Count

(no subject)

Emilia hadn’t moved since we left her. "Well," she asked imperiously. "Are you satisfied with the condition of the prisoners, Purchas? You accept that we haven’t done anything horrible to them- yet."

"I’m satisfied. And now I want you to release them."

"Whooah, too fast. Let’s talk about what I want first."

"Which is?"

"Commodore, you may withdraw."

"I don’t think that’s fair." I spoke very quietly. "The Commodore is a party to this negotiation. His safety and that of his men is at issue here."

"Oh hello. Have we been making friendy-wendys? You know, Commodore," she spoke above my head. "What confidence tricksters these two are? M. Purchas used to earn his living as a conjurer and housebreaker; I rescued him myself from the slums of York- a quite revoltingly cold and rainy northern city. As for Doctor Klipper, he’s nothing but a quack fortune teller. Do I lie?"

"We are all thieves, here," I said. "There’s no point in any of us pretending."

"Me a thief?" she gave one of her delightful trilling laughs.

"And the Antidote was obtained honestly, was it? Come on Em, don’t give yourself airs. We’re all of us thieves and murderers. Let’s not play games. Let’s deal honestly. We’re all of us savvy enough to spot when an opponent’s playing with marked cards."

The Commodore had been standing by the door. Now he pulled up a chair and sat down on the other side of Louis. "No offence," he said. "But I’d like you all to remember that I’m the one with the guns."

Emilia shifted uneasily on her throne. "Very well," she said. "What I’m asking- what I’m demanding- is safe passage off this estate for myself – and of course for the Commodore and his men."

"The Commodore gets safe passage," I said. "But you are required to surrender yourself to us. Bors is our commander. You know how merciful he is. He offers you the life of a princess: your own castle and estate in any part of Europe you choose, but with staff and servants chosen by us."

"House arrest, you mean."

"Also, I think it goes without saying, you must give up to us all stocks of the Antidote and allow us access to the laboratories where you have it made."

She laughed. "I don’t think so. I hold the best cards, I think. I have the prisoners. I have the antidote. What do you have?"

"We have you surrounded. You’re trapped on this island. We also have time. Your men will very quickly run out of food and drink."

"You know I could detain you. Suppose I were to parade you on the beach with a rope round your neck and a gun at your head.  Bors would cave in at once."

"But afterwards he’d hunt you down without mercy."

The Commodore coughed politely. "That plan would require my consent and co-operation . I assume your General would hunt me down too?"

"Of course. You wouldn’t make it even as far as Toulon."

"Luckily for me I have some vestigial notions of honour left."

Emilia made an angry gesture.

"I suppose I should remind you," I said smoothly. "That we have the Antidote too." You men left a lot of muskets and ammunition pouches on the battlefield."

There was a long silence. "What I want to know," said the Commodore, fondling his stubbly chin. "Is whether there’s money to be made out of this Antidote thing of yours?"

"No!" Emilia and I said it simultaneously. She giggled and stood up. If you wanted to bring about one of her remarkable changes of mood  all you had to do was make her laugh. Instantly she was a girl again and this was just a game we were playing. Did it really matter who won? Not really; there would be other rounds. "Very well," she said, cheerily. "I accept your terms. A princess, you say and a castle?"

"That’s what Bors said. You know he’s a man of his word."

"I fancy somewhere on the Rhine, I think. You’d have to come and stay- and bring Margery too. It would be just like old times. Let’s drink to it."

Her chair was placed so that all she had to do was reach up and hold her glass under the fountain’s spurting nipple. "You won’t join me?" she asked "Ah well, it’s your funeral.."

I was aware of another presence in the room. Arty, like a grey ghost, had stepped out from behind the velvet curtain that hid the fountain’s works. Emilia had drained the glass in one. The change began even as she turned to see what it was that had drawn our attention.

Arty plucked the glass from her mother’s trembling fingers, refilled it and drank. "I couldn’t go on after this," she said. "Now could I?"

Emilia was already dead in her chair. Arty went down on her knees and fell forward across the dais at her mother’s feet.

"Fuckin' death of fuckin' Cleopatra," said Louis. He and I were Shakespearians. I burst out laughing. We were both of us in shock.

The Commodore leaped up and knelt beside the corpses. He looked at us with a look of blank bewilderment on his face. "They’re dead," he said.

"That’s the Antidote," I said. "Be careful what you touch. That stuff’ll kill anything."

He stepped back hastily.

I felt nothing. The Emilia I had known and loved had left us many years before. I didn’t look too closely at her body. I knew she wouldn’t be beautiful any more.

But I noticed that Arty’s hair and clothes were wet.

I sat down on the dais, not too close to the corpses and dangled my hands between my raised knees. "You all right, Perky?" asked Louis.

"Fine." I said. "Fine. Fuckin death of fuckin Cleopatra." I broke into helpless peals of laughter.

The Commodore got us off the island. All of us- pirates, hostages, ambassadors- in a little fleet of make-believe gondolas flying under the white flag. I was present through the whole operation and- I’m told by reliable observers- apparently capable of opening my mouth and saying things that made perfect sense and of walking around on my own two feet without support. I believe them. But the part of me that was conscious was suspended in the air about fifty feet above the action, observing it with bland and amused detachment.

Gabriele came strolling up. "You dead too, Purchas? Welcome home."

"Actually, I don’t think I am. Look, isn’t that me walking about down there?"

"So it is. Well I never."

"Aren’t I tiny?".

"But strutting about like a little game cock. How you manage to pass yourself off as a grown-up is beyond me."

"I used to think the same about you."

"I’m taller than you. Or, at least, I was. Now I can be any height I want. Look"

"Very clever. So why aren’t you in hell?"

"I beg your pardon ."

"Sorry, that came out all wrong. It’s just that last time we met you were raving about rocks and fires and the earth splitting open.  I was worried about you."

"Oh that? That was just a phase I was going through.

"I’m glad."

"Not half as glad as I was to get out of it"

"So where are you now."

"What a silly question."

"You know what I mean, when you’re not here with me."

"Actually, I’m not sure. There are people there and we sit around and talk. About ethics and stuff. I sneak off whenever I can. I know it’s not heaven because some of them there aren’t even Catholics."

"You don’t say."

"Strange but true."

"So you saw what just happened?"

"Sure, Clever Arty. She was hiding just outside the door when Margery buried the Antidote under the fireplace. Then she stole it, made her way over onto the island and slipped it into the fountain. I was sent to collect her. And then I spotted you and thought I’d sidle over and have a chat. But really I should be going now. Arty’s waiting up ahead."

"I can’t see her."

"No?"

"In fact I can’t see you any more. And your voice is fading."

"Ah yes, it will be. Give Margery my love."

"And mine to Arty. Love you."

"Love …."
 

EPILOGUE

And that’s the last thing I remember. Then comes a gap of about three weeks. Brain fever, they said. Only Immortals aren’t supposed to get brain fever. I think what happened is I just shut down and gave myself a little break from the horror of living and all that.

Margery sat by my side and read me Don Quixote. We were three quarters of the way through Book II before I woke up. I hadn’t heard a word of it. I won’t say, what a waste of time, because I don’t suppose it was.

Bors and Herne were long gone. Before they left they called on Louis and, with his reluctant consent, poured his attempt at replicating the Antidote down the sink and burned all his notes.

Bors had gone to Regensburg. A month after I came out of my swoon Margery and I went and visited him there. He was hard at work remaking the Order. A permanent bonfire was burning in the castle’s forecourt, as the records Melchisidech had used to blackmail and bully the rulers of the world went up in smoke. A number of people I knew were busy working through the archives; among them the Count and Louis Klipper

Bors and I look a walk beside the river. It was month before Christmas, the last few red and yellow leaves shivered on their twigs. The sky was grey. Some kind of big bird- an eagle or a vulture- it was too far off to distinguish which- circled above the smoke, drawn, I suppose, by the smell of roasting leather.

"You can have a seat on the Council if you like," he said.

"But I’m a woman," I said.

"Not a real woman, though." He smiled ruefully.

"Not a real man, either. No; I can’t see myself sitting among the greybeards. If you want someone with real common-sense, you should ask Margery."

"I don’t think the Brothers are ready for that. For someone actually wearing skirts …"

He was struggling so I cut in. "You do realise how hypocritical that sounds?"

"Alas, yes." He stared up at the empty sky. "I dodged responsibility all those years because I knew how much I would have to compromise."

"And now you’re enjoying yourself no end."

He laughed. "You could always see right through me, Purchas."

I touched his arm. "I don’t mean to mock. You’re doing a really good job."

"I hope so. I feel as though I’ve been presented with a big, old set of bedroom furniture and told I have to turn it into a table and chairs. I can’t choose my materials and I have to make do with someone else’s tools. It’ll be a botched job I’m afraid."

"Of course. These things always are. But you’re perhaps the only man in the world who could be trusted to attempt it."

Bors went on to renovate the Order. He turned its upper echelons into a cross between the Round Table and the Franciscan order. It never again enjoyed its old influence in world affairs, but dwindled into something like the self-help organisation we always used to think it was. This was entirely deliberate.

You want to know where people are and what they’re doing now?

Bors is still head of the Order. He lives in Switzerland. The neighbours think he’s a retired professor of theology.

Herne heads the English chapter. He has a public reputation as a conservationist and radical eco-warrior.

The Bishop surfaced briefly during the occult revival of the 1880s and 90s. He's still out there somewhere, skulking.

Huon is CEO of an international corporation based in New York. He appears sometimes, under his current alias, in those funny magazines they sell at supermarket checkout counters. He’s the guy in the shadows with his arm across his face in all those pictures of coked-up supermodels emerging from night clubs.

Louis Klipper writes horoscopes for a tabloid newspaper. He’s back in Avignon right now. He slipped his housekeeper the elixir- soft-hearted old brute- and has been saddled with her now for over three hundred years. They’re a leathery, eternally battling couple, but basically fond of one another- or so I think.

The Marquise has houses in Paris, Barcelona, New York. She befriends each successive wave of the avant garde. There are portraits of her- in her successive guises- in all the major art collections in Europe and America.

Esclairmonde and Pertinax are in Australia.

Colonel Farquahar had his farm in Zimbabwe repossessed by the Mugabe government. He now lives outside Tunbridge Wells and breeds race horses.

The Commodore wheedled the elixir off Louis and retired to the Caribbean. When I last met him he told me a whole host of funny stories about Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Princess Margaret.

The Count is a very famous man. It really wouldn’t be fair to even hint at his current identity.

Margery and I divide our time between London and Orvieto. Margery works part-time as a supply teacher. I write- well- you know what I write. In my last handful of incarnations I've dressed as a girl.

She comes in with a cup of coffee for us both. "You’re stopping in 1670?" she says. "You’re not going to tell them about Casanova or Robespierre or T.E. Lawrence?" And I say. "Not now. Maybe some other time. Right now I’m going for a swim."

Emilia was buried on the island, more or less where she fell. I’ve never visited the grave. I don’t feel strong enough. It’s an impressive grave, I’m told, with a big stone chest on top like the one in Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcady. I hear there are websites out there that try to link it in with the so-called mystery of Rennes le Chateau. The inscription has long since faded, so who’s to say it isn’t the final resting place of Mary Magdalen? Well, there’s me, for one. Besides, last thing I heard, Mary Magdalen- I’ve only met her in passing- was running a small woollen goods business near Srinigar.

The dead pirates got loaded onto carts and taken off the estate and tumbled into a mass grave. Why they deserved less than Emilia I really don’t know.

 Arty was buried on the summit of Mt. Ventoux, side by side with Gabriele. That’s a grave I visit frequently. I climb up past the monument to the British cyclist Tommy Simpson- I always I leave him a few of the flowers I carry with me- and seek out the place where the cairns used to be. Margery and I are the only people who know the exact location. Then I sit down on the scree and look out at the view Petrarch extolled and have three way conversations with Arty and Gabriele and imagine I can hear them talking back.

Silly old fool.

Count

(no subject)

I pulled the boat in alongside the jetty. I always like that last bit where you ship oars and the water drips off the blades and you glide smoothly into your berth. I think I do it really well.

The two pirates stepped forward. One was a tiny, wizened, old man. He wore a large cocked hat and a huge coat- brocaded all over in tarnished silver- which must have weighed at least as much as he did. The other was a giant, approaching seven feet tall, naked from the waist up, with a vacant, sleepwalking air. The big man extended a hand to help me ashore. I waved him off. Louis was glad of the assistance.

"Welcome aboard, gentlemen," said the little man, doffing his hat and giving us an ironic bow. He wore a full, shoulder length, glossy, black wig that seemed to have been made for a much larger man. "Let me introduce myself. I’m Commodore Jean-Marie Ferdinand Ponce de Lagilliere, privateer, of the good ship L’Aiglon de Mer, and this is my colleague Brute- who doesn’t really matter."

The big man grunted.

I returned the bow. "I am M. Purchas, titular owner of this estate and this is my friend Dr. Louis Klipper, the savant. We are both of us well-known to Madame Grimaldi."

The Commodore smirked in acknowledgement, produced a silver snuff box and offered us a pinch. We both politely refused. He took one himself then blew his nose into a dirty lace handerchief with such force that I half expected him to fall apart.

He tucked the handkerchief back up his sleeve. "I have to ask you, on your word as gentlemen, to assure me that neither of you is carrying any weapon- concealed or otherwise.

I threw my coat open. "You have my word, Monsieur."

"Then if you’ll please to follow us. Her ladyship will receive you in her residence."

They conducted us through the Count’s maze. It wasn’t a complicated maze and the rose bushes only came up to our waists, but we managed to take a wrong turning none the less and had to retrace our steps right the way back to the beginning and start again.

The temple was a masterpiece of trompe l’oeuil. You had to be really close to discover that the carved and inlaid marble was nothing but painted board. There were two men with muskets guarding the door. They saluted the Commodore, who acknowledged them with a gracious wave, and parted to let us through.

The lantern in the dome was cunningly engineered so that the statue of Venus stood at the centre of a vertical column of dusty, yellow light. Emilia had had a chair set up on the dais in front of it and was reclining there langourously, in a long black dress, with the red cloak spread out around her like a skin she’d just sloughed, one foot extended, one arm bent above her head, looking not at all like a person who had just lost a battle. The fountain had been set going and the space was full of the sound of it and the acrid scent of wine.

"Ah, Purchas, M. Klipper," she said, and yawned. "What an exquisite pleasure. Commodore, if you’d be so good as to fetch chairs for our guests."

We sat. I realised a little too late that this gave her the advantage of height. "Well," she drawled. "What can I offer you gentlemen- a little wine, perhaps? "

"I’d rather get straight to business, if you don’t mind," I said.

"Ah but I do. This is a fete, ne’st pas?"

She waved her hand and a man appeared from the wings with three glasses on a silver tray. He was one of the staff we'd hired- a professional. He put the tray on a side table, lifted each glass  to the light to make sure it was flawlessly clean, flicked it with a cloth to be doubly sure, held it under the right breast of the statue then returned it to the tray. Then he carried the tray round. I took a glass and placed it, untasted, on the floor beside me. Louis, watching my actions closely, did the same.

"Ha," she said, laughing sweetly. "You don’t trust me, do you, little Purchas. I can’t think why. I’ve never harmed you, have I?" She raised her glass and said, "To sisterhood," and emptied it. "You see, I’m not swelling up, my eyes remain steady." She wagged her index finger at me. "Oh ye of little faith."

"How many prisoners do you have?" I asked.

"Oh I don’t know," she flounced. "You don’t expect me to have counted them, do you?" She narrowed her eyes. "I have enough."

"I want to see them."

She sighed deeply. "Such a doubting Thomas! They’re out the back somewhere. Commodore, would you like to escort M. Purchas to the holding pen?"

"Yes, ma’am."

She blew me a fingertip kiss. "Don’t be long, sweetie."

Louis and I followed the little man out of the building.

"Such a fine lady," he enthused. "Such a pleasure to work for."

"She led you into defeat," I said.

"Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that," He took out the silver box. "Snuff?"

This time I took a pinch.

"This is your estate, then ?" he said.

I nodded.

"Very nice. I grew up on an estate like this. Further north, in the Beaujolais." He winked. "Black sheep of the family, that’s me."

The area round the back of the temple was unmanaged woodland- a lot of spindly little trees growing close together and competing for light. A narrow track ran through it and led into a scrappy clearing, with the felled trees lying to one side in a heap with fungus growing on them.

The hostages were sitting in the centre of the glade in a circle, back to back, with their hands and feet tied. There were about thirty of them- Immortals, musicians, catering staff. A pirate, who had been reclining, half asleep, on the woodpile, swung his legs round and stood to something like attention.

"No touching," said the Commodore. "But you can speak to them if you like."

It’s hard not to be lame under circumstances like these. "Erm, how are you all?" I asked.

"Fine," said The Count, through gritted teeth. "Just wonderful."

"Purchas," said the Marquise. "Have you come to free us?"

"That’s the idea.," I said. "I’m in negotiations with Madame Grimaldi."

"Who won?" asked the Count.

"We did," said the Commodore. I’d have thought that was obvious."

"Actually," I said. "That’s open to debate. We successfully defended the house and most of the enemy ran away."

"Effected a tactical withdrawal," said the Commodore. "They’ll be back."

"I doubt it."

"Which only goes to show how little you know about the art of war." He took my arm. "And now you’ve seen the prisoners we’ll go back to her ladyship. Mustn’t keep her waiting."

I shook him off. "Listen, people. We’re going to sort this out. Hold tight and we’ll get you out of here."

"But don’t count on it," said the Commodore.

The Count beckoned me closer with a jerk of his head. "I want to see these villains hung," he said. "All on one gallows. In a line. I want to see the bastards dance!"

"Hey, no whispering there!" said the Commodore.

I straightened up. "We’ll see what can be done," I said, vaguely.

This time it was I who took the Commodore’s arm. "You were defeated," I said,  matter-of-factly, as we walked back down the path. "I don’t know how much of the battle you saw, but it was a rout."

"And who’s the one begging for terms?"

"Dictating terms."

He laughed. "You train as a lawyer, or what?"

"No, but I’ve knocked around with some."

"I did a couple of terms at the Sorbonne. I should have stuck to the course. It’s a much safer way of robbing people…"

"But less exciting."

"Exactly. I got bored. A mate and I started rolling drunks for fun. After a day spent wearing your eyes out over dusty old books you can’t imagine the pleasure of feeling a knife in your hand. Then we took things a little too far. Someone died. And so I ran away to sea." He sighed.." The black flag’s been good to me."

"So I see." I glanced at his coat. "Brocade like that doesn’t come cheap."

"Just a little thing I picked it up in Porto Bello. I was with Captain Morgan. You’ll have heard of him." He put a hand on my arm and brought us to a halt. "You’re not a country boy, are you?"

"Is it so obvious?"

"You’ve got an air about you. You’re not one of these Southern squires with their heads full of hunting and- well- that’s about it. You know about things."

"I was born in the north of England, but I tend to think of myself as a Londoner."

"Heh heh heh." The rusty laugh ended in a spluttering cough. "Know it well. A lot of good friends of mine wound up hung in chains at Wapping." he looked round to make sure no-one was listening. "So can I speak to you man to man. None of your lawyerly evasions?"

I assumed a serious demeanour and inclined my head.

"You know her ladyship well. Am I right?"

"Yes, we go back a long, long way."

"So, do you think me and the lads are likely to get paid for this day’s work?"

"I think it highly unlikely. The last gang she had working for her wound up dead. She felt they’d let her down." I paused to let the information sink in, then added- "Poison."

"You’re having me on?"

"I saw the evidence myself. She’s ruthless. Utterly ruthless. Louis, show the gentleman your scar."

Louis look off his cravat and raised his chin. The thin white line went from ear to ear. "That was her work," I said. "She cut his throat. He was tied to a chair at the time."

The Commodore whistled through his teeth. He had a fine set of them despite his age. "I’ve known many men who’d be game for that, but never a woman."

"Well that’s who you’re dealing with. Your Captain Morgan was a kitten compared to Madame Grimaldi."

"Of course you would say that," He tilted his head to one side and gave me a look of deep cunning.

"Yes of course I would. But it still happens to be true. Madame Grimaldi is a poisoner on an epic scale. She’s involved you and your boys in a war between great powers in which you’re of no more account…" I searched my extensive vocabulary for a suitable simile.

"…Than the man you killed to get that fancy coat," suggested Louis.

The Commodore ignored him. "So this potion, this antidote I keep hearing about, the stuff our bullets are dipped in…"

I tapped my nose with my finger. "Dangerous knowledge," I said. "Don’t even ask. If the Lady senses you’re getting inquisitive…"

"She’s just a woman."

"That’s what I mean. You boys are out of your depth. The lady is like nobody you’ve ever dealt with before."

He withdrew his hand and we started walking again. "If things go your way in this," he murmured. "I’m only saying if…"

"I can’t make any promises," I said. "All I can say is we’re not the sort of people who would tie a man to a chair and cut his throat. It’s not our style."

"We treated the prisoners pretty well. They’ll vouch for that."

"Yes. Duly noted.

"We haven’t had this conversation, of course."

"No, of course not."

Count

(no subject)

Margery found a dust-sheet the painters had left behind, scissored off a square piece and tied it to a stick.

“Sorry about the frayed edges,” she said, handing it over to Bors. “Really it needs hemming.”

“It’s fine,” said Bors. “Just so long as it doesn’t come untied.” He wagged it vigorously to and fro. “Now I’m going to row out midway and wave this at them and hope we can get negotiations going. Someone volunteer to take the oars.”

“Me,” said Margery, “I’m the water rat.”

Bors gave me a questioning look.

“It could be dangerous,” I mumbled.

“Oh Purchas, don’t be such an idiot”

She marched down to the jetty, got in the boat and raised the sculls.

Bors followed her, carrying the flag. She let him settle in the stern, then pushed off.

Herne trotted up, grinning hugely, with his broadsword over his shoulder, dismounted and came and stood with the rest of us. "What's up?" he asked.

I explained.

"And he expects pirates to respect a flag of truce?" he snorted.

Margery rowed to within hailing distance, then turned the boat broadside to the island. Bors got to his feet, flag in hand, teetered and fell over backwards into the water.

“They’ve shot him,” said Herne. “That’s it. Now we do it my way. Swim across and give ‘em no quarter.”

“Hold it!” said Pertinax. “Look. He’s swimming. He’s all right.”

It was true. He’d simply overbalanced. Margery was leaning over the gunwhale holding out her hand. He grabbed hold and heaved himself back on board.

“That’ll put the fear of God in ‘em,” muttered Herne.

Bors sat for a while in the bottom of the boat- getting his breath back- then heaved himself back onto his feet. “Ahoy,” he called. “Ahoy!”

A man appeared on the shore of the island. He and Bors had a conversation of which we caught only scraps. Then Bors sat down again and Margery rowed him back.

"Damn," said Bors as he squelched up the bank, "Damn, damn, damn!"
He sat down on an empty cask and began tugging at his right boot.

“Is Emilia there?” I asked.

“She is. She’s holding our people as hostages. She'll only talk to Purchas.”

“Who’s she to dictate terms?” asked Herne.

“We do as she says or she starts shooting hostages at five minute intervals."

“I’d have told her; ‘kill a hostage and we come in shooting'.”

“I suggested something of the sort. Unfortunately she has ten musketeers on the island and this time they’ll be using poisoned bullets.”

“Bluff,” said Herne. “Did you see her musketeers?”

“I saw a couple of them.”

"Did you see the bullets?"

"We know she has them."

Bors gave a final tug and the boot came off. He upended it and a thin stream of dirty water ran out.

"I don't see a problem," I said. "I'm happy to talk to her."

“Does she promise safe passage?” asked Pertinax.

“She does.”

“For what it’s worth,” said Herne.

“What can I offer her?” I asked

“You can offer her her life,” said Bors, slowly, thinking it out as he spoke. “And the lives of her men- though I don't suppose she's bothered about that. In return you demand she surrenders all stocks of the Antidote and gives us the keys to her laboratories.”

“And we let her go free?” asked Herne.

“Yes and no,” said Bors. “She can have a house- a castle even- God knows the Order has enough of them- with the proviso that her household servants are chosen and employed by us and her movements are monitored. She’ll be treated as a great lady, a princess even. Emphasise that- a princess.”

“I still think my plan is better,” said Herne. "A night attack Wipe’em all out.”

“Possibly,” said Bors, coldly. “But I think you'll find the decision's mine.” He held out his left hand and we saw he was wearing Melchisidech’s ring on his wedding finger.

Herne shrugged angrily, turned and strode away. Louis Klipper stepped out from behind a tent at just the wrong moment and Herne almost bumped into him. "Can't you look where you're going!" he roared.

"What's troubling the hero of the hour?" asked Louis.

"Issues with authority," I said.

Bors, threw the empty boot aside and began pulling at the other. “Hello, Klipper." he said. "I thought you were up at the house. Everything all right?”

“Not really,” said Louis. “Thought I ought to tell you; Mlle Despiner or Polkinghorne or whatever she’s called has gone missing.”

"Missing?"

"Turned my back and there she wasn't."

“You searched?”

“Course I searched. Me and the lads went right through the house. Top to bottom. Not a sign of her. Found some really interesting books under your bed though, Perky.” He gave me a hideous wink. “Illustrated books…”

“Could she be one of the hostages?” asked Pertinax.

“There was a lot of confusion," said Louis. "I suppose someone could have grabbed her."

“We'll find her,” said Bors."

"So let me go over to the island and look," I said.

“You can take a companion,” said Bors. “Not me, not Pertinax, not Herne, not Farquahar. Not anyone military. A civilian. I’d like to think there was someone with you to watch your back.”

“I’ll go,” said Margery.

“Actually, you are on the list of prohibited persons too. The phrase that was used of you was- ahem- ‘that sneaky bitch’. I was thinking, since he’s here, you might take Klipper.”

“What am I being volunteered for?” asked Louis, anxiously.

I explained.

Louis wasn’t a coward. You could say a lot of derogatory things about him and I would only mildly protest, but call him a coward and I’d put my foot down. When I first knew him he was, among other things, a spy for the English government. You don’t engage in that sort of work in a society as violent as Jacobean England was if you hold your life too dear. “Humph,” he said, once he understood what we were about to do. “Another fine mess you got me into.”

We climbed down into the boat. I’m not as handy with boats as Margery is, but I’d taken my turn with the oars when we were messing about on the Thames. Bors handed Louis the white flag.

“Di vos incolumes custodiant,” said Pertinax.

“Hmm,” said Louis, as we glided out onto the water. “About those books of yours: I wouldn’t mind borrowing them some day.”

“Those are expensive first editions, Louis. I know what you’re like: you’d spill candle wax all over them. Or soup. Or God knows what.”

“Me? I’m a bibliophile.”

“Sure. I’ve seen your library. You’ve got some nice books there, but you’ve trashed them all.”

“Books are for reading, Perky. Not just for displaying on shelves to impress the neighbours.”

“I’ll have you know there’s not a book in my library I haven’t read at least once. I’m just careful with them, that’s all. I don’t dog-ear the pages, I don’t break their spines. I don’t eat my dinner off them.”

I was facing backwards of course. I could see my friends lined up along the bank, anxiously watching our progress. Margery blew me a kiss.

“You’re a dilettante,” said Louis. “My library is a working library. Those books of mine are tools. So of course I’m reading ‘em under all conditions and making notes in the margins and underlining things and- whoops- two pirates just stepped out onto the bank.”

“Are they armed?”

“They got muskets, but they’re not pointing ‘em at us. It’s a reception committee.” He agitated the white flag.
Count

(no subject)

I jumped up and put my shoulder to the dresser and, with Louis and Margery lending a hand, pushed it away from the door. Then we all ran out into the garden.

I have rarely seen anything quite so magnificent.  Herne, Farquhar and their cavalry had ridden straight into the enemy's flank, causing panic and flight.  Herne had his horns on and was laying about him with a broadsword.  Behind came Bors, Pertinax and the infantry, using their muskets as clubs. 
 
I  leaped over the parapet, sword in hand and found myself next to Bors. He tipped his hat to me. What we were being called to do wasn't much like fighting, more like herding sheep or driving geese- and I found I was wielding my rapier, not as the delicate piercing instrument it was designed to be, but as a switch, slashing at whatever was in front of me.

The enemy had been caught unprepared. They lacked leadership- and after the success of their charge had been uncertain what to do next. They hadn't reckoned on a counter attack, and weren't being paid enough to put up resistance.  We chased them round the house- sweeping up more and more of them as we went- and drove them down the hill. When we reached the gates Bors called his musketeers to order, formed them into a ragged line and sent a final volley after the fugitives. Herne rode on regardless, royally berserk, swinging the broadsword like a cheerleaders baton,  swatting them man by man as they scattered into the surrounding countryside

 "One small point," said Margery, grounding her smoking musket. "But where’s madam. Has anyone see her ?"

No-one had.

"We’re assuming she was part of the attack." said Pertinax. "She may not even have entered the battlefield."

"But she did," said Bors. "There was a coach came through the gates in the first rush.  I saw a woman’s hand at the window as it went rattling past."

"She’ll be down at the lake," I said. "That’s where she’ll have been expecting to find us all."

"Musketeers," said Bors. "Shoulder arms! About turn!  Forward march!"

I fell into step beside him. "What happened at your end?" I asked.

"They overwhelmed us. Nothing we could do but stand aside and let them through. I didn’t want my men killed. Afterwards we marched round the long way to link up with Pertinax. O Jesu!"

We had just come in sight of the Carthaginian seaport. It was a shambles. Bodies lay in heaps. Blood was splattered over the stretched canvas facades of its palaces and temples.

A number of stray pirates were wandering about among the dead, rifling through pockets and pulling off rings and necklaces. They scattered at our approach. One of them ran into the lake and started swimming towards the island. Piers planted his musket and took aim,  but Bors put a hand on the barrel and gently pushed it down. "That’s enough," he said. "No more killing unless we can’t help it."

The man reached dry land and was helped ashore by a comrade, while a third stepped from the bushes and, rather pointlessly, fired a musket in our direction.

"We can’t leave them over there," said Pertinax. "Purchas isn’t going to want a gang of pirates camping out on his land."

"What if she’s over there with them?" asked Margery.

"There are some of our friends missing too," I said. "What about the Marquise and the Count?"

"Are we sure they’re not among that lot?" asked Pertinax, indicating  the piles of bodies.

We searched.  The dead were musicians and catering staff. This bothered us less than it should have done.

"So where are the Immortals?" asked Margery.

"Three possibilities," said Pertinax, counting them off on his fingers. "One: they ran and hid. Two: she’s kidnapped them and carried them off. Three: she’s kidnapped them and they’re on the island."

"The boats are gone." I said. "There were ten gondolas tied up at the jetty this morning. Now there’s only one. The rest must be over there."

"We’re not going to mount a water-borne invasion with a single boat," said Pertinax.

"So it looks as though we’ll have to besiege them," said Bors. "Is there food and water over there?"

"Only whatever they may have managed to carry across."

"Farquahar," said Bors. "Take the men and position them at intervals round the lake. Each man within hailing distance of the next. First thing is to make sure the enemy don’t escape."
 
Farquahar saluted,  gave orders and set off at a trot with the men behind him.  

"And the next thing is to try and set up a parlay. Rig us up a white flag, someone."

Count

(no subject)

I picked Piers and one other of Farquahar’s men and led them past the house and up through the vines. When we reached the top we could see puffs of smoke coming and going on the opposite hillside. "Get down," I ordered. And I and my men scrambled and slid the rest of the way with heads down and bodies bent double .

Pertinax and his crew were sheltering behind the drystone wall at the bottom of the vineyard. They had already been reinforced by Herne and Farquhar’s patrols. Our side had lost one man killed and a couple wounded. "But we downed four or five of them," said Pertinax. "It was a frontal attack. Straight down the hillside. Mad!"

"How many?"

"About thirty. The way they’re dressed I’d say they were seamen."

I stood up to take a look. The enemy were scattered over the hillside, firing from the cover of rocks and bushes. The range was so great that none of them ran much risk of hitting or being hit. I fired one of my pistols to show willing, then dropped back down. "Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?" I said.

"Unless it’s a diversionary tactic."

"That’s what I was thinking. Listen. I’ll leave my men here, but I’m going back to the gate. Bors needs to know what’s happening."

I laboured back up the slope. From the brow of the hill I could see the house and the lake. I couldn’t see the gate, but I hardly needed to because Emilia's cavalry had already cleared it. There were about fifty of them and they had divided into two groups- one ploughing through the meadows to attack the Count’s Carthaginian seaport and the second encircling the house and gardens. I turned and shouted to the men behind me. "Pull back, Pull back. We’re under attack from the front!" Then I ran down towards the house, loading my pistol as I went.

The horsemen passed in front of me like riders on a carousel, heading for the bouhaha at the lake.  One of them peeled away from the charge and came trotting in my direction.  He wore a red bandana and had very white teeth.   He raised his cutlass to hew me down and I shot him through the chest.

He didn’t die at once but trotted past me, still upright, clinging to his pommel, then fell off sideways.  As  I leaped into the saddle, I saw Pertinax’s group come charging over the hill.

The back of the house could only be reached by scaling one of the two stone staircases that led to the parterre. The besiegers, not knowing what they might meet at the top, were milling about, their horses side stepping or padding round in circles. I rode for the steps at a canter and my enemies, thinking I was one of them, let me through. My horse hated the stairs. She flollopped up a couple of them, then refused to mount higher. I saw I’d get nowhere trying to force her and slid to the ground. Someone shouted after me- and a  bullet flew past my skull and smacked into the stonework .  A couple of the enemy, on horses braver than mine, gave chase.

The garden, with its pattern of neat little hedges and alternation of soft footing with hard footing was an obstacle course for a rider. One of my pursuers was thrown. The second kept on my tail. I fired at him and missed. He was a flower-bed’s length away- and preparing his horse for a leap that would have landed him on top off me- when a blast of musketry from the upper windows swept him from the saddle. I sprinted the few remaining yards, the door flew open and Margery pulled me inside.

"Just in time," she said. "You can give me a hand with this." And hardly knowing what I was doing, I helped her drag a big oak dresser across the door I’d just come through.

Arty was sitting in the alcove by the fireplace loading muskets. She had three lined up beside her. "Hi Arty," I said. I grabbed a musket and went to the window. Arty gave me a wan smile.

Iwas a lovely outlook. In the foreground lay the garden with its blazing flowerbeds; in the background were the hills- powder-blue- with Mont Ventoux to the far right. Everything in the middle distance- the entire battlefield in fact- was hidden from view by the parterre.

A man appeared at the head of the steps I’d just climbed. He was on foot and carrying a cutlass. He shaded his eyes with his hand and surveyed the house. I aimed and fired and knocked him backwards.

I passed my empty musket to Arty. She handed me a loaded one. "They’re coming," I said.

Only they weren’t. The riderless horse moved slowly from left to right, browsing on the floral displays. She stood still. Defecated. Moved on.

"So what happened?" asked Margery. She was standing beside me, head almost touching mine as we  squinted out into the garden.

"There was a diversionary attack on the vineyard. Then the cavalry came in through the gate. There's a battle going on by the lake."

"What's happening at the front?"

"I've no idea. I'll go see."
 
I handed Margery my musket and jogged  through the house, across the central courtyard and into the entrance hall. There was broken glass all over the floor. Two narrow windows flanked the door. A footman stood at one of them and a cook at the other, each man holding a musket. A couple of the kitchen maids were loading for them.

"We gave ‘em what for," said the footman. "Now they’ve pulled back and they’re licking their wounds." I peered over his shoulder and saw three men and a horse lying out on the gravel. The horse was trying to get up but couldn't. The enemy forces were drawn up at a distance, out of the range of our guns, apparently uncertain how to proceed. Several had dismounted.

"Sorry looking bunch, ain’t they?" said the cook.

I scanned them through the telescope. They looked like sailors- the kind of crew you’d assemble if you went through the dockside taverns in Marseilles and accepted any and every man who was willing to work for pay. They wore baggy canvas trousers and bandanas and woollen hats. They were armed with marlin spikes and belaying pins and cutlasses. The one or two firearms were antiques; as were many of the men themselves. Others were mere boys. I felt an unhelpful surge of pity. The horses were a mixture of ponies and drudges and plough-horses.

I jogged back to Margery. "I don’t know who these people are, but they’re a rabble. We’ve either killed their leaders or they didn’t have them in the first place."

"Those I’ve seen look like pirates."

"They all look like pirates. Emilia must have gone down to Marseilles or Toulon and taken anything she could find. She’s going to have problems controlling them."

"They won’t like being killed, will they?"

"No, they won’t. And we’ve killed quite a few. I don’t think they expected to meet this kind of resistance."

"Emilia didn’t know Bors would be turning up."

"I wish I knew how Bors was. He was on the gate when the attack came. That should have been my post but he’d sent me to reinforce the vineyard."

"They’re not using poisoned bullets, are they?"

"Not so far as I know. If I were Emilia I wouldn't entrust them with anything so dangerous. Besides, they don’t have many guns."

"Margery put her finger to her lips. "Ssh…" .

"What?"

"Listen."

"All I can hear is the horses. Same as before."

"That’s it. They’re on the move."

"So they are."

A ragged piece of cloth went fluttering along the top of the parapet at the end of the garden, moving left to right. The telescope showed it to be a flag. A crowned skeleton holding a dart and hourglass, in white against a black background. 

Louis burst into the room.  He'd been watching events from an upstairs window. "It's Herne," he said. "Herne is leading a charge."

Count

(no subject)

The day of the fete dawned bright and cloudless. Another perfect summer’s day- blue from zenith to hill top.

Margery was still asleep. I kissed her lightly, rolled out of bed, pulled on my boots and went downstairs. Herne and Farquhar and Pertinax were having breakfast. Bors, they said, was out inspecting the defences. A maid came in and curtsied and told me that a gentleman had just arrived and was waiting for me in the hall. I grabbed up a chicken leg and a glass of small beer and followed her out.

It was the Count of course. He rose from his high-backed chair and, before the folds of his coat fell back into place, I saw he had a brace of pistols stuck in his belt. "I understand," he said. "That we are expecting some uninvited guests."

"That’s right."

"I thought it might encourage you to know that when we were first planning this fete I took the precaution of consulting the stars and they were highly propitious. Today, I believe, will be a day of triumph, of victory even."

I smiled politely.

"But what I’m mainly here to do," he continued. "Is to offer you my services as a fighting man. I was never a soldier, I’m afraid, but I’ve fought several duels and never lost one yet."

"Thank you," I said. "It makes me happy to know you may be counted on. Come on in and meet the commanders."

He exchanged routine greetings with Pertinax and Farquahar and I was in the process of introducing him to Herne when Bors came stumping in. "Still all quiet, " he said.

"I believe it’s my watch next," I said. I rose to leave.

He stopped me. "Now that it’s daylight we can drop that business. From this point on everyone’s continuously on duty." He cleared a space among the breakfast things and spread out a roughly drawn map. "Each man will have charge of a particular area. Purchas: the main gate." He stabbed his forefinger at the map. " Pertinax: the vineyard. Herne and Farquhar patrolling the grounds in opposite directions with their cavalry." The forefinger described two half circles. "Margery- wherever she is- the house. My headquarters will be down in the Carthaginian seaport." He turned towards the Count, as if noticing him for the first time. "And you, my dear, old friend- how good to have you with us!"

"It’s been a few years," said the Count."

"It certainly has," said Bors. "We’ve got some catching up to do. Where was it we last met- Paris?"

"Amboise: I was doing a little work for Francois I."

"Of course, of course. How did that turn out? I want all the details."

The Count shrugged.

"That’s right. Not now. You must tell me later. I’ll buy you dinner. You’re master of ceremonies here, I believe?"

"I’m directing the entertainments."

"So you’ll be down at the lake all day?"

The Count nodded.

"Then let me tell you what I’ve been thinking. If an invading force manages to get into the grounds, our best hope, I believe, will be to evacuate people to the island. Can I put you in charge of that?"

Margery entered the room. She was carrying a musket in the crook of her arm, cradling it like a baby.

"Ah, Madame, la Chatelaine," said Bors, with a stiff, little bow. "Your plan of action, please?"

"The domestic servants have been issued with fire-arms. There is a man with a musket standing at every other window. The female servants will load."

"Good. And now, mesdames et messieurs, to your posts! With luck and God willing, all these precautions will prove needless and we’ll have a good laugh about them at the day's end."

We filed out of the room. I fell into step beside Bors. "So you know the Count?" I asked.

"We’re very old friends."

"I can’t make him out."

"And why would you want to? He is what he is."

"To begin with I thought he was a complete fraud."

"And now?"

"He keeps surprising me."

"That’s the essence of the man. Surprise. He has set himself the task of astonishing us all. You’ve heard of Daedalus? of Merlin?"

"You’re not saying…"

"I’m not saying anything. Daedalus is dead. Merlin disappeared off the face of the earth; that’s common knowledge."

"And the Count…"

"The Count is one of the living men I most respect. Like me he has always preferred to keep on the outside of things. A solitary. Don’t even hint to him that I mentioned those names." He smiled. We had reached the corner of the building. "Now you go that way and I go this."

I walked down to the gate. I had two gun emplacements under my command, one to either side of the drive, with two men in each; three of them were Farquahar’s people, and the fourth was Roger, the game keeper.

Roger went with the house. We’d inherited him when we moved in. His people had lived in this landscape for as far back as records and folk-memory stretched. He was a tall, sinewy man in his mid forties, dark as an Arab, with fierce, black eyes.

"What exactly are we looking for?" he asked, leaning on his fowling piece and gazing out at the plain.

"Any unusual movement," I said.

"Does that count?"

I couldn’t see it at first. His eyes were trained to the work. Mine weren’t.

"That dust cloud," he said.

I took Gabriele’s telescope from my pocket and turned it in the direction he was pointing. I saw a long, low, even trail of dust, such as might be raised by a company of fifty men or more, marching along the road in tight formation.

"I don’t know what that is but we can’t ignore it." I tapped one of Farquhar’s men on the shoulder. "Run down to the lake, Piers,  and tell the General there's something afoot."

Bors was with us in minutes. I handed him the telescope. "No use," he said. "My eyes aren’t keen enough. Anything that far off is just a blur. Tell me what you see."

"They’re turning the bend now," I said. "There’s a man on horseback . And then- ah- it’s a wagon." Pause. "And then a second wagon and a third."

"Not an army then?" he asked.

"No," I replied, not sure whether I was relieved or disappointed, "It’s probably the Count’s kitchen staff."

And so it turned out to be. We halted the convoy a little short of the gates, got all the people to step out into the road, then searched the wagons for weapons.

"Listen," said Bors. "I know it’s tiresome, but we can’t be too careful. Same procedure for everyone coming onto the premises. Better safe than sorry."

Next to turn up were the musicians. They were in a caravan of five coaches. I sent Piers to tell the Count to come and fetch them. He arrived, vouched for them all, then led them off in single file across the meadow, each man carrying his instrument.

A smell of roasting meat began to waft past on the fitful breeze. "Is it lunchtime yet?" asked Piers.

"Scarcely mid-morning," said Roger. "You should have had more breakfast, lad."

"When are the guests arriving, sir?" asked one of the other two men.

"Any time, now"

We heard the orchestra tuning up. They launched into a jolly little concerto. They had a repertoire that lasted about half an hour. Once they’d run through it, they paused for a short breather then started back at the beginning. They were halfway through their third play-through before anyone else arrived at our gate.

This time it was the Marquise. I stepped out of cover and went and handed her down from her carriage. There was a look of utter misery in her innocent, china blue eyes.

"What’s the matter," I asked.

"I’m afraid no-one’s coming."

"Oh dear."

"I thought our people were made of sterner stuff, really I did, but ever since news started to circulate about Madame Grimaldi, I’ve been getting lots of polite little notes saying sorry, but something unavoidable has just come up. Cowards. And some of them are even leaving town. The Montgomerys, for instance. I know because I called round to plead with them and their housekeeper told me they’d shut the house up and left for Marseilles. She says they’re talking of going to America."

I sighed. "It’s understandable, I suppose..."

"Understandable, yes. But you’d think they’d be ashamed. And the Montgomerys of all people- with their proud military tradition! I expected better of them."

"Pertinax and the Colonel are here."

"Well that’s something. But it doesn’t look as if we’re going to have much fun, does it?"

"We’ll see. It’s still early."

"Oh and the Duchess isn’t only not coming, she’s refusing to stump up any more money. Cancel it, she said. And I said We can’t do that. The Count is already here and his fee is enormous and the orchestra and the caterers are booked. And she said I’ve wasted good money converting Monsieur Purchas’ garden into an open air bordello and I’m not wasting any more on a party that isn’t going to happen." She sighed. " I don’t know what we’re going to do."

"People will come. The out of towners will come. And they’re all fabulously wealthy. We’ll pass the hat round at the end of the evening and that’ll more than cover the outstanding costs. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine."

By twelve o’clock two more partygoers had arrived. One was Louis Klipper. The other was a lady from Lyons who had her coachmen turn round and drive her home again as soon as we explained to her about Emilia .

"It’s gonna be a wash-out, Perky," said Louis.

"You don’t have to sound so cheerful about it."

"Where’s your good lady?"

"Up at the house with a musket in her lap."

"And what’s the point of that?"

"She’s guarding Artemesia. I mean Suzanne Despiner. It’s Suzanne that Emilia is mainly after."

Louis shrugged. "That’s sad. You throw a party and you don’t get to attend it yourself. Maybe I’ll go cheer her up. Take her some roast ox or something."

"That would be a very kind of you."

Two more carriages pulled up. More out-of-towners. From Montelimar. This lot decided to stay.

Herne and his patrol came by. "We’re on our second lot of horses," he said. "Frankly, I’m sick of riding round and round in circles."

"How’s the party?"

"Like Sunday afternoon at the almshouses. There’s Bors and that Marquise of yours and the Count and a couple more ancients sitting around talking about the good old days. The orchestra were stood down half an hour ago. Most of them are in the refreshment tent- getting drunk."

"So I’m not missing anything?"

He laughed. "Put it this way. It’s a party to remember. Anything happening out here?"

"See for yourself." I handed him the telescope.

"Hey; clever toy. I want one of these!" He handed it back. "Ah well, best be going. You guys eaten anything yet?"

No,"

"I’ll stop by the refreshment tent and get them to bring you something up."

A quarter of an hour later Bors appeared, accompanied by a couple of servants with baskets.

"Thought I’d stretch my legs a bit," he said. "Herne said you hadn’t eaten."

The servants unpacked the baskets. There was beef, pork, chicken, fresh bread, fruit, bottles of wine. My men got stuck into their pic-nic.

"Some party!" I said.

"Look at this way," said Bors. "If there is an attack- and it’s getting to seem less and less likely- we’re better off with just a handful of people on site. I was talking to the Count. We’ve agreed we’ll bring the curtain down mid-afternoon. Get everyone off the premises before it gets dark…"

There was a single, distant gun shot. Followed, after a pause, by a regular fusillade. "That’s coming from across the lake," I said.

The shooting continued.

One of Farquahar’s men rode up. "They’re attacking the vineyard, sir. General Pertinax is calling for reinforcements."

"Listen," said Bors. "You’re a whole lot faster on your legs than me. Take a couple of the men and run over and see what’s happening. I’ll take charge here."

Count

(no subject)

I assembled the estate workers. I sent a man into Carpentras to fetch Herne, then led the rest of them out into the field, where we assembled hides- a bit like those a wild fowler might build- overlooking the main drive and the little path that came twisting down from the mountains at the rear of the property. Roger, my game-keeper, was chief architect and managed things wonderfully. I went and stood on the drive between the gateposts and if I hadn’t known that the clumps of bushes halfway up the slope had been specially built to conceal a couple of musketeers apiece, I would never have guessed.

We worked long into the evening. We were down among the vines, on the far side of the long low hill that curved round the lake to the north and west, repairing the drystone wall, when I saw a torch coming down the slope from the direction of the house. I called out and got an English hunting cry in return.

"Margery said I’d find you here," said Herne, after we’d hugged and exchanged greetings. "What’s going on exactly."

"You can’t see it in this light, but there’s a sunken track just over there," I said. "If we put musketeers behind this wall they’ll be able to fire right down into it."

"Have you thought about using cavalry?" he asked.

"I can’t say I have."

"Mobility. That’s the thing. You want a group of men you can move quickly about the battlefield. You’ve got horses haven’t you?"

"A stable full."

"And men who can ride?"

"Certainly."

"Then let me at ‘em. I’ll knock together a squad. Perhaps you’ll translate for me? All I’ve got is a little left-over Norman French. I’ve had the devil of a job trying to get them to understand me at the inn. All those ick, ack, ock sounds they make. Worse than the bloody Scots."

It was after midnight by the time Bors returned. He had Pertinax and Farquahar with him and a small troop of serving men, variously armed. We went up to the house and held a brief council of war.

No-one questioned that Bors should be our General. He appointed me his second-in-command,  and no-one questioned that either because I had, after all, been a staff officer under Fairfax.  Herne and Farquahar divided up the cavalry between them- which meant meant they had  four horsemen apiece, with a roving commission to patrol the grounds. Pertinax,  who as a Roman was happier fighting on foot, took command of the musketeers. Margery, our chatelaine, was put in charge of the house.

"Is there a title that goes with that?" she asked.

"Garrison commander," Bors shot back.

The men were waiting for us in the stable we had settled on as a temporary barracks. There were twenty five of them- comprising my male servants aged between fifteen and seventy and the men Pertinax and Farquahar had brought with them, many of whom were old soldiers. Bors climbed up onto an upturned manger and addressed them.

"Strictly speaking," he said. "This is not your fight. You’re facing an enemy you won’t have heard of, who has no quarrel with you or your country or your faith or any other thing you may hold dear. The only thing you may object to in her is that she wants your masters and mistresses dead. There is a great deal I am not at liberty to explain, but I can say this; that it is something rather more than a personal vendetta that is being worked out here. Our enemy wants power. If she gets it, she will, eventually, and in ways you may not ever be aware of, wield it over you and your children. This is a secret war, but no less significant in its issue than any in which some of you may have fought. If any man wishes to be excused duty, he is free to withdraw -and no-one here will think the worse of him.

He stepped down. The men were whispering among themselves. "How do you think that went?" he murmured.

"Mind if I say a few words?" asked Herne.

"Go ahead, " said Bors.

"Translate for me please, Purchas." He stepped up onto the manger. "Listen men," he said. "You don’t know me and I don’t know you. So let me introduce myself. My name’s Herne; I’ve been a huntsman and a blacksmith and a soldier and I’ve come all the way from England to fight this bitch. Why? Simple. Because she’s bad. And because I love a good fight. You see the General here." He pointed to Bors. "You don’t know him either, but he’s the best there is. Honour to serve under you, sir! He ducked his head in Bors’ direction. "And now all this speechifying has made me thirsty. Those of you who don’t want to join in can fuck off back home and the rest of us are going to have a drink before we go on duty." He held his hand out towards me. "Key to the cellar please, Purchas."

I threw it over to him. He caught it and marched out the stable with our army at his heels, all of them cheering and whooping and jostling forward to slap him on the back.

"It seems," said Bors.  "That all those years in the presbytery study have left me a little rusty."

"Once Herne has finished getting our army drunk, " I suggested. "We should probably set a watch."

"She won’t attack tonight will she?" asked Farquahar. "Surely she’ll wait for the guests to arrive."

"She may not attack tomorrow either," said Bors. "I hope she doesn’t. But the sooner we get into military habits the better. If she doesn’t attack us, we’ll need to take the battle to her."

"She could be anywhere," I said.

"Then we search until we find her. We’re none of us exactly pressed for time, now are we?"

We gave Herne and his army fifteen minutes in the cellar, then winkled them out and sent some to their posts and some to bed.

I took the first watch. A dead-of-the-night slow ride round the perimeter of the estate. It was very dark, but my horse knew the path from memory. I was expecting ghosts. I didn’t get them. I got far worse. I got memories.

Emilia and I sitting side by side in Esclairmonde’s coach as it slowly, wonderfully bumped its way across Europe- two teenage children reading the romance of Lancelot of the Lake. She was in love with Lancelot and I was in love with her.

"Imagine," she said. "A man who would cross a sword bridge to get to his lady love."

"Wasn’t Lancelot an Immortal?" I asked.

"Certainly not. He hurt his hands and feet most dreadfully."

"I’d cross a sword bridge to rescue you if you were shut away in a castle."

"But you’re an Immortal, so it wouldn’t be at all the same." That lovely trilling laugh

The two of us in the fields below the great rock of Orvieto, with Lucius, Pertinax’s older brother, trying to teach us to fly a kite. "One of these days," he said. "They’ll build one of these big enough to carry a man." Down the field we ran, holding the string, the kite bumping along the ground behind us, and she tripped and fell and I tripped out of sympathy and we rolled over and over in one another’s arms to the very brink of the river.

I knew nothing of her history back then. I couldn’t know she was simply playing with me.

The first betrayal. The man she ran away with was a falconer. Pietro or Paulo. (Paulo, I think There was a Pietro later on. And two Peters and a Pierre.) We had chased her up into the mountains to her sweetheart’s village, only to find her already married.

A light appeared in the dark. I had reached the edge of the vineyard. A man rose out of cover, his face brightly illumined. "How’s things?" I asked.

"All’s well,"

I rode back into the night. The house in Bread Street was my first true home. Emilia and I had shared it. We were sisters again . She seemed to enjoy being a Tudor housewife. She did it very prettily. Here she was tripping back from market with a half cheese balanced on her head.

"Hey Purchas, you’ll never believe it, but the Dairyman just gave me this."

"For free?."

"For a kiss. Just one, well, maybe two- but very chaste kisses they were. One on the left cheek, one on the right. He’s a very handsome man!"

After a couple of years she ran off with an Italian. And I had had what we’d now call a breakdown. An attack of melancholy humours.  I didn’t really come back to life again until I met Margery- thirty years later.

The house in Bread Street again. but not the same house. A larger, finer house on the same site. Emilia and I were standing at on the doorstep arguing. She wanted me to leave and I wanted to stay and then Gabriele came climbing over the garden wall…

I completed my ride.

Bors are gone to bed, but the other three were sat by the fire with a bowl of nuts and a flagon of spiced wine. Farquahar got up as I entered. "Nothing to report," I said. "All quiet on every front."

"My watch," said Farquahar. "See you gentleman later." He left the room.

"You joining us, Purchas?" asked Herne. "I was just telling the Colonel about the time you and me bearded Henry VIII."

I laughed. "I don’t seem to have had much sleep lately and I want to be fresh for tomorrow. If you’ll excuse me I’m going to bed."

Margery was waiting for me. She was lying on her side with a big fat book laid out on the sheets. "Don Quixote," she said. "I’ve never read it and I figured I might never get another chance." She glanced up at me. "Oh Purchas, you look almost as grey as poor Arty."

"It’s going to happen tomorrow. I know it is. I can feel it in my bones." I spread my palm and held it close to Margery’s candle. "I wish I knew what all these scribbles meant."

"I don’t.  If  what's coming is bad I’d rather not know, and if it’s good I’d prefer it be a lovely surprise."

"Whatever it is, it won’t be good. People are going to be killed."

She stretched and yawned. "I’ve had a lovely life. If it ends tomorrow I’ll have had over a hundred years more than I was entitled to. Come to bed."

I kicked off my boots and climbed in beside her. "Just hold me," I said.

"Shall I sing you something?"

"Robin Hood’s wedding," I said.

"Oh Purchas, your tastes in music are so last century"

"And rustic. Humour me."

"I’m not questioning it. It’s just so- you!"

I was asleep before she reached the second verse.

Count

(no subject)

I dismounted by the front door and handed the horse over to a groom. Margery helped me off with my boots and we tip-toed through the house, me in my stockinged feet, she leading me by the hand.

Our guest was asleep in a chair. At first I didn’t recognise him. He’d shaved the beard and was wearing a full bottomed, auburn-tinted wig. His big round spectacles had slipped halfway down his nose.

It was the hands that gave him away. They were spread in repose across the folio that rested on his knees, but they still looked soldierly. I recognised the pattern of scarring.

"Bors!" I exclaimed. "What’s he doing here?"

The old man stirred and came to. "I wasn’t sleeping," he said. "Just resting my eyes. Your southern daylight is quite unnecessarily bright. How do you do, Purchas?"

"Better for seeing you." I knelt on the floor beside him and took his hands in mine and kissed them both.

He disengaged the right hand and rested it for a moment on my head, as if in blessing. "Nice place you have here," he said. "And it seems I’ve arrived just in time for some sort of a party. Margery said we’d do a little tour of the estate once you returned. Are you up for it?"

"I’ll put my boots back on."

We strolled out onto the parterre. "You can see most of our land from here," said Margery. "Vines over there. Dairy cattle in the valley."

"And some sort of Carthaginian sea port in the middle distance."

"That’s the setting for the fete," I explained. "Inspired by Claude Lorrain. The theme of it is the Embarkation for Cythera."

"Charming," he said. "I’m glad I arrived in time."

"You’ll be guest of honour," I said.

We strolled out into the formal garden. He paused to take a rose between his fingers, held it close to his eyes and turned it this way and that. "Greenfly," he murmured. "You need to take precautions. I’ll write you out a recipe afterwards."

"What brings you here?" I asked.

"I’m between lives." he said. "I thought I’d take a little tour before I settle into my next one. Use the opportunity to visit friends. You know I haven't been out of England in over sixty years."

"That’s not like you." I corrected myself. "Not like the old you, anyway."

"No, I was a restless soul, wasn’t I?"

"Are you getting back your taste for travel?"

"Europe’s changed." He sniffed the air. "More borders, bigger armies, nastier wars. In the old days you could cross from one end of Christendom to the other and nobody tried to stop you moving around. No one stepped out in front of your horse and said, ‘Hey this is my kingdom you can’t come in here!’ Borders were porous and always changing. You rarely knew where one man’s country ended and the next began. You’d ride up to a castle and ask where you were and they’d say Styria or Bohemia or the Comtat and they’d give you a nice meal and send you on your way rejoicing. These days you have to carry papers. And what’s worse, you’re obliged to show them every few miles to some cheapjack with a gun. I can’t say I like it."

"You know there’s more than a party in the offing here?" said Margery.

He raised his eyebrows.

I looked at Margery. She looked at me. Neither of us wanted to give him the news.

"Emilia was here," she said at last. "Camped out on the far side of Mont Ventoux." She pointed. "That great white mountain, over there. She had a little army of Switzers with her. We found her out before she could find us. There was a confrontation. Which I think we won. But our friend Gabriele was killed. Shot in the back. Purchas could easily have been killed as well."

Bors leaned against the stone balustrade that separated the garden on its raised platform from the meadows below. "I’m sorry about Gabriele. I didn’t like him much, but I respected him. What was he doing down here?"

"He was tracking Emilia."

"Ah yes. Typically brave and typically rash." He rubbed his nose. "I was afraid of something like this. I knew Emilia would eventually come looking for you. Is she still in the area?"

"We don’t know," I said. "She disappeared after the battle."

"Her daughter is here," said Margery. "The Polkinghorne girl. Artemesia. She ran away from her mother."

"Here in the house?"

"You’ll meet her at dinner."

"Then I suppose we must consider ourselves under siege. You should cancel the Fete."

"Too late," I said. "Invitations were sent out long ago. Some of the guests will already be on the road. They’re coming, not only from the Comtat, but from all over the South of France."

"I’ve had this feeling before," he said. "You ride up to a castle. All the flags are flying. The drawbridge is down, the portcullis is up. You ride on in, full of confidence, thinking about your lunch, then the portcullis falls behind you with a mighty clang and you notice that the gate ahead of you is shut as well."

"What happens next?" asked Margery.

"There is a pause- just so you can fully acquaint yourself with the beauty of the situation- and then the air is filled with crossbow bolts and boiling oil. It’s called a murder hole."

"But you escaped."

"I was an Immortal. I’m not any more. None of us are. I don’t suppose you possess the Antidote?"

"A single dose." I reached into my jacket, removed the shagreen box and placed it on the table.

"Well I never," he said. "I’ve never seen the stuff before. May I?"

"Of course. It won’t hurt you." I undid the clasp and carefully raised the lid.

He lifted the dagger out. "You know, it amuses me that we choose to call it by such an inoffensive name; The Antidote- as if it were a medicine."

"Perhaps it is," I ventured.

He smiled. "I’ve thought that too. But, no, we mustn’t take refuge in cheap philosophy. This thing is an evil. You know what my instinct is? My instinct is to take it outside into the yard and drop a heavy paving stone on top of it."

I put out my hand. "You mustn’t…"

"Don’t worry. I know."

"There is in fact a little more where that came from. I gave a dose to Louis Klipper. He’s working on the formula."

Bors replaced the dagger in its box. "Where do you keep this?"

"I’ve been carrying it about with me."

"Best keep it somewhere safe. It could mean the difference between victory and defeat."

"How about here ?" asked Margery. She took the box from the table and carried it over to the fireplace, then, having brushed the ash from the flagstones in front of the hearth,  inserted the blade of her scissors under one of the stones and lifted it, disclosing a hole about a foot deep.

"I didn’t know that was there," I said.

"Of course not. One has to have a few secrets. It’s where I keep the housekeeping money. What do you think?"

"Very nice," said Bors. He rose stiffly from his chair and walked across to see exactly what she was doing.

She put the box in the hole, replaced the stone, then took a handful of ash from the grate and scattered it all over.

"So that’s where all the money goes," I said, reproachfully.

"And now I’m going to have to find another hiding place," said Margery.

Bors sat down again, stretched out his legs and straightened his shoulders. "You’ve probably worked it out by now. I’m not simply here on holiday."

"Sort of," I said.

"Two months ago a couple of emissaries from the Brotherhood came knocking at my presbytery door. I pretended, as I always did, to be completely senile. But then I saw they were desperate."

"This was after Melchisidech was murdered?" I asked.

"They’d come from the Rhineland, yes. And it wasn’t just Melchisidech who was killed. Have you heard the story?"

We shook our heads.

"There was a peace conference. Supposedly. Most of the Brotherhood were there. Emilia was invited. They were going to offer her generous terms. I don’t know quite how she pulled it off, but she managed to kill them all. The result is I’m the most senior member of our order left standing. I didn’t want to get involved, but I didn’t see how I could avoid it." He spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness. "So here I am."

"Alone," I asked. "To face Emilia?"

"Not entirely. I have Herne with me."

I kooked foolishly round the room, as if expecting him to bounce from hiding.

"No, he's not here. Of course he wanted to come and visit, but I persuaded him to stay in Carpentras. I didn’t want you thinking this was anything more than a social call and I couldn’t trust him to keep him to keep his mouth shut. Yes, I know, I know." He shook his head. "And now I’ve blabbed it all myself."

"You knew Emilia was in the Comtat?"

"I knew she would be coming here. I hoped she might still be on her way. If that had been the case I would have spent a single night here, not saying anything, then I’d have moved East to meet her. White Knight to Red Queen. Check."

"You have the Antidote?"

He smiled. "Apparently I do now. One dose you say? But that’s all it takes."

"You’d kill her?"

He took off his spectacles and began to polish them vigorously on his shirt cuff. "I think someone has to. I don’t know what St Francis would have done in similar circumstances, but he was a soldier once and I think he would have accepted that we lack alternatives. " He put the spectacles away in a pocket. "Who else do you have living in this enclave."

"Immortals, you mean?"

"Yes, Immortals, of course."

Margery and I went through the list.

"I recognise two soldiers in that lot. Pertinax and Farquahar. I need to speak to them."

"They live in Avignon."

"Then that’s where I must go."

"Should I come with you?" I asked.

"No, I need you to stay here and make the property secure. Identify every point of entry and fortify it."

"You’re expecting an attack?"
 

"I’m trying to think as Emilia would think. This fete of yours must be almost irresistible to her. All the Immortals in Southern France gathered together in one place: how could she possibly keep away? . The only reason she wouldn’t attack is because she hasn’t had time to gather an army. What I’m hoping is she’ll risk it anyway, either alone or with a seriously under-powered force. She won’t be expecting me to be here. With luck she’ll be the one who ends up in the murder hole."

We walked back to the house. Bors was introduced to Arty. She made him a very low curtsey.

"No need for that," he said, helping her up. The daughter of Francis polkinghorne has no reason to bow to me.

"I know your reputation, sir."

"Me? I’m just an old country clergyman."

"My mother doesn’t think so. She calls you ‘the Great Enemy’. She was afraid of Purchas and Gabriele, but she was even more afraid of you, sir."

"And with good reason," I said. "Having Bors here makes all the difference."

"Don’t overpraise me. The fact is," He turned to Arty. "I do have a bit of military experience, going back a few years."

"Going back a thousand years," I corrected him. "The truth is Bors was one of King Arthur’s knights. He was a crusader, he fought at Tewkesbury..."

"Water under the bridge," he said, waving his hand dismissively.

"But aren’t you, in fact, the head of our order?" she asked shyly.

"Oh dear. Well, I suppose I may be." He scratched under his wig. "But it hasn’t been ratified yet. Acting head would be more like it."

"You mean," I said. "When you say that you’re the most senior member left alive…"

"That makes me the new chief. Yes, it does. In an executive capacity. And only for the time being. There will have to be an election once things return to normal." He reached for his neck and produced a ring on a stout golden chain . "I don’t wear it on my finger. I don’t feel entitled. Besides, it’s an ugly thing."

The ring was massive and set with a seal-stone of purple amethyst. He displayed it on his open palm for an instant then, as we bent for a closer look, closed his fist round it and tucked it back behind his cravat. "Anyway," he concluded. "We have a challenger out there, don’t we? Until her claims are dealt with, everything else is a formality." He glanced at the wall clock. "And now I really need to go rally my troops."

His horse was brought round to the front of the house. He mounted and set off for Avignon.

Count

(no subject)

I went to the river of course. And sat on the bank and gazed at the lights of the King’s fort across the black, all but invisible bulk of the moving flood. I felt as if Gabriele had been given back to me, then killed again and this second bereavement was worse than the first.

I waited until it seemed likely that the guests had dispersed, then trudged back to the house. The lights were still burning but I could see through the open door that the hallway was empty. With luck I would be able to get all the way up to my garret without having to stop and exchange words with anyone.

I had reached the top of the main staircase when a woman called my name. It was Esclairmonde. She was sitting in the hall on a hard-backed chair with her hands folded in her lap. I got the impression that she’d been waiting for me.

This was what I had been hoping to avoid, but as soon as it happened I knew it was what I wanted. I fell to my knees in front of her and buried my face in stretched silk of her dress.

She stroked my hair. "Poor little Purchas," she said. "I’m so, so sorry."

After a while she lifted me up and we went and sat in a nearby room. A servant poked his head round the door and Esclairmonde asked him to fetch us a pot of hot chocolate.

"Athenais told me," she said. "I couldn’t believe it at first. Our Emilia doing such dreadful things. Oh, I’d heard the rumours, of course, but I’d always thought they must be exaggerated."

"When did you last see her?"

"It must be several hundred years ago. I did my best for her- at least I thought I did- but she wanted her freedom, so I let go. I feared for her in the big, bad world. She was always so impressionable."

"Not any longer. She’s fixed in her ways now"

"I wonder what happened. Do you know?"

"I can only guess. I think it was when she was living with Sforza and she was around politicians all the time. I met her at the beginning of this century and she’d already turned hard. She and Gabriele were in the plot to assassinate the English king. She was still talking about love, but it was more out of habit than anything else."

"I still think of her as she was. My beautiful, wilful girl. And she killed your friend? How horrible!"

"She would happily kill all of us, I’m afraid."

"Even me? Her godmother?"

I gave her a rueful smile.

She sighed deeply. "If I only knew where I’d gone wrong."

"It wasn’t your fault. The damage will have been done before ever you met her."

"She was a dancing girl, you know. In northern India. Huon and I rescued her. She was always so sweet, so affectionate."

She began telling me stories, illustrative of Emilia’s happy, untroubled nature. Small acts of kindness she’d done. Posies she’d picked and presented to Esclairmonde. I was glad when the servant arrived with the chocolate and broke the thread.

"Do you hear from Huon at all?" she asked.

"He sends messages. The last I heard he was a city Councillor in New York"

"What? Did the old one burn down?"

"No." I laughed. "New York’s a city in America. A trading port. Huon’s quite the merchant prince these days. He has a wife and sixteen adopted children."

"Sixteen?" she gasped . "Oh my. How does he manage?"

"I haven’t a clue."

"These are wormy children, I assume?"

"Oh, definitely. Though some of them may have come over by now."

"What? Does he present them with the elixir on their twenty-first birthdays and give them the choice?"

"Something like that, I believe."

She laughed. "That’s far too complicated for me. Oh the problems it must cause! Emilia was always enough for me and she was an Immortal from the very beginning."

"Have some more chocolate," I said.

"Yes, you’re quite right. Let’s not talk about her any more." She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. "Tell me about Bors…"

It was three o’clock in the morning before I finally got to bed.

I woke around mid-day. I had been dreaming that Gabriele was sailing a raft across a great black ocean with storm clouds racing overhead and a line of white light along the horizon. I plunged my head in cold water to try and wash the image away, then went down to breakfast.

Athenais placed a letter beside my plate. "It’s from the Count," she said. "He’s calling round this afternoon and says he particularly wants to speak to you."

"But do I particularly want to speak to him?"

"Yes you do," she scolded. "I believe he wants to apologise. Imagine how awkward it will be at the fete if you and he aren’t speaking."

"You know what he said to me?"

"I was there, remember? I have very good hearing."

I tapped the letter. "Is this something you’ve engineered?"

"All that matters is that you and he should be friends again."

She picked up the letter, folded it neatly and tucked it inside the neckline of her dress.

The Count arrived at two- even as the chiming clocks- Athenais liked clocks and had them all over the house- were striking the hour. He was shown up to the withdrawing room, where she and I were sitting. I rose and bowed stiffly.

"And how is the dear child?" asked Athenais.

"The child will recover," said the Count. "He received a severe shock to the system, but he is young and healthy. The mental scars may take longer to heal."

Athenais gave me a bright glance. This was my cue. I had been schooled in what to say. "I wish to apologise, Monsieur le Comte. I said some things last night that were inexcusable."

"You were upset," said Athenais, smoothly. "We all were." She glanced at the Count.

"I too, monsieur, said things I should not have said. Please accept my apologies."

"Entirely understandable," said Athenais. "And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you two gentlemen alone while I see if the servants- where are they when you need them?- can rustle us up some refreshments."

She left the room, closing the door behind her. The Count shifted uneasily . "The child is dear to me," he said. "I thought your friend had killed him."

"I understand. We were both of us in an excited state."

Silence ensued.

"I owe you a further apology." I said at length . "After last night I have no more doubts about your…" I couldn’t think what to call it. "About what you do."

He inclined his head in gracious acknowledgement. "Sometimes I overestimate my powers. Your friend took me entirely by surprise last night. I thought I had taken all the necessary precautions. I hadn’t. The debacle was nobody’s fault but my own. "

"My friend was a very remarkable person."

"Is a very remarkable person. The use of the present tense is indicated, I think."

"Is she in hell?" It was a great part of what had been troubling me.

"I don’t believe in hell, monsieur. Heaven, hell, purgatory- these are concepts dreamed up by the priests to keep the rest of us in order."

"She believed in hell."

"Then perhaps she thinks that’s where she is."

"She spoke of a rocky landscape. Of fires…"

"Exactly. I believe- I have no proof, of course- that the other world is a mental state. The spirit finds what it expects to find. Your friend had led the kind of life that she believed would cause her to be consigned to hell. Therefore, when she died, she furnished the void with the objects she expected to see."

"Can she not be contacted again and reasoned with?"

"Reason, I find, is not something the dead respond to. They exist in a state of roiling emotion. Logic passes them by." He sighed. "I conclude that the reasoning faculty is mortal. I did what I always do in such cases. I suggested she call on the holy angels. Whether she does or not is entirely up to her. You will forgive me if I decline your invitation to seek her out again. I put up very strong protections against her last night. The spiritual equivalent of a modern fortification with guns in every coign. I am not inclined to dismantle it."

"I understand, Monsieur. I cannot blame you."

"It is open to you to seek her out yourself. She is very close to you. I sense her energy about you even as I speak. If you sit alone in a room and talk to her, she will probably hear."

"I shall try it, Monsieur."

"Don’t try to argue with her. It would be like arguing with a child or a mad person. Tell her to call on the angels. That’s the one thing that may have some effect."

"Angels?" I said. "You spoke of them last night. But I thought you had no religion."

"I don’t. I believe in what works. And for a good Catholic, as your friend is, angels will work. Trust me."

"You’re a strange man, Monsieur le Comte."

He rose. "I shall take that as a compliment. And now, monsieur, if you will excuse me, I have some final things to arrange for tomorrow. The orchestra must be rehearsed for one thing."

"The fete is tomorrow?"

He laughed. "You didn’t know?"

"I had lost track of time."

Athenais came back in. I very much suspect she had been listening at the door. She feigned surprise that the Count was leaving so soon.

"Well," she said, after we had seen him off the premises with all due ceremony. "That wasn’t so bad, was it? Shall I send for some tea?"

I left shortly afterwards. It was a very still summer’s afternoon. The fiercest time of the day at the fiercest time of year and there was nobody in the fields. No clouds in the sky either. The heat was oppressive. A fat little dog lay dead in the road with its four legs pointing skywards.

My horse’s footfalls came echoing back from the surrounding crags- as if I were surrounded by invisible walls- or as if I had company- as if there were others on the road beside me whom I couldn’t see.

A sound like cartwheels rose from silence into a sustained mutter and passed away- thunder from an empty sky.

Margery was waiting for me at the gate and started running towards me as I came in view. "I thought it was going to rain," she said. "And you’d be caught out in it , I looked out the window and saw the sun was shining, then I was afraid it might be gunfire."

"A storm out to sea," I said. "That’s what it must have been."

She smiled up at me. "Whatever it was, you’re safe. That’s the main thing and, guess what? We have a visitor. He arrived around lunchtime. I fed him and now he’s asleep in a wing-chair by the fire."

"Huon?" I asked.

"Not going to say. It’s a surprise."

Count

(no subject)

Beyond the salon, the house was in darkness. Armand waited in the hall until all the guests were gathered round him, then led the way upstairs. "Isn’t this thrilling?" whispered Esclairmonde in my ear.

"Me, I’m scared stupid," said Louis, drily.

I dug him in the ribs. "Behave," I hissed.

"Just warning you in advance," he whispered back. "This is all theatrics, you know. He’s getting us in the mood. No other reason to put all the lights out. Next thing there’ll be ghostly music. You mark my words."

He was right. As we filed into the room that had been set aside for the séance we became aware of a chiming music, faint and stately, being played on a clavichord. I looked round for the musician, but couldn’t see him. "That’ll be the Count playing," said Louis. "Hidden behind that curtain. The music’ll stop just before he appears. Unless, of course, he’s got his crew with him, in which case it’ll carry on."

Two thirds of the room had been given over to the audience. The last third contained a raised stage, hung all round with black velvet curtains, embroidered with silver moons and stars. The windows were covered with heavy drapes. The back rows filled up first, but Louis and I pressed fearlessly down to the front. There was just enough light to stop us bumping into one another and tripping over the chairs. The perfume that had pervaded the salon downstairs was much stronger here, almost over-powering.

"Wonder what the Count puts in those pastilles of his," murmured Louis. "Could be funny stuff. Poppy for instance."

Once we were all seated the servants went round extinguishing the candles, leaving us in almost total darkness. The music stopped suddenly in mid-phrase and a rustle of unease passed through the audience. Then two glowing points of light appeared on stage- at first almost imperceptible, then slowly growing in strength until we could make out the tall tripods in which they burned and the human figure who was standing motionless between them.

"Phew," murmured Louis. "This boy is good."

The braziers were placed so as to throw light upwards onto the Count’s face and so reverse the normal pattern of shadows and highlights.

He was wearing a large turban in the Turkish style, fastened in place by a huge red jewel. Otherwise his robes appeared ecclesiastical. He had on a floor-length alb, fastened round the waist with a golden cord , and over it a richly embroidered cope with a clasp across the chest. He was gazing out over our heads, as if in silent contemplation of things invisible to us that were hovering at the level of the dado.

He held the pose for about half a minute, then lowered his eyes and seemed as if he were noticing us for the first time. He took a half step forward, taking care not to move in front of the braziers, bowed his head slightly and spread his hands in welcome.

"My friends," he said. "As a great poet of my race, none other than the divine Dante Alighieri, has remarked, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our earthly philosophy. Who knows this better then we- brothers and sisters in the sublime mystery of immortality- we whose very existence is an offence to the earth-bound science of our fellow humans? . But there is one veil, is there not, which we have failed to lift- a veil which we are not even permitted to take between thumb and fingertip? Is that not so, dear friends? You nod your heads. But what if there were a way to lift a corner of that veil? What if we could indeed hold converse with those who have passed beyond it? What if I were able to demonstrate, to your entire satisfaction, that such intercourse were not only permitted but possible?

He paused and slowly lifted one hand as though summoning something from the depths of the earth. The clavichord music began again and a dark, rounded shape came mushrooming out of the floor at his feet. A woman squealed.

"Stab me vitals!" said Colonel Farquahar.

The thing continued to rise. It was a human head. Unnaturally large. Here was the neck and here were the shoulders. Grotesque.

Then we saw the face. It was the face of a child. And his head appeared swollen because he was wearing a turban like his master's, fixed in place with a matching jewel. He was dark-skinned and about nine or ten years old. He wore an embroidered waistcoat and baggy Turkish trousers. His naked arms were folded across his chest. His eyes were closed.

"Even better than I thought," said Louis. "Stage machinery."

"Ssssh," I said. "I don’t need a running commentary."

Assistants appeared from the wings, removed the braziers and placed a three-legged stool downstage. One of them moved swiftly along the front of the platform, lighting the foot lamps- a row of candles in smoked glass shades. The Count stepped forward with one hand on the boy’s shoulder and had him sit on the stool.

The light from the foot lamps was dim and eerie. It washed out detail and made the forms it fell on glow reddish-gold in the dark. The Count held up his hand in a gesture of command. The music stopped.

"I crave your indulgence, dear friends. The dwellers in the dark are shy and hard of hearing. They must cross league upon league of dubious, unfriendly space to be with us here tonight. Please maintain absolute silence and speak only if directly addressed by the spirits."

He stood behind the boy and made some elegant passes with his hand in front of the boy’s face . The boy closed his eyes. His chin fell forward on his chest.

The Count stood still, his eyes closed, his arms outstretched, performing what I can only describe as a sort of humming noise in his chest. It rose in volume until it seemed to shake the room. And then, at the same level and pitch, it took the shape of words. "Before me Raphael. Behind me Gabriel. At my right hand Michael. At my left hand Auriel. At each quarter the sword turns. Above and around me the light of Jehovah."

His hands dropped to his side. His voice had returned to normal, though it retained something of the sing song of the conjuration. "Do not be afraid, my dear brothers and sisters. I have drawn a circle of power that will keep at bay all spirits that might wish to do us harm. Only those whose intention is pure and holy will dare approach us now."

Sweat was running down the palms of my hand. I was having difficulty breathing, Nothing in my life had ever scared me as much as this did.

He began to call out into the void above our heads "Is there anyone there? Does anyone in the world of spirit wish to speak to us?"

The boys head lifted off his chest. His eyes opened. A voice, surprising deep and gruff, came roaring out of his throat. "England!" it said. "Who here still cares for England?"

"Greetings," said the Count. "Can you tell us your name?"

"Don’t be impertinent," roared the voice. "Who are you anyway? I was told Farquahar would be here."

"Oh my," said the Colonel. "It’s the Lord Protector."

"Farquahar," said the voice. "I can’t see too good, confound it; is that you?"

"Yes, my Lord," said the Colonel. He was on his feet and- quite extraordinary- bowing to the entranced boy. "Have you orders for me, my Lord."

"Get back to England, Farquahar. What possible good can come of you skulking in France? They’ve brought the king back, dammit. They have to be opposed. They let those butter-eating, Dutch whoresons sail up the Medway. S’death; we need every good and able man there is back in England to shore her up against catastrophe. You hear me, Farquahar?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Well do it. Damme, I’ve rung the bell an hundred times if I’ve rung it once. What does a man have to do to get some service round here?"

The voice petered out in muttering and grumbling. The Colonel sat down again. His eyes were starting out of his head.

"Is there any other spirit who wishes to address us?" asked the Count.

The next voice was thin and fluting. It seemed to belong to Athenais’ mother. It had something to say about some china tea cups.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Athenais shaking her head. And then she smiled. "Oh those tea cups," she said.

It was beginning to look as if I would be let off the hook. I began to breath more easily. Fear was giving way to disappointment and grief.

Other spirits followed. Sometimes they trod so swiftly on one another’s heels that their identities got mixed up. They had messages for various members of the audience, relating to things like bunions and wills and lost signet rings. I began to fidget.

"I see one spirit more," said the Count. It is holding back. It is shy. Come forward my pretty and tell us your mind."

And then the moment I had been hoping for and dreading.

"Purchas," she said.

"It wasn’t her voice, and yet it was. The timbre wasn’t quite right, but the inflection was exactly so.

"Gabriele, is that you. Where are you?"

"I don’t know exactly. A moment I ago I was in a rocky valley. Endless. There were caves with fire in them. I went through an archway and now I’m here." The boy lifted an arm and stared at it. "This isn’t my body." He let it drop again and stared directly at me. "I can see you, Purchas."

The boy tried to rise from his chair . the Count, putting firm hands on his shoulders, held him in place."

"Are you all right?" I asked.

"I suppose so. How did I get to be like this? I remember I was riding a horse. Then I fell off a wall…"

"You died," I said. "Oh Gabriele, you died."

"Ah, that would explain it ." A long pause. "So what do I do now?"

"Call on the angels," said the Count. "Call on the angels and they will carry you off to paradise."

"But I don’t want to go to paradise." The voice was querulous. "I want to stay here with my friend."

The boy rose and this time the Count had to struggle to hold him down. The Count began chanting in Hebrew. The boy wriggled as if in pain and fear.

"Let him be," I cried. There were tears in my eyes.

"He’s sending me back," wailed the voice. "Don’t send me back. I don’t want to go"

The Count chanted louder.

I got up from my seat and approached the stage. I wanted to free Gabriele from this man who was torturing her. "Stop it," I said.

"No good" keened the voice. "I’m blinded. Rocks. Fires. The ground’s splitting. She’s coming, Purchas, she’s coming. I loved you. Always loved you. Remember that"

The boy convulsed and lay still. The Count gestured towards the wings. His assistants hurried on stage, carrying candles. The spell was broken. They picked up the boy and carried him off. His head lolled as if the neck were broken.

The Count advanced to the front of the stage. He seemed genuinely shaken. "Sometimes," he said, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief, "Things don’t go entirely to plan. I apologise for the disturbance. Marquise, will you ask your servants to light the candles. He bowed peremptorily. Mesdames, Messieurs; the show is over."

There was some scattered clapping behind me.

"What did you do that for?" I snarled up at him.

He went down on one knee and brought his face close to mine. "She was going to kill the boy,".

"You were hurting her."

"She was hurting me," he hissed back. "I’ve never dealt with a spirit quite that strong. If I’d have known…"

"Bring her back," I demanded.

"You don’t understand, do you? I’ve been fighting for the child’s life. He was very nearly killed for Christ’s sake.  It is a wicked, deceitful spirit. It fooled me. It fooled the Guardians. We didn’t realise she was a murderer."

"No!"

He got back on his feet. "I don’t have the energy for this." He spoke with weary disdain. "Go outside, Purchas. Go get a breath of fresh air. Cool down."

"If we weren’t Immortal I’d call you out, sir!" I shouted.

"And I would gladly accept.  But we are, so there’s no point.  Imagine the duel already fought and honour satisfied." He lowered his voice again. "Now fuck off!"

I turned and walked through the dispersing crowd, looking neither to right nor left. Emerging on the landing and looking about for the stairway, I found Louis had followed me out . "Found him out, did you Perky. Gave him what for?"

"Not now, Louis."

"Did you like the bit about the bunions?"

"Leave me alone, Louis.  I’m mortally angry. I’m in the mood for killing people. Just stay out of my way."

I tore down the staircase, nearly knocking over the servant who was walking up it with a taper, lighting the lamps, and out through the hallway into the street.