The King's Man
And thence to France shall we convey you safe...
Guido stood on the quayside and stared out at the harbour. It was impossible to see the 'Indefatigable', what with the rain, the sea-spray and the dark, but he sent his curses winging across in any case, and hoped that each and every one of them was striking Edward Pellew like a blow.
He had finally understood what the letter was trying to tell him. At first, he had only suspected, but then, when he mentioned the bridge at Muzillac, it had slotted into place for him.
"Our orders are false," he muttered painfully, scowling at the waves. "Our orders are false and Pellew has the real ones. Oh, hell! How could I be so stupid? He didn't give a damn whether I thought his men were right for this mission - he wanted me to see that I couldn't possibly believe they were suited to this - he doesn't want them anywhere near those papers, and he's expecting me to protect them!"
Guido wiped rain out of his face with one gloved hand, and resisted the impulse to howl with fury. His job relied on secrecy and silence, on the knife in the dark and a swift disappearance. It had nothing to do with anyone else's code of honour, nor with having to worry about others.
Once, five years before, Guido's only responsibility had been to protect Will's group of spies. It was a responsibility he had found almost impossible to relinquish for the work he now did, and, reviewing Pellew's letter in his mind, he found that all the old instincts were coming back into play. From Pellew's letter, he had not expected to like the two officers from the 'Indefatigable', for they sounded like the kind who would despise him on sight. After some time in their company, however, he had found himself warming to them. They had defeated his suspicions with humour and honesty, and stunned him into a moment of honesty of his own, back in the dark courtyard. It was then he had realised what Pellew wanted from him.
"Oh God," he whispered sadly. "I am not permitted to like or admire, Captain Pellew. I have duty, not friendship."
But the tall dark officer with the ridiculous English name had surprised him into more, and Guido was now regretting his every word.
"I am not like that," he muttered, trying and failing to light his pipe against the wind. "I never say things like that. What in God's name possessed me?"
Because he was so young, his mind whispered. Because that was Will, five years ago.
Five years ago, his duty had been to protect, and it was Will he had failed then. If Pellew really meant those two men to go into France with Will - Guido buried his face in his hands, scrubbing at the wet skin.
"I am not responsible for that anymore," he groaned. "I have other duties. My duty is to get those papers to France! I have the papers, I know that much to be true...and Will is my commander, and to make sure I obey him, and get those papers into safe hands, I must do all that is in my power...I can't protect others, no matter how highly Pellew may value their lives - no matter how much I see their lives are worth, either! He chose his own men, for God's sake! What does he expect me to do?"
A wave slopped up over the harbour edge, and drenched him from head to foot in ice-cold salty water. Guido flung back his sodden hair from his face, exasperated beyond measure.
"Damn you, Pellew!" he shouted at the uncaring sea. "Damn you to hell!"
He sat on the harbour wall, heedless of the lashing rain, and stared at the sky, willing dawn to come. As the sky lightened, the rain eased, and the wind lessened. Guido relit his pipe, and shivered in the raw air. Then he smiled, hearing familiar footsteps behind him.
"Found a boat?"
Silence fell. Guido took a deep breath, and said aloud what they both now knew.
"The orders are false, Deveraux."
Will wrapped his cloak around him, put the bags he was carrying down carefully, and sat down beside Guido. They looked out to sea, not daring to meet each other's eyes. Eventually, Guido broke the silence.
"When did you know?"
"When I realised that all they have to do is get us to the ship in one piece." said Will, sounding surprised.
Guido turned his head slowly, keeping his expression blank. He wondered whether Will seriously believed that to be true.
"You had no idea until then?"
"None. Guido, I swear, I would have told you had I known otherwise."
"You are my commander," agreed Guido, but his voice was flat, carrying no conviction. Will stared at him.
"My God, Guido, you can't think I would keep the real orders from you deliberately! I thought the ones we had were genuine! Why would I do something like that?"
Guido took a deep, angry breath.
"Because," he said, his voice shaking with the effort of not shouting, "you know damn well that had I realised I had to protect those two as well as follow you, I would have refused outright."
"Wait. Wait, I don't understand. What do you mean, protect them? They're just putting us on the ship, remember? That's what Kennedy said. Guido, for heaven's sake! That's how I know the orders are false."
Guido looked at him in disbelief.
"That's how you -" he broke off in amazement. "Will, you stupid, stupid man, have you no sense? If all they have to do is get us onto a ship, why the hell did Pellew send me the letter of introduction?"
"So you would know who they were?" suggested Will with a grin, and Guido exploded.
"God Almighty! You fool! You don't give chapter and verse of someone's life to an assassin! Not unless you have one of two ulterior motives!"
Will sighed, deciding to tolerate Guido for the time being. He reminded himself that the assassin was still fighting the dual effects of poison and antidote, and strove for patience.
"And they are?" he enquired wearily.
Guido's mouth was hard, his eyes cold and angry. There was no trace of the usual post-mission, drug-fuelled paranoia in his demeanour, and Will suddenly felt the hairs on his arms stand on end. Guido was as far from intoxicated insanity as was possible, and he was deadly serious.
"One," he said, his voice clipped and wintery. "You want them killed."
Will felt the scarred side of his face twitch and flicker, as though an ant were crawling beneath the skin.
"Pellew wants them -" he broke off before he could finish the sentence, seeing the contempt in Guido's eyes. "No, of course not," he added quickly. "The second reason?" he asked, shivering.
Guido's face was a mask. His anger had passed away without trace, and Will reminded himself of how little he knew this man. Then the hard mouth softened, and Guido's face flickered into a brief, wry smile.
"The second? You need the assassin to stop someone being killed."
"Why would Pellew worry about that?"
"Because the Admiralty want him to send two of his men with us."
"I know that, Guido." Will's patience was running thin. "It was in the orders. But it's obviously not those two, because -"
"Because they don't know?" Guido laughed harshly. "A good explanation, Deveraux, but let me remind you of something. The orders are false. We don't know anything either. And the only man who does know -"
"Sent you a far too detailed letter of introduction," finished Will, finally following Guido's thought processes through to their conclusion. "Oh, damn! Damn Pellew, damn the Admiralty, damn them all to hell!"
Guido grinned, his ability to hide his true feelings restored now that Will was as enraged as he had been earlier.
"It doesn't work," he said, putting his pipe back in his mouth, and jumping to his feet.
"What doesn't?" snarled his commander, getting up rather more slowly.
"Damning them," said Guido cheerfully, picking his bag up and heading off towards the boats.
"And how would you know?" asked Will breathlessly, hurrying to catch up with his companion's long strides.
"I've been trying all night," Guido called over his shoulder. "For God's sake, Deveraux, hurry up!"
Will grumbled to himself as he hurried after him, carrying
the other bags. For the life of him, he
could not decide which mood of Guido's had been genuine. He decided not to try, and quickened his pace to catch up with him. Guido, his teeth clamped around the pipe so as not to lose it, was walking along with the energy of a man who had had a good twelve-hour sleep, rather than one who had travelled almost without stop for a week and spent a night sitting on a sea-front in the rain. Will, on the other hand, felt as though once he got on the ship, he might never move again.
Guido was, in fact, fuelled not by energy, but by the thought that once he got on the ship, he was somehow going to have an interview with Pellew.
"Answers," he muttered through his teeth, his long legs quickening their pace. "You owe me answers, Captain Pellew. And I will have them, even if I have to carve them out of you..."
He tried to ignore the fact that he didn't want to know what those answers were, and how hard and fast his heartbeat became at the thought of what they might be.
"Oh God," he whispered brokenly. "Don't make me care about these men. I could not bear it."
Pellew waited impatiently on the deck of the 'Indefatigable' for the boat to arrive. He was dreading the meeting with Guido di Cesare as much as he hoped the spy himself was, and knew that he would be twenty times happier once it was over. He also knew that he was about to take an enormous gamble - a gamble that could cost him his life -on a man he had never met.
Finally, the boat pulled to the side, and the four men were standing in front of him. Pellew scanned their faces anxiously, and realised that he could assume absolutely nothing from their expressions. Hornblower had his poker face on, Kennedy looked as though he was enjoying some kind of secret joke, and as for the other two - ! If the one with the scars was di Cesare, Pellew had already thrown the dice and lost before he uttered a word. Hard grey eyes looked out of a scarred and lopsided face that seemed set in a permanent sneer, and was quite obviously unable to disguise its owner's rage. And the other one...Ah. This, of course, was di Cesare. This one could even out-do Hornblower in keeping his expression immobile, but the eyes were very much awake in the mask-like face. Awake and suspicious and - what? There was something more that flickered in the dark pupils, surfacing briefly and vanishing before Pellew had a chance to work out what it was. He resisted the temptation to sigh.
"Signor di Cesare," he said politely.
"Captain." Guido's voice was cold and hard, his every movement once more that of the professional killer as he inclined his head towards Pellew.
"You will attend me in my cabin," snapped Pellew, and strode off. Guido shrugged, shifted his leather bag onto his other shoulder, and followed.
Will stared after them.
"Does that man ever say things like 'Welcome aboard'?" he enquired, sounding mildly amused. He looked at the two officers beside him, expecting them to share the joke. Instead, they looked completely bewildered.
Horatio turned his frown on Will.
Will sighed inwardly, seeing the lieutenant's perplexity. It would seem that Guido's suspicions were being confirmed.
Pellew led the way into his cabin, and shut the door behind Guido with a snap. He knew that he was facing one of the deadliest men in Europe, and that should the gamble he was taking fail, the chances of the lost bet costing him his life were incredibly high.
"Sit down, Signor," he said politely, hoping his worries did not show. Guido half-smiled.
"I prefer to stand. You are giving me the new orders, are you not? It would be better if I stood. More - in keeping - with the situation."
"As you wish, signor. I would, however, prefer you to sit while I explain something to you."
Guido shrugged the bag off his shoulder, and handed it to Pellew.
"I give you my word of honour," he said simply. "No matter what the orders are, I will not harm you. But I still prefer to stand. "
Pellew's mouth twitched with a hastily-suppressed smile. He took the bag from Guido, careful to hold it by its leather strap, and placed it beside him on the table.
"I have no doubt," he said gently, "that you are carrying other weapons. I also have no doubt of your honour. I would prefer you to sit because I would prefer you to feel at your ease."
Guido blinked in surprise. It was the first emotion he had shown since arriving on the 'Indefatigable', and Pellew allowed himself to relax a little.
"Oh," said Guido. He brought up a gloved hand and scrubbed at his head, looking confused. Then he tried to smile, his mouth pulling flat with the worry he was trying to conceal.
"Then I should be honest with you. If I sit, my legs will cramp up again with the reaction to a poison I took in Scotland. I am more at my ease on my feet. But - thank you."
Pellew nodded. He stared out of the window for a moment, then turned back to Guido, determined to get this over with.
"Will Deveraux's orders have not changed," he said abruptly. He saw Guido take a deep breath, and continued. "In a few minutes, I will call in the two officers you met, and I will tell them that they are to accompany him once we reach France. I will tell them of the importance of the documents they are protecting, and explain that no matter what the cost, those papers are to get to a church in Toulouse."
"I thought we were to go to the garrison at Brest," said Guido blankly.
"This arrived this morning," said Pellew, handing him a piece of paper. He sounded tired.
Guido took it from him, and read it quickly.
You are hereby requested and required to instruct Commander Deveraux and your officers of the following change in their orders. The meeting is to be near Toulouse, at the church of Saint-Marie-la-Vierge. You are therefore strictly charged to do all that is within your power -"
"To make certain of the success of these orders," read Guido aloud. He sounded stunned. "Captain, forgive me, but - Toulouse is on the other side of France. For you to do all that is in your power would mean -"
"Would mean sailing around the coast of Spain, yes. I am aware of that, Signor di Cesare."
"But that's ridiculous!" Guido looked very young, suddenly, and very indignant. "How can they ask that? It's insane!"
"It may well be, Signor," said Pellew evenly, "but
those are my orders, as they are those of Mr.
Guido looked at him in sudden comprehension.
"And my orders," he said slowly. "What are they?"
Pellew took out the familiar folded sheet of thick white paper from a drawer.
"You will notice," he said calmly, "that the seal is unbroken."
Guido nodded. His hand was rock steady as he took the paper from Pellew, and broke the seal. He looked at the paper with an assumed nonchalance, then back up at Pellew, stark disbelief in his eyes.
"The paper," he said slowly.
"Yes?" snapped Pellew, fighting his agitation. "Well?"
Guido's hand started to shake.
"The paper is blank," he said, and now his voice shook too. "It would appear that I have a carte blanche. I am free to do as I see fit."
"And that includes leaving, I believe." Pellew's voice was clipped and cool.
"I - I don't know." Guido looked completely lost. "I have never - I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
"You are, it would appear, no longer 'strictly charged'," said Pellew dryly. "Your actions, Signor di Cesare, are from now on at your own discretion."
"So - I could just go. Return to Portsmouth in the boat, go to the Government, and await new orders."
"Indeed." Pellew looked at him coldly.
"Or my 'discretion' could tell me to stay. To accompany them to Toulouse."
"As you say."
Guido looked panic-stricken.
"In six years," he said softly, "I have never been given a choice. You must forgive me, Captiain Pellew, but - I - I am uncertain."
Pellew took a deep breath, and found himself nodding slightly. He had won the gamble on what Guido's orders contained, and his reaction was as intense as the spy's - though his sprang from relief, while Guido seemed almost distraught.
Guido shook himself slightly, and raised his head to look straight at Pellew for the first time.
"That was why you sent me the letter. Why they showed up at that foul inn last night. You wanted me to choose to stay."
Pellew nodded, and turned away from the dark eyes that seemed to be boring holes in him.
"That was before the orders changed, signor. Had I known our current destination, I would not have written to you. However, since you were expecting them, I though it better not to seem as though something had gone wrong."
"I guessed anyway," admitted Guido. "So did Will. Your officers thought all they had to do was get us to the ship, it -"
"Ah," said Pellew regretfully. "Your commander is doubtless displeased."
"Exceptionally," agreed Guido. "May I ask something?"
"Of course," said Pellew politely.
"Allow me to explain our change in orders. He is - more - receptive - to my explanations."
Pellew nodded. He had heard already of Will Deveraux's legendary furies, and had no wish to inflict one of them upon his morning.
"Your request is accepted," he said crisply. "I must ask you, signor, for your own decision, as I must sail with the tide."
Guido closed his eyes. Before him was, on the one side, the prospect of freedom, of the full use of his carte blanche, of time to sleep and rest. On the other side was the thought of Will, Hornblower and Kennedy, alone in France. He scrubbed frantically at his head, his dark hair standing up in spikes. He needed help to decide, help to make the right choice.
Even if he went to France, he might fail, Guido knew. To fail once more, to fail at protecting people - that they could die because he failed - Guido rubbed his thumb across his mouth, trying to stop the panic, trying to think clearly.
He thought back to the inn, of seeing the two young officers downstairs, of the expressions of horror on their faces when they saw him. He thought of what he had said to Hornblower in the courtyard, of how easy it had been to slip in to humanity for that brief moment. None of it helped.
He was aware of Pellew's eyes on him, of the moments slipping by, and could have screamed as his thoughts whirled round in a panic.
"There must be something..." he muttered.
And then he had it.
"My weapons are at your disposal," he had said politely, and he remembered Kennedy's mock surprise.
"All of them?"
and his own startled laughter.
"A man who would defeat an assassin with a joke," he murmured, and then, remembering his words in the courtyard, "It would be dishonourable of me not to value that..."
Guido smoothed his hair back, and dropped his hands to his sides, straightening his back.
Pellew tried to hide his dread. If Guido left now...
"I would be delighted to accept your kind invitation to remain as a guest on your ship." Guido smiled tiredly. His decision had left him looking pale and drawn, but he still managed to summon up his old uncaring expression. "I should, I suppose, go and inform my commander of the change in plans."
"Indeed. Thank you, Signor di Cesare. If you would also send Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy to me?"
Guido nodded, made his usual half-bow, picked up his bag, and stalked out of the room. Pellew was about to relax into his chair, when the door re-opened, and Guido's face appeared around it. His pipe, Pellew noted with some irritation, was stuck back in his mouth.
Guido took the pipe out of his mouth, and grinned like a schoolboy.
"Ask Mr. Kennedy what, exactly, he'd like me to do with my weapons, would you?"
And before Pellew could ask him what on earth he was talking about, the door had shut again.
Pellew sat down, and sighed with relief.
"My God," he said, after a while, trying not to laugh. "What have I done?"
Horatio stood by the rail, and tilted his head back to let the rain fall on his face. After coming out of Pellew's cabin, he had gone to see Will Deveraux to find out what the plans were on the part of the two spies. Will had been drawing up one of the cipher maps, all too willing to explain exactly how he was going to get everyone to Toulouse. He had, in fact, explained it for two hours, at the end of which Horatio wanted nothing more than to never hear anything else about Toulouse or ciphers again. He suspected that was Will's intention, for it had quite effectively stopped him from asking anything too precise.
Guido, on the other hand, had remained in the shadows of the cabin, silent throughout, even when Will asked him for corroboration. Eventually, he had walked out of the cabin without a word, and no-one had seen him since - even Bracegirdle, supposedly on watch. Horatio had gone to demand of Will where the assassin might be, and met with a distinctly less friendly reception than he had earlier.
"If he doesn't want to be found," Will had snapped, looking up with considerable annoyance from a mess of papers on the little table in his cabin, "he won't be. Now go away, and let me get on with my work."
That was nearly six hours ago. The sky was darkening, and the rain showed no signs of letting up. It was Horatio's watch, and technically he was responsible for anything Guido might or might not be doing. It was not a comforting thought.
He should probably send someone to look for him, reflected Horatio. After all, how long could a man disappear for on a ship? He looked around, wondering if perhaps he had missed something obvious, and then grinned. In the shadow of one of the sails was the faint red glow of Guido's pipe.
"Obvious indeed," he murmured, and set off to confront him.
Guido did not even look around, though Horatio had made no attempt to quieten his approach. He was staring out at the darkening sea, his face, as far as Horatio could tell in the growing darkness, blank and devoid of all emotion. He made no acknowledgement of the lieutenant, even when they were standing side by side. The silence was uncomfortable, and Horatio felt constrained to break it.
"I searched the ship for you earlier," he said bluntly. "Where were you?"
Guido looked at him in surprise, as though one of the sails had started talking to him. He seemed to pull himself back from a long way away in order to answer, his voice quiet and remote.
"Here and there," he said. His answer, though it sounded evasive, was not. Guido had no idea of the names of the places he had been to. He had simply wandered around the ship, slipping into shadows whenever anyone passed. Horatio looked at him in slight concern.
"Are the antidotes still troubling you?" he enquired.
Guido shook his head.
"Not as much," he said politely. "But I prefer to keep moving."
He seemed to be having some kind of inward debate as to whether to say any more. Horatio waited.
"Will was giving you a smoke-screen," said Guido eventually. "You know that?" Even to say that much was an obvious effort to him.
"I worked it out sometime during the second hour," agreed Horatio, trying to lighten the mood.
Guido only nodded, and resumed staring at the sea.
"Good," he said absently.
Silence fell once more.
"So what is going to happen?" asked Horatio, suddenly desperate to get the assassin talking.
Guido only shrugged.
"I don't know," he said bleakly. "My job is to make sure you all get back to the ship alive, and that the documents remain in Toulouse." Then he seemed to shake himself out of whatever black mood had taken him over, and continued lightly, "Which is how I like it. Simple, if nothing else."
"Well, it isn't my idea of a well-planned expedition," said Horatio crossly. Guido's sudden mood change had unsettled him.
Guido grinned at him.
"No," he agreed pleasantly, and relapsed into silence. Then he seemed to relent. "We will have a plan soon, though. You asked too soon. Our orders changed this morning, and Will's trying to work out the best way of doing things now. He wasn't - pleased - when the orders changed."
"Well, you volunteered to tell him," pointed out Horatio.
The shouting match that had ensued when Guido took Will aside to explain the change in their orders had penetrated to Pellew's cabin, closely followed by a series of crashes that had made even Pellew look mildly disconcerted. The silence that fell afterwards had been even more unnerving, and Pellew had yanked his cabin door open to try and hear if anything else was happening. The quiet murmur of Guido's voice had drifted to them, evidently unperturbed by whatever had gone before. Pellew had slammed the door shut irritably, and continued his explanation of their orders.
Guido gave a harsh shout that was not quite laughter.
"Can you imagine Deveraux listening to your captain any more patiently?" he enquired.
Horatio shook his head, trying not to laugh at the thought of what might have happened had Guido not decided to tell Will the change in orders himself. Guido slanted a sideways glance at his barely-contained amusement, and politely looked out to sea again. His pipe had gone out, and he relit it, illuminating his face clearly for the first time. He heard Horatio's indrawn breath, and hurriedly took the pipe from his lips.
"Damn," said Guido quietly. "I'm sorry you had to see that."
In the brief glow, Guido's face had been remorselessly lit, showing quite clearly the damage that had been done to the left-hand side of his face. Streaking across the cheekbone was a deep gash, surrounded by a painful-looking bruise that spread all the way down to his mouth.
"What -" began Horatio, but Guido forestalled him.
"An inkwell," he said dryly.
"Will threw an inkwell at you?" asked Horatio in amazement, and heard Guido give that strange choked off laugh again.
"No," answered the assassin after a moment, amusement clear in his normally even tones. "No, he threw the inkwell at the door. I pointed out to him at the time that had he thrown the inkwell at me, he might have actually hit the door. Still," he added ruefully, looking down at his clothes. "at least I was wearing black."
He half-smiled, then winced, and Horatio guessed the reason for the way Guido was stopping himself from laughing. Any movement of his face was obviously unbearably painful, and Horatio could not help but admire his calm acceptance of what had happened. A horrible thought suddenly occurred to him, and he looked straight at Guido for the first time.
"Oh God," he said. "Imagine if he'd got the orders from Captain Pellew..."
A mental image came to the assassin of Pellew hit in the face by an inkwell and covered in ink, and he started laughing uncontrollably, his maverick sense of the ridiculous taking over.
"Oh," he groaned, even the pain unable to stop his laughter. "Oh, God, that hurts!"
"I really don't see -" began Horatio, when the same image struck him. Guido's laughter was the final straw, and he found himself joining in, despite a terrible feeling of disrespect.
Guido was the first to sober up, wiping at the cut on his face, which had opened up again. Horatio looked at him sympathetically.
"That looks bad," he said, all amusement leaving him.
"It could have been worse," he said, and then gave an odd half-smile. "Considering Will's aim, I can probably count myself lucky."
He drew out a cloth from his pocket, and pressed it to his face. Even in the shadows, he looked tired, as though laughing had exhausted him completely, leaving him completely drained of energy. Leaning back against the ropes, and turning his face up to the rain, much as Horatio had earlier, he looked much younger than he had in the inn, and almost peaceful in his evident weariness.
"Are you on watch?" he asked after a while, still looking up into the rigging.
Horatio nodded. Guido looked across at him, and raised his eyebrows.
"Care for some company?" he asked casually, and tried his best to smile normally. Even through the bruising, the effect was strangely charming, and Horatio realised how rarely Guido's expression was untainted by cynicism or sarcasm. Free of either of those underlying currents for the moment, he looked worn and kind, and far less dangerous. For the first time, Horatio saw the man who lay behind the killer's mask, and smiled back, liking him.
"Company is always welcome," he said, and the conventionality of the phrase did not disguise the fact that it was meant sincerely. Guido stuck his pipe back in his mouth, and peeled himself off the ropes with a sigh of effort.
"Good," he said, the normal sardonic twist back in his voice. "You can tell me what things are called on a ship, and then perhaps I'll be able to get around the place without making a total fool of myself. That can be your way of repaying me for the delights of my company."
End of Chapter 2.