ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 19

 

     “What does it mean—‘false flag’?” Epione was seated with de Gilles in the public room at The Moor’s Head, which was now mostly deserted, and rather cold.  The tavern-keeper was in the process of hammering boards over the broken window, casting the occasional baleful glance toward their table, while a serving-girl swept up the broken glass with the air of someone doing an all-too-familiar task.  It occurred to Epione that despite the noise and commotion, the Watch hadn’t made an appearance, and so she concluded that the authorities had been warned away.

     De Gilles was watching as the spymaster questioned Lisabetta across the room, the girl making angry, animated gestures in response to the questions.  “It means that someone is trying to divert attention from their true purpose.”

     Epione frowned for a moment, trying to puzzle out what was meant. “The murders?”

     He tilted his head. “Perhaps. Perhaps they use this opportunity to take action, knowing it will be blamed on the unknown murderer. Or there may be something else at play—I am not certain. But the British should not have known that we were coming here tonight, and I would very much like to learn how they became aware of our movements.”

     Epione followed his gaze to the interrogation. “Lisabetta? I think she is more lovelorn, than capable of such a scheme.  I feel a bit sorry for her.”

      “Do not,” he warned, as he watched the defiant Frenchwoman sink back in her chair, her arms crossed in a huff. “She is ruthless, Epione.”  

     Epione raised a brow.  “Yet, you rescued her?”

     His mouth thinned into a half-smile at the memory. “She was locked in the brig, on a ship which was sinking—it was little enough to pick the lock.”

     He seemed disinclined to expand on the topic, and almost apologetically, she ventured, “Mr. Tremaine hinted that you were involved in dark doings.”

     This caught his attention, and he turned to cover her hand with his own, meeting her gaze with quiet intensity. “You must not believe what he tells you, ma belle—it is not the truth.”

     “C’est entendu,” she agreed, then added, “And what—exactly—is the truth?” De Gilles seemed every inch an aristo, but other than that, she hadn’t a clue.

     But before he could respond, Darton approached, glancing askance at the others across the room. “Have we surrendered, Capitaine?”  He pulled out a chair, and straddled it backwards, pouring himself a generous tot of brandy from the bottle on the table.

     Tilting his head, de Gilles indicated he’d like his own refill, and replied, “We will cooperate; I believe we are all being manipulated—and it seemed only fair to let him know this.”

     Darton sighed, and took a drink. “You are a kind and generous man.”

     De Gilles stretched out his legs before him, leaning back into the chair and cradling his glass in his hand, his thoughtful gaze on the others. “Something is not right, mon ami.”

     “The British knew we were coming here,” Epione ventured.  “Did the haberdasher betray us—or the priest, perhaps?”  She knit her brow in doubt. “It seems so unlikely.”

     “Yes, it does seem unlikely,” de Gilles agreed. “But no matter how they came into their knowledge, I believe the British are no more aware of what is going forward than we are.”

     Reminded, she told him, “Mr. Tremaine didn’t seem to know about the Josiah—or at least he didn’t ask me about it.”

     But de Gilles was not so certain, and lifted a shoulder. “He does not wish you to know what he knows, Epione—you must not believe anything he tells you.”

     “Speaking of which, here comes another who should not be believed,” Darton noted in amusement, as Lisabetta flounced over to join them, seating herself next to de Gilles with a last, defiant glare at the British spymaster.

     “Peste; mais c’est infâme; there is no chevalerie in that one; he would send me to prison without the smallest regret.”   

     But de Gilles was not willing to sympathize. “You will tell me why you are here, if you please.”

     With sulky reluctance, the girl said something in a language Epione didn’t recognize.

     “Speak French,” he corrected the girl impatiently. “And I will tolerate no more threats to Madame de Gilles, Lisabetta.  Heed me.”

     “Fah—I was not going to shoot her.” Lisabetta shot a withering glance at Epione that seemed to imply she would not consider such an action worth the effort. “But you came crashing in, and I knew I would be discovered—pour ça donc, I needed a hostage.”

     “You have not yet explained to me why you are here.”

     With a frown, the girl rested her gaze on the spymaster, who was conferring quietly with several of his men. “I heard that the British were to be here tonight, and I wanted to see my Robert.  We had a—a misunderstanding.” With a resentful glance at her rival, Lisabetta crossed her arms, and made a show of ignoring Darton, who watched with an amused expression, as he took out his pipe.

     Epione took this opportunity to interject, “It is a good riddance; you make Robert very unhappy.”

     “Quant à ça—he makes himself unhappy, with his foolishness.”  She gave Epione a look which left no doubt as to the cause of the foolishness. “And you—a married woman!  For shame.”

     Hotly, Epione defended herself.  “He is not at all foolish; he was very honorable, to offer for me, in light of—” Belatedly, she realized the brandy was making her a bit reckless.

     But the other girl only tossed her head.  “There is no longer a place for honorable men in this world.” This, with a significant glance at de Gilles.

     “Lisabetta,” he rebuked mildly, “I will remind you that you owe me a favor.” 

     Struggling with her temper, Lisabetta subsided, and then took a pull of brandy straight from the bottle, a mulish cast to her mouth. “Peste; I hate London,” she announced, to no one in particular.

     De Gilles said without sympathy, “Seek out Droughm, then; he is back in England, and Epione has not yet stolen him from you.”

     The Frenchwoman pressed her lips into a thin line for a moment. “Droughm has married.”

     De Gilles lifted his head to regard her with amused surprise. “Droughm has married?”

     The girl shrugged her bare shoulders. “Is it so very strange?  After all, you have married, and who would be less likely?”

     But de Gilles continued amused, and exchanged a glance with Darton. “Tell me who has managed such a feat—she must be une femme formidable.

     But further discussion was curtailed as the grey-eyed spymaster approached to join them, and announced to Lisabetta without preamble, “You will be held at the magistrate’s, while my people check out your tale.”

     “You have no reason to hold me,” she countered hotly.

     “On the contrary; you threatened the peace.”

     Outraged, Lisabetta made a gesture which encompassed the wreckage of the room. “What peace is this you speak of?”

     But the Englishman had lost patience, and leaned his hands on the table, saying with deliberation, “You will cooperate, or it will be the worse for you.”  Then, to de Gilles, “I would like to have a private word with your bride.”

     “No,” said Epione’s husband.

     Undeterred, the spymaster turned to Epione. “Have you indeed married this man?”

     De Gilles tilted his head to indicate Epione should answer, and so she did. “I have, sir.”

     The other man’s gaze rested on de Gilles, and his next words were imbued with irony. “A whirlwind romance.”

     De Gilles raised his cold gaze to meet the other’s. “You will endeavor to be civil, Monsieur.”

     The spymaster eyed him for a moment, then indicated with a gesture that Lisabetta should be escorted out by the other men.

     “Send Robert to me—I must speak with him,” the girl insisted as she rose. With a defiant gesture, she plucked the brandy bottle from the table, and left with her escort.