, as he realised that they were not so much younger than him - that the only differences between them were their idealism and his indifference. Ever since he had received the orders from the Government, and the letter of introduction from Pellew, he had been dreading this moment. It was no comfort to realise that his fears had been justified.

Guido had no natural inclination for spying, nor for what Will tactfully called "your other abilities, di Cesare." He would have sold his soul to be either of these men, to be free of the secrecy and intrigue that was as common to him now as breathing. He had read of the heroism of the Indefatigable's men, and been filled with envy. It was a life that he could not even dream of, where a man could walk into a room and be admired, rather than feared.

From somewhere, he found some kind of smile, and inclined his head politely.

"You are the two lieutenants from the Indefatigable?" he asked, his voice flat and hard with the effort of keeping it steady. "I have received a letter of introduction from your captain." His dark eyes gleamed with sudden humour, as he added, "The descriptions were most - entertaining."

He smiled quite genuinely then, enjoying their disconcerted expressions, and continued, his voice light and unrevealing:

"I believe my friend has - ah - demanded some wine. Do join us."

And he headed back up the stairs, hoping that his face would not betray his feelings to Will. Under his breath, he repeated with each step, "He needs these men. Keep your thoughts to yourself. He needs these men..."

But - Assassin, hissed his mind, Assassin. You will never be anything else.

Then he heard the muttering from behind him, and his natural sense of humour returned. They seemed to be wondering what he knew about them. Guido grinned in the darkness.

"How worried about me are you, gentlemen?" he murmured, inaudible above the sound of feet on the stairs. "Let's find out..."

*****

Will Deveraux heard the footsteps coming up the stairs, and instinctively turned the damaged side of his face away from the door. Guido, his features more mask-like than ever, came in first, and flung himself back into the chair without ceremony, picking up his pipe from beside the fire and quickly surrounding himself with fragrant smoke. The two men who had entered behind him looked rather stunned, and Will guessed that some trick of the light had shown Guido for what he was -

"And they are too young to hide what they think of that," he thought. "Damn!"

He realised belatedly that he had spoken the last word aloud, and hurriedly went to the window.

"The weather," he added hurriedly.

"A nuisance," agreed the taller man, his voice revealing nothing. Will chewed the inside of his lip.

"Di Cesare," he said quickly, putting amusement into his voice in an effort to jolt Guido out of whatever black mood he was in, "You have failed in your duty as a host!"

Normally, Guido would have responded in kind, jesting himself into a good humour. Now, he simply filled the shadows of the winged chair with more smoke. Ignoring this ominous sign, Will continued:

"You have not introduced our guests."

There was a slightly too long pause from the smoke cloud, and then Guido's voice came from the shadows, low and cold.

"I don't need to, though, do I, Deveraux? We know who they are. We're supposed to."

He uncoiled from the chair, a black shape against the firelight, his face hidden.

"The question is," he said, and there was now no doubting the menace in his voice, "how much do they know of us?"

He looked at the two young men for a long moment, and then laughed, coming forward into the light.

"Enough, I suspect," he said dryly, and the sense of danger that had filled the room vanished, as though it had never been. He smiled, his dark eyes lightening, and Horatio felt himself relax. It was as though they had passed some test - though how well they had passed it he did not know. He swallowed, discovering that his mouth had gone dry in those few moments while the spy stared at him.

"You - ah - have us at a disadvantage," he said as calmly as possible. "After all, you may know who we are, but I cannot say the same for you."

Guido brought his pipe up to his mouth to hide the smile that threatened to destroy his composure. He knew more of the two naval officers in front of him than he suspected they would like him to, and he was glad to see that the courage Pellew seemed to rate so highly in them was not confined to the deck of their ship.

"Guido di Cesare," he said, when he could trust his voice. "My weapons are at your disposal."

"All of them?" asked Archie in mock disbelief.

There was a short, horrified silence, and Horatio glared at his friend. Then Guido burst out laughing, his composure finally and irretrievably shattered.

"Yes," he gasped eventually. "If you insist!"

Still laughing, he headed for the door.

"Wine," he explained. "I should see whether mine host downstairs is as incapable of doing what we ask as he is of expressing a thought."

He headed off down the stairs, his laughter trailing behind him.

Will was still staring out of the window.

"I am trying to decide, " he said, apparently to the drenched street, "whether you are incredibly stupid, Mr. Kennedy, or just foolhardy."

He turned round, smiling.

"I suspect that Guido would consider you brave. He was testing you both, you know."

Then he saw how they were looking at him, and stopped.

"Ah," he said sadly. "Your captain did not warn you about us, did he? I am Will Deveraux, and I - apologise - for my appearance."

Will's face, even in repose, was unnerving. When he smiled, however, the right hand side of his face twisted up completely, giving him the look of a sneering devil on one side, the horror of which was increased by the two slashing scars that ran across that side of his face. As he turned away from the window, it had been the good side that turned to them first, making the final effect as the scarred side came into the light terrifying in its unexpected lack of symmetry. It was the face of Lucifer after the fall.

"My God," whispered Horatio, forgetting all his carefully-maintained tact, "what happened to you?"

Will sighed, and seemed about to answer. Then he stopped as the door opened.

"That," he said lightly, "is not something I choose to discuss."

Guido came into the room, carrying wine and cups. He put them down on the table, and took in the altered atmosphere.

"Oh Lord," he groaned quietly. Aloud, he said cheerfully,

"Introducing yourself in your usual tactful way, then, Deveraux?" He turned to Horatio, and added, "You're lucky he smiled at you. Last time he glared at me, I found myself going to Scotland. Voluntarily. In January, for God's sake!"

"That bad?" asked Horatio, trying to help him lighten the mood.

"God yes!" Guido's smile seemed perfectly natural, but his eyes were hooded, wary, with none of the amusement in them that had been there when he left the room.

He turned back to the table, and poured wine into the cups.

"Here," he said. "Apparently there's no chance of crossing for a while - no-one wants to row across in this - so we might as well make the most of it."

Archie realised the extent of the effort the spy was making to change the mood, and smiled back at him. Some of the wariness went out of Guido's eyes, and the long, gloved hands relaxed on the wine jug.

"Well," said Archie, coming over and taking a cup, "you might as well make the most of it. If this weather holds up, you'll be out in it for the next couple of weeks, at least."

"Oh, wonderful," growled Guido disgustedly, glaring out of the window. "From sleet and ice to pouring rain. I swear, this whole damn country has a personal vendetta against me! Do any of you English ever feel the need to be dry?"

Horatio looked across at Will, unsure as to how he was supposed to react. As far as Will's expression was capable of conveying anything, his good side seemed to have a look of mildly amused resignation on it.

"No but really," continued Guido. "You all love your country, involve me in the fate of your country, and then what does it do? It rains! It rains all the bloody time! And then you -" turning to Will, who was by now laughing at him. "You send me to Scotland to freeze me to death, and now you want to wash me away on a ship!"

With an air of assumed dignity, Guido sat down in the chair, and relit his pipe.

"Why," he asked, mock-plaintively, "are you all laughing at me?"

He sat back in the chair, feigning disapproval, but was not in time to disguise the amusement quirking at his mouth. Horatio, who had not been sure whether to laugh or be horrified at such an outburst, found himself grinning, but noted one thing for the future. Guido was not afraid to mock himself to amuse others, but neither was he prepared to have people judge Will -however disparaging he may have seemed to be himself of the other spy.

This was someone far more complicated than the rather simplistic first impression he had made, and Horatio decided to revise his original opinion of the tall, dark man who had come seemingly out of nowhere to invite them upstairs. Whatever Guido was supposed to be officially, and though Horatio had no doubt that 'assassin' was first on the list unofficially, it was evidently far from being that simple. In his mocking outburst against the weather, one phrase had caught Horatio's attention.

"You love your country, involve me in the fate of your country..."

This was not his country...what was such a man doing spying for the English? And why would he care about the fate of a country not his own?

*****

Guido sat in the window seat and stared out at the rain in gloomy silence. Will and the two officers were discussing tactics by the fire - something about an abortive attempt in France to restore the king. Guido had restricted himself to a few acerbic comments about hopeless quests, and retreated with his pipe. Still full of the various poisons and antidotes that had been the result of his trip to Scotland, he was unable to drink, and since the only time he ever approached vehemence was in mockery, he had felt his presence to be more than unwelcome.

He glanced over at the trio by the fire. Will had turned his bad side away from the fire, so that his face was softened by the shadows. In his eagerness to explain a tactical point, he had run both his hands through his hair, which was standing on end. Guido sighed, and shifted position irritably. For the millionth time, he took Pellew's letter of introduction out of his pocket, and read the opening paragraph again, trying to read between the lines.

"Signor di Cesare,

I have been requested by the Admiralty to give you safe passage to France on my ship. I have, naturally, accepted this task with pleasure."

How very correct of you. I'd be damning the Admiralty to hell, and I'd lay money down that so are you.

"They have also suggested that I provide you with an introduction to two men who may be able to provide you with assistance in the matter of your papers. Given the circumstances, I believe it to be more appropriate that they should come from among my own men, as I would prefer this mission to go as smoothly as is humanly possible..."

No joke there, my tactful captain, thought Guido, and continued reading.

"Though I must confess I have misgivings as to the probable success of this endeavour..."

As have I, believe me...

"I do not hesitate to send you two of my finest officers...."

and the description followed. Guido swore, quietly and furiously. He was anxious to get to the 'Indefatigable' for no other reason than to get to the bottom of this. He wanted to know why Pellew had been ordered to 'suggest' two men, and why, why, why, in God's name, had he sent him two so young? He did not doubt the heroism described by Pellew, nor did he doubt that these officers had proved their ability time after time, but what the hell was he supposed to do with them? Teach them how to poison someone? How to slip a knife between someone's ribs in the dark so that he made no sound? How to read ciphers? What?

Guido shifted again, trying to control his breathing.

"It's the antidotes," he told himself. "They always make you jumpy..."

But no amount of common sense could quell the feeling that something was very, very wrong. And Pellew's letter was trying to tell him so.

Guido shifted position again and again, trying to stop the muscles in his legs contracting with the worry that he felt. Eventually, he sprang to his feet, and went to get his cloak.

Will, who had stuck his hands in his hair again, and was beginning to look like a fair-haired version of a hedgehog, did not notice his departure. Horatio, on the other hand, for whom Muzillac was still not a comfortable subject, frowned after the departing spy.

"I wonder where he's gone," he murmured. Will broke off in the middle of his explanation.

"Guido? When?"

"Just now. He seems - restless."

Will shrugged.

"His legs hurt," he explained. "He got poisoned in Scotland, and the antidotes give him muscle cramps. He'll come back when he's ready."

Horatio nodded, and wandered over to the window. Below, he could see Guido's pipe glowing in the darkness as he paced up and down the tiny courtyard.

"I'll join him," he said suddenly, and left before anyone could object. Will's face twisted in
perplexity.

"Would you care to explain that to me? Guido's twitchy at the best of times, but I'd taken your friend to be more level-headed than that."

Archie looked worried, and Will relented.

"Something you do not care to discuss?" he asked wryly, remembering his own comment earlier.

Archie shook his head.

"Something that isn't mine to discuss," he answered.

"Ah," said Will, and lapsed into silence, gazing into the fire for a while, trying to think of what to say next. He was no good at casual conversation, relying on Guido to smooth things over and keep him from seeming like a fool. Then he brightened.

"Have you ever seen a cipher map?" he asked.

"A what?"

"A cipher map. You can draw a map from numbers and letters...oh, here!"

Will went over to Guido's bag, put on a pair of gloves, and rummaged through it. Eventually he brought out a piece of crumpled paper, some undamaged paper, and a pen, and laid them on the table with the wine cups. Then he stripped the gloves off, and smoothed out the paper.

"Right," he said. The paper was covered in what looked like gibberish. "This is a map of the Highlands of Scotland."

"How do you work out the code?"

"The code is in my head. That way I can work out the map without having to carry around reference papers that anyone can read."

"And the gloves?"

"Guido poisons his knives sometimes. I don't want to die from a scratch."

Archie thought about that for a moment, then frowned.

"But - why would the knives be loose in the bag?"

Will sighed.

"So that anyone stupid enough to rummaging around in his bag would be killed for it," he said patiently, trying to remember that the precautions Guido took might seem obvious to him, who had known the Italian spy for over five years, but probably seemed completely mad to anyone else. He changed the subject hurriedly.

"Right, ah, yes, well - the first element of the cipher we use is a dot, symbolised by the letter A. The dot is either a meeting or leaving point. It opens every map...and this doesn't interest you at all, does it?"

"Hmm? Yes - but why are you bothering to tell me about it?"

Will looked at him blankly.

"Because Pellew sent you."

"Yes - to escort you to the ship!"

Archie was looking at him as though Will had become as mad as he by now assumed Guido was. Considering the fact that Will had just put on gloves to go through someone's bag, quite pointlessly tried to show him how to understand some rather grubby hieroglyphics, and now said that it was all to do with Pellew, this was probably a fair assumption.

Will's mouth dropped open slightly, and he shut it again quickly.

"Right," he agreed hurriedly. "Of course. Sorry. My mistake."

He looked at the cipher map on the table, and then grinned inwardly, seeing the curiosity on Archie's face.

"I could show you anyway, of course..." he said, as casually as he could.

*****

Guido heard the footsteps on the cobbles behind him, and sighed.

"As I said, Mr. Hornblower," he said without turning, "the English show no desire to be out of the wet and cold."

"Nor do you, evidently."

Guido turned. Lit only by the pipe, his expression was satanic, his dark eyes gleaming in the faint glow.

"No," he said quietly, and turned away again, staring across the courtyard.

"Why are you out here?" Horatio was beginning to suspect that the assassin was waiting for something - or someone? Was that why he was here? - to happen.

Guido made a gesture of impatience, and began to pace again.

"Because something's wrong. And I don't know what it is."

"The weather?" suggested Horatio, trying to jolt the spy out of his worry.

Guido stopped in his pacing, and glared at him.

"Yes, if you like!" he snapped. As though his sudden irritation had unleashed something in him, he continued,

"The weather is too bad to cross. We should be on board by now. I need to get Will to Pellew as soon as possible and I need to be away from here and en route to Toulouse!"

Horatio looked at him. The man who was stalking back and forth across the courtyard, almost demented with worry, was a very different creature to the sardonic figure who had first appeared in the downstairs room of the horrible inn, silent as the shadows he had drifted from. He had a feeling that this was something more genuine, something he should not be witnessing, something private. Something, in fact, that Guido had left the room to conceal.

"You're worrying about Will," he realised aloud.

Guido was still pacing backwards and forwards. At Horatio's statement, he stopped, running a hand through his dripping hair.

"Will?" he asked, and there was no mistaking the surprise in his voice. "No - I am not."

Guido laughed then, as suddenly as he had laughed upstairs, and relaxed.

"I am, most probably, worrying about nothing," he said, as good-humouredly as he could manage. "Mr. Hornblower, my body, blood and brain are full of antidotes, snake venom and God knows what else. As a result, I am paranoid, exhausted, and unfit for any kind of civilised society. And that is why I am out in the rain. You would be better off, I think, with the others, discussing strategy upstairs."

Horatio looked back at him, his gaze level. If the spy truly knew so much about him, he would also know why he had left the room.

"Ah," said Guido softly, and took the pipe from his mouth. "No, perhaps, after all, that discussion would be as little to your taste as it is to mine."

He brushed uselessly at his cloak, trying to dislodge some of the water, and sneezed.

"On the other hand," he added sardonically, "it's preferable to drowning. Go back inside, Mr.
Hornblower."

He fell silent again, puffing at his pipe, and Horatio turned to leave him, realising that his company was truly not wanted. As he reached the doorway, Guido's voice came to him clearly, though he could no longer see the spy in the dark and the rain.

"From what I gather, they blew up the bridge."

Horatio froze.

"Yes."

"Then you should no longer believe yourself to be standing on it, Mr. Hornblower. Your friend upstairs, I understand, went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that you were not. Your regrets dishonour his actions."

Horatio started forward into the courtyard again.

"Di Cesare!" he began angrily.

But there was no response. Guido had vanished into the night.

 

End of Chapter One