The King's Man
The observed of all observers...
Guido left the room deep in thought. He felt he needed about a week to assimilate everything he had learnt as he sat on the bench and smoked his pipe. He was also cursing himself for an unutterable fool. For the sake of a moment's laughter, he had sworn over his weapons to a man whom Guido now knew to be his complete antithesis.
"He survived..." Guido whispered despairingly. "Three
years, and still...one year was all I had to bear, only one, and
what have I become for it? Assassin. King's Man. Walking cipher.
He was silent for a while, then murmured sadly words that had always haunted him, and had now become very real,
"As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends/ I must not look to have, but in their stead/ Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath/ Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not... and no original thoughts either!" he added furiously. "God, I could have gone my whole life and never met him, never known what might have been...why? Why did I swear over my weapons to him? Why must I be reminded now, of all times, of what I failed to do?"
He drew a deep breath, and stopped.
"This is self-pity, di Cesare," he said sternly. "Can you not see and admire bravery without your jealousy tainting it? Grow a spine, man!"
His bowed head straightened, his dark eyes gleaming in the lamplight.
"You are honoured," he said to himself in the dim light of the corridor. "He does not despise you as so many would. You are honoured, di Cesare, not cursed, that he accepted your weapons. And no-one, ever, must know of your envy. You will not dishonour your own decision!"
He stuck his pipe back in his mouth, the despair gone from his countenance as though it had never been there. As though preparing to face the world, he flickered one eyebrow upwards in practised cynicism, his dark face set once more in its sardonic lines. It was like seeing an actor replace a mask, put on a costume and a layer of greasepaint, ready to convince the world that only the character existed, and not the man who played him.
"Guido!" came a shrill voice from behind him, and Guido's natural sense of humour reasserted itself, blending the actor and the man into an easy, practised whole.
"I take it all back," he said grimly. "I am cursed. It's a rare form of ill-wishing known only in Britain, and it only ever appears in the form of a small freckled midshipman. I knew I shouldn't have gone to Scotland."
Sanderson did not even slow down in his run along the corridor, finally skidding to a breathless halt in front of the assassin.
"I've been spying!" he said excitedly.
"Oh good," said Guido, his tones expressing exactly the opposite. "Do tell."
He leant back against the wooden partition, his pipe in his mouth and his expression decidedly uninviting. A lot of the eagerness went out of Sanderson's demeanour.
"Actually," he said, looking nervous, "I don't know if you're going to like what I know."
"You astound me," said Guido as dryly as he could manage, but, just as in the inn, his skin was beginning to prickle with the sense of something very wrong, something that he should have known and had missed...
"And what is this devastating piece of news?" he heard his voice enquiring coldly, while his mind raced through what could possibly have happened in the last two hours.
"Well, I followed you down. I wanted to hear what you were going to talk about with Mr. Hornblower."
Only Will could have told how false Guido's sarcastic laughter was, and even he would not have known the reason, could not have seen the tiny hairs prickling upright on the backs of the assassin's arms and neck.
"Indeed?" he enquired, trying to keep his voice level. "Well, I'm afraid I must disillusion you as to your spying abilities once again, Mr. Sanderson. I have not, as yet, spoken with Mr. Hornblower this evening."
"No." Sanderson was looking more and more nervous, and, unbidden, the thought came into Guido's mind -
He has that sense of wrong too, even if he's only picking it up from me...perhaps he's right about making a spy after all...
Then he was jolted back out of his thoughts by what Sanderson had to say next.
"So I listened to what you were talking about with Matthews and Styles."
"Good," said Guido absently. "You could tell who I was really talking to, then?"
Sanderson nodded, flushing with pride at Guido's absent-minded praise, not realising that the assassin was waiting for a blow to fall that had not yet come, and was hardly even conscious of what he was saying. The little midshipman could not help but realise, however, that the news he had to give, however well it might show his own abilities, was not anything that Guido might want to hear, and he started biting his lip, unwilling, suddenly, to say any more.
"Go on," said Guido softly, as gentle as though he were coaxing information out of one of Will's new runners, as softly spoken as he would have been to a real spy with information they were too frightened to give to the forbidding King's Man. "Then what?"
He bent down to Sanderson's level, dropping the harsh mask of cynicism, allowing himself to seem as he was, or maybe had been once, young and tired and kind beneath the sardonic lines of habit. He placed his gloved hands gently on the midshipman's shoulders, soothing away the tension he knew he had unwittingly transmitted to the boy.
Sanderson smiled at him, almost hypnotically reassured by the bruised, exhausted face that seemed to be looking at him with respect.
I'm proving myself to him! he thought excitedly, and had to remember that a true spy would be methodical in his report, and not to babble. With Guido's steadying hands on his shoulders, it was surprisingly easy to do just that.
"You were talking about somewhere Spanish," he began, and then looked embarrassed. "I forgot the name."
"El Ferrol," said Guido, keeping the worry clear from his voice and expression. "Was it El Ferrol?"
Sanderson nodded, the cheerful expression returning to his face, and Guido lowered his hands.
"What then?" he asked very quietly.
"Well, Mr. Kennedy passed me. He was looking for you, so I said you were in the room there." Sanderson gestured. Guido nodded, hoping he did not look as worried as he was beginning to feel.
"You were saying something about it couldn't be possible -"
"To respect him," whispered Guido, and froze. Someone had passed the doorway then, he remembered, and he had thought nothing of it. He had been too busy trying to find things out to be watchful...
He kept his frozen calm for a moment, and then erupted in genuine fury.
"Hell! Hellfire and bloody damnation! That was a test for them! I wanted to find out something, I had to seem unforgiving to find out what they really thought!"
"You did," pointed out Sanderson with a grin. Guido's seemingly throwaway remark had caused an explosion of anger in the little room - which was exactly what he was hoping for.
"I know that!" howled Guido, straightening up with a jump. "Oh, God damn it all to hell!" He took several deep breaths, restraining the impulse to smash his fist through the wall.
"I'm not angry with you, Mr. Sanderson," he said more gently. "I'm angry at what's happened." Then his tenuous calm failed him again, and he shouted at the ceiling -
"Why the hell did he have to hear THAT out of all that was said? DAMN!"
"You aren't behaving like an assassin," said Sanderson, in some awe at the monumental wrath he had unleashed.
Guido, quick as a whiplash, turned on him, his splintering fury replaced by a glacial calm.
"Oh really?" he asked dangerously. "I suggest you finish telling me what else your wonderful spying expertise has discovered, Mr. Sanderson, or by God I'll show you how an assassin behaves. First hand. Are we clear?"
Sanderson swallowed, and nodded. Guido leant back against the wall.
"Now," he said. "Again. From the beginning. I want to know exactly what Mr. Kennedy heard, and most particularly, Mr. Sanderson, you are going to give me every little detail of what happened next. And I swear to God, if I ever catch you spying on me again after this, I'll deliver you up to the tender mercies of Mr. Hornblower without so much as a by-your-leave. Anything you don't understand so far?"
"That's a bit ungrateful!"
"Yes," said Guido flatly. "It is. Now, again."
Sanderson, looking mortally offended, started again.
"He was looking for you. He asked me if I'd seen you. I said you were in there with Matthews and Styles and that lot."
"What did he say?"
"He laughed and said he'd better rescue you before your head got spun back to front trying to follow the conversation."
Guido groaned, remembering the laughter of the previous night. He scrubbed at his head furiously with both gloved hands, trying to keep himself in order and succeeding only in tangling his hair even more.
"There was a lot of noise..."
Guido nodded, remembering. He had learnt as much as he needed to about Hornblower, he had thought, when a chance remark had caught his attention.
"He wouldn't go, though," Styles had said. "Not without Mr. Kennedy."
Guido had blinked in surprise.
"What on earth was he doing there?"
And then the 'noise' had started, as everyone had their own version to tell at the tops of their voices. Guido, trying to sift out information from at least five different points of view, had eventually distracted Styles' attention from berating Oldroyd for something to do with a man called Hunter, and asked him to explain. Offence that they weren't being listened to had shut everyone else up, while pride had made Styles remarkably lucid. And at the end of the story, Guido, searching for the true opinion of everyone else as to this man into whose hands he had unwittingly delivered Lorenzo's fate, had said -
"How on earth can it be possible to respect a man like that?"
- and unleashed a fair approximation of Bedlam.
"So," he said now, trying to keep calm. "After Mr. Kennedy heard me say that, what happened?"
"He just - left," said Sanderson miserably.
"You didn't follow him?" demanded Guido.
Sanderson shook his head.
"Should I have?"
"It would be very helpful to me at this precise moment to know where he was, yes," said Guido acidly. "Obviously your superb understanding of spying hasn't yet got to the stage of working out what people might want to know."
"But I know where he is," said Sanderson simply. "So I didn't need to follow him."
Guido gritted his teeth and tried not to shout.
"Then where is he, Mr. Sanderson?"
"It's his watch," said Sanderson, amazed that Guido did not already know the routine of the ship perfectly. "So, obviously, he's on deck."
"Obviously," he said dryly. "Naturally. How perfectly simple it all becomes now. Thank you, Mr. Sanderson."
"So, have I done well?" asked Sanderson, as Guido turned to go back up on deck.
"Yes," said Guido expressionlessly. "And if you ever do this well again, I'll be suggesting your punishment to Mr. Hornblower myself. All right?"
"But if I did well this time -"
Guido whirled around and was facing Sanderson in two strides.
"A spy has honour," he said softly. "What we see and what we hear, we repeat to no-one but our commander. And you are too young to be faced with that burden, Mr. Sanderson."
"So - you're my commander?" Sanderson was obviously not listening to a word Guido was saying.
"NO!" howled Guido in exasperation. "I mean that what you saw and heard tonight you are not to repeat to anyone else!"
"So you are my commander," said Sanderson, satisfied. Guido gave up.
"All right," he said, wondering if anything was ever going to go his way again. "I'm your commander. And that means you do exactly what I say. And that means no more spying!"
"For now," qualified Sanderson, and Guido flung his hands up in defeat.
"For now," he agreed wearily. "But you will start again when I say and how I say. Understood?"
Sanderson nodded, looking delighted.
"I'll wait," he promised happily. "Goodnight, Guido."
And he rushed off down the corridor.
"Oh God," he said in genuine prayer. "Now what do I do?"
Guido came up the steps to the deck very slowly, the wind catching at his cloak and turning him into a moving shadow. Silent, cat-footed in his soft boots, he walked across the deck, slowly moving towards the man who stood on watch, his back to the deck, staring out to sea. Guido closed his eyes in agony, standing very still in the light of the oil lamps, his battered, weary face seeming to float in the darkness of his clothing. He had no idea of what he could possibly say.
Then Kennedy turned around, looking as tired and beaten as Guido felt, and suddenly there seemed to be only one thing to say that made any sense at all.
"Forgive me," said the assassin softly, and walked over to where Kennedy stood. "Please, forgive me."
And he held out his hand in the first gesture of friendship he had made in over five years.
There was a moment's silence, and then -
"You don't need to be forgiven for speaking the truth," said Archie, making no move to take the assassin's hand. Guido tried to smile.
"If it had been the truth, I wouldn't be asking for forgiveness," he answered, trying to recapture his old cynicism. He dropped his hand to his side.
"It was a test," he said, hoping he didn't sound as completely defeated as he felt. "I knew the facts. I wanted to know what your men thought of the facts. And the only way to do that was to offend them. So - that's what I did."
Still no response, and Guido, in complete despair, gripped his head in his hands.
"Dear God, man, do you truly hold yourself so cheaply as to think I could say that and mean it?" he demanded in frustration. "What kind of a spy would I make if I made such stupid judgements?"
"Maybe your judgement would be right," said Archie, and Guido dropped his hands from his head.
"No," he said quietly. "It wouldn't be. Even if I really thought what I said to your men, I should never have said it. So to say it for effect was worse."
He felt that what he was saying now was making no sense at all, and gave up trying to explain himself, turning away, his hands gripping the rail as he stared out at the dark waves.
"I - am not - a good man, Mr. Kennedy. What I say shouldn't matter to someone like you. Your men respect and value you. Whatever you may believe of me, you should know that."
Still silence, and Guido made one last attempt.
"As I recall," he said with a hint of his old dryness, "I asked how it could be possible to respect a man like you."
He dropped his hands from the rail, and his bruised, exhausted face turned back towards Archie.
"The answer is - easily," he said simply. "And if I hadn't already sworn my weapons over to you, I would be doing so now. If you happen to consider an assassin's respect worth having, then I can assure you - you have it."
He was unaware of the plea in his dark eyes, or that the sardonic lines had vanished from his face. He seemed a very different creature from the shadowy jester who had appeared in the inn, different again from the man who had folded up against the mast with his legs weak from laughter. For the first time since he had arrived on the ship, the cynical actor had completely vanished. And it was the weary honesty in the hooded eyes that Archie found himself responding to.
"That depends on the assassin," he said with a breath of laughter. "I believe you, di Cesare."
Guido closed his eyes.
"Thank God," he said, not even bothering to disguise his relief. Then he recovered himself. "I thought you'd given up speech for an early Lent."
"Just enjoying the extent of your apology..."
"Ah..." Guido laughed despite himself. "So, am I forgiven, then?"
"Just - give me fair warning before you do any more tests on people!"
"I'll do that," promised Guido.
Then he put his hand out awkwardly, realising to his surprise that it was shaking slightly.
"You have my word."
"The word of an assassin?"
"Best I've got," shrugged Guido.
They shook hands with mock-solemnity, watching to see who would be the first to give in, and then Guido's mouth twitched uncontrollably, pulling down at the corners as he tried not to laugh. In the next moment, they were both grinning like idiots. Guido leant back on his elbows against the rail, and laughed.
"Lord, what fools these mortals be," he said tiredly.
"For someone who's decided they don't belong to the human race, you manage folly surprisingly well," pointed out Archie quietly, and heard Guido's quick intake of breath. Then there was silence.
Archie looked across, and saw that the assassin's face was set and hard, his eyes hooded by the heavy eyelids and gleaming dangerously in the lamplight. He took his elbows off the rail slowly, lowering his hands to his sides. The impression of a coiled spring was back, of something wound so tightly that the merest touch would set it off.
"And where did you get that impression from?" asked Guido very softly.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Archie was completely unafraid. Anyone who had just asked him for forgiveness, he reasoned, was hardly likely to kill him straight afterwards. "You don't have friends, you can't hold a conversation to save your life, you don't even know what people should call you when they're offering friendship, and you flinch away from shaking hands like it's some kind of penance you have to put yourself through. And you think no-one notices?"
He saw immediately that he had said the wrong thing - at least as far as he was concerned. The hard anger left Guido's face, to be replaced with an odd sorrow.
"No," said the assassin very quietly. "Not until you put it so succinctly, Mr. Kennedy, no. They had not. And I had not believed, until this moment, that it was detectable to another living soul."
Archie stood very still, not knowing what to expect next. Guido's eyes suddenly blazed with wrath, but the strange sorrow remained in the lines around his mouth.
"My God," he said very quietly. "It took only a year to make me forget...and I did not survive...but you! You survived three years! How could you know me? How do you know me for what I am? You survived!"
"In the same way you survive now." Archie's voice was shaking.
Guido stepped back.
"Ah, no..." he said. "No...you - you have friends, you cannot know..."
"Can't I? Then tell me! Who did you see, when I shook your hand, before you gritted your teeth, and made your eyes focus? Who?"
Guido stood very still. He looked as though he'd been hit.
"No-one," he said after a while. "I don't - see - a person - only...only a face, to remind me..."
He looked shattered, as though his train of thought were causing him to disintegrate, and the words sounded as if they were being torn from him.
"I never - intended - to separate myself, but - after a while, I learnt..."
He broke off, trying to laugh at himself, the lines deepening in his dark face, hearing himself babbling.
"Maybe it would have been easier - easier in England -
but - it's not a socially acceptable profession, mine. Deveraux
- he has another life to go back to. A house - a home, really
- there's a girl, somewhere, or was, only he doesn't talk much
about her - I live above inns, small rooms, don't need much -
stay away when I'm not needed. I don't - can't talk well, to
ordinary people, not used to it now...I think I could, once, maybe, but I don't remember..."
He laughed, suddenly and harshly, the bruises livid on his pallid face.
"While we wait for Deveraux to get his orders," he said wearily, "the others drink. I - I go to the playhouse. They pay us well, for what we do...I can afford it. And I escape. They say the things I don't dare, on stage - drinking doesn't work, though God knows I tried once or twice..."
He stopped, exhausted.
"How could you know any of that?" he asked bitterly.
There was a long silence, and then the bells tolled.
"The end of my watch," said Archie. Guido nodded.
"Who takes over from you?" he asked.
"He's there," said Guido, extending his arm.
Bowles came over, shivering in the raw air. He and Kennedy acknowledged each other, while Guido, bitterly regretting his outburst, withdrew into the shadows, lighting his pipe. The formalities over, Archie went back over to where the assassin stood, puffing away at his pipe, lighting his face up with a demonic glow.
"Come with me," said Archie quietly. "If you insist on knowing, let's at least get into the warm."
"Where are we?" asked Guido. He had picked up his bag somewhere en route, taking care not to disturb Will Deveraux, who had fallen asleep in one of the hammocks, a plate of half-eaten food beside him.
"This," said Archie with a grandiose gesture, "is the sick berth."
Guido looked blank.
"It's empty," he said after a while.
"We only left harbour two days ago," Archie pointed out with a dryness to emulate that of the assassin's habitual behaviour. "Give everyone some time."
"So where's the doctor?" Guido found that he was whispering, as though the room were full of invisibly sleeping people.
"In there." Archie pointed towards a door at the side. "Sleeping while he can. He doesn't mind. It's always warm down here - he's quite happy after a cold watch, if we want to warm up."
"Right..." said Guido slowly. The warmth was penetrating his still-damp cloak, and he took it off, putting it near one of the glowing braziers.
There were a couple of chairs near the largest brazier. Obviously whoever had taken the previous watch had availed themselves of the same luxury afterwards. Guido grinned, and stretched himself out like a cat in the nearest chair, holding his frozen feet as close to the warmth as he could. He relit his pipe, and smiled.
"Well," he said cheerfully, "I can think of worse places to be."
"So can I," said Archie grimly, and he told Guido di Cesare, assassin and spy, of a ship called 'Justinian', and the man who held below-decks in the grip of fear.
When he finished, Guido was swearing under his breath in his own language, his gloved hands gripping the sides of the chair.
Then he sprang to his feet.
"You're mad!" he exclaimed passionately. "How can you say you don't want me to kill anyone? Give me my weapons back! When this mission is over, I'll find him and I'll kill him without your say-so!" The tired face hardened, and Guido said quietly, "And for every month, every day, every hour that he had power, I will show him what torture truly is."
For a moment, Archie felt impossible joy blaze through him. Then he remembered, and said quietly,
"He's already dead, Guido."
Guido nodded, relaxing a little, the anger ebbing from him slowly.
"So - you killed him?"
"No - Captain Pellew did."
Guido nodded calmly. Then he frowned.
"Then - this was after you were in prison?"
Archie tried to look casual, and failed.
"I suppose so," he said.
"You didn't see him die."
It was a statement that said far more than the words Guido had used to phrase it in. Archie shook his head furiously, and bent towards the brazier, fiddling with the cover unnecessarily.
"You know when you asked me if I wanted you to kill anyone?" he asked, his voice catching. Guido nodded, his dark eyes filled with sadness.
"I remember," he said quietly.
Archie looked up quickly, his blue eyes brilliant with unshed tears.
"Any good at killing ghosts?" he asked, his mouth crooked. Guido's back straightened, and his dark, tired face twitched into a half-smile.
"The best," he said simply.
End of Chapter 6