Free Hosting

Free Web Hosting with PHP, MySQL, Apache, FTP and more.
Get your Free SubDOMAIN you.6te.net or you.eu5.org or...
Create your account NOW at http://www.freewebhostingarea.com.

Cheap Domains

Cheap Domains
starting at $2.99/year

check

The King's Man
by
Rhiannon

Chapter 22

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

The afternoon wore on in a haze of conversation and alcohol. Angelo had waited an hour before bringing the two lieutenants back into the main room, to find Hal and Guido well into their second bottle of wine, lounging on the bench in front of the fire and laughing hysterically at something incomprehensible. He had to admit to himself that it was a most familiarly reassuring sight, one which had been a staple of the palazzo life before Guido left to join the English spies.

Whatever had been said in his absence, it had evidently been enough to save the friendship...and possibly Hal, as well, thought the younger di Cesare with relief.

Now they were all in approximately the same state of inebriation, even Guido drunk enough to look far from his usually immaculate self, his shirt partly undone as wine and heat combined to make his dark clothing unbearably warm, his thin face flushed and relaxed for once, his habitual stillness no longer the wary immobility of a coiled spring, but the calm repose of an ordinary, rather sleepy man.

Angelo had taken off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and accepted a spare pipe from Guido, making the similarity between them even more disconcerting. It didn't help that whenever anyone said "Di Cesare," both brothers automatically answered.

Guido, Kennedy and Hal were playing increasingly incoherent word games based on Shakespeare quotations, where the same word had to be used in different quotes. However, they were becoming increasingly unable to remember whether the quotes came from Shakespeare or not, and the rules were becoming not only slack, but almost forgotten.

"Your turn to start, Hotspur," said Hal, leaning back against the wall by the fireplace, his bright hair dishevelled and falling into his eyes. He picked up his wine-cup, found it empty, and poured more wine into it with an unsteady hand, spilling some onto the floor.

"Oops," he said vaguely, and pushed his hair out of his eyes, leaning back again.

Guido sighed.

"I can't think - what haven't we used yet?"

Hornblower and Angelo were playing a new card game that Angelo had devised, requiring a great deal of bluff, strategy and intelligence. As the afternoon wore on, none of these aspects were particularly visible, especially since Angelo had a tendency to laugh when he got a bad hand, and Horatio found that he was having to squint at the cards quite hard in order to get them to focus. Guido had tried to join them at one point, but found that it had turned into a drunken contest between military and naval tactics, something he had no inclination to be involved with, and he had retreated with some relief to the Shakespeare competition.

"More wine!" shouted Angelo. Everyone was quite spectacularly drunk by now, and apart fom a slight moan from Hal, there were no objections.

"I haven't been this drunk in years," groaned Guido. "You're a terrible influence on me, Angelo..."

"I wonder if I can still stand?" asked Horatio with an expression of dreamy interest.

"Don't try," advised Hal, his voice distinctly slurred. "Bad idea. Ver' bad idea."

Horatio staggered to his feet, and stood there for a moment, swaying unsteadily. Then he sat down again.

"There," he said with an attitude of inebriated satisfaction. "I am not that drunk."

"Horatio, if you think standing up proves you aren't completely toasted, you're drunker even than Hal," Angelo pointed out.

"Is that possible?" murmured Archie, almost unheard. Guido, catching the words, looked over at him and grinned, shaking his head a little.

"I doubt it..." he said in the same low tones, his voice shaking with laughter.

"Why do you say toasted?" inquired Horatio, and Angelo, Guido and Hal burst out laughing.

"Something Guido and Hal did years ago," explained Angelo, pouring more wine into his cup. The di Cesare brothers were the least affected by what they had drunk, thought Horatio hazily. They must have quite incredible constitutions...

"Shut up, Angelo," said Guido mock-threateningly. "I'm still older and stronger -"

"And uglier," said his younger brother unrepentantly.

"Than you are," finished Guido imperturbably.

"Quite," said a grinning Angelo. "Far uglier."

"What did you do?" asked Kennedy, wishing the room would stop spinning. He took another drink, hoping that would stabilise things. It did. They just divided into two. Still, if he blinked hard, there was only one of them, and at least they stayed still...

Guido groaned.

"We went to a tavern..." he began, and Hal snorted with laughter.

"Unusually for us..." he interjected, his sleepy blue eyes glinting with amusement.

Guido grinned.

"Yes, quite. Thank you for that, Hal. Anyway, there was a very annoying man there. Very, very annoying. And we asked him -"

"Quite politely, I thought -"

"Well, I was polite. You weren't."

"All I said was that I hoped his tongue fell out when he got home so we'd never have to listen to him again..."

"Yes, well, he took offence. And he decided to challenge us to a fight."

"So Guido picked up a toasting-fork, snagged the man's shirt in it, and threatened to hold him up to the fire like a piece of bread if he didn't go away..."

"Oh God, do you have to remind me..?"

"And we ended up in the local jail..."

"With a charge against us of 'threatening to toast a civilian while drunk'..."

"So from then on, courtesy of Angelo here, drunk was toasted," Hal concluded. "And he's never allowed us to forget it."

Guido dissolved into laughter.

"Christ, Papa was angry!" he said, remembering. "I thought he was going to toast us when he bailed us out..."

"You deserved it..." pointed out Angelo with the smugness of one who had watched the results of an older brother's misbehaviour with interest.

Hornblower was laughing, his habitual reserve completely erased by the last few glasses of wine.

"I would have liked to see someone on a toasting fork..." he said dreamily. "It would be so ridiculous..."

Guido grinned at him.

"Don't tempt me," he said dryly. "I'm just drunk enough to take that as a challenge..."

"You wouldn't dare!" Horatio sat up straight in shock.

"Oh, no," groaned Angelo. "No, don't say that, Horatio, please..."

"Wouldn't dare, eh?" enquired Guido, his smile wicked. "Are we taking bets, Lieutenant?"

Hal brushed his hair out of his eyes, and started to smile, sobering a little.

"I'll take the bet, Hotspur..."

"For?"

"I'll bet you that you can't..."

"Done," said the assassin, and got to his feet. He reached down to the various irons that stood by the fire, and picked up the toasting fork. Hornblower jumped to his feet, holding on to the back of one of the chairs for balance, looking extremely worried. Guido advanced on him menacingly, brandishing the toasting fork like a sword. Then he burst out laughing, put the fork down, and sat back on the bench.

"You believed me!" he howled joyfully. "My God, I actually made you think I'd do it! Hal, you owe me..."

Horatio looked extremely annoyed.

"That was not funny, Guido..." he began, before realising that his opinion on the assassin's practical joke left him in a minority of one. He gave up trying to be dignified, and joined in the general mirth.

"More wine!" shouted Angelo again. "God's teeth, I'm paying the man enough, where is he? More wine!"

"I'm going to die..." groaned Hal, dropping his head into his hands.

"No," said Archie. "Tomorrow you'll want to die, but you won't accomplish it tonight..."

Guido looked over at Kennedy, and smothered a laugh. In an attempt to make the world come into focus, Archie had closed one eye, and was narrowing the other almost to a slit. He looked like a deranged pirate.

The tavern owner came into the room with some more bottles, shaking his head. He had never seen anything like this before in his life. He was used to various spies and intelligence officers using his tavern as a safe place, he had even encountered men before who wanted to pay for the whole tavern to ensure their secrecy, but he had never, ever, met a group who got quite so loudly and cheerfully drunk. He was more used to silent, morose drinking in silence, followed by embittered accusations. These men seemed to be entirely oblivious to whatever they were here for, and despite the danger that was inherent in their blissful forgetfulness, the tavern owner realised, much to his surprise, that he was enjoying the novelty of it.

******
Lorenzo di Cesare was furious.

"What do you mean, they went out?" he demanded. The unfortunate spy he was interrogating was reduced to shrugging.

"They left this morning, my lord," he said. "Your brother said something about going to get drunk..."

"Oh marvellous," snarled Lorenzo angrily. "The transfer is in two days, and my bloody brother decides on taking my lieutenant out hell-bent on debauchery. This is all I sodding need, isn't it?"

"I -" began the spy unwisely.

"The question was rhetorical, damn you!" shouted Lorenzo. "Where did they go?"

"I have no idea," said the spy simply. "I didn't think they'd tell me, even if I asked."

Lorenzo sighed, calming a little.

"No, I suppose they wouldn't. Oh, hell. There's nothing I can do about it, anyway. I'll just have to wait for them to come back. Honestly, I thought Hal was more responsible these days..."

Francesca came into the room, carrying a vase filled with sprays of white blossom.

"Look what I found in the garden," she said, looking pleased and happy. Lorenzo felt his anger ebb away at the sight of her. She was so innocent in her pleasures, and he gave her so few, these days...

When this is all over, once Guido's finally dead, I'll give her anything she wants. I'll even give up working for Bonaparte, if she asks...

"They're beautiful, amore," he said aloud. "Did you see Hal or Angelo this morning?"

"No, why?"

Francesca's peaceful expression did not change, but her heart gave a funny little jump, skipping a beat with a suddenness that almost hurt.

Lorenzo groaned.

"Because the bastards have gone out to get drunk," he said with exasperation. "And what I'd love to do is find them and drag them back here. I was hoping they'd said something..."

Oh, God, help me....

Francesca knew exactly where Angelo and Hal were. Angelo had told her before they left what he planned to do, but neither of them had thought that Lorenzo would consider questioning her. She had spent the morning in a fever of anticipation, expecting Guido to arrive at any moment, and it had been hours before she had calmed down enough to realise that even if he wanted to, he could not. He was here for the same reason as Lorenzo - the documents that seemed to be so desperately important to everyone...and if they really were as important as Lorenzo seemed to believe, there was no way on God's earth that Guido would fail in what he had sworn to do.

"Oh, dear," she said as sympathetically as she could. "Still, Angelo must be so sad, being discharged from the cavalry. I think it's very sensible of Hal not to let him go drinking alone."

Lorenzo nodded, conceding her point.

"I suppose so," he admitted grudgingly. He bent his head towards the vase, and sniffed at the flower-covered branches.

"Very pleasant," he said with a smile. "What are they called?"

Francesca shrugged.

"I don't know," she said, laughing. "They just looked nice."

Thank you, God...

"What on earth am I going to do about Angelo? He doesn't want to be a spy, and I can't think of anything else I could give him to do..."

"Why not let him run the estate?" suggested Francesca. "That way, you and Hal could stop worrying."

Lorenzo hesitated.

"I could, but - I was thinking. Francesca, when all this is over, perhaps - perhaps I should retire. We could live at the palazzo, eh? Have a family, maybe, settle down..."

Francesca bit her lip involuntarily.

"When all what is over?" she asked quietly.

"Francesca, I will have to kill Guido before we can ever be safe, you know that. I have made arrangements..."

"No!"

The word jerked out of Francesca before she could stop herself. Lorenzo went white.

"What?" he asked softly.

Francesca started to shake.

"I - I -"

"You still love him." Lorenzo's face contorted. "Oh, my God, you still love him."

"No, I - it's just -"

"You still love him!" roared Lorenzo in anguish, and tore the vase from her grasp, hurling it across the room to explode against the wall in a shower of water and broken petals. "You lied! All these years! You were lying! God damn you! God damn you!"

Francesca backed away, terrified.

"Lorenzo, no, no, I wasn't lying..."

God, protect me, protect me...

"Every time you kissed me, every time you let me make love to you, all a lie..."

"No! I swear to you!"

Francesca was looking around her desperately. Lorenzo came over to her, turning her face to the light, seeing the fear and panic in her eyes.

"You love him," he said quietly. "You always have, haven't you?"

"Yes!" Francesca twisted her head away from his grip violently, suddenly losing all fear, realising that she stood no hope of convincing him of anything else, thinking -

At least I can be true to him, at least I can be true at the last...

"Yes, I love him! I love Guido, I always have, and I have never loved you, never! Is that what you wanted to know? I despise you, Lorenzo, I don't even hate you, I have nothing but contempt for you and everything you stand for! I have acted and lied and pretended just to stay alive, and I am sick of it! I DON'T LOVE YOU! There! Are you satisfied?"

Holy Mary, mother of God...

Lorenzo's face darkened with an uncontrollable rage, his mouth contorting into a snarl.

"I will send Guido to Hell," he said, his voice unrecognisable. "But by God, Francesca! You will be waiting for him, my love, you will be waiting..."

Pray for us sinners now...

"Lorenzo - please - no -"

...and at the hour of our death, my death, God, receive my soul...

Lorenzo's hands shot out, and gripped her by the throat, squeezing with all his strength. Francesca's hands fluttered upwards desperately, clawing at his grip with her nails, her vision blurring as her breath stopped in her lungs.

She thought, faintly, as her eyes closed on her husband's demented face, closing her mind to everything -

I will wait, my love. I will wait. Guido, come soon...

She seemed to see Guido laughing as her heart pounded desperately in her ears, saw him raise himself on one elbow in their bed, and pull her down for a kiss that stopped her breath, heard him murmur -

"You are the heart of my heart, beloved."

With her last strength, Francesca formed his name with her lips, and smiled.

Then the darkness was complete.

Lorenzo held his wife's throat in his grip, and howled with rage as he saw her mouth form Guido's name, and saw the faint smile cross her lips, even as her heart stopped.

Even in death, he could not possess her.

Lorenzo let Francesca's body fall to the ground. He knelt beside her, looking at the pale, beautiful face, the white lips set in their faint smile, at the closed eyes that would never open again in love or laughter. He seemed to see her laughing, even now, saw in his mind's eye the image of Francesca and Guido all those years ago, saw the love he had so wanted for himself, and thought he had gained, and wept for all that he had lost.

******

The exhausted tavern owner sat down with relief, and looked at the sleeping men in his main room. The one in black had stayed awake for a while after everyone else had quietly passed out, his glazed dark eyes blinking rapidly as he fought to stay alert, but eventually even he had fallen into a quiet sleep, leaning back against the wall, his sword at his side.

There was a knock at the door, and the tavern owner swore under his breath, going to open it with a very unfriendly expression on his face.

"What?" he demanded of the haggard looking man who stood there.

"Do you have two men inside, one English, one a cavalry officer?" asked the man wearily.

"No." said the tavern owner. "Now go away. I'm closed."

The man sighed. He had one of the worst afternoons of his life, and it was not getting any better. His commander, still holding his dead wife in his arms, had told him to find Hal Trevelyan at all costs, but the idea was not an appealing one. If the Englishman was in the tavern, he would just as soon pass on the message he had written and get the hell out of there.

He had been told by Lorenzo just to say that Francesca was dead, but the spy, who liked Hal, had taken an enormous risk. He had written as many copies as he could of a message warning the Englishman that Lorenzo had killed her, and that Hal himself was in danger.

"Listen," he said. "I've been to every damn tavern in the area doing this, so don't take it personally. I can't find them, and I'm having to say the same thing to everyone. If they do come here, and I'm beginning to think that they've vanished off the face of the earth, so I'm not holding out any hope, please give them this message."

He took out a sheaf of identical papers from a bag on his shoulder, and passed one of them over to the tavern owner.

"It's urgent," he said simply. "Tell him Lorenzo says he needs him, and tell him that before he reads it. Use those exact words. Lorenzo says he needs him."

"That's who the message is from, then?"

"Not really, no," said the tired man grimly. "Now I'm going away. I have three more inns to try before I give up."

The tavern owner, holding the paper with the tips of his fingers, as though it might explode at any moment, closed the door.

Lorenzo's spy stood in the yard for a moment, wondering whether Hal was really inside, then shrugged. If he was, getting away from the area as fast as possible seemed like the best plan. He got onto his horse, and spurred it away from the inn, disappearing along the road that led away from Toulouse. After he had finished passing on the messages, it would probably be as well if he did not go back to his commander after all...

*****

The tavern owner went into the main room, and looked once more at the sleeping company. Then he sighed, and went over to the blond Englishman, who was snoring a little, his mouth slightly open.

The tavern owner shook his shoulder, hoping that this would be enough to rouse him, without disturbing the others. He had no desire to wake the young cavalry officer, who seemed to have an unlimited capacity for wine that might well clear out his cellar, if he started drinking again now...

Sleepy blue eyes opened, and Hal frowned in confusion.

"Mmmph?" he asked, trying to focus. He sat up. "Whass matter? Oh, God, my head...." he added, as a bolt of pain shot through his skull at the movement he had just made.

"A message came for you. I am to tell you that Lorenzo says he needs you. I think the accent might be on the 'says'. The man was going around all the taverns in the area, so I think it's urgent..."

He held out the paper to Hal, who took it, placing it on the bench beside him.

"Can you bring me some water?" he asked plaintively. "I feel utterly dreadful, and I think a vulture spent the last few hours in my mouth..."

The tavern owner nodded. Hal looked at the piece of paper, groaned, and dropped his aching head into his hands. Whatever Lorenzo wanted him for, he was in no state to do anything that involved movement. He hoped it was something where he could sit down...

The tavern owner brought over a pitcher of water and a clean cup. Seeing Hal's grey face and shaking hands as one of the worst hangovers of his life began to hit him, he kindly poured the water for the Englishman.

Hal took the cup with both hands, and drained it in one gulp.

"Thank you," he said. "All I need now is the rest of that pitcher."

"Shall I pour some more for you?"

"No. Just give me the pitcher."

Hal took the heavy stone jug from the tavern owner, and drank straight from the lip, spilling water down his front as he did so. Eventually, he put the jug down, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and sighed.

"Let's see what he wants this time," he said tiredly, and unfolded the paper.

It was not from Lorenzo.

"Hal, he's killed Francesca. You're in danger. Get back here as soon as you can. I'm getting out."

Hal stared at the note, trying to accept what his eyes were seeing.

He's killed Francesca.

"No." he said aloud "It's another test."

He's killed Francesca.

"No."

You're in danger. He's killed Francesca. Get back here...

"No." said Hal more loudly, getting to his feet, crumpling the paper in his hand. "No."

He's killed Francesca.

"NO!" shouted Hal, trying to drown out the voice in his head. "NO!"

Guido shot out of sleep at the sound, his sword drawn and held tightly in his hand, up on his feet even before his eyes were open, ready to fight.

"What?" he asked "Hal? Hal, what's happened?"

"It hasn't," said Hal, his blue eyes unfocused. "It's just a test."

"What on earth are you talking about?" asked Guido, lowering his sword, and placing it on a nearby chair. "Were you dreaming?"

Hal looked at him blankly.

"She isn't dead," he said, his voice eerily without inflection.

Guido was beginning to get frightened. This was not a man who had woken from a dream...

"What are you talking about, Hal?" he demanded loudly, trying to conceal his fear with irritability.

Angelo stirred, lifting his head from the table.

"Wha'?" he asked muzzily. "Why's ever'one shoutin'...?"

"No," said Hal in the same oddly detached voice, obviously responding to something they couldn't see. "No."

"Hal, will you for Christ's sake make some sense?" roared Guido. He took his friend by the shoulders, and shook him hard. "Look at me, damn it! What's happened?"

Hal's eyes came back into focus, and he looked at Guido properly for the first time. He held out the piece of crumpled paper, his hand shaking.

"Please tell me...Guido..."

The assassin took the paper from him, read it, and let it fall to the floor.

"Oh my God," he whispered. "No, oh no..."

"Guido, it's a test, isn't it, it's a test..."

Guido shook his head.

"No, it's not," he said calmly, feeling something begin to splinter inside him, trying to hold onto whatever control he had... "This is real."

This is real. This is real. Francesca is dead...

The thing that was splintering and rocking inside him finally broke apart, and it was pain and love and grief, and it was unendurable...

"This is real, this is real, oh dear God, oh Christ, no, oh no, oh my love, my love, oh God..."

Hal saw Guido falling apart, and knew that it was true, what he had read was true...

He asked me to protect her, and I loved her, and I failed them both...

He flung back his head and screamed at the ceiling -

"NO!"

Guido was weeping, kneeling on the floor, his head bent down in anguish as he fumbled for the note. Angelo knelt beside him, picking up the piece of paper before the assassin could control his shaking hands enough to do so. He read the few words, and went white.

"Oh dear God, what have I done....I told her where we were going, this is all my fault...oh, Christ..."

Hornblower and Kennedy were awake now, blinking in confusion.

"What's happened?" asked Hornblower, panic-stricken, wishing he could stop feeling as if his head were about to fall off so that he could concentrate...

Guido got to his feet.

"My brother has killed his wife," he said, his voice shaking, trying to hold onto some semblance of control for long enough to explain. The walls of the room were closing in on him, and he couldn't breathe...

I can't get out...

He had to tell them...

"Francesca. He killed Francesca. I loved her. I can't - I -" He stopped abruptly, and looked over at Hal, who was sitting on the bench, bent double until his head touched his knees, his hands clenched on the wooden edge of the bench as he tried to fight his pain.

"He loved her too," said the assassin, his voice almost inaudible as the last of his control spun away from him, down into the terrible grief that whirled inside him like an abyss. "Look after him. I - I can't be here any more, I need to get out, I -"

He picked up his sword, and ran from the room, bolting out towards the stables.

"Guido!" shouted Angelo, springing to his feet. "No!"

The sudden action made him stagger with pain, his damaged leg giving way under him, so that he half-fell back to his knees.

"Hell!" he raved, pain ripping through him as his bad leg hit the ground. "Hell and damnation! Stop him!"

Hal Trevelyan got to his feet.

"I'll go," he said, trying to seem calm. Then he ran after Guido.

"No, Hal, you're the last person he'll -" began Angelo urgently, but he was too late. The door slammed on his words, and Hal was sprinting across the courtyard after the assassin.

Angelo slammed his fist into the nearest table in frustration, trying to get to his feet. Hornblower, getting some kind of grip on his headache and the world, came over and helped him up.

"Thank you," said Angelo wearily, accepting his support and limping to the nearest chair. He sat down, and put his head in his hands. "Oh, Christ, what a mess, what a bloody awful thing to happen..."

Kennedy was looking out of the window worriedly. Hal had disappeared into the stables after Guido, and there was now no sign of them...

Horatio sighed.

"Could you please explain what it is that has happened?" he asked. "I don't understand..."

Angelo laughed bitterly.

"No-one understands," he said. "I don't understand it. All I know is that Guido and Francesca were lovers, back before he became Will's marksman, and during that time as well. Then Lorenzo got hold of him, and took away his memory, and married Francesca - no-one will tell me how, or why, Hal won't even talk about that time...and Guido disappeared. He asked Hal to protect Francesca, before he lost his memory...and that's what the poor bastard's been doing all these years. He loves her as much as Guido does...and he's swallowed his feelings all this time, just to keep her safe...and I think Guido knows that...and the last person he's going to want near him now is Hal...there's only so much guilt anyone can take.."

*****

Guido had run to the stables with the intention of saddling his horse and riding off into some kind of oblivion - preferably one where he took Lorenzo with him. By the time he had got the saddle on the horse, however, ignoring Hal, who was trying to say something to him, trying to stop him, he had realised that he had no choice. He had to stay. He had to do as he had planned, no matter how he felt, he had to get the documents to the church, and follow through with his duty. He remembered what Pellew had said -

"I want your word of honour that you will not pursue him, should there be a choice."

And he had given it...Guido leant his head against the horse's neck for a moment, drawing on his last reserves of strength to control his grief, pulling the familiar cloak of the assassin's indifference around him.

Just a little longer. Assassin. Spy. Guido di Cesare. King's Man. You must accomplish your task...you have a duty to your King before anything else...before anything else...oh, Francesca...

He lifted his head, and turned to Hal, his white, drawn face set in new lines of resolution.

"You have to go back," said Guido dully. "I don't want him coming after you here. That man risked his life to get you the message, Hal. You should do as it says, and go back."

Hal shook his head, numb from grief. He couldn't feel anything but a disbelieving pain...but what Guido asked was impossible...

"I can't," he said simply. "I can't do it. I can't go near him. I'll only try and kill him, and I'll probably fail...maybe that's not such a bad idea, eh? I'd be dead, at least..."

Guido flinched, Hal's words penetrating the armour of indifference with which he was trying to surround himself.

"You're going to stay alive," he said through the wall of his grief, trying to sound firm. "You're going to go back there, and you're going to lie and cheat and pretend. The documents are more important than you or I or - or -" He broke off, unable to even say her name, and swallowed hard before continuing. "And we will get the damn documents to the right people, and we will stick to our plan, which means you and Angelo must pretend you know nothing...I have to keep those two bloody lieutenants safe, and I can't if Lorenzo's looking for you...Hal, I'm always asking the impossible of you, but you have to go back. Otherwise - we're all going to die. I don't want that to happen. I want you all to live, and I'm not going to let you go off with some noble misguided idea of getting yourself killed. Do you understand?"

Hal looked down at the wooden floor.

"All you ever asked me for was to take care of her," he said. "I failed even to do that..."

Guido put his hand on Hal's shoulder.

"You didn't fail me," he said softly. "You took better care of her than I would ever have thought possible. You made her life bearable, Hal - I know that without having to be told. I know that because she survived as long as she did. And she survived because of you - and because of your love. You didn't fail..."

"How can you possibly say that? She's dead, Guido...oh, God, she's dead because I wasn't there..."

"No!" snapped Guido urgently, and his hand clenched tightly on Hal's shoulder, the thin fingers digging in painfully. "He would have killed her whether you were there or not. We aren't talking about a man you can stop, Hal. If you had been there, he would have killed you too, for trying to stop him - and I would have lost everything I care about in this world at once. You would fail me by dying, Hal. Nothing else. So go back there, go back as he's demanded, go and help him bury her, and you grieve for her - Hal, you must mourn her for me as well, I cannot, not yet, not now...and you survive. Stay alive, Hal, whatever happens. I can't lose you both, my friend...I won't. Go back and mourn for both of us, Hal...I want her to have someone she loves with her, someone who loved her...please...do this for me?"

The last words were almost a whisper, grief threatening to overwhelm Guido once more, as the image of Francesca in a tomb came to him. Francesca, his father, Enrico, Pietro...

Oh, God...

"Hal?"

Hal took a deep breath.

"Yes." he said quietly, and then, louder, his shoulders straightening and raising his head to look straight at Guido -

"Yes."

He put his hand out to the assassin.

"Shake on it?" he offered with a crooked smile.

Guido looked at his outstretched hand for a moment, then, quite deliberately, stripped off his gloves and threw them in the corner. He gripped Hal's hand in his, feeling the warmth of the other man's grip without fear.

"I am who I am," he said. "No more hiding from the world. I go to Toulouse as Guido di Cesare. Assassin. Spy. King's Man. And friend."