The True Pretender
“What is it you would like to tell me?” The grey-eyed spymaster drew out his pipe from a vest pocket, and glanced at de Gilles from across the table. Darton sat to the side, leaning back with his boots crossed before him, and two of the British men stood at a small distance, out of earshot but—as Epione noted well—their gazes focused on de Gilles with covert curiosity. It is as though he is on display at a fair, she thought, annoyed on his behalf. How tedious it must be—to be always an object of speculation, amongst certain circles. And small wonder he stays well-away from it, doing whatever-it-was that he does, oceans away.
De Gilles began without preamble, “I believe we are being distracted, Monsieur—or manipulated. You are being fed information about my actions; I am being fed information about your actions, but each of us has little to show for it.”
The other man thought about this, puffing on his pipe so that a cloud of smoke rose to mingle with Darton’s, overhead. “To what end?”
De Gilles shrugged. “I know not.”
“Napoleon? He acts as the puppet-master from Elba, there is no question.”
De Gilles nodded. “I would agree. The situation in France is fragile, and many are unhappy—”
“Including you.” The grey eyes rested on the other man.
But de Gilles did not take offense, and replied easily, “Including myself. Napoleon may attempt to take advantage of the divided factions, and return to power.”
The spymaster pronounced bluntly, “There is no question he will make the attempt; it is only a question of when, and how it will happen.”
Epione did her best to contain her dismay at this blunt speech—surely Napoleon would have few supporters left, after all that had been lost already? But both men seemed certain, and one would imagine they knew of which they spoke.
A shard of mirror that had clung to the frame behind the bar suddenly crashed down, making everyone startle for a moment, then settle in once more to continue the parlay, as the serving maid moved to wield her broom yet again.
The spymaster drew on his pipe, and leaned his head back to exhale. “Of course, there is little hope that Napoleon can succeed unless he obtains funding—his war chest is sadly depleted. My people have been busy, quashing various plots by his supporters.”
“I am aware.” De Gilles made a gesture that included Darton. “We were given information about your operation in China, and of the opportunities made available by the opium wars.”
The spymaster’s hand stilled for a moment. “Is that so?”
De Gilles nodded. “The gambit did not work; instead, I decided to discover why I would be encouraged to go to China. That is when I came across the information about the d’Amberre estate.”
The spymaster’s thoughtful gaze rested on Epione. “Given to a milliner’s assistant, whose sister aided Napoleon.”
His brows drawn together, de Gilles was quick to assert, “My wife knows nothing of this, Monsieur. My life on it.”
“It cannot be a coincidence.”
There was a small silence, in light of the undeniable truth of the words. “No,” de Gilles agreed, rather gravely. “But she is no longer your concern.”
Making a sound of impatience, the spymaster leaned forward slightly, his manner intent. “Come; you cannot interfere in these matters—it is not in keeping with your history. And if you do interfere, you will draw the wrath of those who were uneasy enough to divert you to China.”
But Epione’s husband apparently did not appreciate being chided, and for the first time a hint of steel could be heard in his voice. “I will not be played for a fool.” He let the words hang in the air for a moment, leaving no doubt that he was directing them, at least in part, toward the spymaster.
Tiens, thought Epione, clenching her hands beneath the table. Another fight to break out, at any moment.
But the spymaster’s manner became more conciliatory, and he leaned back into his chair with a small shrug. “What do you intend, then—will you go to France?”
With a tilt of his head, de Gilles answered with light irony, “My plans are as yet unformed.” It could not be clearer that he did not trust the other man, although the words were couched in polite terms.
With a sigh, the grey-eyed man ran a hand over his face. “Then let us try to aid each other on auxiliary matters. I would like to—with all respect—have a conversation with your wife, in the hope there is something here that we are missing. In exchange, I will assure her safety—and yours—for the time being. I can arrange a safe house for your use; the East India Company owes me a favor.”
There was a pause, whilst de Gilles exchanged a glance with Darton, who raised his brows in skepticism. Seeing this, the spymaster added, “I can obtain written assurances from the Home Office, if you desire. But like it or not, she is at the center of this mystery, and too much is at stake.”
Waiting for her husband’s decision, Epione was almost surprised when he turned to consult her. “With your permission, Madame?”
“Of course—although I don’t think I can be of much use.”
De Gilles asked that the tavern-keeper fetch a clean blanket, and wrapped within its warm folds, Epione answered the Englishman’s questions as best she could for the next hour, while de Gilles and Darton listened without comment. She was asked to describe every visitor she’d encountered at her sister’s house, the spymaster occasionally prompting her by suggesting certain names. Once again, the man mentioned the Comte deFabry.
Epione shook her head, surprised by his insistence. “I rarely saw him; but then, I was not often at her house. He was not—” she tried to articulate her thoughts. “He was not much of a presence, if you know what I mean. I would be very surprised to discover that my sister was—was attracted to him.” She bit her lip, so as not to reveal that Marie used to decry her steady husband for not indulging her enough; or that she tended to flirt with the more dashing young aristos, just to annoy him.
The spymaster drew a breath, and sat thinking for a moment. “Was there ever a gentleman named Josiah?”
So—the British did know something of the Josiah, although apparently they were just as baffled as de Gilles. “Not that I was aware,” she replied, and comforted herself that it was the truth, after all, and that she was not misleading anyone.
“Was there—is there anything in your residence, Madame, which came from your sister’s house? Or even your mother’s house?”
Epione knit her brow. “My mother’s house—and everything in it—was sold to pay our debts, after my mother died. I have very little left; only my father’s medal—the Grand Croix de Saint-Louis. And my mother’s mourning brooch.”
“Anything from your sister?”
“Some dresses, as well as a few of the hats I’d fashioned for her.”
“Any unopened reticules?” the Englishman persisted. “Or letters, left in pockets?”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Epione confessed. “But on the other hand, I was not inclined to search.”
The man’s gaze turned to de Gilles. “It is a faint hope, but at this point I am grasping at straws.”
“Come then,” said de Gilles, dropping his hands to his knees. Then, to Epione, “We will visit your rooms, and allow a search. And we will retrieve your father’s medal, to take it with us.”
“May I change out of boy’s clothes?”
He offered his hand to help her rise. “I’m afraid it would be best if you remained a boy for the time being; you remain vulnerable until we determine why you are so important to the enemy.”
“Although you do not make a very good boy,” Darton noted, as he tapped his pipe. “A man would have to be an idiot, to be fooled.”
“I will offer no opinion on the subject,” the spymaster said as he pulled on his gloves, and Epione saw her husband smile. So; a truce, of sorts, she thought with relief, as another mirror shard crashed to the floor.