The King's Man
What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
The walk to the nearest village was long, wet and tedious. It was also taking place in the middle of the night, so they were walking half-blind over the unfamiliar terrain. To make matters even more unpleasant, Guido and Hornblower, having got into yet another argument earlier, refused to speak throughout the entire journey, either to each other or to anyone else, and Will and Kennedy finally gave up in their attempt to keep some sort - any sort! - of conversation going.
"I hope they manage to do better than this tomorrow" murmured Will, foreseeing disaster at the idea of any further interaction between Hornblower and the fraught, tense assassin.
The track was not helping anyone's temper. It was muddy, slippery and narrow. Will had tripped twice over stones, and his knees were coated in mud. Guido, who had a catlike ability to see in the dark, picked his way along with a fastidiousness that was nonetheless quicker and more efficient than anyone else was capable of, something which was quite astoundingly irritating. He seemed unaffected by wind, rain, mud or cold, his pace never faltering, whistling tunelessly as he walked.
"Could you stop that, please?" asked Hornblower through gritted teeth.
"The whistling. It's very annoying. Please stop."
"Oh," said Guido, sounding mildly surprised. "Sorry."
Well, at least he's being polite, thought Will, allowing himself to hope a little at this evidence of an attempt at civility. He had been expecting acid sarcasm, at best, to follow the request, and at worst the start of yet another 'exchange of opinions', such as the two had been having since before their encounter with the French.
His relief was short-lived. After a few minutes, Guido started whistling again, obviously completely unconscious that he was doing so.
"Guido!" he snapped, hoping to prevent another row. The night had been quite unpleasant enough, without encountering the added difficulty of Hornblower assuming that Guido was trying to irritate him deliberately.
"Oh. Yes. I forgot. Why can't I whistle?"
"Because it sounds horrible," said Will truthfully, and Guido laughed softly in the darkness.
"Ah, well then, I shall endeavour to contain my creativity!"
"Good plan," said the spy commander wearily, not troubling to disguise the fact that he was coming to the end of his patience with the way Guido had been acting since they landed.
He knew that Guido was only trying to conceal from the two officers any traces of the emotions he was still struggling with, and the resulting embarrassment he felt at his earlier behaviour on board the ship, but he sometimes wished the assassin had a more congenial way of hiding his feelings. He may have hated to seem vulnerable then, but in his attempts to display his total control over himself now that they had reached France, he was forgetting that his attitude quite frequently came across as an infuriating indifference to others' discomfort. The only thing his supposed unconcern was doing was irritating Hornblower to the point of explosion, and Will thought that if he had to listen to one more argument between the two, he would be forced to resort either to stuffing gags into their mouths or putting wads of cloth in his own ears.
The latest argument had not even been about anything that made any sense. Guido had made some kind of remark about the discarded French uniforms, and had received a lecture on the Articles of War in return. This had appeared to be nothing short of an insult to the assassin in his present unhappy state of mind, and he had, not unnaturally, assumed that his sense of honour was being questioned simply because he was not an officer. The ensuing 'discussion' had started in the jolly boat, escalated into what would have been a shouting match had they not been trying very hard to keep their voices down, and finished on shore in an acrid silence. It had a lot to do with pride, nothing to do with common sense, and had provoked Will into wanting to do nothing more than bang their heads together like two squabbling children.
Still, at least they were silent now - an infinitely preferable state of affairs to the continued offence they had been giving each other previously. As long as Guido remembered not to whistle...
Will slipped again, going down hard on one knee and swearing furiously. Guido stopped and turned, his features impossible to make out in the dark.
"What are you doing, Deveraux?" he asked, his voice amused. Will swallowed his response, occupied as he was with trying to see in the dark, and get up from his knees without slipping again in the deep mudpatch he had landed in. With a sigh of impatience, the assassin came over and helped him to his feet, the firm hand pulling him upright with ease.
He laughed for a moment, his dark eyes glinting in the pale moonlight. Will knew that if it had been light, he would have seen an odd amusement on the assassin's face, the amusement of a man effortlessly good at what he was doing, and wryly tolerant of other's mistakes.
Then the warm, gloved hand stiffened on his arm, and Guido was no longer laughing.
"Stay here," he said abruptly, his voice a mere breath above the wind. "Don't leave this spot - any of you. Move to the side of the track."
That was Hornblower. It would be him, thought Guido crossly, it damn well had to be the rational lieutenant who asked, didn't it?
More things in heaven and earth, and why can't you just trust me, damn you?
The words remained unspoken, trembling on his lips for a moment before he swallowed them down, along with his temper.
"Just do as I say!" he snapped, still keeping his voice as quiet as possible.
And then he took two steps away from them into the night as the rain poured down, almost obscuring his outline, and to all intents and purposes, he disappeared.
"What the hell is he doing?" demanded Hornblower angrily.
Will pulled the lieutenant to the side of the track, against the hedge, and whispered fiercely,
"Look, do as he says, will you? I don't want to end up dead in the mud because you have to question everything that happens. Now stay still and shut up!"
Guido slipped through the trees on the side of the track, silent as a shadow. He had sensed - there was no other word for that odd feeling as the hairs on his arms and neck prickled upright, warning him of an unfamiliar presence - the man ahead of them, waiting.
His face hardened as he saw the dark form leaning against a tree, and saw the moonlight gleam on a gun barrel.
Like a cat, the assassin sprang, knocking the gun from the man's hand with one swift blow, his weight driving them both to the ground. The man struggled briefly, ineffectually, but Guido's strong arms locked him in place, pinning him to the wet earth beneath the trees.
"Who were you waiting for?" he snarled angrily, his thumbs pressing gently onto the man's throat, a vivid reminder of what lay in store for him, should he fail to answer.
The other assassin coughed, trying to move away from the thumbs, and then choked as Guido's hands tightened a little.
"Who?" demanded Guido.
"Deveraux," the other man croaked. "We were told..."
"You can go to Toulouse. Lorenzo doesn't care. But Deveraux's too dangerous. We have to get rid of him."
"Jesus," breathed Guido in horror. "How many of you are there?"
The other assassin smiled.
"Enough," he said grimly. "I know who you are, King's Man. You won't be able to protect him. Not this time."
Guido put his face very close to the other man's, so that his dark, narrow face was visible, even in the darkness.
"Oh, but I will," he said mockingly. "Thanks for the warning, by the way."
And, keeping the man pinned down with one glove around his throat, he slipped a knife from his boot, holding it close to the terrified man's eyes.
"Sure you don't know how many of you there are?" he asked softly, his voice taunting.
Lorenzo's assassin gasped.
"You're going to kill me?"
"Well, I'm hardly going to let you go, am I? Don't be so ridiculous. You'll be one less to worry about on the road."
"Nine!" shouted the man, as Guido brought the knife back. "There are nine of us. Including me."
"Eight more, then," he said calmly.
And drove the knife cleanly into the other man's ribs.
Guido stood up, cleaning his knife on a strip of cloth he had
ripped from the other man's cloak. He had waited calmly until
both heartbeat and breath had stopped before he thought of leaving.
It would not do to have a man come back from the dead to seek
- especially not another hired killer.
Well, at least this one wasn't a problem any more.
"Eight of them. Eight. Oh, damn, what am I going to do...Lorenzo's really excelled himself this time in making sure he's divided my attention from the mission!"
The assassin sighed bitterly. He was used to being alert, but this was becoming ridiculous. It was going to be almost impossible to get into Toulouse safely if he was jumping at every shadow and leaf. Not only that, but Will would probably guess what was happening, unless he was unbelievably careful, and try to forbid him to do anything about it...
"Damn," said Guido aloud, into the rain. "Damn, damn, damn."
All he had to do now, he thought bitterly, was try and protect Will without the spy noticing, get everyone into Toulouse, get the wrong documents to Lorenzo, the right documents to whoever was turning up for them, get Will away from Lorenzo, and get everyone back to the beach in time for Pellew to pick them up.
"Piece of cake..." he muttered, and slipped the knife back into his boot.
Even as he bent, he heard the click of the pistol behind him, and flung himself flat onto the muddy ground, breathing in the scent of loam and wet leaves as the bullet whistled above his head.
Guido rolled over in the wet earth, flipping his bag open to bring out his own gun, loaded and ready. He closed his eyes, judging the distance and direction of the sound of the shot, breathed deeply and slowly, aimed, and fired into the shadows.
There was a cry, hastily choked off, the sound of a body falling, and silence.
Guido drew the knife back out of his boot, and walked over. He had always been a good marksman, and the assassin's training given him by Lorenzo had honed that ability to an almost supernatural perfection.
He had hit the other man in the throat, killing him almost instantly.
"Seven left, then," said the assassin dryly to himself. "Oh, well, I suppose that's a bit better."
He knelt down by the body, and turned it over, running his hands through the clothes for any papers or seals that might give his identity away. This one had nothing, like any of the true professionals, and it was impossible to tell who he might have been.
"Anyone else?" he called, standing up.
"Good," said Guido to the darkness. "That's good."
He put his knife away again, reloaded the gun, and walked over to where he had left his bag, dropping the gun back into it with a mild air of distaste.
He swung the bag over his shoulder, and headed back to where he had left the others. He realised that he was trembling slightly, and stopped in his tracks, breathing slowly and carefully until the reaction had passed.
The second man had been necessary, but the first - that had been done with a coldness that seemed to have seeped into the assassin's bones. He could not have let him live, but even so - he had not even given him a chance.
Guido was gripped by a wave of revulsion for what he did, so strongly that he swayed dizzily. Then he swallowed hard, controlling the tremors that were beginning to shake him, passed a gloved hand over his rain-wet face, and continued on his way, trying not to think. In a while, he knew, it would be as though this had never happened, but his initial reactions always frightened him. He wondered if one day, he would come to dread that moment of nauseated realisation so much that he would be unable to carry out his commissions any more.
He shook his head angrily, dislodging raindrops from his dark hair.
"You don't have time for this," he said with determination. "You did what you had to. Now stop. Enough."
He took one last, shuddering breath, and expelled it slowly through his nose, counting to fifty before he breathed again.
Not a trace of what he felt could now be seen in either his
set, predatory face, or in his
tightly-wound demeanour. He looked what he was as he strode through the rain - a killer at the height of his physical powers.
Will Deveraux closed his eyes in agony as he heard the shot. Hornblower gasped.
"There was someone," he said in stark disbelief. "I thought he was imagining things."
He heard the breath whistle from between Deveraux's lips in an angry sigh, and added defensively,
"I mean, he's hardly the most rational of men -"
He sensed, rather than heard, Kennedy groan beside him, realised how stupidly ignorant he must have sounded, and then Will was saying angrily and far too loudly -
"Shut up, Lieutenant, and for once in your life, don't say anything else. Not if you don't want me to knock your teeth down your throat."
And the sound of the second shot carried to them. Will reeled slightly, almost as if he had been hit by it, his anger forgotten as he whispered incoherently to himself.
They waited in silence, the seconds slipping by like hours, and there was no sign of anything or anyone. Will was praying to himself, no longer even whispering as he strained his ears to catch any sound at all from the trees.
The assassin came out of the rain like a weary ghost, his footsteps slow and tired-sounding, his injured leg dragging a little in the mud.
"Two," he said briefly. "Both dead. Shall we go on?"
And he began to limp off down the track again, his dark head bent against the lashing rain.
Hornblower stood for a moment, undecided, then hurried to catch up with him. In the brief glimpse he had caught of Guido's face through the rain and dark, the assassin had looked ill almost to death, as though he had taken a mortal wound. And he knew from first-hand experience that the man was stubborn enough to try and keep going, even had he done so.
"Are - are you well?" he asked hesitantly. Guido, after all, had very little cause to even be civil to him at the moment. "You aren't hurt?"
Guido shook his head, tight-lipped, and Hornblower thought that a grimace of anger crossed the dark face at the question. Then the assassin relented, shaking his head.
"I jarred my leg," he confessed, with a strange breath of laughter, unlike any that Horatio had heard from him before -
At his own folly? he wondered, even as Guido continued, his voice light and mocking.
"Flung myself down in the mud to avoid getting shot, and hit the bloody thing on a branch. It's starting to hurt like the devil."
"You were shot at? That was the second shot?"
Again, the odd breath of laughter.
"No. That was the first shot. Why this concern, Mr Hornblower? You have scarcely seemed so fond of me that my well-being should concern you. And I am not one of your men, that it should be of any interest to you."
"You fight for your country. You are as important as any other man who does the same."
He sounded stiff and formal, even to his own ears. Then he blushed in the darkness. It was not Guido's country...what if he felt insulted by what had just been said? Hornblower did not want to fight with him again, not when he had meant to compliment him
But the assassin was looking across at him, a faint frown on his face.
"My country," he whispered, and Horatio braced himself for the explosion. Then the dark, enigmatic features twitched into a smile, and he realised that Guido had taken it as the praise he had meant it to be.
"Thank you," said the assassin quietly. "Thank you."
Will Deveraux took off his sodden cloak, and hung it near to the fire. Guido had already yelled down for hot water while the spy commander sorted out payment for the rooms with the innkeeper, and was standing by the enormous basin, stripped of his muddy clothes, which had been sent down to the inn's servant for cleaning. He was dipping a cloth in the water again and again, even though he had long since removed all trace of their journey, scouring his thin torso mercilessly with the rough material. Sensing Will's gaze on his back, he dipped his head under the steaming water for a few moments, emerging with his face flushed from the heat and his hair dripping.
Will grinned at him.
"Better?" he enquired.
The assassin shuddered, even in the warm air of the room. Will
saw that he was still very white, as he had been when Hornblower
brought him to the sick berth, bled half to death. For a moment,
Will thought that perhaps the assassin had re-opened the wound
thigh, but a quick glance showed him that this was not the case. The wound looked red and angry, obviously causing Guido pain, but the stitches were holding. A darkening bruise covered part of the assassin's long leg, just to one side of the stitching, a memento of his earlier activities en route to the village.
"Not really," he said honestly. "But it will do."
Will felt worried. He knew that Guido could inflict mortal wounds with weapons so fine that there was hardly a trace on his victims of what had been done to them. The Englishman began to fear that Guido had sustained a similar injury in the trees earlier.
"What is it?" he asked, unable to hide his concern. "What's wrong?"
Guido shrugged, his indifferent expression belying the tremors coursing through him. He turned back to the steaming bowl.
"The reaction isn't wearing off," he said. "Go down, Deveraux. Get some food."
He put his head under the water again, the muscles in his back quivering slightly.
Will knew that there was nothing to do to help, that he had to let Guido deal with this alone, and left the room. He had tried to help the assassin through this before, and it had cost him a night's sleep, a great deal of distress, and Guido's angry humiliation the next day. Alone, Guido would go through the same process, but without betraying himself to anyone - a far preferable state of affairs if they were to keep civility going during the journey to Toulouse.
Will Deveraux hated to feel helpless, and he only had one solution to it. Forgetting.
"Hot food..." he said happily, as the scents from the inn's kitchen reached him. "Thank God."
He went into the main room, and sat in one of the chairs near to the roaring fire. They had used this inn before, thankfully, and were known and accepted, the innkeeper, for some reason, having taken a liking to them.
Will grinned. It was more likely that the fact the innkeeper's daughter liked Guido was a contributing factor. Whether the assassin was disgraced or not, having a di Cesare as a protector was no bad thing for a young woman in France. It would certainly keep her safe, knowing that one of the assassin-brothers took a vested interest in what happened to her.
How far Guido's interest extended, Will had never dared ask - but at least he was in the same room as the assassin that night, so he knew Guido would not dare try and bring the girl to his bed. Unless, of course, he went to hers...
Will shook his head irritably. For a man who professed 'such love...as a man will hold onto for all eternity,' Guido could sometimes be incredibly immoral. But then, he had never pretended that his life was perfect, even when he had joined them as a marksman. He had, even then, scarcely been a moral man, as far as women were concerned. Thinking back, he had actually never been a man with any great moral scruples about anything...it was one of the things that had been changing rapidly over the last year...
The innkeeper's daughter came in with a bottle of wine, and Will smiled at her, hiding the scarred side of his face as best he could. The girl always seemed so frightened of him...
"Is Guido coming down tonight?" she asked quietly.
Will shook his head, fumbling for the right words in French, and wished bitterly that the assassin was coming down that evening. At least he could have communicated with the girl without hesitation.
"No," he said slowly. "He's very tired, and has no wish for company. Perhaps you could send up some wine and food to him?"
"He doesn't want any company at all?"
"Not tonight," said Will firmly. "No."
He wouldn't inflict the assassin's dark nights on anyone, particularly not this girl whose only folly was to care about what happened to him...he did not, in fact, even particularly want to spend the night in the same room as the man himself...
It was hard for Will to imagine what it must be like for Guido
at the moment, struggling with both his regained memory and the
newness of command at the same time. It was probably better that
he should have this time on his own, to adjust to what was happening
He sighed then, and wished he had been given some training by someone - anyone! - in how to deal with the assassins who were sent out to his company. Guido, admittedly, was the best, and perhaps that was why he was the more complicated of the three who worked for Will's little elite. But neither of the other two had been facing Guido's difficulties, either - a lack of memory to the point where the Italian had scarcely known who he was, and the terrible reaction he suffered immediately after killing.
The reaction had been one of the reasons that Will preferred Guido to the other two assassins at his disposal. He was far less comfortable with their complete lack of interest or understanding towards what they did...but then, hired killers were not expected, usually, to be that intelligent, just efficient. It was Guido's curse that he had turned out to be both.
Guido sat by the fire in the room he was to share with Will Deveraux, and tried hard to stop shivering. He felt sick with tiredness, sick and cold, as though he would never be able to eat or get warm again. The plate of food that had been brought to him lay untouched on the little table at the other side of the room - he would have to dispose of that at some point, he thought wearily, so as not to hurt Anne's feelings. She had obviously gone to some effort to make it appeal to him, and had not even asked questions when he had shown no desire for her company, as he usually would have done, no matter the circumstances.
This time was different. It had created new problems that he was not equipped to face, difficulties that he had not foreseen. If Lorenzo had sent his assassins after Deveraux, then there was never going to be a single moment when Guido was going to be able to relax. If they had been after him, then he would have dealt with it, uncaring as to whether they succeded or not, but pride keeping him watchful. Pride and indifference were not options when it was another man's life at stake...
He poured wine into the thick glass, watching its colour flicker darkly in the firelight, letting the red glow play on his gloved hands. Laughter drifted up from the room below, and his face twitched painfully at the sound. Were he anyone else, he would have been down there with the Englishmen, attempting to entertain them with his sardonic wit, drinking too much and laying amorous claim to Anne...
But he was not that sort of man. He had just killed two men in cold blood, and the thought of being close to anyone at that moment made him shudder with revulsion. He would contaminate them simply by walking into the room...they were good men, deserved better than to be near someone who killed for a living.
Guido rubbed the back of one gloved hand over his face, trying to reassure himself. He was sealed off from the world, within the leather, would not be able to corrupt anyone if he touched them...
Will Deveraux had always assumed that Guido wore the gloves to keep himself safe from the world. He wore them to keep the world safe from him, wore them so he could not infect it with his touch. Guido saw himself like a feverish sickness abroad in the world, a form of plague that destroyed those he cared for...
And he was starting to care, and it was too damn dangerous...and he was lonely, and he could not permit anyone to be close...and he needed comfort, and there was none to be had. Not for someone like him...
"Where's Guido?" asked Hornblower, as the meal drew to a close. The three of them were flushed with the wine and heat and laughter, and Horatio suddenly wondered why the assassin was not at the table, smoking his pipe and eyeing them all with amused detachment. It seemed odd, somehow, to be here with the scarred spy without Guido's sardonic presence.
"He was tired," he said briefly. "I assume he's asleep."
He poured more wine into his glass, keeping his hands steady
with an effort of willpower, and looked up with a smile, about
to change the subject. The smile froze into unreality on his
distorted face as he saw Guido, dressed in his newly-cleaned clothes,
walk past the
doorway and out into the rain. Luckily, the other two had their backs to the doorway, and could not possibly have seen him.
There were times when Will Deveraux wished he had chosen one of the less intelligent alternatives as his assassin. It would, at least, have saved him the considerable amount of uncertainty and worry that he laboured under in Guido's company.
He knows he's in command, he told himself sternly. He will do what is right, and you know that. You have to trust him.
"I wondered," said Hornblower hesitantly, "when he first came back, I thought perhaps he might be hurt."
Will laughed bitterly, and realised that he was getting quite drunk, drunk enough to begin telling the truth about the way Guido killed. Drunk enough to betray the assassin's secrets, and if Guido ever found out that he had done so...
Will got to his feet abruptly, almost knocking the chair over as he did so.
"Gentlemen, I believe I shall follow his example, and retire. Good night."
He left the room quickly, concentrating on walking without betraying the effects of the wine, and half-ran up the stairs, desperate to get away from the temptation to talk, to be honest, to act as he would have in the company of his men.
And if he felt lonely, how much worse must the assassin feel, who had voluntarily taken on the burden of command when he had never experienced it before, who was set apart from all men's companionship in any case, and must now cut himself off completely in order to make their plans work?
Guido had left a note on the little table, beside the empty bottle and the untouched plate of cold food.
Need to check horses before tomorrow morning. Have gone to stables. Get some sleep (my first order to you as your commander, so I suggest you obey).
Will laughed, this time genuinely and openly. Guido would find more consolation in the stables, among the horses he loved, than he ever would in Anne's arms, where he would, at least to a certain extent, have to lie and dissemble about who and what he was. The spy shook his head in affectionate amusement. He had never before seen anyone with the skill and affinity with horses that Guido had, and he remembered the rumours that had reached him after he had engaged him as a marksman, that only a few months previously, the young Italian had been entering races under false names, and winning them with ease.
Seeing Guido ride, it was not at all difficult to credit those rumours...Will chuckled softly, wondering how Hornblower was going to react when he saw what Guido was capable of...it was, at the very least, going to be an entertaining day.
There was a knock on the door, and Will went over to open it. Anne stood there, looking nervous.
"Oh - Anne, I'm sorry, but Guido's gone over to the stables. He won't be back tonight, I don't think."
"I know. I was here in case - in case you wanted company?"
"Me?" Will laughed. "That's very kind of you, Anne, but I doubt that Guido would approve."
Anne shook her head.
"He would not care," she said simply. "He lets everyone think that he is my protector, because it keeps me safe. But he has no - no wish to -"
She broke off, looking desperately embarrassed. Will blinked. This was the complete opposite to what he had been imagining.
"Anne," he said softly. "You are kind, but I am not a fool. My face frightens you, I know. You don't have to do this, just because you need protection."
Anne raised her eyes to his, and Will realised, with a shock of desire, that they were grey-green, like the sea he had just left. Then he was even more shocked, as her small hands came up, and pushed him into the room, closing the door behind them.
"I don't want my father to overhear me insulting you," she said with quiet fury, "so I'll say this in private. If you can't tell the difference between embarrassment and fear, Will Deveraux, you are a fool! I am not afraid of you, and I never was!"
And with that, she stood on tiptoe, and kissed the scars that turned the left-hand side of his face into a demon's mask.
"I am not afraid of you," she whispered against his ravaged cheek, her soft breath caressing the twisted skin.
Will gasped, and his hand came up to caress her face, his lips seeking hers desperately.
"Make me believe you," he said in quiet agony. "I so want to believe you..."
End of Chapter 16