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."
"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.
"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."
"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."
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.