The King's Man
I can, can something - hope, wish day come, not choose not to be....
Guido rode through the dark until both he and Dante were completely exhausted. His despair had been replaced by a rage that no amount of riding could rid him of, an engulfing fury that made him want to hit out at everything around him. It would be better if he stayed away from the inn for a while, until the feeling passed.
He knew that he was close to the village now, and shrugged, his habitual caution replaced by the old recklessness that had fuelled him in the days immediately after his brothers' deaths. The assassin was looking for a fight - and he knew from past observation that the tavern in the village usually provided one.
In the hot unhappy months that followed the illness that had
decimated the palazzo, while Lorenzo struggled to come to terms
with his new position as Conte, Guido and Hal had embarked on
a course of self-destruction that had almost cost them their lives
more than once. Guido had been trying to replace both Pietro
and Enrico in one, simultaneously hell-raising
and trying to take care of his two younger brothers despite his own grief. It had been a course for disaster that had finally even frightened the calm Hal.
Guido would rage into town at night, drinking and fighting, challenging strangers to duels, attracting girls to him with his wicked smile and a purse full of money, taking them to his bed without even thinking about it, as if violence and anonymous flesh were a means of escape from his unhappiness.
And then he had got into one brawl too many, and had almost got Hal killed as a result - and had been forced to turn to Francesca for help.
Francesca, like Hal, lived in one of the smaller halls that dotted the area 'like mushrooms' Enrico had once said gloomily, as he got dragged from one to the other on social calls by his punctilous father. She had known the middle brothers - and, as a result, Hal - since childhood, and there had been talk of an eventual marriage between her and Guido for a while - pushed for by their fathers and disdained by the couple in question.
But their friendship had endured, even amidst the embarrassment resulting from their joint refusal to have anything to do with their parents' marital plans, and when Hal was wounded, her house was the closest...
Guido had not known at the time that rumours of his behaviour had already reached Francesca, and that she had determined never to see him again. So when he threw stones up at her window, trying to get her to come down, he found himself having to do the fastest talking of his life to get her to let him in, and in the course of his desperate pleading for Hal's sake, he had come to realise that he was also pleading for his own cause.
As Hal recovered at Francesca's father's hall, Guido had plenty of time to go and see him. He stopped going to the town, preferring instead to stay with Hal in the evenings, to read and talk, as they had used to do in the days before the di Cesare brothers died. Guido let Francesca come to accept him as an irritating fixture, never pushing his welcome or trying too hard to regain their friendship, and when she began to join them in the evenings, he made no comment.
By the time Hal was well enough to go back to the palazzo,
Guido had asked for and obtained from Francesca's father permission
to court her. More importantly, he had first asked permission
from her, and got it. Whatever her father had said, Guido would
have pursued her, but the Conte had taught his sons to behave
with politeness at all times, and Guido had every intention of
observing the formalities. He wanted to make this woman his wife,
to give her every
honour imaginable. No more whoring and fighting, no more wild nights - he would behave with the decency she deserved.
For the first time in his life, he had wanted to do something the right way.
Lorenzo had been furious. Guido was now the heir to the di Cesare title and estates - he could aim far higher than a local girl, however respectable, however beautiful. And the brothers had fought for the first time...
Lost in memories, Guido rode down the street slowly, belatedly realising that he had forgotten his cloak, and it was cold. Still - with any luck, it wouldn't matter in a few hours.
He tied Dante up to a post outside the tavern, along with a few other miserable looking beasts and a rather shabby cart. Then his eyes narrowed, and his breath hissed between his teeth as all thoughts of finding a brawl to take the edge off his temper were forgotten.
The cart belonged to Philippe. And if there was a God, Philippe was inside the tavern...
Guido took a deep breath, focusing his rage on the thought of the man who had betrayed them. His face settled into the eerie serenity of the assassin's trance, yet his brain remained alert as he reminded himself that they needed Philippe alive - at least temporarily.
He grinned mirthlessly to himself in the darkness, and walked into the tavern.
He saw Philippe almost at once, sitting at a table on his own, a bottle of brandy in front of him, staring into his cup. The assassin stalked through the room, a tall, terrifying figure in his black clothes, and placed both gloved hands on the table with a bang, forcing Philippe to look up.
"Good evening," said the assassin coolly, seeing the panic in Philippe's eyes. "What an unexpected pleasure."
One hand shot out, and fastened itself in Philippe's neckcloth, dragging him half across the table, so that their faces were almost touching.
"Do you remember what I do to traitors?" asked the assassin in the same pleasant voice. "Or shall I jog your memory a little?"
Philippe shook his head as vehemently as he could, given the assassin's stranglehold on his throat.
Guido smiled nastily.
"I didn't think so," he said. "Now, we're going back to the inn, and you have some explaining to do. And then I'm going to kill you. Which bit of this do you not understand?"
Philippe gave a kind of gurgle.
"Oh good," said Guido. "That makes it so much easier."
He came around the table, still keeping hold of the neckcloth, and pulled Philippe up to his feet.
"I suggest you come with me," he said in his quiet voice. "Now. And if you even open your mouth on the way out to think about shouting for help, I'll kill you then and there. Understood? Shall we go?"
Guido hauled Philippe out of the tavern like a sack of potatoes, dragging the innkeeper behind him along the floor as he choked and spluttered.
"Shut up," said the assassin coldly, and flung him into the back of the cart.
He ripped off Philippe's neck scarf and tied his feet together with it, tying the knots hard enough to elicit a squawk of pain. Then he harnessed Dante to the cart.
"Now," he said to Philippe. "You can lie still and quiet, or you can try and get away. Either choice and you end up dead, so choose the one where I won't torture you first, eh? Quiet and still will do nicely."
"I said SHUT UP!" roared the assassin, turning around on the seat. "Did you really think you wouldn't pay for your crimes? Will nearly died today, did you realise? All because you couldn't resist Lorenzo's gold. You're lucky he didn't die, Philippe, or I'd have strung you up by your heels by now. As it is, you're getting a chance at damage limitation. Now keep quiet and start praying."
The innkeeper, too wise too late, closed his mouth firmly. He had just learnt that Guido cynical and sardonic was infinitely preferable to Guido enraged. It was not a pleasant discovery.
The rickety cart started off, and Philippe learnt that there was more than one form of torture, and a very good form was that where a cart bumped at an appalling speed down a badly-maintained track when you were in the back with your feet tied together.
Guido, sitting on the wooden plank that passed for a seat, seemed utterly oblivious to Philippe's groans, apart from the occasional twitch of his lips as he headed Dante through a particularly large puddle or deep rut in the path, and Philippe yelped more loudly. Much to his surprise, he found that the knowledge of the innkeeper's discomfort was almost absurdly satisfying.
"You did what?" shouted Hal Trevelyan furiously.
"Well, I granted her request," he said coolly. "It seemed a small price to pay. Getting Deveraux out of action was always what I wanted, and if it makes a pretty girl happy - well, who am I to say no?"
"I see. What exactly did she ask you for again?"
"She wants Will out of harm's way, safely wounded, and all those miles away from Toulouse. Which, believe me, sounds ideal. However - the men I sent aren't too clever. With any luck, they'll do a bit more damage than little Anne had in mind..."
"Enzo. What if it goes too far? What if he's dead?"
Lorenzo just looked at him.
"I wouldn't exactly grieve," he said pointedly.
"No, I know that," said Hal wearily, "but Guido might. And I thought you wanted him as a worthy opponent, not as a madman."
"Well, as a madman, he'd do even less damage," Lorenzo pointed out. "No, the way I see it, Hal, this is ideal. At least it might make Guido less effectual."
"Enzo, I don't mean to be rude, but I've seen Guido mad with grief, and ineffectual is not exactly the word that springs to mind. On the other hand, the phrase 'bloody lethal bastard' does. Especially, let me remind you, now you've trained him to kill.
"Listen to me, now if never again. This is not some game where we all go home at the end, it's not some continuation of the games we used to play - this is where you decide whether you want a family, or Bonaparte's approval, and I have to tell you that the way you're going, you are going to have neither. You're just going to be dead! Maybe you think that's an ideal state of affairs, but I doubt Francesca would agree!"
And I can lie with the best, sometimes...
Lorenzo only smiled, and asked with apparent concern,
"Does it hurt, Hal, loving her and not having her? It would crucify me..."
Try having her without her loving you, you bastard, thought Hal viciously. Because that's what you've got.
Out loud, he said calmly -
"Not at all. I got used to it long since."
Remember your brother? I learnt about love from him.
"Ah, Hal...The true and loyal friend. Do you know what I would do to you, if you so much as laid hands on her?"
"Yes," said Hal simply. "And I don't much care, since she'd never allow it. Go and plot something else, Enzo, because this won't wash."
"So unafraid, aren't you?" Lorenzo almost purred the words, coming close to Hal. "So brave...Are you still pretending, Prince Harry? Waiting for Hotspur to come, so you can prove yourself?"
"I don't need him to come to prove myself," said Hal, his lazy voice drawling the words with an almost extravagant Englishness. "That, my dear Enzo, I can do perfectly well all on my own. Now go and play with a mouse or something, good prince of cats. Your little games are beginning to bore me."
"So brave, Hal...Why do you stay with me?"
The question, like all of Lorenzo's, came out of nowhere to wrong-foot Hal completely.
"Why?" he asked blankly.
"Yes...You don't seem to be planning to betray me in any way - yet you stay. Why?"
Hal sighed, as though bored beyond all endurance.
"It's called loyalty, Enzo," he said tiredly. "Remember?"
Just not to you.
"Ahhh..." breathed Lorenzo. "Yes...I remember. You gave yours to Guido."
"That was years ago," said Hal, beginning to feel nervous.
Lorenzo nodded, apparently accepting what Hal said.
"Did you ever wonder," he asked, seemingly inconsequentially, "why I took his memory from him?"
"Frequently," said Hal dryly. "But I assume you had your reasons."
"Because of all of us, he was the born commander. He
could make people love and admire and honour him without either
caring or trying. And if he had retained that ability, he would
have been a million times greater than I ever could be. I wanted
him subservient. So I took from him everything that he was.
But the way he has behaved since he got on the ship...the way
that seaman Pellew so unwisely took on at Portsmouth wrote of
him...well, either he's
remembering, or that's an ability that you can't kill in a man. And I know I killed his memory, Hal - so how can he be leading them now?"
Because he is who he is.
"I don't know. Luck?"
"Perhaps," he said wistfully. "I wish - I had his luck."
I wish you were in Hell, thought Hal angrily. Out loud, he only murmured -
"Luck can never conquer ability, Enzo. You should have more faith."
Lorenzo smiled at that.
"You're a good friend, Hal," he said softly, patted Hal on the arm, and left the room.
Alone, Hal shuddered violently in a reaction to the touch, and snarled at the closed door -
"Better than you know!"
Guido reined Dante in as the cart rattled over the cobbled yard. In the back, Philippe groaned in relief as the terrible journey came to an end, and sat up awkwardly, propping himself against the side of the cart. The assassin jumped down from the seat lightly, and unharnessed Dante, taking him into the stables, patting his neck and talking soothingly to him as they went.
He was back to the cart within minutes, his narrow hawk's face set and angry.
"Right," he said grimly, untying Philippe's ankles. "Come with me."
Philippe spoke quickly, before the assassin could do anything to stop him.
"Guido, listen to me! You're making a mistake..."
Something in his voice caught the assassin's attention, and the anger in his face diminished slightly. Philippe had seemed so trustworthy - could he perhaps be in error in what he thought? If so...
"All right," he said, standing back and folding his arms. "Talk. Quickly, because I have no intention of standing out here all night."
"This was Anne's idea."
Guido felt the blood drain from his face.
Involuntarily, Guido's eyes flickered up to the candlelit window above, up to where Will was lying wounded. If he was in danger...
Philppe rattled on, desperately trying to explain what had happened before the assassin did something he was sure to regret...
"Your brother came here, about two weeks ago, trying to set things up for one of his spies to have a safe-house for a while...and he got talking to Anne. I don't know what he said to her to get her to trust him, but I heard her say that she didn't want your commander to go to Toulouse, and he said that he wanted to get rid of him - of Deveraux. Anne said that as long as he was left alive, she'd do whatever he asked. Your brother said that all she had to do was keep him here..."
Philippe's voice trailed off into silence, seeing the look in Guido's dark eyes.
"She had no choice..." he said helplessly. "You know him, Guido...he doesn't leave you a choice, once he thinks he's found a way..."
"Did she know that he would send all those men?"
"No. She probably thinks that was me...I'll have to explain..."
Guido laughed shortly.
"A not unreasonable assumption," he said dryly. "And I don't envy you the explanation. Well, she's got her wish. Will won't be going anywhere for a while, let alone set off for Toulouse tomorrow. Philippe, damn it, why didn't you tell me what was going to happen?"
"Because you'd have stopped it," said the innkeeper simply. "If I'd known they were going to send all those men, yes, I would have said something. But I thought your brother would send one man, get Deveraux wounded, and everything would be all right."
Guido stared at him.
"You thought - do you actually understand what happened here today, Philippe? Will's alive by accident, not by design! My brother had no intention of keeping his word, and you and your stupid, stupid daughter have just come close to being responsible for Will's death! How could you ever have trusted him?"
"He gave his word. The word of a di Cesare. And you have never failed, when you gave yours..."
Guido flinched at that, as though he had been hit. Yes - the word of a di Cesare had once been famous, before Lorenzo saw the possibilities of power in it. Their father had left them a terrible legacy...
Well - left *me* a terrible legacy. I, at least, try to uphold it as he taught...and it's so damn hard...
"His word is worthless," he said wearily. "It always was, even when he was younger. You shouldn't judge him by my actions - nor, I beg you, judge me by his...we have different conceptions of the word 'honour'. He thinks it's something you use when you feel like it, and abuse as a means of trust - I think it's something you have - or don't. I should have warned you about him..."
"You did," said Philippe quietly, absolving the assassin of the creeping guilt that was beginning to wash over him. "Again and again. 'If my brother comes here,' you said, 'whatever he tells you is a lie.' It isn't your fault that I was selective in what I thought might be the truth...I blinded myself because it was convenient. Anne - she would do anything to keep Will safe. She'd have believed whatever Lorenzo told her like it was the word of God, as long as it gave her hope."
Guido sighed, and sat on the edge of the cart, beside Philippe.
"Now what?" he asked bleakly. "Do I tell Will?"
Philippe sighed. For a man who had just been dragged out of a tavern by his throat, threatened with execution, tied up in the back of a cart and jolted over three miles of stony track in the rain, he seemed remarkably free of bad feeling towards the man who had done it to him.
"I think you have to," he said sadly. "Even though I know what it might do to Anne, he has to know."
Guido nodded, but he made no attempt to move from the cart, thinking -
Good God. I have become the commander. But when..?
"I'm not going to apologise," he said aloud, smiling a little. "If I'd been right -"
"Then I would have deserved it." Philippe smiled. "I probably deserved it anyway. There should be a price to pay for stupidity, as well as for treachery. Not death, but - something. You - if Will had died, then I would not even have tried to stop you killing me."
"Bravely spoken," he said dryly, and jumped down from the edge of the cart. "Philippe?"
"You're a good man, deep down. I wouldn't worry too much about the stupid part. If trusting someone is stupid, then I wish I had that kind of lack in my intelligence."
Philippe rubbed his ankles, smiling ruefully.
"I was wishing the same all the way home," he said, and Guido's long mouth quirked into a smile.
"Was it not a pleasant journey?" he enquired, raising his eyebrows as though in surprise.
Philippe burst out laughing, and clambered slowly out of the cart.
"Did you aim for every bump in the track, Guido, or did you miss a few?"
Guido's wicked grin flashed across his face, his teeth gleaming in the light from the inn.
"Didn't miss a single one," he said cheerfully. "How's that for navigation, eh?"
The two men walked towards the door of the inn, and just before they entered, Philippe answered -
"Painful, to be honest. Very, very painful."
And the assassin stopped in his tracks, and shouted with delighted laughter.
Anne had pulled up a chair to the side of the bed, and was reading to Will from a copy of 'Candide' that she had found in her room. At Guido's entry, she looked around with a smile, which quickly faded as she saw the assassin's expression.
"Your father is downstairs," said Guido quietly. "You should go down to him. I think you owe him an apology."
"But he -"
"Go down to him, Anne. Now."
Anne realised in that moment that Guido knew everything, and started to try and explain.
"Guido, I -"
"You need to speak to him." Guido's voice was flat, unrevealing.
Anne looked into the unforgiving eyes of the assassin, and flinched. She got to her feet, and left the room as quickly as she could, carrying the book with her.
"What is it?" asked Will sleepily. Guido sighed, and sat in the chair that Anne had just vacated.
"How's the head?" he asked.
"It hurts," said his commander dryly. "Guido - I think - I won't be going with you."
"No," he agreed. "You won't. Even if I have to tie you to the bed."
Will did not even smile.
"You need - to make arrangements...the transfer..."
"All in hand, Deveraux. Those two lieutenants may be lunatics, but they're good men. Don't worry."
Will's mouth twitched. Guido sounded so sure...so competent, suddenly.
"Guido - I -"
"Stop worrying." Guido smiled a little. "Just - get well, eh?"
He chewed at his lip for a while, fighting an inward debate as he wondered whether telling Will the truth about what had happened was really the best thing to do.
He has to know...you can't protect him, once you leave here, he needs to be prepared...
Guido sighed, and spoke.
"Will, I'm sorry about all this, but - there's something you should know. Anne set this up with Lorenzo. She wanted you out of danger, and he offered her one of his little bargains. He betrayed his word to her and Philippe - which doesn't surprise me, but I think has come as rather a blow to Philippe. Anne thought that her father had set this up on his own...she doesn't realise that this afternoon was as a result of her deal with Lorenzo. I'd imagine he's currently enlightening her as to that, by the way - Will, for God's sake say something!"
Guido had been expecting interruptions, protests, anything but the blank silence that greeted his halting explanation.
"Will?" he asked, hesitantly.
Will closed his eyes and turned his head away.
"So all the time," he said bitterly, "she was pretending."
Guido winced. It had not even occurred to him that Will would see it like that.
"Hardly," he said, keeping his voice as dryly sarcastic as he could. "I wish someone loved me enough to get me shot in order to keep me safe."
"What are you talking about?"
The grey eyes opened again, and Guido saw the hope in Will's face, quickly suppressed, and sighed inwardly.
"She didn't want you dead, Deveraux," he said slowly. "She wanted you safe. And here, with her. I'd say you should be complimented by her determination."
Not a flicker of emotion showed on the assassin's face as he spoke, yet he was crying inwardly -
Love is so rare, Will, don't let it go through blindness...
Will laughed shortly.
"Not much good if I can't trust her, is it?" he asked with renewed bitterness.
"You can trust her love," he said calmly. "As to the rest - well, real trust comes with time, anyway. Personally, I'd be more inclined to trust her than most. And I'm going to have to."
"Why am I inclined to trust her, or why am I going to have to?" asked Guido wryly. "I'm inclined to trust her because of what she did, rather than in spite of it, if that's what you mean. And so should you."
Will was astounded at Guido's calm command. It was as though something had woken inside the assassin, something calm and capable that forced you to listen to him. Will was hearing the tones of a born commander in the Italian's voice, the cool determination of someone born to lead. It was a strange feeling, as though the weight of leadership had been entirely removed from him while he lay unconscious, and their roles had been completely reversed.
"So - why are you going to have to trust her?" he asked, still feeling stunned at how natural it felt to allow Guido to tell him what to do.
"Because I'm going to trust her to look after you while we go to Toulouse," said the assassin simply. "And I would not leave my friend behind with someone I had no faith in. If I, who don't love her, can dare to trust her, then you, who do love her - just admit it, Will, it'll save arguing later - can do the same. Now get some sleep. You'll see it all much more clearly when your head's feeling less foggy."
Guido patted Will awkwardly on the shoulder with one gloved hand, and rose to his feet.
"To love someone enough to try and make a bargain with my brother - well, it's a rare thing you've got in that girl, Deveraux. Love her and be happy. Stop questioning the way and just accept the emotion. That's an order."
Will half-smiled, his scarred face softened with exhaustion.
"An order, eh, di Cesare?"
Guido's face was filled with cynical amusement.
"When the captain is unable to assume command," he said dryly, "the role falls to his second. That - would be me. So - unfortunately - you're out of commission, Deveraux. And I'm afraid I'm now your commander, for as long as you're stuck in that bed."
Will closed his eyes peacefully, feeling as though an intolerable burden, that he had never been equipped to deal with, had been lifted from him.
"Thank you," he whispered, and Guido smiled his rare, open smile, looking young and suddenly, strangely, happy.
"My pleasure," he said simply, and headed for the door.
Will's eyes were fully open now, and he looked completely alert, propping himself up in the bed on one elbow. The assassin turned.
"Did you say something about you trusting Anne with your friend?"
"I believe I may have," he said, his voice quivering with laughter. "Now go to sleep, Will."
And he left the room.
Will Deveraux lay back on the pillows with a smile on his scarred face, and drifted slowly back into oblivion. Just before sleep claimed him completely, he murmured into the room's warm silence -
- and came fully awake.
To love someone enough to try and make a bargain with my brother...
Guido's voice echoed in his aching head, and Will realised what the assassin had inadvertently given away.
"He always was my friend. It was never just about loyalty - he did it from friendship. My God, Guido...why did I never see that? You said you didn't hate me for telling you to kill...was that why? Would you have gone to your death for my friendship? I never thought...you always laughed and you were so calm..."
Will felt fever overtaking him, bringing irrationality with it. The pain in his head grew more intense, and he said out loud -
"Guido, why didn't I see, why didn't you say - you pretended it meant nothing, but you were a better friend than I deserved...I never understood what you did, I'm sorry, I -"
Will realised that he was drifting into delirium, that his fear was irrational, but suddenly he was convinced that if he did not see the assassin, he would lose him once more, that Guido would forget everything again, go back to his brother and destroy himself. In a sudden panic, he raised himself up again onto his elbow and shouted as loudly as he could -
There was a muffled exclamation from downstairs, and then the sound of hurried footsteps on the stairs.
Guido came into the room quickly, crossing over to the bed and sitting in the chair beside it.
"What?" he asked, sounding irritable, but his dark eyes softened with concern.
Will grasped the assassin's arm, his grey eyes bright with fever.
"I won't let you," he said. "You can't go to Toulouse."
Guido frowned, concerned at the wild look on the spy's scarred face.
"Will, what are you talking about?"
"You can't do this, it should be me, I'm supposed to be the one this time, no more sacrifices...."
Guido swore vehemently, realising that Will was wandering in a world of his own. Without even thinking about it, he gently detached his arm from his commander's grasp, and stripped off the gloves from his narrow hands.
"Hush now," he said gently. "I'm not going anywhere, Will. I'm here."
He laid his cool palm on Will's forehead, feeling the searing heat with growing concern.
"Lie still, Deveraux," he said quietly, his voice falling into the same soothing monotony that he would have used to calm one of his horses. "Lie still now, eh? Don't worry. I'm going to find you something to stop the pain, don't fret...just lie still."
He flipped his bag open, found the vial he was looking for, and poured out a glass of water from the jug by the bedside. He added three drops of the colourless liquid with a steady hand, swirling the mixture around quickly. Then he held the glass to Will's lips, lifting him up against his shoulder, supporting the spy's injured head carefully.
"Drink this, Will. It'll stop the pain."
Will gulped at the water eagerly, his whole weight resting on Guido's thin arm.
"No more sacrifices," he whispered, his hand coming up to grip the assassin's black sleeve. "Promise me."
"I promise, Will. I promise. Sssshh. It'll be all right, my friend. Don't worry."
Will's eyes, too bright, the pupils expanding enormously as the drug took effect, held the assassin's gaze intently.
"Yes - I'm here..."
"You won't leave for Toulouse...?"
"No," lied Guido. "Now sleep, Deveraux. Stop worrying, and sleep."
Will laid his head back on the assassin's shoulder, sighing, and his eyes drifted shut.
Guido di Cesare, breaking every rule he had ever set for himself, smoothed the tangled fair hair away from Will's scarred face with his bare hand, and even when he was sure the spy slept, as the drug took its irresistible course, he did not move, nor did he attempt to dislodge Will's hand from his arm. He merely settled his friend more comfortably on his shoulder, holding him gently in his arms. After a while, his body tiring in the cramped position he was being forced into on the chair, he slid onto the bed and leant back against the piled-up pillows. As Will slept without moving in the secure circle of the assassin's embrace, Guido sat back with a small sigh of weariness, and waited for morning.
After a while, his eyes, too, closed, and he slept.
End of Chapter 19