The King's Man
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.
Guido tried to stop his thoughts racing pointlessly around his head as he rode, but the effort was in vain. He had called what he was asking Hornblower to do 'sending you into the lion's den' in jest, but the more he thought about it, the more he realised it was true. That was exactly what he was doing, and the lieutenant had no resources whatsoever to deal with what might happen as a result.
Except honour and bravery and intelligence and a good deal of common sense...
Well, that was probably wonderful in a battle, but in front of Lorenzo, it would be as useless as a paper shield against a bullet. Worse. It would be like handing someone the gun to shoot you with, then standing perfectly still and holding up the piece of paper, saying,
"No, don't worry, I'm perfectly all right like this..."
He should have forgotten about tossing the coin and just asked Kennedy to make the initial transfer, really. The man had very few illusions about what people were capable of, and would at least have the sense to be cautious...except Guido needed that caution to make sure of the real documents reaching the right person.
This was ridiculous. The decision had been made, the plans were set, and he couldn't face Lorenzo and keep the documents safe. He had to simply learn to accept that it was going to happen in the way they had discussed earlier, and get on with making sure it worked to their advantage.
"Damn, damn, damn..." muttered Guido between his teeth.
If Will had to face this day in and day out, no wonder he got so irritable. There was never a right thing to do, or a right choice, or a right decision. It was all utterly impossible and the commander took the blame.
Guido didn't want to face Lorenzo. He remembered only too vividly, these days, exactly what had been done to him in the year he had given up to his brother, and the idea of confronting the man again was almost unbearable. Night after night in the pitch black, listening to water dripping down the walls...and the searing pain in his neck whenever he moved his head...
The assassin shook his head a little, as though shaking off water. If he allowed himself to become disorientated and uncertain just through memories, there was no chance of him getting through a real-life encounter either intact or with dignity. He would just have to grit his teeth and bear whatever happened with as much courage as he could.
Well, in all fairness, none of us are about to go in and do what we're best suited to...it's like a French farce where we each pretend to be someone else and go in and out of doors putting on silly voices...
When he thought of it in those terms, it really was quite amusing. Hornblower forced into a position where he had to take orders from an assassin - at least recently, he seemed to have become capable of speaking to Guido without that look of faint contempt he had always had at first, or the little frown of perplexity that said -
"Why would an able-bodied man do something so dishonourable?"
The battle with the corvette had changed that in some way - and then, since their encounter with Lorenzo's assassins, things seemed to have eased a little, and they hadn't argued in a while...That had to be a start, at least...Still, it seemed odd that he should be the one lying to Lorenzo. Honest and honourable - and hoping to fool the greatest spy in Europe...
That should drive him to a nice state of complete frustration, anyway...
Kennedy. Well, Christ, if ever there was irony, there you had it. Asking a man who'd run across a bridge about to go up in smoke, just in order to save someone, to calmly sit back and watch while the same friend walked into danger under their very eyes? If ever there was a wrong person to ask -
I couldn't have done better if I'd searched for a year.
Only the truly insane would have come up with a plan like this - or a man with a spinning coin, trusting to luck and a God that had obviously had no sense of the appropriate.
God evidently has a better sense of sarcastic humour than even I do...
And himself. Guido di Cesare. Assassin. Spy. King's Man. And now, unfortunately, spy commander, thanks to a lovestruck girl and an incompetent killer. If there was someone more unsuited to take over Will's role - well, another year's searching might just have found someone, but even then they'd have probably been a better choice than Guido.
Oh, Christ, what an utter mess. What a bloody godawful disaster this has been from start to finish. I'm a wreck, Will's wounded, and I'm in charge of two noble, honourable men who are completely unsuitable for this mission...
"Damn!" he said loudly.
Horatio grinned, hearing Guido return to a kind of normality. The last two hours had been almost frightening, trying to maintain a pretence at conversation while the assassin rode in almost total silence, save for a few incoherent phrases that hissed through tightly held lips, his thin face inscrutable and shadowed by his hood in the growing light.
"Happy?" he enquired.
Guido laughed unwillingly.
"Not astoundingly, no," he admitted. "I'll just ride along in a gloomy silence and worry, shall I?"
"Have you ever commanded a mission before?"
"No. But I know what I'm doing - or at least, I hope I do. I won't let anyone down..."
"That was not in question."
"Except in my mind..."
"That's where it has to stay, you know..."
Guido looked across at the young, earnest lieutenant, and smiled.
"Yes," he agreed. "I do know. Now stop trying to turn me into one of your men, Mr Hornblower. Would you question Captain Pellew in this way?"
"No," admitted Horatio.
Guido looked at him with raised eyebrows.
"Well then. Grant me the same courtesy, would you?"
As the sun rose, Angelo limped over to the sleeping Hal, and shook him awake.
"We're leaving. Now."
"What are you talking about?" Hal rubbed his dark blue eyes sleepily, trying to understand.
"The tavern. Outside Toulouse. We're going now. Don't argue, Hal. I have a sudden urge to see my brother, and I'm going there to wait for him."
"I can't, Angelo...Francesca -"
"Will cope. You can't help her in what she has to do anyway. In fact, you're probably making it more difficult. She has to pretend to love Enzo, and that can't be easy when you're walking around here as a constant reminder that she doesn't. Please, Hal, just come with me?"
For a long moment, Hal Trevelyan hesitated. Then he nodded.
"All right," he agreed. "I'll come."
"Hal...what's the seal?"
"What do you mean?"
"Guido said something about a seal in his letter to me...what's he talking about?"
"Oh. Guido's seal. Have you never seen it?"
"Yes. He gave me a copy, before he left the first time to join Will Deveraux. He - he said if I should ever need him..."
Angelo nodded, remembering how madly honourable his brother had been, so long ago.
"Bring it with you," he said with a small smile.
"You need him."
"How much further?" asked Horatio after a while, and Guido hid a smile, squinting into the sun to conceal his amusement.
"Not far," he said. "Another ten miles, maybe."
"Guido, I have to tell you. I hate this horse..."
"I would imagine that the feeling is reciprocated," said Guido dryly. "You're using your hands like a pair of mallets. And you haven't said a word to him for hours."
"I have nothing to say to him. He's joggled me like a sack for the last three hours, and I've reached the point where I never want to see him again."
"Well, maybe you need to re-introduce yourself to him. Talk to him. Be friendly."
"And how, exactly, is that supposed to help?"
"Just try it..."
Horatio leant over, and gingerly patted Dante's neck.
"I am Lieutenant Hornblower," he said seriously. "Of His Majesty's Navy."
Guido groaned, and pushed his hood back off his face to stare into the sun again, the corner of his mouth twitching a little.
"Well," he said wearily. "I hope the horse was impressed by that..."
"Was that wrong?"
"Wrong - no. Odd - yes. He's not a captain, he's a horse. Formality is a little out of place, wouldn't you agree?"
It might as well have been fifty.
"Angelo. You can't start drinking now. It's only ten in the morning!"
"Good. I'll be nicely toasted before Guido gets here, then."
Hal sighed. The landlord bustled over with a bottle of wine, which looked reasonably drinkable, for a miracle, and two glasses. He looked astoundingly happy for a man who had been asked to serve two complete strangers this early in the morning. Then again, considering how much money Angelo had just given him to keep the tavern closed to everyone but themselves and Guido, perhaps the happiness wasn't that surprising.
"Angelo, I'm still hungover from all that brandy you poured down my throat last night. I do not want anything else to drink."
"Guido should be arriving in about three hours, by my calculations.." murmured Angelo innocently.
Hal grabbed the bottle of wine and poured some into the glasses. He lifted one glass with a visibly shaking hand, and gulped the wine down quickly. Angelo grinned wickedly at his reaction, and lifted his own glass in a mocking salute.
"True," said Hal, coming to the end of his wine with a little gasp, and setting the glass back on the table. "What were you saying about toasted?"
"That I had every intention of being quite thoroughly so before Guido got here."
Angelo laughed, and refilled their glasses.
"To Guido," he said, raising his glass. "Assassin, madman, brother and friend. And to us. Drunk as we can be when he gets here."
Hal's tired face twitched into a genuine smile for the first time in days. He was beginning to feel very fond of this younger brother.
Guido looked at the tavern in bewilderment.
"How can it be closed?" he asked. "It's the middle of the afternoon."
"Maybe the landlord left," suggested Kennedy.
"Maybe the landlord's drunk?" Guido responded.
"Maybe the landlord had a visit from your brother."
"In which case the landlord's dead, and we don't have to worry about going in. Maybe my brother's in there having a glass of wine...no. Unlikely."
"Maybe the landlord killed your brother with drink, and we can all go home."
"Haven't you two got anything helpful to suggest?" snarled Hornblower, getting off Dante with relief, and discovering that his legs seemed to be permanently bent.
Guido shook his head cheerfully, unphased by the interruption. He had endured almost an hour of Hornblower's bad temper, and was thoroughly sick of catering to it. The word games that he and Kennedy had started playing sometime after noon were infinitely preferable to having another fight.
He vaulted off his horse, landing lightly onto the hard ground,
resting his hand affectionately on
"Hello?" he called loudly. "Anyone there?"
The landlord came out, looking rather flustered.
"Are you Signor di Cesare?" he asked worriedly.
"I am. Most of the time, anyway. Why?"
"Then you may come in. I shall have your horses seen to."
"Are you keeping everyone else out?"
"Your brother -"
Guido went white.
" - asked me to keep the place free so that you could talk -"
"- what the devil -?"
"- you and your friends -"
"- is he mad?"
"- so if you would like to step inside?"
Guido drew his sword, and his lips peeled back from his teeth in a feral smile. The landlord stepped back in sudden panic.
Guido ignored him.
"I'd be delighted," he said grimly. "Gentlemen, watch your backs. This should be - interesting."
"Thank you," said Kennedy dryly. "I'd reached my boredom threshold quite a while back, and I do so need entertainment. How considerate of you to provide it."
Guido laughed harshly, the sound completely without humour.
"Well, I think you may have it, Mr Kennedy..."
And then the sound of laughter drifted out of the open door. Guido stopped, frowning.
"That isn't Enzo...what on earth...?"
Still frowning, his dark eyes puzzled, he walked across the yard and into the tavern, his sword in his hand.
Guido walked slowly into the comparative gloom of the tavern, blinking rapidly as his cat-like eyes adjusted to the dim light. From somewhere across the room, he heard a gasp, and the sound of glass breaking, and he swivelled his head quickly towards the noise.
There were two figures sitting at one of the tables, unrecognisable to the sun-dazzled assassin, whose eyes were still focusing, and the outlines of three empty bottles could be seen in front of them. One of them looked across at Guido, and laughed, getting to his feet awkwardly and limping around the table, shielding his companion from the assassin's view. Guido simply stood where he was, the sword still in his hand, unable to believe what he was seeing.
"My God," whispered the assassin in shock. "Angelo? What are you doing here?"
"I got your letter..."
"But how? I never sent it!"
"Morris. The doctor."
"Meddling idiot. He thinks he can help me. He might have got you killed, for heaven's sake..."
"Does that mean you're not pleased I'm here?" asked Angelo wryly.
"Pleased - I - oh, you bloody fool, of course I'm pleased!"
Guido reached out with his free arm, still not letting go of the sword, and hugged his brother to him in a quick, rough embrace, trying not to think about the contact, and releasing him almost instantaneously. Seeing Angelo shift weight awkwardly as he stood there, the assassin asked -
"Your leg - Angelo - what happened?"
His brother shrugged, and Guido thought -
My God! Pietro come back to life...
"Honourable discharge. No more cavalry for me, Guido..."
"God, Angelo, I never meant you to come here, I meant you to get away from all this..."
"I was never any good at doing what I was told, was I?"
Guido laughed out loud, relief and delight combining in him joyously.
"Oh, you weren't that bad," he said, seeking to hide his emotions with mockery. "Angelo - why did you come?"
"I had something to deliver," said Angelo simply, and stepped to one side.
Guido felt the blood drain from his face, and the sword fell
from his suddenly nerveless fingers,
landing on the floor with a clatter.
"Oh, dear God," he whispered.
Hal Trevelyan got to his feet, looking as unsteady as Guido felt, and held out his hand, palm up. In the centre of it lay a tiny golden seal.
"Fiat justitia," he said, almost inaudibly.
There was a long pause, and then Guido moved across the room, walking past Angelo as if he did not exist, his thin, narrow face reflecting his incredulous hope, looking suddenly young and almost lost.
"Ruat coelum," he whispered. "Hello, Hal."
Guido and Hal stood there in silence, not knowing where to start, looking at each other in shock as they each tried to reconcile their memories with the changes that four years had wrought.
"Hotspur..." said Hal tentatively, and stopped, glancing over towards the open door at the sound of footsteps.
Hornblower and Kennedy, arriving rather belatedly in the doorway, looked around the tavern in puzzlement.
"What -?" began Hornblower, and then, seeing what appeared to be a French cavalry officer standing in front of him - and being completely ignored by the assassin, as well - tried again. "Who -"
"Angelo di Cesare," said the officer, bowing. Then he grinned, and the resemblance to Guido was so clear as to be almost laughable. "The other brother. At your service, I suppose, though I'm really at Guido's. I suggest, by the way, that we go through into the other room. I have taken the precaution of paying for the whole tavern."
"Why into the other room -" began Kennedy, and then followed Angelo's gaze across the room to where Hal and Guido remained completely still and silent.
"Who is he?"
"Hal Trevelyan. Has Guido ever -"
Hornblower and Kennedy spoke simultaneously, and Angelo smiled a little.
"The other room, then," he said quietly. "And I'll explain."
Guido and Hal, left alone, still had no idea of where to start. Then Guido laughed, looking a little embarrassed.
"You really are here, aren't you?" he enquired. "I'm not imagining this..."
"I'm here. So are you."
He looked at the assassin with consternation.
"Well, most of you, anyway. What have you been doing to yourself, Guido?"
"I - well - what do you mean?"
Hal almost laughed, thinking -
Is it as easy as this, then, to regain his friendship?
"Christ knows you were never anything but thin, man, but now you look like a wraith. I'll bet you any money I could knock you down, these days."
Guido shook his head.
"Hal, don't," he said wearily. "Those days are long gone, when you could even try, without me killing you, don't you understand? Please, don't try and turn the clock back and make me innocent again. I -"
He turned away abruptly, his eyes prickling uncomfortably. This was a terrible mistake. Hal would never accept him as the man he was now, he would always be trying to make him into what he had been...and that could never happen, even if he wanted it to. Too many years, too many deaths...too much change and damage and sorrow. He could not go back.
Hal bit his lip, feeling idiotic. He had not meant to imply that he could not accept Guido, only meant to show him that his friendship had not changed...but the scarred and battered assassin was not the joyous middle brother who had so loved the world and everything in it.
But then - I am not the same man who was that brother's friend...
"I know who you are," he said quietly. "It doesn't matter."
Guido breathed out in a kind of laugh.
"You don't know," he said bitterly. "You don't know what I do for a living, Hal..."
"You kill at the request of the King and the Government, and the messages come to you through Will Deveraux," said Hal in the same quiet voice. "And you hate it."
Guido spun around to face him, sudden hope in his face.
Hal swallowed hard, determined to get the truth out of the way, no matter what the consequences might be.
"I became Enzo's spy. Did you know that? I worked for the bastard for four years, thinking that he was a good man, deep down, and -"
Hal stopped abruptly, his voice threatening to betray his grief. He bent his head, staring at the floor, his mouth pulling down at one corner as he fought not to give way in front of a man whom he scarcely even knew any more.
There was silence for a moment. Hal kept his head bent, not daring to meet the scorn and contempt he knew he would see on the assassin's face.
"I am a coward," he whispered to the flagstones, and heard Guido draw his breath in sharply and suddenly.
"Oh, Hal, I'm so sorry," he said then, and there was no mistaking the desperate sorrow in his voice. "I'm so sorry for what I did to you - I should never have asked you to stay with Francesca - can you ever forgive me?"
"W-what?" Hal looked up at the narrow, familiar face, expecting mockery at the very least, and saw only the same sadness as he had heard in Guido's voice imprinted on the hawk-like features.
"I know very few men brave enough to do what you have," said Guido simply. "God damn it to hell - I should never have left you with Enzo, Hal, never! You and your bloody loyalty...oh, God, I should have known you'd stay...I'm sorry. I'm so bloody sorry. Hal, I know it's no excuse, but I couldn't remember you! Hell's teeth, I couldn't remember anything! If I had, I'd have sent for you long since, I swear I wouldn't have left you...oh, bloody hell, this was - I shouldn't -"
Guido suddenly stopped talking, looking at Hal properly for the first time, and his breath hissed in through his teeth as he realised what he was seeing. Hal was dying. He was letting himself slip out of life without even realising it, and that was why Angelo had brought him to the tavern...
Hal looked at Guido in perplexity as a look of pure fury crossed the thin face.
"What has he done to you?" shouted Guido angrily. "What did he do?"
"D-done?" Hal heard the stammer in his voice and loathed it. He had not imagined that this was how the meeting would be, he had seen Guido as being the one in need of help, not him, he didn't need anything...why should he?
"Hal, tell me, please..."
He had only ever heard Guido sound like that once before, had only ever heard that tone of unhappy fear in his voice one time...
"My God, Hal, get away!"
Guido chained to the wall, the collar around his neck, roaring in agony as he strove to break free, the collar slicing deep into his skin as he fought to break loose and get to Hal in time...
Lorenzo's torturers had got there first.
And Guido's last link with sanity had finally broken as he watched them take his friend.
Lorenzo had told his brother that Hal was dead, that in the terrible hours of raving lunacy that he had entered, he had killed his friend. Having come out of those hours not even knowing who he was, Guido had accepted that blindly, accepted that he was the kind of man who would do that...accepted the role of assassin. Somehow, Hal realised, he must have learnt or remembered that his belief was false...but he doubted Guido could remember why he had blotted his memory of Hal out so completely.
"I am well enough," he said quietly. "Nothing has been done to me, I - I am well, I - but - I have to ask - Guido - when did you realise that I wasn't dead?"
Guido paled. Then he stepped back from Hal, his face settling into new, cynical lines that Hal had never seen before.
"I saw your name in a dispatch about Lorenzo," he said quietly. "When my memory came back - I knew who you were, So I guessed I hadn't killed you, after all, and that you were holding to your promise...Hal, I still don't remember that, I truly don't - I can't imagine why I would ever want to kill you! Was I really insane? That insane?"
Hal looked at Guido for a long moment, assessing whether he was being genuine or not, and frowning a little.
"Guido, what do you remember?"
"I remember you came to see me...I remember asking you to look after Francesca...I think I shouted at you to get away from me...I - did I see you after that, or was that when I tried to kill you?"
"You never tried to kill me," said Hal very softly. "Enzo's torturers came damn close, but you - no, never, Guido. You must stop believing that. You tried to save me, Hotspur, you tried so hard, and when I learnt what Enzo had told you, I -"
I wanted to find you, but by the time I could even move, you'd gone...
Guido staggered backwards as though he had been hit, groping behind him for a chair, and sitting down in it blindly.
"I never tried to kill you?" he whispered disbelievingly. "I never...oh, my God, Hal, I thought, I thought, I -"
Hal came to where the assassin sat staring into space, and knelt down in front of him, forcing Guido to look at him.
"You have never harmed me in your life," he said firmly. "Not then, not ever. I was given over to Enzo's torturers, and you tried to save me, and you couldn't. The reason you couldn't is because he tortured you for a month and then put you back in the collar. You did not try to kill me, Guido. You were never that man. I swear it. I swear it on my life."
Guido laughed harshly.
"I can't remember that," he said bitterly. "I can't remember any of it...Hal, I need to know if this is true. I want to believe it so much, but I've known for years that I tried to kill you, I thought for even longer that I had killed you, and now you're here, and it makes no sense..."
"You tried to save me," repeated Hal. He reached out, and brushed Guido's hair away to the side, turning the assassin's head so that he could examine the raised white lines on the back of his neck.
"These scars are not from when you were chained to the wall, Guido. You were too careful, and there would only have been one or two marks left, after all these years. Those scars are from when you tried to break free to save me."
Guido put his gloved hand up, tracing the familiar lines that ran across his skin.
"You aren't just - just saying this? Hal, you don't have to be loyal any more, you don't need to say this..."
"I'm saying it because you need to know. No other reason."
"Enzo gave you to the torturers?" Guido was shaking.
"Yes," said Hal faintly.
Guido put his hands out, and rested them on Hal's shoulders, looking straight at him.
"And you stayed with him just because I asked you to look after Francesca?"
Hal could not speak. He simply nodded.
"Oh God. Oh, Hal, forgive me. I knew you loved her, and I still did that to you. Can you ever forgive me for that?"
"You knew?" Hal's voice was ragged with disbelief.
"You were my friend," said Guido.
Not are. I dare not presume.
"Of course I knew," he continued aloud. "I -
I couldn't do anything about it...but I should never
have asked you for what I did."
Hal gave a gasp that was almost like a sob, and his hands came up to clutch Guido's.
"I am in hell..." he whispered. "I love her so much, and I cannot bear it any more..."
That's what was done to you...it wasn't Enzo after all, it was me...oh, Hal, how can you ever forgive me for this?
Aloud, all the assassin could say was -
"I'm so sorry, Hal, I'm so sorry..."
Hal stared at him, still gripping the gloved hands tightly.
"You aren't angry? That I love her?"
Guido almost laughed.
"How can I be angry at you for feeling what I feel? I would have to be angry at myself..."
The strange, withdrawn look that had been in Hal's eyes slowly began to vanish, and he tried to smile.
"I thought you would hate me..." he confessed under his breath.
"Oh, don't be so bloody ridiculous, Trevelyan! You're my friend, you fool, don't you realise? You always were...how could you think I would hate you?"
"Your friend? Still?"
"You're stuck with me," he admitted. "I can't stop being your friend any more than I can stop breathing. When I saw you here, I - I - it was...an impossible absolution, Hal. To see you here...I don't deserve to know you. I don't deserve your loyalty. I don't deserve your friendship...and I have all three of those things, and I can't believe it...I wish you didn't love Francesca because I can't bear to see you in this much pain, but as to caring about it for my own sake - I never did, damn it! I never cared!"
"Hotspur...Guido...my friend, my brother..."
"I would come back from the grave, if you needed me. Still. Always. Hal, don't let go, don't disappear, I need you too much, I care too much, don't let go..."
Hal leant forward, and rested his head on the assassin's shoulder.
"Oh, God, Guido, I wished you were there so many times, I kept thinking you would come and save us..."
Guido's long mouth pulled down at the corners as he fought back the tears.
"I am here," he said simply. "Fiat justitia, you bloody fool. I am here."
And he pulled Hal into his embrace, unafraid and sure of himself for the first time since his capture by Lorenzo.
"We're going to get out," he said, holding Hal tightly, feeling his embrace returned with a desperate fierceness, feeling Hal's broad shoulders shake as he wept with silent relief. "I promise. I'm going to get you all out. I'm going to make sure of it..."