Chapter Twenty-Three - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
I wish the winds would never cease.
Nor fish swim in the flood
Till my three sons come home to me
In earthly flesh and blood.
Dead man walking.
That girl, the one from the villa at Elbe had called his name, screamed out, “Giulio, Giulio” like some lovelorn fishwife, no doubt audible all over Belmont. He had known since the first visit to the quiet house with the great walnut tree overshadowing the garden gate that if he did anything, anything at all to betray the man inside, he was a dead man. And that there was no way he might conceal any such act of betrayal.
But that had been days ago and since then he had heard nothing. Nor had he any good intelligence to share with his master. Since her arrival in Gondal Town Miss Hooper had done nothing noteworthy. She had flitted between mantua-makers, milliners, embroiderers and jewellers like a moth caught between multiple lights. Such frivolity seemed out of character, but, as Jeanette pointed out while the rest of the staff sighed their sympathetic agreement, little Miss Hooper had been a poor orphan since the age of ten. Who could blame her for revelling in being all at once the richest heiress in Gondal? No doubt she would settle, once the novelty wore off.
But none of that was of interest to the man in the house in Belmont.
At first, Giulio had hoped something of interest might emerge from Miss Hooper’s choice to make her devotions not in the Cathedral, nor (except when absolutely required) in the Royal Chapel but in a small church in a genteel but unfashionable district. Via several intermediaries, he had reported it to his paymaster, who had returned, tersely: “NEXT TIME, READ THE MEMORIAL TABLETS.”
And next time he had indeed seen several generations of the Hooper family commemorated in marble on the church walls. A little enquiry of Jeanette revealed it had indeed been the church in which Sir Vernon Hooper had married the widowed princess, in the dark of a winter’s morning and with only his arms-man and her maid for witness. So, no mystery here. Her family church, on her father’s side.
After that, he had nothing at all he might report, save for spotting the Duplessis girl and her mother on the slopes of Belmont and that he dare not speak of for his own safety. Indeed, why would his paymaster be interested in them? People had many reasons for visiting the capital. Doubtless those reasons had nothing to do with the King. Doubtless. Doubtless.
Then the news came of the vanishing of Georgiana Darcy into thin air and half a troop of soldiers with her and the King was no longer interested in anything Giulio had to say to him.
That was what finally tore the heart out of him.
He was a Judas; there was no hope for him on either side of the grave. But — God forgive him! — he had once loved the young mistress with all he had and could be, and even now he would never dream of — could not dream of — doing her harm.
If only he could confess, and then convince her that the betrayals he wrought were all for her own good. For surely the King knew best: for his cousin, for the land of Gondal, for all the three kingdoms that must and should be one kingdom, that must and should be united, the better to stand against the Pope, and the Emperor, and the Sultan.
If only he could convince himself.
He found himself at the small church again, kneeling in the chapel before the altar, groping for the words in which he had once found comfort. But, again, they slipped and eluded him, and he felt that, should he find the temerity to receive, he would find on his tongue not the body of Christ, nor even plain bread, but stone.
He rose, to find himself not, after all, alone in the chapel. A round-face, inconsequential priest had materialised from the shadows.
“My child, I see from your face that you have stumbled and lie in sore peril. But even at the gates of Hell there is still a path to Heaven, if you but have the courage to turn from your evil courses, and climb it.”
Darcy did not stay at Deadholm Barracks longer than it took to gulp down a pint of small beer, a hunk of bread and some sharp cheese with pickled onions. Then he was on the back of a good fast gelding, and on the road to Pemberley with an escort of ten men and a promise from the barracks’ acting commander of more to follow if and when he sent the word.
Mrs Reynolds had never been surprised by a single thing in his entire lifetime. His arrival with an escort of soldiers barely raised a cats-paw on the lake of her serenity.
His chambers were aired and ready for him. There was even a bouquet in a vase on a side-table. He paused, befuddled. The flowers were dew fresh; the arrangement must have been put together while he was seeing his horse stabled and giving orders about the men. But who in the house would have had leisure or spirit for such fripperies at such a time? Was there not, too, something a little odd about the arrangement?
On close scrutiny, the oddities multiplied.
Mostly, the vase contained damask roses. The rose gardens were one of the glories of Pemberley: planted by his great-grandmother, cherished by his grandmother, extended and transfigured by his mother. But the roses’ heavy, rich scent was cut through by a sharper, herbal smell, with an undercurrent of something acrid.
A small, assertive group of yarrow blooms at the bottom of the composition caught his attention. Had someone raided the still-room? Perhaps so: this odd arrangement also included the spiky grey-green of rosemary and the shiny, crinkled leaves of basil. It was when he spotted the deadly nightshade that he understood.
More accurately, that was when he remembered. His forefinger stroked the velvet petals of the damask roses at the centre of the composition. He closed his eyes and was back there. Back then.
Five years ago. Pemberley’s grandest drawing room. Summer and the scent of roses drifting through the doors which opened onto the terrace.
Five of them, plus Mrs Reynolds. These visitors are too important to delegate service to a footman.
First among the company, his Grace the Duke of Malham, arguably the third most powerful man in Gondal, newly returned from a diplomatic mission to the Sublime Porte.
Next in precedence, his younger son, Julian, who had accompanied him to Constantinople and during that six months’ absence shot up by at least four fingers in height, turning him from a round-cheeked boy to a lanky adolescent.
Hosting the party, Papa, still hale and hearty, not the invalid the oncoming winter would render him.
Darcy himself, of course. And Georgiana, eleven years old and goggling at her former playmate Julian as if at a stranger.
Papa waves a lazy, amused hand.
“There are dry and heavy subjects his Grace and I must discuss. You two; entertain his young Lordship and hear all he has to impart concerning the Golden Horn.”
He supposes he should feel slighted to be so dismissed. He is ten years Georgiana’s elder, six years older than Julian. But Julian is clearly bursting to talk about Constantinople; Georgiana, quite over her initial shyness, bubblingly eager to listen and Mrs Reynolds hovers, smiling, carrying a tray with lemonade, shortbread biscuits and his most particular favourite hazelnut confits.
He directs the party to the table at the end of the terrace beneath the canopy, and drops into a seat there.
“So, pray tell us your impressions of the City.”
Julian drops his voice impressively. “The situation of the City is unsurpassed in all the world, its buildings are glorious, I could talk of the antiquities from dawn until dusk and not even scratch the surface, but it is crawling with spies and creatures of the Sultan. One may not breathe too deeply at dawn in Üsküdar, it is said, but the New Palace knows of it by noon. Accordingly, everyone of note in Constantinople talks pretty nothingnesses and conveys their real sentiments only in ciphers.”
Julian nods. “It is said that each family of rank has its own flower code, so that they may pass messages in bowls of tulips and suchlike.”
Georgiana claps her hands in delight. “What a capital notion. But how do they choose which plants stand for what?”
“I suppose,” Darcy says, fascinated despite himself, “It’s a matter of association. Some pun on the family name, or a link to the family crest or something which is associated with the house, so you know who it comes from. Likewise for the messages.”
“Sage, for example, to indicate that the purpose of the message is to advise,” Julian suggests.
“Coupled with wormwood, to warn that the advice will leave a bitter taste in the mouth? Wormwood on its own, of course, would simply signal ‘bad news’.”
Georgiana’s brow creases prettily. “I have one. Basil. Basileos, the king of herbs. So, in a composition, that would mean the King — or, I suppose, the Sultan, in Constantinople.”
Julian counters, “No. I had already earmarked basil as the signifier for ‘a deep-buried secret’, as in the tale of Lisabetta and her Lorenzo.”
“Lord Julian!” Darcy thunders, just as Georgiana looks puzzled, and says, “I do not believe I can have heard that story.”
Cornered between them, Julian looks, for a moment, panicked. Then, he nods engagingly to Darcy.
“Forgive me. I had forgot: my older brother did tell me some Tuscan poet had published a lewd travesty of the old tale I had of my nurse. I believe they have great store of such things in the libraries of Zalona. But you surely cannot have thought I meant to allude—?”
The Malham cub has grown in more than stature during his half-year’s absence. Darcy envies him the readiness of his address, even while planning to duck him in the great lake as soon as circumstances and his obligations to a guest of noble status permit.
“Tell us the story as you had it of your nurse, then,” he manages, through gritted teeth.
“May I? Well, Miss Georgiana, this is a horrid tale, I warn you, so be sure to let me know if you wish me to leave off, but it fell about like this. In Italy, they say, a young man named Lorenzo, of a respectable, mercantile family, formed the most intense affection for a lady, Lisabetta, the only daughter of an Florentine noble of the most rigidly exclusive type. He would hardly have deigned to betroth Lisabetta to a Viscount; to one of the merchant class, impossible! But love contrives a way over the highest obstacles —”
He tells the story well, but Darcy has heard it before — read it, indeed, in the words of the same lewd Tuscan to whom Julian had glancingly alluded. The sun is hot, and the bees buzz soporifically over the Pemberley turf. His eyes close. His attention wanders.
What rouses him is Georgiana’s laugh. “So, if basil is to convey either ‘the king’ or ‘a deadly secret’, depending on context, how can our code possibly manage to convey, ‘a deep and deadly secret, concerning the King’? By two bunches of basil, perhaps, separated only by some noxious plant or another?”
Darcy sits bolt upright, chilled to the marrow despite the sun’s heat. What are these children playing at? What half-understood tale might they have stumbled on? (Such stories do circulate at Court, especially concerning the late Queen’s death.)
“A deadly secret concerning the King? In the very unlikely event such a thing existed and you heard of it, it would be the height of folly to mention it, even in a flower code.”
He may have overdone the sternness: they look crestfallen. He signals Mrs Reynolds over with more confits. “No, I know you intended no harm, but believe me. There are jokes which should not be uttered, not even here, among family. But how do you imagine one might convey, ‘I desire your urgent response?’ using such a flower code? Yellow, perhaps — that’s a good, busy, excitable colour, and one can find yellow blooms all year round. Yarrow, at this time of year, would do admirably. And one can dry it for winter use.”
Julian recovers. “Indeed. And for ‘I desire a covert assignation’, what better than Love-in-a-mist?”
The game, once begun, continues all summer, extending to depictions of flowers sent in embroidery from Georgiana, and watercolours from Julian. It continues even through the difficult period of Papa’s illness, though the flower hues become more sombre as do the sentiments they convey. The language ends up having a repertoire of over a hundred symbols, noted by Georgiana in a little pocket-book with a lock. But then Julian is sent abroad to cultivate his mind and polish his languages and after that he is entered at the University in Zalona. By the time he returns to Pemberley the Princess’ party has been attacked in the high passes of the Skogull Ranges and Georgiana has no heart left for games and ciphers.
The sound of Mrs Reynolds’ knock and low-voiced enquiry jerked Darcy back to the present.
“Yes, pray come in. Mrs Reynolds; I trust my escort have been suitably accommodated? They are, I should make clear, not mine to command, though I am tasked with making suggestions as to how they should be deployed, based on the best local knowledge. Ultimately they answer to the King.”
“I had surmised as much, sir. We have done our best for accommodations; I trust his Grace the King will have no cause to complain of our treatment of his men. Furthermore, I have had the estate workers and our tenants gather reports and it seems best that part of your escort should be sent first to examine the area where the ambush occurred — given its weight and size, I do not think the Darcy state carriage can have been taken far from that point.”
“The Darcy state carriage?” That detail had not made it into the official reports. “Whatever could have possessed Georgiana —?”
The expression on Mrs Reynolds’ face silenced him instantly.
“It would seem indeed no-one has been idle and we are vastly in your debt.” He gestured at the vase. “Also, on a personal note, I greatly appreciated that touch.”
“I wished to do whatever I could to bring a little ease and lightness in these troubled times. Sir, if I may make a suggestion; over recent days I have found it a great refreshment to my spirit to walk along the ridge on the northern edge of the estate and watch the moon rise.”
“I may consider that, later this evening. Thank you again, Mrs Reynolds.”
Once she had gone, he turned again to the vase of flowers. Two bunches of basil, separated by nightshade. A deadly secret, concerning the king. And yarrow. I desire your urgent response.
The man on the far side of the desk reached out and stirred the small heap of stones on the desk with his forefinger. Improbably, he smiled.
“The richest heiress in Gondal, reduced to pawning her jewels to pay her gaming debts? How much did she lose?”
Giulio’s knees turned weak. “My lord I — I cannot say. It was a private party, hosted by Lady Agnes Traquair. Who attended, save that the invitees were drawn from the highest ladies of the court, I do not know —”
The man across the desk shrugged. “It nears the end of the season, and the ladies need their thrills as much as the men. Doubtless a dozen similar gatherings took place in the mansions of Gondal Town last night. But I had not expected Miss Hooper to make one of such a party. Especially not at such a time.”
On those last words, there was a chilling purr to his voice. Knowing his hands had begun to shake, Giulio kept them below the level of the desk.
“That, my lord, is why my lady has been driven to pawn her jewels. She could speak to her man of business and ask him to put her in funds to cover her losses but she is terrified he might tell you and you would judge her. But I swear, my lord, that she is only doing this because she has no other outlet. She worries over her cousin Georgiana, she truly does. She tries to focus on her needlework, but work so fine cannot be practised for more than a few hours a day and after her eyes and fingers give out she has nothing to do but worry. And the evenings are very long.”
“So you tell me she is playing high to take her mind off her cousin’s peril? A generous interpretation. But knowing my — knowing Miss Hooper, you may even be right. It is a dangerous weakness, though. Who knows what unscrupulous persons might do with such knowledge?”
Giulio’s mouth went dry. “So — does my lord have any suggestions?”
That unnaturally white finger stirred the small heap of jewels again. “Of course, the kind and proper thing would be that I give her the lecture concerning rash play I am confident her father would have given had he lived and then, once she is suitably chastened, offer to cover her debts and hand back her jewels.”
“But my lord —” Giulio all-but whimpered.
The man behind the desk smiled.
“Quite. That would, of course, reveal our connection and that would never do, would it? And these gems are precious but non-descript. Should there be a next time, you might quietly suggest some distinctive item (there is a pair of diamond ear-bobs of surpassing hideousness her aunt gave her on her majority, for example) be included among any jewels to be pawned. She never wears the ear-bobs — they are forty years out of day — so I daresay the suggestion will be pushing at an open door. And it will leave the possibility open that some jeweller or pawnbroker recognises the source and brings it to my attention. As for now — you cannot go back without the money she sent you to obtain, so I suppose — without even the pleasure of the lecture — I find myself covering those gaming debts after all. That should be enough, I trust? To our next meeting, then.”
The northern ridge was darker than Darcy had expected. Owls called in the depths of the thicket; here and there he caught the glint of fireflies. He had set out too early; there was only the faintest glimmer of silver over behind the far fells. Groping by memory, he found the stone bench the head gardener claimed had been there since Roman times, the bench that in his childhood had been everything from a fort defended against overwhelming attack by the forces of Gaaldine to a pirate galley on the Adriatic.
Darcy sat down on it, and waited.
The moon crept over the crest of the fells, its cold light transmuting Pemberley’s honey-gold sandstone into granite.
“You came, then.”
Without giving Darcy time to respond, the bandit Duke walked out into the moonlight. It made Julian d’Ancona’s face an All Souls’ mask of bone and shadows. The boy Darcy had known was gone forever, beyond grieving. This man was a stranger: lean, intense and, he doubted not at all, very, very dangerous.
With that one word, he felt tension dissipate.
“You acknowledge so much?”
“You have suffered a grave wrong; I acknowledge that. But you cannot return evil for evil. What have you done with my sister?”
“If you disbelieve me, you could try asking Mrs Reynolds. For what, after all, is more valuable than the testimony of a trusted servant?”
Damask roses. Yarrow. Basil. Deadly nightshade. A civil hint as to the direction of his walk this evening. Julian could, indeed, hardly have contrived this meeting without the help of Mrs Reynolds. In which case —
Darcy patted the bench. “Sit down. Tell me more?”
Julian dropped down beside him.
“Darcy: I have known Georgiana since we were children, playing together in these woods. Our families have been always as close as kin. She was in profound danger. Via your housekeeper, I heard her call for help and answered it.”
No. That would not do. He could see how it might have started, but still —
“You kidnapped her, and by doing so destroyed her reputation.”
The cicadas chirped in the undergrowth; they seemed to be chorussing approval. Julian gestured decisive negation.
“You know what would have become of her once she was fully inside the King’s clutches. Whom would he have married her to once she reached the capital? A raddled libertine like Traquair? Ask Lady Agnes whether she believes her reputation has been enhanced by the King’s actions.”
Darcy bit his lip and tasted blood.
“However scandalous that marriage, it could not have proceeded without the consent of Lady Agnes’ father, the Earl. I know — I think I know — how he was coerced into making that decision. Even so, I would not for my own part allow the King to make a like choice for Georgiana. Whatever it cost me. But the point is moot. Given she has spent over two weeks captive in a bandit camp, who will marry Georgiana now?”
Darcy’s head jerked up. “You?”
“I trust I have your consent? Georgiana has accepted my proposal but she cannot face the thought of grieving you by marrying clandestinely. She asked me to seek your blessing. And, for your better reassurance, this is not a case of her lacking options. Any suggestion that her reputation has been damaged by the events of the last days is one I will defend, if necessary, with my body.”
The insects sang on in the thicket. His heart lifted but still he dared not believe.
“Malham — Julian —”
“No, Darcy — listen to me. Georgiana has had her own chaperone with her from the start. I have had no private speech with her, save in broad daylight with Mrs Annesley within sight of us. I’ve seen to their accommodation and posted my own old wet-nurse to wait on them. Nancy McAllister will brook no nonsense from anyone. I’ve seen her lay one of my men out with a rolling pin for persisting with a maid-servant past the point of the girl’s comfort.”
“A most refined attendant for my sister,” Darcy observed, though his heart was not in it.
“You think so? A most reassuring attendant for a young woman residing in a bandit camp, surely. Nancy’s manners may lack polish, but her judgment in issues of practical morality is of the nicest. Your sister is as safe beneath my roof as she has ever been under yours.”
He paused, and then, very carefully, added, “Possibly, even safer.”
Like a stroke from the sharpest knife, it was a second before Darcy felt the pain.
“She told you of —” Try as he might, the man’s name stuck in his throat.
Julian gave a curt nod. “Georgiana is the most honourable of women. When I made my proposal in form, she insisted on telling me all about her infatuation with George Wickham. And its consequences. She told me at the outset she would think no worse of me if I retracted my proposal once I knew, but that she would be ashamed to let me proceed under a false premise.”
His throat swelled so he could barely speak. “And?”
“How could she possibly suppose I could think the worse of her? Of him — yes, that greedy, opportunistic, conscienceless blackguard —”
Darcy cut him short. “All that and more. Malham, your message referred to A deadly secret, concerning the King. On that score I can trade like for like. Reasonably enough, Georgiana presumes her dowry was George Wickham’s object, with revenge on me as a secondary motive. Now I know he has been a creature of James Moriarty these many years, though recently his puppet-master cut his strings. Therefore I also know he was in some wise connected with the attack on the Princess and her party, the year before last.”
A low whistle escaped Julian’s lips. “Darcy, do you have any idea where George Wickham is now?”
“I should, since I contrived it.” His throat felt very dry. “That is; by this day fortnight he is to present himself at Fort Whitburn, there to take up a lieutenancy in my cousin’s regiment. He seduced the sis— the daughter of a family in whom I take a friendly interest. A lieutenancy in a crack regiment was part of the price he demanded in order to induce him to marry her. “
“Still at his old tricks, then.”
“Indeed, though I suspect this time it was not at the King’s command. But I could hardly inflict him upon anyone other than a family member and Fitzwilliam knows him of old.”
Julian’s tone was, if anything, even drier than Darcy’s. “And Fort Whitburn being in the Borders, where war is expected before winter closes the passes, should his new bride be shortly rendered a widow few will mourn?”
“She would.” The tenacity with which Lydia Duplessis had asserted her devotion to her seducer had shaken him, being convinced that Wickham’s worthlessness must be as visible to the world at large as it was to him. “But her family, I suspect, would light candles to the Blessed Virgin.”
“I might join them. Though death in a ditch is less than he deserves. Thank you for this intelligence. I shall ensure it reaches the Queen.”
So it had come, then, the moment he had feared since this interview began.
Not “the Crown Princess of Gaaldine” (though even that was not a title people dared utter at Court, not these days) but unambiguously “the Queen.”
Charis, Queen Aspirant of Gondal.
“You go so far?” His voice was barely even a whisper.
“What choice has James Moriarty left me? He killed my father. He killed my brother. He bestowed my ancestral estates on his own half-sister. By your own account — and this I did not know before this evening — he sought by treachery to nullify a treaty entered into by King Ambrosine, murder the Princess and implicate Georgiana in his crimes. Had the Princess died in the Skogull high passes: as her waiting gentlewomen died, as her men-at-arms died — how long do you think you and Georgiana would have survived King Ambrosine’s wrath?”
A meteor streaked down the night sky. One moment there, the next gone and yet the impression still burned across his vision as if it would be there forever.
“I had not thought of it in those terms. It — it oversets me, rather.”
“That, I can understand. But let me tell you what else I know of James Moriarty. If your mind is pliable at present, this may set your opinion for you.”
Peter Brenzaida’s head hurt.
(His heart hurt, also, but that, being a metaphysical injury, could be ignored, at least for the time being.)
He and his half-troop, diminished to a scant dozen by defections, had been trying to clear the landslip on the East Road. That part he recalled clearly. Out of nowhere, it seemed, a screaming onslaught of bandits had risen up from the undergrowth. Most of his men had been stripped to their undershirts, holding spades and shovels rather than muskets. What could they have done? What could any of them have done?
A clout from some blunt instrument early in the struggle knocked him insensible. After a long, blurry, nauseous interval, he woke properly to find himself in bed; a proper bed, albeit one located in a white-washed room with a small barred window and a solid iron-bound door. A store-room, recently repurposed into a holding cell, he guessed. He rather thought it might have last been used to store apples.
Heralded by a rattle of keys, in due course followed a series of revelations which, unwelcome as they were, were infinitely less horrifying than the fancies which had tortured him ever since he had recovered consciousness.
Imprimis his entire party had fallen into the hands of the man whom, as soon as his increasingly indignant demands for paper, pens and ink were met, he would describe in his long-overdue report as “the outlaw falsely styling himself as Julian d’Ancona, twelfth Duke of Malham.” (Having met the man in question for a tense quarter-turn’s interview, which had left him more nauseated even than his lingering concussion warranted, in Brenzaida’s private opinion he was either the greatest actor in the three kingdoms or exactly who he claimed to be, but even he would hardly be fool enough to say so in a report the King himself would no doubt read or at least have précised for his benefit.)
Secundo his lady charges were being held captive in some remote location, away from this — whatever this complex was (something between a fortified farmhouse and a barracks, he thought, and judging by the incessant hammering, in the process of being significantly enlarged and rendered more defensible.)
Tertio as Acting-Sergeant Vaughan informed him, when his requests for an opportunity to assess the state of his captured subordinates were finally answered, they had all got off very lightly. Brenzaida’s own concussion and Trooper Ferris’ broken arm were, indeed, the entire extent of the butcher’s bill.
“Being as,” Acting-Sergeant Vaughan added, “the two ladies who had taken it into their heads to get out of the carriage to go sketching while we cleared the way, bolted just the wrong way when the ambush started, and ran straight into two of his Grace the Duke’s —”
“So-called,” Brenzaida interjected hurriedly.
Acting-Sergeant Vaughan cast a hasty glance around the high-walled yard in which they were standing and dropped his voice to a whisper. “So-called in Gondal Town maybe. But the way I see it, if you’re in an enemy camp, with no clear way back to your own lines and the enemy commander tells you he’s the Archangel Gabriel, it makes good sense to say, ‘And so you are, your archangel-ness, and which direction do you want your feathers brushing?’ Sir.”
Put that way, it did seem a prudent course of action. “So Miss Georgiana and Mrs Apsley — no, Annersley — were captured?”
“Practically before the action had really started, yes, sir. So naturally, when the Duke’s men showed up with the ladies, calling for us to lay down our arms and surrender, there wasn’t anything we could do. Lest the ladies be hurt, you understand. It was just after you’d been injured, sir, and were out cold.”
Peter nodded, and made a mental note to commend his acting-sergeant’s initiative when he finally got the opportunity to make his report. As for that —
“So you saw the ladies being taken prisoner? They were not —” He had no idea how to phrase this, and goodness only knew how he was going to put it in his report, but of a surety he would be asked. “They were not offered any insult?”
To his infinite relief, Vaughan’s voice contained not the smallest shade of equivocation.
“Not a suspicion of it, sir. The ladies behaved with great grace —Miss Darcy took pains to promise ransoms for all when we surrendered — and, to my mind, the Duke’s men would have been ashamed to show themselves lesser in the face of such dignity. And the Duke sent two women servants to attend them wherever he was taking them.”
Vaughan leant over him with a worried air.
“Sir, you haven’t given your parole not to escape, have you sir?”
Oh. He knew there was something he’d have forgotten, something a proper officer would have thought of. “I suppose I was unconscious when they’d normally have asked and then it got overlooked —”
Relief spread across Vaughan’s face like sunrise over a snowy field.
“In that case, sir, make sure you don’t, if you can possibly avoid it. Hope they’ve forgotten all about it. You see, me and the lads have been talking, and we don’t much fancy our chances of getting away — oh, there’s been no mistreatment, sir, and no complaints about food or where they’ve billeted us, but the Duke’s men know their stuff. But we reckon that you might have more of a chance, what with you having been wounded and what with them most probably thinking you’ve given your parole, even though you haven’t. So you just keep your wits about you, sir and your eyes peeled, and we’ll contrive some sort of diversion and then you can take your chances. After all, sir, if we’re to be ransomed, someone has to get the message out, don’t they?”
The promised diversion came a day and a half later. Peter was still a bit wobbly on his feet, but had been allowed out to sit in the sunshine in the courtyard, under the relaxed supervision of one of the Duke’s men who, while keeping an eye on Peter, was occupying himself in sorting through old bits of horse tack, and deciding which bits to set aside for mending, and which were beyond repair. Deciding that this was neither beneath his dignity as an officer nor contrary to Army Regulations on assisting the enemy, Peter volunteered to join him and found the experience unexpectedly congenial.
They were a good three-quarters of the way down the pile when the panicked whinnying began. Then the shouting.
An acrid gust of smoke swept over the courtyard. His guard dropped the bridle he’d been contemplating and bolted through the main gate, leaving Peter alone.
Alone. For a moment he could hardly comprehend it. But no one was watching him and the the little gate at the far corner was ajar.
The little gate led to the kitchen garden which was bounded by a high brick wall. Fortunately one with sufficient crumbled bricks to make climbing it comparatively simple. Once over it, he landed in an orchard and when the orchard ran out it was only a brief sprint across open meadowland, then into the cover of the woods.
Gradually he climbed up through the woods, following the line of a little stream, which twisted and turned as it made its way down the valley side. By the time he emerged above the tree-line onto the bare moors, the little community he had left was invisible, hidden behind a fold of the woodland.
So, he was deep in enemy territory; he had neither food nor water (nor, to be absolutely honest, any real idea of the best way out of enemy territory.) And his head hurt.
Nonetheless, he was the only hope the incarcerated Georgiana Darcy had. And this time he was not going to fail in his mission.
Peter Brenzaida gritted his teeth and, taking a rough steer by the sun, headed south-westwards across the high moors.
“Lady Abruzzi.” She looked into the sardonic eyes of the black-clad woman sitting opposite her across the table. “Thank you for offering me the opportunity to take my revenge.”
“And will you, ma’am?”
“Do you know, I have every hope I shall?”