The King's Man
Will and Guido were arguing. They had been arguing since the morning, it was getting dark outside, and it seemed as if the argument was probably going to go on until it got light again. Will was still getting absolutely nowhere. He had tried reason, logic, emotional blackmail, and shouting, and had got nothing more from Guido than a one-word answer.
Neither the inflection nor Guido's expression had changed throughout Will's increasingly desperate tirade. Eventually, when Will began shouting, he had fished out a book from his bag, swung his long legs into his hammock, and started reading with his pipe in his mouth. Occasionally, when Will paused for breath, he had lowered the book, taken the pipe out of his mouth, and said, in the same calm tone,
Neither of them had eaten, the oil-lamp had been refilled, Will was tired to death, and still Guido refused to give in.
"All right," said Will finally, sinking into his chair exhaustedly. "Why?"
"Because it is not your fight. And he's not your brother."
"He's not bloody Hornblower's brother either!"
"No. But I've never worked on a plan before, and I need help."
"Then why not ask me?" This was the question that Will kept coming back to, so it was no surprise to him when Guido stuck his pipe back in his mouth, lifted the book back up, and said from behind it, his voice slightly muffled by the pipe-stem,
"If you've got some crack-brained plan to go after Lorenzo..."
"No." Guido sighed, the sound seeming to float in the cloud of smoke that surrounded his hammock. "I want to work out a plan that involves staying as far away from the bastard as possible. Now can you please just accept that I'm going to do this, and get on with what you're supposed to be doing?"
"I was supposed to be working out a plan to get us to Toulouse."
"You still are." Guido swung his legs out of the hammock, and stood up.
"So what are you doing?"
"Working on a plan to get us out." Guido yawned hugely, and stretched. "God, I could sleep for hours."
"Guido, why out of Toulouse? The important thing is to get the documents in."
"Yes," agreed Guido mildly. "That's your important thing. My important thing is to get us all out. Alive, preferably."
Will's mouth fell open.
"Guido. Listen. If Lorenzo's there, then - I don't think..."
His voice trailed off. Guido's face was still serene beneath the purple bruising, but his eyes were very cold.
"I think that we should forget the idea of getting out."
It was Guido's turn to stare. Then he came and sat on the edge of the desk. He looked genuinely curious.
"Will, you're actually going to go there thinking that you were going to die? That - this is going to be it?"
Will looked completely blank.
"Well - yes. I'm not afraid of death, di Cesare."
"Deveraux, I'm not doubting your courage, but - you weren't even going to say anything to Pellew? Like - ah - don't send your officers because we're all going to die, something like that?"
"Why should I? He must know the risks if he told you about Lorenzo. We're obviously all fairly expendable."
Guido wondered for a moment whether he was going to hit Will or start laughing. In the event, he did neither. He just sat and stared at him.
"Thank you," he said eventually, and realised that the reason he wasn't doing anything was because he was very, very angry indeed. "Thank you, Deveraux, for your unfailing trust in me. My brother may have trained me, he may be better than me, but are you meaning to tell me that you didn't think I could even keep you away from him for two hours? That I wouldn't come up with some kind of plan to make sure that the three of you got out in one piece? Christ on the Cross, man! Why did you think I was coming with you?"
"Because you were ordered to," said Will simply.
"Because I was - you bloody idiot, you don't -"
Guido cut himself off suddenly, and stopped talking, realising that what he was saying was not making the slightest impression on Will at all. He wondered whether smashing the oil-lamp over Will's head would wake him up, and decided that it probably wouldn't. Then he got off the desk, and walked out without another word. He did not trust himself to say anything else.
Will sat there, stupefied.
"My God," he said eventually. "He actually thinks he can save us." Then he laughed bitterly, remembering the last time they had encountered Lorenzo. "He must be out of his mind..."
Guido was beginning to wonder the same thing himself. There was no earthly reason why he should believe he stood any chance at all of defeating his brother. If Lorenzo truly wanted them dead, then they would die - it was as simple as that, just as Will believed...
"Only if I let him beat me," said Guido aloud, pulling his hood over his head as he came onto the deck. "And I have one great advantage over him. I know him, I know his mind, I know how he thinks and acts and feels - and he no longer knows me. I'm not the same man he sent back to England with such contempt..."
Lorenzo had thought him broken, a pale copy of the man who had made him into an assassin. When Guido had insisted on returning to England, his brother had simply thought it was yet another sign of his weakness. It was, in fact, the one thing that Guido had managed to hold onto through twelve months of hell, the rope-line of his sanity. Working for the King had strengthened that rope, giving him a sense of some kind of identity, helping him know who he was, even if he could not quite remember, even now, who he had been. Year after year, Guido's sense of who he was had grown, and though he could not say, even now, that he was anything but a killer, he knew one thing was true about him - perhaps had been true before. He could not let others go to their deaths because of him. And if that meant outwitting Lorenzo, then that was what he would have to do.
"I wonder whether I would have been a good man?" mused Guido. He could not remember why he had gone to England in the first place, but he could remember starting work there for Will -
"But I started working for him in France!"
Guido's eyes suddenly went wide. He had assumed that he had held on to the thought of England because he had been happy there, or had some loyalty to it -
"But I was never there before that day when I went to try and find the King..."
It must have been Will's descriptions that he had held onto. Guido had thought he remembered a house with a garden and a lake, had seen in his mind's eye a winter sunset over the bare trees outside the house, but that wasn't even his memory, he knew that now as surely as he knew he had not been to England before the year with Lorenzo. Guido sighed. For years, he had thought that he had retained something of himself, had held onto something against Lorenzo. Now he knew that, like any prisoner, all he had managed to keep was the imagination of escape.
He had vague memories of his brothers, of being young, a few of his home - but Lorenzo's face blotted everything else out when his mind tried to hold onto something tangible.
Once, that had been the only way to survive, to make sure he could remember nothing that his brother could latch onto and use against him. He had deliberately forgotten how to feel, locked the ability away inside himself, believing that he would be able to unlock that part of him whenever he chose. But Lorenzo's training had been too thorough, and it had been a year before he had been able to feel anything at all, and an even longer time before he wanted to.
He shook his head angrily.
"You are an assassin," he reminded himself angrily. "That is who you are. Assassin. Spy. The King's Man. King's Agent. Guido di Cesare."
The familiar litany soothed him, stopped him chasing after his lost past, took away the panic. These days, he could at least control the emotions when they came from nowhere, could recognise and adapt them to his use. He had learnt that anger and panic must be controlled, that amusement did not have to be, and that the mild affection he felt for Will was harmless. Deep inside him, though, he knew that was not enough. At some point, he was going to start caring again - and that, he could remember, was something he had no hope of controlling at all.
He sighed, pushing the thoughts away from him, and lit his pipe. Introspection was something he only indulged in when he was very tired - and at that moment, he had reached a point where he would have given anything for twelve hours uninterrupted sleep.
It started to rain, and the wind grew stronger. Guido shivered, and pulled his cloak more tightly around him. Hornblower came up on deck, saw him, and walked over.
"Di Cesare," he said cheerfully. Guido looked at him irritably. It defeated his comprehension how anyone could be happy in weather like this.
"Yes," he agreed sarcastically. "Well done."
"Have you thought of anything?"
"No. Deveraux has come up with the stunning concept of going to Toulouse resigned to our deaths - but that's it."
Horatio grinned. Whatever Will Deveraux might be thinking, Guido's ironic treatment of it showed that he certainly did not share that opinion.
"Well, I haven't thought of anything at all - but at least I'm not that resigned. What does he think your brother is - the Antichrist?"
"Probably," agreed Guido dryly. "But then, he's only met him once. I know him, and though I'm quite prepared to believe he's sold his soul, I happen to know for a fact that he's mortal."
"You don't seem to be afraid of him," said Horatio curiously.
Guido's face was hidden in the shadows thrown by the hood, but Horatio thought he seemed to smile at that.
"No," he said, and amusement was clear in his voice. "I suppose I don't."
"Di Cesare, I understand - I think - what you said about being the cipher. That means you're carrying it around in your head, I assume. So I understand that you have to come with us to Toulouse. But - is it just that he's your brother? Is that why you don't want to kill him?"
Guido's hooded eyes were almost completely hidden in shadow.
"There are other reasons," he began, and then suddenly shouted with laughter. "By God, I'd forgotten! Of course I can't kill him!"
"Why," enquired Horatio rather irritably, "is that so funny?"
"What's funny," said Guido, calming down, "is that I was about to go into a great long explanation as to why it wouldn't be possible - and I'd completely forgotten that it can't be possible."
"That makes absolutely no sense at all."
"Listen," said Guido, and he was suddenly very serious indeed. "I swore my weapons to Mr. Kennedy."
"Yes, I know. Well?"
"So I can't use them. I can't use them unless he asks me to."
There was a long silence.
"He won't ask you," said Horatio after a while, and Guido sighed.
"That's what he said."
"And do you believe him?"
"God loves to make a man break his word," was all he said, and what Horatio could see of his face looked sad, as it had when he looked at the stars the night before. As then, he felt it would be rude to press the point further, and he simply shrugged.
"Well, we'd better keep trying to think," he said rather grimly. "Because if you can't kill your brother, we've only got one option in terms of planning."
"I had come to the same conclusion," he admitted.
"We aren't going to be able to avoid him. And that means our plan must centre on defeating him."
Guido sighed, and pushed the hood back off his face to stare at the sky.
"And God help us all," he said quietly.
The plan was going round in circles. The only thing Horatio and Guido could agree on was that they didn't want to meet Lorenzo, and the only thing they knew was that they were going to whether they wanted to or not. Everything else came back to the same thing. To defeat your enemy, you have to know him. The only person who knew anything about Lorenzo was Guido - and he was refusing to talk about him.
"This is going absolutely nowhere," said Horatio eventually.
Guido had retreated long since into silence, and was simply staring into the rain and smoking his pipe. He shrugged at that, and pulled the hood of his cloak back up over his wet hair.
"Look," said Horatio, "I know that you don't usually make the plans. I know that you're used to just making the best of whatever bad job you've been given. And I know you don't want me to judge you by your brother's standards. But you have got to tell me something about Lorenzo that I can use, or we're going to find ourselves in Toulouse with you still being the only person who knows anything."
Guido chewed at his lip, thinking.
"He's clever," he said, after a long pause. "I - no, not clever. He's devious. Manipulative. If he knows anything about you at all, he'll use it to hurt you. He likes to destroy people - to see them diminished - before he kills. It gives him pleasure. I think - I think that might be his weakness."
"You think that might give us time."
"When I am given a name," said Guido softly, "I find out all I can about the man, so that I know who I must face. But I never speak to them unless there is no other option available. I kill in the dark and in silence. Lorenzo wants his victims to know who he is. I'm just as happy for them never to find out."
"Then we already have an advantage," said Horatio. He was smiling.
Guido looked over at him, suddenly interested.
"Because part of the pleasure for him is to see the shock when his victim recognises him - or when he tells them who he is. That's part of his trick in destroying people - making them fear him, isn't it?"
How would you know that? wondered Guido. Aloud, he only replied -
"A very, very small part, but yes, I suppose so."
"But we already know who he is. It's not going to terrify anyone when he says why he's there, and the thought of an assassin, di Cesare, is not exactly going to be a novelty by that time. He's already lost the advantage of surprise."
Guido's eyebrows lifted, and he looked even more cynical than usual.
"You must be a very brave man," he said sardonically. "Personally, I find the idea of facing Lorenzo without the element of surprise even more worrying."
"Well, at least with surprise, I might die of the shock. This way, I'll have to wait for him to just get on with it."
For a moment, Horatio thought he was serious, and was about to berate him for his pessimism. Then he saw the faint twitch at the corner of Guido's mouth as he lifted the pipe up, and glared at him.
"Do you realise how much effort you waste trying to annoy me?" he demanded.
Guido leant back against one of the ropes nearby, and grinned.
"Oh, effort like that is never wasted," he said cheerfully. "Considering it works so well, Mr. Hornblower, I certainly wouldn't call it wasted..."
Horatio smiled unwillingly. Guido rested most of his weight on the rope, swinging it slightly.
"I can't think straight," he admitted. "You're right, I don't usually come up with plans. I just try to stop the ones that exist from going wrong. But Sanderson -"
"The midshipman?" interrupted Horatio in amazement.
"Looks about twelve, covered in freckles? Yes. He said that if he had a problem, he'd ask you for the solution."
"And you listened to him?"
"You teach him. You're responsible for him. If he trusts you, you're doing something right."
"Good Lord. I wish he treated me with half that respect to my face."
"Doesn't he? I think he likes to push his luck, see how far he can stretch everyone's tolerance. Does it matter?"
"If I tell you about discipline in the Navy, are you actually going to listen to a word of what I have to say?"
"Ah - no. But I'll keep a very polite expression on my face. Look, what I'm trying to say is that I need you to come up with a plan. Then I'll help you make it work."
"So when you asked me to help you think of something, you meant you wanted me to think of something."
Guido slanted a look over to him, trying to work out if that was a joke. It ws impossible to tell. Horatio's face was completely immobile, not even the eyes giving anything away. Guido sighed.
"Yes," he said simply.
Horatio had gone off to think, leaving Guido alone on the deck. He, too, was relieved to have time to himself. It seemed as though he had not stopped talking for two days, and most of it had been almost unbearable. He had manipulated and schemed and acted to try and keep people out of danger, and he was completely exhausted. Guido knew his brother well enough to know that come hell or high water, Lorenzo would come after them -
"But if Hornblower thinks he has a plan," he said to himself, gazing up at the overcast sky, "I have an excuse to prepare them against what that bastard will try and do when he finds us. Will can concentrate on getting the documents there...and I can make sure that I'm in a position where I can save those three noble idiots, rather than having to stand by and wait for Lorenzo to finish with them..."
He threw off his cloak on a sudden impulse, climbed up into the rigging, and hung upside down, as he had the night before, looking up through the sails at the scudding clouds. The rain grew heavier, and beat on his face, hurting the bruises and jolting him completely awake. He lifted himself up, gripping the ropes with his hands, soaked to the skin and shivering. A gust of wind caught at him, and the rigging swayed, Guido's supple body moving with it. He stood up, hooking his feet over the ropes, and leant backwards as far as he could, letting the wind rock and pull at him. He flung his head back, his whole body curving back from the ropes almost into an arc, letting the rain pour down over the gash on his face, the cold icing the bruises that surrounded it. Guido swung madly and silently in the wind, his face alight with exhilaration.
Then he stopped abruptly, and froze into stillness as only he knew how, becoming invisible in the time it took him to curve back upright. Like a cat, he could hear noises that others missed, and his life often depended on following that instinctive sense of presence that most people ignored. Someone was above him in the fighting top, and the sound Guido had sensed, rather than heard, was that person trying to keep out of the wind as much as possible.
So if you don't like the wind, why are you up there?wondered Guido, and began to climb.
He knew that he should have been surprised when he saw Sanderson up there, but somehow he wasn't.
"If you're practising to be a spy," said Guido acerbically,
"you're absolutely terrible. I could
hear you all the way down there."
Sanderson grinned at him, wetter even than the soaked assassin was.
"Yes, but I still overheard you," he said cheerfully.
"No, you didn't," said Guido calmly. "You're too high up and the wind's in the wrong direction. Nice try, though."
"Well, I wanted to hear, anyway."
"That isn't quite the same thing," pointed out Guido. "Look, it's wet and it's cold. The most basic thing a spy needs to know is when to put comfort before knowledge."
"So why are you up here?"
"Because the knowledge of who was up here was more important than comfort," said Guido logically.
Sanderson's freckled face looked cross.
"Who says I want to be a spy anyway?" he demanded. Guido's sardonic face twitched into a smile.
"Me," he said coolly. "I'm the world expert on small boys who think they're going to be the world's greatest King's Agent."
"Are you?" Sanderson looked suddenly eager. "Will you teach me?"
"No," said Guido flatly, and started to climb down again. Sanderson scrambled after him.
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because you're too young, and you're sworn to Pellew, and if I show you anything even remotely connected to spying, Mr. Hornblower is going to remove my teeth one by one and push them up my nose."
"Did he say that?" called down Sanderson, as Guido jumped to the deck. The assassin looked up into the rigging, not a glimmer of humour showing on his face.
"Absolutely," he confirmed. "And when he's finished with me, he'll do it to you."
Sanderson dropped down considerably less elegantly than Guido, and hurried after him as he put on his cloak and walked off.
"But Guido, I'd be really good at it!" he protested.
The black-clad assassin did not even slow down, and Sanderson stopped, bitterly disappointed, as the rain poured down around him.
"Really good," he repeated miserably.
Guido was looking for Horatio, and was lost. Completely, utterly, hopelessly lost. He couldn't even remember an approximate name of where he had got to, and there was enough noise going on to muddle even his sense of direction. He also had no idea of how to approach anyone and ask for help without looking like a fool. Wet, cross, and disorientated, he stood still and tried to remember what Hornblower had told him the previous night. He was damn sure the lieutenant hadn't mentioned this place, but anything was worth a try. Nothing came to mind. Guido sighed.
"Oh God," he said wearily. "Making a fool of myself time again."
He took a deep breath, and walked into the brightly-lit doorway nearest to him.
"Right," he said loudly. "Would someone tell me where the hell I've just got to?"
The answer was succinct, if unexpected.
"Here," said a man with ginger hair and a friendly grin.
"Marvellous," said Guido tiredly. "Thank you. Anyone else?"
"Who're you?" enquired someone else.
Guido bowed politely in the general direction of the voice, though he had no idea who had spoken.
"Guido di Cesare," he said, straightening up. "At your service. And very, very lost. If someone could just -"
"That's a Frog name, isn't it?" asked someone else. Guido started to get slightly cross.
"No," he said irritably. "It isn't. Look, I need to find -"
"Are you one of the spies, then?" asked the first man, and got clouted across the top of his head for his pains.
"Yes," said Guido, his head starting to spin. "The reason I'm here-"
"D'you want a drink, then?" It was the man who had thought he was French.
Guido gave up.
"Thank you," he said exhaustedly. "How kind."
Then he smiled inwardly. He spent most of his life getting information about people from men like these. If he wanted to know anything about the two men he was being forced to go to France with, it wasn't going to be Pellew's letter that helped him. It was going to be the opinion that the men who served them had.
"Spy," he reminded himself silently, and slid onto the end of the bench.
End of Chapter Five