The King's Man
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Will break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or e'er I'll weep.
Guido di Cesare stood alone at the rail of the ship, gazing out at the grey and wintery dawn, trying to hold on to the memory that Kennedy had given back to him so unexpectedly. He had begged for solitude, once his control had returned, and Archie, seeing the shame in the assassin's worn face, had left without a word.
He turned around as Dr Morris, neat and calm and unreadable, came to his side.
"Doctor," he said quietly. "What brings you up here?"
But for his red-rimmed eyes, the assassin was his usual debonair self, not a trace of his emotions showing, nor the effects of his sleepless night. Dr Morris found himself, unexpectedly, hesitating.
"Well?" asked Guido, with a hint of a smile. "Have you come to bring me more water? Or just to order me to my bed? I must warn you that I intend to be a most difficult patient, if you think you can order me to sleep..."
Dr Morris shook his head wordlessly. Guido frowned at his obvious uncertainty.
"What, then?" he asked. "A desire for fresh air? I must say, that's understandable, but why in my company? I would have thought you'd had enough of me for one night, my dear doctor!"
"No." Morris' voice was as quiet as that of the assassin, but with none of the younger man's levity. "No, not for company, but to - to bring you news."
The wicked grin of the di Cesare brothers flashed across Guido's exhausted face.
"Ah, news! So - Mr Sanderson, I take it, is awake, and asking enough questions to sink this ship?"
The doctor's bruised-looking eyelids lowered momentarily.
"No," he said, and the dapper little man looked sad. "No - I wish that I could tell you that - but I can't."
Guido's face fell, and then he summoned up his old sardonic expression.
"Oh - well - count yourself lucky!" he exclaimed with a jesting air that would not have fooled Will Deveraux for a moment. "You have no idea how truly irritating all that 'I want to know' and 'But -' can be!" He laughed. "Especially when the 'But' is followed by 'Guido'! I swear, Morris, nothing's going to satisfy him until I say he's the greatest spy on the face of the earth - and that, let me tell you, is not going to happen!"
He looked out at the slowly brightening sky, and stuck his pipe in his mouth, lighting it with difficulty in the rising wind.
Dr Morris took a deep breath.
"Mr Sanderson died a few minutes ago," he said, trying to sound calm. "I am sorry to have to tell you...but that was what I came up here for. I thought that - perhaps - you would prefer it if it was I who told you..."
The assassin did not react at all. He continued to look out to sea, exhaling a cloud of smoke. Dr Morris found himself trying to get him to respond in some way, even if it were only with one of his irreverent jokes.
"He - he never woke up," he continued, not knowing whether he were offering consolation or not to the tall, dark man in black, who stood so still and unresponsive in the early morning light.
"I went to check on him," said the doctor's even voice, battering at Guido's hearing like the cannons had earlier. "Sometime during the night - I don't think any of us would even have seen..."
His voice died into nothing as Guido's glittering black eyes looked at him. The assassin's expression was completely blank, devoid of any emotion at all.
It wasn't a question born of grief, merely a flat, expressionless statement. Dr Morris nodded, glad that Guido was taking it so calmly, but he still felt the need to explain himself.
"You must realise..." He found himself faltering under that unwavering black stare, but gathered up the courage to continue. "The head injuries were extensive, Signor di Cesare. I had thought that perhaps - but there was nothing that could be done."
And then, futilely, idiotically, he said -
"Perhaps it is for the best, Signor. With a blow to the skull such as he suffered - perhaps it is best."
And with that, he saw the assassin flash from blankness to a terrible rage.
"Best?" demanded Guido in a low voice, throbbing with anger. "How is it 'best'? He is dead, and that is 'best'? Is that what doctors are supposed to say? Are you taught the words before a boy dies? Is it part of your duty, to think that a twelve-year-old boy's death is best?"
Guido's voice was rising with anger, carrying across the deck.
"I killed him!" he shouted. "I killed him, and you dare stand there and tell me it was best! God damn you, doctor! God damn you straight into the hell that I deserve for this!"
And Guido di Cesare, heedless of his wounded leg, ran across the deck, down the steep wooden steps that he had ascended so slowly and carefully, and disappeared into the bowels of the ship.
"We therefore commit his body to the deep...to be turned into corruption..."
It seemed an odd thing to say at a funeral, when you were supposed to find some kind of solace in the prayers, thought Guido di Cesare wearily. Corruption, surely, was hardly a desirable thing. In fact, it sounded utterly damnable. He sighed, almost imperceptibly, his cold, hard expression unchanging in the grey light.
At least it wasn't raining, he thought. He seemed to associate funerals with rain, though he had no idea why, and besides, it had rained almost incessantly since Portsmouth. He felt that the damp had somehow seeped through to his soul, leaving him tired and frayed and wrung out, like an old cloth past its use.
The wind caught at his black cloak and dark hair, whipping them out behind him like a banner of death, and he shivered as the cold cut through to his skin. His hooded eyes had their old cynical look back in them, the rest of his face set in the unreadable sardonic lines of the killer.
But his body, always pared down to its limits, was so thin now as to be almost fragile, his face gaunt and haggard beneath the actor's mask of indifference, his eyes circled by shadows so dark as to be appear purple on the still-pale skin.
His wound was healing rapidly, the limp now almost imperceptible
as he drove himself incessantly to stretch and exercise the muscles
he relied on. He had neither slept nor eaten since the battle,
but read and smoked and worked at the cipher, all his energies
given over to encoding the documents and maintaining his acrobat's
strength. Since Sanderson's death, he
had shut himself down completely, all the humour and light gone from his tired face, getting himself through the endless hours until this moment was over.
He had disappeared for hours after Dr Morris brought him the news of Sanderson's death. Even Will, who had initially repeated the simple fact that if Guido didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be, had looked for him. But the assassin had seemingly vanished into thin air, and they had been forced to give up the search.
He had come back to the cabin in the evening, limping badly, saying nothing, shivering uncontrollably, and sat down at the desk, staring into space. Will had put a blanket around him, sat on the other side of the desk, and waited.
"I remember," Guido had said eventually. He clutched the blanket as though it would protect him, trying to stop the shuddering of his thin frame. "I remember, Deveraux."
Will Deveraux stared at him.
"Remember what?" he asked blankly.
"Everything," said Guido di Cesare, his eyes haunted. "I remember everything. My past, my family, who I was. I remember."
Will's scarred face twisted with compassion.
"We knew it would happen, Guido," he said softly. "You couldn't keep knifing yourself forever to stop it, you know."
The assassin's pallid face twitched into a surprisingly sweet smile.
"No," he admitted with a breath of laughter. "I know."
Will looked at the young man who sat shivering in the chair opposite him with kindly grey eyes. The scars were almost unnoticeable when his face was in repose, only the wickedly slashing eyebrow striking a jarring note.
"And are you still with us? Still the King's Man? Even knowing?"
Guido clutched the blanket around him more tightly, remaining silent.
"Guido!" Will's voice was sharp.
The assassin swallowed.
"I don't know," he admitted in a low voice. "I don't want to kill any more, Will. I - what I have become - I -"
He broke off, his mouth pressed tightly shut as though to stop the words from being said.
Will came around the desk.
"Guido," he said softly. "Guido, look at me."
Guido turned his head slowly towards him. His dark eyes were soft, an expression on his face so alien to his narrow features that it took Will a moment to recognise it. When he did, he sighed inwardly. The assassin looked desperately uncertain.
How could he drive this man back to what they had all connived to make him into? Guido deserved better than the empty existence he had led for the last four years, struggling to at least retain a facsimile of humanity as his forgotten nature rebelled against the creature he had made himself into. Will remembered the joyous, exuberant young marksman who had come to him in Italy, and knew that he could not condemn Guido to a life where he could never regain that part of himself.
And yet, and yet...over the last four years, Guido had shown other qualities, unexpected in the barren landscape of his ruined life, had shown courage and determination and loyalty against all the odds, vowed and given his allegiance without question...If they were to go to Toulouse, Will could think of no man he would trust more to stand at his side.
"Guido, I can't ask you to do this. I won't. When you had no memory, when you needed to have something, even if it was a lie, even if it made you someone you weren't, it didn't matter as much. Now - you must choose. If you want to go, I won't stop you - I have no right. But - should you stay, should you decide to come to Toulouse - I would be honoured to have you by my side."
"Even - knowing what I am? Will, who would want me now? When I had no memory, well and good, but now? I'm a liability, not an asset - who would want me?"
"I would," said the English spy calmly. "Guido, without you, we will fail. I need you, di Cesare, assassin, spy, marksman, call yourself what you will, but I need you."
It was a cry of pure anguish, betrayed more than anything the fragile state of the assassin's mind, and Will chose his next words carefully.
"Because the plan we have is a good one," he said, picking his way along what had to be said with care. "Because only you know Lorenzo well enough to make it work. Because - because I trust no-one else enough to go through with the plan without you."
Guido looked at him for a long moment, his dark eyes searching Will's scarred face as if to read his mind through his expression.
"You know what you're asking of me," he said quietly. "To remain what I have become. Assassin. Killer."
"King's Man," said Will gently. "Loyal subject. I heard about what you did in the battle, Guido. You used the power of the assassin's trance to save the ship. The young daredevil I knew once could not have done that, even with all his chivalry and honour. He would have tried - and he would have failed."
Guido shrugged wearily, but his shivering was abating.
"And Sanderson paid the price," he said dully.
"Would you rather Kennedy had? That's what happens in battle, Guido. Men die. On this ship, he was a man, no matter what you or I may think. He died in battle, and he died well. And you made the only choice you could."
"The only choice right for the mission," he said, his expression blank once more.
"No. Just the only choice. No regrets, Guido, remember. Never regret what you had to do."
The assassin's dark eyes were imploring now, fixed on Will as though he were the lifeline fixing him to his tenuous grip on the sanity he had only just regained. Will swallowed, realising that in some way what he was saying mattered more than he had thought - but why? Guido had never needed reassurance, ever - why now? Cautiously, he said -
"Guido, do you remember what you always used to say to me? About regretting your actions?"
"That the regrets dishonour those around you..."
Guido's voice was a whisper. He remembered saying something like that to Horatio, in the rain-swept courtyard...it had not been a new thought, he realised, but something he had once believed in with all his heart.
Will smiled crookedly, his face flickering into the familiar devil's mask.
"Don't dishonour me..." he said softly.
And the wicked smile of the di Cesares flashed across Guido's pale face.
"I wouldn't dream of it," he said dryly.
But the moment of relief that Will had felt, seeing the assassin's familiar grin, had been short-lived, as Guido's agreement to go to Toulouse appeared to take all his energy. A living ghost, he worked at his cipher with a grim single-mindedness that would have once been what Will desired more than anything, but now watched and worried.
Will was desperately afraid that Guido would choose to let go of his memories once again, to drift back into his tormented half-life.
As Sanderson's body slid into the depths of the sea, Will watched the assassin carefully. Not a flicker of emotion crossed the grim, wintery face, even the eyes hard and opaque. Will sighed, and looked away from him. He had not realised what the choice he had begged Guido to make would do to him - but he could not afford to weaken now. If Guido were not with them when they entered Toulouse, they were all dead men.
Will refused to believe that any part of Guido wanted that to happen. However he might feel towards Will for asking that choice of him, he had never desired death...not even when he killed.
And so the spy commander stared bleakly across the deck as the men drifted away, and Guido remained immobile, letting the wind rip at him as though he was almost enjoying it. He probably was, Will thought. Guido had always loved the power the elements had to move him. Better leave him in the wind and the incipient rain, let him forget for a while...
But the assassin only tilted his head back a little, and sighed. Then he walked back to the cabin without a word to anyone, his limp almost imperceptible now, his face set in its sardonic mask.
It wasn't a question. Guido looked up from his papers to see Kennedy standing in the doorway, uninvited and certainly unwanted at that time.
He knows that. And he's still come here...is this man brave, or insane, to face an assassin down in his own room?
"My knives are to hand," he said briefly. "I suggest you leave."
Kennedy shrugged, and came into the room.
"Odd way of swearing your weapons over to me, to kill me with them," he said calmly. "Or have you chosen to forget the last five days, instead of forgetting the first twenty years?"
"No," said Guido shortly. "I haven't. Now get out."
"So you can sit here and destroy yourself? No."
Archie sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk, daring Guido to object further. The assassin glared at him.
"Fine," he muttered. "If you want to die of boredom while I work - feel free. And aren't you supposed to be doing something else?"
"I'm supposed to be discussing our strategy with you. Will and Horatio seem to have it settled as to who goes in to Lorenzo, but they want to know what you have in mind."
Archie had no idea of what he planned to do if he could not break through Guido's icy mask. Better even than Will, he knew how the assassin was closing himself off from the world, slowly willing himself towards a state of complete detachment, where nothing and no-one would matter. Once he reached that point...Archie had willed himself towards death, when he had reached it. He did not doubt that Guido's solution would be similar.
"So why isn't Deveraux here discussing it with me? He's the one who gives the orders around here, as far as I'm concerned."
The assassin's voice was coldly unmoved. Archie's mind raced.
If you can make him laugh, perhaps -
"Maybe because you haven't addressed a single word to him for the last twenty-four hours! What do you think?" Archie looked completely exasperated.
Guido glared at him. He half-rose to his feet, a knife in his hand. Then his mouth twitched involuntarily at one side, as the stupidity of what he was doing struck him.
"That might - have something to do with it!" he agreed, and surprised himself by laughing.
The laughter broke through his icy façade like warm water, and he scrubbed at his head in a by-now familiar gesture of confusion, realising that he had little or no recollection of the hours since he had agreed to go to Toulouse.
"How have I been behaving?" he asked miserably, sitting back in his chair.
"Like an assassin."
"Oh, good," said Guido sarcastically. "That must have been nice for everyone."
"Boring, actually. Very, very boring."
"Oh, well -!" Guido was caught between amusement and embarrassment, his pale face flushed across the high cheekbones.
Then his head tilted in an old arrogant gesture that had been his from boyhood, a gesture learnt from Enrico, who had defeated all humiliation by laughing at it.
"God forbid!" he said, and the familiar wicked smile lit up his face.
Then he sighed.
"Why did you come here?" he asked bitterly. "To make sure that I would do what you all wanted? I've agreed already, you know."
"Yes, I know. I came because - I wondered..."
"You wondered what?" snapped Guido.
He was beginning to get angry at having been snapped out of his comforting detachment, and suddenly wanted to lash out, to hurt anyone foolish enough to be in his vicinity. He longed, irrationally, for the quick-tempered Will to be here, to argue and shout and react to his rage.
"I wondered - what you had remembered. You..."
All the rage went out of Guido, and he stared at the young lieutenant in disbelief.
"You came here for that? Why?"
"Because you saved my life." Archie smiled. "Even if I did act rather ungratefully at the time. And - there is something I do know. If you attempt to carry what you've remembered on your own, you will not survive."
He put up an hand at Guido's involuntary movement of protest.
"It's become obvious, Guido. You're walking around as if you already were a ghost. So talk to me, damn it! We need you alive!"
For a moment, it seemed as if Guido would give in. Then he got to his feet, shaking his head.
"No," was all he said. He picked up his cloak, and settled it around his shoulders, fastening the clasp with steady hands.
"Guido, how long do you think you can keep this going?"
The assassin stopped in his progress towards the door. He smiled sadly.
"Until the day I die," he said quietly.
And then he was gone.
"Damn it!" shouted Kennedy, pelting after him at top speed. He caught sight of a swirl of black cloak vanishing around a corner, and ran after it.
"Stop - disappearing!"
He ran around the corner, and almost into Guido, who was standing there with his arms folded and his eyebrows raised.
"All right," said the assassin, and now there was something truly menacing about him, a sense of slowly uncoiling danger. "I've stopped. Now - if I were you - I would suggest that you ask me to start again."
"I thought -"
"What?" asked Guido, and now the anger was clear in his mocking voice. "You thought if I remembered, I would be different? Let me disillusion you. I am a killer! What I remember makes no difference to that..."
"Is that what you were before?"
Guido hesitated for just too long to be evasive.
"No," he said then, keeping his voice steady and cold. "But it is what I am now. I cannot afford to forget that. Now let me go."
He turned on his heel to leave, and Archie grabbed him by the shoulder and caught him back, spinning him around and off balance, thinking to himself -
I hope to God this works - or I'm a dead man.
Guido's breath ripped through his clenched teeth like a knife, the desire to kill raging through him unstoppably. His hands flew up, breaking Archie's grip with a force that sent the young lieutenant staggering backwards.
Guido looked truly terrifying, his black eyes blazing in his paper-white face, his lips drawn back from his teeth in a snarl of fury. His hands came up in a blur, the gloved edges turned outwards, drawing back to strike and kill, his body like a whip.
Then Guido flung his hands outwards and away from his body, out to the sides, away from Archie, and shouted,
"No! I will not!"
Silence fell. Guido staggered backwards, leaning against the wall of the corridor.
"If you want me to thank you for that," he rasped eventually, "keep a close eye on Hell. And wait for it to freeze!"
He bent double, resting his hands on his knees, his head hanging down as he gasped for air.
"I can choose when I kill," he said eventually, straightening up. "That does not change who I am."
His forehead was beaded with sweat, his gloved hand trembling as he raised it to his face.
"I won't kill unless it is necessary," he said firmly. "Not any more. Not ever again. But I am the King's assassin. And I will do whatever is necessary to fulfil my task. Now get out of my way!"
"Why? Guido, where are you going?"
Archie was completely stunned by what he had almost precipitated, thinking for a moment that the assassin was putting himself out of the way of any temptation to follow through with what he had almost done.
But the blazing anger in Guido's eyes was no longer directed at him.
"Was this Deveraux's idea?" he asked. "Grabbing me by the shoulder? Was it him who suggested it?"
"He said - it was an outside chance, but-"
"But that it might work. And he didn't tell you why?" Guido's mouth was set in an angry line.
Archie shook his head. Guido's reaction had been frightening, not because it had nearly resulted in his death, but because of the utter terror it had so evidently sprung from. For the first time, he had seen how close to insanity Guido had been driven, and he felt fury towards Will Deveraux for exposing it to the world. The assassin could not talk of what had happened, rather than was refusing to, that much was now obvious - and Will had simply been laying his own plans when he gave his offer of help...
Guido nodded once, and turned to leave.
"Guido!" shouted Archie. The assassin stopped, and turned back, looking quizzical.
"I'm sorry," Archie said more quietly. " I'm truly sorry, I didn't know -"
Guido looked at him for a long moment, his expression unfathomable. Then he smiled, the lines around his tired dark eyes kind.
"Don't pity me," he said quietly. "It was always my choice."
End of Chapter Twelve