Trick or Treat
By JanL and Rhiannon

"It isn't dignified." Horatio Hornblower plucked at the black cloak that
covered his black, close-fitting silk shirt, scowled at the black,
close-fitting trousers and the thigh-high, close-fitting black leather
boots.

"It's functional." Archie Kennedy was having trouble maintaining a
straight face.

"Yes, but an assassin, for God's sake, Archie!"

"You didn't want to be Julius Caesar," Archie said. "Too much exposed
flesh. You didn't want to be Louis XIV --"

"God, no!" Horatio shuddered.

"Well, you can't go in uniform, it's not a costume if you wear it every
day. I still think you'd have made a fetching Queen Bess --"

"Would you like to see my Guido impression?" Horatio inquired stiffly.

Kennedy smiled. His own fancy dress was much more attractive -- he had
only to borrow a fop-suit from his cousin Tony Dewhurst -- but he knew he
would have had even more trouble coaxing his friend into attire fitting
the occasion. Given the choice between the outright embarrassing and the
merely undignified, Horatio had grudgingly accepted the latter.
Besides, Horatio's stark black silk was a nice contrast to the elegant,
dazzling white silk brocade that adorned his own frame.

"Cheer up, Horatio. The lighting isn't likely to be all that good,
anyway. If you stand still enough, you can just disappear."

*

"I still can't believe you managed to convince Pitt to give up Walmer
Castle for the weekend."

Guido di Cesare, frowning irritably at his reflection in the mirror as he
attempted to shave and listen at the same time, laid down the razor and
shrugged.

"I didn't," he replied succinctly. "Percy did."

"Er -- why?"

"Because he didn't want us at his manor. Which, if you think about the
guest list, makes perfect sense." Guido splashed water over his face,
and sighed as he caught sight of his costume.

Hal Trevelyan stifled a laugh. "And what's wrong with the guest list?"

Guido just looked at him. "One word, Hal. Us."

"Well, that's not my fault. You were the one who decided that we had to
get Maturin's peculiar stuff off Blakeney at a party."

"No I didn't. You want the party. I want the formula."

"So now we're both happy." Hal smiled.

Guido glowered at his costume.

"Ecstatic," he said dryly. " Absolutely ecstatic. And which particular
maggot in your brain came up with the idea of lieutenants' uniforms for
the disguises, pray?"

"I look good in uniform."

"That is a matter for debate. Besides, if you find the idea so
appealing, there is always the option of joining the Navy. I would be
delighted to provide you with a letter of recommendation, if you wish."

"Just put it on, Guido."

"But wouldn't black be more --"

"Put. It. On."

"And damn you, too."

*

"Not another word."

"But, Citizen --"

"We are going as a /couple,/ Fumier. That means one of us must wear a
dress, and I'm damned if it's going to be me. Hold still."

Thank God this masked ball was not being held in France. His reputation
would be ruined. But what did he care for the opinion of a lot of rotten
English aristos? And the rumour of a secret formula was only a bonus.
He had good reason to believe that the chief of British Military
Intelligence would be at this affair, and the Scarlet Pimpernel as well.
If he could capture or kill either of them, it would bolster his somewhat
dented reputation with Robespierre.

Citizen Chauvelin, representative of the Committee for Public Safety,
pulled the fastenings tight on the back of the dress and tied them
securely. "Turn around."

It was worse than he'd expected. Ah, well, perhaps a shave would improve
Fumier's looks.

Perhaps not. Some things were, after all, impossible. Even in a Marie
Antoinette wig and a nice -- really a very nice -- pink lace-trimmed
ballgown, Fumier was repellent.

A mask. "Here, hold this -- No, over your /face,/ Citizeness. There.
That's better."

The things one was forced to do for the Revolution!

 

*

Hal's carriage bounced its uncomfortable way along the darkened lanes
that led to Pitt's official country residence. The uniform-clad
occupants gritted their teeth against the jolting, and strove for natural
conversation as the state of the roads grew worse by the moment.

"So, what are you planning to do to amuse yourself while I retrieve the
formula from Percy?" asked Guido, trying to stop his hair from escaping
the rather badly-tied queue at the back of his neck.

Hal smiled to himself. "Thought I might see if I could seduce someone."

"I doubt that seduction would be necessary, given the stories I hear
about some of the ladies on the guest list, but if that's what's required
to keep you out of too much trouble, then by all means, seduce away."

"Such confidence in my abilities, Guido! I'm flattered"

Guido snorted inelegantly, and returned his attention to his queue. "It's
not /your/ abilities I have confidence in, Hal."

*

"There's your cousin."

"Oh?" Lord Tony Dewhurst, deputized to keep the party moving while Sir
Percy Blakeney attended to the clandestine purpose of the ball, spotted
his cousin and his second-best dress suit arrive at the arched doorway,
accompanied by a skulking individual with a black scarf tied over his
head, leaving only his eyes glaring out. "Who's that villain -- Oh, my
god, it's Hornblower."

He took his leave of his lady wife and hurried to the door. "Archie,
Horatio! Delighted you could get shore leave. Is the Captain coming?"

Horatio started guiltily, but Archie only shook his head. "No. He
stayed behind. Halloween, some of the men might get up to tricks if the
cat were away."

"I should have stayed aboard," Horatio said, "so he could--"

"Nonsense. I've heard he rarely leaves the ship, and a party will do you
good. Fine costume, that -- I didn't recognize you at first. You
really are dressed to kill!"

"There, you see?" Archie said smugly.

"And your own attire is certainly in the height of style," Tony
continued.

"Not quite the height, I think it's a season or two out of date --"

"But you need a mask of some sort."

"Oh, I have that." Archie went back out into the hall and returned with
an enormous white Musketeer hat with a plume that trailed halfway down
his back. The brim sloped so low in front that his face was barely
visible.

"You look like you're being swallowed," Horatio observed.

"The intention is disguise." Archie's voice was muffled slightly.

"And neck strain," the doctor's son added. "You might have just used one
of these." He tugged at the black silk kerchief that swathed the upper
half of his own face. "Then we'd both look like idiots."

Dewhurst was distracted from their bickering by a bustle at the doorway.
Two ladies had arrived together; one was a delicate fairy princess, with
gauzy white wings and layers of diaphanous fabric swathing her dainty
figure, while the other was somewhat more flamboyant.

The second lady, very tall, appeared to have been dipped in feathers.
Bright red, orange, a few yellow, clinging to her form as if in danger of
imminent departure, they slid down to just above her hips until they
flared outward into a feather-bedecked skirt. The lady's mask was a
caricature of a chicken's beaky face, with impudent brown eyes peering
out above the nares. A spiky red comb-hairdress completed the ensemble.

Tony stifled a chuckle as the footman announced, "The Earl and Countess
of Edrington."

"That's His Lordship," Archie said under his breath. "Cock-of-the-walk,
as always." Hornblower elbowed him in the ribs.

*

"Sink me!" Percy Blakeney, currently masquerading as Sir Lancelot,
lifted his visor with his left hand and raised his quizzing-glass to his
right eye in disbelief. "I always knew the man had no taste, but really
--"

Surprised to hear words fail her usually eloquent husband, Lady
Marguerite (Guinevere) Blakeney turned to see what had so disconcerted
him. She was hard put to it not to show her own astonishment.

At the far end of the room stood Citizen Chauvelin, matter for concern
enough under the circumstances, but on his arm was a figure so
preposterously ugly that even Percy's extensive vocabulary could not have
sufficed to describe her.

"Where the devil did he find her?" murmured Percy under his breath,
still staring through his glass at the couple. "Bedlam?"

"That is unkind, Percy," replied his wife, trying to contain her own
amusement. "Perhaps she is -- is --"

The quizzing glass was turned on her, along with a raised eyebrow.

"Is?" prompted Blakeney.

Marguerite shrugged helplessly.

"His mother?" she suggested finally, and was rewarded by a hastily
cut-off snort of laughter from her usually imperturbable husband.

"Well," said Sir Percy, after regaining his composure, "if that is the
case, my dear, then I must insist upon an introduction. Damme, anything
else would be positively rude on my part."

Only those who truly knew him would have observed the faint trace of
malice behind his genial smile as he strolled across the room to greet
the man who had more cause to hate him than anyone else in the world.

Revenge was always sweet, cold or warm, but this particular dish promised
to be rare indeed

*

"May I suggest that you two gentlemen make use of these masks?"
suggested the footman who stood in the hallway, ready to divest the
arriving guests of their hats and coats. "And may I take your hats?"

"They're part of the --" began Hal, but was cut off by Guido's rapid
acquiescence.

"Gladly," he said, thrusting his lieutenant's hat into the man's hands.
"And give me the mask."

He was pulled to one side by his fuming companion.

"You'll /ruin/ the effect," snarled Hal. Guido smiled at him serenely.

"Yes," he agreed. " And with any luck, the mask will prevent too many
people from realising who it is that you inflicted this 'effect' upon."

He tied the white silk mask over his face, his black eyes gleaming out
from behind it.

"/Now/ I'll go in there," he said grimly.

"Can't you just enjoy yourself for once?" pleaded Hal, waving away his
own proffered mask impatiently, and placing his hat on his head with an
attitude of defiance. Guido regarded him for a long moment, seemingly
considering several replies, before deciding on one.

As ever, it was to the point, if nothing else.

"No," said the intelligence agent briefly, and strode past Hal and the
footman towards the ballroom, his hand on the hilt of his sword, as if
seeking reassurance that something, at least, was still within his
control.

*

"Your Highness! To what do we owe the honour?"

The Prince Regent inclined his head graciously at Sir Percy's astonished
greeting. "Ah, Percy, you should know you can't have a party without me!
I heard you were planning a do, and knew it would be head and shoulders
above the rest for entertainment."

Blakeney maintained his smile despite inner trepidation. Entertainment.
Two spies -- no, three, including Chauvelin -- one semi-retired assassin
-- or did he count as a spy? And it wasn't three spies yet, what the
devil was keeping Maturin and his mysterious potion? Naval officers,
well, that was all right and a Peer of the Realm dressed as a hen.
//Maybe I can say he's a rooster,// Blakeney thought, but said brightly,
"We shall do our best, Highness!"

*

The Royal entourage turned what had been a busy gathering into a mad
throng. It became apparent that the Regent had not just decided to
attend the party, he had brought his own party with him as well,
including a train of servants and refreshments. The crowd spilled over
from the main ballroom into several other areas.

Two who had business to conduct withdrew into a quiet hall off the
ballroom.

"What do you mean, you don't have it?" Guido demanded.

"I believe my English is adequate to the task," Percy snapped. "I do not
have it. The Doctor has not brought it. And before you ask, no, I do
not know where he is, what has delayed him, or when he is expected."

Guido flung his hands in the air in disbelief. Acting as the head of
Pitt's intelligence service was never an enjoyable task, and tonight was
proving to be no exception.

"I came all the way here dressed as a poor facsimile of a naval officer
for /this/?" he demanded incredulously. "God and all his angels, what
else can go wrong tonight?"

As if in silent answer, Chauvelin appeared in the doorway, the hideous
Fumier close beside him. Guido grimaced.

"Ah," he sighed, running his hands through his hair and ruining what was
left of his queue. "Of course. How stupid of me."

"No, no, Conte," Percy said a little more loudly than necessary, "The
facilities are at the /other/ end of the ballroom allow me to direct
you."

Guido yanked his arm away and stormed back into the ballroom, giving the
pink-clad apparition a withering glance as he passed.

"Ah, Citizen Shovelin," Percy clanked over to the frowning Frenchman.
"May I direct you to the punchbowl?"

*

"Lieutenant Hornblower, my dear! What a delightful surprise!"

Horatio turned, looked down, and beheld a pair of round glass eyes turned
up toward him. The rest of the costume -- gods, what a costume! --
looked like the pelt of some creature with extremely long arms and
ferocious nails, dangling from the shoulders of whomever was within it.
Who on earth --?

"Dr. Maturin?" he ventured.

"Indeed, sir. I had not expected to see you here. How is your Captain,
and Mr. Kennedy?"

"Both well, thank you" He glanced around and saw Archie pause in the
throng to speak to his cousin, blinked at the double image, and returned
his attention to Maturin. "Doctor, what is that costume intended to be?

"A sloth, of course. The pelt is actually seal, I believe -- but the
features are a close representation. I required a mask that would
conceal my identity."

"Oh, it does," Horatio assured him. "I would never have guessed." He
would never have expected that anyone would willingly have made himself
look like that, but Dr. Maturin had a high tolerance for
unconventionality. "Is Captain Aubrey with you?"

"No, I came ashore in a boat and will meet him on the next tide. I would
take it as a kindness if you would remind me when that occurs, I have it
written somewhere but I cannot undo the costume to find the paper. And
have you seen Sir Percy anywhere about?"

"He was here -- oh, over there. In the tin suit." He watched bemusedly
as Maturin, in his role of sloth, scurried across the room. He'd never
realized the Doctor was such a party animal.

*

Guido was standing as far away from the main throng as was possible,
smoking his pipe and glaring around him irritably. The whole evening was
shaping up to be an unmitigated disaster, and he wanted nothing more than
to be several miles away from the whole thing. Glancing upwards at the
oblivious Hal, who was standing at the top of the stairs surrounded by
his usual coterie of admirers, he was startled to hear Chauvelin's voice
in his ear.

"Do you see that?" whispered the Frenchman hoarsely. Guido blinked at
him.

"Ah -- do I see what?" he enquired in some perplexity.

"/That/," hissed Chauvelin, pointing across the room.

Guido shrugged.

"Umyes?" he ventured hopefully, wondering what on earth was wrong with
the man. Admittedly, Tony's costume was not what he himself would have
chosen, but surely it couldn't be that bad? Guido sighed. He had long
ago accepted that he would never understand English customs, but now it
appeared that he did not understand those of the French, either. "Is
there something amiss?"

"You can see him?" demanded Chauvelin.

Guido felt his mouth drop open slightly, and closed it with a conscious
effort. As the unofficial host, designed to distract attention from
Percy whenever needed, Lord Tony was, to put it mildly, unmissable.

"He's dressed as a peacock," the ex-assassin pointed out politely.
"It's fairly impossible /not/ to see him, I'd have said. Why?"

"Because he's dead!" snarled Chauvelin.

Guido paused. The obvious response, which was "No, he's not," seemed a
little banal under the circumstances, whereas "Why is he dead?" implied
an ignorance which he surely should not admit to. He settled for
inanity.

"Ah," he said politely. "How nice."

Maybe the French had guillotined all their peacocks, he decided, and,
with a faintly worried smile, put a safe distance between himself and the
Head of Public Safety. It was not that he ever wanted to spend time in
Chauvelin's company, even when politeness dictated, but there were some
conversations that surely even duty could not expect.

*

"Do you see that fellow who looks like a sexton?" Tony asked his cousin
quietly.

"The one with the ugly pink woman on his arm?" Archie nodded. "Who is
that, anyway?"

"The fellow who almost killed me."

Archie blinked. "Why did you invite /him,/ for God's sake?"

"I didn't. I don't think Percy did, either. Ask him, if you get a
chance. But that's Chauvelin, he's with French Intelligence, and I'd
like you to keep a close eye on him."

Archie nodded and drifted away to enlist Horatio in the surveillance
operation.

 

*

"Bet you I can," said Hal smugly.

"In those breeches?" The Prince Regent shook his head. "Never."

Hal smiled. "Fifty guineas," he said, folding his arms.

The Regent's eyes widened, but he nodded.

"Your money," he said. "Done."

Hal nodded, took a deep breath, and swung himself onto the winding rail
that led down from the gallery into the ballroom.

Perhaps, he reflected, as he rocketed down the rather over-polished
banister, the breeches /had/ been a mistake. Particularly silk ones on
polished wood.

It was only as he neared the end of the rail that something occurred to
him.

He had no idea of how to stop.

Through his rather blurred vision, he caught sight of a pink dress
nearing the stairs, and shouted at the top of his lungs,

"Madam, look --"

He was too late. In a tangle of pink frills, Marie Antoinette wig and
navy-blue uniform, Hal came flying off the end of the rail and straight
into Fumier.

At the top of the staircase, the Prince was laughing himself apoplectic.
"Oh, jolly good, Trevelyan!"

"Madam, I - I - a thousand - pardons, apologies, so sorry," stuttered Hal
in horror, attempting to assist his victim to her feet. "I am overcome
with remorse, I -- /bloody/ hell!"

Overcome with horror, Hal realised, as he aimed a death's-head grin up at
the still-chuckling prince, would have been a more accurate way of
completing the sentence. He had never seen such an ugly woman in his
entire life. And now he would somehow have to make amends both for his
actions and for his subsequent rudeness

//Guido, for the love of God, get me out of this// he thought
frantically, looking around him wildly.

The Conte di Cesare stood at the other side of the room, his mouth
twisted into a faint, sardonic smile, his eyes unreadable behind the
white silk mask. With a small gesture that indicated his intention of
remaining as far away from Hal as possible for the rest of the evening,
he turned on his heel and left the ballroom.

//I'm cursed,// thought Hal Trevelyan glumly. Aloud, he said as brightly
as possible, "I am at your service, madam. If there is anything I can
--"

"Wine," growled Fumier.

Hal plastered a smile onto his face, and extended his arm with a
gallantry that, for the first time in his life, was completely feigned.

*

 

"Here you are." A mailed hand tapped Guido on the arm and reversed
itself to reveal a small brown vial marked with an apothecary's mortar
and pestle. "And the formula."

Mission accomplished. They could leave. All he had to do was extricate
Hal from the clutches of that hideous woman.

"We have a complication," Blakeney continued.

//Of course we do.// "And that is?"

"That horrible woman is the henchman of Chauvelin, of French
Intelligence. Chauvelin is the fellow dressed like an undertaker."

"We've met. He thinks Lord Tony is dead."

"Well, of course he would. He killed him."

//They're all mad.// "Not a very good job, was it?"

"Dr. Maturin intervened. I expect Chauvelin's got word of your little
packet, I can't imagine he came here for my wit. At any rate, we need to
get him out of here, preferably without what he came for."

Guido nodded absently as he scanned the paper, trying to decipher
Maturin's medical scrawl. He read it again, not quite believing what it
said, and shoved the paper toward Blakeney. "Read this."

The visor clanked up. An eyebrow followed. "Oh, I say," Sir Percy said
thoughtfully. "We could send him home with a little sample, couldn't we?
What's he drinking?"

If Citizen Chauvelin had seen the evil smiles exchanged, he would have
departed immediately.

*

A hurried discussion as to means and tactics had led to the conclusion
that some kind of distraction was needed to hold Chauvelin's attention
while they got everything in place. Since Hal, usually first in line for
such tasks, was otherwise occupied, and any further encounter with Lord
Tony would probably send Chauvelin fleeing prematurely, it was decided
that the fun-loving Earl of Edrington was the best alternative.

Percy's absence would soon be starting to attract attention, even with
Lord Tony and Marguerite in charge of the festivities, so it was left to
Guido to find out where the man had disappeared to.

Given Edrington's liking for -- diversion -- on occasions such as this,
Guido reasoned that his best option would be to search the curtained
alcoves that lined one of the corridors of the East Wing.

Unwilling, even if the Earl were actually present, to intrude too much on
his privacy, Guido stopped outside the first alcove and hissed through
the curtain --

"Edrington?"

No answer. Guido sighed, and moved down the corridor.

*

Edrington, strolling along the corridor with a rather self-satisfied
smirk on his face, was jolted out of his pleasant reverie by a shout from
the opposite end of the wing.

"Conte?" he asked, trying to keep his feathered skirts in order and
hurry at the same time. "Are you in need of assistance?"

Guido laughed quietly at the sight of the Earl's unmilitary progress, and
motioned for him to stop, quickening his own pace significantly. "No,
no," he assured Edrington as he came towards him. "But Percy would like
you to meet him in the ballroom. That is," he added with a glint of
humour, "if you are quite done with -- well, whatever brings you to this
part of the castle."

"Oh, quite," agreed Edrington. "Percy, eh? Well, I'm sure whatever he
has in mind will be amusing."

"I expect so," agreed the ex-assassin urbanely. "Well, I expect I shall
see you presently."

"Ah." Edrington gestured towards the rooms he had just left. "I take it
that you will be -- otherwise occupied -- for a while?"

"Something like that," said Guido dryly. "Yes."

*

The only thing he really wanted was five minutes in which to collect his
thoughts and have a quiet smoke. He opened one of the windows that lined
the stairwell, leaned out of it, and began the laborious process of
lighting his pipe.

A clatter of boots on the steps above him warned him to get out of the
way of whoever was descending, and he hastily removed the pipe from his
mouth and flattened himself against the wall.

The sinister-looking figure in black arrived at his level, caught sight
of him, and stopped. Guido blinked.

"Good God," he said in astonishment. "Horatio? Why are you dressed --
well, why are you dressed like me?"

"Probably the same reason you're dressed like me. Hal?"

"Who else?"

"Archie. It was his idea. Tell me, how the hell do you stand these
boots? They're driving me insane!"

Guido smiled.

"Well," he said thoughtfully. "Perhaps we could come to some
arrangement"

*

"Horatio?" Archie poked his head around the doorway leading to the East
Wing. He'd expected to find his friend among a crowd of the Regent's
companions who had found space and cards for a whist drive, but he was
nowhere to be seen. Tony's wife said she'd seen him heading for the East
Wing. He was probably just hiding, and didn't realize there was a card
game to be had.

"Ho--" Ah, there he was, leaning out one of the narrow windows along the
hall, barely visible from the rear. Archie stole softly up behind him
and smacked him on the backside. "Heads up!"

He abruptly found himself sitting on the floor staring at the business
end of a rapier. "Guido?"

"For Christ's sake, man! Haven't you learnt /anything/ about sneaking up
on me? I swear to God, Archie, next time I /will/ kill you!"

"I didn't even know you were here! And where's Horatio?"

"How the hell would I know?"

"You're wearing his clothes?"

"We swapped."

He should have known Horatio would find a way to jettison that hated
costume. "All right, then, where is he now? And did you know there's a
French spy at the party?"

"He's still putting his uniform on, and yes. Two of them, and one of
them is the ugliest woman I've ever seen."

"That's not a woman."

"I don't care if it's a wombat, we need to get them out of here."

"Agreed. Is there a plan?"

Guido sighed. "Yes. The Frenchmen are here, we believe, to steal a
formula that Dr. Maturin delivered to Sir Percy to give to me. It's
supposed to mark a man so he can't deny where he's been. For identifying
spies."

"And we don't want him to have it."

"Oh, but we do. We have the formula why should we begrudge Citizen
Chauvelin a little sample?"

"But -- you want to give him a decoy?"

Guido grinned evilly. "Not at all. We want him to have the genuine
article. In his champagne."

*

Horatio tugged the lacings at the back of the white silk breeches a bit
tighter. For once in his life, he'd gotten the better of an exchange
with Guido. Amazing how fast the spy had climbed back into his costume,
but a Navy uniform required a bit more adjustment.

A huge white hat poked between the alcove's curtains. "Horatio?"

"Archie -- what is it?"

"We're needed to provide verisimilitude for a farce."

"What?"

Archie took off the hat and rubbed his neck. "You were right about this
hat. Oh, back at the party. Have you been briefed?"

"On what? Archie, exactly what is it I'm expected to do?"

"You know those two Frenchmen?"

"What?"

"Two French spies are after a secret formula that Dr. Maturin developed."

"Oh. I saw the doctor earlier, but he was wearing a great hairy -- never
mind, he didn't mention a formula."

"It is supposed to be a /secret/ formula, Horatio. Though it seems a
pretty open secret. At any rate, Percy wants to get him out of here with
minimal mayhem; we don't want to upset the Regent. So he's going to put
some of Lady B's cologne in the original bottle and hide it somewhere the
Frogs can get hold of it. Edrington's supposed to create a diversion to
make it easier to steal, and he wants you to help."

Hornblower regarded his friend with trepidation. Archie was grinning,
and that meant trouble. But if they had a brace of French spies at the
party that was serious business, and it could never be said that Horatio
Hornblower was one to shirk his duty.

Especially now that he was back in uniform!

*

Hal regarded his empty cup gloomily. His new -- oh dear God, was it
/compulsory/ to call her his paramour if she clung to his arm that
tightly? -- acquaintance was able to match him drink for drink and seemed
to be nowhere near the state of blissful oblivion that he had been aiming
for. After ten cups of the somewhat potent brew provided by the Regent,
however, his own head was beginning to spin slightly, although that might
just have been the effect of the somewhat overwhelming scent the lady was
wearing.

Hal shuddered and refilled his glass as the vista of a dreadful night
stretched before him. He couldn't believe that Guido could be quite
annoyed enough with him that he would abandon him to /this/ particular
fate, but it seemed that his behaviour had finally led the spy commander
to wash his hands of the whole affair.

Affair, under the circumstances, was a most uncomfortable word, and Hal
drained his cup for the eleventh time.

"Don't drink any more," murmured a voice behind him, and Hal turned
slightly, blinking heavy eyelids at what appeared to be a perambulating
feather. On closer inspection, the feather proved to be attached to a
hat, and Hal bowed politely in its direction.

"Why should I listen to a hat?" he asked with what he considered to be
impeccable logic.

"I'm not a -- oh, for heaven's sake, Hal, it's me!"

Hal peered under the brim, and finally realised who was talking to him.
"So it is," he said with drunken cheerfulness. "Having fun, Kennedy?"

"Umnot quite as much as you, it would appear."

Hal wondered if he could growl as successfully as Guido, and decided that
after eleven cups of whatever it was he had been drinking, it was better
not to try. "/Fun/?" he demanded incredulously. "Are you out of your
-- oh, yes, you generally are, aren't you. No. No, I am not having fun.
I am escorting a Frenchwoman with a drinking capacity that could put
most of the House of Commons under the table and possessing all the
attractiveness of a cesspit."

"Who can, incidentally, hear every word you say," Archie pointed out.

"Doesn't matter. Bloody woman doesn't speak a word of English."

Archie took Hal's elbow firmly in one hand and dragged him to the other
end of the room.

"Shut up and listen," he said irritably. "One, that's not a woman."

"Oh, thank God," said Hal with immense relief. "Is it a ghoul?"

"No! It's a French spy!"

"They're using ghouls?"

"No, they're using a man called Fumier. Which is about the same -- oh,
forget it. He's a spy, he's French, and he understands English. Have
you got all that?"

For a moment, Hal began to think that perhaps he had not drunk quite as
much as he thought, and that everything was beginning to make sense.
Then he put both hands over his face and groaned.

"Oh dear God," he said miserably. "And I just said he looked like a
cesspit. How the hell do I get out of this one?"

"But he does look like a cesspit," Kennedy pointed out, and appeared to
be grinning under the horrible man-eating hat. Hal, even drunk,
recognised this as a Not Good Thing, and tried desperately to sober up.

"Well?" he asked, perfectly sure that he wasn't going to like the
answer, "How do I get /out/ of this?"

"Edrington."

Hal closed his eyes, hoping the room would have stopped spinning when he
opened them. "And he's going to help me how, exactly?"

"I have no idea. But apparently, he has a plan. For diversional
purposes, you see."

"Ah," said Hal intelligently. "Super. Can't wait." //And I've gone to
hell for all my sins.//

*

Abandoned at the punchbowl, Mlle Fumier felt a slight tug at his elbow.
He turned to find a chicken gazing at him soulfully.

"I want you to know," the chicken said in a falsetto whisper, "that I
find you /very/ attractive." And it winked.

*

 

Seeing Edrington lead Chauvelin's appalling consort off to one side of
the hall, Sir Percy caught Guido's eye and gave the barest hint of a nod.
Using far less than his ordinary finesse, the black-clad spy made his
way across the room, passing close enough to Chauvelin to catch his
attention, while appearing to be utterly oblivious to the French agent's
existence. He approached Blakeney, glanced furtively to either side, and
handed him, for the second time that evening, Maturin's little vial with
the apothecary's marks.

Percy raised his visor, nodded, and lowered it once more, then began to
tuck the vial into where his waistcoat pocket would have been. It
collided tinnily with his breastplate. He started, looked around the
room -- seeing through the grille that Chauvelin was now watching him
intently over the rim of his champagne -- and clanked over to the table
of refreshments that had been set up by the Regent's staff. A vast array
of cates and dainties surrounded a huge silver goblet that held bunches
of grapes and other hothouse fruit. Blakeney dropped the vial into the
chalice from the Palace, and clattered away to see what Lord Edrington
had come up with.

*

"What in the name of God is he doing?" demanded Hal between gulps of
black coffee.

"Diverting," said Archie.

"Agreed, but --"

"/No/, Hal. That's what he's doing, not what he is, although"

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Kennedy remembered Guido saying
something about never trying to defeat Trevelyan logic. For the first
time, he understood the tones of despair in which the comment had been
made. And speaking -- or rather thinking -- of the devil, the Conte
himself was now approaching them, one gloved hand resting easily on his
rapier and a faintly satisfied smile on his black-masked face.

"Archie, should I be offering my weapons to you in order to save you from
that hat?" he enquired dryly.

"No," said Kennedy, "but you /could/ use them to save me from Hal, if
you liked."

"Tempting, but no. I may need him later. I find it hard to imagine what
for, but stranger things have happened"

Hal glared at him with his still-unfocused blue eyes. Then he smiled,
and put his coffee cup down, yawning and stretching elaborately.

"I'm bored," he murmured, and wandered off.

Archie looked after him in some confusion.

"Guido?"

"Hmmm?" enquired the spy commander absently, as he tried to light his
pipe without setting fire to his mask.

"Where would Hal go?"

"Where would Hal go what? Oh, confound this blasted thing!"

"Where would Hal go if he was bored?"

"To wherever there's -- oh, Lord, is that what he said?"

Guido, failing to find somewhere to put his pipe, dropped it into the
coffee-pot, and scanned the room from behind the comparative safety of
his mask. "Oh, hell in a basket," he said wearily, and drifted as
unobtrusively as possible over to where Edrington's diversion had
suddenly turned into a somewhat vocal floorshow.

*

Fumier's constitution had finally begun to show the effects of alcohol.
And he was not a pretty drunk.

"Get your hands /off/ her, you pig!" he instructed Hal in a loud
baritone. "The lady is with me!"

"She's no lady!" Hal declared. "And neither are you!" He seized
Edrington's unattached arm. "Come along, my dear."

Obviously enjoying himself, His Lordship emitted a startled squawk.

Fumier yanked at the other arm. "Mine, I say!"

Suddenly Horatio appeared behind the trio, resplendent in the uniform of
His Majesty's Navy. "Never fear, Madam," he assured His Lordship, then
addressed the infuriated swains. "Gentlemen! Put the chicken /down!/"

Neither of them paid the slightest attention to him. They continued to
tug at their prize until Fumier was holding on with both arms, attempting
to drag the commanding officer of the 95th Foot off down the corridor to
the East Wing. His wig started to slide sideways, and his unlovely face
was red and perspiring.

And Hal let go.

Fumier, Edrington, and the wig tumbled out into the hall, followed by
Horatio and Guido. Loud protestations and a couple of thumps floated out
into the main ballroom. Sir Percy glanced over to the table just in time
to see Chauvelin tucking something into his pocket. As near as he was to
the chalice, it was no mystery what that something was.

"Sir Percy," said a querulous voice near his shoulder, "Can't you do
something about that damned pink woman? She's drunk as a lord!"

"Highness! Of course!" Another look assured him that Edrington, Guido,
and Horatio had removed Fumier from the scene. "I believe the lady has
been -- ah -- seen to. Mr. Hornblower will escort her to a room."
//With a lock on the /outside.///

"Very good, Percy. Who the devil is that beastly creature, anyway?
Reminds me of my wife!"

"I really couldn't say, Highness. I will see if we can't persuade her
escort to take her home."

The Regent's round face resumed its sunny smile. "I knew I could count
on you, Percy!"

 

*

 

Ugly and useless as he was, Fumier had finally redeemed himself, creating
a masterful diversion for Chauvelin. It was the work of a moment to
snatch the vessel with the pestle from the silver cup inscribed with the
royal coat of arms, and button it safely into his pocket. Whatever this
formula might be, it was now the property of the Republic!

Pity he'd have to abandon Fumier.

He wove through the crowd of oblivious English, heading for the outer
hall, and congratulated himself on having the foresight to pay a groom to
saddle a horse ready for immediate departure. Perhaps Fumier could find
his own way home. Perhaps not. It really didn't matter.

Just as he reached the exit, a feather-bedecked figure stepped into the
doorway. "You're absolutely right," the peacock said. "You really
should be leaving."

Chauvelin froze in his tracks. It couldn't be.

But the man took off his iridescent mask, and --

"No," Chauvelin said hoarsely. "You can't be -- you're dead!"

Another figure peered around the other side of the doorway, removing an
enormous white hat. That face -- no!!

"I was dead," they said in unison. "But I got better!"

With a horrified bleat, Chauvelin shoved past them both. He didn't stop
running until he was halfway to Dover.

***

Guido di Cesare leant against the cool stone of the parapet above the
East Wing, and watched the figure of the French agent fleeing in terror
down the torchlit drive. He took his spare pipe from the recesses of his
recovered cloak, and lit it, puffing out a satisfied cloud of smoke.

At the sound of a faint clanking behind him, his long mouth twitched into
a smile.

"Percy," he said, not turning. "All serene?"

"Oh, quite. Shame it didn't all quite go off, though, wasn't it?"

"Hmmm? Oh, I thought it was all right. I know that Hal wasn't /really/
supposed to get involved, but it all seemed to work out for the best."

"No, no -- although perhaps you should consider telling someone what you
four did with Fumier /sometime/ before next century -- I was referring to
Maturin's little concoction."

"What of it? Admittedly, I would have preferred to witness the results
myself, but I'm sure --"

"Guido, old man. Hate to be a pest, but Shuffle-on never did get that
that lovely little demonstration we had planned for him. The thought of
him breaking out in bright orange spots"

"Oh?" Guido smiled. "Didn't he drink the rest of his champagne, then?
I could have sworn I saw him drain his glass"

"But you didn't /put/ the damn stuff in his glass!" Blakeney was losing
patience.

"Of course I did," said Guido with a small sigh, and stuck his pipe back
in his mouth, signalling the end of the conversation.

"I didn't see you," replied the Scarlet Pimpernel in some confusion.

Guido turned around, putting his pipe down on the parapet, and met Sir
Percy's eyes. "No," he agreed. "You never would."

After a long moment Sir Percy Blakeney nodded, put down his visor, and
clanked his way with as much dignity as possible into the relative peace
of the overcrowded ballroom.

"Oh, and Percy" Guido called after him.

Blakeney stopped.

"He's in the oubliette."

 

*

It was three in the morning before the Prince Regent finally decided that
perhaps the country estate of a nearby and very accommodating lady friend
would perhaps be a more congenial spot in which to spend what remained of
the night. Gathering his inebriated and somewhat incoherent entourage
together, he set off for his carriage.

In the hallway stood a tall, rather thin man, taking off his cloak and
gazing around him with an air of puzzlement.

"Pitt!" the Regent greeted his Prime Minister genially. "Splendid
party, old man! Shame you missed it, though."

And he made his cheery but unsteady way out of the castle.

Pitt's mouth thinned.

"Missed /what/, exactly?" he demanded of the world in general.

"Ah," said a voice from the doorway. "Well, we had a formula. And a
party. And then Prinny thought we'd have some more party."

"Hal," said Pitt, leaning back against the wall. "I might have
guessed."

"And now we're having another party. To celebrate. In here."

With a familiarity that he was going to agonise over for hours the next
day, Hal Trevelyan linked his arm through that of the Prime Minister of
England, and led him with genial hospitality into the East Wing of his
own castle.

 

 

The End