ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 18

 

     Into the sudden, tense silence, the tavern-keeper pleaded from his position behind the counter, “Please, gentlemen; I’ve only just had the mirror replaced this week.”

     “Have your men stand down,” de Gilles demanded of the spymaster, as he drew the hammer back on another pistol.

     “I am not certain that would be wise.” The other man set down the tray, the shards of broken glass skittering to the floor in the process. 

     “I believe we are being played, Monsieur, one against the other, by our mutual enemy.”

     The grey-eyed spymaster regarded him for a moment before responding. “If that is indeed the case, you would be best served by allowing me to take the girl into protective custody.  You take too great an interest in these affairs for my comfort.”

     But de Gilles was unfazed, and his weapon did not falter.  “I’m afraid I do not much care for your comfort, Monsieur, one way or the other. And the girl is now my wife.”

     It was not, perhaps, how Epione would have liked to announce her marriage, and she could sense the surprised reaction of those who were participating in this tense standoff, as many pairs of eyes slid to observe her.  It did seem that their supporters were outnumbered, and she hoped de Gilles knew what he was doing—it was interesting that he’d decided to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and boldly confront the British spymaster.

      “I see,” said the other man, and it seemed to Epione that the news of her marriage was not particularly welcome.  “Nevertheless, I must insist that you cooperate with the Home Office in this matter.”

     “And I will insist that you cease interfering in matters which do not concern you.”

      The other man, however, disagreed. “These matters are of great concern; as you have pointed out, we have a mutual enemy.”

      Darton had stood to watch the standoff with his back to the wall, a pistol in one hand and a drawn sword in the other. “Prenez garde, Capitaine.”

     In response to the warning, Epione turned to behold Lisabetta, dressed as a serving wench, and sidling toward them behind the counter.  Upon discovery, the girl lifted a small-bore pistol to Epione, her dark eyes hard. “Do not move.”

      As Epione stared at the other girl in abject surprise, de Gilles addressed the spymaster. “Have her stand down. Come, Monsieur; you wage war on women?”

     But the grey-eyed man would not be discomfited, and replied in an even tone, “You cannot think me so clumsy; she is not one of mine.”

     “Put your pistol down,” Epione chided Lisabetta, instinctively aware that she should not allow anyone to separate her from de Gilles. “You are being ridiculous.”  Carefully, she closed a hand around one of the gin bottles which were stacked alongside the counter.

     “It is you who are ridiculous,” the girl hissed in response, and lifted the weapon slightly in a grim warning.  Immediately, there was the sound of many pistols in the room being cocked, including the one being held on Epione.

     “Gentlemen—” ventured the tavern-keeper in a put-upon tone of voice, “recall the last time—”

     While they were thus diverted, Epione decided she should seize the advantage, and so with a quick movement, she flung the gin bottle at Lisabetta’s head. She missed, but when the other girl ducked, Darton launched himself over the counter, and placed his sword tip on Lisabetta’s throat. “Drop it.”

     Wary, the girl straightened up, with her own weapon still trained on Epione. “No, Monsieur; it is you who will drop it.”

     With a flick of his wrist, Darton slashed his sword so that the lock of dark hair that had lain on Lisabetta’s breast was severed. With a gasp of outrage, she turned to fire upon him, but the shot went wild, because Darton had launched the cask on the counter at her. As the tavern-keeper yelped in dismay, the mirror behind the counter was shattered by the shot, and as Lisabetta leapt aside to avoid the cascading glass, she was pinioned from behind by de Gilles, who held one arm across her throat, and the other around her arms.    

     “Bâtard,” spat Lisabetta at Darton, as she struggled against de Gilles. “Give me back my hair.”

      With an insouciant grin, Darton made a show of tucking the lock of hair into his shirt, whilst de Gilles said into the girl’s ear, “I should have let you drown, Lisabetta—desist.”

     But the other girl jerked her chin toward Epione, her breast heaving, “Tell this one to desist—she marries you, and yet seeks to take my Robert as her lover—”

     “That is not true,” Epione protested hotly, acutely embarrassed that these accusations were being aired before all and sundry.  “I was going to marry Robert, too.”

     The contretemps with Lisabetta had allowed the grey-eyed man and several of his men to advance toward the bar with their weapons drawn, surrounding them.  The spymaster intervened to address de Gilles, “Come—let us come to terms. You wouldn’t wish to die in a tavern brawl, I think.”

      In response, de Gilles held the still struggling Lisabetta and replied without rancor, “You wouldn’t wish to answer for having killed me in a tavern brawl, I think.  Move aside.”

     Observing the standoff, Epione could see that a diversion was needful, and—having learned a useful tactic—she brushed the candlestick beside her onto the floor, where the broken cask lay in ruins.  For the second time that day, the alcohol erupted into a burst of flame, and de Gilles threw Lisabetta into the grey-eyed man before grasping Epione’s hand to pull her toward the back stairway.

      Not one to tolerate such treatment, Lisabetta fired wildly, with the result that a window shattered with a crash, and a melee broke out amongst the assembled factions, as the tavern keeper pulled the washing tub from under the counter to douse the burgeoning fire.

      Several of the combatants ran after de Gilles and Epione, drawing swords with a schwinging sound, and between the cacophony of curses and flashing swords, de Gilles pushed Epione up the back stairs and then turned to defend their position, his own sword slashing furiously at those who pressed toward them.

     “Do not engage him,” shouted the spymaster, but blood was high, and the two men who challenged de Gilles were loath to retreat, as they swung their weapons to clash against his.  Having never participated in a melee, Epione stood behind him on the steps, uncertain as to what she should do to be helpful, and constrained by the memory of what had happened last time she’d tried to be helpful.  

      She hadn’t long to think about it, though; from the corner of her eye she caught a movement behind her, and whirled to face another man, stepping carefully down the stairs behind them with a drawn pistol.

     “Prenez garde, behind us,” shouted Epione, imitating Darton, and frantically lifted an empty pail from the steps so as to throw it at the flank attack.  The pail hit the attacker’s foot just as he was stepping down, and as a result he staggered, and lost his balance. With a swift movement, de Gilles reached for the man’s outstretched arm, and then yanked him headfirst down the stairs into the two attackers below, bowling them all back.

     “Stand down,” bellowed the spymaster again, and all the combatants paused, wary and breathing heavily, as Epione clutched the pail between her hands, wide-eyed.

      “Do not stray from me,” de Gilles said quietly, between breaths.

     “I won’t,” she agreed.

     As he wiped the sweat from his face with a sleeve, de Gilles addressed the spymaster. “I believe there may be a false flag operation in play, Monsieur.”   

     The other man regarded him for a moment, then stepped forward. “I will give you assurances, if you’d like, while we parlay.”

     “My wife stays with me.”

     The spymaster blew out a breath. “As you say.”

     “Demand some brandy, while you are at it,” called Darton from his position behind the counter. “And some punch, for the ladies.” This, with a bow to the still-seething Lisabetta.

     “I have no brandy.” The tavern keeper spread his hands in apology, as he glanced toward the British official. “It is illegal.”

     With a grin, Darton reached behind the counter, and hoisted a brandy bottle atop it.  “Then we’ll have to make do with this cherry-juice.”