The King's Man
by
Rhiannon

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

With sorrow I embrace my fortune

Hornblower, as if awakening from a trance, looked around, suddenly remembering the men who had seized him on his entry into the church. There was no need. Lorenzo's spies, true to the form their leader had taught them, had melted away into the shadows, and from the building. Their loyalty was to Bonaparte now, not to Lorenzo, and they had seen no reason to stay from the moment Lorenzo fell to his knees, ready for death, with his brother's sword at his throat.

The four men who had, together, defeated the greatest assassin in Europe, were alone in the derelict church with the body of the man who had tried so hard to destroy them all. But there was no feeling of jubilation at his death, as they had expected - only a strange, empty sadness that filled the building like a physical presence.

Guido laid his brother gently on the floor of the church, his thin hands trembling as he arranged the disordered hair away from the narrow, hawk-like features, so like his own. He wiped the trail of blood from his brother's mouth and face with his fingertips, leaving the narrow features, so like his own, clean and untouched, as though his death had come, not through violence, but in peace. Hal came over, and knelt by him, helping his friend to compose the body decently.

"It's over," whispered Guido, staring at the traces of blood on his fingers. Hal nodded, straightening Lorenzo's arms.

"Yes," he said. "It is."

He began to unclench Lorenzo's frozen hand from the knife, and his eyes flared wide suddenly, as he looked at the blade.

It was bloodied to the hilt.

"Guido..." Hal began.

The assassin stumbled to his feet, ignoring him.

"Mr Kennedy, my apologies," he said, as calmly as he could. "I should have foreseen that. I endangered you unnecessarily."

Archie was very white, evidently shaken by what had almost happened, and by the consequences, but he managed to smile at Guido's odd formality.

"You ­ ah ­ more than compensated," he said, and Guido's face twitched into an unwilling smile.

"Thank you," he said dryly. "I did try..."

"Guido, this knife..." Hal's voice was shaking out of control, panic in his eyes.

"In a moment, Hal," said Guido calmly, disregarding the note of fear in his friend's voice.

I have so much to say...so much I should have said...I must be sure...

"The documents ­ they're gone?"

"Yes, that's done ­ irritating little man, though," added Archie, unable to resist the comment, as his sense of humour began to return.

Guido smiled in mild amusement, but he was swaying a little, and his face grew paler as he struggled to remain on his feet.

I must make sure they know how much I value what they've done...

"Yes...they always are," he said faintly. Then his voice grew stronger. "Mr Hornblower ­ I ­ words cannot express my gratitude. I placed you in an impossible situation, and you did better than I ­"

He broke off suddenly, pressing a hand to his side.

"Guido...?" Archie stepped forward, concerned. Hal was on his feet now, his voice frantic.

"Guido, this knife!"

Guido shook his head. "It's nothing. I'm - a little out of breath...that's all..."

He grinned at them then, the old wicked expression crossing his face as he looked at Hornblower and Kennedy with genuine merriment in his eyes, his sense of the ridiculous coming to the fore.

"You two," he said, shaking his head, laughing. "My God, but you did far better than I had any right to expect! I've never known such - bravery? Idiocy? What would you call it...?"

The laughter died from his eyes then, his voice fading away, and he shook his head slightly, as though dismissing something.

Oh God...I'm poisoned...he poisoned the knife...

"It was not so difficult," said Hornblower, frowning. "Guido, are you sure - are you -"

The assassin looked at him vaguely, as if coming back from a long distance. "I am well enough," he said, his voice by now almost inaudible. "I ­ am ­"

He drew a deep breath, and his eyes closed for a brief moment, even his lips becoming colourless.

"I am glad I was persuaded to trust you both," he whispered, his hand clamped to his side. "Thank you..."

Hornblower, bewildered, looked down to where the assassin's hand rested on his side, and stared in horror at the dark blood that oozed between Guido's thin fingers. The assassin followed his gaze, and tried to smile at him.

"Don't - worry. It's nothing."

Hal moved forward quickly, trying to speak before Guido cut him off again, desperate to make someone else see that this was a long way from nothing...

Dear God, let me be wrong...he's still on his feet, surely it can't be as bad as I think it must be...

"Guido, this knife has blood up to the hilt, you can't say it's nothing, you -"

Guido shook his head. "No - not nothing...but - not so deep as a well, eh, Hal?"

He smiled crookedly at Hal Trevelyan, who, rather than responding, looked as though he would like to hit him for the feeble attempt at a joke.

"The sodding knife is covered in blood, you fool! How bad -"

The assassin put up his free hand to stop him. "It doesn't matter any more," he whispered.

He staggered, and the movement caused blood to pour over his clutching fingers, his narrow features contracting a little in pain as he tried to set his face into the old mocking expression, trying to hide behind the familiar mask of indifference, and failing, the pain ripping through him
with a sickening force.

Then he took a deep breath, making a visible effort to stay on his feet as weakness overwhelmed him. "It doesn't matter now...I have ­ done..." he gasped.

Then his eyes closed, and he fell backwards as his legs finally gave way beneath him, his face drained of all colour. Hal Trevelyan caught him moments before he hit the ground, kneeling with the assassin in his arms, lowering him gently.

"Guido? Guido! Oh, God -"

"What the..." Hornblower was still confused. Hal looked up at him, panic-stricken.

"The knife," he said. "Lorenzo's knife...he must have caught the blow in his side..."

"Oh, Christ...how bad is it?"

Hal opened the assassin's black shirt, pulling it away from his thin body, and gasped.

There was a deep wound gaping open in Guido's side, just below his ribs, bleeding profusely. Lorenzo's knife had not only gone deep, it had dragged along.

"Oh, my God," whispered Hal in horror. He lifted Guido's shoulders, tugging the black shirt off the assassin's arms with desperate haste. He wadded the thick cotton up and pressed it hard against the wound, hoping against hope to stem the flow of blood before it took Guido's life with it.

Guido's eyes flickered open."Sorry..." he mumbled. "Bloody stupid thing to do..."

He tried to sit up, and fell back with a little gasp of pain.

"Guido, stay still," said Hal urgently. "You have got to stay still, do you understand?"

The assassin smiled, one eyebrow lifting quizzically as Hornblower took over with his shirt, feeling the pressure on his side increase as the lieutenant tried to close off the wound with what felt more like brute force rather than expertise.

"I've been knifed in the side, not the head, Hal..." he whispered. "Of course I -" He broke off, his breath coming quick and shallow. "Not much use..." he said faintly, looking at Hornblower. "You really don't have to do this for me..."

Then his eyes closed again, his breath slowing until it was almost imperceptible.

Hal bent over him urgently.

"Guido. Stay with us. Listen to me! You aren't dying. You can't die, not yet..."

Guido opened his eyes, and his pale lips twitched with sudden amusement.

"Hal - it might be more...practical...if you stopped the bleeding...rather...than giving me...ridiculous - orders!" he gasped, his irreverent sense of humour coming to the fore once again.

"We're trying, blast you!" snarled Hal, fear making him sound angry. "Now stay still and shut up!"

Archie had remained where he was, feeling as though he had been chained to the floor.

That was supposed to be me...

He walked over slowly to where the assassin lay, realising that the shirt was almost soaked through already, despite Horatio's efforts, and that Guido really was dying...this was no salvageable game that he had played with his own body, as he had when he drove the knife into his leg. This was terribly real...

He knelt down beside Guido, and the assassin turned his head.

"I'm sorry," Archie said, his voice breaking. "Guido, I'm so sorry, it should have been me..."

"No!" Guido half-raised himself on one strong arm, the muscles standing out in sharp relief as his weight leant on it.

"Guido, stay still!" snapped Hal. Guido ignored him.

"Listen to me," he said desperately, feeling the last of his strength ebbing from him, as the poison and antidotes fought within him for supremacy. "Listen. What I did, I did willingly. I would do it a thousand times over. It should not have been you, do you understand? You are - everything I wish I could have been..."

His arm gave way, and he collapsed back against Hal.

"If I have to die, then let it be like this...let it for something I care about...you are worth this, at least, don't you realise..."

Archie felt tears spring to his eyes.

"Guido - you -" He swallowed hard, and, from somewhere, found a smile.

"I didn't know assassins cared," he said as lightly as he could, trying to joke, playing on the word game they had begun, travelling from Philippe's inn to the outskirts of Toulouse.

Guido's ashen face flashed into the grin that had become so familiar to the two lieutenants as they travelled with him.

"The things we learn, eh, Mr Kennedy?" he whispered, giving him the line that conceded the other player victory.

Archie smiled genuinely then, amused despite his unhappiness.

"The things we learn, Guido..."

The assassin looked over at Hornblower, and fumbled one hand up to touch the lieutenant's frantically pressing fingers.

"Tell Pellew - sorry. I couldn't keep my part of the bargain and - bring you back in person...but at least ­ at least you'll get back..."

"I will tell him no such thing!" snapped Hornblower. "You're going to tell him yourself that you did keep your side of it, and I wish I could be a fly on the wall when you do!"

Guido shook his head.

"And time, which takes survey of all the world, must have a stop...is that right, Hal? Hotspur, dying? I'd like to get it right..."

Hal nodded, then, realising that Guido could not see him, said rather croakily -

"Yes. That's right."

Guido smiled.

"Good," he whispered, his eyes drifting shut again. "Good...You see, Hal? I remembered..."

"Guido, no! Stay awake, damn it! Stay with us!"

Guido lay still, scarcely breathing, his hair black against the pallor of his skin. He made no response.

"Hotspur..." whispered Hal, bending his bright head down over his friend, tears falling from his eyes. "Hotspur, don't leave me...I can't lose you, too, not now - you won, Guido, you won, don't you understand, you have so much to live for..."

Guido remained motionless, his strong, slender body lying like a marble statue against Hal, his dark eyes closed. But for the faint rise and fall of his chest, it would have been impossible to tell whether he was alive or dead.

Then the sound of limping footsteps carried across the church, and Angelo's voice demanded -
"What the hell happened here?"

He hurried over awkwardly to where Guido lay, ignoring the body of his other brother completely, and knelt down with some difficulty.

"Show me!" he barked at Hornblower. "How bad is it?"

"He's dying," whispered Hal, sounding drained and shattered, gone to a place inside himself where not even the slightest belief or faith had survived.

Angelo looked at him, and shook his head vehemently.

"Hal, with all due respect, if you think Guido could be killed by Enzo, after everything he survived before from him, you've got a lot to learn. Horatio, let me see."

Angelo's lips tightened as he looked at the gash in his brother's side. The blood flow was less now, the continued pressure that Hornblower had kept on it helping considerably, but the wound still looked as though it were mortal.

"Get me his bag," he snapped.

Archie sprang to his feet.

"Organ loft," he explained curtly, and ran.

Angelo cursed, softly and fluently, and the list of words went on for some time. Then he took a deep breath, and stopped.

"The bastard poisoned his knife," he explained. "That's why the bleeding won't stop... and the wound's going to spread, as well, if we don't do something, the skin will weaken...but - it should be weakened already...he should be dead already, how -"

"Antidotes," said Hornblower, feeling a bubble of hysterical laughter rise in him, remembering Guido in the courtyard outside the horrible inn in Portsmouth, pacing in the rain to try and get the cramps out of his legs. He swallowed hard, hoping it would go away. "He took antidotes. All the time we were coming here..."

Angelo closed his eyes in relief, and patted his brother on the shoulder.

"God, you knew your enemy, didn't you, Guido?" he asked shakily. "Well done. Well done..."

Hal looked up, hope in his eyes for the first time.

"There's a chance, isn't there?" he asked. "With the antidotes..."

"There is if I sew him up, yes," agreed Angelo. "Where is that BAG?"

Archie arrived at top speed, somewhat out of breath.

"Here."

Angelo, following the same precepts as his brother had earlier, tipped everything out onto the floor, picking through it carefully until he found the little roll of cloth that contained Guido's needles and lengths of silk. He then turned his attention to the little pots that lay
scattered around.

"Damn the man, why can't he label them?" he muttered.

Horatio started to laugh.

"Wouldn't that - be a little self-defeating?" he asked, trying to get himself under control. After the events of the morning so far, it was proving surprisingly difficult. Angelo, looking a little irritated, paused, and then started laughing as well.

"Sorry," he said. "Yes, I suppose it would. I hadn't thought of it like that...ah!"

He held up a tiny jar triumphantly.

"Got it."

He opened the jar, and dipped his index finger in, taking the merest smear of powder from inside. He leant over Guido, and forced his brother's mouth open, placing the grains directly onto the assassin's tongue.

"If he's taking the antidotes already, that should do it," he explained, seeing Archie staring at him in amazement.

"No - I mean, yes, I'm sure it will, but - where did you learn all that?"

Angelo shrugged.

"Guido taught me antidotes, before he lost his memory," he said with slightly strained calm. "He said someone in the family had to know how to save, rather than kill..."

He threaded the needle quickly, and turned his attention to the still-bleeding wound beneath Guido's ribs. He stitched quickly and deftly, his long fingers swift and sure, and Archie almost smiled, remembering Guido doing the same for Will, back in the inn.

There already was someone in the family who knew, Guido...you...

Angelo finished within a few minutes, sitting back on his heels with a small wince of pain.

"Well, that's neat enough," he said wearily. "It'll hold until we get some bandages, at any rate."

"And now?" asked Hal. He had evidently been expecting an instant recovery, but Guido lay as still and white as he had before Angelo began work.

Angelo di Cesare sighed.

"Now?" he asked, rather bitterly. "Now - we pray. Hard. And - we hope."

Hal blinked. He looked down at Guido's pallid, immobile face, and found himself swallowing tears. It didn't seem possible...how could Guido be dying...?

"Well, let's get him out of here, at any rate," he said then, trying to disguise his shock. "The house Lorenzo rented...it's in the name of the Conte di Cesare, so we're all right with that..."

"What?" asked Hornblower blankly. "Why?"

Hal gestured to the man who lay against him, unconscious.

"Because *he's* the Conte di Cesare," he said with a glint of humour. "So - I think we have a safe-haven..."

* * *

Night had fallen. Lorenzo and Francesca had been buried, as quietly and discreetly as possible, in the little churchyard at the back of the derelict church where Lorenzo had died. Hal had argued that they should be taken back to the palazzo, and interred in the family tomb, but the seriousness of Guido's condition had precluded any further movement - and Lorenzo's body, at least, had to be disposed of...it had made more sense to bury both at once.

What Guido's reaction would be to this remained - hopefully - to be seen. With any luck, it would be more reasonable than Hal's, but any response at all would have been welcome from the assassin now, other than the terrible white stillness that had remained unchanged since the church.

Angelo di Cesare was kneeling in the little chapel that led from the rented house, and praying.

He was unsure as to who he was praying for, really. He had no great faith that anything would keep Lorenzo's soul from hell, but it would have seemed wrong not to at least try and ask for an intercession. Francesca had known she would die...did that count as suicide? The priest they had found, hearing Hal's confession, had suggested that, and Hal, whose reaction could probably have been heard by Will Deveraux, miles away, and certainly was audible to the whole house - hell, what was that phrase Hal had used, that quote from Hamlet?

"Lay her i' the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling."

Well, at least the bloody man had agreed to hold a service for them. That was something, at any rate...if only - if only Angelo could be sure that it were not to be three people for whom the service was to be held...

He sighed, made the sign of the cross, and rose from his knees, making his way slowly back to the house.

In the main room, Hornblower and Kennedy were dealing with the unenviable task of going through every single piece of documentation the house had contained. Since most of it was completely incomprehensible to either of them, it was ending up in a giant pile for Guido to deal with, when he woke up.

If he woke up.

Angelo sat down in a chair by the fire, easing his leg out towards the heat, and sighed.

"No change?" he asked.

"Not unless you count Hal reaching Act Four of Hamlet, no," said Kennedy.

Angelo looked at him sharply, but there was no humour in Archie's face. He was simply stating a fact, too tired even to be sarcastic.

"Well, there's an incentive for him to wake up," said Angelo, closing his eyes. "Hamlet. Marvellous."

 

* * *

 

The King's Man, floating in a black sea of dreams, oddly weightless and relaxed, was thinking -

Hm. Death doesn't seem to be so bad...

Darker and more peaceful than he had expected, at least...he had always thought he would arrive to the roar and glare of hellfire. Well, he'd obviously done something right, at some point...if this was hell, it was nowhere near as bad as he'd thought. Maybe they had a lesser version for beaten-up assassins...

Is this limbo? That's nice...a few thousand years of this sounds rather pleasant...

He drifted, content and warm, for a while, floating in and out of the dark into a nothingness that was not even disturbing, but strangely comforting, instead.

Someone talked to him, the words indistinguishable, and he found that he could will himself to float away from them, back into the void, where he would not have to hear.

If he heard, he would have to come back...wasn't there something he had to do? Something about a promise?

The voice kept intruding, the words oddly familiar...

"Dost thou hear? Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice /And could of men distinguish, her election/ Hath seal'd thee for herself -"

Why is someone reading Hamlet? wondered the assassin vaguely. He had never thought that you got Shakespeare in limbo. Still, he had a lot to learn...

No. This was coming from outside the darkness, trying to pull him back and anchor him, stop him floating...and it would, if he listened...yet the voice was familiar, as soothing as the odd sensation of drifting that had taken him over, and somehow, he wanted to listen...

"For thou hast been/ As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing/ A man that fortune's buffets and rewards/ Hast ta'en with equal thanks..."

Why the devil would anyone be reading that to me?

"And blest are those/ Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,/ That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger/ To sound what stop she please."

The reader stopped suddenly, and Guido felt himself drifting off again. He wondered whether to fight the sensation, to go towards the voice...but there was something waiting for him, if he did, something painful and appalling...

No. Better the dark and the dreamlessness. Better this limbo.

But the silence did not seem as comfortable any more...

There was an irritating noise intruding on his consciousness, dragging him up out of the warm safety of the dark, making him aware of the fact that he was not in limbo, listening to Shakespeare, after all, but in a room somewhere, with the noise of a fire, and someone had been talking...

Not dead, then. Oh, well...

The noise, persistent and aggravating, was somewhere outside. Guido frowned a little, trying to place it -

Birds. Rather loud birds. And insistent about it, too, considering the fact that it probably wasn't even dawn yet.

Please....stop singing...my head...

Guido di Cesare opened his eyes a crack, and took stock of himself and his surroundings. He was in a bed - a rather comfortable bed, as far as his aching body could tell, with clean sheets that smelt of lavender.

Definitely not dead. No-one dead could possibly hurt this much, or have a mouth that tasted this foul.

Antidotes. Someone had been giving him antidotes....and not enough water with them...

His legs ached, his head hurt, and even the tiny amount of light that was seeping in through his almost-closed eyelids was unendurably bright.

God, how much poison did he *have* on his knife...I feel awful...

But alive. Quite definitely alive. The thought was not as displeasing as he had imagined.

He opened his eyes a little more, allowing them to become accustomed to the light, and tried to focus on the room. Whoever was talking had stopped, and Guido felt an odd sense of loss. He rolled his eyes to the side, trying to make out who it could be.

Hal Trevelyan sat in a chair by the bed, reading from a small, leather bound book. He looked exhausted beyond belief, his eyes hollowed in the dim light.

Guido swallowed, trying to moisten his dry throat enough to say something, but before he could speak, or make some kind of movement, Hal began reading again, not looking up.

"Give me that man/ That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him/ In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of hearts..."

He broke off, rubbing at his eyes tiredly, the small print beginning to blur.

"As I do thee," rasped the assassin's voice from the bed. "Haven't you memorised that yet, Hal?"

Hal's head came up with a jerk.

"Guido?"

"Apparently," came the croaking response. "Not quite sure, yet."

They grinned idiotically at each other for a moment, and then Guido frowned, focusing with difficulty, his dark eyes still narrowed to slits.

"You look awful."

Hal laughed shakily.

"We all - we thought you were going to die, you bastard!"

"Well, you're one up on me, then," said Guido dryly, "because I thought I was actually dead."

He tried to move, and was forced to relinquish the effort as agony shot through his side, driving the breath from his lungs. He lay back on the pillow, closing his eyes against a wave of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him.

"God..." he whispered. "That's - bad..."

He put his hand down, feeling bandages encircling him tightly.

"Are these for decoration, or are they actually holding me together?" he asked, when he had got his breath back.

"Angelo said they'd protect the stitches," said Hal, pouring water with a slightly unsteady hand. "He...well, you owe him your life, Hotspur."

Guido opened his eyes again.

"Ah...I see...Oh, water. Thank God. My mouth feels like...no, scrap that. You don't want to know."

"No, I don't," agreed Hal, helping him to drink. Guido choked on the water at that, and glared at him.

"Very funny, Hal," he growled, when he had stopped coughing. "Trying to finish me off, are you - sorry," he added, putting his hand out quickly, seeing the expression on Hal's face. "My sense of humour was never good, you know that."

Hal nodded.

"I know," he said, trying to smile. "Sorry, Guido, it's been a hell of a week..."

He turned away, fiddling unnecessarily with the cups and water jug on the little table.

Guido's thin hand, strong in spite of everything, grasped Hal's wrist, forcing him to turn back to the bed.

"I'm glad you're here," was all he said, but his face was free from mockery. "I know that the cost to you has been - unimaginable - but...I'm a selfish bastard, Hal, and I'm glad you're here."

"You don't actually need me, though. I know you're glad to see me again, but -"

Hal spoke before he could stop himself, and Guido's hand clenched on his wrist so tightly as to be painful.

"What?"

"You - just don't. You're the Conte now, you've got your memory back, you don't need to go back to England, you -"

He stopped, and stared incredulously at the man in the bed. Guido had released his wrist, and was howling with laughter, both hands clutching at his side.

"Oh - my - God!" he gasped. "Oh, that's - I'm the Conte, so I don't - oh, lovely!"

"I'm glad you find it so amusing," said Hal, stiffly. He began to straighten the room, putting the book away, moving the chair, and finally going over to the bureau in the corner and sorting through the few papers that were on top of it.

Guido groaned, trying to get his breath back.

"Wait a minute," he said, looking at Hal in astonishment, realising that he was serious. "I don't need you because I've got my memory back? For the love of - well, when did I need you, then? When I didn't even know who you were? Have you any idea how utterly ludicrous you sound? Hal, sit down, stop - just - stop, and listen to me."

Hal sat in the chair on the other side of the room, looking mortally offended. Guido held up his hand, the long fingers spread out like a fan.

"Points," he said, lifting the index finger of his other hand, and touching his thumb. "One. I am going back to England. I may be the Conte di Cesare, but that doesn't stop me from being a damn good spy. Two. Angelo can take care of the palazzo and the estate - he needs something to do, now....and I won't be here to take care of it...as it should be - damn!"

He held his side for a moment, and paused, breathing heavily, his face pale with the effort of talking.

"Guido." Hal rose to his feet. "Are you serious? No, never mind that, you shouldn't even be discussing this, we can get this sorted out another time..."

Guido shook his head, raised his hands again, and continued -

"Three. If you want to come to - England with us...then do so. Four."

He stopped again, his white face covered in a sheen of perspiration, gasping for breath. Hal moved quickly to the bed.

"Enough," he said firmly. Guido smiled, his eyes closing again.

"Four....it's your decision," he whispered.

And felt himself drift back into the warm darkness.

* * *

Over the next twenty-four hours, Guido revised his original impression of being in limbo, and decided that he was, without question, in hell. A hell where there was no way of making his body comfortable, and no way of stopping the pain in his side, nothing to drink but water, and where he was without his pipe.

"I hate this," he muttered on the second morning, emerging from a troubled sleep to find that it seemed to be Hornblower's turn in the room. "Where's everyone else? I thought Angelo was coming in for a couple of hours this morning."

Hornblower, who was, for some reason, dressed in full uniform, put down the book he was reading, and looked suddenly worried.

"He'll be in later," he said, somewhat evasively, and Guido frowned.

"So where is he now?"

Horatio sighed. Guido looked at him carefully.

"Horatio, what's going on? Why are you looking so bloody immaculate?"

Guido struggled upright, ignoring the pain that seared through him at the movement.

"What's happening?" he demanded urgently.

Hornblower bit his lip.

"Angelo wasn't sure you should know," he admitted.

"And since when did Angelo become a medical expert?" asked Guido dryly. "He may have sewn me up, but that hardly qualifies him to decide what I can and cannot hear. Tell me."

"He's arranged a service. In the chapel at the back. For Lorenzo, and..."

"And Francesca." Guido smiled at the worried lieutenant. "There, you see. I'm still breathing."

"He was concerned that you might -"

"Might try to attend? No. I'm stuck here - I accept that. When is it?"

"Eleven."

Guido nodded.

"I hope it goes well," he said neutrally, and lay back down, closing his eyes. "Now, if you don't mind, I would like to be left alone. Please."

Please - just go. Now.

Hornblower looked at the proud, wintery face, with its closed eyes, and nodded. Then, realising that Guido had not seen him, he said -

"I'll see you afterwards."

There was no response, and after waiting for a few moments, he shrugged a little, and left.

The assassin's eyes opened as soon as he heard the door close, and he glanced at the clock. Ten minutes. Not long...but it would have to do.

His clothes, pressed and sponged clean, lay on one of the chairs on the other side of the room, his boots on the floor beside them. All he had to do was to get across to them and put everything on...

He hoped it would not take as long as he feared it might.

 

*****

 

Five minutes later, he had managed to sit up, and swing his legs over the side of the bed - an accomplishment which had left him dripping with sweat and scarcely able to catch his breath.

"Christ," he muttered. "What the hell did Enzo do to me?"

Taking a deep breath, he put his feet on the floor, and stood up slowly, using the bedpost as leverage. The room whirled before his eyes dizzily for a moment, then steadied.

"Right. Now - across the room..."

He lurched as far as the nearest chair, catching hold of its back, his strong arms only just taking his weight in time as his legs buckled.

Guido clenched his teeth.

"I will do this..."

His face grey with pain and exhaustion, he got himself to where his clothes were folded, and slowly began to dress, pausing every few seconds to try and control his ragged breathing.

He tried to buckle his sword on, but the touch of the belt against his wound almost made him pass out, and he was forced to put it down again, bending double with renewed pain, sobbing for air. Eventually, he straightened up, forcing himself to stand upright, and walked three unaided steps over to the little dressing-table in the corner. He picked up the brush that had been left there, and ran it over his tangled dark hair, smoothing out the worst of the knots as best he could.

"It'll have to do," he murmured, and then smiled. "Hell, carita, you've seen me worse, eh? This'll do..."

And I'm talking to the dead. Wonderful.

He stood still for a few moments, gathering the remnants of his strength. Then his shoulders went back, and his dark head came up, proud and arrogantly tilted. He walked out of the room with a firm step, ignoring the pain that shot through him every time one of his feet hit the floor, and began to make his way downstairs.

By the time he reached the stone hallway that led to the chapel, he was beginning to wonder if he was even going to make it as far as the door. The floor seemed to be dipping beneath him, every foot having to be placed carefully on moving ground. Guido paused for a moment, and smiled wryly, thinking -

For my true love died for me today,
I'll die for her tomorrow.

"But not today," he murmured, leaning against the cool of the stone wall with relief. "And not now. Come on, di Cesare. You can do this."

* * *

The priest was struggling. He had been practising illegally since the revolution, had tried his best to keep his religion alive, but what was happening here was beyond his experience. A French cavalry officer, two English naval lieutenants, and a strange blond Englishman, all in a tiny, disused chapel at the back of a dilapidated house, and only one of whom seemed to be mourning at all - the Englishman who had so insulted him in the confessional. It was like some terrible nightmare, which suddenly got drastically worse as what appeared to be Death himself appeared in the doorway. He faltered, stared, and stopped.

"Don't mind me," said Death. "Just carry on."

Not Death, then. Just another of these madmen.

"Guido, what the hell?" exploded the cavalry officer, and then turning to the dark lieutenant -

"You promised!"

"I lied to him," said the white-faced man in black, coming into the chapel hesitantly, as if he were uncertain as to the position of the floor. "I'm good at it."

He staggered sideways, collapsing into a pew with an expression of relief, and smiled at the priest.

"I'll have to sit, I'm afraid," he said.

"Yes, you damn well will!" snapped the dark lieutenant. "I trusted you to stay where you were!"

The strange Englishman got to his feet, and slipped into the pew beside the latest arrival.

"Are you sure about this?" he enquired.

"I have to be here..."

"Can you gentlemen have this discussion later, please?" asked the priest wearily. Perhaps they had all escaped from an asylum...

He picked up the prayer book again, and read, as the blond Englishman had requested him to, in his heavily accented English -

"Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice..."

Guido turned his head, and looked at Hal in amazement.

"How did you know..." he whispered.

"Know what? I just thought...I read it so much the last four years..."

Guido almost smiled, then asked -

"You, too?"

They fell silent, listening.

"If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope..."

Guido, trying to forget the pain from his wound as he sat listening, could think only of the Donne poem.

Teach me how to repent...

He had been death in the midst of life. Now, looking at the four men with him, listening to words he had tried to believe in for so long, he knew for the first time the opposite side of that coin.

In the midst of death, there was life. And there always would be, as long as there was love and honour, belief and courage, truth and steadfastness. As long as there were men like these, there was always hope.

* * *

"Has anyone seen Guido?" asked Hal, looking up from yet another pile of paper that he was patiently trying to sift through. "I mean, not to complain, but he is the one who's supposed to know all this stuff."

"He's talking to Angelo," said Archie, holding up a long strip of cipher code, that kept rolling up at the end like a demented snake. "How the hell am I supposed to read this when it won't stay flat?"

"Just put it on Guido's pile?" suggested Hornblower.

The assassin had come back from the service, taken one look at the papers awaiting him, and refused point-blank to go back to bed until he had done some work. As a result, three days later, the documents were getting into order - though whether Guido was actually healing at all was a matter for debate. He had worked from morning until night each day, swallowing his antidotes without comment, ignoring all queries as to his welfare. There were minutes at a time when he simply leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed, and sweat pouring down his grey face as pain overwhelmed him.

"Horatio, unless he's somehow got himself arm extensions, I doubt it'll make any difference whose pile it's on. The damn thing's too long, and it won't straighten out."

As if proving his point, the paper curled up into a long, unwindable corkscrew.

"Oh, just throw it on the fire," groaned Hal. "I'm sick to death of the bloody things."

"If I do that, you are going to take the blame when we find out Guido needed it urgently..."

"Ah. On second thoughts..."

"Guido's papers?"

"Right."

Archie put the paper twist on top of the stack of documents still waiting for the assassin's attention.

"What's he talking to Angelo about? Do you know?" asked Hal.

"He's going back to England," said Horatio calmly. "They're making arrangements for the palazzo in his absence."

"He was serious about that?"

"He doesn't think that Deveraux will come back. And someone with the contacts already set up needs to take over. So -"

"But he - I thought he hated it..."

"What has that got to do with it?" asked Hornblower. "He's good, and he knows it. So he's going back."

"But what is there for him, over there?"

"A damn sight more than there is over here," said Archie quietly, and with surprising firmness. "He wants to feel he's accomplishing something, and he won't, if he's disappearing into being the Conte di Cesare, trying to be his father, trying to remember everything as he should. He says he's been given a second chance, and this time he's going to get it right."

"How the hell," asked Hal, amazed, "do you two know so much about it?"

"Because we asked him," replied Archie simply. "He talks more, now, hadn't you noticed? He'll actually answer a question honestly - well, mostly honestly, at any rate."

Hal thought about that for a while, then laughed.

"Well," he said after a while. "I suppose it might be worth a try, anyway..."

"What? Asking him?"

Hal shook his head.

"No. England. Spying. Why not?"

* * *

The two brothers sat on a bench in the deserted garden, enjoying the freshness of the evening air, despite the chill. Guido was wrapped in his cloak, smoking his pipe for the first time, an expression of quiet enjoyment on his thin face.

"Are you sure about this?" asked Angelo.

The assassin nodded.

"More sure than I've been about anything in a long time. I've learnt more than you can imagine, these last two weeks, more than I thought possible. I want to be honourable, Angelo, I want to be able to die knowing I have been true to my beliefs. And this is the only way. To go back. To keep faith with what I know to be right."

"But - you should come home, just for a while...you're the Conte, now..."

Guido tipped back his head, and looked up at the stars.

"When the war is over," he said softly, "I will come home. But until then, I will fight. I will do what I must so that others have a home to go back to, when all this is over. You can keep my home safe for me, Angelo, but what of those people who have no-one to do that? Those who must have faith in men like me, even though they are hardly aware of us? I have a duty. To my
King, to my country, I have a duty. And I will not abandon it for the sake of my own contentment."

"Will the war ever be over, Guido?"

"Perhaps not. Perhaps there will always be something to fight. Perhaps I can never come back - I don't know. But as long as I know you are there, that you are keeping that part of me alive, does it matter?"

Angelo took a deep breath.

"It does to me," he said simply. "I shall miss you, Guido."

His brother smiled a little.

"Get married, Angelo. Look after my home and my lands. Have children - a dozen of them, and bring that poor old place back to life. It was like a flame in my mind, once, the joy there. I can never relight that - but you can. That's why I'm giving it to you. And when you have done that, you will realise that I have never really left, that something of me will always remain - even if I die, part of me belongs there."

"Despite - everything? You don't want it changed?"

"Well, I won't raise too many objections if you wall off the dungeons, no," agreed Guido. "I think that rather too much of me was left down there at one time or another."

He grinned.

"How can you joke about that? It nearly -"

"But it didn't." Guido cut him off. "And I survived. And I would rather laugh than mourn."

"Guido, will you forget us again, do you think? Will you simply...drift away, and forget about it all, if the war carries on?"

Guido shifted position slightly on the bench, wincing as the movement pulled at his stitches.

"You see the stars, Angelo?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, of course I see the bloody stars! What's that got to do with it?"

"They are the same. The same stars. Wherever I go, they will always be in the sky, even if I can't see them."

"Well? What of it?"

Guido turned, and put his hands on his brother's shoulders.

"When you look up, remember. Wherever I am, whatever I do, I am under the same sky as you. And I will look at the stars. And I will never forget."

"And who will you be? Assassin? Spy?"

Guido smiled.

"Guido, Conte di Cesare," he said quietly. "Assassin. Spy. King's Man. Brother. I am all these things, Angelo. None of them exclude the other - I know that, now."

Angelo nodded, slowly.

"I can live with that," he said, and grinned, the sudden laughing wickedness of the di Cesares illuminating his face. "And I'll remember."

They fell silent, the smoke from Guido's pipe only barely visible in the deepening shadows.

"And Hal?" asked Angelo eventually. "What of him?"

Guido sighed.

"He must decide for himself. I hope he comes back with us...but he has been here so long. I don't know if he will. If not -"

"If not - I shall need help, getting the palazzo back on its feet."

Guido gave a little sigh of relief.

"Thank you."

* * *

Anne put down the mixing bowl with a bang, and glared at her lover.

"Will, if you don't stop looking out of every window in the house like this, I am actually going to tie you to a chair until they get here."

"The message said this afternoon."

"Yes, it did. It is now five minutes past one. You have a long, long time before it stops being this afternoon. So please - stop it!"

"Anne..." Will left the window, and came over to her. "If Guido doesn't want to take over...I may have to go to England, for a while. Will you - would you wait for me to come back?"

Anne burst out laughing.

"No, why should I wait?" she asked through her giggles. "I think I might run away with a nice French officer, as soon as you've gone!"

"Thanks," said Will, his mouth twitching into an unwilling smile. "Very funny."

"Silly question," she pointed out, picking up the mixing bowl again, and tilted up her face for a kiss. "Now why don't you go and pace around the yard for a bit and let me get on?"

"Anne -"

"Yes?"

Will took the mixing bowl out of her hands, took them in his own, and said quietly,

"Marry me."

"What?"

"Marry me. Today, tomorrow, I don't care, but - in front of everyone. Marry me."

Anne was very still, biting her lip. Will sighed, and released her hands.

"You don't want to."

Anne shook her head.

"It's not that," she whispered. "It's just - Will, do you realise what you'll be giving up? To stay here? I know you say you want to, but - have you really thought about it?"

Will Deveraux's scarred face was strangely serene.

"Yes," he said calmly. "It means that I can go back to being a human being again, that I can try and make it up to Guido, that I'm free to love you, that I can have a bloody life! I do not want to be the spy commander for one more second, Anne, I want to live with you, and see our children grow up, and spend my time keeping those I love safe, rather than protecting a whole lot of paranoid idiots at Whitehall! Is that so much to ask from life? From you?"

"Not when you put it like that, no," agreed Anne, and suddenly she was smiling. "No, it doesn't. Will, did you - say...something about love?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake. Yes, of course I bloody did. D'you think I'd have asked you to marry me if I didn't love you?"

"I thought - maybe - you wanted to be free of the spying so much, that..."

Will took a deep breath, seeming to be about to say something, then simply rolled his eyes, and went down on one knee, putting it straight into the spilt flour on the floor. Anne stifled a giggle.

"Anne." Will sounded more like a man awaiting the gallows than an ardent lover. "I love you. Will you marry me?"

Anne looked at his grim face, and bit down on her index finger hard, trying desperately not to smile.

"Well..."

"Oh, for God's sake!" snapped Will. "Yes or no?"

Anne could no longer stop herself from laughing. She flung her arms about the scarred spy commander's neck, and shouted joyfully -

"Yes! Yes, yes, yes!"

"Have I arrived at a bad time?" enquired a voice rather dryly from the doorway. "Will - forgive me, but - why are you kneeling in that flour?"

Anne and Will turned, scrambling to their feet, and found themselves looking straight at a grinning Guido di Cesare.

"I take it congratulations are in order," he added wryly. "Or should that be commiserations, Anne?"

"My God," was all Will could say.

"Thank you, Will. Glad to see you've finally acknowledged my rightful status."

"Bastard," said Will absently, and then laughed. "Christ, di Cesare, I thought I'd never see you again!"

Guido shrugged elegantly.

"So sorry to disappoint..." he began, before Will interrupted him, seeing his bare hand on the door frame.

"You took off your gloves?"

"Oh." The assassin looked momentarily surprised, then smiled. "Yes. I didn't need them any more."

"Guido, is everyone here? It went well?"

"I don't think 'well' is quite the word I'd use, Deveraux, but yes. Everyone's here. *And* - the documents are safe. I -"

Guido was cut off in mid-sentence, gasping in pain as Will caught him in a bone-crushingly exuberant embrace.

"Di Cesare, you did it!"

"Will," choked the assassin, wondering if he was about to pass out, "let go!"

His commander released him immediately.

"I'm sorry," he began, intending to say something flippant about not killing him, and then saw the beads of sweat that had appeared on Guido's upper lip, and his ghostly whiteness.

"Jesus, Guido, what's wrong? I'm sorry I touched you, but I thought, no gloves, you -" He stopped, as the assassin leaned heavily against the doorframe.

"You're hurt," he said, going to him quickly, and helping him to a chair. "What the hell happened in Toulouse?"

Guido shrugged, pulling himself together with an effort.

"Long story, Will," he said rather breathlessly, wiping his forehead with a shaking hand. "And we all need to tell it. I just came in to say we were here. They're in the other room."

"Should I leave you to it?" asked Anne in a small voice.

Guido smiled at her.

"No. Deveraux, go through. I want to talk to your future wife. Alone. Oh, and - Will?"

"What?"

"There's someone else there. Someone you should meet."

"Well, who?"

Guido grinned, looking thoroughly evil.

"It's a surprise..."

Will glared at him, and went through to the main room. Guido pushed the door shut behind him with one long arm, not getting up.

"Are you angry?" asked Anne.

"Angry? God, no, I'm glad for you both! No. Anne, I need your help."

"My help - Guido, how badly are you hurt?"

The assassin shrugged.

"I shouldn't have ridden here," he admitted.

He pulled his shirt up, and Anne winced, seeing the fresh blood on the bandages.

"Sorry," said Guido wearily. "But I know I trust you to do this...and I'm still not very good at trust. I half killed Angelo when he re-stitched it the last time..."

Anne was already going through her cupboard, getting out the box she had kept there since Will and Guido first started coming to the inn.

"Angelo?" she asked over her shoulder.

"My younger brother. He's back in Italy now...saved my life."

The pride and love in Guido's voice was obvious, and Anne smiled to herself.

"This," she said, coming back to him, "is going to hurt."

Guido nodded, clenching his teeth.

"Then let's do it quickly."

Anne unwrapped the bandages as gently as she could, but they had stuck to the wound during the ride from Toulouse, and Guido could not repress a small cry as she finally detached the last one.

"Sorry, Guido."

"Mmph. Fine." The assassin's lips were pulled over his teeth in a grimace of agony, belying his words, and Anne worked as quickly as she could, hoping he could hold on to his reactions to pain for enough time to let her finish.

A glance at his half-closed eyes reassured her. The dreadful black glitter that she had come to associate with Guido holding onto control by a thread of will-power was no longer there. The eyes were darkened and hazy with pain, but there was no sign of the assassin's trance in them.

He's found himself again. God knows how, or where, or why, but he's done it. Will's safe, he can stay....

At last, she was done, wrapping clean strips of cloth around to cover the newly-stitched gash.

Guido leant back in the chair, his hands clenched on the edges of the seat, trying to stop his body trembling as the pain came and went in sickening waves.

"You were right," he said at last, relaxing his hands and trying to smile. "It hurt. Now - can you help me into the other room?"

"Are you sure you want me there?"

"Me?" Guido raised his eyebrows, his face settling into the old mocking expression. "No. But Deveraux may..."

* * *

It was dark by the time they finished telling Will what had happened, but no-one had bothered even to light a candle, let alone fill the lamps.

"My God," Will said eventually. He refilled his glass from one of the wine bottles that Anne had brought in.

Guido sighed. It was the first time he had heard the full story of what had happened after he lost consciousness, of exactly what Angelo had accomplished. He was also very aware that they had all left a lot unsaid, making the whole thing as cold and clinical-sounding as possible.

"Guido...you're going to be all right, now?" Will sounded genuinely concerned. Even in the glow of the fire, the assassin was very pale, and Will had felt how thin he was earlier.

"If he takes care," said Hornblower, and Guido glared at him.
"Sorry, Guido, but - he has to know. You almost died, remember?"

"Remember? Not really, no," said the assassin amusedly. "Don't worry, Will. I'll be fine. I'm sure Dr Morris will chain me to a bed on the 'Indefatigable' if I'm not, in any case. Either that or pour enough water down me to make me explode, and you can stop fretting either way."

"Who's Dr Morris?" asked Hal. He had been rather subdued as the other three related the sequence of events that had led up to Lorenzo's death, and was even more so now that they had all finished talking.

So this is Will Deveraux. The man Hotspur walked into hell for. I was expecting a demi-god, instead there's this man with a scarred face, tired and kind and ordinary, drinking wine. I
thought I would hate him, the imaginary god, but I find this man so easy to accept...

"Guido's nemesis," said Archie quietly, smiling, and Guido burst out laughing, holding his side.

"Good description! You'll meet him on the way back, Hal. He really does defy -"

"Everyone. Rather like you," pointed out Will, jumping in before Guido could finish the sentence.

Guido looked across at him, smiling sadly.

"I'm a little drunk," he said quietly, "but I shall miss you, Deveraux."

It was the closest he had got to admitting the truth. This would be goodbye...

"You'll miss me even more when you get the paperwork," Will pointed out, and wondered why everyone else started to laugh hysterically.

"God forbid!" choked Hal.

No-one else could even say anything. Guido just groaned.

"What?" asked Will, confused.

"Lorenzo's papers," explained the assassin.

"All Lorenzo's papers," amended Kennedy. "All of them."

"I don't want to think about it..." warned Guido, raising his glass to hide his smile.

Will frowned at them all in perplexity, looked over at Anne, quietly drinking wine beside him, her fair hair glinting in the firelight, and shrugged, starting to smile. It was no longer his concern - any of it. Not the papers, not the laughter, not Guido's wound - he was free of it all, at last.

But I shall miss you, too, di Cesare....

"A toast," he said, raising his glass. "To Guido, Conte di Cesare. The new spy commander of Whitehall."

"Poor old Whitehall," said Kennedy, raising his glass in Guido's direction. "Not that they deserve any better..."

"My new commander," said Hal, lifting his glass amusedly, his dark blue eyes free from the affected laziness that had shrouded them for so long. "It'll take some getting used to..."

Hornblower was silent, looking down into his glass, trying to think of something witty or amusing to say. He frowned, and decided to settle for the truth.

"To one of the best men I have ever met," he said quietly, and saw Guido look across at him sharply. "Guido - you truly are the King's Man. And I would to God there were more like you."

The assassin took a deep breath, and his smile transformed his thin face, free from any mockery or sarcasm, his mouth trembling slightly as he lifted his glass in return.

"Thank you," he whispered, and his eyes gleamed with sudden tears. Then he laughed. "Thank you all very bloody much," he added, and then his face lit up with the old grin, and he said, laughing - "Now let's suit the action to the word - let's get toasted!"

* * *

As far as Hal was concerned, his re-introduction to England was a dismal failure. Cold, windy, wet - and night-time. Guido stood beside him on the deck of the 'Indefatigable', looking out at what was, as far as it was possible to tell, Plymouth Harbour. There would be a boat coming for them soon, and they were both ready to leave. A boat had, in fact, already come to the side twice, the first time leaving with letters, the second time delivering something to Pellew, but they had refused to take the two spies back with them on either occasion. Surely it would come soon...

"England," said Hal gloomily.

Guido, his bulging leather bag over his shoulder, his cloak blowing around him, smiled.

"Home," he said simply. "We're home."

"I still can't..."

"It will get easier," said Guido, putting a hand on his friend's shoulder.

Hal sighed.

"I feel like I don't belong anywhere, any more."

"The same stars, Hal. Hold on to that."

"I know. I'm trying...but it's hard."

They fell silent, looking out to where the boat should be coming over from. Nothing as yet.

"Dr Morris seems pleased with you," said Hal, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

"Yes," agreed Guido, rather dryly. "I believe I am now officially his favourite victim."

"Well, at least you can eat, now - have you got the -"

"Yes, I've got the instructions for how to prepare the horrible bloody drink! God, how many times do people have to ask me? For heaven's sake, Hal, Morris has asked me five times already, Kennedy's asked me about three, and you're getting on for ten. For the last time, I have GOT the instructions! Now can we please drop the subject?"

Hal, looking at the too pale, frighteningly thin man opposite him, who was obviously remaining standing by will-power alone, his face lined with pain, forbore to comment. The fact that Guido had even asked Morris for help was sign enough of his determination to recover - and for now, that would do, even if he refused to discuss his state of health with anyone else.

Hal had asked the doctor whether Guido would ever be completely well again, after the amount of poison that had been in his system. Morris had been very non-committal, saying only that, if the assassin took care, it was possible.

"Should I be looking out for anything? How does he have to take care?" Hal had asked.

Dr Morris had simply looked at him.

"He knows what to do. He has found his answers, Mr Trevelyan, as I predicted."

"Answers to what?"

"How to live with himself. He's decided he's going to live, sir, and the only help he needs from you is your friendship. And being as you are asking me these questions, I believe I may safely assume he has that. Now, if you will excuse me..."

No, I don't bloody excuse you, thought Hal, remembering. You're rude and annoying and you order us all around like small children, and you're quite insufferably neat. On the other hand, Guido's alive...at least for now.

The boat came out of the darkness towards them, and Guido sighed.

"Time to go, Hal."

"I though they would come and say goodbye, at least."

Guido shrugged.

"We've said all there is to be said, I think. Why make it official?"

"Is it always like this? Are we always the ones who disappear, with no-one even to see?"

Guido grinned.

"I rather like it," was all he said, as the boat drew alongside.

"Have you got everything out of the cabin?"

"Yes - and got my book back from Morris, so that's all right..."

"I still can't believe Will got married," said Hal, thinking of all the papers that Guido had taken from the cabin, and was now in charge of.

Guido chuckled.

"Benedick the married man," he said, smiling ruefully. "Well, God knows he deserves happiness - and I'll never have to worry again about whether the inn is still safe to go to - none of us will!"

"You made a rather funereal best man, Hotspur, it must be said..."

"Well, it was either my clothes, which fit, or yours, which don't. It seemed better to be in black and look halfway respectable!"

Guido, despite his words eariler, was stalling for time, hoping that the two lieutenants would come on deck to say goodbye...

But it was Pellew who appeared, smiling for once.

"Signor di Cesare - I beg your pardon, Conte -"

"I like Signor," said Guido, grinning at him. "You're the only man I know who ever bothered to get it right...I somehow prefer that."

"I hope your business in London goes smoothly," said Pellew very dryly. He and Guido, preparing their joint reports for the Admiralty and for the Government, had discovered that they were of the same opinion about the officials at Whitehall.

"I doubt it," said Guido, equally dry, "but hope on, captain, hope on..."

He reached into his bag, and pulled out a small package.

"Would you be so kind as to give this to the two officers you so kindly - ah - lent to me? Would lent be the right word? Anyway - if you could give this to them, after I leave?"

"Of course," said Pellew, taking it from him. "I believe - ah, here they are."

Hal smiled, relieved that he was not, in fact, going to be forced to disappear without trace. Formality was one of the few anchors he had to his old life at the moment, and any appearance of it was more than welcome.

"Well, we're - um - off, I suppose," he said awkwardly.

Guido was silent. He had never before been in a position at the end of an assignment where anybody even wanted to see him, let alone make their farewells. He had no idea of what to say.

"Guido." Hornblower was holding out his hand. "Or should I say - my lord?"

"Not this side of hell," replied the assassin, grasping the lieutenant's hand in his own.

Hornblower smiled at him.

"Will we see you again?"

Guido shrugged.

"Who knows?" he said, smiling back. "Stranger things..."

He turned to Kennedy.

"Guido, thank you, for everything, I -"

Guido shook his head.

"That's bad luck," he said, mock-sternly. "Never thank me, never apologise to me - and what the devil is that?"

"A sextant," said Pellew, concealing a smile at the assassin's astonishment.

"Why?" asked Guido, completely bewildered.

"For you," explained Hornblower. "So you'll always know where you are ­ like ­ like sailing by the stars, really. To remind you that you're always home."

Oh, my God. He remembered what I said, that first night...and he knew what I meant.

Guido blinked hard, and took the sextant.

"Thank you," he said, and his face split into a grin. "Now I'll have to learn to use it!"

"Well..." began Hornblower, and Guido exploded into laughter.

"I can wait," he said, recovering himself. "I can wait."

He put the sextant carefully into his bag, and made an odd little gesture of resignation.

"I've never been good at this," he said. "Goodbye, gentlemen."

And he climbed slowly, carefully over the side, and down to the boat without another word. Hal shrugged.

"I - am glad to have met you," he said carefully. "But I don't think I'm any good at this, either, I - Goodbye."

And he scrambled down after his commander. Guido gestured to the oarsmen, and the boat pulled off into the darkness.

The three men watched in silence, until the boat had vanished, and not even the splash of the oars could be heard.

"Well," said Pellew. "I have, as a result of that man, been overwhelmed with paperwork. If you will excuse me, gentlemen - oh. The Conte di Cesare appears to have left you this."

He gave the little package to Hornblower, turned, and left.

"Well, open it, then," said Archie curiously.

Hornblower broke the seal, and unfolded the paper wrapping. He stared. Two small gold seals lay there, and a folded sheet of paper.

Archie took the paper, and read Guido's blackly vehement scrawl with a smile. Hornblower was still staring at the gold seals.

"What does he say?" he asked eventually. Archie reached over, and took one of the seals, examining it for a while, before replying.

"See for yourself," he answered, passing Horatio the note.

Hornblower took it, and read aloud - "If ever you have need of me, wherever you are, send a paper with this seal on it to Whitehall, and I will come, no matter what. You have - the word of an assassin on it. Fiat justitia, gentlemen. Your friend, Guido."

"Fiat justitia, ruat coelum," said Archie, still examining the seal. "A rather bitter sentiment, wouldn't you say?"

Hornblower shrugged.

"But honest," he said, looking back out across the harbour, to where the assassin had disappeared into the night, as he had materialised from it almost a month before. "Goodbye, Guido."

Archie nodded, following his gaze, and said quietly into the darkness,

"Farewell, Guido di Cesare. And good luck."

Goodbye, my friend. Keep safe.

 

FINIS

At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou had'st seal'd my pardon with thy blood.

John Donne.