The King's Man
by
Rhiannon

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come.

Guido, looking stunned at what he had just said, shut his mouth hard, and leant back against the wooden screen that hid the loft from the rest of the church. He waited for some kind of response - but the one he got was a long way from what he had expected...

"What the hell are you talking about?" asked Kennedy.

Guido gave an exclamation of disgust, and turned his head away in irritation.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about!" he snapped, sitting up, and hooking his arms around his drawn-up knees. "How can you defeat me with your bloody laughter and make me swear my weapons over to you and face down what you thought were five assassins and then say you don't know what I'm talking about? If you want to mock me, Kennedy, do it some other time, because tonight of all nights, I really don't have the patience!"

"Guido - listen - I -"

"Do you know the Rime of the Ancient Mariner?" demanded the assassin, sounding like a man on the edge of losing his grip on some very tenuous patience. "Do you remember? 'Like one who on a lonesome road/doth walk in fear and dread/ And having once looked round, walks on,/ and does not turn his head..."

"Because he knows a fearful fiend..."

"Doth close behind him tread. Exactly. Well, that's how you're behaving, but you haven't even bothered to look round to check!"

"I looked round once...and still...."

"And how long ago was that? Years! Turn your head, damn it! See who you are!"

Archie remained unimpressed by his vehemence.

"And what if - to use your analogy - the fiend is still there? What then? What if you're wrong?"

"For God's sake, how can there be anything there? Do you know what happens to a man shot in the chest? Shot in the lung?"

The assassin was shaking with rage, suddenly, and Archie realised that Guido's fury was inexplicable, had nothing to do with what was being said. It was if he were fighting some battle that had nothing to do with what he was saying.

 

"Because I do. I do know!" he shouted angrily. "They drown, Kennedy, they drown in their own blood, they suffocate! This is a worse death than any you could have planned for him! You have your revenge, you have it, you always did...he is dead! And you -"

He stopped short, his breath coming quickly and unevenly.

And the reason for his rage suddenly hit Kennedy, as his own words of days ago coming back to haunt him -

I will never ask you to kill for me.

Guido was forcing himself to create the reality of death with his words...that was why he was so angry...And Archie, who had sworn never to ask him to kill, had now done so unintentionally...Guido was killing in his mind, instead of with his weapons - and he was paying the same penalty as he would have had he used a knife rather than his voice...

Oh, no...I'm so sorry, Guido...

"Well," said Guido then, regaining his composure with a visible effort. "Death is death. It doesn't matter who brings it, in the end."

He looked utterly exhausted, the dark circles that had ringed his eyes at Sanderson's funeral visible on his narrow face once again, even in the bad light.

Archie laughed suddenly.

"What's so funny?" demanded the assassin wearily.

"What a contradiction in terms you are, Guido! First you save my life, and then you give me death! Not only that, but I broke my word to you, and you still keep yours ­ you have got to be the most inconsistent man I have ever met!"

Guido just looked at him.

"I'd say that this was actually fairly consistent, wouldn't you?" he asked bitterly. "Being as you don't want either life or death from someone like me - even though you've made it perfectly clear that death is all I'm qualified to offer..."

"Oh - God - Guido, no! I never meant it like that!"

"Didn't you?" asked the assassin. "I know what men like you think of me, Kennedy, I live with it day in and day out, back in England. Killer. Dishonoured. Untrustworthy. While you - you have everything, damn you! Everything! And you cannot even accept the only gift I have! I kept my word - I did what I could, damn it, I even went to Pellew and sacrificed my pride, and you still don't bloody listen to me!"

Guido took a deep breath, and shivered suddenly as he tried to calm down.

"You asked me to kill a ghost. I can tell you now, there is no need for me to do anything of the sort. You, on the other hand, need a large dose of belief in yourself. I suggest you swallow it. Because this is ridiculous."

"Guido, that wasn't what I -"

"I will never even be half of what you are, never! But that does not mean you have the right to ignore me when I'm telling you the truth!"

"And what rights do I have, then?" demanded Archie, getting as angry as the man who faced him in the flickering light of the lanterns.

The assassin swallowed hard, and when he spoke, his voice was as low and quiet as when he was at his calmest and most controlled, belying the anger he still felt within.

"Belief in yourself," he repeated simply. "Like all men. Please - believe what I say! Believe what you are worth!"

"And you? Do you believe in yourself?"

Archie sounded openly sceptical, but Guido only shrugged, laughing a little as his anger receded.

"Oh, for God's sake, man! What else do I have? What else did I ever have? The only thing I can be sure of in this life is myself!"

My God, thought Archie in surprise, finally understanding that Guido was not playing some kind of game, that he meant what he said. He's telling the truth...he really *does* believe in himself...and that's what he's trying to give me...and if he believes in himself, he must mean what he says. He actually thinks I'm worth believing in...

Aloud, he asked curiously, trying to make sense of what was going on -

"Guido...why were you so angry, earlier?"

"Because I resented what you were forcing me to remember," said the assassin quietly.

"To remember? What -?"

"An assassin learns - or at least, one of my brother's assassins learns - about the pain they cause by example. Whatever they must do, they are first given experience of. I spent a year like that. Discussing those things is not something I - enjoy, particularly."

"Guido, you're saying that you know...that you know what it feels like? To - to be drowning - in your own blood?"

"Yes...I do. I - I would not wish that on any man."

"How did you know?"

"Because it was happening to me. They stopped it in time. They - assumed - and rightly! - that living would be worse..."

"Worse? Why?"

"Because...whenever I killed...I would know..."

"Dear God - Guido -"

"Don't pity me, damn it!" snapped the assassin, his irascibility failing to hide the obvious sadness that he felt. "You are free of all that...and it is not for someone like you to feel pity!"

"If I can't - who will?"

"I don't know," whispered the assassin. "I don't know...no-one should, perhaps..."

He thought, disbelievingly -

We are the same, you and I - and yet you do not hate me for failing where you succeeded...

There was a long silence. Archie thought carefully over what the assassin had said, realising the truth of it, realising that the gift Guido had been trying to get him to accept was not a death, but a sense of life, instead...and the Italian was right. He already had that. He always had, even through the worst of times...it had been one of the more unbearable aspects of everything that had happened, sometimes, that sense of awareness...

He looked up, seeing Guido lighting his pipe and frowning down at one of the lanterns.

"Guido. You - you were - you are - right. There is no ghost, when I look back...not really."

"Thank you for noticing," muttered the assassin sarcastically, but his eyes were kind as he looked back up at the man he had sworn his weapons to.

"One thing, though," said Archie, unable to stop himself asking. "There is no ghost, not for me - but yours? How will you survive yours?"

"Oh, you stupid fool," said Guido softly, without resentment. "Don't you understand? I want mine. I want them here. Here for always, here forever...my problem is rather different. I do not want my ghosts to vanish..."

Then he froze.

"Oh, my God," he whispered.

"What?"

"Listen. Horses...."

He leant over swiftly, extinguishing the candles with two quick breaths, and whispered -

"Get down."

"On the floor? Are you mad? It's utterly filthy!"

"I don't care if it's just this side of an open sewer, man! Get - down!"

And, suiting his actions to his words, he stretched himself full length into the untouched dirt of the last few years.

With a grimace of distaste, Archie imitated him. Then the door creaked open, and Lorenzo di Cesare, holding a lantern high above his head, stalked in.

Guido bit down hard on his lip, and shivered.

"He looks so much like you!" whispered Archie.

"I know..."

"It's - it's like looking at you, the way he moves, everything..."

"Yes..." This was a phenomonon Guido was well used to, and he found that what he had been dreading above all ­ seeing his brother in the flesh - was in fact so utterly familiar as to leave him completely unmoved. Of all the reactions he been expecting of himself, this strangely accepting
response was not one of them. It would have been unnerving, but for the fact he felt so calm. "I know. Now shut up..."

They were lying on the dusty floor of the organ loft, peering down through the cracks on the stripped boards at the five men beneath.

"Don't sneeze..." whispered Guido.

Archie turned his head to the side, and glared at him. Guido was grinning irreverently.

"Thanks, Guido. Now how I am I supposed to think of anything except that - God, Hal's there!"

"Oh, bugger..." Guido peered through his crack, and saw Hal walking across the broken bits of wood, kicking at them as he went.

"God, he looks terrible..." the assassin breathed.

"But why bring him -?"

"To prevent suspicion, I suppose..."

"Guido," said Archie softly, after they had watched in silence for a while, as Lorenzo and his spies set themselves up, ready for the morning.

"Hmmm?"

"You don't seem - worried - by seeing him...Lorenzo, I mean..."

The assassin thought for a moment, then said in the same soft voice -

"I'm not. I should be, shouldn't I...?"

"No...but it would have been - more -"

"Ordinary?" Guido's whisper was a little shaky, and Archie saw that he was struggling with laughter. "Sorry, Archie. I think it's the situation. First I end up having an argument with you about ghosts, and now we're lying in the dust in an organ loft...it just seems a little..."

He broke off, smothering his laughter in his sleeve. When he had recovered, he said -

"I don't think being frightened or worried is something I'm capable of just now..."

"Well, I suppose that's - um -"

It was the situation, thought Archie rather hysterically, trying to control his own laughter by biting his lip. A glance to the side showed that Guido's mouth was twitching up and down at one corner, betraying his ongoing amusement.

"Well, it's - good?" Archie whispered.

Guido made a small, strangled noise, almost like a squeak.

"Shhhh..." he hissed frantically. "Stop it..."

"Are you always this professional?"

"Just shut up!" Guido was almost inaudible, even from only a foot away, but his expression was caught somewhere between irrepressible mirth and total panic. The one was probably caused by the other....

"Or do you always laugh before you go on a mission?" Archie was trying hard not to laugh any more, but it was proving almost impossible as he looked at the assassin, lying full length in the dust and glaring across the scuffed floorboards as he tried not to make any noise.

Guido, trying not to move, thought about that. Then he blinked a few times, looking mildly surprised, and frowned.

"D'you know," he whispered, "I always laugh? I hadn't thought about it before, but -"

"And now you tell me?" Archie tried to look suitably outraged, and failed. Guido grinned.

"Well, I never thought about it..."

"It's contagious, damn it!"

Guido brought up a silent hand to cover his mouth, his shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter, not daring even to try and whisper.

Eventually, his voice drifted over like a wisp of smoke.

"You'll just have to try and forgive me, I'm afraid. Sorry"

"Bastard..."

A breath of laughter, almost on the cusp of hearing, was his only reply.

It was going to be a long, long night.

* * *

The sky grew light outside the broken windows. Hal Trevelyan paced around the church, his blond hair gleaming in the pale light. He looked like a weary angel, stepped out of a painting to protect the building from the events its occupants were preparing for. Lorenzo was checking his weapons, loading his guns with the same quiet efficiency that was always to be seen in his brother, his sword unsheathed by his side. His spies were positioning themselves around the church, almost but not quite hidden, preparing for action should the need arise.

Guido and Kennedy lay still and silent in the organ loft, waiting for Hornblower to arrive.

"How long?" whispered Archie.

"About an hour. He may be early - I expect him to be, actually, there's no way he'll be able to time it precisely."

"What about the contact?"

"I don't know...now shhh..."

"Sorry."

Guido looked across at him, his narrow face visibly streaked with dust from the floor.

"It's all right," he said very quietly. "I'm nervous, too."

"Somehow, Guido, I do not find that reassuring..."

They grinned at each other.

Below them, Lorenzo looked up irritably from his guns.

"Hal, will you stay still, for the love of God!" he snapped irritably.

Hal looked over at him, his blue eyes veiled by the heavy eyelids, and began to walk over, keeping his expression indifferent. Then he froze, as did Lorenzo.

"Hoofbeats," whispered Hal. "One man."

"Yes, thank you, Hal, I'm not yet in my dotage, and I can still hear!" snarled the assassin. "Why would Guido come alone?"

"Unless it isn't him," suggested Hal, his expression innocent.

"Oh, it will be..." Lorenzo's smile was frightening. "It will be..."

"No it won't..." murmured Kennedy, only feet above him, and saw Guido's watchful face flash into silent laughter.

The door creaked open, and Hornblower entered, looking completely calm and composed.

"Brave man..." murmured Guido to himself, looking at the lieutenant with admiration.

Then Lorenzo roared, jumping to his feet -

"Take him!"

And the spies came from their hiding places, grabbing Hornblower, twisting his arms behind his back, holding a gun to his head. Through it all, he remained perfectly still, his eyes never leaving Lorenzo, smiling slightly.

Guido's breath hissed between his teeth, his lithe body tensing, ready to fight.

"What the -" began Kennedy, too loud, and Guido's hand shot out and clamped over his mouth, cutting him off.

Dark eyes burnt across the dusty space, Guido shaking his head, his expression as shocked as Archie's, but his voice firm.

"Wait," he hissed. "Wait. I won't let any harm come to him, do you understand me? Do you understand?"

Kennedy nodded, and Guido let go.

"Good," he whispered. "Good."

"What can we do?"

"Nothing yet...wait..."

"This is hell..."

Guido did not reply. He had a feeling that it was nowhere near hell - not yet...

"You must be Lorenzo."

For a man with his arms up behind his back, and a gun to his head, Hornblower was astoundingly cool and collected. Lorenzo tilted his head to the side slightly, examining him.

"Ah...the English lieutenant...of course. Which one?"

Hornblower remained silent, looking at the man who had caused so much grief in the last week and a half with a faint smile.

"Which one?" Lorenzo shouted angrily.

"Oh, God, answer him..." muttered Guido into the dust, slipping his knife into his hand, ready to kill if need be.

"Hornblower."

The refusal to answer formally was as much an insult as if he had not answered at all.

"What are you doing?" whispered Guido. "Do you want him to kill you? You're supposed to be tricking him, not challenging him..."

Hal Trevelyan's eyes were gleaming with amusement as he came up beside Lorenzo.

"Do let him go, there's a good chap," he murmured into the ear of the man who supposedly commanded him. "He's an officer, Enzo, you won't get anything out of him if he's insulted like this..."

Lorenzo nodded, and gestured. The spy holding the gun stepped back, and Hornblower's arms were released.

Guido heard Kennedy breathe out in a sigh of relief beside him, and was forced to admit that he felt the same. Minutely, he relaxed, though he retained his grip on the knife, his narrow face intent and watchful.

"You have the papers?"

"I do."

"Where's Guido? Why isn't he here?"

"It was not thought necessary."

"Not thought - not -" Lorenzo was white with rage. "He knew I would come, and he sent you?"

"It was deemed more politic." Polite, non-committal, emotionless.

Guido and Kennedy looked at each other.

"He's good," breathed Guido, astonished. He had thought that Hornblower would find this difficult, yet he was behaving with all the confidence that Will Deveraux would have shown...

My God, could I have ever wished to know a better man...?

Archie just grinned at him.

Hal, below, covered his mouth with his hand as if stifling a yawn, and strove to conceal his pleasure.

"Well, it was most impolitic!" snapped Lorenzo. "Because I will have those documents from you, and I will waste no time in informing the world as to who it was I got them from!"

"I do not doubt it, sir."

Just the right touch of concealed chagrin, thought Guido, and found himself smiling.

I am proud to know you, Lieutenant...I hope I get the chance to tell you so...but by God I am proud to know you...

Lorenzo held out his hand.

"The documents, Lieutenant, if you please..."

Hornblower went to reach into his jacket.

"Slowly!" snapped the assassin.

Hornblower just looked at him.

"I am no assassin, sir," he said coolly. "You need not fear me."

Guido chuckled, softly and inaudibly, into his sleeve. Hal Trevelyan's mouth went up at one corner, and he lowered his bright head to conceal his mirth.

"You should address me as 'My Lord'," was all Lorenzo said in response. "I am the Conte di Cesare."

Hornblower's unmoving face suddenly twitched with amusement, and Kennedy, up in the organ loft, brought his hand to his mouth to cover a sudden breath of laughter. Guido frowned at him.

"What?"

"This isn't really a good time to explain..."

"Well, there may not be another, you know..."

"We once met someone who said almost exactly the same thing..."

Guido thought carefully, and then he, too, smiled.

"Edrington?" he asked, his soft voice quivering a little with laughter.

Archie nodded. Guido grinned.

"Yes - we've met," he said dryly, and Archie tried not to laugh at the wryness in the assassin's expression. He wondered if Edrington had enjoyed the experience as little as Guido evidently had.

Hornblower brought out the packet of papers that Guido had prepared in the midst of his desperate grief for Sanderson, aboard the 'Indefatigable'.

"I trust you find them of use," he said, and Guido gasped. Hornblower, tone-deaf, honourable Hornblower, had just done what should have been impossible. He had mimicked Guido's voice exactly.

Lorenzo snatched the packet from Hornblower's hand, almost trembling with rage. Hornblower's face remained impassive, and Guido, watching, had no idea whether he realised or not how his voice had just sounded...

And then Lorenzo did the one thing they had all been praying would not happen.

He opened the packet, and took out the papers.

"Hell," whispered Guido, drawing his long legs beneath him. "Mr Kennedy, we're in trouble. Remember what I told you. No matter what happens - no matter what happens - those documents must get to the contact."

"Guido - I -"

The assassin smiled.

"You'll be all right," he said softly, his voice carrying no further than the few feet of flooring that they lay on. "I trust you, Archie."

And he began to wriggle across the floor of the organ loft, towards the door that led to the balcony that ran along the side of the church to behind the altar.

* * *

Lorenzo stared at the papers in disbelief.

"They're in code," he said, his voice almost too quiet to hear. Then he almost screamed, his face contorted with rage -

"They're in a bloody code!"

"That, sir," pointed out Hornblower, "is scarcely my concern."

Lorenzo, who had turned his back in order to read the papers, wheeled around at that, his expression demonic.

"Oh, I think you'll find it is," he said, his voice dangerously soft. "Peters?"

One of the spies stepped forward.

"My lord?"

"Shoot this man."

"But - my lord -"

"Enzo, wait -" That was Hal, stepping forward in alarm.

"I said shoot him!" roared Lorenzo. "Do I command you or not?"

"Yes, my lord," said Peters automatically. He cocked his pistol, and Hornblower closed his eyes.

"Enzo, don't!" shouted Hal.

"I really would suggest that you don't, Enzo," agreed a cool voice from the back of the church.

Lorenzo whirled around.

Guido di Cesare, very pale, his face smudged with dirt, stood by the altar, dusting off his clothes.

"You see," he said calmly, "I rather like him alive."

"SHOOT HIM!" howled Lorenzo.

"Which one, my lord?" asked Peters desperately, turning quickly between the two men.

Guido smiled faintly, raised his gun, and shot Peters straight between the eyes. The spy fell backwards, the gun falling to the floor beside him. Hornblower bent quickly, and picked it up, pointing it at Lorenzo.

"Neither, preferably," said Guido, his voice coldly sardonic. "Now take what you have, Enzo, and get out."

Lorenzo nodded, bowing his head.

"You think you've won, don't you?" he said bitterly.

"I know I have," said Guido calmly, wishing he felt as certain as he sounded. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man enter by the little side door behind Lorenzo, and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever happened, the contact was there. The documents were safe - and he had done his duty.

Lorenzo's breath hissed between his teeth, as his head came up, and his eyes met Guido's for the first time. In the black, glittering depths, he saw no emotion at all - not even the hatred he had expected. Guido felt nothing for him - nothing!

I chained you to a wall, and you *dare* to dismiss me?

Looking into the grim, predatory face, Lorenzo felt for the first time that he had truly lost something when he lost Guido...

For a moment, he closed his eyes in anguish, realising the extent of what he had done, realising everything that he had become. Then his eyes snapped open again, as harsh and black as his brother's.

"Lost?" he asked bitterly. "No, Guido. I never lose. Give me the code."

Guido shook his head.

The documents are safe. Just get Hornblower away. Nothing else matters.

"No," he said calmly, and began to walk down from the altar, reloading his gun as he went. "I will not."

Lorenzo stared at him for a moment, and then his face contracted into a snarl.

"You will!" he growled between his teeth, and before anyone could move, his strong arms were gripping Hal Trevelyan in front of him, pressing a knife to his throat. Hal's dark blue eyes blazed wide with anger and shock, but he didn't make a sound, his head straining away from the edge of the blade.

"Let him go!" shouted Guido, his face showing something for the first time.

"Give me the code!" demanded Lorenzo desperately.

"I am the code!" yelled Guido in response, and Kennedy, up in the loft, gasped, thinking of Guido's calmness in the courtyard outside Philippe's inn as he said -

I will carry a copy of the code with me...

Hornblower slowly lowered the gun, remembering Guido saying, on board the 'Indefatigable' -

Now that Deveraux has turned me into a walking cipher...

"I am the code," repeated Guido more calmly. "Now let Hal go."

Guido's bag, open from when he had taken out his weapons before going across to the balcony, lay beside Archie. He looked at it, his heartbeat quickening, remembering the first time he had met Guido and Will, in the draughty inn, and asking Will -

"Why did you put gloves on to go in his bag?"

"Guido poisons his knives, sometimes. I don't want to die from a scratch."

Archie slipped his hands inside the cuffs of his shirt, and gently began to move things around in the battered bag that never left the assassin's side, if he could help it.

I will carry a copy of the code with me...

No use. It was such a mess of papers and jars and little bottles in there - he would never find it in a million years...

No matter what happens - no matter what happens - you must get the documents to the contact...

And then Archie saw the shadowy figure by the side door, disappearing, even as he watched, into one of the little alcoves, unseen and unnoticed.

"Right," he said firmly. "And that's exactly what I'm going to do...."

Guido, his eyes wary and alert, put down the gun carefully, and drew his sword.

I must distract him. I must hold his attention. And I *must* get Hal and Hornblower out of here...

"Let Hal go," he said. "The wheel is come full circle, Enzo. I am here."

Archie, take this chance, get the documents to the contact, for the love of God...

Lorenzo looked at him for a long moment, and smiled suddenly, releasing Hal with a violent push that sent him crashing into the debris that littered the floor of the church. Without thinking of how it might look, Hornblower went over, and assisted him to his feet.

"All right?" he asked quietly. Hal nodded, moving away, trying to avoid being seen talking to someone he was supposed never to have met before in his life. Lorenzo's attention, however, was all focused elsewhere, on the tall, thin man who stood in front of him, quoting Shakespeare with a faint smile on his lips, direct and unafraid for the first time.

"Still trying to beat me, Guido?"

The younger di Cesare shook his head.

"No. But I am the King's Man, and I do what I must. You will not take the documents, if I can prevent it. Nor will you take another life, if I can prevent it."

"So brave, so honourable!" mocked Lorenzo.

Guido half-smiled.

"Not any more," he said dryly. "Pragmatic, I believe is the word you are looking for. No more, no less."

"And you aren't doing this to save anyone, naturally," said Lorenzo bitterly.

"You are thinking of a man long since dead," pointed out his brother coolly. "You should know, Enzo. You killed that man."

Hal and Hornblower exchanged glances, quickly. Guido was lying, and they both knew it. The man that the assassin had once been had come back ­ why was Guido so intent on lying about the motives behind this fight? He had said he would go to Toulouse as himself, taken the gloves off...why lie, now of all times?

He's trying to hold his attention, thought Horatio. But why?

And then he saw Archie, slipping down the stairs from the loft, as close to the wall as he could get.

Oh God. Archie...

The two assassins faced each other in silence. Lorenzo took off his jacket, throwing it to the side, then removed his waistcoat and did the same with the gaudy silk. The similarity between the brothers was overwhelming ­ were it not for the fact that Guido was all in black, while
Lorenzo's shirt was white, it would have appeared to be a mirror image.

Lorenzo, his mouth set in a thin line, drew his sword.

"As you wish, Guido."

"As his Majesty wishes, Enzo," retorted Guido coldly. "My life ­ or the documents go back with me. That is the only option left now. I am the code."

He raised his sword, letting the crest show clearly, and bowed to Horatio.

"Mr Hornblower?"

"Signor di Cesare?"

"I am honoured to have had your company in this enterprise. My thanks, sir. The command is yours, should I fail in this."

Horatio nodded wordlessly. Guido smiled.

"Hal," he said softly. "I ­"

He could find no more words. Hal smiled at him, his tired face sad, but somehow peaceful.

"Forever and forever, farewell, Cassius." His voice was quiet, yet it carried through the church effortlessly.

The same words that Guido had used to Will, back in the inn ­ how long ago that seemed.

"A well-made parting, indeed," sneered Lorenzo. "En garde, little brother."

Guido smiled, balancing himself, extending his sword.

"En garde..."

Guido's mind was racing, a half-babbled wash of prayers and farewell, one part of his mind thinking ­

This seems a rather excessive way of holding his attention ­ Kennedy damn well better say thanks after this...

If there was an after.

If he survived.

Guido circled Lorenzo, his soft boots soundless amidst the broken bits of wood and tile, his attention narrowing down to the man facing him, holding the dark gaze so similar to his own, watching the movement of the strong shoulders intently.

Hornblower stood back, watching. He had thought at first that Guido and Lorenzo were almost identical, but watching them now, he saw the differences. Guido's body was lighter, more supple, like tensile steel, ready to whip back on itself with a shattering force, while Lorenzo was
slightly heavier, his shoulders broader, his strength more outwardly noticeable. Guido might well lose this fight, should it go on for too long, might lose it through sheer physical inability to continue...

He looked over at Hal, whose blue eyes were half-hidden under drooping eyelids, his mouth set in a thin line.

"Hal?"

"What?" snapped the Englishman, his eyes fixed on the still-circling duellists.

"How good is Guido?"

Hal looked over at the lieutenant's worried expression.

"Have you seen him ride?"

"Yes ­ as good as that?"

Hal shook his head.

"Better," he said with a faint smile. "I used to be his sparring partner. I've never met anyone who can touch him, except ­"

The sentence remained unfinished, but Horatio, looking at the two men in front of him, could guess the rest of it.

"Except Lorenzo."

And then steel met steel with a clash that reverberated through the church, and Guido's laughter filled the air, open and joyous.

"Tybalt, you ratcatcher!" he shouted. "Will you walk?"

Lorenzo faltered for a moment. The old joke. The old joke that had excluded him once and for all. Guido would be Mercutio, Hotspur, the Welsh captain Fluellen, always the daredevil, always the lover, the lunatic and the poet, Hal ­ was Hal, Prince Harry, Henry the Fifth on St Crispin's day, sometimes Mercutio in jest, sometimes a wild, impassioned Romeo, as they acted and laughed and pretended to fight through the hot Italian summers.

And he? Tybalt. Nothing. No-one.

Rage filled him, suddenly, and he sprang at Guido.

"I am for you!" he grated. "Isn't that what Tybalt says? Isn't it? Before killing Mercutio?"

Guido danced out of his way, laughing, his sword flickering, deflecting Lorenzo's furious strokes.

"Alla stoccata carries you away!" he joked, his eyes no longer black and opaque, but a deep soft brown, lit up with the little gold sparks of danger that had appeared in them on the 'Indefatigable' ­ once just before he hit Will, the other time confronting Pellew. Guido was more alive, more determined, than he had ever been in his life.

Come on, Kennedy, blast you...get those documents to the contact, and we can all go home ­ or at least, you can all go home, because God knows who'll win this little game...

He moved backwards, still laughing, conscious that his wounded leg was not behaving as it should, and trying not to show it. If once Lorenzo suspected he had even the slightest physical weakness, then it was over.

So he laughed, and jested, and quoted, and tried to hold his brother's furious gaze with his own.

Don't look down, Lorenzo, he willed his brother desperately. Don't watch my feet...

* * *

 

Archie was moving as silently and slowly as he could through the church, holding the documents in one hand. He heard Guido's laughter, and the clash of steel, and realised what was being done. Guido was providing the only cover possible for him.

"Hello?" he whispered into the shadows. "I need Will Deveraux's contact?"

"And you are?" returned a disembodied voice.

"Lieutenant Kennedy. Look, can we hurry this up, please, only the man who's providing the cover for me is going a bit far..."

On cue, Guido's voice reached them, slightly breathless by now.

"Away to heaven, respective lenity!"

He's changed characters, thought Archie amusedly.

And the contact came out of the shadows. A small, nondescript, rather scruffy little man, holding out his hand.

"The documents, please, lieutenant."

Archie was looking over his shoulder at the duel taking place behind him. Guido was still laughing, still almost dancing, but one of his legs was dragging a little, even though his sword-arm was evidently anything but tired.

"Hmm? Oh. Yes. Here."

The little man took the package eagerly, and opened it.

"Thank God," he said, visibly relaxing. "My compliments to Signor di Cesare. He has performed sterling work."

"Yes, well, let's hope he's alive to accept your compliments, shall we?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Signor di Cesare," said Archie through gritted teeth, "just happens to be the man fighting a duel as loudly as possible over there so that you can get your damn documents! Have you any idea what we've all been through to get these to you? It's cost him more than anyone, it may cost him his life, even now, and all you have to say is 'compliments'. I doubt he'd want them by now, if you want to know the truth."

The little man sighed.

"We all pay the price," was all he said, and then, a little unwillingly - "I hope di Cesare survives. Good luck to you all."

And he disappeared back into the shadows. A few moments later, Archie heard a door creak, and knew that whoever the contact was, he was gone. And the documents with him.

"All that," muttered Archie. "All that for ten seconds worth of an exchange that meant nothing. Christ, no wonder Will wants out of this game...it's soul-destroying."

And he turned back to the duellists, picking his way over the wooden spars that covered the floor.

* * *

Guido could feel his leg beginning to hurt almost unbearably, his endurance flagging as he held off Lorenzo's furious blows. All he had to do was stall, hold off Lorenzo until the contact left, and then it didn't matter any more...he could just let go...

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Archie coming across to the other two, through one of the stone arches, and sighed with relief, his expression of amusement leaving his face just for a moment, and his body relaxing a little.

Lorenzo, seeing his attention falter momentarily, lunged forward, and Guido only just blocked the thrust in time, the two suddenly close together, their blades locked.

"You're a dead man, Guido," whispered his brother.

"But unlike you," snarled Guido, gathering himself for one final effort, "I'm not dead on the inside yet!"

And he flung Lorenzo backwards with all his strength, coming after him, ignoring the pain in his leg, his sword flashing in a series of moves almost too quick to follow, Lorenzo giving ground before him, only just able to block, not even responding with any thrusts or passes of his own, all his focus on parrying Guido's furious attack.

"Francesca waits for you, Guido!" he shouted suddenly, his face drawn up into a mask of hatred. "Would you keep her waiting by prolonging your life?"

And Guido, his mask of indifference finally dropped, retorted,

"I'd rather send you to hell, so that she never had to look upon your face again!"

And with that, he increased his efforts, desperately aware that time was running out for him, that his leg was close to simply giving way, and that a few more minutes would finish him off completely.

Lorenzo realised, belatedly, that he was no longer fighting to kill, but to stay alive. Never, even in the days when Guido and Hal had sparred daily, honing their skills to perfection, had he seen a display like this from his younger brother.

My God...My God, he's going to beat me...

And then Guido's wrist twisted, and Lorenzo's sword flew high, out of his grasp, skidding across the floor to the other side of the church. Guido, breathing heavily, levelled his sword at Lorenzo's throat.

"On ­ your ­ knees," he hissed. The old assassin's kill, the one that brought the quickest death, to slam the sword point straight into the hollow at the base of the throat and down.

Lorenzo saw no mercy in the dark, narrow face that looked into his along a sword's length. He dropped to his knees, the point of the blade following his throat downwards.

Guido stepped back, the sword still held out at arm's length, but no longer touching the hollow of his brother's neck, where the pulse beat so wildly.

"Mr Kennedy," he called, without looking round.

"Signor di Cesare?"

"I believe my weapons are at your disposal."

Archie suddenly realised what Guido was going to do, and, for one moment, did not know whether to laugh or groan.

He's going to ask me for permission...oh, dear God, what do I say..?

"Indeed they are, signor," was all he said.

Hal stepped forward.

"Guido, what are you ­"

"Not now, Hal," was all Guido said, not turning. "Mr Kennedy, I am asking you to release me from my oath."

Oh, God, Guido, just when I least expect it...you really are honourable, after all this...

"I release you, signor. You are free to do as you see fit."

Guido nodded.

"Thank you," was all he said quietly. He turned his head, and smiled at Kennedy. "Thank you."

Then he turned back to his brother, still kneeling.

"I do this of my own free will," he said calmly. "I have carte blanche, Enzo. I act only for myself, now that the documents have been delivered ­ oh, yes, they've been delivered up safely. You have the fakes, by the way."

"I have ­" Lorenzo was choking on rage. "You mean this ­ all of this ­ was a ruse?"

Guido smiled.

"Not all of it," he said dryly, and smiled, thinking of the man who had carried the real documents, who had saved them all, and released him to finally do as he wished. "Not all. Just my part in it."

Lorenzo closed his eyes.

"So kill me," he said bitterly. "Get it over with. You've won."

Guido was still smiling, but his eyes were sad.

"I know," he said simply, and lowered his sword. "I can think of no worse penalty than for you to live, Enzo. I will not blacken my soul further by adding your death to my crimes. You aren't worth it."

And he turned away.

Lorenzo rose to his feet, trembling with rage.

"Not worth it?" he enquired, his voice shaking. "Not worth it? You take away my honour, you threaten my life, and then you dare say I'm not worth it?"

Guido nodded.

Lorenzo's head went back, his eyes closing.

"Ah...God - God...I lost everything, just to fight you...and now - I have lost it all - and you remain..."

Tears sprang to Guido's eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but Lorenzo continued, turning to Kennedy, "Why? Why you? He would not swear his weapons to me ­ why you?"

Kennedy looked over at Guido, and smiled.

"I think," he said slowly, "it was because I made him laugh."

Guido smiled back at him.

"Stranger things..." he agreed.

"You made him - laugh..." said Lorenzo slowly, and something in his voice made Guido snap his head around, looking at him closely. Lorenzo's face was hard and set, his eyes blank ­

The assassin's trance...oh, my God...

"Archie, look out!" shouted Guido, springing forward, his knife in his hand, even as Lorenzo moved, fast and lethal, his own knife clutched tightly in his long fingers, aiming straight for Kennedy.

The brothers collided in the middle of the floor, Guido bringing his knife up fast and hard beneath Lorenzo's breastbone, catching his brother in his arms as the impact hit him, lowering him to the ground.

Lorenzo lay still as Guido, weeping, cradled him. Blood was trickling from a corner of his mouth, his dark eyes unfocused and suddenly soft.

"Forgive me," wept Guido. "Forgive me..."

Lorenzo drew a deep breath, his long mouth curving a little, into the smile that Guido remembered from their childhood.

"Nothing ­ to forgive..." he whispered. "But ­ why? Why for him? Not - for...you..."

Guido tried to smile, even through his tears.

"He gave me back what I had lost," he whispered in return, his voice catching. "He gave me back my honour..."

"Ah..." Lorenzo, too, smiled, and rolled his head a little from side to side in negation. "No..."

He brought up his hand, and cupped Guido's face, feeling the hot tears spilling over his fingers.

"You ­ never...lost it...my ­ brother..."

Then his hand fell to his side, and the shallow breaths stopped.

Lorenzo, Conte di Cesare, was dead.

Guido di Cesare, brother, assassin, spy, and King's man, pressed his lips to his brother's forehead, closed the dead, dark eyes, that had seen too much for any man to bear, and wept.