The King's Man
You would pluck out the heart of my mystery...
Guido was examining the horses in the stables, trying to decide which of them would be suitable for the ride to Toulouse. In all honesty, he had been hoping for more choice, but he supposed that he would just have to do the best he could with what was available.
He went over to the one that had caught his eye the most, and gently patted it on the side of its neck.
"Well now," he said, his voice soft and caressing. "Well, now, what do you think of me, eh? Can you do as I ask?"
He opened the door, and swung himself up onto the horse's back without saddle or bridle, guiding the animal without need of them.
He clattered out into the yard outside, and leant forward to breathe into the horse's ear.
"Show me what you can do..."
He nudged the horse into a canter, wheeling around at every corner with an neatness a cavalry man would have envied.
"Very good," called Guido, above the wind and rain. "Let's try it faster, shall we?"
And he urged the horse into a gallop, carrying on out of the courtyard, and into the fields beyond, jumping the fence effortlessly. His hair came free of its binding, and flew around him in wild dark strands as his speed quickened, the wind whipping his cloak back from his shoulders, freeing his strong body to move as he pleased.
"Good!" shouted the assassin as they raced across the field. "Good!"
He flung back his head, feeling the rain beat down around him, laughing and exhilarated, and held his arms out to the sides, letting his legs balance him and control the horse as they galloped, feeling his body adapt completely to the movement beneath him, letting the horse race, giving it its head completely, untrammelled by reins or bit to hold it back. Still holding his arms out to the side, Guido urged his horse towards the hedge that divided the fields, wondering if he could still jump without using his hands to control the horse on landing.
"Now!" he shouted exultantly. "Go!"
The horse jumped, flying over the hedge with ease. Guido leant back, his arms flung wide, his balance perfect, laughing for joy as they landed together on the other side. He leant forward, and patted the horse reassuringly.
"Good boy," he said quietly. "There's a good horse, eh? I'm going to have to find you a good name, one to suit you, won't I?"
He urged the horse into an easy canter, back to the inn, still murmuring nonsense as he rode.
"Now, don't get me wrong," he was saying, "you're a good horse, you're a fine horse, but I'm not going to give you some heroic name just to please you, it'll be a name that pleases me, you understand? Yes, yes, of course you do..."
He dismounted with the fluid grace that was so peculiar to him when he rode, and clucked at the horse, encouraging him back into the stable.
"I'll call you Dante," he said after a while, offering his new acquisition the rather withered apple that had been part of his meal. "Would you like that, eh?"
He grinned. If anyone could have heard him, they would have thought him completely insane, standing in the dark talking to a horse, asking it how it liked its name. Well, at least it seemed to like the apple, which had disappeared with disconcerting rapidity from the assassin's gloved palm.
Guido looked out across to the inn, and saw Will, shirtless, lean out of the window to fasten the shutters. His blond hair was loose and tangled to his shoulders, and Guido frowned, hoping that the spy had not got too drunk at dinner. Will with a hangover was deeply unpleasant company, and the morning was going to be difficult enough without the unnecessary addition of Will's temper.
Then he laughed quietly, his thin, narrow face falling into lines of amusement, as he saw Anne's fair head appear behind Will, and saw her small hands come around his chest from behind, pulling him backwards into the room. Will abandoned the shutters, and turned around, his head bending to hers as their lips met.
The amusement died from Guido's eyes and face, to be replaced by something harder and more cynical.
"Not for you, di Cesare," he murmured into the night. "Not for you."
The horses seemed suddenly very poor company in comparison, as the assassin imagined how it must be for someone like Will, to be able to take his joys when and where he found them, never to have to think of the possible consequences for the one he was leaving behind him, never having to wonder if association with his name would damn the woman he loved. Guido was no saint, but he was wary of taking his pleasures with anyone whose life might depend on him at a later date.
He sighed, resigning himself to spending the remainder of the night either in the stables, or in front of the fire in the main room of the inn. On balance, the idea of a fire was infinitely more attractive, and he left the stables, closing the door behind him carefully, and made his way across the courtyard, opening the door softly so as not to disturb the innkeeper.
He walked into the main room on silent feet, glad to see that the fire still burnt brightly in the grate, and stood for a moment in the silence of the darkened room, noticing that a couple of bottles of wine still stood on the table, along with some glasses. Either Anne or her father had remembered how others sometimes arrived, desperate to find either Guido or Will and bring them news. Guido went over, and opened one of the bottles, pouring the dark red wine into a glass, and walking over to the window to gaze out into the night.
No-one, as yet, would have realised they were here, but still - he could have wished Will and Anne had chosen another time...at least if the spy had been asleep, he would have woken with his mind on their purpose in being at the inn. The chances of him even remembering that there was another reason for his presence there that night were, to say the least, remote.
And there were seven more men out there looking for the scarred Englishman, and it was not as though he had the kind of face that was easy to forget...
Guido sighed, drinking deeply from his glass, and wished he had never agreed to come on this mission, no matter how much the spy commander had entreated him to do so. Then again, given the choice between France and going back to Scotland - well, his last trip to the Highlands had been one of the more unpleasant of his life, and he certainly had every intention of avoiding the place for as long as was humanly possible after that particular experience.
There were some things a man should not have to endure, and it had been proved to Guido quite forcibly that Scotland in January was quite definitely one of them. The weather had been the least of his problems, though it had certainly contributed to them...
He shuddered, and put the whole thing firmly out of his mind. Thinking about it was not going to help.
He rested his forehead on the cold glass of the window, and sighed, thinking about Lorenzo, and about their boyhood together, about Hal Trevelyan, and their friendship. About Francesca he did not dare think, for fear that it would leave him unable to think of anything else at all...
His hawk-like features were softened by the firelight, no trace of the killer visible now, the cynical lines on his narrow face erased as he stood thinking, gazing down into his wine as though it could tell the future, lost in his memories.
"If you drink both those bottles," said a voice behind him, "you are really going to regret it tomorrow."
Guido's hand jerked convulsively, and wine slopped out of the glass and onto his glove. He looked at it ruefully, then turned to face Kennedy, all traces of his reflective mood vanished completely, the usual tone of wry exasperation with the world and everything in it returned to his voice.
"You really are determined to ruin every pair of gloves I have, aren't you?" he asked wearily. "First red-hot braziers, now wine. Show some mercy, would you? And by the way, why aren't you asleep?"
"I was. Then I heard your horse in the courtyard."
Guido flushed, the colour burning across his high cheekbones, feeling ashamed. He had believed his actions to be private, was humiliated to think that he had been seen in that one moment of pure indulgence. But then, surely, he would have been hidden from sight in the field...
"My apologies for waking you," he said dryly, and turned back to the table, refilling his glass. "I will not be returning to the stables tonight, so you may sleep undisturbed."
"And I wanted to ask you something, so when I heard you come in -"
Guido nodded impatiently, swallowing wine.
"How did you know those men were waiting for us?"
Guido choked into his glass.
"How did I - why on earth do you want to know that, of all things?"
"I thought - it might be a useful thing to learn."
Guido's mouth set hard and thin with fury. He had gone to such efforts to stay away from everyone that night - and now this. The one thing he had no intention of discussing, being brought up as though it were some casual little trick that anyone could learn, something to be pulled from a magician's hat...was he never to be allowed to find some kind of peace, even after he had done what they all wanted? He killed to keep them safe, what more did they all want? He was not some freak at a show, not some strange species of subhuman life with abnormal powers, he was simply a man who had learnt how to kill - and, by some strange twist of fate, had learnt to be one of the best at it...
"You thought - it might be - useful?" he grated. "You thought - God almighty! Useful? Useful to know what? When and how and who to kill? Is that what you thought would be useful? You don't need to learn that! That's why they send people like me, or didn't you realise? What I did back there on the track - it's how I stay alive, it helps me to find my victims, helps me to creep up on them in the dark, helps me kill...and you dare say it 'might be useful'? Oh, it's useful, all right, it's useful to a man like me, it's useful if you happen to be his Majesty's trained killer, but I really fail to see the value it would have to someone like you!"
He stopped, breathing heavily, one hand clutching at the window frame, the other holding his wine-glass in long, loose fingers, regretting his words, yet still seething with anger at the questions his job exposed him to, at the stupidity of a world that did not understand the price he paid so that it could retain its ideals.
"Get out," he said bleakly. "Leave me. It would be courteous, given that my room is - somewhat occupied - to at least allow me to remain indoors. I would, under more normal circumstances, be more than willing to be the one to leave, but I fear the alternative is the stables, and that prospect does not appeal to me. So please - just go."
"I didn't realise - how could I, when you behave as if it all means so little to you? I thought it was something you could just -"
"Something you could just what? Pick up with a quick
explanation, an ability to be used or not as you pleased? This
is how I live! Every minute I am awake, I can do that,
can sense someone's presence, can assess whether they are a threat,
can prepare to kill almost before I am aware of it. The one thing
I can't do is stop being able to do that! No matter how
much I want to, no matter how much I long for peace, for sleep,
to be able just to find some kind of
oblivion, I can't - just - stop. If you think I'd even consider inflicting that on someone else, you must have an even lower opinion of me than I thought."
Guido was really, genuinely angry by now, his narrow face set in the odd lines of cynical despair that had been so visible when he first came aboard the 'Indefatigable'. In a rage so intense that he did not trust himself to look at the other man, he gripped the window frame and fought for control, looking into the fire with an unnecessary intensity. He felt betrayed, hurt beyond belief by Kennedy's question, reduced to a mere cipher, not even human any more, simply an object, to be used as necessary and then thrown away. And he had begun, God help him, to care about what happened to these men...however they saw him.
He was so intent on holding onto the emotions that were starting to tear him apart, his whole being focused on hiding the shivering that was beginning to rack him once more, that he did not notice the sudden comprehension on Archie's face, nor the look of determination that followed it.
"Now," said the assassin as coldly as he could, turning back to the window, "would you please leave me. I dislike asking for favours, but there you have it - I am in a position where I must."
"I didn't realise men like you had to ask for anything. Don't killers like yourself just demand and expect?"
And I'm taking my life into my hands, and if he wants to kill me this time, I've hurt him enough that there's no chance of him stopping himself...
Guido felt as though all the breath had been driven from him with one easy blow, his lungs emptying in shock as the world span around him. The wineglass fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers, shattering in a pool of liquid on the wooden floor, and he was back in Hell, back in Lorenzo's dungeons, listening...
"A true killer never has to ask for anything, Guido. They will always receive what they require without needing to even open their mouths. It's real power, little brother, and you'll grow to love it..."
"Never! Never, I will not be your shadow! I will always ask, whatever happens, I want nothing if it comes from fear..."
"Then you will never be good enough to defeat me, will you, Guido? And I know that's the only reason you're staying alive at the moment, after all...What a shame, all that stubbornness and fire, translated into nothing but revenge - you really are a complete failure, you know, you can't love killing and you can't even have the decency to be good enough at hating to be strong enough to kill me. What a colossal joke you are, Guido. I've truly enjoyed destroying you - but the challenge got so dull after a while. I think it's time to finish the process now. I really have become bored with your constant petty defiances..."
And then, speaking into the shadows -
The breath came back into Guido's lungs in a gasp, and he found that he had gripped the window-frame hard enough to break off some of the wood into his hand. He looked at it for a moment with blank, black eyes, then let it fall to the ground, to join the wineglass.
"Isn't it?" demanded Kennedy.
Guido opened his mouth to refute what was being said to him, to deny that he was that kind of man, but he found that he could not make any sound at all. His heart was hammering in his chest, his ears singing as they had after the 'Indefatigable' was hit. He could feel his skin turn cold and prickle as if all the nerves were on fire, feel his hands losing all strength, as they had in the rigging...
"Killers?" he said eventually, his voice a rusty croak. "Yes. But I - I ask. I take life because I must. I kill because those are my orders. But I expect - nothing. I never wanted - to be feared..."
He walked unsteadily over to the table, and filled another glass with wine, gulping at it desperately.
"Not all of us are given a chance," he said quietly. "If I had been, I would be - someone else. But I never had that chance. And now I have become what I most loathe...and you're right. When I ask for something, it isn't even a question, is it? It's a threat. Because of what I am."
"Guido, that wasn't what I -"
The assassin laughed harshly, not even listening, lost in some private horror.
"He won after all. Just by agreeing to what he wanted,
I let him win. And all this time, I
thought...I thought I had kept something of myself free. I was wrong. I have become his shadow."
This was not the reaction Kennedy had either wanted or expected. He had assumed that he would startle Guido into a denial, that the assassin would have been forced to admit he was not who he portrayed himself to be. But all his words seemed to have done was convince Guido of the opposite, that he was not only a killer, but had somehow failed himself by becoming one...
Now what can I say? he wondered desperately. If I judge him wrong again, I'm going to destroy what's left of his ability to go on...what's been done to him, before now? He's usually so sure of himself, why won't he fight me on this? Why on earth would he believe me so quickly, not even try and deny what I said...Will said he'd remembered, but what *has* he remembered, damn it? Deveraux said it would help us, but how can it, if it's reducing him to this?
Trying to think of what he could do, he found himself saying, almost without his own volition -
"How did you get the scars on your neck?"
- and saw Guido whirl around from the table, his eyes blazing, the earlier despairing deadness gone from his demeanour. For a moment, Archie thought that the assassin would simply kill him, that he had finally said the one thing that had broken Guido's terrible control beyond all help, but then the gloved hands went behind the Italian's back to grip the table, and Guido was saying softly,
"I told you. They were a gift from my brother."
"Yes," agreed Archie as quietly as he could, trying not to startle the assassin into withdrawing once more into the bleak despair he had shown only moments before. "Yes, you did. But - why? Why did he do that to his own brother? Guido - it makes no sense...why would he do that?"
There was a long moment of silence, and then Guido swallowed hard, trying to get the dryness out of his mouth and speak normally.
"Why...?" Guido's voice sounded odd, even to himself, hollow and lifeless, far from the effect he had been aiming for.
"Why would your brother do that? Did you hate each other?"
"Hate?" Guido breathed out, swallowed again, laughed out through his nose in an odd half-breath, trying to answer the question.
"Hate me? No. At least, if he did, I never knew it. But he hated Will Deveraux, and he hated my loyalty to him. Lorenzo - wanted my loyalty. He always did, but I never saw...it came to be an obsession with him, to get me to admire him, vow allegiance to him, give him my word of honour to follow him. And when I wouldn't give it, he turned me into what he knew I loathed - into what he was himself. I loved him in spite of it, you see, but he knew - he knew I would never forgive myself, if I became the same kind of man, if I killed because someone ordered me to. I thought - ah, Christ, I was only just past twenty, I was a fool! - I thought he would accept that I worked for the English, just as I accepted he worked for the French, but - he couldn't. He needed me to be like him, needed my approval. And when he realised I wasn't going to do what he wanted, he took it anyway."
"How did you end up -" Archie stopped, unsure of how to ask.
"How was I ever so stupid as to end up in his clutches?" Guido smiled mirthlessly. "My own failure. I was supposed to meet Deveraux and his spies. Lorenzo got there first, and - Will was the only one left alive, by the time I managed to work out what was happening. So - I offered myself in exchange. A year of my life for the whole of Will's. I thought I would hold out, survive, never thought he would - well, it was over a long time ago now, Kennedy, no point in re-hashing the past."
Now leave me be, damn you. Must you show my own failings to me so clearly? I will never have your strength. All I have is a misguided amusement at my own folly, and the desire to kill Lorenzo before I die. And they are neither of them things that I want to discuss with anyone - least of all a man who shows me each day that I have no worth, who shows me what I could have been, and failed to be. Leave me alone.
"Satisfy my curiosity, Guido - what did he do?"
Tell me why you look like a dying man when you remember! Tell me what makes you stand in the dark alone, what makes you look as if you were gazing into hell when I ask a simple question. I trusted you - trust me, now!
Guido sighed, and decided that answering was easier than evasion, after all, requiring less of the effort that was starting to become so painful...
"He chained me to a wall by the neck. In a collar with sharpened edges. Every time I moved, they cut into me. If I fell asleep, if I let my head drop even a little..." He sighed, and brushed the hair away from behind his ears, showing two scars thicker than the others. "Only let it happen once - it nearly scalped me. Once every three days, he let me lie down, and sleep a little."
Why do you think I never sleep, why I never dare...did you think I fought exhaustion for the sake of personal entertainment?
"The rest of the time...I had to stand. It was cold, and wet, and all I could hear was the water dripping down the walls - started quoting all the time, just to hear myself talk. They didn't say a word to me for the first three months, I didn't hear another voice apart from my own...but I've always been able to mimic, and so I talked to an awful lot of others, brought them to life, imagining what they might say to keep me going. But - in the end, there was only me. And the dark.
"Funny, but once Lorenzo started talking to me, what I'd
thought was hell...being on my own with my own voices - it seemed
like heaven on earth. I held out as long as I could...another
three months. Then he got bored. I don't - remember much - about
the next month...he turned me over to his men, they were good
at torture...and when I came out, I couldn't even
remember my own name. I let him teach me whatever he wanted, and all I could think was that I had to survive, I had to go to England and find Will. It was odd - I could remember all the languages I knew, all the intellectual things I'd kept myself going with - but I couldn't remember a single thing about my life except that I needed to find a man called Will Deveraux."
He laughed bitterly, thinking to himself -
And when I found him, he tried to give me back my memory - and I didn't want it...by God, I didn't! And now you come, like some constant reminder of my own cowardice, and I'm getting it back, still without wanting to...
Guido's mouth twisted into a sardonic, lopsided smile.
"Look at it this way - at least I was guaranteed some kind of employment. I should be thanking Lorenzo, all things considered."
Archie half-smiled in return, recognising the wry humour that had kept the assassin from falling into complete insanity, but unable to entirely disguise his shock at the story he had just heard. He offered the assassin the only consolation he could think of, an odd reassurance of reality.
"But you found Will, in the end."
"Oh, yes, I found him. And he needed me to kill for him - well, God knows I could do that! And I'd sworn myself over to the King, and he seemed to want me to do what Lorenzo had trained me up to be, so - well, it was a kind of half-life, at least. I had money, and someone wanted me. It wasn't so bad, not really."
"I survived. And now I can remember. It could have been a lot worse. Don't - don't feel sorry for me. I survived."
"But - Guido, I can't imagine that this is what you wanted, what you want! - to see yourself like this - as nothing more than a killer? Are you - can you really survive like this?"
Archie's mind whispered, even as he spoke -
I couldn't do this. I know you think I'm stronger than you - but I couldn't live with what you have to.
Guido grinned, suddenly and surprisingly.
"It's always worth surviving," he said, and the strange deadness that had lain on him so heavily earlier might never have been as he spoke, his voice was so light and inconsequential. "You, above all men, should recognise the truth of that. There is always - something - that makes it worthwhile. Even when you have lost all hope."
"Yes. That's true. But if you truly believe that, then why - why do you see yourself as what you hate?"
Guido's eyebrows flickered up.
"Because I am what I hate," he said quietly. "I am a man without belief. And I despised that in others as I despise it now in myself."
"That's ridiculous! You saved us all, out there tonight, and you know it!"
"No," said Guido patiently. "I killed two men because that is what I am employed to do. It's not quite the same thing."
"And why did you kill them?"
"None of your God damned business!"
The exclamation broke from Guido before he was aware of it, and his eyes flared wide in shock at his own outburst.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "There isn't a why. Not really."
"Oh, so, you just went out because you felt like a little massacre?"
"There were only two of them, Mr Kennedy." said Guido exasperatedly. "I hardly think that constitutes a massacre."
"Well, whatever. You know, what you do, what Will does, it keeps us alive. I've always known that, I've just never really thought about who those people might be, the ones who go out and get information, the ones we never notice..."
Well, that was the wrong thing to say, Archie, well done...just as he was being honest, you give him the perfect opportunity to escape into sarcasm...
Guido's dry voice confirmed his thoughts.
"Well, I'm flattered. Thank you. Are you by any chance tired of my unnoticeable company yet, or is that too much to hope for?"
"Is that a dismissal?"
"If you choose to take it as such..."
"Well I don't! Why are you so worried? Why are you standing down here on your own drinking - what is it, that you're not telling us?"
Guido considered defiance for a moment, then dropped into the nearest chair with a gesture of fatigue.
"They're after Will," he said, with a sense of desperate
relief at being able to say it out loud.
"They're after Will, and there's seven more of them, and I'm so bloody tired...and I lost Sanderson already - Christ, what am I going to do? I took command, and now I have to play the assassin as well, and those documents have to get to Toulouse, or it's a disaster...and now I can't even trust myself to do that!"
"You don't have to."
"Hm?" asked Guido, startled. "What do you mean, I don't have to? What else am I supposed to do?"
There was a short silence, and then -
"You could try trusting us."
Guido started to laugh, at the innocent simplicity of the answer he would never have thought of, at his own folly for not thinking of it, at the difference of the worlds they lived in, at everything and anything. The laughter washed through him like an antidote, sweeping away the bitterness of his memories with an overwhelming sense of the ridiculous.
"Yes," he said eventually, still laughing. "A novel idea, you realise, but yes! I suppose I could!"
The morning was clear and bright, the sun illuminating a glittering, rain-soaked world. Hornblower slept deeply, his long body relaxed, even without the familiar motion of the ship beneath him. He woke to a touch on his shoulder, and blinked himself awake in the shaft of sunlight that was coming in through the shutters.
Guido's narrow face twitched into a smile.
"Quietly," he whispered. "Don't wake your friend. Just get dressed and come downstairs. There's coffee."
"My life is complete," grumbled Hornblower, but he fished under the bed for his boots, and stumbled downstairs. He stopped in the doorway of the kitchen, embarrassed. Guido was talking to the girl - Anne? - who had served them last night, his face intent.
"Listen," he was saying clearly in French. "As long as you make Deveraux happy, it's no business of mine. I wish you joy, if anything. Just - be good to him, eh?"
His face was illuminated by a surprisingly sweet smile as he spoke the last words, and he said jestingly,
"Or I'll come after you. Now go back to him, and stop worrying."
Anne leant forward, smiling happily, and kissed him on the cheek, affecting not to notice the assassin's instinctive recoil from her touch, and his indrawn breath. Then she saw Hornblower standing awkwardly in the doorway, and blushed.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and hurried out.
Guido shook his head, smiling tiredly.
"That," he said dryly, "is the first time anyone has ever wanted my blessing. However, I suppose I should be cherishing the experience, so -"
He shrugged, and poured out coffee into a heavy earthenware mug, stirring in sugar.
"That's what you drink, isn't it?" he asked, handing him the mug, shuddering slightly at the idea of sugared coffee.
Hornblower sipped, and nodded in pleasure.
"Thank you. What are you trying to do, make up to me in advance for the hell you're about to put me through?"
"No, just making sure you're awake so that you can appreciate the full agony of it...but don't worry, I'm sure you'll be fine..."
"Fine on the horse?"
"No, fine at appreciating the extent of the torture that I have in mind. There's bread over there, if you want, and fresh butter. See you outside."
Hornblower gulped at the hot coffee, and wished he could feel less nervous. He, too, had looked out the night before to see the assassin gallop the horse out of the courtyard through the rain, and was praying that Guido had something else in mind for the morning's instruction...
When he got outside, Guido was holding two horses by the reins.
"I thought you might prefer it if I suffered with you," he said with mock-gravity, and held out the reins of one of the horses to Horatio.
"This one is called Dante," he said. "I tried him out last night, and he's good. He's safe, even without hands - I tested," he added with a grin. "So you don't need to worry."
"Dante. Right. And yours? What's he called?"
"Idiot, at the moment," said Guido dryly. "He's a complete fool, thinks go means stop and that gallop means throw me into a hedge. Still, he's learning, and what more can I ask for?"
"One that doesn't do those things?"
"Well, yes, of course! But all he needs is to be ridden a little, and he'll be a good horse. Won't you, eh?" he asked, rubbing the white nose. The horse whickered, and began to nibble the shoulder of Guido's cloak.
"Hey, you, that's mine!" protested the assassin, pushing the face away gently. "Well, Mr Hornblower - first lesson. Get onto the horse, if you please."
"Onto the horse?"
"Yes...it does tend to help, in the general scheme of riding one." Guido looked at him blankly, a slight frown creasing his forehead.
Then comprehension crossed his face.
"Bloody hell. It's worse than I thought it was going to be. You don't know how to mount, do you?"
"Well, I -"
"Oh, God," said Guido wearily. "I don't believe this. I'm going to kill Deveraux, if he ever gets out of bed. Right. Watch. The first thing you do..."
End of Chapter 17