ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 17

 

     Epione stood sheltered from the rain in a brick doorway, her collar pulled up, her too-large hat pulled down, and her new husband blocking her from the chance glance of any curious passersby, as he canvassed the nearly deserted street. They were standing a few doors down from The Moor’s Head tavern, waiting for Darton to secure a position within before they would walk past the front windows. 

     Extreme caution had been taken in their roundabout journey here, and the two men had spoken little as they had backtracked, crossed paths and taken two different hackney cabs, their pistols at the ready and their gazes sharp on their surroundings. 

     The journey had given Epione an opportunity to mull over this spying business, and the various factions involved.  It seemed apparent that Darton and de Gilles were aligned against Tremaine, who was aligned with the grey-eyed spymaster and Sir Lucien, her former brother-in-law—and it also seemed apparent that everyone was working toward the same end, which was to thwart Napoleon’s supporters. Those supporters apparently included Lisabetta, the now-dead Marie, and the now-presumably-dead Madame.

     All of them women, Epione noted thoughtfully; it made one think there was a man in the background, controlling their actions.  Certainly the frivolous Marie would not have masterminded such a plot; more likely she was just a pawn to be used against her own husband, in this deadly game of secrets.   

     Thinking about this, she whispered a thought that had suddenly entered her mind. “Did Sir Lucien kill my sister?”

     With some surprise, de Gilles glanced down at her, his face shadowed because they had taken pains to avoid the illumination of the street lanterns. “What makes you think this, ma belle?”

     But she persisted, “If you knew, would you tell me?”

     With one last glance down the street, he drew her further back into the doorway alcove, and slowly replied, “Sir Lucien is a very brave Englishman; he fought with the guerrillas in Spain—at a time when the odds seemed hopeless.” 

     This non-answer told her that she’d guessed correctly, and it only made sense; if Sir Lucien was working for the Home Office, and Marie was passing information to the enemy, it took little imagination to leap to this conclusion, given that she’d been shot in her own garden, and the circumstances quickly hushed up.

     Epione took a breath—truly, she’d been living in a naïve cocoon, making her hats and sheltered from these hard truths, which were now revealing themselves in what seemed like a relentless torrent.  “So; Marie was betraying France, England—and her own husband, for good measure.”

     He lifted his head to look out over the street, and observed quietly, “Greed is a terrible driver.  As we continue to see.”

     But she shook her head slightly, in disagreement. “No; not merely greed. Knowing Marie, it was the excitement of the scheming, and the attention it brought.  That would appeal to her more than any amount of money.”

     With a tilt of his head, he said only, “I do not wish to criticize your sister to you.”

     Epione sighed a bit sadly. “No—she paid a terrible price, and I suppose nothing more need be said. I think I’m a bit shocked, is all; that he would kill her—would kill his own wife. And then he remarried so quickly.”

     As he watched the street, he offered, “The new wife—they have known each other a long time.  It is not as sudden as it seems.” 

     This was a surprise, and she stared up at him. “They were lovers?” 

     He turned to face her again. “I do not know.  Possibly.”

     She made a wry mouth, and sought out his hand with her own. “You must think me foolish, not to have noticed that there were so many dark secrets, swirling around me.”

     He bent his head, and lifted her hand to kiss its gloved back. “No—I do not think you foolish, ma belle.  And it saddens me that I have no choice but to pull you out into the world’s ugliness.”

     But she shook her head slightly, in disagreement. “I am no stranger to the world’s ugliness, Alexis. Indeed, I think I admired Sir Lucien mainly because I knew no one else like him; no one who was not bitter, or flawed.”

     “Yes. You said you thought he was true.”

     There was a hint of gentle irony underlying the words, and she paused, appreciating that irony—now that she knew the facts—and also appreciating that this was a delicate topic to be discussing with one’s new husband. “But now I am the wiser; if he killed her, he definitely was not true.”

     He held her hand in his, and met her eyes. “He was true to his country, and for that he must be admired.” She had the impression he regretted his implied criticism of Sir Lucien, and was trying to make amends.

     “Yes, there is that.”  With gentle regret, she shook her head. “I shouldn’t have told you—about how I carried a tendre for him.  It makes me sound so young, and naïve.”

     But he drew her into a comforting embrace, still watching the street, and said over the top of her oversized hat, “You cannot be blamed, Epione, for seeking out a diversion. Your tendre gave you a small respite from the harsh realities of this world.”

     She laid her cheek on his coat front—he smelt heavenly; of undefined masculinity. “And now the harsh world has come to my doorstep, with a vengeance.” She lifted her head to meet his eyes. “As have you.”

     “As have I,” he agreed.  “I was fortunate to have found my way there.”

     This was gratifying—she’d noted that he was not one to make tender speeches, but on the other hand, she was not one to expect them, given that they didn’t know each other very well.  “I kept watching you watching me, and wondered what I had done to incite such interest.”

     “No one yet knows why you incite such interest,” he reminded her.

     “No—but at least I’ve gained a fine husband, which more than makes up for everything else.”

     At this accolade, his arms tightened around her. “I will see to it you suffer no more hardships, Epione.  You have asked no questions, but be assured I have the means to see that you live in comfort.”

     She ventured, “Will I live this comfortable existence at Desclaires?”

     He tilted his head. “Perhaps. It is a fine estate.”

     She looked up at him for a moment. “You’ve been there, then?”

     “Yes—when I was a boy. My family would visit, from time to time.”

     Epione lowered her face again to the comfort of his chest. “How is your poor arm?”  In truth, she was enjoying this semi-romantic conversation, and was casting about for any additional topic that could be directed into his coat front.

     “Better. Perhaps you will be kind enough to remove the stitches tomorrow.” In the near distance, a door slammed, twice. “We must go,” he whispered, suddenly intent. “Stay close to me.”

     After he adjusted the brim of her man’s hat low over her face, they stepped out onto the pavement, the rain mizzling and the fog beginning to roll in. As they approached the tavern, he lowered his head to speak quietly to her. “There will be a party of gentleman seated at the table by the near window. You must see if you recognize any of them as we pass by, but do not tarry, or lift your face.”

     She nodded in understanding, as he slowed before the paned window which fronted the establishment, the light streaming out onto the pavement. Faintly, she could hear the sound of many voices and the clinking of dishes and cutlery—apparently the establishment was popular, despite the inclement weather. 

     De Gilles strode beside her, ducking his head against the rain, and lifting his hand to his hat to obscure his face, as Epione glanced into the window.  There were four men seated in the midst of a meal—one of them Darton—and she quickly scanned them, but it was the man waiting on them that caught her eye. “I recognize only the British spymaster,” she warned. “He is serving the table.”

     But this revelation did not have the expected effect, as her companion drew up so suddenly that she bumped into him.  “Indeed? Show me.”

    Nervously wondering why they’d stopped in plain sight, Epione stammered, “He—he was serving the ale—there; now he has turned away.”  She could see Darton, glancing at them through the window, his brows raised in amused confusion at de Gilles’ unexpected actions.

     But de Gilles still did not move. “You are certain?”

     “Yes—I met him just this morning.”  There was a pause, and then Epione pointed out the obvious, while her companion calmly stood, reviewing the interior. “It appears to be a trap, Alexis.  Is Blue Fly close at hand?”

     “Come with me, Epione; I would ask for an introduction.”

     Her mouth agape, she allowed him to take her hand, and pull her along to the entry door, hoping he knew what he was doing, and reflecting that in the end, it didn’t matter, because he was her husband and this, apparently, was to be her first test of marriage. She only wished she weren’t wearing breeches.

     With a shoulder, de Gilles pushed his way through the door, and then stood on the threshold, calmly drawing his pistol and firing; shattering the remaining tankard of ale on the spymaster’s tray.

     Instantly there was a wild scramble, as all the diners stood, and half the room drew on the other half, a tense silence settling over the scene.  

     This is a very strange sort of tavern, thought Epione, as she hovered behind her escort.

     “You there,” called out de Gilles. “I would have a glass of ale.”