The King's Man
Talk not of dying. I am out of fear
Of death or of death's hand....
Guido peered into the tiny shaving glass, and checked his reflection carefully. The bruises were fading fast, leaving only yellow-brown smudges, and the cut was almost gone, leaving a thin, dark-red line of scarring behind it, that would soon fade, and be gone.
He smoothed the brush over his thick dark hair, tying the heavy ends back neatly at the nape of his neck. It really had got too long, he thought, he should visit a barber at some point.
Well, maybe Enzo will allow a last request...
Guido grinned to himself.
He looked down at his clothing, checking for any marks, or for scuffs on his high boots, but he seemed to have achieved the immaculate impression he was aiming for. He picked up his cloak, and settled it around his shoulders, setting his face into the indifferent cynicism that was part of his power.
Lord God, but I'm tired...
He looked down, examining his ungloved hands. They were strong and elegant, like his father's had been, long fingered and quick. Despite the gloves, they bore the callouses of horse-riding and fencing, the muscle between thumb and forefinger clearly defined, betraying his trade.
Guido sighed, and pulled on the soft leather gloves, tailor-made to his specification, fitting like a second skin, allowing his fingertips almost as much sensitivity as if he were not wearing them. He cast a thought of mild regret towards the older, more familiar ones he had ruined on the brazier, shrugged, and flexed his fingers outwards, feeling the leather mould to the palms and backs, shaping itself exactly to the outline of his hands.
He ignored the rapier that rested, waiting, in the corner, and walked over to one of the bags. Finally, he found what he was after, a long parcel, carefully wrapped in cloth.
Reverently, he carried the parcel over to the desk, laid it down gently, and unwrapped it with his deft, capable hands. In the folds of the cloth lay the beautiful sword his father had given him when he was twelve, the gift given to each of the brothers when they were considered old enough to be worthy of bearing the Di Cesare crest at their side. He had earned his for his defiant championship of Hal...
Guido slowly drew the rapier, turning the steel this way and that, allowing the light to gleam from it into the tiny cabin.
The finest Toledo steel, Guido. Use it well...
The Conte's voice reverberated in his head, and his son drew a deep breath, his expression mournful.
Forgive me, papa, forgive me for what I must do. You would never have wanted what he has become...I know this is not what you would ever have wanted, not what you saw for us, but Pellew was right...I am a man of duty...and I need the very best to help me. I need this sword, the best, your gift to me...
Guido knelt, holding the sword as a knight would before an altar, in the way he and Hal had always done, before their mock-battles. Only now, unlike then, he meant every word he said.
I suppose we always did, really, even though we said it in jest...
"O God, I commend my sword into your hands. Grant that I may use it only for justice and right, that I will not abuse the power you have granted me with the skill I possess. Grant me victory over my enemies, oh God, and grant that it may come from within, so that I may have the courage to spare life, if need be. Let any error or false judgement that others make in ordering me to kill be upon my head, and if I should strike in anger, I pray you forgive me."
He closed his eyes in silence for a moment, and then, instinctively, whispered the words he had often felt, and never before spoken aloud.
"Lord God, grant me the power to protect those I love. Be merciful upon me, oh God, and if I cannot, let me die."
He sighed, opening his eyes, and said into the stillness of the cabin -
"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
He remained kneeling for a moment longer, then got to his feet, putting the sword back in its sheath, and buckling it around his waist.
Then he picked up the documents from the desk, swung the leather bag onto his shoulder, straightened his back, holding his head high, his hawk-like face arrogant and cold, and strode out of the cabin in a swirl of cloak. He knew that he was leaving most of his belongings behind, and had left instructions as to how they were to be disposed of should he not return. He was tempted to take a final look around, to remember the place where he had regained his memory to fix it upon his mind's eye forever, but the dark eyes did not flicker, and his pace did not slow as he closed the door behind him.
He did not look back.
Dr Morris looked up in surprise as Guido came into the surgery.
"Signor di Cesare," he exclaimed, hurrying over. "Are you well? Is your leg paining you?"
Guido shook his head, smiling wryly.
"I came to apologise," he said in his quiet voice. "I didn't mean what I said to you - on the deck."
The little man raised his eyebrows.
"Settling accounts before leaving?" he enquired, slightly surprised at Guido's unconditional apology.
"Something like that," he agreed. "I know that I may not return, doctor. I do not wish to leave with things unsaid."
The doctor nodded, and held out his hand. Guido grasped it in his own gloved one, and smiled, the small lines of cynicism erased.
"And when you come back," said Morris firmly, "we shall discover a way of helping you to eat, eh?"
Guido's mouth twitched.
"When I come back," he agreed. "You are a good man, Dr Morris. Thank you - for everything. My possessions - those I do not need - are in my cabin. I have left instructions. I would like you -"
Dr Morris nodded.
"Have no fear," he said gently. "I will do whatever you have asked me to."
"I know. That's why I chose you, but - one other thing, something I haven't written. Look after Will Deveraux for me? Please? He's - a good man, he deserves better than me hanging around his neck like a bloody albatross. His loyalty is commendable - but foolish. Don't let him suffer for it."
Dr Morris smiled.
"You are far from being an albatross, sir," he said, amused.
This man was proving to be more surprising by the day...who would have thought the arrogant young assassin capable of such unaffected humility?
"But I will help him, if I can," he promised quickly, seeing the worry on Guido's face. "You have my word on it."
Guido took a deep breath, and nodded, the almost imperceptible tension in his thin frame relaxing minutely.
"Well," he said. "That's that, then."
He seemed about to say something more, then laughed, and walked out, raising one hand in farewell.
"You will come back," said the doctor into the sudden stillness of the sick berth. "I would even go so far as to guarantee it. I see a great strength in you, sir, a strength I do not think you are even aware of - I wonder what must be done, to make you see who you truly are...? You have so many questions about yourself, so much unanswered..."
He rubbed one hand over his face, and turned back to his patients, half his mind still with the inexplicable young man who had somehow moved him deeply.
"I suspect your answers await you in Toulouse..."
Guido was relieved beyond belief at the doctor's easy acceptance of his wishes, but also slightly confused. The little man seemed to look at him all the time as if he were expecting something more from him, some great deed or saying - something, at any rate, that the assassin was not providing him with.
Guido tried to remember if he had ever met the man before, but drew a blank. Admittedly, his memory was still hazy in patches, but he was sure he would have kept the odd, dapper little doctor somewhere in his mind...
Guido sighed. Time was running out for him, aboard the 'Indefatigable', and he still had an incredible amount to do...and none of it easy. He had decided to leave this ship with all his affairs in order - that was done...but he also had to find some answers to things before he could leave. He knew that it was going to be one of the most difficult tasks of his life to find them.
Guido and Styles faced each other below decks, keeping their voices low. Guido was leaning against one of the wooden props, keeping his face carefully immoblie. Styles was staring at the floor, avoiding the assassin's look.
"Should be goin' with yeh," muttered Styles, to all intents and purposes speaking directly to the planking.
The assassin sighed.
"Believe it or not, Mr Styles, most people would consider me more than enough protection on a short journey. Your fears are quite ungrounded, I can assure you."
"Hm," grunted Styles disbelievingly. Guido rolled his eyes.
"Look," he said irritably. "I already have Pellew on my back about this, I really don't need you starting on the same tack! I am capable of doing what I say I will now and again, you know!"
Styles nodded, looking gloomy.
"Whatcher want, then, sir?"
"For heaven's sake, will you stop calling me - oh, never mind. I need to ask you a few questions."
Styles looked at him, his gaze level.
"Like yeh did before?"
Guido flushed slightly, remembering the last time he had asked Styles a 'question', and what had resulted from his stupidity.
"No," he said, dropping his mocking façade, and standing upright. "This time, I really need to know. I need to know about the 'Justinian'."
Styles gaped at him.
"Why?" he asked. "Why're yeh askin' me? Sir," he added belatedly.
"Because you have the answers I need," said Guido, his dark eyes intent.
"And what makes yeh think that?"
The 'sir' had completely vanished now.
Guido leant forward slightly, the shadows cast by the oil lamp highlighting the danger in his hawk-like face.
"Because I have the gift of total recall," he said ominously. "You said," and suddenly his voice changed completely, into a perfect replica of Styles', " 'Made the right decision, y'did. Don't let 'im tell yeh different.' Now, perhaps you would like to tell me what that little statement meant?"
Styles was silent.
"Listen to me!" shouted Guido. "I have done enough damage in the last four years to last a lifetime, and I am damned if I'm going to do any more! I have made Kennedy a promise, and I'm going to keep it, but you have got to help me! He doesn't want me to kill for him, doesn't want me to save his life, doesn't want me to do anything except kill a ghost! Now for the love of God, will you tell me what the hell is going on before I manage to do something really stupid?"
Guido sat on the coil of rope where he had sat and thought of what to do about Lorenzo, days before. Only this time, there would be no Sanderson, to make him think that perhaps the world was not as black as he thought...
The assassin looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers absently. The world was black, he thought wearily. He felt far older than his years, old and worn and tired of all humanity. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep until the journey to Toulouse had ended, sleep until he forgot everything he knew, everything he had ever heard or seen in his life.
Guido and his brothers had once fought and defeated a man like Simpson for the sake of Hal Trevelyan, had fought him with laughter and easy comradeship and the support of an entire family. But Guido was no longer the fourteen-year-old boy who had created chaos in the life of the 'statue man' with such uncaring ease, nor did he have his brothers' unquestioning help any more. He was alone.
The assassin had watched first hand the effect of unremitting persecution, had watched Hal diminish under his father's regime, despite all they could to try to alleviate what was happening. But the brothers had refused to give in, had fought the cold grey hatred of Trevelyan with all the love and loyalty of which they were capable - at first because Guido had asked them to, Guido who never asked for anything - and later because they had come to value the English boy as much as they did each other.
Trevelyan's behaviour had been as alien to the fiery brothers as the disappearance of the sun would have been, yet they had fought a darkness they hardly understood with all the power that their father had taught them - the unbeatable strength of their love for one another, the sheer overwhelming force of their instinctive unity against all that was a threat to their joyous world.
But now Guido sat on a coil of rope, lost in the depths of a ship that had brought him back to life against his will, and was alone as never before, fighting for something he had hardly even understood when he had won that long-ago battle...
They had saved Hal because they did not understand fully what Trevelyan was capable of - Enrico must have, though, thought the assassin sadly...but he had been the eldest son, secure in his power and wholly unafraid of any man. Enrico...tears filled Guido's eyes suddenly, remembering his gallant, elegantly frivolous, honourable brother lying dead, his body and face wasted from the illness that had already taken his father and brother - would Enrico have lived, perhaps, if he had not heard of Pietro's death? He had smiled, said dryly,
"I hope - he waits....Only time he's ever done something first..."
and closed his eyes with a faint smile. Guido had thought he had fallen asleep - but the long, tired breaths had ceased, and Enrico was lying dead, his worn face still smiling as though at some gentle joke...
Guido rubbed at his eyes furiously. This would not help anyone, to remember that. He had to think clearly, had to remember what Enrico had done for Hal, all those years back...he and Enzo had offered friendship, had, in the end, made it clear that Hal was one of them, accepted into the charmed closeness that the two brothers used to protect themselves from the indifference met by the middle sons...but it had been Enrico who had made the difference, not them, Enrico who had somehow understood what was happening...
Guido's memories were returning, but not with any great clarity as yet, the total recall he now possessed somehow not working when he tried to apply it to the past. Guido remembered his brother taking him aside, explaining something about Trevelyan, something that mattered now, mattered terribly - but what had he said?
The assassin chewed at his lower lip, trying to push himself back, to hear his brother's voice in his memory. Perhaps if he could recall phrasing that Enrico used, recollect the tones in which he said things, remember the room...remember anything, God damn it, anything that would force him to recollect...
Hal and Hotspur, he could remember that was when the joke had started, that year that had nearly destroyed Henry Trevelyan, when he had wished he could be someone else, and Guido had laughed, saying that he was, that he was Hal, defying his father, upholding the di Cesares in their idleness until the day he became king...when, of course, he would dismiss them from his court as worn-out mementoes of his wilder days. A story spun to make two boys into heroes, but somewhere along the line, the defiance had been forced into reality, and the irreverent Guido had been sobered into action...and, somehow, somehow they had won...but then they had been so protected, the Conte had still been alive, even if they had never had to turn to him, there had always been the knowledge that he would save them if he had to...and now all Guido had to offer was his ability to kill - and that wasn't wanted...
"What the hell am I going to do...?"
Guido dropped his head into his hands, feeling the minutes ticking away as the coast drew nearer. There was so little he could do now...if only the man were still alive! He could not undo years with his knives...only life...and no-one needed him to take life, not this time - but then, he had not killed Trevelyan, either, yet they had defeated him...
"Why can't I remember?" cried Guido aloud in anguish, his thoughts spinning dizzily, ineffectively, from one half-remembered subject to another.
"Guido, you have never had to face anything alone..."
That was Pietro, facing him down in the great echoing gallery...why would he remember that?
And then it was as if a door had opened, taking him back in time, forcing him back with a clarity so strong that the world around him vanished into a maze of light and dizzy half-felt perception, his mind's eye fixed on a conversation held more than ten years ago...
It had been the first time that Guido's loyalty had not lain with his brother, but with Hal. He had tried to talk to Enzo about his fears, but the older boy had only laughed at him, had not seen as Guido had how Hal diminished, day by day, withdrawing further into a world of plays and books where only Guido troubled to follow him. He had less and less contact with the real world as time went on, no longer even outraged at Guido's continued mockery of his father, but quiet and unresponsive.
"But what can I do?" he had asked Pietro desperately,
unable to believe that there was not some action he could take.
And then he had admitted the one thing that none of the di Cesare
brothers would have ever said, becoming the first of them to face
the truth, that there were some dark things in the world that
could not be defeated with the light of swordplay and
humour and love.
"Pietro, I'm afraid for him."
His older brother had looked at him properly for the first time, seeing in the narrow, strangely solemn face a prediction of the man whom Guido would become one day. The middle brother had always been the unknown quantity in the family, never asking or demanding, never seeking to please, but always taking his own, quietly determined route against the odds. Guido had never asked for help or advice in his life before now, and Pietro, the quietly observant one of the family, was interested to see that his young brother's first deviation from his chosen path, his first break from his silent bid for autonomy, was for a friend.
"Talk to Enrico," said the second son of the Conte di Cesare calmly. "He'll help you."
"He'll laugh," said Guido despondently. "He always does."
Pietro put his hands on his brother's shoulders, realising, with a shock, that the boy was nearly as tall as he was, and gave him a shake.
"I've known him serious before now," he said with a glint of humour. "Try him, Guido."
And Guido had gone to his brother's sanctum, the little study that led off the library, daring to disturb him for the first time either of them could remember.
Enrico had been hard at work on the estate books, his usual extravagant posturing vanished as he puzzled over the accounts. Guido had felt almost guilty at his intrusion, as though he were witnessing something too private for another's eyes.
But Enrico had looked up without surprise, and smiled, pushing the books aside.
"I wondered how long it would take you to come," he had said. Guido had frowned.
"What made you think I would come at all?"
"Because you are the strongest of all of them," Enrico had said quietly. "I know you, Guido. Even if the truth were to kill you, you would still face it down with your sword at the ready. Hal and Enzo call you the dragonslayer, don't they?"
Guido had flushed, not sure if he was being mocked or not.
"Yes," he mumbled. "But it's just a joke. I mean, they think it's funny, that I'm always charging around trying to save everything that moves."
"Do they?" asked his brother, and Guido was left in no doubt that his oldest brother was suddenly very much in earnest. "They may say they do, Guido, but somehow I doubt it. I think that Enzo, at least, is in danger of envying you...and Hal relies on you these days just to carry him through the hours - but then you know that, don't you? And that's why you're here."
Guido swallowed, and sat down in the chair on the other side of the wide desk.
"I don't know what to do," he admitted. "He won't tell me what's happening, but he hasn't said a straight sentence in weeks, he just quotes, and I don't mind that, but it's always the flippant ones, and he pushes Enzo away even more than he does me, so now Enzo won't help...Enrico, what's that bastard doing to him?"
"Must everything be in deeds before you can understand it, Guido?"
His younger brother looked at him blankly.
"What else is there?"
Enrico sighed. Guido was growing up to be probably the most intelligent of all the younger brothers, but he was still so young, too young, perhaps, to be made to understand this...
Enrico chose his words carefully, knowing that he had to make Guido understand exactly what he was fighting.
"There are some men," he said quietly, "who have the power to destroy souls with a look, a word, a blow. Not at once, but over time, patiently and inevitably, wearing down resistance day by day - until there is no secret place inside you where you can hide from them. And then, Guido, those men have their real power over you. They can recall past humiliation with a glance, make you less than nothing with one word. It takes time, and patience, and a relentless cruelty that neither you nor I, thank God, nor any of us here, have ever encountered. Until now."
"That's what Trevelyan's like...And that's what's happened to Hal, isn't it?" Guido's eyes were burning with indignation. "He's run out of secret places, inside him. He hasn't got anything left."
Guido got to his feet, and began to pace, looking far older than his years.
"So what do I do to help him fight?" he asked, his shoulders straightening out, as though under a burden he had suddenly decided to accept.
Enrico was looking at him with respect. Guido had not responded with disbelief, or tried to simplify the difficulty. He had simply absorbed it and requested help. This silent middle brother was becoming a formidable force indeed...
Enrico smiled to himself. The palazzo carried a secret, one that the eldest son had to know, and that no-one else was ever told. Enrico was about to break the rule...
Guido, coming back to himself, gazed into the dim light below decks, and swore, softly and vehemently. What Enrico had told him about Trevelyan held good now, was still a valuable lesson, but his solution was not one which could come into play now. Guido had been able to give Hal back what he had lost because Trevelyan was still alive - and because they had access to the palazzo's secret.
But none of these things applied here. The memories were no help, Guido was too late to put them to use.
He was truly on his own in what he had promised to do...how could he defeat the ghost of a man who had done that to someone? The man himself, perhaps, but a ghost?
"If only I could kill..." he groaned, "if only I could just kill him..."
Guido's head came up at that, his dark eyes burning.
"But Pellew already did that...if he hadn't, I wouldn't be facing a ghost..."
The assassin got slowly to his feet, his face hardening.
"I wanted answers..." he said quietly. "I suppose it's time I started to listen to them."
"What the hell do you mean, you can't ride?" demanded Will Deveraux in disbelief. "How the hell did you think we were going to get to Toulouse?"
"I didn't!" snapped Hornblower. "I just assumed -"
"What?" demanded the spy commander angrily. "That we were going by some kind of overground ship?"
Will ran his hands through his hair, his scarred face twisted with worry, and wished Guido were there.
"I have no idea of what to do," he said, sounding mildly frantic. "Can't you - learn - or something?"
"How? At top speed as we go?"
Kennedy, unhelpfully, started to laugh at that. Hornblower glared at him. Will tried to keep hold of his temper, clenching his jaw muscles so hard that he felt his teeth might splinter under the pressure.
"This is a very long way from being even vaguely amusing," he said tightly. "Why the hell didn't you tell me this before?"
"Because I didn't think it mattered!"
"Well, it matters! It matters a lot! What am I going to do now? Can't you - just - rope yourself on or something?"
"No." The tone was uncompromising in the extreme.
Will took a deep breath, and tried to think of what Guido would do, faced with this.
He'd just try to teach him...but they can't even talk to each other without fighting...
Will came to a sudden decision. They would just have to deal with the fighting when it happened.
"Guido can teach anyone to ride in a day," he said as calmly as he could, waiting for the explosion. "He's the best horseman I've ever met - and he taught me. So we'll take an extra day - and you'll learn."
"I doubt that there is anything he could teach me," said Hornblower stiffly. It was evident that, whatever his last encounter had been with Guido, it had left him mortally offended.
"I really don't care what you doubt, to be honest," said Will as mildly as he could. "We all have to get to Toulouse, and whether you and Guido spit at each other from here onwards, or decide to pretend you're both capable of civility, that is where we're all going. So swallow your pride, Lieutenant, because one way or another, you are getting on a horse, and you are going to ride. And trust me. The alternatives I have in mind to Guido's tuition will be far, far worse than spending a day in his company. And if you push me, I will use them. I hope I make myself clear?"
Hornblower swallowed. Will's scarred, demonic face lent a credence to his threat that he did not feel like challenging.
"Very clear," he said as coldly as possible, and stalked off.
Will and Kennedy looked at each other.
"If I were you," said Kennedy after a while, "I'd invest in a metal face guard."
"And why would that be?"
"I doubt Guido's going to be any happier about this than he was about your last plan...and I don't think your nose needs any more done to it this week..."
Will burst out laughing.
"Don't worry," he said through his laughter. "When he finds out this plan, I don't think I'll be around for long enough to worry about what happens to my nose!"
And he carried on laughing, overwhelmed by the complete ridiculousness of their latest difficulty.
End of Chapter 14