The King's Man
The rudeness that hath appeared in me have I learnt from my entertainment...
The night passed. Guido lay comfortably in the hammock, smoking his pipe and staring at the low ceiling of the cabin. Will scribbled on frantically, trying to get the new code finished, adrift in a sea of papers and numbers.
"You could always help," he snapped after a while.
"No, thank you," replied Guido dreamily. "I'm really quite happy where I am."
He looked infuriatingly relaxed, even fully dressed and wearing his boots. Will considered throwing something at him, then studied the bruise on the assassin's face, and decided against it for the moment. A second deluge of ink might be satisfying, but revenge was likely to be swift and painful this time. Will sighed irritably. Guido had been completely unconcerned about the cut on his face, and furious about the fact that he was soaked in ink.
"I know I'm wearing black, Will," he had said acidly, "but I really don't see why that means you feel covering me in black ink is such a good idea. Am I looking faded, or something?"
Will, who hated black, and never wore it, considered the effect a similar soaking would have on his own attire, and decided that a fit of pique was not a good enough reason to risk ruining his limited wardrobe. Guido, as though determined to test his resolution to the limit, took the pipe out of his mouth and started whistling again. Will glared across the room.
"Can't you at least whistle something with a tune?" he enquired crossly. "You sound like the drone of a bagpipe."
"Do I?" asked Guido, sounding lazily unconcerned. "Oh, well."
And he carried on with his tuneless sounds. Will flung down his quill, spattering the paper with ink, and got to his feet, thinking quickly. Then he lunged at the hammock, and tipped Guido out onto the floor. Like a cat, the assassin landed on his feet, looking mildly confused.
"What?" he asked, sticking his pipe back in his mouth. "What's wrong?"
"Stop - bloody - whistling!" grated Will.
Guido had an expression on his face that showed he was prepared to humour Will, but thought he had finally gone mad.
"All right," he said peaceably. "Can I get back into the hammock now?"
"No! Do some work!"
"Will, it's about six in the morning. Why on earth do you want me to start work so early?"
"Pretend you're having a late night," growled his commander. Guido raised his eyebrows.
"Pretend?" he murmured sarcastically.
"Di Cesare, I have sat here all night working on this code. Your sole contributions have been to fill this cabin with smoke, make irrelevant comments about the fact that your hammock swings, and drive me mad with your bloody whistling! Now come and help!"
"My hammock does swing," protested Guido mildly.
"I don't care if it acts like a bloody rocking chair! Come - and - do - some - WORK!"
"What do you want me to do?" he asked, sitting on the desk, and folding his legs under him. He looked like a funereal tailor. Will closed his eyes, and prayed for patience.
"I want you to read through this cipher for me," he said, his voice strained with the effort of not shouting. Guido picked up one of the pieces of paper.
"I can't, Deveraux," he said. "It's completely illegible."
Will took a very deep breath, and handed Guido the paper he had just finished working on.
"Better?" he enquired, struggling against a sudden urge to punch Guido in the nose.
Guido scanned the paper, his dark eyes flickering over the hieroglyphics.
"Fine," he said after a while. "Two errors in the cipher poem, though. There's a semi-colon after the word 'repent', not a comma. And 'had'st' needs the apostrophe. Otherwise, perfect."
Will shook his head slowly. It had taken him hours to perfect the new code, and Guido had been able to read it as though it were plain English.
"How do you do that?" he asked in amazement.
"Don't know," he said, putting the piece of paper down. "Why are you using John Donne as the cipher poem?"
"Guido, how do you know all the poems? You're supposed to be foreign, and your memory for them's more exact than mine!"
"Let's leave the workings of my mind a mystery, eh? Why Donne?"
"I know he's your favourite poet, di Cesare," he said. "And this cipher is going to be in only one place."
"Your head. I won't be able to remember it precisely, and I'm going to destroy all the papers."
Guido stared at him.
"Deveraux, have you lost your mind? You can't make me into the only copy of the cipher!"
"I can and I have," said Will calmly, holding the paper to the candle flame, and watching it burn with satisfaction. Guido groaned, and scrubbed at his head with both hands.
"Why, in the name of God?"
Will grinned, looking more like Lucifer than ever.
"Well, you're now an official paper. So you now come under my orders regarding official papers."
"Thank you," said Guido, bitterly ungrateful. "What orders are those, exactly?"
Will's scarred face was satisfied.
"To keep them with me at all times. Which means no solo heroics for you, my friend."
Guido rolled his eyes.
"What on earth is the point of this?" he enquired wearily. Will was still grinning.
"You let something slip last night, di Cesare, while you were having your little flare-up at me."
"Did I?" Guido was starting to feel worried. Will was looking unbearably smug.
"You said you'd put your weapons in Kennedy's service."
"Yes?" Guido sounded very suspicious.
"And that means they're not in mine."
"Which means I can't command you."
"Except now, di Cesare, you're an official document." Will leant back in his chair, enjoying Guido's discomfiture. "I've just found the only other way of retaining command over you."
Guido tapped his fingers together irritably. He was silent for a long time, obviously trying to think of a way out of this. Then he gave up.
"And damn you, too," he said flatly. Then he smiled.
"Will," he said slowly, "wouldn't you get into terrible trouble if one of your official papers disappeared?"
The grin vanished from Will's face.
"Don't even think about doing that," he said warningly.
Guido just smiled.
"Oh, dear," he said mockingly. "One more thing for you to worry about...so much for good ideas, eh, Deveraux?"
"Guido. I mean it." Much as he tried to sound forbidding, Will could not keep the panic out of his voice.
Guido made no response. He simply lay on the desk, stretching himself on his side, and started to whistle again.
"Damn it, get off my desk and shut up!" yelled Will.
Guido made no move, and carried on. It sounded as if there was a tune in there somewhere this time. Will considered violence, realised that Guido would win easily, and dropped his head into his hands.
"Can't you do anything without causing chaos?" he enquired despairingly.
Guido propped himself up on one elbow, and looked at him mockingly.
"With you around having good ideas, Deveraux, I don't even need to create it. You did this all on your own."
"I did, didn't I?" agreed Will. "I really thought I'd found a way of controlling you this time."
Guido laughed, and rolled onto his back. Papers cascaded onto the floor.
"Give up, Deveraux," he said, looking up at the ceiling. "Just give up."
There was a knock on the door. Guido swung himself upright, and called,
"Ah - is Signor di Cesare there?" asked an uncertain voice from the other side of the door.
"That's me," he called back.
"Captain Pellew's compliments, and would you come to his cabin," continued the disembodied voice. "And would you be so good as to leave your damn pipe behind."
Guido's eyes opened wide. He went to the door and opened it, to find himself facing an extremely freckled, small midshipman who looked about twelve.
"Do you always give messages from the other side of a door?" he asked. "And did Pellew really call it my 'damn pipe'?"
The boy stared at him. Guido sighed.
"An inkwell hit me in the face," he said, guessing what the next question was going to be. "Does Pellew want me to come now?"
"Yes, Signor di Cesare. And he said I was to call you Signor di Cesare instead of sir. Is that right?"
Guido laughed. He had grown up as one of the middle brothers out of six, and, unlike Will, who hated anyone below the age of eighteen on principle, was more comfortable around children than adults.
"Very polite," he agreed. "But I prefer Guido. Less of a mouthful than Signor di Cesare. Who are you?"
Guido looked down at him.
"Well, Mr. Sanderson, what do you think? Shall I take my damn pipe along anyway?"
He was rewarded with a grin that spread across the freckled face.
"I don't think he'd like that!" said Sanderson.
"Ah, well, then, I'd better leave it behind. This man here," gesturing to Will, who had also come to the door, "is Mr. Deveraux. D'you think he can be trusted with it?"
The boy looked at Will consideringly, completely unworried by his odd appearance.
"Probably," he said slowly. "What do I call Mr. Deveraux?"
Guido grinned at Will, who stared back impassively.
"I think you should call him sir," he said. "You see, Mr. Deveraux is a commander."
"Oh. Does he command you?" The midshipman, like most children, had no fear of Guido at all.
Guido laughed. Will glared at him.
"A matter for debate," said the assassin dryly, his swollen face made even more lopsided by his smile. "Come on, Mr. Sanderson. Show me to Captain Pellew's cabin."
Guido opened the door to Pellew's cabin rather tentatively, his bruised, exhausted face looking appalling in the harsh light of early morning. Pellew, who was adjusting his jacket in front of the mirror, looked sharply round, and caught his breath.
"What the devil -" he began.
Guido came into the room.
"An inkwell," he said exasperatedly. "And if no-one else asks me, I shall die a happy man."
"Signor di Cesare, I did not ask you here to enquire into your private affairs. I have need of your advice."
"And you asked me to leave my pipe behind? How unkind."
Guido's smile was mocking.
Pellew prayed for patience, reminding himself that this man was answerable to no-one, and had no reason to behave within the formal boundaries so necessary to him.
"Signor, I realise you are here for no good reason but that of a foolish jest made to one of my officers. Nonetheless, I find I must ask for your help."
Guido frowned at him for a long moment, his battered features immobile, the dark eyes sharp and penetrating.
"If the offer was a jest when I made it," he said abruptly, "that is no longer true. I have given my word. I intend to keep it."
Pellew's eyes, hard, assessing, met those of the assassin. Guido held that gaze, before which so many men had quailed, without flinching.
"I have given my word," he repeated without emotion.
"And I believe, Signor, that in most cases I would trust you to keep it. There is, however, a new problem that we must face."
"Talk to Deveraux," he said indifferently. "He'll help. I can't change anything, I just go where he goes."
"Indeed. I am aware of that, Signor, and your loyalty is commendable. Unlike your 'commander', however, who I am sure believes you to be acting under orders, I know that you are not. I am also very conscious of the fact that you are sworn to only one man, and that man is neither Commander Deveraux nor Lieutenant Kennedy."
Guido had gone very pale, the bruises standing out lividly on his ashen face.
"Well, Captain Pellew? Why does that require my help?"
"Signor di Cesare, you are the King's Agent, sworn only to his Majesty, doing his will alone. You accept orders from his ministers and from the Admiralty only because you know the orders have come from him. The same is not true of Mr. Deveraux, who accepts orders from anyone with official power. If necessary, you could over-rule his orders. Particularly with a carte-blanche sealed by the King himself. Is that not so?"
Guido nodded, his mouth pulling flat, his eyes opaque and very black in his white face.
"In that case, there is something you must be aware of before you set foot in France. Signor di Cesare, there are those who do not intend your mission to succeed."
Guido leant forward, his gloved hands gripping the desk, his eyes blazing.
"Not intend?" he hissed mockingly. "You think this surprises me?"
"No, Signor. It may surprise you to learn, however, that they are already fully informed of the plans. You will be walking into a trap."
"Who would dare try?" he asked in genuine bewilderment. "And who could possibly know as early as this of our planned arrival?"
"Your brother and his men are already in Toulouse."
Guido bowed his head, his arms trembling with the force of his grip on the desk. He gave one strangled cry, and was silent, his hidden face contorted.
"Under the carte blanche," continued Pellew remorselessly, "you could well decide that his death was essential to the preservation of the documents."
Guido made no response.
"Signor di Cesare, I must remind you that should you decide to take this course of action, you would be putting the lives of others in danger."
Guido looked up at this. He was still very white, but seemed completely in control.
"Do you want my word that I will not kill him?" he asked, his voice low and dangerous.
"No, Signor, I do not. But I want your word of honour that you will not pursue him, should there be a choice."
Guido's face was hard and closed.
"I promise," he said coldly. "You have the word of a spy, an Italian, and an assassin with a traitor for a brother. Why the word of such a man should be of any value to you, Captain Pellew, is completely beyond my comprehension. You do not, after all, value my word when given to one of your officers."
And he turned on his heel and stalked out of the cabin without waiting for Pellew's response.
Pellew sighed wearily as the door shut behind Guido. He had handled the interview as badly as anything he had ever done, and he was left knowing that rather than sending Guido away with a feeling that he was needed, the assassin had left the cabin knowing that the brother who had almost destroyed him was waiting in a town he had sworn to enter, and believing that he himself was not trusted as a result. Pellew stared at the door for a moment, making sure that Guido was not about to return, before walking over to the window and staring out at the sea.
"Damn," he whispered hopelessly.
Guido stormed up onto the deck, furious and desperately unhappy. He went to the side of the ship, and stared out at the grey sea, not really seeing anything.
"My word of honour not to pursue him..." he repeated bitterly. "Pursue him? I'd rather pursue a snake! Why the devil should Pellew think I want to be within a million miles of Lorenzo? I stand about as much chance of killing him as I stand of being trusted - and God knows, hell will freeze over before that day arrives among the British! God damn him and his assumptions to the bottom of the sea!"
"Good meeting?" enquired Will from behind him.
Guido turned around, and his expression, for a moment, made Will step back. His eyes were full of hate, the look unrecognizable to Will and very, very, frightening. Guido kept his emotions wrapped up beneath cynicism and flippancy, and now something had unleashed them, like one of the assassin's own knives from its careful bindings.
"Go away, Deveraux," he said softly.
"Aren't I supposed to know what Pellew said?"
Guido's expression did not change.
"Lorenzo is waiting for us in Toulouse. Pellew wanted my word that I would not go after him."
"Jesus," breathed Will, half in prayer. "Guido..."
"My 'word' is worthless to him, evidently," said Guido, his voice still flat and emotionless, horribly at odds with the loathing in his eyes, "since I have already sworn my weapons to Kennedy, and that, apparently, is insufficient for him. Yet he still felt he must ask me for 'my word of honour'."
Will, unable to find the words with which to express his sympathy, breaking the rule they had kept to for four years, reached out and touched Guido on the arm, trying to console him. In an instant, the assassin's sword hissed out of its scabbard, the point touching the hollow at the base of Will's throat. There was a moment in which time seemed to stop. Guido was somewhere else completely, catapulted there by one casual touch, his eyes staring at Will from somewhere in Hell, completely blank except for the terrifying hatred that distorted his narrow features. Then he seemed to come back to himself, and lowered the blade to his side slowly.
"Touch me again," said Guido levelly, "and I'll kill you."
Then he slammed the sword back into the sheath that hung at his waist, and walked off. Will let out the breath he had not been aware he was holding in a gasp, and reached for the ship's rail to steady himself. A man who was afraid of very little, he had for one instant been terrified. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with a shaking hand, and realised that his legs, too, were trembling. For one instant, in the black, unwavering eyes that blazed hatred at him, he had read his death.
"My God," he whispered, trying to regain control. "How could I have forgotten?"
Three years ago, in Brest, Will had ignored Guido's commands that no-one was to touch him, not to get his attention, not in friendship, and never, never, even if his life, or that of another, depended on it, to try and put a hand on him while he slept. Hearing the sound of hoofbeats, Will had forgotten, and put his hand on Guido's shoulder to awaken him.
The result of his decision were the scars that drew his face into that of a mocking gargoyle. Not even properly awake, Guido had lashed out with one of his knives, narrowly missing Will's eye, and laying his cheek completely open. The knife had been pressed to Will's throat, ready to slip across and end his life, and Will had looked up into eyes that held no mercy. Then horror had come into the dark face above him, and the knife had dropped from Will's throat.
"Oh my God," Guido had whispered despairingly. "My God, what have I done? What have I become?"
The knife, like most of Guido's, had been poisoned, and even with the assassin's antidotes to hand, Will had been near death. Guido, risking his own life to save Will's, half-demented with grief and guilt, had hidden him in a deserted house on the outskirts of Brest, stealing food at night, once riding into the centre of the town to try and get meat, and coming back with nothing more for his efforts than a bullet wound across his ribs, where someone had shot at him and almost missed.
"A pity they didn't kill me," Guido had said bitterly, cleaning the wound himself with brandy and an old shirt. "That would have solved all our problems, eh, Deveraux?"
He had been half-laughing at the time, Will remembered, but there was no amusement in the dark eyes, as there had been before the night Guido lunged out of sleep with a knife in his hand as the result of a single touch on his shoulder.
It had been a long time before Guido would agree to take the bandages off Will's face for good, clinging stubbornly to the belief that the scars would diminish. But the poison, though it had not killed Will, had affected the ability of his skin to heal, and Guido's desperate attempt to believe that it would improve was based on hope, rather than reality. When the last of the dressings was taken off, Guido had stared at him for a long time, then got up from beside the bed, and walked hurriedly to the window. It was the one and only time that Will had seen the assassin weep.
Now he cursed himself for destroying the work they had both put into regaining their friendship over the intervening years. Guido would never forgive himself for that night, nor would he forgive himself for being capable of his actions.
"And straight after Pellew refuses to trust him because of the man who did that to him," said Will, pounding his fist on the rail, "I remind him of what he's become. Oh, God, my God, what am I going to do? This is going to destroy him..."
Will had underestimated the assassin's strength of mind. Guido was a long way from being destroyed by what had happened. Were he capable of being destroyed by two confrontations, he would not have survived so long in the world he so unwillingly inhabited. Guido grieved bitterly that it was Will he had attacked that night in France, but he had long since ceased to regret the fact that it had happened. Will employed him for what he was - a killer. Had it been anyone else who had touched his shoulder that night, the results would have been desirable - Guido held no illusions about what he was expected to be, nor did he spend time regretting the fact.
He found it mildly amusing that Will could not differentiate between guilt for a deed, and feeling guilty over being the man who enacted such a deed. Guido's warnings then had been for a reason, had been because whereas now he could control the effect Lorenzo had on him, three years ago it had been impossible. Even now, he knew he could not trust himself to be woken from sleep, and left it to Will to arrange alternative accommodation for him. Three years ago, he would have killed Will instinctively, just at the feel of a hand on his arm. Now, he could hold himself back, control the rage and fear so carefully instilled in him by his brother, see who it was who stood in front of him without finding Lorenzo glaring into his eyes.
Guido had worked hard to gain even that amount of control, and was glad that he had achieved it, hating to feel that he did not rule his own reactions. That did not stop his determination, however, to never have another hand laid upon him, in friendship or hatred, nor that he would never touch another living soul from choice without wearing his gloves. At one time, when he was first establishing his assassin's reputation, he had vowed never to touch anyone at all, unless it was to kill. What he had done to Will had changed that resolution, as he realised that the spy commander's life depended on his breaking that vow. It was then he had decided to wear gloves at all times, unsure as to whether he was protecting himself or others, only knowing that he needed some kind of barrier between himself and the world if he were to survive.
He shook his head irritably, coming out of his thoughts of the past. His main concern at that moment was not himself, nor Will Deveraux, nor even Pellew, who so obviously did not trust him, but the thought of his brother, waiting patiently for them to fall into his trap in Toulouse.
Guido knew better than to assume that there was anything about their orders that Lorenzo did not already know. Their only hope of success lay through Guido's knowledge of the way his brother worked.
"Unfortunately," murmured Guido, sitting on a coil of rope somewhere below decks, "whenever I try and think of the bloody man, I stop being able to think at all." He felt the palms of his hands slick and wet with panic inside his gloves, his heart pounding heavily, and grinned with bleak amusement, recognising the old symptoms of terror.
"And I thought not killing at the blink of an eye was an improvement," he groaned, trying to slow his breathing. "Not thinking is definitely worse."
Guido had agreed to a year in Lorenzo's power. Now, sitting
somewhere in the depths of a ship, sailing to a certain confrontation
with the man he feared above all others, he began to wonder whether
he had in fact agreed to giving over the whole of his life. He
scrubbed at his head with his gloved hands, trying to think coherently.
He had not slept in nearly a week,
and every time he tried to work things out calmly, it felt as though he was moving through fog.
"What are you doing down here?" asked a voice.
Guido looked up, and recognised Sanderson, the midshipman of earlier that morning.
"Thinking," he said gloomily, resting his elbows on his knees and propping his chin in his hands. He seemed completely unbothered by having company.
Sanderson sat beside him on the rope.
"Problems." Guido was unfazed by questions from children, having lived for years accepting that he could not do anything without being quizzed to within an inch of his life by his younger brothers.
"Are you going to stop them being problems?"
"I hope so," sighed Guido.
"I don't know, Mr. Sanderson. How would you solve a problem?"
The little midshipman thought for a while.
"A big problem?"
"I'd probably go and ask Lieutenant Hornblower. He knows most things."
Guido looked down at him, sudden interest replacing his resigned tolerance.
"Does he now?" he said thoughtfully. "I wonder..."
Will was standing by the rail, worrying, when he saw Guido come up onto the deck. Expecting him to come back over, he started forward, but saw that he was not wanted. Guido headed over to where Hornblower was standing, and spoke quietly for a few moments. Then the two men walked off, talking urgently. Will decided not to interfere, and carried on looking at the sea, trying to contain his curiosity. He had expected Guido to be furious and in need of controlling, not, as he evidently was doing, planning his next move.
Will had the feeling that, for the first time, he had underestimated the assassin's dedication to what he was doing for the King. Whatever was driving Guido these days, it was not the guilt and self-hatred of four years ago, but something much harder and stronger. Even three years back, a confrontation with Pellew like the one of that morning would have sent Guido off on a course of self-destruction that would have lasted until lack of money forced him back into bitter control. Now, an hour on his own appeared to have had the same effect.
"Of course," murmured Will, looking over the grey water, "he's avoided working with me as much as he can...what the hell has he been training himself to do? I thought Lorenzo's control was impossible for him to break free of - but he seems to be doing it. If he weren't, I'd have died this morning, not be warned..."
Will Deveraux was faced with the unsettling possibility that his trained assassin was becoming a force in his own right, rather than a guided missile that could be used at any given moment to do what others desired, as Lorenzo had trained him to be. If Guido was breaking free, and was about to use the knowledge that nothing held him to Will but loyalty...then the journey through France, knowing they were almost certainly to be faced with Lorenzo at the end of it, was rapidly spinning out of Will's control.
"Why has he turned to that damned Lieutenant?" worried Will. "What does he need from him?"
What Guido needed was help in constructing a plan. He wanted something fail-safe, something that would get the documents to where they were supposed to go without confronting Lorenzo. And he knew that Will, who hated Lorenzo passionately, was the wrong man to ask.
"You should be discussing this with Mr. Deveraux," pointed out Horatio. Guido grimaced.
"Later," he said quietly. "I need help in formulating
a plan, Mr. Hornblower, not in putting
it into action."
"You haven't got a plan at all?"
"The tempting option is to go off on my own, strangle my brother, and come back to help you get the documents to the church in Toulouse. Unfortunately, Deveraux over there has decided to make me into the only existing copy of the cipher - so I can't do that. What we need is a way of avoiding my brother for long enough to get to that church in one piece, hand over the documents, and get the hell away from him. Not, perhaps, the most glorious and heroic idea I've ever had, but I spent a year in that man's company, and it's not an experience I'd willingly inflict on anyone else for as much as a minute."
Horatio shook his head at Guido's self-deprecation.
"That makes more sense than trying to overcome him," he pointed out. "If he's as good as you two are supposed to be, then we've got very little chance of getting away from him anyway. I think we need two plans."
Guido looked over at him, interested.
"One for trying to avoid him. One for if we can't." Horatio looked over at Will, standing by the rail. "And when we've decided what to do, do we tell Mr. Deveraux?"
"What I'll do," he said, taking out his pipe, which he had retrieved from the cabin before coming up on deck, "is I'll tell him that I've got to take responsibility for this, but that I need help." He looked suddenly irritated. "God, how I hate telling the truth!"
"Why should you feel responsible?" asked Horatio. "I know he's your brother, but -"
Guido shook his head angrily.
"I'm responsible for not letting him kill you," he said irritably. "And I need your help to stop him. Do you think you can manage that?"
Horatio was about to snap something back, not in the mood for Guido's cynical approach, when he caught sight of how desperately strained the Italian looked. What he was asking was obviously intensely difficult for him, and Horatio realised how utterly impossible the situation must be for him. In order to protect people from his own brother, he was having to go behind his commander's back to someone he hardly knew, and ask for help. Under those circumstances, Hornblower thought, his own temper would probably not be the best, and he swallowed down the words he had been about to say.
"Well," he said instead, "I can only try," and was rewarded with a tired smile. He thought Guido was going to walk off then, having said what was necessary, but the assassin stayed where he was for a moment, drawing on his pipe. Then -
"Thank you," said Guido di Cesare awkwardly. Then he turned, and walked over to where Will Deveraux stood on the other side of the ship, staring at the sea and quite obviously fuming with rage.
End of Chapter Four