The King's Man
by
Rhiannon

Chapter 23

 

Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

 

Hal Trevelyan stood in the shabby little chapel that led from the rented house on the far side of Toulouse, his deep blue eyes red-rimmed with exhaustion and the tears he had shed during this vigil that Lorenzo had ordered them to begin keeping as soon as they arrived in the house. Angelo was kneeling beside the coffin, as he had been for the last hours, telling his rosary quietly. Lorenzo sat in one of the pews, his head bowed, completely unmoving and unspeaking, as he had been ever since they went into the chapel. Hal closed his eyes, remembering Francesca, for that one brief moment, in his arms before the altar. Now she lay there in the state and pomp befitting the Contessa di Cesare, the coffin open to view, surrounded by sprays of white blossom and candles.

Hal walked slowly up the aisle to the coffin, and looked down into it, seeing the pale, beautiful face of his love through a mist of tears. He saw the faint smile on her lips, and wondered at it, feeling himself sway with a combination of exhaustion and grief as he looked at her, remembering her alive, remembering her happy, in that long-ago year she had spent with Guido, before he left to become Deveraux's marksman.

Angelo, catching the slight movement out of the corner of his eye, stopped praying and looked across at the Englishman, seeing him ashen white and reeling on his feet. The young di Cesare fumbled for his cane, and got up, placing a steadying hand beneath Hal's arm.

"Come on, Hal," he murmured. "Let's get you out of here..."

Lorenzo came across to join them, his face haggard.

"Enough," he said quietly. "God knows she never deserved our prayers. We have done what was required of us."

Angelo's hand clamped hard onto Hal's arm, restraining him with a strength almost unbelievable in a man so recently wounded. He could not, however, clamp Hal's mouth, even if he had not been forced to lean on his cane with his other hand.

"You seem to take required grief very seriously, for a man who feels none," drawled Hal. He was still very white, but it seemed to stem more from rage now than anything else, the lazy eyelids not quite concealing the angry blaze in his eyes.

"I did not say I feel no grief." Lorenzo was surprisingly calm. "I said she does not deserve our prayers. I know you loved her, Hal. That is why I'll tolerate that remark from you. No other reason."

"You feel grief?" asked Hal disbelievingly, ignoring the fact that Angelo's grip was almost breaking his arm. "You?"

"Hal, if I had time, believe me, I could show proof enough of a broken heart even for you. But I cannot. I will not. I must get to the church tomorrow morning and get the documents. When I get back, I will allow myself to think. As it is - I must endure."

Hal swallowed, fighting not to say any more, realising that he was hearing the same thing from this man he so hated, as he had done from Guido, earlier, Guido for whom he would quite cheerfully die...how could they be saying the same thing? Were they so alike?

Hal shook his head, denying his own thoughts. No.

Guido hadn't killed her, would never have been capable of it, no matter what she had done. Hal had seen the fingerprints on Francesca's throat, and realised that Lorenzo must have stood there, watching, as the woman he professed to love fought for the air that he was denying her. The scratches on Lorenzo's hands bore testimony to the fact that Francesca had fought, yet she smiled, quiet and serene, in death...

Hal shivered with convulsive rage, and felt Angelo's iron grip tighten again on his arm, a warning not to say anything else...

Stay alive, said Guido's voice in his mind, and Hal forced himself to relax beneath the pressure of Angelo's hand.

"What the hell are these documents, anyway?" he asked. "What makes them so important?"

Lorenzo moved his shoulders restlessly, seeming unwilling to answer for once.

"I don't know," he admitted finally. He genuflected to the altar, crossed himself, and turned to leave.

"By the way," he said casually, pausing in the archway that led back to the house. "What happened to the messenger I sent after you?"

Angelo shrugged, and yawned.

"Who cares?" he said sleepily. "Maybe he stayed in the tavern."

Lorenzo nodded, and disappeared down the stone corridor. Angelo let go of Hal's arm, facing him angrily.

"Are you trying to get yourself killed?" he demanded, his voice quietly furious. "Guido told you. Lie. Cheat. Pretend. Hide. There's only a few hours left, Hal...we have to get through them!"

"Are you coming to the transaction?"

"No. You have to, though, don't you?"

"Yes. Lorenzo's loyal lieutenant." Hal's mouth twisted into a grimace of self-mockery.

Angelo smiled, shaking his head, remembering the men he had met in the tavern, thinking of the true loyalty he had seen in them, thinking of how much Guido had changed...they truly believed in what they were doing, and whatever Hal believed in, it was certainly not in what Lorenzo did...he was no lieutenant.

"No, Hal. You are many things, but you are quite understandably not that. And I think - I think that this may be why Enzo is going to lose this battle. What will you do, if that happens?"

"I haven't dared think that far..." admitted Hal. "I did a little, when we were drunk, but now -"

He glanced up the chapel, towards the coffin and the flowers, towards where Francesca was lying amidst the blazing candles that surrounded the altar.

"Guido couldn't save her. Why should I think he can save me?"

"Because in all the time I've known you both, he has never once broken his word to you. If he says he'll get you out, then I know - he will. So we will keep our mouths shut for the next few hours, and, God willing, we will all get out alive."

*****

Guido was sitting alone in the small back room of the tavern, his long fingers playing restlessly with his copy of the seal.

"Fiat justitia," he whispered to himself in the darkening room. He got to his feet, and put the seal away in his bag. There was only an hour before he and Kennedy were to leave, and he wanted that time alone. He walked over to the window, and stood there quietly, thinking of all that he stood to lose, if he failed in the task he had set himself.

He had rejected any and all attempts to talk to him about Francesca. Angelo had obviously explained something, but Guido realised that he must seem like the worst kind of coward to them, a man who loved his own brother's wife from a distance, and then would not even avenge her death...a coward and a hypocrite. He spoke of Lorenzo's crimes, while he had loved against the law and God...another man's wife...

I just never thought of her as his wife, I didn't have time to think of it before she died...I failed her and Hal, just as I failed Will all those years ago....God forgive me, what have I done...?

The other appalling option was that they would offer sympathy, or their condolences, or make some kind of effort to understand how he felt, and that was the last thing Guido wanted to even try and deal with, this close to the time when he would have to meet Lorenzo...

He had vowed to get them all out, and no matter what the cost was, he intended to do it -

"The price of command," he whispered, and his thin, nervous fingers reached for his pipe. He still found it odd, even after nearly two days, to be touching things without the gloves. He was still finding quite ordinary textures almost startling in the intense reactions they engendered in him, bringing back as they did so many associations, so many memories...

It had to be done. He would no longer disguise himself from the world, not allow himself to feel as though he were outcast. Lorenzo had taken away his memory, his sanity, his love, and very nearly his life, but he would not allow him to take away his humanity...

"And if I am to be the commander, I will not be so as the man who thought he killed his friends. I will be so as myself."

It seemed strange that he, who had been given carte blanche, and had only agreed to come because of a joke made in a moment of weakness, should now be the commander, carrying the burden of success or failure on his shoulders...

Absorbed in his thoughts, he did not hear Kennedy enter the room, and place a piece of paper on the table, leaving quietly immediately afterwards. He did, however, hear the door closing behind him, and turned around, rather surprised to see no-one there. He blinked at the piece of paper in some confusion, and walked over to read it, wondering what on earth was going on.

It was a copy of one of Donne's sonnets.

"Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet cans't thou kill me..."

He read through the poem, knowing the words as he knew all of Donne, yet seeming to be hearing them somewhere in his mind for the first time.

"And death shall be no more," he read aloud. "Death, thou shalt die."

And death shall be no more...yes. I *will* see her again. One day. Death will die...

How to comfort an assassin...Guido smiled a little to himself, appreciating the effort that had gone into finding something that would mean anything to him, yet realising the irony. A code that might save their lives lay in his bag, based on the words of Donne, and now someone had sought to console him with the same poet...and had succeeded...

Strange, that I should know that sonnet, and yet never have thought of it myself...

Death be not proud....and I should not be, either, not of those skills I have that bring death, yet I am, I know they will help...

The only sentiments that could have comforted an assassin...death, thou shalt be no more...God, how I long for that day...

There was no more time to spare on himself. It was getting later, and they would have to leave in a few minutes, leaving Hornblower behind - that was going to be so damn hard, Guido realised, so hard to trust that he would be all right here alone...

"No one man can take responsibility," said Pellew's voice firmly in the quiet recesses of the assassin's mind. "Not even the King's own assassin..."

Death be not proud...

Guido took a deep breath. He would trust these men with his life, after all - why was it so hard for him to believe that they would take care of their own...?

He glanced down at the sonnet again.

"Those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death, nor yet cans't thou kill me..." he read aloud.

Whatever happens, they will never die. Not really. Death cannot kill good, or honour, or belief...what they fight for with such devotion can never be overthrown. What they are and what they stand for will always survive, no matter what else may happen... and I must remember that, when I fear for them - I must trust to that...

He stood in silence a little longer, thinking of how strange it was that he, who brought death at an order, and expected to be dreaded as a result, should realise how little the fact of death mattered...and then he smiled. Perhaps he was the only one who could understand that. After all, even those who knew him had taken to calling him the Angel of Death - if that was truly who he was, then he probably had a far more in-depth knowledge of death than anyone else. He should use that knowledge, rather than fear it...

"Thank you," he said quietly, after a while, to the empty room. "I will try to remember."

He picked up his bag, folded the paper, and placed it in there, realising even as he did so that he really should do something about the state of disorganisation the contents had got into, with all the knives, powders, bottles and glass vials that he had simply been adding to it over the past few months. He stared at the mess for a moment, then shrugged, and closed the flap.

"I'll deal with that later..." he murmured, and swung the bag onto his shoulder. He picked up his cloak, and settled it around his shoulders, pulling the hood up over his head.

"Oh, God, I hope this works..." he said then, almost desperately, and went out of the room.

******

"See you at the church, then." Guido was keeping his voice purposely light. "Just as a last point - if I don't manage to get out, then don't try and find each other. Horatio, go straight to Philippe's inn, don't wait, don't even turn around. You must get out. Archie, wait for the official contact to arrive, then follow. Whatever happens, you must both get back to the beach in time for the 'Indefatigable' to pick you up. Whatever happens."

"Except that this option isn't even a possibility," said Hornblower firmly. Guido grinned at him.

"Absolutely not," he said. "But I would feel I had been most remiss had I not pointed out its existence to you."

"Indeed. One must always be prepared for all eventualities."

Guido nodded, half-laughing, and held out his hand.

"Good luck," he said quietly, and went out to the stables, leaving the two lieutenants behind in the inn.

"I hope the church isn't too cold," said Horatio, rather irrelevantly. Archie laughed.

"I expect Guido will just light a fire and use the pews as kindling, if it is," he pointed out. "It's strange, isn't it, to think that we're finally here, that this is all really going to happen...?"

"In a way. I started to think that we would never get this far, at one point - when Deveraux was shot, I had no idea that Guido would be able to get us anywhere."

"I wondered, but - well, we're here, and so is he, so he hasn't done that badly. Horatio - be careful tomorrow, won't you? Maybe Guido's worrying is wearing off on me, but -"

"I'll be careful. Have you ever known me anything else?"

Archie looked at him quizzically.

"Usually, as it happens," he pointed out. "Well - until tomorrow, Horatio."

"Until tomorrow, Archie."

They shook hands, quickly, and then Kennedy turned and walked into the yard outside, taking great care not to look back, or show how worried he truly was. He saw Guido, astride Idiot already, holding Archie's horse by the reins, and walked quickly over to him, trying to look purposeful.

Guido slanted a look at him as he mounted, and frowned a little. He waited until Archie was settled on the horse, and then said, in his quiet, remote voice -

"It is hard to walk away, isn't it?"

Kennedy nodded.

"Was it hard for you - leaving Will behind?"

"Almost impossible," said Guido very dryly. "And if it is any consolation, I am not finding this any easier. There is only one solution that I know of."

"And that is?"

"Ride like hell, and don't look back. Go!"

The two spurred their horses out of the yard, looking neither at each other, or the inn. Horatio stood at the window, watching as they vanished down the track, the horses' pace never slowing.

"And you be careful, too..." he said to the empty yard.

******

As they reached the edge of Toulouse, Guido reined his horse in, and dismounted. It was now dark, and his face was completely invisible beneath the hood of his cloak.

"From here, we walk," he said grimly.

Archie got off his horse, and tried to make out the assassin's expression. The only thing he could see was the faint gleam of Guido's eyes as a little light from one of the houses caught them. He gave up trying to tell what the Italian might be thinking as an impossibility, and asked, as casually as he could -

"And the horses?"

"We can't tie them up near the church. You take yours and leave it somewhere - I'll do the same. I'll expect you back here within ten minutes. How well are you armed?"

"My sword. A pistol. Is that enough?"

"As long as you have powder, yes."

At least for now...

"I have powder."

Guido nodded curtly.

"Ten minutes. If I'm not back, you must go alone. You remember the directions?"

"Yes, of course," said Archie irritably. "You must have told us about ten times in the last two days, Guido. By the way - what if I'm not back? Just curious."

"Then I'll have to look for you, won't I?" snapped Guido. "You're the one with the bloody documents."

"Oh." said Archie. "I hadn't thought of it like that."

"Start," suggested Guido dryly. He took his horse by the reins, and led it off down the street.

"Thank you so much..." muttered Archie, dragging his suddenly recalcitrant steed in the opposite direction. "Oh, come on, you stupid animal!"

Guido's foul mood was based a good deal on worry, and even more on an unfamiliar feeling of responsibility that he was quite definitely not enjoying. The thought of Will Deveraux, blithely enjoying the hospitality of Philippe's inn miles away from the cold streets of Toulouse, did nothing to improve his temper.

He found a house that was evidently deserted, and took the horse round to the back, tying it up to a tree in the overgrown garden.

"Have fun," he said to it sardonically. "Don't eat too much, will you?"

The horse ignored him. That, as far as Guido was concerned, summed up the evening. If even horses had ceased to pay him any attention, things were very bad indeed...he had obviously lost the ability to make contact with anything.

Which means I'm starting to go into the assassin's trance without wanting to...and this is *not* how I want to do this transaction...just for once, I'd like to stay sane...

This, apparently, was not going to be an option. Guido kicked a half-hidden post in the grass savagely, and fought to stay out of the strange detachment that he was so used to.

"Sod it," he said viciously into the night air. "Damn, hell and blast. This is not what I want..."

If Will Deveraux had been commanding, it would have been exactly what was needed - but he was not. Guido was. And the assassin's trance was the most undesirable thing in the world at that moment.

Guido walked over to the rickety little fence, and grasped the splintering wood with his bare hands, trying to focus on the unfamiliarity of touching it in order to keep himself alert.

Come on, there must be a way...

He had learnt to control himself within the assassin's trance - surely there must be a way of finding control outside it?

But he had never been taught that...he had only ever learnt how to use his body badly, never how to use it to save himself...his teaching had all been towards ignoring limits, not in finding them...

"Damn," said Guido again, trying not to think of the possible consequences if he failed to stop the process at some point during the night. If he became a mindless killer, an additional weapon, with no-one to control him...then he was less than a man. And he had no intention of facing Lorenzo in such a state.

Then he froze, berating himself. While he struggled with the demons Lorenzo had planted in him, he had lost track of time. The ten minutes were almost up.

"Oh, bloody hell!" snarled the assassin, and ran into the street, his cloak flying behind him as he merged with the shadows, his soft boots soundless as he ran along the street.

He got to the meeting point out of breath and angry, his temper unimproved by the discovery that Kennedy was waiting for him.

"Why the hell are you still here?" he demanded.

"Because you aren't late. Yet," responded Archie.

Guido glared at him.

"Oh, for the love of God," he growled under his breath. "I didn't mean wait exactly ten minutes! You should have gone by now!"

"Like you would have, I suppose?" Archie was completely unrepentant.

Guido just looked at him, his eyes gleaming satanically out from beneath the hood's shadow. It was impossible to tell whether he was amused or furious, and when he spoke, his voice gave no more away than his hidden face.

"Quite," he said in his driest tones. "Well, shall we go now, instead?"

 

*****

The church had evidently been looted by revolutionaries some time ago, and never restored or mended since. It was cold, deserted, dark, and damp. All in all, it was possibly the least pleasant place to spend an hour, let alone an entire night. Guido drew his cloak more tightly around him, shivering a little.

"How desperately unsalubrious," he remarked acidly, kicking at some broken pieces of wood that lay on the floor. He flipped open his bag, and fished around in it. After a few moments of unsuccessful fumbling, accompanied by a good deal of swearing, he resorted to his usual expedient of tipping everything out in a heap onto the floor. He knelt down beside the rewulting clutter, and felt about in the muddle of items cautiously, straightening up after a while with an exclamation of relief.

"Thank goodness for that," he said, holding up a tinderbox and a cloth roll.

"What?" Kennedy looked at the surprising number of items strewn across the church floor with slight bewilderment. "Guido, that really is a total mess, by the way."

"I know," sighed the assassin. "I really should sort everything out, but somehow I never have the time..."

He unrolled the cloth, revealing some candles, six pieces of wool-wrapped glass, and some thin pieces of wood with grooves cut in them.

"Instant lanterns," he explained, beginning to slot them together, a piece of glass slotting between every two pieces of wood, making, eventually, two square lanterns with one open side. He stuck a candle in each, and, after a little struggle, managed to light them.

The crude constructions were surprisingly effective, illuminating a larger portion of the church than Archie had anticipated.

"My God," whispered Guido in dismay. It was worse than he had imagined. The place had been almost completely gutted, hardly anything left but the altar, the pews overturned, and the wall hangings torn down and just left to rot on the floor where they had been thrown.

"How can anyone do this?" asked Archie.

Guido shook his head.

"I can understand the doing it," he admitted. "It's the leaving it...they must have left this for years without even coming in here..."

"Or come in here and still left it..."

They looked at the wreckage in bewilderment. Guido shuddered a little, and drew his cloak around him once again.

"Come on," he said, shaking himself out of the strangely superstitious mood that had overtaken him. "We should look around for hiding places, vantage points, that sort of thing..."

"Somehow, that is not an idea that appeals..."

Archie did not finish the sentence, expecting Guido's acid mockery in response, but instead, the assassin nodded.

"I know," he agreed. "Nor to me, either."

Then he looked upwards, and grinned.

"Organ loft," he said succinctly. "Vantage point, hiding place, and quite possibly less disgustingly worrying than the rest of this damn building..."

*****

The organ had long since been smashed to pieces, the pipes probably melted down for some other purpose years ago. It was still cold up there, but it did not seem quite as ominously desecrated as the rest of the church.

Guido's makeshift lanterns made the area almost bearable, despite the bits of carved wood that lay smashed around the place, and the pieces of shattered mirror that the organist would once have used, in long ago and happier times, to keep his eye on the choir.

"I hate this place," admitted Archie after a while.

"I know. I'm sorry."

Guido sounded genuinely apologetic.

"I hate it as well," he added after a short silence.

"You? Why?"

Guido tugged his hood further over his face.

"Because I hate this desecration," he said softly after a while. "I was brought up to believe that I knelt before no-one but God and the King...I still believe that, I suppose, only it's a different King...and this seems - like blasphemy. I am not a moral man, myself, the life I lead does not allow for such a thing....but I believe in morality - and this goes against all I have ever tried to uphold as an ideal..."

"You're a strange man, Guido, do you know that?"

Guido laughed, not unpleasantly.

"You have a gift for stating the obvious," he said wryly, and pushed the hood off his face. For the first time, Archie noticed that he was not wearing gloves.

"Why don't you wear them any more?" he asked.

"What?" asked Guido blankly.

"Your gloves. I didn't notice before - but you always used to wear them, didn't you? Why did you take them off?"

Guido shrugged.

"Because I no longer fear anything but myself," he said honestly. "And my gloves won't protect me from who I am."

"That's not quite true," Archie pointed out.

"Hmmm? How will they protect me?"

"No - I meant about not being afraid. I think you're afraid of what might happen tomorrow."

Guido raised his eyebrows.

"Perhaps," he conceded. He did not elaborate.

"Guido?"

"Yes?"

"Are you going to kill your brother?"

"If necessary," said the assassin calmly.

"But - don't you want revenge? To see him dead, at least?"

"I would see him dead quite happily," said Guido. "But revenge - no. That would destroy me, as well as him. I don't really think he's worth throwing everything I've gained away on, to be perfectly honest."

"What about Francesca, though?"

The moment he asked, Archie could have bitten out his tongue. Guido looked suddenly, appallingly grief-stricken, his composure shattered.

"I would throw away all that I am and more, to bring her back," he said with a pain no less evident for being desperately controlled. "To avenge her death - it would be sweeter than you can possibly imagine, to cause him the same pain - yet in the end, she would still be dead. I would have no more, if I kill him, than if I don't. She would still be dead, and I -"

He broke off abruptly, staring down at his hands.

"I would still have to live," he concluded tiredly. "Could we possibly talk about something else, please?"

"Guido - I have got to say - if it were me, I would want revenge. I would want something. It's better to feel you've taken action, than to think -"

"That someone else did what you should have done? That your right was taken from you?"

A long silence, and then -

"Yes."

Guido nodded slowly.

"I would - be grateful to that person," he said, choosing his words with care, as though he were picking his way barefoot through broken glass. "In the end...the true revenge is not in the death of the one who has wronged us. It is in the way we live, afterwards, if we can show that those who wrong us no longer have any power...If I were to seek revenge in Lorenzo's death...he would have won. He would be controlling me. I would have his death on my hands and my conscience for the rest of my days, knowing that I had acted because I believed my hatred to be more important than right or wrong. People employ me because they believe that if I act for them, they are free of that guilt, because another man's hands carry out the action. It is still revenge. And it is a poison."

"But - if someone else killed him..."

"I would be glad," said Guido firmly. "Fiercely, unrepentantly glad. And most of all, I would be glad that it was not I who had to make that choice. If I killed Lorenzo, would I be trying to kill him, or what he has done to me?"

"Both." The word was almost inaudible.

Guido nodded.

"What he has done to me is part of me, whether I like it or not," he said. "It is up to me, however, whether I use that knowledge for good or evil. And that is true for all of us. We cannot kill memories. But we can make them into something good."

"Do you truly believe that?"

Unexpectedly, Guido shook his head.

"No," he said quietly. "I know that. You gave me back the meaning of Donne's sonnet today, something I had almost forgotten. Death is not important. What we are when we live, though, the good in that goes on forever. Because one day, death will die, and only love and honour and truth will remain. I believe that with all my heart."

"And the evil? You say that the good in life goes on forever, but what of the evil?"

"Evil, by its very nature, will fail," said Guido simply. "It always has, you know. Even when it has seemed triumphant - it has failed, in the end."

"That's not what Shakespeare says." It was obvious that Archie thought this was a valid argument.

For a moment, Guido was silent, not daring to respond in case he said something truly antagonistic. Then his mouth twitched, and his sudden, maverick sense of the ridiculous took him over.

"Dare I suggest," he said as blandly as he could, "that Shakespeare might well have been wrong?"

And then he was laughing, uncaring as to whether he offended Archie or not, caught up in the sheer oddity of the conversation they were having.

"We kill ghosts by living," he said then, his laughter leaving him. "Life is more than survival, it's not just about plodding on through the days, or keeping going somehow, or enduring. It's finding joy in life, finding laughter, or sorrow, or sheer pleasure just at being there, even at the worst of times, when it's completely inappropriate...it's realising that the sun is shining, even when you weep, or seeing a candle in the dark, and knowing that what you see by its light is reality, not the shadows it creates in the corners. No ghost can withstand that. I don't need to kill your ghost for you, Archie. I thought I did, but I don't."

"Why? I thought you said you were the best..." But Archie did not look as certain of his question as he sounded, and the suspicion that was growing in his mind was borne out by the next thing the assassin said.

"Because you did it for yourself, long ago. And the only thing you need to do now - the only thing - is believe in what you've done."