The King's Man
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing...
Will Deveraux shrank back into the shadows as the furious assassin swirled past him in a cloud of black cloak and black mood, but he was not quick enough. A strong, gloved hand shot out, and caught him by the throat, slamming him against the wall.
"Guido -" choked the spy commander, his hands scrabbling to release the iron grip.
The assassin's face was inches from his own, the hooded eyes black and menacing in the hawk-like features.
"Was that really your bright idea, Deveraux?" he grated furiously, and the hand tightened, making it almost impossible for Will to breathe. "Was it?"
Will nodded wordlessly, choking for air, and Guido loosened his grip with a gesture of disdain, standing well away from him. The spy sank to the floor, drawing in deep breaths as he massaged his throat tenderly.
"Did you kill him?" he croaked.
"No," said Guido contemptuously. "Why - did you want me to?"
"Of course not!" Will got to his feet, dusting his clothes down. "I knew you wouldn't."
Guido shook his head in slow disbelief.
"You just risked a man's life, Deveraux, and you risked it for no good reason except to teach me a lesson. Well, congratulations. I learnt it."
"So you see - being the assassin doesn't mean you have no power over your actions!"
Guido was back up close in one movement.
"What I've learnt," he said, his voice very low and angry, "is that you will go to any lengths to get your own way. Deveraux, what would have happened if I'd killed tonight? Did you think of that before you sent Kennedy after me? Dishonour. Disgrace. And a man dead through your egotism. Will Deveraux teaches his pet killer control...oh, well done! Superb! Worthy indeed of the great English spy!"
"At least you know now you have control!" shouted Will. Guido's insults were hurting him more deeply than he had expected. He had known the assassin was going to be furious with him, but this utter contempt was something new...
"I always had control!" howled Guido. "I have had for years, you stupid bloody fool! That's the only reason you're not dead now! All you've managed to do, the only thing you've accomplished in this lovely little plot of yours, is to show my one weakness to a man who needs to trust me! THANK YOU!"
"You threatened to kill me on the deck -"
Guido fought the urge to draw back his arm and punch Will hard on the nose. It was the kind of impulse he might have had years ago - and then, he would have given in. Now, he just stood where he was, glaring.
"I threatened to kill you," he said through gritted teeth, "the next time you touched me. And I threatened it because I do not want anyone to touch me! I didn't kill you because I learnt to control the reaction, not because I had some kind of moral barrier against harming you! And you can thank whatever god of chaos you seem to pray to that I had learnt that, because if I hadn't, you would be watching me swing from the yardarm around now!"
"But I knew you wouldn't kill him," was all Will said.
He looked so smugly self-righteous, thought Guido angrily, holding onto his temper by a thread and trying to think of a way to make the spy understand what he had almost done. And then, unwisely, Will smiled.
Guido didn't even think about it. He simply hit Will as hard as he possibly could. Will crashed backwards against the wall, and slid down it, completely knocked out by the force of the blow.
Guido flexed his gloved hand thoughtfully.
"Satisfying," he murmured, and then, suddenly, he grinned. "I wonder why no-one ever did that to him before?"
Will Deveraux groaned, and tried to sit up in the hammock.
"Lie still," said Guido irritably. "You'll just start the bleeding again."
He threw another wet cloth at Will, aiming it with his unnerving accuracy so that it landed directly on his face.
"Stop complaining." The old humour was back in Guido's voice, but there was something else, too, that Will had not heard in years, something - tough. Resilient.
"You deserved it, you know." Once, Guido would have sounded defensive, saying that, but now there was only amusement in his tones.
"I know, I know," groaned Will, holding the cool cloth to his swollen eyes and nose. "How was I supposed to know you'd punch me out, though?"
"Well, how was I supposed to know you were going to send me - never mind."
"Mad?" suggested Will, lowering the cloth, and was rewarded with a glare. "You really are back, aren't you, di Cesare..."
"Oh, yes," said Guido dryly. "Your little plan worked, Will. Just not in the way you thought it would."
"Well, if I'd known that all it would take was a punch in the nose, I'd have volunteered before!" Will's voice was slightly muffled by the cloth, and Guido smiled at him with rare affection.
"It wasn't punching you in the nose, Deveraux. I wish your sacrifice had not been in vain, but thus it was, and so it is. Your blood, I regret to say, was not spilt in a just cause - sadly, I was just angry."
Will lowered the cloth again.
"So what was it?"
"The being angry," he said enigmatically.
"But you're usually angry, as far as I - oh, I give up."
Will dropped the cloth back over his face, closing his eyes. His head hurt too much to be having the conversation.
Guido breathed out with what was almost a laugh, shaking his head in amusement.
It was being angry for someone else that did it, Deveraux...not being angry for myself...
There was a knock at the door, and Guido jumped, his face paling. He drew a quick, short breath, feeling his heart pound hard and fast, expecting the dead to speak from the other side of the door...
There are no ghosts...
"Come in!" he shouted, louder than necessary, and Will lowered the cloth to look at him curiously.
Kennedy put his head round the door, looking worried.
"The captain wants to see us," he said.
"Will, too?" he asked hopefully.
"No. Just us."
Guido got slowly to his feet.
"This is not going to be good..."
He passed a hand over his hair, twitched at his shirt nervously, straightening the cuffs and collar, and got to his feet.
"Hail, Caesar..." he murmured dryly, and left the room.
Will, safe behind the damp cloth, burst out laughing.
Pellew glared at the two young men in front of him in an icy silence that had Kennedy staring at the wall behind his captain as if it were the Holy Grail within seconds. Guido, on the other hand, stared back at him, very white, but determined not to give in. His mouth was flickering rapidly at one corner, almost like a tic.
"Do either of you have an explanation?" enquired Pellew, his voice deceptively soft.
The one thing he was not expecting was Guido's reply.
"I hit him. It has nothing to do with Mr Kennedy."
"What?" he asked, confused.
"Well, I hit him," he repeated. "I'm sorry it offended you, but -"
"You hit who?" Pellew sounded completely lost.
Pellew sighed, and prayed for patience.
"I am not referring to Mr Deveraux," he said through gritted teeth. "I am referring to your behaviour during our encounter with the French corvette!"
Guido thought frantically back. He remembered going up the rigging, cutting the ropes...and cutting himself, he thought with an inward smile...and -
"Oh, no..." he groaned. "Hornblower. I didn't...he shouted for me, and...oh, no..."
He raked his gloved fingers through his dark hair, and his narrow features flushed a deep red with humiliation. He stared at the floor, wordless, trying hard to swallow and moisten his dry throat.
Having successfully demolished Guido's defiance - something that had given him no small amount of pleasure - Pellew turned his attention to Kennedy.
"Mr Kennedy," he said ominously.
The Holy Grail, he noted with some amusement, seemed to have moved to somewhere around his right ear.
"I do not believe," said Pellew coldly, "that there is a single mention in the Articles of War concerning what I am supposed to do with a lieutenant who decides to begin a brawl with a spy during a battle!"
Kennedy tried to say something and found that he couldn't. Guido's head came up, the last words of the Donne sonnet echoing in his head -
Teach me how to repent, for that's as good/ As if thou had'st sealed my pardon, with thy blood...
Teach me how to repent...
"I - ah - I deserved it," he said very quietly, his voice seeming not to belong to him. "I disobeyed a direct order that Mr Kennedy had given me before the battle."
Pellew snapped his head around to glare at him.
"Did you indeed?" he enquired with ominous calm. "Would you care to explain that statement, Signor?"
Guido seemed to have noticed the Grail as well, and was looking at it with a concentrated effort.
"He - um - I asked him what I should...ah...do with my weapons," he said clearly. "I was informed that my only instructions were not to kill anyone for Mr Kennedy under any circumstances. And...um...I did. Kill someone. Which..." Guido's voice began to fade. He swallowed hard, his nostrils flaring wide as he fought to control his breathing. Then he flung his head up proudly and looked Pellew straight in the eye.
But let them sleep, Lord...
"My actions resulted in the death of Midshipman Sanderson," he said in a calm voice. "There is no excuse that I have to offer."
Pellew looked at the assassin's proud, wintery face for a long time. The he turned to Kennedy.
"Mr Kennedy, you are dismissed," he said calmly.
Archie opened his mouth to protest, and Pellew snapped -
"This would be a most inopportune time for you to regain your powers of speech, Mr Kennedy. Dismissed!"
Archie saluted, turned on his heel and left.
Guido was left staring into the space past Pellew, unmoving and unblinking. The Captain looked at him carefully. Guido was tall, as tall as Hornblower, but he had none of the lieutenant's broad-shouldered power in his frame. Rather he was like a slender rapier, of infinitely flexible, finely crafted steel. When he had first come on board the ship, he had breathed danger, power, intensity. Now he looked impossibly fragile, as though the merest touch would crush him, his dark hawk's face, now covered in yellowing bruises, was pale and gaunt, the hooded eyes surrounded by purple circles of exhaustion.
This was a man in search of an impossible absolution.
Pellew stood behind his desk, wondering what he could say. This was not a man to whom he could speak of honour, of duty, of self-sacrifice, of the necessity of war. The assassin killed in the dark for a man he had vowed his life to, a man whom he did not even know. Duty, to him, was not the strength of purpose that it was to Pellew, but rather a thing to be dreaded, a loss of the soul.
"During our encounter with the French," Pellew said carefully, "you performed a service for me that I can never thank you for."
He raised one hand to stem Guido's protest.
"I do not regard your saving my own life as something for which I cannot express my gratitude," he continued, a faint smile on his mouth, "so hear me out, Signor. You saved my ship - a debt I can never hope to repay. You saved one of my officers - something for which I am doubtless more grateful than he, judging from his reaction at the time."
The dark eyes flickered to Pellew's face at that, startled, and then away again, back to the space behind Pellew's head.
"You risked your own life to stand with Lieutenant Hornblower, with no thought for your own wound - yes, Signor, before you speak, I know how you got it. I have already spoken to Mr Deveraux, and I am - trying, at least - to understand the need for your actions at that time."
Pellew paused for a moment, watching his words sink in. The assassin's full attention was on him now, his expression indefinable, but a long way from the studied blankness of earlier. Pellew took a deep breath, and continued -
"You have behaved, in short, with all the courage and steadfast loyalty that I would have looked for in one of my own men. That a man was lost in action is a grief to us all. But no one man can take responsibility for his death. NO ONE MAN!" he bellowed suddenly, and Guido jumped.
"I should have saved him..." he whispered.
"Were you alone on the ship, Signor?" demanded Pellew. "Or were there others who could have performed the same service?"
"But they - they are sworn to duty...I am not - I had a choice!"
"You ARE sworn to duty, Signor! You have sworn that these documents will reach Toulouse, and that you will return my men to me! How the DEVIL do you expect to get them back from Toulouse if they never even reach France? You, Signor, were doing your duty! And I would expect no less from you than that you continue to do so! I want those men back here alive, Signor, do you understand me?"
Guido swallowed hard.
"Captain, I -"
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
Guido looked at the captain with pain-filled eyes. He knew exactly what was being asked of him. Survival. Devotion. Friendship. Belief. And even while his mind rebelled against it with all of the instilled code of the assassin's life, his heart cried out to accept.
Against his will, he found himself saying,
"I understand. And I will bring them back."
Pellew drew a deep breath. Then -
"You will stop blaming yourself, Signor." Pellew's voice was quiet now. "No man can be all things. Not even the King's own assassin."
Guido shook his head mutely, looking down at the floor of the cabin.
"You have my permission to leave." Pellew's voice was cold.
Guido nodded, and turned to go.
"Signor!" Pellew's voice was sharp, and Guido turned, his expression that of a man waiting for the final blow.
Pellew's face softened.
"You are a man whom I would be honoured to have serve under me," he said quietly.
The assassin's head went up at that, and the thin shoulders stiffened. Then he swept a bow that was, for once, not mocking, and the dark eyes that looked up at Pellew were suddenly almost vulnerable in their expression.
"The honour would be all mine, sir," he said, his voice low.
And then he was gone, seeming, as usual, to have vanished into thin air.
Guido went up on the deck, feeling as if something far too heavy for him to carry had been lifted off his shoulders, leaving him as unburdened as he ever had been before he went to Lorenzo. He laughed a little at himself, shrugging his shoulders and shivering in the evening air, but he could not conceal, even from himself, the effect of Pellew's words to him.
"A man of duty, eh?" he murmured. "Well, that's a new one to add to Enzo's bloody assassin's litany..."
He took out his pipe from one of the myriad pockets that lined his black clothing, filled and lit it, drawing in the smoke with pleasure, the bowl glowing comfortably at the end of the long stem.
"So the captain wants his men back safe, does he?" he asked the sky softly. "I suppose I'll just have to oblige him, then, won't I...?"
Ahead of the 'Indefatigable', as yet invisible in the bad light, waited the coast of France, and Toulouse. They were only hours away from their landing point.
And in Toulouse, a man waited...
With Francesca's arrival, Lorenzo had rented a larger house, more accommodating to the position he felt it necessary to uphold with her at his side.
He saw Hal Trevelyan jump down from the carriage, holding up his hand to assist her descent. Proper, cool and exquisitely beautiful, Francesca di Cesare placed one gloved hand on his, and came down the steps to the ground with a grace that Lorenzo had never seen in another woman.
"And if you so much as falter in that grace, my love," he murmured softly, checking his reflection carefully in the mirror, "I will give you to Guido in death..."
He went out of the doors, holding out his arms, his face transformed by his smile.
Francesca paused, then picked up her skirts and ran towards his embrace, her love and pleasure at being reunited with him visible to all, so that the coachman and Hal Trevelyan exchanged wryly amused glances, her lips meeting those of her husband in a lingering kiss of evident passion, breaking off and laughing up at him softly.
The couple entered the house with their arms linked, talking too quietly to be heard.
And in Francesca's mind beat the same refrain, over and over.
Dear God, let me live long enough to see Guido again. Let me live. Let me live...
Hal Trevelyan shut the carriage door, his lazy blue eyes no longer laughing, but hard and blazing with hatred.
"Wish you were them, eh?" called down the coachman cheerfully.
Hal looked back up at him, his expression wiped clear of the loathing he felt as though it had never been an emotion he had felt in his whole life.
"Not for the wide world," he responded cheerfully. "I prefer to make my pleasures less - binding!"
The coachman laughed, and drove off, leaving Hal alone outside the house.
"Come back, Hotspur," whispered the blond Englishman. "Come back and save us..."
Will came up on deck, his scarred face now looking truly hideous with its swollen nose and eyes, even in the softer light of the newly-lit oil lamps. He saw the assassin standing by the rail, smoking and looking out to where the coast would shortly appear. He turned at Will's footsteps, and smiled.
Will looked at the assassin in surprise. Kennedy had come back to the cabin tight-lipped and saying nothing, and the waiting for Guido to return had become almost unbearable.
"If it was that bad," Will had said eventually, "he'll
be up on deck. He can't stand - rooms,
He had expected to find Guido fraught and unhappy, plunged into self-accusation. Instead, the man who turned to him looked almost happy, his expression contented, if a little distant.
"We only have a few hours," said Will. "We need to finalise the arrangements."
Guido nodded. He took a last long look at the sea, and took a deep breath, tilting his head back to look at the sky.
"Sailors sail by the stars," he murmured. "Did you know that, Will?"
Will nodded, wondering what maggot had got into the assassin's brain now. Guido only smiled absently.
"It doesn't matter, Will," he said softly. "You don't have to understand my every thought to keep trusting me, you know."
And the spy realised that this was not a dismissal, but a genuinely meant remark.
"I never tried to, Guido."
Guido's smile was a little bitter now.
"No...no, you never tried. So don't start now, eh, Deveraux?"
Where had this new strength come from? Will wondered. Only hours before, Guido had been beaten, distancing himself from everything around him. Now...there was a new determination in him, a calm acceptance of what was around him that Will had never seen, even five years ago.
"The last five years..." Guido sighed. "I have been in Hell, I think. Trying to remember - trying not to remember, whichever it was, the past held me more firmly when I didn't know what it held than it does now."
"And what does it hold?" asked Will, curious despite himself.
Guido looked out at the sea, his eyes hooded, revealing nothing.
"Horror. Terror - I don't think I will ever be rid of that, not completely, even though I can control it now...but also - there were other things, things that - if I had remembered them, I would have been lost, knowing what had been done to me since. Good people. Happiness - I remembered that, and the sorrow, too, for my brothers - God, Will, I'd even forgotten them, I'd forgotten they had died! I had so much, once, you know, I was so bloody lucky...a friendship better than I deserved...and love, such love, Will, as a man only finds once in his lifetime and holds onto for all eternity. If I had known, first coming to England, that all those things were never to be mine - never again - I could never have borne it, never! It was a blessing, Lorenzo taking my memory from me."
It was the longest speech Will had ever heard the assassin make. He had no idea of how to respond to it, however, uncertain of what he could say in the circumstances. Guido would never discuss what had happened in full, he knew that, and any comment he made would seem as though he were pressing the assassin for information that he did not want to give. So Will only smiled, his swollen eyes crinkling slightly, and retreated into their usual jesting relationship.
"Love, eh, di Cesare? Will you find her again, do you think? Will she have waited?"
"If she isn't dead, she'll have waited for me." He smiled almost shyly, realising how presumptuous that must have sounded. But he knew Francesca...and he had remembered everything.
"Oh, ho! And does this paragon have a name?"
Will was laughing more at the unexpected blush on Guido's thin face than at anything else. The more human side to the assassin's nature was turning out to be more amusing by the moment.
The word was almost like a prayer, coming from the assassin's lips, but it fell on Will's hearing like a thunderclap. He felt the colour drain from his face in shock. He knew, knowing even as much as he did of Guido's brother, that this was no coincidence.
"Guido..." he began, and the assassin looked at him in surprise, hearing the Englishman's voice tremble. "Guido, your brother..."
"My brother what?" asked Guido, his voice hard. He was looking intently at Will.
His voice was insistent, commanding, unlike the cynical indifference that usually accompanied even the most urgent of his questions. Whatever had woken up along with Guido's memories was a man born to power. And unafraid to use it.
"I think - oh, God, you're going to kill me for this...I think - I know, damn it! Lorenzo married her. She married him. They - they hold court - in France...when Lorenzo's there, Robespierre's pet - she's the current favourite...oh, God, forgive me, di Cesare!"
The assassin's hand clenched on the rail convulsively, and he staggered as though he had been dealt some kind of physical blow.
"He - did - what?"
"He married her. Guido -" Will reached out a hand to the assassin, who turned away.
"I'm going to kill him," said the assassin in a tone of eerie detachment.
Then his face contorted with grief, and he cried out -
"I am going to rip his heart out and feed it to him slowly! How dare he use Francesca for his own twisted ends of power? How dare he?"
The news seemed to have unleashed all Guido's demons, bringing them raging to the surface as his memories warred with new emotions, with feelings that had been alien to him for too long to be able to control them now.
Words poured from him in an unstoppable flood, as if the reticence of the past years had never been.
"I am going to put him through all the tortures of hell, and leave him screaming there for all eternity...He put me in a collar, and he chained me to a wall, and he took my memories and left me in the dark, he made me into a killer with nothing to give anyone - and I had to leave, I had to, I couldn't have been anything to her or Hal, not knowing who they were,they would have helped me, I know, but I had to leave! I asked Hal to protect her, I begged him, the last thing I did before I forgot even myself...what did my brother do to them, God damn him? What did he do to those I loved?"
Anguish was rising in Guido's normally controlled voice, and Will sought desperately for some kind of comfort to give him. There was only one thing he could think of, and it was cold comfort indeed, he knew, but he could not bear the raw agony in Guido's voice. The assassin looked utterly tormented, disbelief and rage etched onto his thin features as if by one of his own knives.
"Guido - she chose freely. She must have. They say - his wife worships him, the darling of France, the -"
Guido shook his head violently. He had not doubted Francesca for a moment, his memories of her more powerful than any newly acquired doubts he might have had otherwise.
"Fear made me an assassin," he said angrily. "And fear makes her his wife, and Hal his friend. He creates illusions of what he cannot have all around him. Do not underestimate this man! He creates what he pleases, and we are his puppets, dancing on strings of terror. And you, you, Will, are going into the lion's den voluntarily! I know what he is, Deveraux. I would never blame anyone who gave into him."
Will realised what he was saying.
"Guido, if this goes wrong, if I can't -"
The assassin shook his head. His eyes were still darkened with pain, but he had regained control of himself. He reached out, and put his hands on Will's shoulders, forcing the English spy to look straight at him in the first gesture of friendship that there hadbeen between them since Guido arrived in England.
"I will get you out." It was a promise. "And I will get us back to England. Never doubt me, Will, not now. I was once a man known for my word. I intend to regain it."
"You trust us to carry this plan through?" Will was stunned.
"Ah - no." Guido's wicked grin transformed his face. "I'm afraid you're all going to have to trust me. I know how we can make this work - but, Will?"
Guido stared up at the stars again. He seemed to gain confidence from them, and Will remained silent as the dark, predatory face softened.
Then Guido looked back at him, and the new determination was clear in his thin features.
"You will have to give me command."
"It's the only way. I know now, you see. I know what we can do...you see, Deveraux, I remember. Lorenzo isn't counting on that, and now - I know my brother. I have played these games since we were children, when they truly were games, a test of the imagination. And I know him better than even he suspects. I know how he thinks, and I can guess what he will do. And I know a way of getting the documents to the right man..."
And Will Deveraux, in amazement, listened.
Guido was alone in the cabin. He had asked Will to explain the plan to the other two, knowing that he would only fight - again! - with Hornblower were he to attempt to convey what had to be done.
He wondered idly how the spy commander was getting on, sighed, and looked at the neat packet of documents that lay on the desk. They were the key to a cipher code that Guido had spent most of his waking hours developing. A cipher code to false documents that Will would carry...
Guido sighed once more, and went to the bags in the corner. He took out fresh clothing, and laid it out, shaking out the creases as best he could. He was preparing to go into a battle that he could not afford to lose - and he had a strange compulsion to look his best for the occasion.
He stripped, his thin, muscular body gleaming in the lamplight like golden marble, and began to examine himself dispassionately. His wound was healing, but they would have to ride hard and fast to reach Toulouse, and he stretched and tested the muscle, leaning forward into the light, putting all his weight onto the leg, forcing it to bear up under the tension.
It hurt, hurt almost unbearably, but it could be borne, and would be. The damage to the muscle had been minimal, but the flesh around the crudely stitched gash still pulled when he put too much pressure on it.
He turned his head, examining the line and length of his strong back, down to his long, horseman's legs, checking for any signs that his suppleness had been damaged by the last few days. It seemed as though his relative inactivity had done little to change him, and he nodded in satisfaction.
Guido was examining his naked body for flaws, not out of narcissism, but with the same care and concern that he would later spend on his knives and guns. He was as much a weapon as anything he carried, his body something he used to kill with, an extension of his arsenal.
Any failing in him could mean the difference between life and death. And Guido was determined that the difference would be made.
He stretched and flexed his arms, looking along them as the muscles pulled outwards, searching for any weaknesses, and found none.
He was ready to be the perfect killer.
End of Chapter Thirteen.