The King's Man
by
Rhiannon

Chapter Fifteen

Darkling I listen, and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful death...

 

Will saw Guido heading for Pellew's cabin, and hurried to catch up with him.

"Guido," he started quietly, but the assassin simply walked on as if he had not spoken, his face hard and set, his normally expressive mouth a thin line of determination. Will tried again, wondering what the man was doing this time.

"Guido, there's a problem."

The assassin flickered a glance his way, his long stride never slowing.

"So stop it being one, Deveraux."

"I can't. Hornblower can't ride. At least, he says he can't."

Guido did not even blink, his expression unchanging at the news.

"So I'll teach him. Problem solved."

"And if he doesn't want to be taught?"

Guido breathed out with a faint sigh of tiredness.

"He'll still have to learn. Talk to me about this later, Deveraux. I'm busy."

"Doing what?" snapped the spy commander irritably. "First you ask me to give you command, and then you leave it all to me!"

"It's called delegation, Will," Guido said almost absently, a gleam of humour crossing his face for the first time. "I have things to do before we leave the ship. You don't. Are you packed?"

"Always."

"Good. Leave my things in the cabin. I have everything I want in the bag here. Now I have to go to Pellew. Excuse me."

And he knocked on the cabin door.

"Yes?" snapped a voice from inside.

Guido pushed open the door, and went in.

Will walked back down the corridor, fuming quietly. Guido in a position of command was even more infuriating than when he was disobeying orders...

The first thing that caught Will's eye when he went into the little cabin that they had been allocated at the start of the voyage around the Spanish coast was Guido's plain, servicable rapier, standing in the corner.

"Wasn't he wearing a sword...?"

Will cast his mind back, trying to remember whether the assassin had been carrying a visible weapon or not. He was sure he would have noticed if Guido's sword had been absent...yet there it stood in the corner.

Then he saw the cloth on the table, and understood.

"So - you've taken your crest back as your own, have you, di Cesare?" he murmured. "About time someone worthy of it wore it at their side..."

He saw the neat bundle by the hammock, and guessed that it contained those things Guido did not want to bring. On top of the bundle lay two folded papers, each sealed and stamped with an emblem he had not seen before.

Curious, he picked one up, and examined the wax imprint.

In the centre was an eagle in flight, and around it tiny letters that Will had to struggle to make out. Eventually, he managed to decipher it.

Fiat justitia, ruat coelum.

"Let justice be done, though the heavens fall..." whispered Will into a silence that had become almost eerie. "This must be his personal seal - but I've never seen it before...why use it now?"

He turned the folded paper over, and read the black, slashing writing on the front.

'Dr Morris. In the event of my death.'

Will shuddered, and reached out for the second, almost afraid to know what it said.

'William Deveraux, Viscount Goring of Grovelands. In the event of my death.'

"Oh Jesus, Guido..." whispered Will. "How did you know who I was..?"

Will Deveraux had disowned his title voluntarily years before he even met Guido, handing it on to a distant cousin so that he might be free to pursue the career of a spy in freedom and secrecy - yet the assassin had addressed it to his old self as if it were a long-established fact.

And then the spy commander understood what his assassin was trying to say, and he could have wept. Guido had always known who he was working for, and had respected his decision and his secret, keeping it in silence, the only sign of loyalty he had to offer.

Will suddenly had a vivid mental image, so strong that he could almost believe it to be real, of Guido writing the letters, dipping the pen in the black ink and scrawling the names on the front with his strong, vivid handwriting, a small dry smile on his lips as he added Will's title, knowing that the spy commander would read it before they arrived in Toulouse.

Guido's new determination came from a desire to go to his death - and to accomplish the thing he had once set out to do before he died. He was going to prove himself to be a man of honour - and he was refusing to have any more secrets in his life while he proved it.

"He's closing everything down..." whispered the Englishman. "That's why he's gone in to Pellew. He's tying up the ends..."

*****

In Toulouse, Hal Trevelyan was also making his arrangements. Francesca's presence meant that Lorenzo required his company far less than previously, and he was free to prepare for the death he felt certain was mnot far away. If Guido were coming to Toulouse to face his brother, then with or without his memory, Hal meant to support him, no matter what the cost to himself. He owed the man who had once been called Hotspur, the man who no longer had a name among his enemies and allies, but who was called instead the Angel of Death, and sometimes simply 'the King's Man', too much to let him down now.

Hal walked to the bureau in his room, opened a drawer, and pulled out a small gold snuffbox. He carried it as part of the affectations he had begun years before, but it did not, as everyone thought, contain the snuff that he habitually used with an air of elegant disdain. It contained a small gold seal, given to him by Guido years before.

"If ever you should need me," the young man had said, before he left to join Will Deveraux as a marksman, "send me word. And seal it with this. I will never fail you, Hal. I will come back from the grave, if need be, should this reach me in the afterlife."

Hal lifted the little signet from the box, staring at the inscription.

Fiat justitia, ruat coelum.

It could have been written for the man who had taken the saying as his own, rather than have come from the pen of a long-dead Latin poet.

Hal picked up a quill, and dipped it in the ink-bottle that stood on the desk.

'Hotspur,' he wrote quickly. 'I pray you do not fail me now as ever I will do for you. Hal.'

He stared at his writing for a long moment, then suddenly crumpled the paper into his hand with a quick, violent movement, throwing it onto the fire that burnt in the grate with a gesture of despair. Guido could not even remember who he himself was - why should he remember a man who had once been his friend?

"And even if he has remembered me," said Hal bitterly, "he would believe what Lorenzo told him - that he tried to kill me. He would think it was a trap."

He slammed the little box shut, and put it back in the drawer, holding its secret close and hidden from curious eyes.

The di Cesare brothers had always jested about Hal's blond good looks, calling him the "quintessential Englishman". Over the years, he had come to accept the fact that he was attractive with the same amusement as he saw everything else about himself. Now, he knew that he would have to use the innate laziness and good humour of his appearance for the first time in his life, in order to fool a man who saw him as transparently vague...

"Hotspur," whispered Hal in the secrecy of his room. "Hotspur."

The words were his only hope - had become his prayer over the last years without his realising. They were his link to sanity amidst the madness that Lorenzo had made of his life.

Hal Trevelyan, for whom a family had once waged war, stood alone in a dusty, echoing room, and prayed for an ending to the hell that his life had become.

*****

Guido and Pellew faced each other across the cabin, two men born to command and neither giving an inch.

"This serves no purpose, Signor!" snapped Pellew.

Guido's dark eyes flashed fire, little gold sparks dancing dangerously far in their depths. Had any of his brothers seen this rare sign of temper in him, they would have been running for cover. Will Deveraux, having only seen the phenomenon once in the few seconds before Guido punched him in the nose, would have ducked. It was far from the opaque blackness that was the assassin's usual hallmark of rage, a sign that his famous control was slipping from his grasp.

"It serves mine!" spat Guido di Cesare. "You asked me if I needed anything - well, this is what I ask! Are you refusing me, sir?"

"Why would any man want to bring the dead back to life?" demanded Pellew angrily.

"I do not want to bring the dead back to life!" snarled the assassin. "I want the dead to stay where they damn well should be - and that happens, in this case, to be Hell! Now will you help me or not?"

"No! This is ghoulish and unnecessary, Signor. I will be no party to it!"

"For the love of God, listen to me!" raged Guido. "I made a promise and I must keep it - I broke my word to him before and I will not again! Now HELP me!"

Pellew glared at the assassin with the look that had diminished men under his command to rubble before now. Guido simply looked back at him steadily, the odd golden sparks dancing below the surface of his eyes.

"I never bother to obey orders," he said quietly. "Even when they're unspoken. I have what you might call an - aversion - to obeying anything at all, in fact. Especially under pressure. Now should I miss the boat going to shore while we argue about this, or are you going to tell me what I need to know?"

Pellew was silent for a moment, obviously fighting an inward battle between his sense of moral right and his realisation that the assassin was not, unfortunately, going to just give up and go away as one of his own men would have done long before now.

He looked at the assassin, seeing more than the blazing determination that had so fascinated Will Deveraux, more than the new ability to command that had so suddenly come to the fore of Guido's strange behaviour. He saw in the tall, thin man who stood in front of him a passion to hold to his word, to behave with honour, that he had not encountered since Hornblower first came onto the 'Indefatigable'. For a moment, he considered resisting it, considered combatting that force with all the weight of his authority, as he had not done then...

Then he sighed, and gave in.

"One shot," he said quietly. "In the chest. The left-hand side. Now are you satisfied, Signor?"

Guido's mouth twitched slightly at one corner, but his eyes were still fixed on Pellew, determining whether he spoke the truth or not. Finally, he expelled a long-held breath, and nodded, accepting Pellew's words.

"It will serve," he said just as quietly. "It will have to."

And without another word, he turned around and left, leaving behind the faint breeze of his swirling cloak, and the scent of pipe smoke, hanging in the air like a palpable reminder of the menace he carried with him like an infection.

Guido di Cesare had fulfilled one of the last of his self-appointed tasks. There was only one thing left for him to accomplish, only one more thing to which he had sworn himself, and that, now, thanks to Pellew, would be possible. He would finish what he had sworn to do, he would hold to his word and his honour, he would keep faith with his own sense of what must be done.

And then, at last, he would be free to die.

*****

Guido waited on deck for the three Englishmen to join him, shivering a little in the cold night air, his bulging leather bag swung from one shoulder beneath his cloak. He stuck his pipe in his mouth, and lit it, his dark face illuminated for a brief moment in the light of the spluttering match. His features were serene as he took the pipe from his mouth and looked up at the stars.

"Sailors always know where they are....because of the stars. And so will I. The same stars were above me in my happiness as shine there now. I am always home - wherever I go. And when I die, they will shine there still..."

He turned, hearing footsteps behind him, and looked in complete bewilderment at Will Deveraux.

"What on earth are you wearing?" he enquired.

"French uniform," said Will briefly.

"Ah - yes, I can see that, Will, but - um - why?"

"Because I'm in disguise."

"Will - you're a spy. What exactly are you disguising yourself from? You're supposed to be
anonymous."

"I know, but we're going into France..."

Guido closed his eyes momentarily.

"So you don't think that one random French soldier, an assassin, and two Navy Lieutenants are going to attract a little attention en route to Toulouse? No - don't tell me. They're French soldiers as well, aren't they?"

"Well, yes. Of course."

Guido sighed.

"Naturally. What else did I expect? Will, go and find some ordinary clothes. Find them some ordinary clothes. You are going under my command this time - and that means we disappear, not play some kind of stupid game! This time, I have to stand out, not you!"

"I don't understand."

Guido smiled unpleasantly.

"Have I ever told you how much I look like my brother?"

"I know you look like your brother! How is that supposed to help?"

"Because you are all, from the moment we land, the men of Lorenzo di Cesare. And if anyone asks, you are taking his brother to him in Toulouse. I doubt that anyone would question the relationship - do you?"

"Guido, we're English. They are going to notice that minor fact, at some point."

"And they wouldn't notice it with you three in French uniforms? How very optimistically stupid of you, Deveraux. Lorenzo's men are mostly English, you idiot! Our disguise is to be who we are!"

"A spy, two Lieutenants, and a renegade assassin?" Will gaped at him.

"Exactly," said Guido.

"Right. That's just - brilliant. And how do we explain the fact that two of us appear to be from His Majesty's glorious Navy?"

"They're in disguise."

"They're in -" Will broke off, and slowly, unwillingly, began to smile. "You know, di Cesare, that - might - just - work."

"Well, if it doesn't, we're all dead. So let's hope, shall we, Deveraux?"

"Guido, how did you come up with this?"

Guido sighed, and looked out at the dark sea.

"The best disguise is always to be precisely who you are. Then - you never have to lie. Can you honestly see Hornblower or Kennedy maintaining subterfuge if we were all under threat of death? They would cling to their honour like a drowning man to a spar of wood. This
way -"

"This way, they never have to lie."

"I am tired of lies, Will. You are bringing me to Lorenzo. The fact that I go willingly is the only thing we must conceal...and in all else, we will tell the truth. Now go and tell those two loyal servants of the Crown to change out of their - costumes! - and back to who they really are. We have earned the right - all of us! - to live as the men we should be. Even when we work as spies..."

"To live and die, you mean." Will sounded unexpectedly bitter, remembering the two letters that Guido had left in the cabin.

Guido's eyes flickered to his commander's scarred face, scanning his expression sharply. Then his long, sardonic mouth twitched into a smile.

"If need be, Deveraux," he said dryly. "If need be..."

"Only from need? Not from choice?"

Guido looked at him properly, and his face softened.

"I don't intend that any of you should be a sacrifice on the King's altar," he said quietly. "I swore to Pellew that I would bring his men back alive - and I will."

"And you? What of you?"

Guido looked at him bleakly.

"I may not survive the transaction," he said quietly. "You carry the false papers, they carry the true ones. Lorenzo will take you, and I will offer up the cipher code in exchange. He will still take you - and I may have to offer myself. It's a chance I take willingly, for those documents to fall into the right hands...and Pellew will have his officers back."

"NO!" shouted Will. "NEVER!"

Guido grasped Will by the shoulders, shaking him.

"It's the only chance we have, Will! The documents must not go to Bonaparte! Not if I have a chance of stopping them! You are worth far more than I ever was, and I refuse to lose you for the sake of my own life! You are going to survive, carry on, do what you gave up your lands and your title to do! I do this willingly, don't you understand? I have as much right to lay down my life for my country as any man..."

"No! No! The price is too great! I will not allow it!"

"Ah, Will...you gave me command. Would you do less?"

"I have done less!" The English spy was weeping openly, his scarred face mocking his emotions with a sneering grimace. "Guido, I gave you up to hell once, in ignorance, and I cannot do that again, not knowingly!"

"Will..."

"I want you alive! I need you alive, di Cesare! You are my friend, damn you! My friend! Is that so alien to you, even now, that you can't bear to live? You can do this and still live, don't you see? You can win, you can make the bargain with Lorenzo and get me out, you can do this, I know you can! Stay alive, Guido! For my sake, you have got to stay alive!"

Guido, too, was weeping, the tears pouring from his dark eyes without his even being aware of it.

"But if the choice comes, Will, if it is you or me..."

"It won't! He wants the documents, and your plan will work, di Cesare, it will work, and you will come back here with Pellew's officers, and you will have your honour, we will defeat Lorenzo, all of us! You are our commander now, and we will protect you, don't you understand? You are our commander..."

"Why should you care?" demanded the assassin, his thin face streaked with tears and haggard with disbelief. "Why should you care, any of you?"

Will laughed through his tears, his hands coming up to grasp the assassin's arms.

"Because, you fool, you are a man worth caring for! Because you risked your life to save the ship that Hornblower loves, because you would face down a man whose respect you want, just to kill Kennedy's ghost, because you believe in chivalry and honour and all the things I wanted to forget - because you are who you are, God damn it, and if you want to save us, then grant us the same, and let us save you!"

Guido flung back his head, for once ignoring Will's touch, and howled at the sky -

"I am not that man!"

"That and more, di Cesare! That and more, my friend!"

"I am no man's friend!"

"You are mine!"

"NO! I tried to kill my friend! I cannot permit this, don't you see! I may kill you, Will, I may kill you, and I could not bear it, not again!"

"Guido, if I am worth dying for, I am worth living for! I order you to live!"

"My weapons are Kennedy's now, I have sworn myself to him, and you have no power over me!"

The assassin was sobbing now, his sardonic features wracked with pain, allowing Will's hands to remain on his arms without even shifting beneath their grasp.

"And you truly believe he would allow you to die? He doesn't even want you to kill - you think he would want your death on his hands?"

"I take responsibility, not him, I told him that!"

"You would brave Pellew in order to defeat a ghost, and then you say that you would haunt Kennedy yourself, by dying? I thought better than that of you, Guido!"

Guido's face twisted in agony, and the tears streamed down his face unchecked.

"If there is a choice, what choice is it? Your lives or mine? That is no choice, Will! I must die!"

"I choose for you! My life is mine, as yours belongs to you! We all choose how we will die, Guido, even if you swear yourself blue to protect us! You believe in honour - allow us ours!"

"Oh God, I cannot! Not if it means your deaths!"

"You must, don't you see? You must!"

Guido resisted a moment longer, his whole body taut as a bow-string, his face, wet with tears, fixed and hard, staring into some unknown future. Then he bent his head forward, his forehead touching that of the spy commander, black eyes fixed on grey with a frightening intensity.

"Is this what it is?" he whispered, his face contorted with anguish. "Is it friendship, to allow men to go to their deaths, and say nothing?"

"No," said Will, equally quietly. "This is what it is to command. And Guido, if you believe nothing else, believe this. You can command...and you can live while you do so..."

It ws as if he had cut the cord that held the assassin so tightly with those few words. The thin, supple body gave way beneath his grasp, and Guido collapsed into the spy commander's arms, weeping uncontrollably.

"I can't do this," he sobbed. "I can't...how can I kill my brother, Will, how can I choose like that? How can I choose? I would rather die..."

******

Hal Trevelyan walked into the tiny chapel that was part of the magnificent, dilapidated house Lorenzo had rented out once Francesca was to join him, knelt in front of the altar, and bowed his head.

"Oh God," he prayed silently, "grant me courage. Grant me strength. Let me do the right thing, for once. Help me to keep faith..."

"What do you pray for?"

Francesca walked out from behind the altar, her hair unbound and falling to her waist, her slender body wrapped in a heavy velvet robe.

Hal sighed heavily.

"For courage," he said wearily. "Courage, strength, all the things I don't have...all the things I need..."

Francesca nodded.

"As do I," she said softly. "But I pray for Guido, too. I pray that he will remember us, that he will - that he won't hate us because we could not save him...that he will remember I loved him...that he will know I still love him...and that he will forgive..."

"There is nothing to forgive, carita. If he remembers, he will know that..."

Francesca nodded slowly.

"I know..." she whispered. "But Hal, if he does not remember us...if he only sees our betrayal..."

"He loved you more than life itself, 'Cesca, more than his own sanity - he won't forget. I know - "

Hal broke off, his fair skin flushing red, even in the dim candlelight.

"What do you know?" whispered Francesca.

She was very close to him now, so close that Hal could feel the warmth of her breath on his skin, could smell her faint, elusive perfume, as familiar to him now as his own body.

He stood up, stepping back from her, away from the altar, retreating to the font, dipping his fingers almost absently in the holy water to bless himself as Guido had taught him.

"I know that I would not forget, if I were him," he said stiffly, his eyelids dropping to hide the emotion in his dark blue eyes.

"And if you were him?" breathed Francesca, walking towards him, her gown whispering on the flagstones as it trailed behind her. "If you were him, Hal? What would you do?"

She brought up her hands to rest on his chest, her large eyes looking straight into his.

Hal groaned, the sound wrenched from him with the last of his resistance.

"This," he whispered passionately, and leant forward to claim her lips with his own, his arms holding her small frame to him with a desperate tenderness, feeling her hands leave his chest and return his embrace, holding him to her with a strength no less fierce, no less passionate.

"This."

******

The sweetness of the kiss lasted an eternity, their eyes closing on a passion that belonged to a memory, and not to each other.

"Guido..." moaned Francesca against his mouth, and Hal released her with a suddenness that took them both by surprise.

"Oh Christ!" he gasped in horror. "Good God, what have I done?"

Francesca's eyes opened slowly, drowsily, her lips curving into a smile.

"Nothing," she whispered. "Nothing you need ever regret, Hal."

She was beautiful beyond belief in the candlelight, her body swaying against his, warm and willing.

She was Lorenzo's wife.

She was Guido's love.

She could not even see him for who he was.

And Hal Trevelyan, his heart breaking, turned and stumbled from the chapel, running back to his room as though all the demons in hell were at his heels.

Francesca, alone, gasped with relief, her body straightening beneath the long gown.

"Satisified, Enzo?" she asked, her voice hard and clear.

Lorenzo came out from the shadows behind the altar, his narrow face set in a terrifying smile.

"Oh yes, my love," he said, his voice hissing into the stillness of the shadows. "You were right. He is - most loyal. As, of course, are you."

Francesca forced herself to look at him with love, concealing the hatred that pounded through her vein with every heartbeat. The one thing she could have done to keep both herself and Hal safe she had accomplished, whispering Guido's name against his lips to retain their sanity.

"Most loyal," she agreed softly, walking over to the man she had sworn fidelity to in the sight of God. "Now you know you need never doubt us, beloved."

And she wrapped her arms around him, offering up her soft mouth to be kissed.

This power, at least, she still possessed.

Lorenzo's mouth claimed hers, hard and unforgiving, demanding a response.

"No," he agreed, finally releasing her. "I need never doubt you. Never again."

He swept her into his strong arms, and carried her from the chapel, her long hair and gown trailing behind them, her arms around his neck, feigning the passion that belonged to another man.

*****

Will held the assassin tightly as he wept, unsurprised at the despairing confession that had come from the man who usually held himself under such tight control. Guido had only just regained his memory - and part of that memory had been the deaths of the brothers he had loved and been protected by. It had not shocked the spy at all to learn that the assassin did not want to kill a man who had helped shape that love, no matter what had been done to him by that same man in later years. It would have been more surprising had he been truly consumed by the cold determination he had displayed since he started to remember his past...

"It's all right, di Cesare," he said quietly, holding the thin, shaking body close and safe. "It's all right..."

He was still so young, this man who killed in the silent dark, so terribly young...too young to have had to endure the things that Will had unwittingly forced him towards...He should have been training the horses he loved, somewhere in Italy, not adrift on a sea that he hardly even knew...

It was as though Guido had heard his thoughts, and rejected them, for he pulled away from the warm, comforting embrace, wiping at his face with the back of one gloved hand, reasserting control over his emotions with a visible effort.

"But it isn't," he said in his low, quiet voice. "It's wrong. This is all wrong..."

Will nodded.

"Yes," he said simply. "It is. That's why they've sent us. That's what usually happens, when it all goes wrong. Damage limitation, you know. Clean up the mess and get out."

Guido nodded, his face flickering into a wry smile. Then he asked seriously -

"Why do you fight, Will? Why did you choose this life?"

Will Deveraux sighed.

"To make a difference," he said, half-apologetically. "Because I believe that a difference can be made. Just as you did, once, when I first met you."

"Yes...I used to...it's true."

"So - you will fight? Not give in?"

Guido laughed shakily, but his expression was grim.

"Oh yes," he said. "I will fight because I used to believe in the difference, because I believed in it as strongly as you do, I think. I would like - to believe in it again...Yes, Deveraux, yes. I will fight."

He moved away to the rail, and looked out across to the coast.

Then he laughed quite genuinely, his clear voice carrying to Will on the night air.

"What else was I going to do, eh? I wouldn't trust you to do this alone if you paid me..."

"Yes, well, I do pay you," pointed out the English spy, smiling with relief at the assassin's return to his usual self. "Remember? That vast amount you get at the end of every mission? Hmmmm?"

"Oh, that vast amount," said Guido mockingly. "How could I have forgotten? I know that with my expensive lifestyle, it hardly covers my debts, but -"

Will snorted with inelegant laughter. Both he and Guido were paid well for the jobs they did, but most of Guido's money went on maintaining his vast arsenal of weapons, his portable apothecary's shop, and his seemingly endless supply of tobacco. Anything left over paid for rooms and plays and the occasional drinking bout.

"Expensive lifestyle my foot!" he said. "If yours is expensive, Guido, God help the others!"

Guido smiled. Will Deveraux's band of spies were some of the most profligate spenders in London, their pay flowing through their hands like so much water. Since any debts were covered by an increasingly angry Government, they never had to worry - at least not until Will discovered it, at he always did, and brought his truly phenomenal wrath to bear upon them...

"And what about you, Deveraux?" he teased. "You and your parties and your cards and your mistresses?"

Will started laughing again.

"Oh, those parties and cards," he said, mimicking Guido's earlier mockery. "Do you know, I'd forgotten about them!"

"I notice you don't deny the mistresses..."

"Would I compromise my reputation by denying such a thing?"

They were both laughing now, the easy banter that they always used to deflect the nerves that consumed them both at the outset of a mission now serving a dual purpose, as they both slipped back into more familiar roles.

"Incidentally," said Guido after a moment, "I wasn't really concentrating, but didn't you say something about Hornblower? And a horse?"

Will grimaced.

"Not - exactly - a horse, Guido, no...I - ah - said he couldn't ride."

"That's what I thought you said. That's going to be terribly inconvenient. Perhaps we should reconsider having him with us..."

Will stared at him in horror.

Guido managed to keep a straight face for a few more seconds, before he was spluttering with laughter again.

"Sorry!" he gasped. "I couldn't resist it! You looked so bloody worried there for a moment! Oh, Lord, Will, you should have seen your face...!"

"You bastard, Guido...I really thought you hadn't been listening earlier, and meant it!"

Guido tried to say something else, and couldn't. He was completely incoherent with laughter. Will glared at him for a few moments, and then joined in, unable to resist the assassin's irrepressible humour any more.

"You really have got a strange idea of amusement, di Cesare," he groaned, recovering himself.

Guido leant back on the rail, and grinned.

"Oh good," he said cheerfully. "I'm sure it'll turn out to be useful one day...like when I'm trying to teach the bloody man to ride!"

And he exploded with laughter again, knowing that it was a nervous reaction, but unable to stop himself. For something that was coming purely from nerves, it felt astoundingly good...

*****

Francesca lay still beside her husband, her hair covering them both like a cloak, waiting until she was sure he slept.

Then she slipped from the bed, her bare feet silent on the floorboards, and flung her robe around her. With the noiseless grace that Guido had taught her, she left the bedroom, moving down the hallway like a shadow.

The lights still burnt in Hal Trevelyan's room, glimmering beneath the door. Without knocking, Francesca crept in.

Hal sat by his bureau, his fingers playing with a small golden object that he hastily put away at her entry, his face set in its usual lazy indifference.

"It was a test," said Francesca bluntly. "He was watching."

Hal dropped his head into his hands, his blond hair gleaming in the candlelight like a gold cap.

'Did we pass?" he enquired caustically.

"Yes."

"Oh, well then. That's all right, isn't it? After all, a little humiliation never hurt anyone..."

"Hal, I wish, oh how I wish! that it could be different, that I loved you! You are so good, so kind, a truly honourable man, you are everything I should want...but I cannot."

"I know that."

Hal's voice was bleakly unrevealing, and Francesca closed her eyes in pain.

"I'm so sorry, Hal..."

Henry Trevelyan smiled, his heavy eyelids drooping over his bright eyes, concealing his thoughts.

"Not to worry, love," he said with gentle indifference. "Not to worry..."

"I do pray, you know... it wasn't a lie..."

"I know." Hal's voice was flat, his expression blandly unhelpful.

Francesca twisted her hands in her robe, increasingly desperate.

"Hal, please! I need you!"

"Yes, I know, but....Francesca, go away. Please, just - just leave. I can't do this. Not tonight, not now. I do love you, you see, and if you stay...I can't betray Guido any more than I have already. I know you don't love me, not like that, and thank you for telling me the truth, but please believe that I would far rather you had given in to a moment's weakness than that it was yet another of Enzo's games. Now - go."

Francesca bit her lip painfully, dropping her hands to her sides.

How could I be so blind? Guido tried to tell me, and I never listened....

"Did you - feel like that then? When Guido was with me? Always?"

Hal nodded.

"Always," he said quietly. "But - what you and Guido shared - it was unique. A rarity. It never even occurred to me to try to compete. But - tonight... I was thinking about death...and then you were there..."

He laughed harshly.

"It seemed like a miracle."

Francesca stepped forward.

"Did he ask you to take care of me?"

"The last thing he remembered..."

Francesca held out her hands.

"He asked me, too. To take care of you. I think...I think he knew..."

"Francesca, I - "

Of course he knew! Why do you think he felt so guilty sometimes! shouted a voice in his mind, but Hal ignored it, as he had learnt to ignore so much about himself. He would think about this later...

"Take care of me, Hal," whispered the young woman, and moved into his arms. "Please...I can't do this alone, I can't live like this without your help...Hal, I need you, even if I can't feel what you want me to feel, I do need you - I need you to be my friend...please, please, Hal, help me do this!"

Hal Trevelyan held her close, breathing in the perfume that was as familiar to him as his own skin.

"Always," he whispered into her dark hair, and not a trace of the pain he felt at her closeness showing on his face, or in his calm, drawling voice. "Always..."

*****

Pellew held out his hand to the exhausted-looking assassin, trying not to smile.

"I wish you luck, Signor," he said firmly.

Guido nodded.

"Thank you, sir," he said simply.

Two determined men looked each other in the eye, each taking the other's measure for one last time. An unspoken question seemed to pass between them for a moment, and then Guido brought his hand up, and saluted.

"Aye, aye, sir," he added, without a trace of a smile. It was the only assurance he could give. Then he vaulted over the side, and into the jolly-boat, sure-footed and catlike in the dark.

Will Deveraux held out his hand with calm confidence.

"In three weeks," he said.

"Indeed, sir. Make sure you make good time. I shall sail with or without you."

"I'll try and remember that," agreed Will on a breath of laughter.

More carefully than Guido, lowering himself into the little boat with caution, he settled himself down, and waited.

Pellew looked over his two lieutenants with approval, seeing them in uniform, but with a good deal of surprise.

"You do not appear to have disguised yourselves terribly effectively, gentlemen," he remarked.

"Apparently, sir," said Kennedy, trying hard not to laugh at Pellew's expression, "these are our disguises."

"Ah. Well, I - ah - well!"

Pellew's brief struggle with amusement was momentary, but it was enough to make Hornblower's poker face relax a little as he carefully avoided looking at his friend. Kennedy stared into space, willing himself not to even smile at their captain's evident discomfiture.

"I trust that you will return safe, gentlemen," said Pellew gruffly, and walked off to the safety of the quarterdeck, where he could remain comparatively unobserved.

"Aye, aye, sir," called Hornblower, saluting.

And as Pellew's anxious eyes watched them, he and Kennedy were gone from the 'Indefatigable', and the jolly-boat was pulling for the coast.

"I pray you return safe," whispered Pellew, unobserved by any but his own conscience.

He wondered if he were going soft in his old age, to be placing his trust in a man who, by his own admission, killed for a living. Then he remembered the assassin in his cabin, facing him down without a trace of fear, and allowed himself to smile a little. Trust in a man like that was perhaps - forgiveable.

Pellew stood and watched the boat until it was out of sight, looking towards the coast long after the little craft was no longer visible.

"God speed," he said then, his voice clear and crisp in the night air, startling the men below him on the deck. Then he turned, and went back to his cabin without another glance towards the sea or the coastline.

It was, he feared, to be a long three weeks of waiting that lay ahead of him.

 

End of Chapter Fifteen