THE MAGNIFICENT PIMPERNEL
England, October 1793, outside of London
The sun shone brightly on the rolling green English hills and verdant forests as they lay basking in the warmth of an early autumn afternoon. The countryside was peaceful this October day, its waving meadows of tall grass and sparkling small streams contributing to the tranquil setting. A visitor beholding this calm scene would be hard pressed to believe that not far away lay the great city of London, with its noise, crowds and squalor; here, all was blanketed in the beautiful serenity of nature.
Through this picturesque scene wound a country road, deserted on this mild day save for one lone rider, who barely cast a glance at the verdant scene around him as he trotted down the lane. The dull thudding of his great black horse's hooves against the hard dirt was the only sound to stir the warm country air, but the man's distracted expression indicated that his thoughts were far from the peaceful countryside surrounding him.
He sat the horse with expert ease, his finely - cut black clothes and gleaming leather tack indicating a person of wealth and society. His square, handsome face was slightly lined with age, but still bore the attractiveness and vigor of youth. His blonde hair was smoothly pulled back and fastened into a long queue which hung down past the high collar of his plain but fashionable riding coat.
Closer observation, however, would reveal a hardened look to his sharp green eyes, a dark shadow lurking just behind their gaze which cast a shadow over his entire countenance. There was suffering in those depths, a deep pain which had been quickly inflicted and had only begun to heal.
The rider followed the road up a slight rise, and as he topped the hill, a magnificent view appeared before him. He was at the edge of the forests now; the rolling hills now lay clear and glowing in the afternoon sunshine. The rider reined in his horse and paused for a moment, considering the sight which now met his eyes as a small, wistful smile spread across his face.
In the near distance, nestled among the green hills and gleaming like a pearl in an emerald sea, lay an enormous estate, its massive mansion and lushly landscaped lawn giving clear indication of the status of those who lived there. The house itself was stunningly arrayed, its two stories of polished windows flashing in the sunlight, its huge double front doors and sweeping front staircase seemingly inviting all who passed to enter and admire what lay inside. To one side sat a large and perfectly tended rose garden, with roses of all colors twining and twisting over the whitewashed trellises and bursting from the bushes. Even from this distance, the rider could detect their fragrance lingering in the autumn air. Behind the mansion lay more well - tended lawns and the edge of the next forest, as if the house was merely a pause of civilization before nature reclaimed the land.
It was a beautiful sight, and the traveler sat admiring it for several moments before continuing, his smile never fading. Finally he spurred his horse forward, and they both trotted down the road, at length turning up the long path which led to the mansion's front door. He galloped through a tall iron gate set into the high stone wall which surrounded the estate; into the wall by the entrance was set a rectangular brass plaque, polished to blinding brilliance, which read in florid script: BLAKENEY MANOR.
After passing beneath the huge shady trees which lined the approach to the mansion, the rider turned his mount into the circular road which wound past the huge marble staircase. At the center of the circle was a grassy garden with a riot of multicolored flowers, its perfume mingling with that of the rose garden. As the traveler reined in his horse, a young footman appeared to meet him, clad in green and white, his brown hair neatly tied back, his thin face wearing an expression of dutifulness.
"Good day, sir," he said in a clipped manner, his English accent clear in every syllable.
The rider nodded as he dismounted and handed the reins to the footman. "Good day," he replied; there was no accent in his tones. "I'm here to see Sir Percival Blakeney; he's expecting me."
The footman cocked his head. "Your name, sir?"
"Sir Christopher Larabee."
"Ah." The footman nodded a little in recognition and turned to another man who had appeared at the top of the grand entryway stairway, a taller, older, dignified figure wearing a white wig and carrying a staff. "Jessup, Sir Christopher has arrived."
Jessup appeared delighted at the news as his square, soft face lit up at once. "Ah, excellent! He's been anticipating your visit, sir. Be so good as to follow me, Sir Christopher, and I will dispatch someone to inform the baronet of your presence."
The great black horse was led away to the livery nearby as Chris mounted the stairs, pulling off his black leather riding gloves. As he walked, he glanced about, seemingly a little uncomfortable at the opulence of his surroundings; everything in sight spoke of luxury and immense wealth. But it quickly passed, and by the time he went through the gleaming front doors, his mind had moved on to other matters.
"Right this way, Sir Christopher," Jessup said in his haughty tones as they moved through the elegantly appointed foyer. His riding boots clicked against the polished tile floors as they moved towards the drawing room. He glanced around a bit, noting the plush curtains, the carved mahogany furniture upholstered with rich embroidered fabrics, the sumptuous rugs and invaluable artworks which graced the painted walls and decorated every shining table and marble mantelpiece.
"I am sure Sir Percival would apologize for the delay, sir," Jessup sniffed as they walked down the hall towards the drawing room. "He is currently meeting with his tailor, and will be down at once."
Chris laughed a little as he took off his tricornered hat. "If I know Sir Percy as well as I used to, he could be with that tailor all day."
They entered the drawing room, a huge chamber lined with light blue walls, their surfaces hung with large paintings in bright golden frames. Several tall paned windows draped with dark blue velvet curtains filled the room with sunshine, the light bouncing off of the richly appointed furniture and the beautiful inlaid spinet which graced one corner of the chamber.
Jessup's gray eyes looked at him uncertainly, then he cleared his throat. "The baronet takes great care with his wardrobe, as you know, sir," he said carefully, trying to phrase his words diplomatically. "He sees it as his duty as an English gentleman to always be at the height of fashion."
"Yes, I know," Chris nodded, the pain in his eyes receding a bit as he smiled. "I don't guess that's too hard when you're one of the richest men in England." His tone was fond, without the slightest trace of jealousy.
A servant has bustled in behind them, and in no time was handing Chris a crystal snifter of brandy.
"I shall go make certain Sir Percival has been made aware of your arrival, sir," Jessup said as the servant hustled back out. "If you'll excuse me."
Chris nodded, waving him out slightly with one hand, an expression of friendly acquiescence on his face. Jessup bowed a bit and disappeared, leaving the visitor alone with his thoughts.
Chris sipped at his brandy as he gazed idly about the room, its every touch reflecting the taste and sophistication of its master and mistress; not much had apparently changed in Percy's ideas of style, it seemed, or his desire to only acquire the best of everything.
How long had he known Percy, Chris mused as he studied his surroundings. Since they had met at school as boys, and Chris had always counted the man among his friends. Theirs had been a bond of survival; Chris was harassed because he had spent his first eleven years in America, where his British parents had resided until his father came into his inheritance, while Percy had to endure the stigma of an indifferent father and a mother who had died insane when he was a child. Between Chris's fighting prowess, and Percy's quick wits, they had found a way to fend off the bullies together and form a lasting bond. Along with Percy's other friends, including Lord Tony Dewhurst, the men had managed to fill their years of education with a good deal of camaraderie, practical jokes, and, occasionally, learning.
Chris's father had inherited a modest estate from a wealthy uncle who despised everyone else in his family; it was a small but handsome holding, one which would one day devolve to Chris. Soon after finishing his education, Percy acquired the considerably more vast estate of Blakeney Manor, also called Richmond. Soon Percy was awhirl in London society, immersing himself in fashion, gentleman's sports, and other high - society pursuits which earned him the reputation of being delightful and handsome, but rather shallow. Yet he and Chris remained close, and when Chris met the beautiful French woman Sarah during a tour of Europe, Percy had been the one to arrange a suitably embarrassing pre - marriage party for him. Even when he was in France, they had still corresponded; Percy had been as delighted as anyone over the birth of his son Adam. With the passing of his father, Chris inherited the Larabee estate, and joyfully anticipated bringing his family to England. Then -
Chris scowled and sat down on one of the richly upholstered chairs. It still was impossible, even after two years, to suppress the grief in his heart over what had happened next. Chris had been in England on business, preparing to bring Sarah and Adam over, when the Revolution began. Horrified and frantic, Chris made the dangerous journey to Paris, only to discover that the guillotine had already claimed his family, condemned as aristocrats and traitors to the new order.
Dark memories burned across Chris's mind; how close he had come to being arrested himself, the horrors of waiting with the other condemned prisoners in the squalid Conciergerie prison, how his friend Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner - the gameskeeper of his small estate, but more like a second brother - had risked their lives to come to Paris and drag him back home. Home to a large, empty house echoing with a happiness that would never be his.
The next eighteen months had been a dark, painful blur, a desperate whirl of sleepless nights and hollow days without purpose. For almost a year he had abandoned his home to wander England, riding alone from town to town, haunting taverns, searching for something to take away the pain. By the time he finally returned to his estate, some of the anguish was gone, but anger had taken its place.
He hadn't really had the heart to visit Percy since, despite several invitations. He'd heard his friend had also married a French woman, a famous one as it turned out, the beautiful actress Marguerite St. Just. Chris had sent his congratulations, but had not attended the wedding, and since then had only caught news of Percy through the various gossip passed on by Buck, gleaned from his frequent jaunts to the local taverns. It sounded as if Percy hadn't changed much, ever the fashionable favorite of London society, despite the rest of the world going to hell. He had earned his title of the best - dressed man in London, and from all Chris had heard, that was all the man cared about.
It hadn't surprised him much; though Percy was a good friend, Chris had never thought he was much of a deep thinker, and the few times he had attended parties where Percy was also present, the man could always be found by following the sound of his inane, foppish laugh. Percy was usually surrounded by a group of men just as fashion - obsessed as himself, and they were invariably talking about the latest trends as if they were the most important things in the world. How did Marguerite stand him always joking while her countrymen slaughtered each other? Chris wondered.
A sad, vaguely disgusted feeling gripped Chris's heart. With thousands being killed in France every day, it seemed all that mattered to Percy was whether his buttons were properly polished and if his cravat was tied just right. Perhaps it was for the best that he hadn't really spoken to him lately, Chris mused; still grieving, he knew he couldn't bear to be around Percy and his friends, listening to them discuss such trivial matters.
Chris sighed to himself and mentally shrugged, taking a sip from the snifter. He couldn't really fault his old friend; that was just Percy, the same as he'd always been, sailing through life untouched by its darker aspects. He was a good man, a generous and loyal friend, and if he lacked the capacity to take interest in anything beyond the realm of fashion and society, well, that was simply the way he was. Perhaps someday, that would change.
So engrossed was Chris in his thoughts that he failed to hear the footsteps quickly approaching the door. He remained unaware until a loud, enthusiastic voice boomed from the doorway, "Christopher! How bloody marvelous to see you again!"
A bit startled, Chris got to his feet and turned. In the doorway stood a man, his powerfully built frame standing over six feet tall, clad in a casual yellow and black striped outfit of the latest cut, the high - collared coat of which dropped almost to his ankles. Every inch of his appearance bespoke a man to whom appearance was everything, from his thick golden - blonde hair tied neatly back into a long curled queue to his immaculately tied white cravat and neatly stitched flowered waistcoat to the gold - framed single - lensed quizzing glass which hung around his neck.
The man's striking appearance was enhanced by his classic handsomeness; he had a strong countenance marked by fine high cheekbones, a straight, strong nose, and bright blue eyes set beneath fine, long brows of chestnut brown. Upon seeing Chris, those blue eyes brightened, and he seemed about to fly to pieces from excitement.
"Sink me, but I'm thrilled you were able to come today, my friend!" he exclaimed in a highly pleased voice as he dashed into the room, one finely manicured hand extended before him. "It's been too demmed long, what?" His voice was smooth and rich, marked by the tones of England's highest class.
Chris smiled as he gripped Percy's hand; damn, but it was good to see him. "Thank you for the invitation, Percy."
Percy released his friend's hand but instantly patted him on the shoulder. "Not at all, old boy, not at all. It's been so blasted dull with you hiding yourself away lately, I simply had to take matters to hand." He looked back to where Jessup was waiting by the door. "Jessup, be a good fellow and tell the girls to set an extra place for dinner, eh?" He turned to Chris. "Do say you'll stay, you must be famished after that demmed dusty ride."
All of this happened in a fast whirl, and Chris had to blink a little to try and keep pace with it all. After a moment of thought, he nodded. "That'll be fine."
"Splendid! Off you go, Jessup, and do see we're not disturbed, thank you!"
With hat Jessup hastened from the room, and Percy swiftly and smoothly closed the tall polished doors.
"Pray accept my apologies for not meeting you sooner, my friend," the baronet said with a smile as he walked to the sideboard and picked up the brandy decanter.
Chris shrugged a little. "That's all right, Percy, you know I don't stand much on ceremony."
"Yes, by God, I do!" Percy chuckled warmly as he poured his drink. "One of the reasons I'm so fond of your company, I expect - your money hasn't turned you into one of those staid dull fellows." He glanced up at Chris and lifted the decanter a bit. "Would you like some more brandy?"
Chris looked down at his nearly - full glass. "Not just yet." He smiled a little. "I should apologize for interrupting your visit with your tailor."
"Zounds!" Percy exclaimed with a shake of his head after taking a sip of brandy. "Quite all right, dear boy, we were just finishing up anyway. You should see the new garb he's making for me. Lud! It would make Solomon in his glory weep with envy, it's so stunning. The man is an utter genius, sir, a genius. I would be happy to recommend him to you, should you ever desire it."
Chris glanced quickly down at his plain black clothes - finely made and tailored, but still far more simple than what Percy was wearing - and looked back up at his friend, shaking his head with a slight grin.
"I'm grateful, Percy, but that won't be necessary. What I have suits me just fine."
Percy paused, then nodded. "Yes, yes, quite all right," he muttered, his voice becoming softer. "Gad, but I should have known! Forgive me. And do have a seat, you must be simply exhausted. Best be comfortable for our chat, eh?"
Chris sat back down in the chair as Percy walked to a seat nearby, the long striped coat swirling about his legs. Chris watched him with a small grin; Percy hadn't changed a bit since the old days, and Chris could only wish with regret that time had left his own soul untouched as well.
"Thank you for accepting my invitation, Christopher," Percy said in his cultured English tones as he sat down. A regretful smile crossed his lips. "It's been such a demmed long time since we've had a chance to talk."
Chris shrugged. "Haven't been feeling much like being sociable," he confessed quietly, putting the barely - touched brandy carefully down on the finely polished mahogany table beside him.
The other man nodded sympathetically, his expression becoming serious. "Yes, by God, I can understand that. See here, my friend," Percy continued in a quiet manner, sitting forward, "this whole business has been perfectly ghastly for you, I've no doubt. Is there anything at all you need? Some extra help around the estate, that sort of thing?"
After a pause, Chris shook his head. "Thank you, Percy, but there's not that much to manage, Vin's got it pretty much under control."
Percy nodded quickly. "Good, good," he muttered. "Though you'll let me know if that changes, all right? Begad, old boy, I was quite beside myself when I heard. Your sweet wife and boy claimed by Madame Guillotine..." He shook his head. "Quite a tragedy, to be sure. Are you certain there's nothing you require?"
There was a pause as Chris dropped his eyes, staring at some distant point. "About the only thing that'll truly help me is the one thing I can't do."
Percy peered at him, curiosity in his blue eyes. "And what might that be, my friend?" he inquired softly.
Chris hesitated. Percy, with all of his fussing over fashion and other meaningless matters, would never understand the violent urges churning through Chris's soul. The raging desire to do something, anything, to ease the grief. What could his old friend know of such things, safe and pampered behind the marble walls of Richmond?
But still...He sighed and rose, walking over to stand in the sunlight, facing out the window so that Percy couldn't see the anger in his eyes.
"You remember the times we had back at school?" he asked in a reflective tone, staring out across the rolling green lawns. "All the times we had to fight the other boys because they said we'd never be gentlemen?"
He heard Percy laugh a little. "Zounds, hard to forget those days!" he replied. "We did have some rather satisfying brawls, if I recall. And I believe we've proved 'em wrong, after all."
Chris swallowed, his throat tightening. "Maybe you have, Percy," he said softly, "but you know I've never been one for dressing fancy and being the gentleman, like you. Maybe it's because of all those years growing up in the colonies. I may have some money, but I'm not what you'd call refined, and I have to admit it's never really bothered me all that much."
"Sink me, my friend," Percy exclaimed in a contemplative voice, "you're a demmed sight more refined than some of those rascals in our circle. It just don't show outside, that's all."
"Perhaps," was the doubtful response. "But after Sarah and Adam were killed..." He paused, the agonizing pain in his heart flaring through his soul. "Well, I've been having some thoughts that are pretty unrefined. If there was some way I could get to France and find a way to make those bastards pay for what they did, I'd take it in a heartbeat."
Percy was standing beside him now, and when Chris turned to him he noticed that the nobleman was studying him in a lazy manner, mild shock in his blue eyes. But there was something else there, too...
"Do you mean to say," Percy inquired in hushed tones, "that you'd risk your life to strike back at the French? You've heard what it's like there now, I'm sure. That horrible demon Robespierre has just taken over. Blood runs down the streets like rainwater."
Chris sighed and looked back into the yard. "If it meant there was some way of stopping them," he said in a firm voice before turning back to face his friend, his green eyes hard, "then that's exactly what I'm saying. Risks be damned."
He expected Percy to be shocked, or laugh at him, or try to talk him out of it. Instead, his friend backed away a few steps, watching Chris very closely as he went to the elegant sideboard where the brandy stood.
"Bold words, my friend, very bold words indeed," Percy said as he retrieved the cut crystal brandy bottle. "Although I'm sure our government would frown on such a venture."
Chris shook his head as he wearily walked back to the sofa. "That wouldn't bother me," he confessed as he sat down. "It's a personal fight, not something I'd want anyone else involved in." He paused for a moment, then gave a quick, light laugh. "And that hasn't stopped some other people, anyway."
"Ah!" Percy chuckled as he refreshed his brandy. "You're no doubt referring to that demmed impetuous madman, the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
Chris smiled; the Scarlet Pimpernel was currently England's most famous son, even if no one knew who he really was. All that could be said was that he was an Englishman who managed, through daring and disguise, to save countless condemned men, women and children from the guillotine, leaving only a small piece of paper marked with a small red flower for the baffled French to find. It had started the previous year, and with every passing month the Pimpernel's fame grew as those he rescued spread the tales of his bravery. Men admired his courage; women swooned over his daring; and all endlessly discussed who he, and the men who worked with him, could possibly be.
Whoever he was, he was a man of action, of resolution, of selfless determination - everything Percy, decent fellow though he was, was not. Thus, Chris was not surprised that Percy disapproved of anything reckless. "I guess you might call it impetuous, for an Englishman to go rescuing people from the guillotine right under the noses of those bloodthirsty scum without expecting any kind of fame or reward," he admitted, leaning back in his seat. "I call it damn brave, myself."
Percy gave a refined scoff as he walked back to his chair. "Skulking about France in disguise, without a soul even knowing his identity, leaving only a paper marked with that wretched red pimpernel flower as his calling card?" He sipped his brandy and shook his head. "Hardly the acts of a proper gentleman, sir."
The other man tiled his head a little. "Not too improper for you to use him as inspiration for that poem of yours that everyone keeps quoting. I heard about it, even when I was traveling. Really caught on, you should be proud of yourself."
"Ah! Yes," Percy chirped, a wide smile of self - satisfaction spreading over his handsome face. "Sink me, but I never guessed it would be so bloody popular! I must say, it was one of my most briliant creations, even if I think the impertinent fellow who inspired it to be quite mad." He paused, still smiling as he glanced upwards a bit towards the ceiling and began to recite, one hand toying with the golden quizzing - glass about his neck and gesturing with it as he spoke.
"They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven, or is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel!"
At the end he burst into a fit of giggles, highly pleased with himself. "Lud love me, but that's quite good, if I do say so m'self!" he chortled.
Chris smiled indulgently. "Good enough for just about the whole country to be quoting it," he pointed out as he waited for Percy to recover from his own wit. "I'll wager even the Pimpernel himself, whoever he is, has probably read it by now."
"Or more likely had someone read it to him," Percy said with a shrug as he succeeded in collecting himself. "Marguerite's maid heard that he's actually an illiterate German stableboy."
Chris laughed, glad for the distraction. "Buck's got a wager going at the tavern that the Pimpernel's a Russian prince acting on orders from the Empress Catherine." He sighed and shook his head. "Whoever he is, I'd join him and his men in a shot."
His friend emitted an elegant snort as he resumed his seat. "What, that infernal band of his? The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel? Rubbish! England needs her sons here and safe, doing what men were meant to do - squire the ladies about in the most handsome manner possible. Why, a fellow could hardly stay in clean linens, poncing off as he does every bloody week!"
A smile played across Chris's lips. "I suppose he just imagines some things are more important than looking good, Percy," he replied quietly.
"Odd's fish, I can't imagine what," was the astounded answer muttered into his glass just before Percy drained his snifter. The nobleman swallowed and sat up, shaking his head and regarding Chris with an expression of concern. "See here, my boy, no more of that. Vengeance is a dirty business, and exceedingly bad for one's health. I pray you find a far safer means of soothing your soul, one which can be accomplished safely on our own hallowed shores."
Chris smiled a bit, not surprised that Percy didn't quite understand. "We'll see," he muttered, willing to drop a subject that made his friend so uncomfortable. The desire, however, remained.
"Good," Percy replied, pleased. "And no more talk of that Pimpernel fellow, all right? Gives me the shivers. There is a matter of vital urgency which I must discuss with you."
Chris looked up, slightly surprised and wondering what Percy would find so important. "All right," he said, cradling his snifter in his hands and leaning forward.
"Now," the baronet continued, "the Prince is giving his autumn reception next week. My dear Marguerite will be home from the spa by then, and she and I insist that you join us to the event as our guest."
The other man blinked; that was a matter of vital urgency? He shifted awkwardly. "Well, Percy, I don't know," he said with hesitation. "That sounds like a pretty fancy gathering."
"So it will be, my friend, just the thing to lift your spirits!" Percy insisted, his blue eyes blazing at the prospect. "Come, I promise you, as my guest I will see to it that you are treated with all the respect you deserve, and I know several people who have missed you at this year's parties. Marguerite is simply mad to meet you as well, and most anxious that you emerge for a breath of air."
Chris paused; a huge, elegant ball wasn't something he really felt ready to face just yet.
"I'll...I'll think about it," Chris promised, unwilling to disappoint Percy by flatly refusing. He was only trying to help, after all, and it seemed that to Percy, a party could cure just about anything.
"Splendid!" Percy exclaimed with a dazzling smile. "And you may bring a guest of your own if you choose, I'm sure His Highness won't mind. Ever since I assisted him in selecting the royal wardrobe last fall, he's been most forgiving of me."
Chris nodded; from what he'd heard of the Prince of Wales, the man needed all the fashion advice he could get. "I appreciate it, Percy. I'll let you know."
His friend leaned forward in his armchair, setting the empty snifter down on a nearby table as he peered at Chris. "I do hope you decided to attend, my friend," he said in a more thoughtful tone. "You're a good, sensible man, and society needs as many of them as it can find in these dangerous times."
Chris thought of the anger still in his heart over losing Sarah and Adam, and wondered how good Percy would think he was if he were able to see past the surface.
"And if you require any assistance in your garb for the ball," Percy continued in a much lighter tone, "I will be more than delighted to help!"
"So, what'd Percy want last night?"
Buck's voice barely carried over the din of the Brown Boar tavern as he and Chris sat stretched out before the fire, away from the evening crowd which milled about in the main room. Chris didn't answer at first, thinking as he smoked his long clay pipe and stared into the dancing flames.
The other man was content to wait for the answer, the warm firelight dancing off his handsome face and thick black hair, his blue eyes wandered the room for their pretty barmaid. Like Chris, he wore simple clothes, nothing that would attract attention; also like Chris, he had been born in America to wealthy British parents, the two meeting at school. Their separation when Chris's family left for Britain was short - lived; Buck's parents, staunch Royalists, left the colonies at the start of the rebellion and returned home. Many in the tavern knew Buck was the son of a Lord, but as he had four older brothers and little hope of inheriting anything, the fact failed to impress them much. It impressed Buck even less, and his low family status had the advantage of allowing him the freedom to behave as he pleased.
Another man sat on Chris's other side, just as relaxed, although his rough, brown - hued clothes and tall, worn, mud - spattered boots were more suited to the dim, smoky tavern than Buck and Chris's modest finery. His long golden - brown curls hung loose and unfettered about his shoulders, rather than tied neatly back, and his handsome, boyish face bore the shadow of slight stubble. This man's bright blue eyes were quietly watching the fire, flickering with a latent energy which belied his casual posture. Smoke drifted from his short - stemmed pipe, wafting and mingling with the puffs snaking from the pipes of his companions before floating away.
"Oh, not much," Chris finally replied, still staring at the flickering flames. "Wanted to talk about Sarah and Adam. Said he was sorry about it."
Buck nodded. "Glad you finally went to see him," he offered, taking a drink of his ale. "Every time we had a party, he'd track me down to ask about you, no matter how many of father's guests he had to plow through."
His friend chuckled around his pipe. "Persistent, isn't he?"
"Persistent don't tell it by half," the brown - haired man muttered, not taking his eyes from the fire. "Every time we cross paths when I'm hunting, you're the first thing he asks about. An' he's serious about it, not all foolish like he is normally."
Chris blew out a puff and laughed a little. "Not much for Percy's style, eh, Vin?"
Vin shrugged, glancing over at his two friends. "Just can't see why he's got to act so fancy, that's all. Long as a man's got his roof, his rifles, and a few good huntin' dogs, what does he need with gold shoes and silk shirts?" Like Chris and Buck, the years of living in America had worn away all traces of an English accent from his voice.
"When you're as rich as Percy is, you have to show it off," Buck replied with a contemplative frown. "Else I don't think it counts, somehow."
"Then I'm just as glad not to be rich," Vin murmured, looking back into the fire.
Buck nudged Chris a little, grinning. "It's all those years he spent in the Colonies, being a mountain guide and living with the Indians."
The huntsman smirked a bit as he peered at Buck. "You an' Chris ought to be damn glad I was in them mountains, Wilmington, after I saved your asses from that bear the day we all first met. You two wouldn't have been the first rich boys he'd munched on, I'll wager. Remember?"
"Whew! I do," Chris sighed with a shake of his head as he stared into the fire. "I think I'd decided to hire you on as my huntsman before that beast even hit the ground. I never saw a man get off a shot like that, right between the eyes."
"That was amazing," Buck agreed with a nod, "and God knows I'll appreciate that to my dyin' day. I'm just saying you never had to listen to people tell you all the time how important it was to be rich, like we did. Hell, it's about all my father talks about. And after all these years of listening to him, I still can't quite see his point."
Vin nodded. "That's what I'm sayin', Buck. I never had a farthing when I was growing up in Wales, or earnin' my way to the colonies as a sailor, or guiding travelers through the Allegheny mountains. Never felt less of a man for it, either. Percy and those other rich fellows, they can keep their silk suits. I'm fine in my skins."
"Aw, Percy's got a decent heart, even if he does dress too pretty for his own good," Buck said with a wave of his hand. A smile crossed his face. "Well, at least he didn't tell the Earl of Gloucester about the time he found me kissin' the Earl's daughter."
Chris laughed and took the pipe from his mouth, regarding Buck warmly. "Buck, if you keep chasing the ladies, one of them is liable to run you right to the altar."
"Not too worried about that," Buck admitted, setting his ale down. "Once they find out I won't inherit a thing, they generally go running the other way."
"Hm." Chris's expression became wistful as he turned his eyes back to the fire. "I was lucky with Sarah. She didn't care a damn how much money I had, as long as we could be together."
"Yeah," Buck sighed softly, settling back in his chair. "She was special. Never put on fancy airs or ignored people because they weren't rich."
Silence fell, and after a few moments, Buck looked over. Chris was still staring into the fire, the gentle light of remembering now hardened into a more bitter gleam.
"I'll never understand how her own people could have killed her and Adam," Chris whispered in a choked voice.
He could still see it all so clearly, the Paris he had known and loved drowned in a sea of hatred and blood. He had known about the unrest, but had never dreamed it would swallow his family, and the torturous questions never left his mind. If he hadn't listened to Sarah when she insisted on staying with her family in Paris when he went back to England - if he'd been able to get back sooner - if there had been some way, any way, to stop their deaths...
Then, after he realized he'd been too late, they had come after him as well. If Vin and Buck had not heard he had been arrested and risked their lives to come to France for his sake, he would have followed his wife and son to the guillotine. The escape had been difficult, more of a miracle than anything else, and he could still feel the horror of their flight through the dark streets of Paris, surrounded by a suffocating fog of terror.
"No use tryin' to figure them out, Chris," Vin said in a quiet voice. "They're just plain blood - crazy, and that's all there is to it. We were lucky to get you out of there alive."
"If you hadn't put a musket ball into that officer coming after us, Vin, we *wouldn't* have gotten out of that hellpit alive," Buck pointed out. "Just sorry that man's family put a price on your head for it."
Vin shrugged and studied the bowl of his pipe. "Well, it's not like I'm planning on ever going back. Saw enough of that madness already."
"It's a madness somebody should stop," Chris muttered, his eyes never leaving the fire. Finally he blinked and smiled a bit. "Would you believe Percy and I even discussed the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
Buck snorted indelicately. "Who hasn't?" he groused into his ale.
"They were talking about that when we met up during the hunt last week, when I was helping the gameskeeper at Hutchings Manor," Vin volunteered. "Percy went all green and said he had to go lie down."
Chris shook his head. "The same thing happened last night. Seems just talking about the Pimpernel makes him nervous."
"Well, I wouldn't mind if people would *stop* talking about him," Buck insisted. "Not sure how that Pimpernel does it, but he seems to rescue another hundred people each week. And you should hear JD - we were cleaning up in the stables yesterday and I swear, all that boy talked about was that damn Scarlet Pimpernel."
Chris laughed a little. "Still idolizing him and wishing he could go to France and fight too, I suppose?"
Vin shrugged. "When you're eighteen and been working in the stables since you were eight like JD, it's not hard to wish you were somewhere more exciting."
"He's probably still missing his mother, too," Chris offered, staring at the fire with a melancholy expression. After a moment he glanced at Buck. "It was good of your father to keep JD on, after she died last year."
His friend nodded, looking into the fire as well. "It sure wasn't easy talking him into that," Buck said with a sigh. "He usually doesn't pay attention to a word I say. But I wasn't about to let him turn that boy out, after his mother worked all those years at our place." He sniffed, rubbed his nose, and sat back, trying to lose his somber mood. "Besides, he'd get himself killed if it weren't for me, with all those ideas about adventure he's got in his head."
"Maybe you shouldn't have taught him to read," Chris said, reaching for his mug of ale.
"Well, it wouldn't be so bad if some of the things those newspapers print weren't so bloody ridiculous!" Buck protested. "Every week it's nothing but how damn dashing and brave and heroic that Pimpernel is. Most of the pretty gals around here have decided he's some kind of god, and it's making things hard for us ordinary men!"
"Lucky for you no one knows who he is," Vin replied with a small smile, taking another puff on his short pipe. "The girls'd all run to him and leave you empty - handed." He paused and thought a bit. "Of course, I heard he's kind of short and rather ugly."
"Now that's what I can't figure out," Buck said, his voice becoming puzzled. "Here's a fellow who rides off into all that danger and rescues people from the guillotine, and he disguises himself so nobody can find him to even say thank you! If you're going to go to all that trouble, you might at least get something back for it."
"I suppose saving the lives is reward enough for him," Chris mused around small puffs of white smoke. "It would be for me, if it meant preventing the hell I went through from happening to anyone else."
Vin nodded quietly, his blue eyes thoughtful.
Buck humphed. "Well, I'd still like a little kiss from a pretty lady out of it."
Chris cocked his head. "You could still get your chance, for a kiss, anyway. Percy invited me to a reception next week for the Prince, and he said I could bring a guest. Vin, I'm guessing you're not interested."
"You guessed right," Vin replied lightly, putting his booted feet up and watching the fire.
Buck scratched his chin thoughtfully. "It would be a good way to practice the new dance steps with the ladies," he averred. "Are you going?"
Chris pursed his lips, scowling. "Haven't decided yet. I know Percy means well, but I don't think I have the stomach to listen to him and his friends blather on about the latest cravat styles and how long coats will be this spring." He sighed and looked at Buck. "He's a good friend, Buck, but sometimes I wonder how anyone can be so damn shallow. I know he's always been that way, but lately it's gotten even worse, until I wonder if I even know him anymore."
"I suppose he's rich enough to do without deep thoughts," Buck shrugged. "Don't be too hard on him, Chris, he's all right fellow, even if he is a dandy."
Chris chuckled a little. "Maybe - "
Screams interrupted Chris's thought, and both men sat up quickly as a crash of noise and shouting erupted from the main room.
"Damn, looks like Widow Nettie's havin' trouble again," Buck muttered, sitting up in his chair and straining to see. Vin was sitting up and turning to look behind him, his face anxious.
Chris put his pipe aside and stood, an angry, disgusted look on his face. "Let's go see what it is this time."
A small crowd had gathered around one of the round tables towards the back of the room. By the time Chris, Vin and Buck had pushed their way back there, the trouble had calmed to a dull roar but was still howling away.
The contention seemed to center at a table in the middle of the room, where a card game had apparently been interrupted. Most of the players had vacated their seats in anticipation of trouble, leaving scattered cards and abandoned tankards of ale. Two of the players remained; one was a short, balding gentleman in a blue coat, who stood pointing and sputtering at the other player in a fit of red - faced rage, a rage which did not seem to particularly impress the other man, who had remained seated.
He was young, perhaps thirty, and dressed far more elaborately than anyone else in the tavern; he would have almost matched Sir Percy at his most chic, so fashionable was his silk cravat, striped vest, and high - collared green coat. His smooth chestnut - colored hair was styled in the latest manner, his queue coiling languidly down the back of his neck. Beside him sat a fashionably high - crowned black felt hat and a pair of elegant white gloves carefully folded, and in one hand he loosely gripped a gold - tipped walking stick. Not a hair on the man's head moved, not a muscle in his smooth face twitched as he sat watching his tormentor with calm, slightly amused green eyes.
Chris narrowed his eyes; he'd seen this fellow around at other taverns, with other men equally well - dressed, always crouched at corner tables and in back rooms where the dice and billiards were played. Such fine clothes would make one think he belonged in one of the gentlemen's clubs rather than a common place like the Brown Boar. But Chris perceived quickly that the clothes were more a sign of his profession than a sign of wealth; this man could not go to the gentlemen's clubs because he was not a gentleman.
There was a slight scuffle behind him, and a short, strong, bright - eyed older woman pushed through the crowd, wiping her hands on an apron and scowling in a dark manner.
"You men ought to know I don't allow no brawling in my tavern," she said sharply, throwing the apron out of her hands with a snap.
"I assure you, Madame Wells, this is not a brawl," huffed the blue - coated balding gentleman, waving one hand at his seated companion. "I am merely alerting all present to the fact that this scoundrel is a cheat!"
All eyes whipped to the other man; such an accusation normally resulted in a duel, at the very least. But the dandy looked merely bored.
"Indeed, sir," he drawled lazily, in a lilting accent Chris had rarely heard before, "I was under the notion that you were alerting all present to the fact that you are an ass."
"What seems to be the trouble?" Chris said quickly, stepping forward in an attempt to save his old friend Nettie from having to mop blood up from the rough wooden floor.
The balding man snorted and waved a hand at the table, the middle of which was covered with a small piles of paper money and a few coins. "This fellow, sir, has offered a counterfeit as a wager, insisting that it is genuine. I may not be young, but I am not a fool!"
"Just what kind of 'counterfeit' are we talking about?" Buck inquired with a confused smile.
The balding man gave another infuriated snort, leaned forward and snatched something from the pile, holding it up in the air for closer inspection as he hissed in outrage, "This!"
Chris studied it closely. It was a small piece of yellow parchment, a bit worn and folded. Clearly visible at its center was the image of a small, red, four - petaled flower.
"He claims he received it from the Scarlet Pimpernel himself," the man bellowed, "which is clearly an outrageous lie!"
At the mention of the Pimpernel, a few of the tavern girls squealed with excitement and pushed closer for a view as Buck sighed with resignation and shook his head.
Chris took the paper. A tingle of recognition swept over him; the little flower looked very familiar, but he couldn't think why. Probably because England had gone mad for the mysterious Pimpernel ever since he began his heroic career the year before; as the man's legend grew, the flower became the fashion rage, appearing everywhere. That had to be it.
"And why, sir," the seated man sighed, one hand casually twisting the golden head of his tall polished walking stick, "is it so unthinkable that that article is genuine?"
"Because you claim to have gotten it when the Pimpernel rescued you from a French cell," his adversary spat. "Well, Mr. Ezra Standish, I've heard all about you and that fancy mother of yours. Between the two of you you've swindled half of London, and if there was any justice you'd both be in Newgate Prison. The only reason you're here is because those bloody traitors in America got wise to you and threw you out."
The man still sat unruffled, but Chris could see his clear green eyes blazing as he stared at the balding man. Finally Mr. Ezra Standish coughed and said, in an even voice, "That being the case, sir, is it so unusual that we should seek refuge in France? And, perhaps, that circumstance might place us in peril sufficient to require rescue?"
"Perhaps," the other man said, nodding, "I've no doubt you'd try your old tricks there as well. But the Pimpernel's a fine, heroic man, the best in all England. He wouldn't wipe his boots on scum like you, or that greedy tart you call your mother."
The man's eyes widened just a bit, and he stood in one quick, graceful movement. There was a very loud, high - pitched scraping sound, and before anyone realized it, the drawling man had produced a long shining sword, the point of which just barely touched the knotted cravat at the base of the balding man's throat.
The tavern girls screeched while the men in the crowd pressed forward with a shout for a better view of the bloodshed.
There was a brief moment when nobody moved, the two opponents staring at each other intently.
In an instant Chris put his hands out. "There's no call for that!" he shouted; a tavern brawl was the last thing Nettie, or any of them, needed. Things were bloody enough these days.
"Can I help?" questioned a deep voice from somewhere behind Chris. Turning, he saw a man with graying black hair, a long, handsome face, and a tall, powerful - looking body clad in plain, dark clothing, his blue eyes watching the proceedings with great interest.
Mr. Ezra Standish lowered his sword, then sheathed it; Chris was intrigued to see that it was carried as a hidden weapon, normally concealed inside his smoothly polished walking stick.
The balding man scowled and jerked his head at the interloper. "Friend of yours?"
"Not at present, sir," Ezra replied, eying the older man keenly. "It depends on if he is offering assistance to you or myself."
"Can't say I care, as long as it keeps blood off the floor," Nettie proclaimed.
As the stranger stepped forward, reaching into his coat pocket, Chris felt Vin suddenly nudge him in the ribs.
"I've seen that big man before," the huntsman whispered. "The local people say he's living in an old church down by the river in the woods; they think he's mad."
"Looks pretty sane to me, right now," was the calm reply, as Chris carefully scrutinized the man. Indeed, he appeared totally relaxed as he took something from his pocket, holding it in his large hand.
"You see," the older man continued in a rich, even tone, "I was in France myself not too long ago, also at the mercy of the wicked and in need of help. The Good Lord sent it to me and those imprisoned with me, in the form of the Scarlet Pimpernel. As a constant reminder to thank God every day for my survival, I too have preserved the note he sent us to let us know all would be well, and here it is."
After saying this, he opened his hand, displaying a small piece of parchment identical to the one on the table, with a few lines of French on it and marked on the bottom with a single red flower.
"Now," the tall man said quietly, his blue eyes flashing as he towered over the baffled balding man, "am I a liar as well?"
The crowd gasped and pressed forward for a closer look at the precious souvenirs. Chris peered at the two papers; there was little difference between them, and the flower marks were exactly matched. Glancing up at Ezra, he saw the gaming man regarding the gray - haired stranger with an odd expression, a mixture of gratitude and suspicion.
"Well, now," spluttered the balding man, "how - how do I know you two aren't in league with each other? How do I know that's real?"
The tall man took a step forward, slowly, his face still calm. "I'll be glad to swear before God on it. Would that be good enough? Or should I show you the scars I still have, thanks to the good jailers of the French Republic?"
The balding man gulped, then turned to Ezra. "I suppose you have scars, too?" he demanded in a voice which tried to sound intimidating but failed miserably.
Ezra's green eyes flickered. "Oh, well, of course, but - modesty forbids me from exhibiting them in the public eye."
"I'm not modest," the tall man assured him, his voice still vaguely threatening. "Now, are you going to apologize to this man for your accusation?"
The balding man frowned, thought for a moment, then hastily grabbed his hat and gloves and hurried out of the tavern.
Murmurs of amusement rippled through the crowd.
"Ha! Look at him run!" one man jeered as they began to disperse.
"Can't blame him," another male voice said. "I've seen that tall fellow around..." The rest was nervous whispers.
Ezra was grinning hugely, clearly relieved as he carefully laid his lethal walking stick and its hidden sword back on the table. "That certainly cleared the air," he said gleefully as the other players began to sit back down. He looked up at the older man. "My thanks, sir, your appearance was surely a divine miracle."
The older man shook his head a little as he retrieved the paper and put it back in his pocket. "I'm not so sure about that," he sighed with a slight smile. "Just pleased to be of some help."
"You stopped Nettie from having to scrub blood out of the floorboards, at least," Buck observed in a light voice. "You know how bad that stuff stains."
The older man's expression turned wistful as he looked away.
"Yes, I do," he muttered, putting on his worn, broad - brimmed hat. "Good night."
With that, he made his way out of the tavern, ignoring the curious looks and shouted questions about the Scarlet Pimpernel.
"He's sociable," Buck muttered, puzzled.
"Gentlemen," Ezra chirped as he shuffled a deck of cards and looked at Chris, Vin and Buck, "I also extend my thanks to you for your assistance in this matter. You may join us if you like, I must deal the hand over anyway."
Chris cocked his head. "You met the Pimpernel?"
The gambler sighed wearily, as if he'd heard the question a thousand times before. "Yes, last month, and before you ask, I have no idea what the man looks like or who he is. He was disguised as an ancient and quite filthy rat - catcher, and it wasn't until he'd gotten us out of Paris that I knew which of the men rescuing us was him. He never doffed his masquerade for a moment."
"How did you know the rat - catcher was the Pimpernel?" Vin inquired, leaning against one of the wooden posts which held up the tavern's rough - hewn roof.
Ezra took a sip of his ale, the light in his eyes becoming thoughtful. "There was one of the group whom the others followed implicitly, who placed himself at the most risk at every step. They were all courageous men - if we'd been caught, it would have meant death for us all on the spot - but he appeared to be the most intrepid. He constantly told his men that if we were in danger of capture, they were to take us and flee while he detained our pursuers. He would brook no protests to this course."
The gaming man paused, thinking. "He disappeared for a while during our escape after we left the city, and when he reappeared his right sleeve was torn and the arm was covered with blood. He must have been fending off some rather zealous opponents, but seemed concerned only with getting us all onto the boat and off to England. Such a brave man could only be the leader."
'He almost sounds jealous,' Chris thought, noting the admiring tone in Ezra's voice. "So, was what that man said true - you're from America?"
Ezra shook himself from his contemplative mood and concentrated on the cards flying through his nimble fingers. "South Carolina, among several other places," he said with a smile.
"What were you doing in France?" Buck inquired.
The smile twitched bit. "Personal matters," he murmured in a less congenial tone. He took a deep breath. "Well, my friends, the game goes on, as they say. Shall I deal you a hand?"
Buck glanced outside. "Maybe some other time, it's getting pretty late."
"I'm afraid we'll have to decline," Chris said as Buck and Vin went to pay Nettie.
"Very well," Ezra said as he began to deal, taking his gaze away from Chris. "We'll meet another time, perhaps."
"Perhaps." Chris nodded absently and walked away, his eyes on Ezra for a few moments longer. How odd it seemed: he, Ezra and the older stranger had all been caught in the claws of the Revolution, yet the scars were different for each. Ezra seemed barely touched by the experience, keen only to gamble away all memories of the event; the older man bore scars on his body, yet still held on to the miracle of his survival; and Chris -
Chris sighed to himself and followed Buck and Vin into the dark, cool night. For him, it seemed, there would be only the scars.
It was almost midnight by the time Chris stabled his black gelding in the livery of his modest estate. He unsaddled and groomed the beast himself; he had few servants on the place besides Vin, who wasn't truly a servant anyway. He had never liked the idea of being waited on, preferring to handle matters himself, a conviction only strengthened since the death of his family.
With Valor finally settled in for the night, he locked the livery and turned his steps to the simple, spacious stone house nearby, thinking how good some brandy and a warm bed sounded. A melancholy mood had settled over him since departing the tavern; he had thought of Sarah all the way home, and now felt sad and exhausted.
How lonely the house looks, he thought to himself as he trod up the curved cobblestone walk to the rounded wooden door, the lantern in his hand casting a fitful yellow glow over the scene. Perhaps he should have left the outside lamp lit. He fished the iron key out of his pocket and opened the door.
The familiar interior met his gaze, the sparse furniture of the white - walled rooms sitting mute and ghostlike in the gloom. His green eyes swept the scene once, its stillness gripping his heart, before something in his vision made him look at the floor at his feet.
Directly before him lay a small parchment envelope; he was almost stepping on it. Scowling, Chris looked behind him; it must have been pushed under the door while he was gone. Setting the lantern down on a nearby table, he retrieved the mysterious article and examined it closely. No name on the outside; perhaps a neighbor had sent it.
Tired and sore from the ride, he was tempted to leave it until morning. He moved to set it down, then reconsidered. Perhaps, he mused, it was important. With one finger he pulled open the flap of the envelope and slipped out its contents.
It was a small folded piece of parchment paper, one which made Chris's nerves jump with sudden excitement. But it couldn't be what it looked like - Quickly he unfolded it, his confusion mounting with each passing second.
Inside was a short message, written in a florid hand:
LORD DEERING'S TOMB, TONIGHT. MOST URGENT. COME ALONE.
At the bottom of the note, plainly visible even in the lantern light, was the image of a small, red flower.
Chris's eyes grew wide, his heart racing. The note was identical to the ones displayed by Standish and the older stranger, the ones sent by the Scarlet Pimpernel. His mind whirled - a note to him from the Pimpernel? He didn't even know the man, how could he have found him? Had he been at the tavern today, in disguise? Perhaps it was some sort of joke, but it seemed a very odd sort of attempt at humor. It was all quite unbelievable. What could the most famous, venerated man in England want with him?
He began to think. Lord Deering's tomb - that was down by the river, at the edge of the woods. Not too far, but...concern crept into his mind. Meeting a stranger in the dark was dangerous; it could be an attempt at robbery, or murder. He would be a fool to go.
He pursed his lips, then glanced outside into the autumn night. There was a full moon, and he could take loaded pistols; he had learned to defend himself quite well in his time of wandering after Sarah and Adam's deaths. If there was any danger around, he'd know. And at least he would be able to confront whoever had the nerve to come onto his property at night.
Fifteen minutes later, hoofbeats pounded through the night air as a dark shape rode down the long dirt road towards the river.
The gentle sound of running water was the only noise stirring the air as Chris arrived at the tomb. It was an old structure, very simple, the only remnants of a man whose name and family had long since departed the area; a rectangular stone sarcophagus, three feet high, with little decoration and the name chiseled in timeworn letters on the top. The site was sorely neglected, wild and overgrown; tall grass choked the base of the tomb, vines embraced its slumbering gray shape. As Chris dismounted Valor and walked towards it, pistol drawn, he looked about and fought the feeling that he was walking into trouble.
There appeared to be no one about, but the thick masses of trees, shrouded with undergrowth, could have concealed anything, especially in the darkness. Bright silver moonlight bathed the clearings and sparkled in the river, but revealed no other living being.
Chris sighed and frowned. He didn't like this at all. It must have been a joke, he said to himself as he stood at the riverbank and scanned the opposite woods for any sign of movement. Only the stark and silent trees met his gaze.
For several minutes Chris prowled the bank, searching, waiting, checking his weapon in case of trouble. Finally he shook his head; if he ever found out who thought this was a really clever prank, he was going to -
"Sir Christopher Larabee?"
Chris started at the voice, but managed to maintain his calm; it was behind him somewhere, close but not too close. He whirled around, the gun up and ready, but saw no one.
"Who's there?" he yelled, looking everywhere.
There was a slight rustle from the depths of the woods. "I believe you were expecting to meet me," the voice said pleasantly. It was an odd voice, flat and nasal; Chris didn't recognize it, and realized that it was being disguised.
"You're the Pimpernel?" he asked, taking a step towards the woods.
He saw it now, a dark, cloaked figure hidden among the trees. "I don't much care for being surprised in that way," Chris said in an angry tone, too weary for games. "Show yourself!"
The shape moved a bit but made no sign of emerging from the woods. "I regret the need for such tactics," the figure confessed. "My work requires secrecy. Otherwise, those who work with me, and who require my help, would be imperiled." The man paused. "I assure you, there is no need for your weapon."
Chris thought for a moment, then slowly lowered his pistol. If necessary, he knew he could aim and fire with a second's notice.
He eyed the shadowy form warily; most of England would give all they had for the chance to meet the Pimpernel, but he felt his awe being overpowered by fatigue and impatience. "Well, here I am. What's this urgent matter you mentioned in the letter?"
The Pimpernel took a step closer. "I understand you have expressed a desire to join the brave men who follow me," he said.
Chris grew instantly suspicious; how could he have known? Someone in the tavern, perhaps? The man could have spies everywhere, God knows. "Where did you hear that?"
"From one whose word I greatly trust," the shadow replied. "I presume it is true?"
Chris hesitated; this was all very odd, and it was beginning to send a shiver down his spine. The Pimpernel's activities were as illegal as they were celebrated; the English government forbade private interference with France's problems, and officially frowned on any troublemaking. Was this a trap after all?
The Pimpernel took another step forward, his strange disguised voice becoming a bit more gentle. "Sir Christopher," he said from the darkness, "I assure you this is not a game, or a trick, and you are in no danger. I have asked you here because I need your help, but you are free to refuse to offer it. If you choose to ride away now, I will not try to stop you."
Chris cocked his head. "You're asking...for *my* help?"
"Yes." The voice was deadly serious.
He considered this, amazed at what was being offered to him. "You're asking me to join you?"
There was a pause.
"My friend," the featureless voice finally said quietly, "the days in France grow bloodier by the hour; my men, brave and true as they are, can no longer do all that needs to be done alone. I know you to be a man of courage and integrity. It is not I who need your help, but humanity itself. But consider your answer carefully: this is desperate work, and in joining me you will ally yourself with a group whom France considers one of its most dangerous enemies."
Chris stared at the dark mass in the tangled woods. It was undeniable that by agreeing to this, he would be placing his life at risk; he had seen the madness that had overtaken Sarah's country, witnessed the insanity of the bloodthirsty mobs. That horror had almost claimed him; no one, not even the Pimpernel, would blame him if he declined to throw himself back into that crimson hell. He had suffered enough.
He dropped his eyes, the thoughts churning through his head. What had he said to himself in those terrible days in the Conciergerie, seeing the madness, waiting to die? He had felt so damned helpless, so enraged that he could not save his family or stop what was happening all around him. With the help of Buck and Vin he had escaped, but so many never had the chance. Could he now face that deep horror again, to provide that chance to others?
Memories of his family wafted through his mind, wrapped in tender sadness. He had been unable to save them; the knife - like pain from that fact would never cease, but here was the opportunity to strike back at those bastards and keep them from committing others to this fate. His life, so empty the past two years, suddenly lifted its head to the dawn of a bright new purpose, one whose nature sent all thoughts of danger to the dim and distant shadows.
Chris lifted his head, looking firmly at the Pimpernel. "Damn the danger," he said, squaring his shoulders. "When do we leave?"
The figure took another step forward. "This is a bold decision, my friend," he said. "Are you quite certain?"
Chris gave it a few final moments of thought. "As certain as I've been of anything the past eighteen months," he declared at length.
"You must swear," the Pimpernel continued solemnly, "by God and all that you hold most holy in your heart, never to reveal the identities of those in the League to anyone - not to servants, or friends, or kinsmen. It is for their protection as well as ours."
Silence fell as Chris paused at the threshold; this was the last chance to back out and ride home to safety. But safety held no charms now, with such important work to do. He raised his head. "I swear it."
He thought he heard the shadowy figure sigh with relief.
"Then welcome to the League, Christopher, and may God bless you for your bravery!" the Pimpernel said fervently.
The figure began to step out of the shadows into the moonlight.
Chris frowned at the familiar use of his name, puzzled.
"Do I know you?" he asked as the Pimpernel walked to the edge of the woods.
In an instant the man was standing in the full glow of the moonlight, the silver beams radiating off of his tall, powerful frame and thick, golden hair. He regarded Chris with an amused expression in his blue eyes as he threw back his cloak and said, in a smooth and perfectly normal voice, "Begad, Christopher, after fifteen - odd years, I should bloody well hope so!"
Chris stared at the man, utterly dumbfounded. It couldn't be... "Percy?!"
"Quite so, my friend," Sir Percy Blakeney replied with a wide smile.
Silence fell as Chris digested this. Percy...*Percy* was the Scarlet Pimpernel. No, wait, that was obviously impossible, Percy wouldn't risk his life for anything more serious than a properly tailored waistcoat. Chris thought about it, then began to laugh, the sound echoing from every tree in the deserted forest.
This merriment lasted for a full minute, until Percy said in a bemused tone, "Are you all right, old boy?"
"God, Percy," Chris gasped, wiping his eyes and nodding. "I have to admit, this was brilliant. You really got me, this time." He caught his breath and coughed. "Whew! Thank you. I haven't laughed like that for years. You, the Pimpernel. How did you ever come up with this?"
Percy smiled, not moving. "As pleased as I am to have lifted your spirits so high, my friend, I'm afraid this masquerade was rather easy, as it is no masquerade at all."
Chris shook his head with a grin as he put away his pistol. "Sorry, Percy, but I appreciate the effort to keep the joke going. Did Dewhurst put you up to this?"
"In a manner of speaking, he was involved, I daresay," Percy admitted. "But - "
"I thought so," Chris chuckled, drawing his cloak around his shoulders and walking back to his horse. "A very successful joke, Percy. Tomorrow we'll have to tell Buck and Vin about it at the tavern, they won't believe how completely you fooled me."
Percy trotted after him. "I promise you, my friend, this is no joke."
Chris sighed, wearying of the situation, and looked at Percy as he prepared to mount Valor. "Please, Percy, I'm extremely tired. This is going to stop being funny pretty soon."
Percy was beside him now, gazing into his face with an expression of deep earnestness. "Trust me, Christopher, the humor has left this situation long ago. I asked you here because I need your help; pray do not withdraw it. Too many are in desperate need."
Chris hesitated, squinting at him. He had never seen Percy so serious; he almost sounded sincere. But the idea of Percy - the best - dressed man in London, who swooned at the mention of danger - being the Pimpernel was simply too ludicrous to consider. He appeared unwilling, however, to give up the joke.
An idea struck Chris; here was a way to make Percy confess the whole charade. He straightened and smiled. "All right, Percy, like I said, I appreciate how you're trying to cheer me, but this has gone far enough. I know you're not the Scarlet Pimpernel and I can prove it."
Percy seemed amused. "How, pray?"
Chris secretly anticipated his triumph; he rarely got the best of his clever friend. "It just so happens we met a man in the tavern today who was rescued by the Pimpernel, and he said that during their escape last month, the Pimpernel was badly wounded. So, if you're the Pimpernel, you can show me that wound and I'll believe you. Otherwise, you can just admit the truth and I can get home to bed."
There! Chris folded his arms and waited to see what Percy would do, since he obviously wouldn't have a healing sword wound on his arm. Which one did Ezra say it was? The right arm. Well, it would be interesting to see if Percy would even try to guess where the wound was supposed to be.
Percy gazed at Chris a moment, and Chris thought for sure he'd confess. Instead, to Chris's amazement, Percy reached up and began to unbutton his cloak.
Chris frowned. "What are you doing?"
"Acting on your request, old boy," Percy replied brightly as he pulled the cloak off and handed it to him. "Keep that off the ground, won't you? Demmed hard to clean, you know, and it shows every speck of dirt."
Chris frowned as Percy proceeded to strip off his maroon coat. "Percy, you don't - "
"Oh, no trouble at all, I assure you," Percy said cheerfully as he handed the coat to Chris. "Do mind that, it's Russian wool. Thank you."
Chris could think of nothing else to say as Percy unbuttoned his right sleeve. The garment was full and loose, so he had no trouble pulling it up almost to his shoulder. Even in the moonlight, it was easy to see a long, still - healing scar running down the arm - an arm far more muscular than Chris had expected it to be. The injury looked like it had once been a very bloody and painful sword wound.
Chris felt himself go cold. He lifted his eyes and stared at Percy.
His friend smiled a little, pride and chagrin mixing on his handsome face. "Quite frightful, I confess, but the other fellow got it rather worse, I fear."
Chris continued to stare; not even Percy would mutilate himself a full month in advance just for a joke. But that would mean...He swallowed, suddenly deeply embarassed, surprised and confused at the same time. "I'm...I'm sorry, Percy," he stammered, unsure of what else to say. "I, uh, I should have believed you, but...well, all the years I've known you, especially lately, you've been a...er..a..."
His friend seemed vastly amused, and cocked his head a bit, a bright look in his blue eyes as he regarded Chris. "A nincompoop?"
Chris paused, then nodded reluctantly; he hadn't wanted to say it, but... "Well, yes."
Percy laughed and rolled down his sleeve. "Nonsense, old boy, perfectly all right. That's precisely what I want everyone to think. Truthfully, I'm demmed pleased you didn't believe me. If anyone suspected who I am, it would make it rather a hard go. You've just assured me my ruse is working." He buttoned the sleeve. "Be good enough to hand me my waistcoat, it's coming on a bit chilly. Beastly weather! Thank you."
Chris handed Percy his coat and cape, still bewildered. Percy, the Scarlet Pimpernel. The most famous man in England, and Chris had known him all along. All the tales he'd heard, the heroic exploits, the dangerous rescues - it had all been Percy.
"I think I need to sit down," Chris finally whispered, settling himself onto a nearby rock.
Percy fastened his cape, giving his friend an understanding look. "I apologize for all the blasted secrecy, Christopher, but I'm sure you know how important this all is. I couldn't risk your life by involving you unless I knew you were sure."
Chris looked at the river as it flowed by, shining like a stream of diamonds in the moonlight. "I've been sure for almost two years now, Percy," he murmured. Then he straightened and faced his friend. "But, Percy...why?"
Percy sat himself on a nearby rock and tilted his head. "Why what, dear boy?"
"Well - " Chris shook his head, trying to form his thoughts. "You're one of the richest men in England, you didn't have to get mixed up in this. All the years I've known you, you've never been one to rush into danger, risking your life for people you don't even know. There's an entire country now that wants you dead for what you're doing."
"Oh! Well," Percy looked out at the river as well, his expression becoming momentarily uncertain. "Don't paint me out as a saint, my friend, I fear I'd make a demmed poor one. Well, there's the sport of the thing, you know!" he exclaimed, glancing over at Chris with a grin. "Nothing quite so thrilling as snatching people right out from under the noses of those bastards. The lure of the chase, the excitement of adventure - it's most intoxicating, to be sure!" He paused and shrugged a bit. "And perhaps it is a touch of my poor mother's madness as well. Who can say, really?"
Chris watched him closely. "Sounded to me, from the way you were talking before, that there was more to all this than just adventure and a touch of madness, Percy."
The grin faltered and vanished, and Percy sighed as he turned his eyes back to the glistening river. "Yes," he said sadly, the light tones gone from his voice. "One day I lost one too many friends to that damn guillotine, and realized that simply waiting for the French to come to their senses wasn't going to work any longer. I heard how that infernal machine was devouring men, women and children whose only crime was that of displeasing the wrong people. I saw how empty my life had been, devoid of anything but selfish and idle pursuits, and suddenly knew that it was not meant to stay that way."
His voice had dropped to barely a whisper, the words faltering and catching at times. After a moment, he turned and looked at Chris, a small smile tugging at his lips. "I need not tell you, my friend, what is happening in France. The slaughter goes on, with no one to stop it but those who have the courage to do so. God has granted me the means and strength for this fight, and given me good men who are as willing as I to stand against this madness. I am most thankful that He has also seen fit to guide you here as well. Together, we may just stand a chance."
He smiled, and held out his hand. Chris thought for a moment, then firmly grasped it.
"More than just a chance, I promise," he said with a determined expression, no longer feeling tired. "When do we start?"
"You must meet the others of the League," Percy replied, releasing Chris's hand and sitting back. "They'll be at the reception, I'll point them out to you. I daresay you know all of them. Demmed fine men, Christopher, the best in England."
"I'm sure," Chris replied, a new question suddenly coming to him. "Percy, does Marguerite know?"
Percy blinked, and Chris saw a new expression settle over his friend's handsome features, serious and somewhat sad. He was that way for only a moment, before covering the strong emotions with a slight laugh as he looked back out at the river.
"Sink me, a dull fellow like myself couldn't hide anything from a woman as clever as my Margot for long," he remarked softly. "Yes, my friend, she knows it all. Someday I'll tell you how it all came about, when the world is past this madness. She's even helped us a time or two."
Chris's eyes widened. "Marguerite's gone to France with the League?"
Percy glanced back at him, pride now shining in his face. "Gad, Christopher, so she has. You'd be amazed, old boy, how well my wife acquits herself. She's quite the skilled actress, you know, which has been a great help, and she has a spirit few of us can equal." He paused, overwhelmed, and shook his head, running one hand over his hair. "Why God gifted a fool like me with such a bedazzling creature for a wife, I'm sure I've no idea. She is my soul, Christopher. Without her, I would be the poorest wretch in England."
The final words were spoken in a soft voice thick with emotion. A painful memory seared Chris's heart suddenly; he'd thought the same way of Sarah, and easily recognized the impassioned gleam shining in Percy's eyes.
"God, Percy," he said, leaning forward, "if that's the case, how can you keep leaving her to go to France? I know whenever I left Sarah, it would just about kill me."
Percy dropped his eyes, fiddling with his cloak. "Well, my friend, truth be told, she asks me that very question every time I return, and I wish to God I knew how to answer it. It does break my heart to go, but the task at hand seems far too great to be halted by my selfish desires. It is a difficut dilemma - stay in England, and watch as the horrific massacre continues, or go to France and leave my beloved wife."
He sighed and lifted his head, gazing off into the woods. "And it is hard for her, I know," he said in a sad, gentle voice. "She bears its bravely, and understands that this is a duty which calls to me above all else, but nevertheless, it is hard. I tell myself that she will be waiting for me at the end of every road, and that gives me the strength to do what must be done. God willing, when this is all over, we will be able to regain all the time we have lost."
"I hope so, Percy," Chris said earnestly, after a few moments of silence.
Percy contemplated the river for another second, then shook himself. "Well," he said in a lighter tone, turning to Chris, "no more morbid thoughts, eh? I daresay with you along, we'll have the Frenchies turned upside down in no time. I trust your skills at swordplay and French are quite intact?"
Chris thought a moment. "My French might be a bit rusty, but I don't think I'll have any trouble. And you can ask some fellows in the towns along the north roads about my swordplay, if they've recovered enough to talk."
"Good!" Percy enthused. "We try to avoid that sort of thing, but you never know when events might turn rough. With enough planning and cleverness, we can outsmart them without shedding a drop of blood, and have a jolly time while we're at it. I'll tell you all you need to know."
He stood, and fished something out of his pocket. "What I had in mind, my friend, was to form something of a second branch of the League - that way we may be able to sneak twice as many out from under their noses. Do you know of anyone you would trust with your life, who may be willing to join our little group?"
Buck and Vin instantly came to Chris's mind. "A few, yes," he said aloud.
"Excellent," Percy said as Chris stood. "If you are agreeable, I should like to set you in charge, after you and your friends have come along with us a few times to see how it's done. I will send you instructions by sealed note, and you must follow these instructions only. They will carry the mark of my family crest - the scarlet pimpernel."
He removed his glove and held up his hand. Chris peered at it, discerning a ring shining in the moonlight, a large oval signet ring with an image in the center of a small, four - petaled flower.
Chris smiled to himself and shook his head. "I kept trying to think where I'd seen that flower before. I never noticed it was your family crest."
"Fortunately, most people haven't," Percy replied with a grin, pulling the glove back on. "A common red roadside flower - small and unobstrusive, what? The perfect disguise." He handed Chris a piece of paper held in his other hand. "If you should want more men for your band, I'd ask that you try to locate these fellows - they've worked with us on an occasion or two, and have proven most trustworthy. I'm sure they'd give Madame Guillotine a hard time of it."
Christ glanced down at the two names. He didn't recognize the first name, Josiah Sanchez, but knew the other one instantly.
"Ezra Standish?" he exclaimed in surprise, looking up.
Percy eyed him. "You've met the fellow?"
"He's the one we saw at the tavern, who told us about your arm," Chris said with a slight laugh of disbelief. "Are you sure you want him along? He was wagering with one of your signed notes, you know."
Percy grinned. "Sink me! Well, I'm sure it was in no danger of falling into the wrong hands."
"How can you be so sure?" Chris inquired.
"For one, he has the devil's own luck with cards," Percy sniffed, still smiling, "And two, his abilities to, shall we say, nudge the game to his favor when that luck is against him, are also most remarkable."
The other man grinned as well, catching on. "He was cheating?"
The baronet shrugged. "Can't say for sure, of course, old boy, but it wouldn't surprise me. Standish is full of the most clever tricks and ploys - he can insinuate himself anywhere, that's why I thought you might find him useful. If there is any knowledge to be had on disguises and ruses, he will know it. If he don't get himself strung up outside Newgate, he'll have a most fascinating career, I'm sure."
Chris nodded; they'd need help with tricks and disguises if this was going to work. "And Sanchez?"
"A fascinating fellow as well," Percy said, pulling his cape tighter. "Lived in Paris for several years, and knows the city intimately. We had the most intriguing conversation once, he spent his younger years preaching to the tribes in America and had the most interesting ideas about the place. You'll find him at the old St. Sebastian chapel along the river. I daresay, you'll have a worthy band of merry men before too long!"
Chris folded the paper and put it in his pocket, looking up at Percy. "I'll do all I can to help you, Percy," he promised. "For Sarah and Adam."
His friend smiled and clasped his shoulder. "I'm sure you will, Christopher," he replied. "Now perhaps we'd best call it a night, eh? Before we both catch our deaths in this ghastly chill. Find as many men as you think you'll need, and we'll converse at the reception."
"I take it I don't mention your name just yet?" Chris guessed as he shrugged his cape more fully onto his shoulders.
"An accurate supposition, my friend," Percy said with a nod. "Just tell them the mission for now, and warn them that they must be prepared to blend into the French and be ready to face anything. This is a most desperate endeavor, as you know, and those who undertake it must be aware of the hell we are riding into."
Chris nodded firmly. "I'll tell them. And if I can't find anyone willing to come with me...I'll go alone, if it means putting a stop to this."
Percy squared his shoulders, regarding his friend with a proud expression. "So you would, my friend, but I pray that will not be necessary. Safe journey home, Christopher, and I shall see you at the reception. Good night!"
With that, Percy gave a nod, which Chris returned, and Chris watched him walk quickly back into the woods, blending swiftly into the dark underbrush. After a few moments, Chris heard the soft, diminishing thud of hoofbeats as the Scarlet Pimpernel rode back to Richmond.
Still a bit dazed, Chris mounted Valor and spurred the beast towards his own home, thinking about everything he had just seen and heard this night. The path he had chosen would not be easy, by any means; the fight might be long, difficult, and dangerous, with a painful, bloody death possible at the end of it. But those considerations did not dim the bright light of purpose now shining before him. This was a fight he intended to win.
He turned the horse, and headed for home.
"I don't believe you, Buck! They met the Pimpernel and you just walked away from them?"
The young man's incredulous voice cut through the chilly morning air, mingled with the sounds of brushes smoothly moving across horsehair and the rustling of leather tack. The stables of the Wilmington mansion were deserted at this early hour save for two figures, their forms moving about in the dusty columns of early sunlight which slanted lazily through clouds of dust flecked with bits of hay. Buck was sitting on a wooden barrel, checking his bridle and casting amused glances at his frustrated young companion.
"We didn't just walk away, JD," Buck said in a tolerant tone. "We asked them a few questions, but there wasn't any point in pestering the fellows. They'd been through enough, I'd say."
"No point!" JD exclaimed, staring at the older man as he brushed the long, thick black hair out of his eyes, his boyish face relaying a look of shock. "Lord, Buck, I'd give my right arm to meet someone who's met the Pimpernel, and you run into two of them! It's not fair." His hazel eyes scowled as he continued brushing the dark horse in front of him.
"I know, JD," Buck said lightly as he peered at the bridle, looking for worn marks, "but if this situation in France goes on much longer, you won't be able to turn around without tripping over someone rescued by the Pimpernel. It's not something you'd *want* to have happen to you, you know."
JD considered this. "I know, but..." His voice became more excited as he worked the brush. "But I've never heard of anybody like the Pimpernel. God, Buck, could you just imagine it, going around France right under the eyes of the French, rescuing people from the mouth of the guillotine? Facing danger at every step, never sure what's around the next corner..." He laughed, shaking his head. "That sure sounds more exciting than grooming horses all day!"
"And dangerous, too, don't forget, son," Buck reminded him, standing up and striding over to hang the bridle up alongside the rest of his tack. "Someday that man and his League just might not run fast enough, you know."
JD gave his friend a look of dubious amusement. "Oh, they'll never catch the Scarlet Pimpernel," he admonished Buck with a grin as he finished the grooming. "I heard he outrode a whole squad of soldiers, all while carrying three prisoners with him on his horse!"
Buck chuckled. "I'd call the horse a hero for that," he said, looking over a nearby saddle. "You should read things other than those lies the Gazette prints out. They're just trying to sell papers by making up stories about the Pimpernel."
"They ain't lies," JD said in a challenging tone as he checked the horse's shoes.
Buck sighed and scowled in JD's direction. "*Not* lies, son. You'd better watch that new slang if you want to improve things for yourself. And, yes, they *are* lies, no man could do all that stuff they say he does. You'd think the French prisons were empty, with all the people they say he's carried off."
JD gave his friend a goading smile. "You're just mad because the girls won't talk about anyone else."
"I am not mad," Buck protested, hefting the saddle and frowning at the younger man. "A man...just can't compete with all those wild stories, that's all."
"Mmm - hmm," the stableboy replied knowingly as he stood up and wiped his hands on his leather apron. "I wish I knew who the Pimpernel was. I wonder if he'd let me join his League."
"A youngster like you?" Buck carefully settled the saddle on the horse's back. "I don't know, JD."
"Well, why not?" JD inquired, brushing his thick black hair out of his eyes as he went over to the tool bench and began picking through it. "You already taught me French, and I can swordfight rings around just about anybody." He looked up and gazed out over the yard of the estate, seeing past the green - gold trees and landscaped lawn. "And what I wouldn't give to see France. Mama always wanted me to travel."
Buck's expression softened as he saw JD drop his eyes. He finished cinching his saddle, then walked over to the young man, who had grown suddenly quiet.
"JD, I know you still miss your mother and want to do things that would make her proud," he said in a soft voice. "I miss mine, too. But I don't think running into a nest full of Frenchmen who're looking to chop your head off is what she had in mind."
"But I'd be doing something about it, Buck!" JD insisted, lifting his eyes to give the older man a determined stare. "What's happening over there is wrong."
"Sure it's wrong, but so's getting yourself killed," Buck shot back in a louder voice. "Now I promised your mother I'd look after you, didn't I? You know I couldn't let you walk right into that hell. I've been there, JD, and trust me, it's not a place for a holiday. Chris, Vin and I barely got out of there with our lives."
"But you *did* get out, right?" JD said brightly, pointing at him with the hoof pick he'd pulled from the tools. "So it's not impossible."
Buck sighed. "JD - "
It was another voice, older and male, calling from the house nearby.
Buck sighed again, irritation clouding his eyes. "Yes, George?" he yelled, none too pleasantly.
"Father wants to know if his horse is ready yet!" George's voice shouted back.
"He'll be right there!" Buck replied, hurrying over to the tack as he dropped his voice. "Take my advice, JD, and don't waste any more time daydreamin' about going to France with the Pimpernel. I don't want to have to have another argument with Father over keeping you on here."
"Don't you worry about me, Buck," was JD's confident response as he picked an elaborate leather bridle off the wall. "After all you've done for me, I won't let you down. Maybe we could go to France together, wouldn't that be great?"
"BUCK!" George yelled again from the yard. "Father says hurry the hell up!"
Buck grunted and gave JD a chagrined look. "Don't tempt me, boy," he muttered, and hurried to finish readying his father's horse.
The sparse forest lay quiet beneath the bright morning sunlight, its tranquility broken only by the gentle song of the distant river and the rustling of its wildlife moving through the leaf - strewn undergrowth. Overhead a small flock of ducks winged their way across the treetops, their wings flapping sharply against the chilly air.
Suddenly two loud noises rent the silence, the thunderlike reports of the hunter's rifle. One of the ducks faltered and plummeted to the ground, dead before it struck the earth.
The two hunters soon appeared from among the trees, one of them shaking his head with a smile as they approached the downed bird.
"That's why I hired you for my huntsman, Vin," the man said, his blonde hair ruffling in the soft breeze. "If I miss, I know you won't."
Vin grinned a little as he picked up the prey and swung the three dead birds he already carried off his shoulder to add it to the tally. "Keeps food on the table," he said modestly.
"It's done more than that," Chris replied grimly, looking off into the distance as a pensive look crossed his face.
Vin finished tying the duck in with the others and glanced up at Chris, concern in his blue eyes. "You all right?" he asked, still in a crouch.
His friend answered with an offhand nod. "Oh, fine, just...thinking. I suppose I'm ready for a rest." He sighed as he swung the heavy load of prey from his shoulder, setting it carefully down on the ground. "I was thinking about when you and Buck got me out of Paris. If it hadn't been for your skill, we'd all have been dead."
Vin nodded once with a slight, uncomfortable expression. "If I ever was thankful for being such a dead shot, it was that day," he confessed, putting the kill aside and sitting back in the grass. Chris sat down next to him, laying his rifle and catch to one side.
"You weren't the only one," Chris assured him, allowing his gaze to wander over the vast fields and woods in front of them, brilliant in their autumn colors. "Though I am sorry you had to pay such a high price for your loyalty."
"What, that bounty on my head?" A small smile curled one end of Vin's mouth. "Damn, Chris. That's nothin' to me if it meant getting you out of there alive. Hell, I'd do it again."
"You would?" Chris posed the question casually as he sat back, palms flat against the warm grassy ground. "You'd go back into Paris?"
Vin's tan, handsome face became thoughtful as he sat up, his elbows resting on his knees, the hands dangling. "Chris," he finally said quietly, "you know I've been on my own most of my life. Made my livin' hunting, trapping, sailin' on ships for a time. I've seen a whole lot of the way people treat each other, and learned early on what I saw as right an' wrong. An' what's happenin' over there now isn't right, so I've got no fear about standin' against it."
Chris dropped his eyes to the ground, thinking, then looked away, a nod being his only response.
"Now, we've been through a lot together," Vin went on. "Owe each other our lives more times than I can count, anyway. If you were in danger again over there, or Buck, an' needed help - then hell, yes, I'd go back. Couldn't live with myself if I didn't."
Chris remained quiet for a moment, then looked over at Vin with a serious expression. "I never doubted you'd do it for me, or Buck," Chris admitted. "What if it was someone you didn't even know?"
Vin scowled, confused. "What d'you mean?"
The other man paused, then looked away once more. "Vin, what would you say if I told you I met the Scarlet Pimpernel last night?"
His friend let out a skeptical laugh. "I'd say you've been drinkin' too much ale at Nettie's," he replied.
Chris paused, then swung his head back to level a somber look at the huntsman.
Vin read the expression's meaning instantly, the amusement slipping from his face. "Damn," he breathed, "you're serious."
Chris reached into his pocket, pulled something out and handed it to Vin. "Found that under my door last night."
Vin stared at the small piece of parchment with the beautifully inked note and the small red flower.
"Shit," Vin breathed in awe, wide - eyed. After a few moments he looked up. "So, who is he?"
The other man smiled a bit and shook his head. "Sorry. I gave him my word not to reveal who he is. It's safer that way."
His companion accepted this with a comprehending nod. "You're right," he muttered. "He's got plenty of people lookin' for him who want him dead."
"Yes, he does," Chris said quietly, his gaze wandering over the gentle hills as he spoke. He took a deep breath and said, in an equally soft tone, "He asked me to join the League, Vin."
A startled expression swept over Vin's features. Then they settled into a slightly amused grin. "He must've heard how you handled yourself during that tavern brawl in Bolton," he said with a touch of pride.
Chris shrugged, smiling a little as well. "Maybe," he said, his voice still low and contemplative. He looked at his friend. "He needs help, Vin. Things over there aren't getting any better; they're sending hundreds to that damn guillotine every day. I was almost one of those people. I figure I've earned the right to try and stop those bastards."
"Nobody'd argue that," Vin said firmly, shaking his head, a worried look on his brow. He paused, thought for a moment, then looked his friend in the eye. "But you know I'm not goin' to let you go over there alone."
Chris peered at the huntsman closely, a great sense of unease spreading over him. "Vin, if it's dangerous for me to go back over, it's doubly so for you. They've got a price on you that most poor Frenchmen would do anything to get."
Vin shook his head firmly, one hand waving in the air as if to physically ward off any arguments. "I know that, and don't think I'm too happy at the thought. But hell, Chris, your fight is my fight. I think between the two of us, we can give those Frenchies a brawl even the people in Bolton wouldn't believe."
Chris chuckled a little and after a pause extended his hand to Vin. "I think you're right," he said. "Thank you, Vin."
Vin shook his friend's hand. "Thank me after we've turned that damn guillotine to firewood," he muttered. "When do we leave?"
Chris sat up and rubbed his forehead. "I'm not sure yet. Probably at least not for - "
A distant shot split the air, followed by the unmistakable shout of human pain. Chris and Vin sat up, startled, and looked around as the noise rolled and echoed through the woods. Not far away, a surprised flock of birds fluttered out of the trees, swooping into the sky.
"What the hell - " Vin murmured, as he got quickly to his feet, his hands deftly collecting his discarded items as he peered off into the forest.
"Maybe a hunter's been hurt," Chris offered, gathering up his gun and catch. "Sounds like it was down near the river, we'd better go see what's happening."
Without another word, they swiftly trotted in the direction of the sound, Vin in the lead.
They ran for five minutes, Chris following Vin as they moved along. The huntsman had the keenest eyes and ears of any man Chris had ever known, and he trusted him completely to discover the source of the disturbance. As he ran, Vin gripped his rifle, ready for any surprises.
At length they burst into a large clearing, another sound reaching their ears: the noise of four horses riding swiftly away. Vin ran forward in time to see two dark shapes disappearing into the woods.
"Damn," he muttered in frustration. A low nickering caught his attention; turning he saw a beautiful chestnut - colored stallion, tethered to a nearby tree stump, watching him with alert brown eyes.
Vin turned to see Chris loping towards a still form lying in the middle of the clearing. Pursing his lips, he followed his friend, his gaze now locked on the supine figure. As he got closer he saw that it was a man, dressed in a fancy white shirt and striped yellow vest, light breeches, and knee - high black riding boots. On the ground nearby lay a crumpled, familiar, very fashionable green coat and a gold - topped walking stick.
"Hell!" Vin exclaimed as Chris reached the man and knelt down beside him. "Is that - Ezra Standish? From the tavern?"
Chris nodded as he bent over the form; there was blood seeping through the man's fine clothing from a shoulder wound. "Looks like our gaming friend here ran into a streak of bad luck," he said, as Ezra began to moan.
"Least he's still kickin'," Vin observed, looking around with concern. "Was it a robbery?"
Ezra moaned louder and struggled to sit up, one hand grasping his bleeding shoulder. As Chris helped him up, he glanced at something behind Ezra's head, reached back and picked it up, showing it to Vin. It was a spent long - muzzled pistol.
"Looks more like a duel," he explained, his voice dry.
Vin nodded and took the gun, not at all surprised.
Ezra gagged as he sat up, his face contorted with pain.
"Played one card game too many?" Chris inquired.
Ezra blinked, confused, and looked up at his two rescuers.
"Ah," he coughed. "From the tavern, correct?"
"I'm Chris Larabee, this is Vin Tanner," Chris explained. "We heard the shot, thought we'd better come over. You come up against a sore loser or something?"
"Oh," Ezra looked uncomfortable and tried to sit up farther. "Just a, er, small matter of honor, related to the fact that my opponent does not possess any."
"Is that why they just rode off and left you?" Vin inquired, leaning over to study the gambler's wound.
"Precisely," was the gasped reply as Ezra bent his own eyes down as far as he could to see the injury for himself. "I believe the surgeon was convinced my wound was mortal, and the fewer people who knew about this, the better. I do not believe my welfare was their primary concern at the moment."
"Where's your second?" Chris asked. "Shouldn't he be looking after you?"
"Lord," Ezra muttered as he saw the blood seeping through his clothing. "My second? I believe that loathsome fellow rode off with my opponent, his second and the surgeon."
Vin made an unpleasant noise in his throat. "That's a pretty low thing for a friend to do, leaving you like this," he observed angrily.
"Friend?" Ezra emitted a gurgled laugh, shaking his head a bit. "I barely knew the man. And since he revealed himself to be such a rascal, I am rather glad our acquaintance was so short."
Vin's blue eyes widened a little, and he glanced over at Chris, confused. "I thought you usually got a close friend as your second for this sort of business," he said before dropping his gaze back to the wound. "Someone you trust."
Chris shrugged a little, and looked down at Ezra for an explanation.
Seeing his attention, the gambler shifted a little, his expression one of discomfort. Licking his lips, Ezra coughed and turned his eyes up to Vin. "Am I gravely injured?"
The huntsman was eyeing the bullet hole carefully. "I could try to get the ball out," Vin murmured, squinting. "It's not too deep."
Ezra stared at him. "Are you a physician?" he asked in thinly veiled disbelief.
Vin grinned a little and sat back. "You learn to be a lot of things if you live on your own long enough," he stated. He turned his eyes to Chris. "It'd be better if we could get him to a doctor, though. Don't want him to lose the arm."
"We could see if Dr. White is home. He's not too far from here," Chris mused as he looked down at Ezra. "Do you think you could stand a ride?"
Ezra appeared chagrined as he struggled to sit up under his own power. "I appreciate your concern, gentlemen," he said through clenched teeth as he finally managed to hoist himself upright, "but I believe I am able to locate medical care under my own power."
Chris and Vin exchanged glances. "I'm not so sure about that," Chris observed, reaching over and picking Ezra's coat up.
The gambler gasped, suddenly agitated. "Ah, you needn't trouble yourself about my attire, I am perfectly capable of retrieving it myself," he protested.
A puzzled frown crossed Chris's face as he looked down at the seemingly innocuous green coat; it was a beautiful garment, cut in the very latest style, but hardly something which would cause such anxiety. As he lifted it up to hand it to Ezra, he felt something small and stiff in the left sleeve, a flat object which should not have been there. He peered at Ezra, a knowing light in his eyes, before reaching into the cuff of the sleeve. After a moment of feeling around, he removed his hand; clutched in his fingers were two playing cards, the queen of hearts and the ace of spades.
"I think I can guess what the duel was about," Chris said dryly, bending a sharp gaze at Ezra.
The Southerner pursed his lips. "Sir, I object to your invasive handling of my clothing, as well as your heinous insinuation," he said as firmly as his wound would allow.
Chris smiled a little as he pulled three cards from the other sleeve, two knaves and a king. He turned them over, studying the backs, then looked expectantly at Ezra, waiting.
Vin let out a small whistle. "Do you have the whole bloody pack hidden in there?"
The wounded man licked his lips. "Ah, it's not what it looks like, I assure you..."
"That's good," Chris said, handing the cards to Vin for inspection. "They're marked, too."
"Hm," Vin grunted with interest as his keen blue eyes peered closely at the plain backs of the cards. After a moment he flipped them over, gazing at the faces. "Damn nice cards, though."
Ezra growled and awkwardly snatched the cards from Vin's hands. "Are you two men rescuing angels or demons sent to torment me?" he inquired angrily.
Vin smiled, amused.
"You can decide that after we've gotten you to the doctor," Chris replied, getting to his feet as Vin did the same. The two men took the gambler's elbows, preparing to help him rise. "Can you stand?"
Ezra quickly pocketed the cards and climbed to his feet, shrugging off the aid. "As I have informed you," he said, finally straightening after a few wobbly tries, "there is no need...for..."
His eyes immediately rolled up in his head and he pitched to the ground.
"Damn!" Vin gasped, jumping forward and grabbing Ezra in an awkward grip.
"Standish?" Chris grabbed Ezra's head, lifting his face into view. "He's unconscious."
Vin cursed again, looking out into the vast forest. They were a long way from the edge of the woods. "It's going to be a hard road to the doctor's, carrying him like this. He might bleed to death before we get there." He glanced over at the gambler's mount. "Think that horse'd let us ride him?"
As Chris pondered the question, a new sound came to his ears: the thudding sound of hoofbeats pounding through the trees towards them. Chris tensed; Vin quickly but gently lowered Ezra's sagging body to the ground and picked up his rifle just as his friend also retrieved his own weapon. The two men stood protectively in front of Ezra as the galloping neared. Had Ezra's dueling opponent come back to finish the job?
Chris was about to load his rifle when the rider suddenly burst into the clearing. Both men's eyes widened at the same time at the sight of the large horse and its equally impressive master; it was the tall, graying stranger from the tavern of the day before, who like Ezra had been rescued from the guillotine by the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Neither party spoke as the man rode up. Chris watched him carefully, unsure. While he wasn't certain if the man was mad, as the rumor went, he certainly didn't appear completely ordinary, with his rough, plain clothes, large hat, and strange beads hanging around his neck.
Finally the burly stranger reined in his huge mount to stand just next to the trio, looking down at Ezra's bloody, unmoving form.
"I do hope you two didn't do that," he said in a deep, warning voice.
Chris quickly shook his head as he lowered his weapon. "He got on the wrong end of a dueling pistol," he explained.
The large man sighed and shook his head. "The wages of sin," he said sadly. "Is it bad?"
"Bad enough," Vin pronounced, kneeling down beside Ezra.
"We'd be thankful if you could help us get him to town," Chris said, stepping forward.
The man leaned over a little, looking into Ezra's pale face. "I'm not so sure he'd last that long, over these roads," he said. "If you'll hand him up here, I can get him to my house. I'm sure Nathan can help him."
Chris looked up at him, puzzled. "Is Nathan a doctor?"
The other man smiled a little. "Better than many doctors I know. He can get a bullet out, at least, and there's a good chance our brother here won't die before he can be helped."
Chris glanced at Vin, and saw his own decision mirrored there; town was too far away, and time was running out. He turned to the stranger.
"Can we trust you with his life?" Chris inquired, studying the man closely.
The tall rider peered at him, his blue eyes dark and serious. "I'm willing to swear before God that I don't mean him, or you, any harm," he said in a somber tone. "Besides, you've got the guns. If I do something you don't like, there's nothing to stop you from just shooting me."
Chris considered the truth of this, looked over at Vin, and nodded. As gently as possible, they lifted Ezra's limp form up to the stranger, who settled the gambler before him on the saddle, wrapping one strong arm around Ezra's waist.
"Get on this fellow's horse and follow me," the man said. "It's not too far, down by the river."
With that he whirled his horse around and began to ride off. Chris grabbed the green coat and Ezra's walking stick, and he and Vin climbed onto Ezra's horse and rode after the mounted stranger, hoping that they had made the right choice in trusting the strange man's word.
After ten minutes' travel, they came upon a large open area by the river. The trees thinned out some distance past, indicating that they were close to the edge of the woods. In the clearing loomed a small stone structure with tall windows, their glass panes mostly broken and patched with wood, the roof in the first stages of repair, the wooden steps leading to the front door half - rotted away. It appeared to have once been a church or meeting - house, long since abandoned. If any name had been attached to the building, it had eroded away years ago.
To Chris's surprise, they turned from the church to a wooden building nearby. This house was smaller and simpler, but appeared more recently built and reasonably intact. Smoke curled from its stone chimney, and next to the east wall spread a large garden full of several plants Chris didn't recognize. Bunches of drying greens hung from the eaves, and there was a large iron kettle strung up over a cold fire pit near the back corner waiting to be used. The place seemed somewhat wild, but there was no ignoring the well - worn path to the cottage's front door.
The stranger reined in outside the small house. Within moments Vin and Chris were dismounted and at his side.
"Looks like the Lord is with us," he said as he cautiously eased the still - senseless Ezra into Vin's waiting arms. "Nathan's home."
"What'd you bring me today, Josiah?"
At the sound of the voice, all three heads turned to the opened front door, where a man stood, wiping his hands on a stained white cloth and watching the proceedings with concern.
Chris blinked, slightly startled. He was not so surprised at Nathan's tall build, or the expression of compassion in the man's brown eyes. But he had not expected Nathan to be black.
After a moment, he glanced over at Vin, but the huntsman was absorbed in trying to hold Ezra upright; if he was taken aback by the healer's appearance, he showed no outward sign of it.
In an instant, Josiah was at Vin's side, helping him ease Ezra over the threshold. "Bullet wound, Nate," he announced calmly as they lifted the unconscious man inside.
The interior of the small house was cozy and dim. As Chris's eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a large room formed by plain wooden walls, mostly devoid of decoration. Drying herbs and plants hung almost everywhere; a fire flickered in the hearth, a kettle boiling over the glowing coals. Against one wall stood a sagging bookshelf half - full of tattered texts.
"Over here," Josiah instructed, as they conveyed the gambler to a small bed in the corner by one of the room's two windows. Nathan followed them closely, leaning in to examine the wound as soon as Vin and Josiah had cleared out of the way.
"Don't look too bad," he muttered, his fingers gently pressing around the wound with great care and skill. After a few minutes he stood, looking at the three men. "Might need y'all to hold 'im down if he comes to while I'm gettin' the bullet out."
Chris nodded. "It sounds like you've done this often."
Nathan sighed. "Yeah, too often," he replied, glancing down at Ezra. "He a friend of yours?"
"I'd wager he is now," Vin offered, taking off his large hat and ragged leather hunting coat. "Found him in the woods; some men he was dueling with shot him and rode off."
Nathan snorted. "Damn gentlemen," he said, shaking his his head with a smile of disgust before walking over to the boiling kettle and picking up a pair of tongs which had been propped up next to the fireplace.
Footsteps sounded heavily on the wooden floor as Josiah walked up, rolling his sleeves to the elbow. In the small house, he appeared even larger. "Well, my friends, I suppose since we keep encountering one another, we might as well introduce ourselves," he announced. "Name's Josiah Sanchez, this talented fellow with the tongs is Nathan Jackson."
A small shock coursed through Chris as he looked up at Josiah. God, why didn't he realize it? This was the man Percy wanted him to find, to join the League. Strange, he realized, how he had found both Ezra and Josiah at just about the same time. It was just enough of an oddity to send a slight tingle down his back.
"Vin Tanner," the huntsman announced with a grunt as he began removing Ezra's bloodied garments. He nodded at Chris. "You can call him Sir Christopher Larabee, if you want to be formal."
"I think under the circumstances, Chris will be just fine," Chris said, slightly embarrassed as usual by the pretentiousness of the title. He shed his fine black coat and began undoing the cuffs of his simple white shirt.
Before long they had divested Ezra of his ruined fancy shirt and hopelessly bloodstained striped silk vest. Chris was slightly surprised at how solidly built the gambler was under his foppish clothes; he was a good deal more muscular than he appeared. Standing at the ready in case Standish began to thrash, the three men watched anxiously as Nathan probed for the bullet.
After only a few minutes, the healer bit his lip and slowly withdrew a smashed pistol ball from the Southerner's bleeding shoulder.
"He's lucky," Nathan announced quietly as he dropped the projectile into a nearby wooden bowl.
"We'll see how lucky he feels when he wakes up," Chris said, studying Ezra's pale, sweat - soaked face. The gambler had moaned once or twice but remained unconscious.
"You're pretty damn good at that," Vin observed in a grateful tone, nodding at Nathan.
The healer shrugged a bit as he reached behind him for some water.
"Served as a slave to a ship's doctor most of my life," he said, by way of explanation. "Compared to most of what we had to do, takin' out bullets is simple."
"Is that where you learned all this?" Chris looked around the room at the exotic herbs and plants.
Nathan was pouring water on the wound and swabbing it gently with a cloth. "Some," he said. "Learned a lot of it from my mama in Georgia before I was sold off. The poor folks around here don't seem to care where it all came from, long as it helps 'em out."
"Can't argue with that," Vin admitted as he watched Nathan place a clean bandage over the wound. He glanced up at Chris. "Looks like he'll make it."
"I'm relieved to see the Lord's in a good mood today," Josiah said with a slight smile. "Chris, if you'll come with me, I've got some food over at the church which ought to serve as a passable supper. I just need a few strong arms to help carry it over."
Chris nodded; he wanted to talk to Josiah anyway. He looked back to where Vin was helping Nathan wind the bandages around Ezra's chest.
"We'll be here," the huntsman said in a dry voice.
With a small answering grin, Chris followed Josiah out the door.
"So, this is your church?" Chris asked as they walked across the grassy expanse towards the sagging stone building.
Josiah laughed a little. "I suppose it is. I found it here years ago when I was wandering through these woods; nobody else seemed to want it, so I moved in. It was almost falling down. Needs a lot of work, but no worthwhile task is ever easy. Now I just have to figure out why God led me here."
They reached the front of the building. Chris could see it had once been a handsome chapel, but time had left its mark. He looked at Josiah as they mounted the creaking wooden steps. "You sound like a minister."
"I was, once," Josiah replied with a sigh, putting one large hand on the tarnished brass knob of the tall wooden door. "About a hundred years ago."
With a push the door opened, its iron hinges protesting every inch of movement. Chris squinted as they entered the large sanctuary; the patched windows afforded little light. Overhead the high ceiling soared to a point, birds fluttering in its rafters. There were no seats, only a small bed set up at the front, stacks of books, scattered tools, and a small fireplace to one side in which a few coals blinked.
"My father was a minister," Josiah explained as they walked to the front of the church. "When I was young, we went to America to save the Indians from themselves. Spent most of my young years going from colony to colony, watching my father tell those people to accept what he said or face damnation." He paused, his face grim in the uncertain light. "Said the same thing to me, too."
Chris considered the sobering words. "Is that why you came back to England?"
The older man was gathering some bits of bread and checking a joint of beef which sat on the table. "Mostly," he replied. "We didn't agree on a lot of things. I'd talked to the Indians quite a bit. They're not the savage creatures you've heard about, Chris. In many ways, they're more civilized than we are. My father didn't want to hear any of that, and after our last...discussion, I was on an American ship sailing to England. Could you get that pot off the fire, please? There should be enough stew left for a few bites apiece."
"Oh - " Chris grabbed a cloth and carefully lifted the small covered iron kettle from the coals. "Did you meet Nathan on that ship?"
Josiah wrapped the beef joint in a cloth as he nodded. "The crew was about to flog him for letting one of their shipmates die. From what I could tell, the surgeon was fond of his rum, and didn't seem to mind letting his slave take the blame for the bungled operation. Apparently, he'd done it before."
A hot feeling of anger burned in Chris's chest; he had seen naval floggings during his sea travels, and stood against slavery on principle, as many Englishmen did. "So what happened?" he asked as he brought the kettle over.
"I went and pleaded Nathan's case before the captain and that surgeon," Josiah replied, wrapping the bread up in some cheesecloth. "Naturally, both of them told me to go to hell, and the surgeon said I was a limey bastard who should mind my own damn business." He looked at Chris and smiled. "Such blasphemy offended me, of course. I told him I'd be happy to drop the matter if he would accept my challenge to a fair fight as soon as he sobered up. If he won, he could flog Nathan; if I won, I'd be allowed to buy Nathan from him."
"I think I know how it turned out," Chris aid with a grin as he accepted the wrapped food Josiah was handing to him.
A similar grin was on Josiah's face. "Let's just say he was still out cold when Nathan and I disembarked in Portsmouth," the preacher said. "We traveled some, even spent some time in Paris. Few years back we settled down here, then I heard about the trouble in France and went over, thinking I could help. Next thing I knew, I was arrested as an enemy of the state and condemned."
Their arms laden with food, they began walking back towards the door.
"That's how you met the Scarlet Pimpernel," Chris guessed, his mind working fast.
"That's right," Josiah said. "Never met a man like him, I'll say that. God must be watching over him, the way he's always one step ahead of his enemies."
"Any idea who he is?" Chris nudged, deliberately slowing his pace.
Josiah shrugged. "None. I've helped him out a few times since, even had a lively debate on religion with him as we crossed the channel. But he was always in disguise, and so were his men." He gave a slight shake of his head. "I've never stopped praying for him and his cause, though. I only wish I could do more."
Chris stopped and looked at the other man intently. "Is that the truth?"
Josiah halted as well and eyed his new friend curiously. "As truthful as a sinner like me can be," he replied in a puzzled tone.
There was a pause. "In that case," Chris finally said quietly, "I think some of your prayers are about to be answered."
"Sounds like a very dangerous endeavor, to me."
Josiah's quiet, thoughtful voice barely disturbed the warm air of Nathan's cottage. He and his three companions sat at a rough table before the fire, lit only by the flickering glow of the hearth as they softly conversed over the remains of their supper. In the shadows, Ezra slept undisturbed on Nathan's bed, oblivious to the crucial conversation taking place nearby.
Chris took a puff on his long pipe, the aromatic smoke rising and mingling with the clouds wafting from the shorter pipes held in the hands of Josiah and Vin. "It *is* very dangerous," Chris replied softly, his voice hushed. "And it's entirely up to you if you want to join us. But the way I see it, it's the very dangerous endeavors that need doing the most."
Josiah puffed his pipe and glanced at Nathan. Unlike the other men, Nathan had foregone the pipe for a small cigar. Chris waited, hopeful; he'd decided to include Nathan for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they'd likely need someone with healing skills in the risky venture which lay ahead of them. The former slave had already proven his worthiness by saving Ezra's life; the question now was whether he would risk his freedom by involving himself in such a lethal enterprise.
"Dangerous don't tell it by half, from what I hear," Nathan offered, the pungent smoke from his cigar floating around his head. "It sounds like they've lost their minds, over there."
"And it's likely going to get worse," Chris said with a sigh, shifting in his seat on the rough wooden bench. "It appears that Robespierre might be coming into power soon. If he does, Paris will be drenched with blood."
"I saw enough in France to know this won't be easy," Vin said in a grim whisper, his blue eyes staring into the hypnotic fire. "Everyone's ruled by the fear of bein' denounced and condemned. All you got to do is look at someone sideways to be arrested."
"And if we're caught," Josiah added in a low, pensive voice, "it'll likely mean facing the guillotine again."
Chris drew a deep breath and leaned forward, folding his hands on the table, the pipe cradled in one palm. "At least they probably wouldn't kill us right away," he said in a deceptively light tone. "I imagine they'd have a few questions to ask before putting our necks under the blade."
"And I'm guessing they wouldn't ask politely," Vin coughed quietly.
Chris shook his head, lifting his eyes to meet the gaze of every man at the table. "I know it's asking a lot," he said in a voice barely above a whisper, his green eyes burning in the firelight, "and there's no guarantee of anything, not even returning to England alive. But I know I can't sit easy here, knowing what's happening to my dead wife's countrymen, and not try to help. Those poor bastards have no one to look to, but men like the Pimpernel. And us."
Josiah's face was somber, his blue eyes cast down to the table as the smoke from his pipe slithered into the air. "The Lord's led me down a lot of paths in my life," he finally said softly, not looking up. "Some of them I felt certain were roads to hell, like the one that led me into the prison in Paris. I've been thanking God every day for my survival, even if I wasn't sure why He granted it to me." He paused, then looked up at Chris. "Maybe this is why. I suppose I won't find out unless I come along."
Chris smiled, relieved and not terribly surprised. He glanced over to the healer. "Nathan?"
The former slave took a draw on his cigar, his expression thoughtful. For several minutes, he said nothing.
"I wouldn't blame you if you'd rather stay safe, and enjoy your freedom," Chris said, eyeing the healer earnestly. "God knows you've suffered enough, from the sounds of it. But we certainly could use you."
Nathan glanced up at him, paused, then nodded. "It ain't been easy, that's for sure," he agreed softly. "An' if it was just those rich aristocrats in those jails, I'd say go on without me. But they're lockin' up and killin' rich and poor alike, people who don't deserve it." His lip twitched, and his eyes fell. "I know what that's like, an' I can't sit by and be selfish with my freedom. It'd shame my mama and papa to know I could have helped, and didn't." He took a deep breath and met Chris's eyes, a smile spreading over his face. "S'pose I'm in."
A second grateful smile crossed Chris's face. "Good!" he said in a quiet, emphatic voice. Percy would be pleased to know so many men were willing to join him.
"Having a private council, gentlemen?"
Four heads turned to the bed in the shadows, where a slender form was seen sitting up and trying to peer through the dim light.
Chris stood. "Rest easy, Standish, everything's all right."
"So I see," was the drawled reply as the gambler slowly swung his legs over the side of the bed. One arm was seen gingerly rubbing his bandaged shoulder. "Where am I?"
"We brought you to a healer," Vin replied, standing and joining Chris as they walked to the man's bedside. "How are you feelin'?"
"Well," Ezra slurred, shaking his head sharply, "a bit dizzy, but nothing a dram of ale and a good rest in my own featherbed wouldn't remedy. He looked up, his eyes scanning the room until they lit on Josiah. "Ah! I trust I have you to thank for my treatment, sir," he said as he got carefully to his feet. "Fine work. May I offer you some form of compensation?"
Chris saw Josiah's mouth tug into a smile. "Not me, but you might try offering it to him." He indicated Nathan, who stood nearby.
Ezra glanced at the former slave, his eyes narrowing a bit in confusion. One muscle in his right cheek twitched. "And why would that be?"
"Because he's the one that saved your life," Chris stated flatly.
The gambler blinked, frowned, then chuckled a little, clearly disbelieving. "Is that some sort of jest?"
"Nobody was laughin' when he dug that pistol ball out of your shoulder," Vin observed.
Nathan stepped forward, proudly meeting the Southerner's gaze. "I'm a healer," he explained. "Been takin' care of wounds like that since I was twelve years old. You're lucky it didn't go in too deep, your arm'll just be sore for a little while."
Ezra said nothing as he stared at him.
"I'll show you the bullet if you want," Nathan offered, bending to retrieve a wooden bowl nearby which held the smashed pistol ball.
"No, no," Ezra said quickly, holding up his hand. "It's just, ah - I've heard of you slaves having remarkable healing skills - "
"Nathan's not a slave," Josiah declared hotly. "He's as free as you are."
"Free - ?" Ezra turned his astounded gaze to Josiah, then back to Nathan, as if he could not quite grasp the idea. He stopped for a moment, pursed his lips, then took a step back, looking around quickly.
"Well," he coughed, "a real doctor would have been preferable, but I suppose this was the best that could be had. Are my clothes anywhere about? I really must be on my way."
Nathan looked over at Josiah and gave a slight 'I might have known' shrug and walked away without another word.
"They're over on that chair, what's left of them," Vin said, pointing with his pipe. "Afraid there's not much you can about the shirt."
"Hell," Ezra muttered, disappointed, as he took a step towards the chair where his garments lay neatly folded. Chris followed him, glancing back for a moment at Josiah, uncertain; asking Standish to join their group might be risky if he couldn't get along with Nathan. During his time in America, he'd seen the way Southerners treated their slaves, and was hardly surprised that Ezra seemed to regard Nathan as less than human. But they needed every man they could find.
Ezra had arrived at the chair, and was surveying his bloodstained shirt with dismay. Chris walked up beside him, watching him with sharp green eyes.
"I'm putting together a group of men to join the Scarlet Pimpernel in his efforts to help the condemned in France," he said, his voice low and serious.
"Is that a fact," Ezra replied casually, frowning at the ruined shirt.
"We thought you might like to join us, as you've worked with him before," Chris continued, his voice growing slightly louder in mild annoyance as Ezra seemed to ignore him. "I spoke with him, and he recommended you to me."
Ezra laughed a bit as he pulled on the torn shirt. "That was highly flattering of him, I'm sure," he responded with a slight shake of his head, "but I believe I shall remain on this side of the channel for the time being. Further forays into that den of insanity are no longer of interest to me."
"But you've helped him before," Vin pointed out.
Ezra carefully buttoned his vest, mindful of his hurt shoulder. "So I did," he confessed, looking over at the long - haired huntsman. "But in doing so I'm afraid I have exhausted my supply of altruism." He picked up his coat and shrugged it on slowly, easing in over his sore arm. "It is my hope to live long and die rich, not get myself entangled in someone else's affairs."
"If the Pimpernel felt that way, you'd be dead right now," Josiah pointed out, folding his arms.
Ezra glanced at the tall older man, his green eyes fixed as he nodded. "The Pimpernel has his noble calling, my friend, and I have mine," was the pragmatic response as Ezra picked up his walking stick. He then frowned and cast his gaze about the room. "Did anyone perchance find my hat?"
"Must be back where we found you," Vin muttered, sitting back down before the fire and putting his pipe back into his mouth. "Your horse is outside, though."
"Ah! Excellent. Well, best of luck, gentlemen," he said cheerfully, grasping the walking stick and tapping it to his forehead in a salute. "Give my best to the Pimpernel. I'm sure he'll understand."
He was halfway to the door when Chris's voice stopped him in his tracks.
"You know," Chris said idly, sitting down next to Vin, "if you changed your mind, you might have yourself enough of a fortune to buy a hundred hats when it's all over."
Ezra turned back, his brow wrinkled in confusion. "A fortune?" he repeated in a skeptical voice.
"Sure," Chris nodded, leaning back in his chair. "Just think of all those rich aristocrats in Paris, just waiting to bestow their gratitude on whoever's brave enough to save their lives."
Ezra laughed. "You're mad," he said, shaking his head. "Those people in the prisons have nothing. If you'll recall, I was one of them, once."
"Some of them have lost it all," said Chris with a shrug. "But you know how some of those rich people are. They don't keep all their gold in one place. I'll wager some of them have money hidden away in Germany, or Italy, or hell, even here in England. It's not the sort of thing they'd share with anyone, except maybe someone they were *very* grateful to."
Ezra stood still for a moment, his eyes narrowing as he studied Chris. "You know," he muttered in a very low voice, "I have heard, on one or two occasions, the grateful rescued offering a cash gift to the Pimpernel for his services. But he never accepted it."
"Of course not," Chris exclaimed, putting one elbow up on the table. "He's not that kind of man. But," he smiled, "you are. One or two such rescues and you could give up the gaming tables forever."
Vin nodded, a smile lighting his blue eyes. "Some of those aristocrats got an *awful* lot of money," he observed.
Silence fell in the small cabin as Ezra stared at him, mentally wavering. As he considered the dangerous yet tempting offer, Nathan approached him, carrying something in a small burlap bag.
"Here," the healer said, handing the befuddled gambler the bag.
"What's this?" Ezra opened the top and peeped inside.
"Just somethin' for your wound, if it starts hurtin'," Nathan replied, looking Ezra full in the face. "Put it on an' wrap it up, and it should be fine."
"Oh," Ezra murmured uneasily. He looked up at the former slave, swallowed, and managed to choke out a somewhat awkward, "Thank you."
Nathan nodded and stepped back, his eyes never leaving the Southerner.
After a moment's thought, Ezra clutched the bag and looked up. "Well, now, I really must be going. Sir Christopher, I promise to...consider what you have said. If you need to reach me, I have a room at the Red Horse Inn. Good day, gentlemen."
With that, Ezra turned and hastened out the door. A few minutes later, the hoofbeats of his horse sounded his departure through the woods.
Nathan snorted. "We probably won't be seein' *him* again," he commented with a shake of his head.
"You never know, Nate," Josiah said as he sat back down at the table. "I think he was feeling pretty tempted. The money was a good idea, Chris."
Chris shrugged. "If that's what it takes to get him to help us, that's fine with me. He doesn't have to have pure motives."
"As long as he doesn't sell us out to the French," Vin sighed, sitting up.
"He would've done that before, if that was his way," was Chris's reply. "The Pimpernel wouldn't have suggested Standish if he didn't trust him, and I'll go by his judgment."
"So what happens now?" Nathan inquired.
Chris sat back, puffing slowly on his pipe.
"I've got one more man I want to talk to," he said thoughtfully. "And I'm pretty sure I know what he's going to say."
"Go back to France? Chris, are you MAD?"
Buck's incredulous voice echoed through the deserted stable, empty except for himself, Chris, and a few horses who were content to ignore them and much hay instead. It was almost dusk; most of the household was inside or away, leaving the two friends to converse in privacy. Nevertheless, they stood in the furthest corner of the building, and spoke in hushed tones.
"Probably," was Chris's dry response as he leaned on a post and gazed at his friend. "But it's a madness I'm not going to fight, if it'll help things."
"That's very noble - sounding," Buck agreed in a somewhat sarcastic tone as he continued his activity of sweeping out the corner stall, "but maybe you've forgotten that the last time we were there, we came damn close to having our heads chopped off!"
Chris sighed, a tense, almost angry glow in his eyes. "I'll never forget that, Buck, and that memory is part of why I'm doing this. If we just sit on our asses over here, those people condemned to die haven't got a chance."
The other man's lip pressed together in frustration as he sighed. "I'm not saying it's not a horrible situation, Chris," he said in a tight voice as he raked the floor with the broom. "But it was hard enough for Vin and I to get you out of there the last time. Things are worse there now, and getting bloodier every day. Do you really think we'd stand a chance of getting in and out of that charnel house alive?"
"Possibly not, but it's a risk I'd be willing to take," Chris admitted. He drew a deep breath and ran one hand over his hair, looking seriously at Buck. "I know it sounds like insanity, Buck, but I'm determined to see this through, with or without you. But we'll stand a better chance with you."
Buck winced a little and looked at Chris sideways, hesitation in his deep blue eyes.
"Are you doing this in the name of righteousness," he asked Chris quietly, "or revenge?"
Chris's expression was grim, and it was a few moments before he found an answer. "I'm not quite sure myself, yet," he confessed, looking away across the bright green lawns of the Wilmington estate. "But I don't suppose that will matter much to the people who need our help."
"I suppose not," Buck agreed, dropping his eyes. After thinking in silence for some time, he went back to sweeping. "Well...I don't suppose Father or my brothers would care much if I went off now and then."
Chris looked back at Buck, hopeful.
"And," Buck went on, his voice becoming bit stronger, "last time we were in Paris, I barely had any time to meet any of those pretty mademoiselles. At least, the ones that weren't trying to kill us."
Chris grinned slightly. "I don't think they'd forgive us if we came over without you."
Buck laughed a little, then paused as a thought struck him. "Chris, what about JD?"
"What about him?" Chris replied.
"I've got to tell him about this," Buck said, turning to face his friend. "I can't go off and perhaps get killed without him knowing what's going on."
"Who's getting killed?"
Both men turned to see JD standing by the stable's trough, holding a dripping bucket full of cold water and eyeing them both with a puzzled look on his boyish face.
"Damn," Chris muttered below his breath, looking away. He hadn't wanted this.
Buck gave him a quick glance. "Sorry, Chris. He's got to know," he whispered, and stepped forward towards the young man. Chris followed warily, fairly certain of what was about to happen.
"I thought you were over helping Sir Hodsford's stableman birth their new colt," Buck said aloud as he approached the younger man.
JD shrugged and poured the water into the trough. "By the time I got there, she'd already had the colt. They didn't need me, so I came back." He glanced between Buck and Chris and shrugged a little. "Sorry, I couldn't help hearin' you say you're going off somewhere. Up to Ireland again?"
Buck cleared his throat. "A little farther than that, JD," he said, glancing around to make sure noone was near. "Now, I've got some things to tell you, but you have to swear you won't tell anyone else a word of it."
The stableboy's face contorted in puzzlement for a moment as he set down the bucket, wiping his hands on his pants as he stepped closer. "It sounds serious, Buck. Are you in trouble or something?"
"Probably, son," Buck said with a nod. "JD, Chris met the Scarlet Pimpernel the other night."
The young man's hazel eyes flew open. "Bloody hell!" he exclaimed in a loud, awestruck whisper as he stared at Chris.
"Shh!" Buck hissed, looking towards the house.
JD nodded contritely and turned back to Chris, his voice dropping to a sharp whisper. "What was he like? Who is he - do we know him?"
"I can't tell you that, JD," Chris said quietly. "The less you know, the better and safer it is."
The young man grunted with frustration and looked at Buck. "Damn, Buck, why tell me this if I can't hear any of the details?"
Buck took a deep, preparatory breath, his expression betraying the fact that he knew this would not be easy. "Because, son, the fact is, Chris and I are joining up with the Pimpernel, and I wanted you to know about it in case we go out one day and don't come back."
JD blinked, his jaw dropping. After a few minutes, he stepped back, looking at the two men in disbelief.
"You're serious," he prodded.
"Deadly serious, JD," Chris replied. "The situation in France is worsening every day; even the Pimpernel and his men can't handle all of it any more. He's asked for our help."
JD's eyes studied Chris for a moment, weighing his older friend's words, his face slack with surprise.
A few moments passed, then JD began to shake his head. "You've got to let me come with you," he insisted.
Both Chris and Buck had fully been expecting this.
"No, JD," Buck said firmly.
JD took a few more steps closer to them, his eyes pleading as he turned to each man. "Please, Buck!" he urged. "You'll need all the help you can get, the way France is now. You know I can handle a sword, and my French is better than yours!"
"JD, you've never even been to France," Buck explained patiently.
"Exactly! Don't you see?" JD shot back enthusiastically. "They don't me there, the way they know you. I can go into places you can't, they'd never suspect me. Please, you know I'll go mad knowing you're over there!"
"JD," Chris's voice was very quiet, its somber tone catching the young man's attention, and as he spoke he regarded JD with intense green eyes, "this won't be like some exciting newspaper account of the Pimpernel's latest adventure. There are things happening in France today that those writers don't tell you about. The last thing Buck and I want is to get you involved in that hell."
Silence fell in the stable, and JD looked away, sighing a little as he pursed his lips in thought. Finally he looked back, more calm, the brilliant energy of enthusiasm replaced by quiet determination.
"I know it'll be dangerous," JD said softly, "and I know it won't be anything like the stories they've been telling. But I think...I *know* I'm strong enough to face it. I want to help, to feel I'm doing something important. Something Mama would be proud of."
"I'm not so sure she'd approve of you going off to France, JD," Buck noted. "And what if you got killed? Damn, I'd never forgive myself."
JD frowned at him. "How do you think I'd feel, Buck, if you got in trouble over there and I couldn't help?" He sighed. "Most of the noblemen around here treat me like dirt, except for the two of you. I can't repay you by letting you go off into danger without me."
Buck was plainly wavering. He glanced over at Chris, who had dropped his eyes as he mulled over the question. At length Chris lifted them, looking straight into JD's face.
"We won't be able to protect you, JD," he said in a soft but sharp voice. "You've got to understand what this decision means. If you're caught by the French, you'll likely face the guillotine, and they'll probably torture you first to find out what you know. They'll do anything to find the Pimpernel, but you'd have to be strong and not say anything, no matter what they did to you."
Chris's voice fell to a cold, serious whisper. "You're right, I need someone with your skills," he went on, barely moving, "but I've got to know that I can trust you in this. I want you to think about it for a while, and remember there's no shame in deciding you'd rather stay here. At least then, you'd be able to have a family and grow old, a chance we may not have. But if you come with us, there won't be any turning back. All right?"
The distant sound of several approaching horses caught their ears. JD jumped a little, startled out of his reverie, and he looked over his shoulder towards the east lawn.
"Sir Wilmington's coming back from his afternoon hunt," the young man explained, turning back to the two older men. "They'll want their horses tended to. I'll...think about what you said, Chris."
With that, JD hurried off, his expression still deeply pensive.
"I think you frightened him, Chris," Buck noted s they watched JD run across the lawn.
"Good," was the satisfied reply. "Better he be frightened now, where he's still safe." He paused, then glanced at his old friend with a slight smile. "Did I frighten *you*?"
Buck laughed. "Damn, Chris, I've been frightened all along! But that never kept me out of a good fight."
The other man nodded with a grin. In the distance, a small group of horsemen appeared, heading for the stable.
"I'd better go," Chris announced. "See you tomorrow night at the reception?"
"Still planning on it," Buck said, smiling. "It's been too long since the pretty ladies of the county were treated to the Wilmington charm!"
Chris shook his head, amused. "Now *I'm* frightened," he muttered, and with a farewell nod left the stable. As he mounted Valor and prepared to ride off, he glanced back at JD, who was carefully walking Sir Wilmington's horse back to the stable. Chris sat still for a moment, his face reflecting an attitude of anxious thought. Then, hoping the young man would make the right decision, Chris turned his horse and headed for home.
Chris hated parties.
As he and Buck rode in one of the Wilmington's carriages towards the palace of the Prince of Wales, he fidgeted and wished the evening was over already. Even before tragic events overtook his life, he had never been one for mingling and socializing, preferring small, private soirees to the huge, lavish events such as the one he was now facing. The dark - colored silken finery felt unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and he was fighting off the urge to regret accepting the invitation. But he had to talk to Percy.
"Calm down, Chris, this isn't an execution," Buck admonished him. Unlike Chris, his friend had no qualms about attending the reception, and was resplendent in his finest suit of clothes, a striking sky - blue silken coat with matching breeches and gold striped vest. A small glittering aquamarine flashed at his throat, nestled in the folds of his cravat.
Chris sighed, pressing his lips together. "That's what I keep telling myself, but so far I'm not convinced," he murmured, brushing at his sleeve.
"Well, don't worry," the other man said cheerily, his fingers checking his neckwear to make sure it was properly tied. "After tonight, when everyone gets a chance to see you're still around, they'll leave you alone again. Unless they want something from you, of course."
Chris nodded with resignation, then glanced at their surroundings. "You'll have to thank your father for letting us borrow one of his carriages. I still haven't gotten my stable back up and running yet, except for Valor."
His friend shrugged. "He had no problem with it, as long as I didn't take one of the better ones. I think he was just a little put out that *he* wasn't invited."
Chris smiled a little. "I'm sure his distress bothered you a great deal."
"I cried the whole time I was getting dressed," Buck said with a chuckle, as the carriage rounded the drive and approached the palace.
The large building was aglow from within with what seemed like a million candles; in the golden glow, Chris could see a host of fine carriages lining the drive in front of the sweeping stone staircase, and the flash and glitter of the rich occupants as they departed their conveyances and floated up the long stairs to the brilliantly illuminated front door. Through the tall glass windows, he could see the colorful throng of guests swirling across the ballroom floor, their silks and jewels sparkling and shining in the candlelight. The soft strains of music drifted through the air, mingled with the lilt of talking and laughter.
He sighed as the carriage stopped at the base of the staircase. This was going to be worse than he thought.
"Chin up, Chris," Buck whispered as he patted Chris's shoulder while they alighted from the carriage, "it can't be any worse than the Conciergerie."
"I'm not so sure," was the muttered reply, as the vehicle clattered away. They walked up the steps and past the small groups of attendees chatting in shining groups on the stone porch, Buck's brightly colored blue and gold finery sharply contrasting with Chris's more somber ensemble of black and plum.
Inside, Chris blinked against the brightness of the thousands of candles glowing in the arms of the enormous crystal chandeliers hanging from the elaborately cast and painted ceiling. Through the tall gilt doors past the reception area, he could see the dancers whirling in the ballroom, amidst the swishing of silk and soft clicks of the shoes on the gleaming marble floor. The foyer was crowded with groups of people, all dressed in the height of fashion, the men in their embroidered velvet court dress, the women in their high - waisted, full - skirted dresses of brightly colored silks and satins, jewels gleaming at their throats.
As they passed through the entryway, they were met by a young man in a powdered wig, dressed in a red velvet uniform and holding a long black wooden staff topped with a golden knob. Behind him was another man, similarly dressed, carrying a list.
"Name, sir?" he inquired in a haughty voice.
Chris gave his answer, and the young man turned to the man behind him as the second attendant scanned his list. After receiving a curt nod, the steward turned back to Buck and Chris and passed the nod along.
"You may proceed, gentlemen," he said, his tone losing none of its superior air. After this benediction, the man stepped to the doorway, struck the ground once with the long wooden staff, and bellowed, "SIR CHRISTOPHER LARABEE AND THE HONORABLE WILLIAM WILMINGTON!"
Chris winced, gritting his teeth. "Damn, I hate that," he sighed as they carefully stepped down the short stairway into the foyer.
Buck shrugged, looking around. "At least it lets the ladies know I'm here," he said, scanning the room with a growing smile. ""Looks like I shouldn't have any trouble staying on the dance floor tonight..."
A sound of rustles and footsteps filled the air, and Chris looked up to see several people, all friends of his, walking towards them with expressions of recognition. He braced himself; he knew this would happen when he attended his first social gathering since the tragedy, but preparing for it wouldn't make this any easier.
Many of the well - dressed men and women greeted Buck, but indulged most of their attention on Chris.
"Good to see you again, Sir Christopher," the men said, shaking his hand, "Wondered when you'd join us again. Terribly sorry about your family, dreadful business."
"We were very sad to hear the news," the women exclaimed as their eyes welled up. "How brave you are to bear it so manfully!"
These sentiments were expressed over and over, with variations of words and the degree of sincerity, until Chris was ready to bolt for the door. By the time the last well - wisher walked away, he was almost shaking.
"Are you all right?" Buck inquired as Chris wiped his face with his pocket handkerchief.
Chris nodded. "Fine, Buck, just..." He sighed, folded up the handkerchief and put it back into the pocket of his coat, his green eyes sweeping the crowd. "I know they mean well, but...they just don't know, that's all." He shook his head, his expression one of thinly veiled outrage as he surveyed the glittering crowd. "How they can dance and drink like this when people are being slaughtered by the hundreds every day, I have no idea."
"Well, that's going to change soon. We'll see to that," Buck promised him. "In the meantime, if you don't mind, I'm going to see if Lady Audrey over there needs a dancing partner."
"Go ahead," Chris replied with a casual wave of his head. "I'll be fine as long as no one else tries to smother me with good wishes."
"Sir Christopher! Odd's fish, but I'm so glad you decided to come!"
Chris jumped a little at the boisterous voice and looked up. Sir Percy Blakeney had entered the room, and as usual, every other activity in the area ceased so that the occupants could gaze in awestruck admiration.
He stood in the doorway leading to the ballroom, posed perfectly at the top of the short stairway, his shining crown of golden hair and brilliant smile outshining all others in the room. His graceful six - foot - odd frame was clad in a stunning court ensemble of dark blue velvet, the edges along the front of the coat, the collar, and the large cuffs trimmed with large embroidered flowers of pink, cream and purple, mingled with sparkling silver thread. Beneath the coat shimmered a cream satin waistcoat stitched with light green and gold flowers. At his neck frothed a bountiful white cravat, decorated with a gold and sapphire brooch; his hands were all but hidden beneath the frilly ruffles at the ends of his sleeves. In one hand hung a long, lace - trimmed handkerchief as snowy white as his silk stockings, and his feet were shod in gleaming black shoes with gold silk bows. He was easily the most beautifully dressed man in the room, and appeared perfectly comfortable with this fact.
Chris heard Buck give an amazed snort.
"Good evening, Percy," Chris replied amiably as Percy approached them. "You're looking, er, well."
"Blasted kind of you to say so, my friend," was the flattered reply as they met. "And Mr. Wilmington as well! How the devil are you, sir? Delighted to see you finally managed to persuade our friend to end his hibernation."
This was all spoken in a somewhat fey, prattling manner that bordered just to one side of simpering. Buck nodded pleasantly at the salutation, but seemed somewhat discomforted by the baronet's excessively pretty attire.
"I'm doing quite fine, Percy," he muttered, self - consciously adjusting his coat as he stared at Percy's finery. "So are you, it seems."
Percy flashed a brilliant grin. "Sink me! I shan't deny it," he declared, waving the handkerchief for emphasis. "My tailor delivered this just this morning, and I'm simply mad for it! Cost a demmed fortune, but a fellow must be properly attired, even if it do take his last shilling." He brushed one hand over the intricate embroidery which all but covered the front of the coat. "La! But I swear, I don't ever want to take it off. Perhaps I shall have a matching nightcap made, and wear it every night to bed!"
Here Percy erupted into his inane laugh, enormously amused at himself. Chris smiled politely, Buck managed a sideways grin.
"Yes, that's one smashing suit of clothes," Buck muttered as Percy's giggling finally began to subside.
"I'm so thrilled you approve," was Percy's gushing reply. "Now, sir, I do hope you don't mind if I borrow Christopher for a few moments. I am in the midst of the most ferocious debate, and I must insist on his participation to back me up. Would you be so good as to excuse us?"
Chris had never seen relief flood Buck's eyes as it did at Percy's inquiry. "Oh - certainly, Percy, I've got to go find Lady Audrey anyway. Have a good time."
He smiled, cast a significant glance at Chris as if to say, 'Good luck, you're going to need it', and walked away into the glittering crowd. Chris watched him go, barely able to suppress a smile as he imagined how surprised Buck was going to be when he discovered the secret Percy was concealing beneath the silver thread and lace ruffles.
"Now, my friend," Percy said, gently taking Chris's arm and guiding him up the three stairs into the ballroom, "we mustn't waste a moment. At this moment we are involved in a most dire debate, and your opinion is highly looked for."
Chris glanced at him; this sounded serious, but Percy would never be so foolhardy as to discuss anything secret in the middle of a crowded reception. Suspecting that this might be part of the ploy, he simply nodded and said, "I'll help in any way I can, Percy."
"Good show!" the other man responded, and they moved into the ballroom.
The Prince's ballroom was enormous, a breathtaking array of shining marble walls lined with round polished pillars. Overhead the massive crystal chandeliers winked and sparkled as they shed their light on the bejeweled dancers below, the gracefully matched pairs waltzing along to the lilting music.
Chris followed Percy to one corner, where a small knot of men stood waiting. Chris recognized most of them, and was not surprised to see that they were only slightly less elaborately attired than Percy. Each man was arrayed in an extravagance of lace, ruffles, shimmering silks, and a wealth of flounced cravats and expensive jewelry. Every face wore an expression of lazy indifference, as if it was an immense effort simply to work up the energy to enjoy themselves.
"Gentlemen," Percy greeted them with a bright smile, "I've returned, and as you can see I've brought a most wonderful surprise. I trust you are all acquainted with Sir Christopher Larabee?"
Muttered affirmations, greeting and offers of condolences resulted, and Chris accepted them all graciously, secretly amazed that the group was able to muster the incentive to speak at all.
"I hear you've been having a discussion," Chris said, putting his hands behind his back and trying to relax, fully aware of how incongruous his plain clothing was among their peacock - like finery.
"Oh! It's perfectly dreadful," one of the guests, a tall man with a thin face and red hair, exclaimed passionately, clutching his handkerchief in despair. "A most horrible waste!"
"Come, Elton, don't mince words," a shorter, dark - haired man sniffed in a deep voice, his sharply featured face florid with outrage. "It's final proof that the French have gone mad."
"Farleigh's right," a young member of the group announced earnestly, his blue eyes large and alarmed. "We must write a letter! A strongly - worded letter, and make them stop!"
The other men burst into fevered conversation, and Chris looked around, confused. "Is this about the Revolution?" he asked.
"Oh, bother the bloody Revolution, Christopher!" Percy exclaimed, his voice trembling slightly with fury. "Those damn French are ruining thousands of yards of perfectly good silk to make hot - air balloons!"
This explanation caused an outburst of enraged oaths and expressions of disbelief.
"Lud, we've got to stop them before they destroy all that beautiful Parisian fabric!" proclaimed a stocky gray - haired older gentleman, his round face wearing a look of profound agitation.
"Where will it come from, if it don't came from France?" another of the group, a young man with curly black hair, queried anxiously.
"Now boys, boys," Percy soothed, holding his hands out in a calming gesture. "We mustn't make ourselves faint with excitement. Cool heads must prevail, and here is one of the coolest in England." He turned to Chris. "What are your thoughts, my friend? Is this not most atrocious?"
Chris thought it was one of the silliest things he'd ever heard anyone argue about, but cleared his throat and simply said, "That's one of the words that comes to mind, yes."
"What if they use up all the silk?" fretted the blue - eyed young man. "What if they start using the satin, and the taffeta, and the velvet - "
"I'm not so sure a velvet balloon would float," muttered Farleigh with a frown.
"Well! Thank God for that, sir," Percy exclaimed, patting Farleigh on the shoulder. "The velvet shall not be imperiled, at least. But we cannot stand by and allow those rascals to misuse that marvelous silk. I promise to take this matter up with His Highness this very evening!"
"Causing trouble again, Percy? Most shameful of you."
Chris turned at the sound of the drawling male voice, recognizing it at once. The dancing had stopped, and walking towards them was a tall, black - haired gentleman with a long, handsome face and lazy brown eyes. The man smiled at Chris and nodded, a gesture Chris instantly returned; Lord Tony Dewhurst had changed quite a bit since the time he, Chris and Percy had made mischief at school together, but had never lost any of his grace, good looks, or cultured civility. He was, however, dressed just as ostentatiously as the other men in the small group, and wore the same expression of insipid boredom.
Tony was smoothly leading a woman from the dance floor, and as Chris looked at her, he knew almost immediately who she had to be. She was nearly as tall as Tony, and moved with a regal bearing which flowed through every line of her slender figure. The brightness of her glistening green silk ballgown, embroidered with silver thread, and the flash of the emeralds which blinked from her throat and nestled among the feathers set in her thick red - brown curls, utterly failed to outshine the quiet fire of fierce intelligence blazing in her green eyes. She saw Chris, and a small, sympathetic smile touched her full lips, but before she could speak, Percy's voice cut through the air.
"Trouble? Nonsense, Dewhurst, merely acting to halt a grievous wrong!" Percy said emphatically.
The woman laughed; it was a sweet, musical sound of pure amusement. "It appears that something has managed to put Sir Percy in a passion," she teased, her light voice permeated with a lilting French accent. "Perhaps the price of lace has risen again?"
"Alas, my Marguerite knows me too well!" Percy replied fondly with a smile, taking the woman's hand. "But that would merely be an annoyance, this is more of an outrage. However, in your sweet presence, I shall choke my anger off for now." He turned to Chris. "Sir Christopher Larabee, pray allow me to present my wife, Lady Blakeney."
Chris bowed gracefully. When he brought his head back up, he saw Lady Blakeney eying him with gentle compassion.
"Such a great pleasure, monsieur, after all that my husband has told me of you," Marguerite said with a smile. "I must thank you for being such a good friend to him all these years."
Chris glanced over at Percy. "You're very kind, milady, but I do hope he didn't tell you *everything* about our school days together."
Percy barked out a laugh. "Begad, my friend, I'm not that daft! The lady would never speak to me if she knew the mischief we indulged in then."
Marguerite gave him an indulgent smile and turned to Chris. "You see, Sir Christopher, how my husband keeps secrets from me! Perhaps later you will be good enough to tell me of those school days. I believe there was an incident involving a bowl of noodles and a horse?"
Percy gasped and whirled on Dewhurst, shocked. "Tony, you *told* her!"
Dewhurst appeared unintimidated. "Lud, Percy, *everybody's* heard about that one..."
Marguerite gave them an amused look before returning her gaze to Chris. Her expression softened as she took a step closer and gently touched his hand. "But such tales can wait. I have also heard of your sorrow, and I hope you will permit me to express my sympathy for your loss. I am a child of France as was your wife, and deeply regret that the madness of my countrymen turned so unforgivably on one of their own. I pray God will rest the souls of your wife and son, and give your heart peace."
Her voice had dropped to little more than a whisper, every word uttered with complete sincerity. Chris stood awkwardly for a moment, unsure how to respond; this was completely different than the quick, almost offhand condolences he'd been receiving all evening. He'd expected Marguerite, a former actress, to be superficial and posturing, but as he looked into her eyes, he recognized the light of understanding, as if she knew full well the horrors that he had faced and despised their cause as much as he did.
Finally Chris cleared his throat and nodded, recovering enough to quietly say, "Thank you, Lady Blakeney. You have my appreciation, and Sarah's and Adam's too, I'm sure."
Marguerite nodded in acknowledgement. As she stepped back to join her husband, a blare of trumpets came from the outer porch, causing a flurry of expectant muttering among the guests.
Percy perked up instantly. "Zounds, it appears His Highness has arrived," he said, fluffing up his cravat and looking at the other men. "To your ladies, my friends! The shocking matter of the silk shall be dealt with before the night is through!"
The others scurried off into the crowd as Percy hurriedly smoothed his lace cuffs and adjusted his jacket. He threw Chris a quick glance. "You may stand with Lady Blakeney and I, Chris, all right? I daresay it's high time you met the Prince. I do hope he remembered what I told him to wear, the royal wardrobe is in a ghastly state, simply ghastly! If he has chosen the wrong cravat, I shall perish of embarrassment."
Chris took his place, checking his clothes quickly but feeling less than anxious about the matter. There was a great deal of excitement in the foyer, and after a few minutes a royal attendant ran into the ballroom, resplendent in a scarlet velvet coat, white silk breeches and stockings, and a large royal blue satin sash draped over one shoulder. The man stopped at the doorway, struck the long black gold - topped staff in his hand once on the marble floor, and yelled, "HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, THE PRINCE OF WALES!"
There were many trumpet blasts and flourishes, and a loud rustle swept through the air as every person in the room executed a deep bow of respect. After a few moments the royal party entered the ballroom. At its center was a round middle - aged man with rouged cheeks and a curly dark brown wig, dressed in a highly ornate green and gold velvet outfit, shining jeweled medals dangling from the gold sash hung across his ample middle. His face had a rather florid air of dissipation about it, but the sagging muscles lit up instantly at the sight of Percy, and as the crowd rose to its feet the Prince made straight for Blakeney.
"Percy!" the Prince exclaimed in a rough but delighted voice. "You're looking most splendid this evening."
Percy grinned and bowed again. "Your Highness outshines us all, I'm sure," was the smooth reply. "Were my suggestions satisfactory to the royal taste?"
Prince George smiled proudly, adjusting the lapels of his gold - threaded coat. "Most satisfactory, old fellow, but I'm afraid I must sack one of my valets. The man cannot tie a cravat properly to save his life."
Percy sighed into his huge lacy handkerchief. "La, how tiresome! The quality of service really has gone down lately. But don't sack the poor rascal - allow me to send over my valet to tutor the man in his duties. He is quite the artist in such matters, and will have your fellow suitably knotting the royal cravats in no time at all!"
This appeared to greatly please the Prince, whose ruddy face broke into a huge grin. "Splendid!" he proclaimed.
"Now, Highness," Percy continued, laying a hand on Chris's shoulder, "allow me to present a most excellent friend of mine, Sir Christopher Larabee."
Chris bowed, wondering what he was going to say to the Prince of Wales.
But the Prince merely nodded quickly, muttered the word "Delighted," and turned his attention fully back to Percy. Chris blinked, but was not terribly crushed, thankful only that he did not have to talk to the Prince while the entire ballroom listened on.
"Listen here, my lad," the Prince was saying to Percy, taking a step closer, "you'll not believe who I heard from the other week."
"You Highness must forgive me, but I'm far too dull tonight to venture a guess," Percy replied in a lazy voice.
"Well," the Prince said in a vaguely amused tone, "that little man from France, the agent from the French Republic, is writing me again - it's the third time now - trying to tell me that you're the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
Chris tensed, trying not to show his surprise. Someone knew Percy's secret! Time seemed to stop for an instant as he felt his skin grow cold - what would happen now? Would they arrest Percy? What would the baronet do now that his ruse had been discovered?
The timeless instant ended, and Chris looked to Percy as covertly as possible, to see what would happen next.
To Chris's amazement, Percy threw back his head and exploded into his inane laugh. The entire room followed suit, the marble walls ringing with the sound.
Chris smiled, although he was anything but amused, and quickly studied the faces of the room. To his relief, not a single person seemed to be taking the statement seriously.
"Sink me, but that fellow is persistent!" Percy chortled, delicately dabbing at his moist eyes with the lacy handkerchief. "Insane, but persistent, 'pon my soul! Hem!"
"Most persistent, and it's driving me mad, frankly," the Prince confessed. "He's insisting you revealed yourself to him as the Pimpernel, and that you trussed him up in an abandoned theater and left him wearing the Pimpernel's ring to make it look as though *he* were the man! Utter nonsense, of course, and I told him so."
Percy shook his head and coughed, his smile disappearing. "It's more than nonsense, sir!" he proclaimed, his voice now tinged with outrage. "It's slander, by God, to mingle my good name with that of that impudent scoundrel. I, go traipsing off to France in the rain and mud? I, crawling about those horrid grimy prisons looking for aristocrats to rescue? Why, I'd spoil my clothes!"
The Prince shrugged. "I believe I've made my position quite clear to him this time, but he won't be persuaded, I fear. As absurd as it is, he has sworn to the death that you're the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Percy gasped a little and went very pale. With a slight moan he fell against Chris, pressing the handkerchief to his face. Startled, Chris gave a grunt and did his best to support his fainting friend, although, as Percy was over six feet tall, the task proved rather awkward.
"Oo!" the baronet groaned, staring at the Prince. "I simply cannot bear such insults to my honor! To accuse me of such disreputable behavior - " He swallowed and looked at Chris. "It's quite upset my constitution, I fear. Christopher, do be a good fellow and help me find someplace where I may soothe my nerves. I won't risk ruining this coat of mine by falling to the floor."
"Certainly," Chris said in a strained voice.
Percy glanced at the Prince. "Pray do pardon me, Highness. If I may join you later?"
"By all means," was the regal reply. "And calm yourself, Percy, you've nothing to fear. Only a fool would believe that man's rantings."
"Your Highness's kind words are much appreciated," Percy said in a weak voice. "Oh - and do mind that third button on your waistcoat there, it's looking a bit tarnished."
With that he staggered off with Chris's guidance, as the ballroom crowd chuckled fondly and shook their heads at the Frenchman's accusations.
The Prince watched them go, then turned back to his entourage. "Right then, where can a chap find a good game of cards?"
The small room close to the foyer was dark and deserted when Chris and Percy stumbled inside, Chris almost falling over from the weight of his limp friend. Despite its modest size, the chamber was richly furnished, with gilt tables, a satin divan, and a wall full of leather - bound books surrounding them. Pale moonlight slanted in through the tall, velvet - curtained windows.
As soon as they were inside and had closed the door, Chris helped the stricken baronet to the divan, easing him down onto the slick fabric.
"There you go," he gasped, thankful to have deposited his burden. "Is that better?"
"Were we followed?" Percy's low voice was muffled by the lacy handkerchief he was pressing to his face.
Chris straightened and shook his head. "No, I think everyone is with the Prince."
"Ah! Excellent," Percy announced in a firmer tone, dropping the handkerchief from his face and reviving almost at once. He looked up at Chris and broke into a wide smile. "What sport, eh?" he chuckled.
Chris could only stare down at him, thoroughly confused and a little angry. "Sport?" he repeated in a tight whisper. "Percy, that man in France knows who you are!"
"Who, Shovelin'?" Percy gave a small snort and waved his lacy handkerchief dismissively. "Not to fear, my friend, you saw what happened. The man's regarded as a crazed revolutionary fanatic."
Chris felt his teeth grinding together as his bewilderment increased. "Percy," he said with great patience, "forgive me for not feeling reassured by that, but who the hell is Shovelin, and what makes him think you're the Pimpernel? If I'm going to risk my life in this, I believe I'd better know."
Silence fell for a moment as Percy studied his friend, the mirth gradually fading from his blue eyes. At length he nodded.
"Yes, dear boy, so you should," he murmured softly. "Gad, but I should have told you before. I never would have thought he'd write His Highness again, but sink me, I should not have been surprised." He gestured to a nearby chair. "You'd best sit down."
Chris did so, settling himself on the gleaming wooden chair's striped upholstered seat and drawing close. Percy was sitting up now, bathed in the moonlight, a most serious expression on his face.
"First of all," Percy said in a hushed voice, "the man's name is not Shovelin'. I only call him that to see his blood boil, because demmit, the man is simply too much fun to infuriate! No sense of humor at all."
"So you have met him?" Chris urged.
"Zounds, yes," Percy replied, glancing out of the window. "Several times. Frightful man, no style at all. Insists on wearing nothing but black, which is all right, but he wears it without the slightest hint of panache. I've completely lost hope in him."
Chris jumped in quickly, almost beside himself with impatience. "So what's his real name?"
Percy pursed his lips for a moment, the somber light returning to his eyes as he faced his friend. "Well, in truth, Christopher, you may know him from your days in France. His name is Chauvelin."
"Chauvelin," Chris repeated, scowling in thought. An image leapt into his mind of a man, younger than himself but old in zealotry, with lengthy straight raven hair tied into a queue, a long, handsome face whose attractiveness was tempered with an underlying air of subtle cruelty, and sharp black eyes gleaming with blind fanaticism and cold ambition. He was one of Robespierre's most trusted agents, whose dedication to the Revolution and the justice of the guillotine was known and feared by all in Paris. An elegant man with a deep smooth voice, who moved with cat - like grace as he oversaw the arrest and executions of the condemned. Chris had heard of him often while in Paris, and had seen him several times, going about the bloody business of the Republic with ruthless efficiency.
"As you may know, he is quite the dangerous fellow," Percy went on, "and if we ever run into any trouble on our ventures, he will most likely be the source."
Chris glanced at Percy. "And...he knows you're the Pimpernel?"
Percy grinned a little and shrugged, reclining back on the divan. "Yes, but he can do little with the knowledge, besides make himself look like an ass to the English Court. One day I'll tell you how it all happened. I'd love to know how he convinced Robespierre he wasn't the Pimpernel, when we left him tied up with my old ring and some rather incriminating documents. Zooks! But that must have been a most amusing scene."
The dandified nobleman shook his head, sat up and stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket. "At any event, you must know that Chauvelin is a most determined rascal, and is very eager to do all he can to find me and my men." He looked over at Chris, his blue eyes serious. "In truth, Christopher, he is quite brutal, and not above using some rather ungentlemanly forms of interrogation. You must not underestimate him, and you must warn those who join you of his merciless nature. They must understand what they may face if they enlist in this endeavor."
Chris nodded. Having faced the horrors of the Revolution before, he knew it would be a difficult battle; however, the prospect of facing the terror seemed less daunting than the idea of allowing it to roll on unabated. "I'll be certain to tell them, Percy," he assured the baronet, his green eyes hard with resolve. "But if they feel the way I do, it won't prevent them from joining us."
"Excellent!" Percy said with a smile. "Do you feel you've found all the men you require?"
There was a moment of silence as Chris pondered the question. "Well, there's six of us, possibly seven. I suppose that's enough."
"The perfect number," was Percy's reassuring reply. "A small group that can slip in and out quickly, eh? And if they are at all like my men, they will be able to do the work of twenty. Are you familiar with the Fisherman's Rest?"
Chris frowned. "That tavern by the seacoast?"
"The very same," Percy smiled. "It's our rendezvous point in England; the landlord, Jellyband, is quite an excellent friend of mine, and knows all. Bring your men there five nights from now, and we shall set you all on your new adventure. I believe between our two bands, we shall drive poor old Shovelin' to distraction in no time!"
He chuckled a little, then threw a look at the closed door. "Well, shall we rejoin the party? I fear Margot will quite forget me if I don't appear for at least one dance, and I simply must address the silk problem to the Prince."
He rose from the divan, and the two men proceeded to the door.
As they walked, Chris laughed a bit and shook his head. "Hard to believe those men were so upset over that, I have to admit. Of all the things to worry about, with everything that's happening in the world."
Percy sniffed. "Well, dear boy, it *is* a horrid waste."
His friend couldn't quite bring himself to agree. "Yes, but to go on like that..." He smiled. "If those men were in the League, we'd never get anything done. They'd be afraid of ruining their suits."
Percy stopped suddenly several feet from the door and turned to Chris, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. "Zounds, dear boy, but I almost forgot to tell you..."
His comrade blinked, disbelieving. "You don't mean..." He paused, then pointed out the closed door. "*Those* men..."
Percy grinned slightly. "And Dewhurst, are the men of my League, among the bravest in England. Yes, sir, I most emphatically do mean precisely that."
Chris's eyes widened slightly, as he tried to picture that group of fey dandies enduring the horrors of France. "But, Percy, they..." He stopped, suddenly realizing. "It's an act, isn't it?"
"But of course, old boy," was the pleased response. "Begad, can you think of anyone *less* likely to be suspected of being in the League than a group of brainless ninnies concerned only with such trivial matters? They pull it off splendidly, I must say. At times, it's quite a lot of fun!" He turned and reached for the door handle.
Chris paled as a new and horrible thought suddenly occurring to him. "Percy?"
The other man looked back at him, his handsome face expectant. "Hm?"
Chris wasn't quite sure how to phrase his question. "Um - you don't expect my men and I to wear those fop clothes, do you?"
Percy smothered a laugh. "Lud love you, my friend! Not at all. Your men may deflect suspicion in whatever manner they see as suitable. However, if any of them desire to adopt our disguise, pray tell them that I will be more than happy to assist them. God knows London can always use more men of fashion!"
He grinned, pulled his handkerchief out once more, and opened the chamber's large gilt door. Bright candlelight flooded into the room as the two men stepped back into the party; another moment, and the door was closed, wrapping the room and the secrets shared within its walls once more in darkness.
The dancers were just completing their set as Chris and Percy rejoined the reception. As they approached the floor, they saw Dewhurst and Marguerite standing to one side, watching the couples swirl past them.
"Recovered, Percy?" Tony asked in a languid voice.
"Oh, yes," Percy sighed with a shake of his head, as the dance ended. "Although I may have to dispatch a strong missive to that scoundrel in Paris, demanding that he halt his libelous claims at once. Perhaps Lady Blakeney will assist me in forming the proper French phrases with which to berate the rascal?"
Marguerite smiled. "I believe, my husband, that you need only send him your latest perfume bill. Surely that will convince him how mistaken he is."
"Ha! So it would," Percy barked. "Sink me, but perhaps I shall insist that he pay the demmed thing as punishment for linking my name with that impulsive jackanapes. T'would serve him right for upsetting me so."
The musicians began playing a waltz, and Percy's blue eyes lit up as he turned to his wife.
"Lud, darling, they're playing that delightful new dance!" he exulted. "I do hope that the company of Dewhurst here hasn't dulled you too much to indulge the wishes of your husband?" He gracefully extended one arm.
The Frenchwoman laughed and elegantly placed one gloved hand on her husband's elbow. "On the contrary, his company has been most enjoyable," she replied. "And most enlightening as well!"
Sir Percy threw his best friend a look of mock warning as he led his wife onto the floor. "Tony, if you said anything to her about the hot custard incident, I promise I shall flay you alive!"
Tony's unimpressed response was a stifled yawn, followed by a wide smile which was immediately answered. Then Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney were swallowed up in the sparkling sea of dancers.
Chris stood quietly by, watching. He slipped a glance at Dewhurst, wondering if he knew about the new members soon to join the League. But he could discern nothing in the tall nobleman's relaxed posture and bored expression; it was hard to believe by looking at him that he was a member of the League at all.
Turning his eyes out to the ballroom floor, he found it easy to locate Percy and Marguerite among the crowd; not only did Percy tower over most of the guests, but the two of them moved with an exquisite grace unmatched by any of the other dancers.
They were truly a beautiful couple, but as Chris studied them more closely, he realized that their charm had nothing to do with the fancy velvets, satins and jewels they wore. There was an unusual completeness to them as they danced, each looking into the eyes of the other as if no other living being existed around them. There was no trace of the shallow fop on Percy's handsome visage now; as he looked into the face of his wife, his blue eyes blazed with solemn adoration, an expression so intimate and intense that Chris felt almost ashamed for observing it. Marguerite was returning her husband's gaze with equal ardor, her face reflecting a fervent love even the greatest actress in the world could not counterfeit.
Pain seared Chris's heart; had he looked that way at Sarah, the few times they'd danced? Suddenly he was lost in another sea of swirling dancers, his memory sweeping him back into her arms on another ballroom floor. He could hear the gentle music playing, feel the warmth of her in his arms as they whirled around the room, mindful of nothing but each other. He worshiped her; she worshiped him; and there was no time but that night, no world but their own, a world which would last forever.
Chris blinked, suddenly aware of the moisture stinging the corners of his eyes. Trembling, he drew a deep breath, thankful that no one was watching him as he shook himself from his reverie. Composing himself, he straightened, wondering at the strange vision which had passed so quickly. For an instant it had seemed so real; now it was gone, replaced by a more grim reality, in which Sarah was beyond his arms and the road before him was uncertain and dangerous.
He looked back out to the floor as Percy and Marguerite went past. A sudden pang went through Chris as he watched them; the deep emotion which flowed between them was not simply attraction, but a far more profound passion, one mingling immense love with an almost deeper fear of separation. What could have happened between them in the past, to engender such powerful feelings? It appeared to be more than the fact that Percy was involved in a highly risky venture; the light in their eyes revealed the sort of longing born only through intense suffering, the nature of which Chris could only guess at.
But Chris was not in the habit of speculating over the pasts of others, even those of his friends; his mind looked to the task ahead, which would lead down paths far from the glittering palace of the Prince. As Percy and Marguerite waltzed by, oblivious in each other's arms, Chris observed them in resolute silence, promising himself that he would do all in his power to aid the Pimpernel in his cause, and ensure that neither Percy nor Marguerite would ever have cause to stand to the side, as he did, with empty, aching arms.
Across the channel, another man was also contemplating Sir Percy Blakeney, but the thoughts were far from kind.
As the aristocrats of London danced the night away at the Prince's reception, the same stars which shone so gently on the Royal Palace also dropped their light on the faraway streets of Paris. But there was no gaiety on those cobblestone thoroughfares, dim and all but deserted beneath the autumn moon. Here and there groups of soldiers moved through the streets, along with gangs of rough - looking men, working women, and followers of the Revolution seeking any sign of treason among the population. Robespierre had just come in to power, and the Revolutionary Tribunal was working now to sweep away all signs of disloyalty to the new Republic. Despite the music and laughter lilting from the cafes, a palpable fear lurked through the streets of Paris, a fear augmented by the looming shadows of the ever more crowded prisons and the crimson horror of the Place de la Concorde and its towering occupant, the guillotine.
Nearby the Place de la Concorde stood a small but impressive building, two stories high, outside of whose doors proudly flew the banners of the Revolutionary Tribunal. On this damp and chilly autumn evening, most of its rooms stood deserted, its occupants having condemned a satisfactory number of traitors to the Republic and gone home to their families. One corner room, however, still held the flickering glow of candlelight, and if a passerby chanced to look up into the tall paned window, he would see a man, standing like a statue as he watched the world below with angry black eyes.
Many unfortunates in Paris had come beneath that piercing gaze; as one of Robespierre's most trusted agents, Citizen Chauvelin had become well - known for his ardent dedication to the cause of the Revolution. There were few who did not feel at least some concern to see Chauvelin approach them, his slender frame clad in black, the tricolor sash firmly knotted around his waist to show to all the extent of his commitment. Every inch of his appearance decried his precise nature; not one of his long smooth black hairs strayed from its queue, not a wrinkle appeared in his somber clothing. Only his dark and smoldering eyes betrayed any hint of the wild creature lurking just beneath the calm surface, a wildness which rarely surfaced in Chauvelin except in times of great trial.
Times such as this night.
Chauvelin had lost track of how long he had stood at the window, staring at the quiet world outside. His small office room was dark save for the single candle flickering on the desk. Its dancing amber light revealed a space mostly empty, save for a few chairs, two tables, and a bookcase piled with volumes. The desk was barren except for some writing instruments, a small pile of official documents, and a letter carrying the seal of the Prince of Wales, recently opened and now lying half - crumbled at the center of the desk.
The black - haired man had no reason to read the letter again; he already knew its contents by heart, with deep bitter understanding. In response to Chauvelin's third attempt at trying to convince the Regent that Sir Percival Blakeney was the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Prince had sent a long, somewhat sarcastic reply, containing many disparaging remarks concerning the Frenchman's intelligence and powers of discernment, several reasons why Blakeney could not possiby be the Pimpernel, and a stern warning to cease such ridiculous accusations at once.
As he gazed blindly out the window, Chauvelin could barely control the trembling which had seized his slender frame, his entire being consumed with one furious desire: How could he make them see?
He let his eyes wander across the empty plaza, pausing to study the silent form of the guillotine, its sharp, slanted blade waiting patiently for its morning's work. Almost alone among the people of Paris, he felt no fear as he looked upon the machine; its purpose was not murder, but cleansing, the perfect method of purifying the blood of France until only those true to the ideals of the Republic remained to bring forth a more powerful nation.
Chauvelin felt something stir in his heart as he contemplated that bright future. It was a vision nurtured as a poor youth from years of abuse at the hands of the hated aristocrats; how he'd dreamed of the day they would rise and strike back, and how thrilling it had been when that day finally arrived! Rarely had his blood raced as fast as the day they had stormed the Bastille, rarely had his heart felt more resolved than the day he accepted his position in the new regime. He would join the new order and sweep away all who did not honor the will of the people, and there was no measurement of his satisfaction as he watched those who had spat on him in the street meet their ends on the platform of the guillotine.
It had all been going so well. And then...
Chauvelin ground his teeth against the rage swelling through him. At first they had thought the Scarlet Pimpernel was merely an annoyance, rescuing a few prisoners here and there and leaving that confounding piece of parchment with the seal of the red flower behind. Always there was a diversion - a fire, a flood, loose animals set free to create confusion, and afterwards they would discover the condemned were gone. A minor inconvenience, it was thought; how hard could he be to catch, surrounded by the loyal citizens of the Republic?
Then the incidents grew more frequent, more of the traitors began escaping, and Chauvelin had been hard pressed to explain to Robepierre how such things could be happening. Information surfaced indicating that the Pimpernel was English, connected to the Prince of Wales, and like a furious hound on the scent of wounded prey, Chauvelin had lunged forward, certain he could find this enemy and rout him for good.
If only he'd known...
He shook his head angrily, looking into the shadows. It had been impossible; how *could* he have guessed that the Pimpernel was that insipid ass Blakeney? The man appeared a perfect fool, far too stupid to be suspicious. Every time they had met in England, Blakeney had acted like a dolt, making a joke of everything, mocking Chauvelin's name, taking nothing seriously except the latest fashion. No one would have thought him the most wanted man in France, least of all Chauvelin, until the night he and Blakeney met and did battle in the ruins of the Comedie Francais. In the end Chauvelin had been defeated, and Blakeney had left him trussed like a hog awaiting slaughter, with the Pimpernel's own ring on one finger, placed there by the Englishman himself.
He fumed and rubbed his wrists, as if to wear away the memory of that embarrassment. Robespierre had almost condemned him that day, for sheer stupidity if nothing else; it had taken some hard talking to convince him, and the Tribunal, of his innocence, but in the end he had succeeded. But when he revealed the Pimpernel's true identity, he was very nearly arrested again, this time for insanity. Not a one of the tribunal, or Robespierre, would believe that a brainless fop like Sir Percy Blakeney could be the Pimpernel. Chauvelin was obviously masking his own incompetence by creating lies, they proclaimed, and charged him to produce the real Pimpernel if he had any hope of regaining his former standing in the regime.
Chauvelin took a deep breath as he turned once more to the window, his black eyes gazing across the streets of Paris, towards England. Blakeney was somewhere out there, perhaps plotting another rescue, perhaps in Paris again, but he was there, daring to defy the Republic, laughing at Chauvelin with that horrible mocking laugh.
A hot, familiar hatred rose through Chauvelin's chest. It was bad enough that Blakeney had so completely fooled him; it was bad enough that Blakeney was everything Chauvelin despised: a rich, titled aristocrat leeching off the labors of the poor; it was bad enough that Blakeney had humiliated him in front of the Tribunal and had set hundreds of traitors free. But there was one thing more, an action far more galling than any of the Englishman's other sins.
Blakeney had taken *her*.
Chauvelin closed his eyes tightly against the burning rage which flooded through him at the mere thought. His mind carried him back to that tempestuous day when the Bastille fell to the people, the day he had first seen her, her dress torn and dirty, her green eyes blazing with the zeal of the Revolution, her long auburn curls streaming wildly in the hot winds of July. Never had there been a day so full of triumph and high emotion, a day which had swept them into each other's arms. He had never forgotten that blissful time, the warm feeling of her in his arms, those turbulent nights when their passion for the Republican ideals was overcome by another, more relentless urge. He had never forgotten.
How could *she* forget?
His black eyes flew open, staring once more into the night, amorous memories receding before a growing fury. How could she have left him, claiming she was frightened by his dedication to their cause, when he had only been acting for the good of their people? How could she have gone to that idiot Blakeney, an English aristocrat and enemy of all the two of them had held most precious? She had been dazzled by ambition, or wealth, but that was so unlike the girl who had shared those nights with him. She should have known he would be angry at her betrayal of her homeland; she never should have blamed him for what happened next.
Those had been blinding days, he recalled as he folded his arms and glowered at the dark world beyond the window, days when his frustration at her rejection had driven his every move. Should she have been surprised that he would use her allegiance with their enemy to his advantage, as she had left him with little else? Should it have come as a shock when he threatened to tell Blakeney of their affair unless she discovered where in Paris the Englishman was hiding those traitorous aristocrats, the St. Cyrs? She had left him with nothing except the memory of those blazing days; why should he not repay such coldness by using it to his best advantage?
As ruthless as it was, the blackmail had succeeded well; she had complied, stupidly asking that he spare the lives of the St. Cyrs and only deport them. She should not have been shocked when they were guillotined anyway, nor felt guilt at their deaths; her reaction only showed how corrupting the decadent English influence had been on her. He had only been able to gain her cooperation in finding the Pimpernel by imprisoning her young brother Armand under threat of death; it was fortunate indeed that the youth turned out to be a member of that infernal League, else Chauvelin could never have persuaded her to cooperate.
He had felt sure that she would do anything to save her baby brother, including betray the Pimpernel, so he was surprised when he found her masquerading as a whore among his soldiers, attempting to gain entry to the prisons so she could free Armand herself. His decision to imprison her as well, and use her and her foolish brother to lay a trap for the Pimpernel, had seemed brilliant at the time; surely he would finally catch that bastard, and convince her that she belonged with him, in France. Instead...
He groaned inwardly, clenching his fists until his fingernails bit into the palms of his hands. Instead, he had been forced to confront the fact that it was that fool idiot Blakeney who was the Scarlet Pimpernel, and suffer defeat and incrimination at the tall Englishman's hands. Worst of all, he had seen Blakeney clasp her tightly in his arms, declaring that he would not have left her if he had known about her past, and she had responded with loving forgiveness. Somehow, Blakeney had discovered the truth about her love affair with Chauvelin, but it did not seem to matter to him, or to her.
But it had never ceased mattering to Chauvelin, and as he stared bitterly into that cold October night, he vowed to the last drop of his heart's blood that some day, he would make it matter to Marguerite once again as well.
He drew a long, settling breath. How could she have faced him, and told him that they had never loved each other? How could a woman of such fire and spirit consent to be taken away and tamed by a life of luxury, while the people she once championed still yearned for justice? She had been bedazzled by the blinding but cold brilliance of wealth; he had failed before to win her back to her homeland, but he was far from ready to concede defeat.
No, he thought to himself as he looked back at the Prince's letter still lying crumpled on the desk, the battle had only just begun. The prince and Robespierre believed him a lunatic for accusing Blakeney; very well. His only recourse was to double his efforts and apprehend the cocky Englishman, so that he could unmask him before the world as the enemy of France he truly was. It would take vigilance, and planning, and limitless drive, but Chauvelin felt no hesitation in taking this course, if it meant an end to the Scarlet Pimpernel.
For the first time all evening, a smile curled Chauvelin's lips as he contemplated the end of his mission, an end he felt certain he could achieve. Marguerite in his arms at last, finally releasing the delusions which had stolen her away from him and France; his suspicions, derided before, now confirmed before all the world; and, best of all, Blakeney in chains before the Revolutionary Tribunal, bleeding, broken, and defeated at last, that infuriating smirk wiped off his face forever. Then - after a suitable amount of time enjoying the hospitality of the Bastille while being persuaded to divulge the identities of his men - Sir Percy Blakeney would at last face the guillotine, and once the rest of his band were found, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel would be nothing more than a memory.
It was a very pleasant vision for him to contemplate, and he savored it, conjuring every detail. He was confident it would occur - sooner or later they would apprehend another member of the accursed League, and that man would be shown no mercy. Armand's questioning had been brutal enough, but such methods would have to be doubled if the Pimpernel and his League were to be stopped. It was, he conceded, a distasteful task, but such things had to be done if the ideals of the Revolution were to survive.
Somewhere in the city, a clock struck midnight, and he stirred from his musings. It was late; he still had to make the rounds of the prisons and make sure all was prepared for the executions tomorrow. With Robespierre in power now, the guillotine was certain to be very busy, and there was no time for error.
He stepped smoothly to the table, ready to extinguish the candle. As he did so, he caught himself, his sharp black eyes falling once more on the Prince's letter. After thinking for a moment, he slowly reached down and picked it up, grasping it in his fist as the anger swept over him anew. Then he guided it over the candle flame, one corner touching the fire. Instantly it sprung alight, the fire quickly consuming the parchment. Hastily Chauvelin carried the blazing letter to the fireplace nearby and flung it in. With a cold smile he watched it burn, feeling immense satisfaction as the blaze devoured the name of Sir Percival Blakeney, scorching it to ashes in a matter of seconds.
Feeling much better, Chauvelin blew out the candle, gathered his things, and left the room, his mind now properly cleared to focus on the day ahead. In the fireplace, the fragile remains of the letter shivered and fell to cinders, the wispy flakes of charred paper smoldering briefly in the darkness before losing their spark and turning to lifeless dust.
Chris sat patiently on his horse, and waited.
All around him, the English countryside was wild and deserted in the bright autumn moonlight. He was at the edge of the woods, not far from the road which led to the seacoast and the tavern known as the Fisherman's Rest; behind him stood the large, silent ruins of a grist mill, fallen into barely recognizable heaps of moss - covered stone.
It had been five days since the reception, and four since he had sent out the five letters, all identical and vague enough to avoid incrimination:
'Ten o'clock, Friday evening, Barker's Mill, if you still wish to join us.'
Chris had delivered two of the missives to Buck and JD; Vin had taken the other three to Josiah, Nathan and Ezra. Now all he could do was see who showed up, and make sure that those who elected to join him knew exactly how dangerous this endeavor would be.
The wind whistled a lonely tune through the tumbled - down rocks, and Chris frowned and bowed his head. Was he sure *he* wanted to do this? Percy's warnings wandered through his mind again, of the possibility of capture, imprisonment, torture, death. There had been times, after the murder of his family, when he would have hardly cared whether he lived or not; he had come close enough to extinction during the long, mad eighteen months he had brawled his way through England's less savory towns and villages, looking for trouble. Now that dark period, if not the anger, had passed, and it would have been just as easy to convince himself that he had earned the right to recover on the safety of England's shore. He had found enough trouble the past year and a half to last a lifetime.
But as Chris lifted his green eyes to scan the grassy hills with expectation, he already knew the answer. The time for wandering and isolation was over for him; the suffering countrymen of his wife needed his help, and perhaps by doing what he could for them, he would find the peace which had eluded him in all the months of searching.
The pounding thud of hoofbeats caught his ear, and he tensed instinctively as several horses approached up the road. He recognized the cadence and relaxed, however, and in a few moments three horsemen appeared, their faces easily discerned in the bright moonlight.
Chris was not at all surprised to see Buck and Vin, but he was a little concerned to notice JD riding at Buck's side. A small pang went through his gut; he had truly hoped JD would think better of this and stay in England. The young man should not have to see hell so soon in his life.
"Evening, Chris," Vin greeted him as they rode up. "I see we're not too late."
"Maybe a bit early, by the looks of it," sniffed Buck as he glanced around. "Damn, I hate being the first to arrive at a party."
Chris smiled. "Don't worry, Buck, I don't think the rules of polite society apply to his occasion."
JD rode forward a little, sitting as straight and tall as he could in the saddle. His boyish face was serious as he nodded at the older man.
"JD," Chris replied, still wary. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
There was only a little fear in JD's hazel eyes. "I've been thinkin' about what you said ever since you said it, Chris," he said firmly. "I know it ain't going to be easy, but it'd be a lot harder just sitting by and not helping."
Buck sighed. "I tried to talk him out of it, Chris, but he's just too stubborn. And who knows, we might need that stubbornness during all this."
Chris looked once again at the determined face, the resolve burning in those wide hazel eyes, and sighed to himself. He could refuse to allow the young man along, but he had given his word; he could only hope his acquiescence was not dooming JD to an early grave.
More hoofbeats, and two more riders appeared.
"Now here's what I call an unholy congregation," Josiah's joking voice boomed out through the chilly air.
"We'll leave the holiness up to you," Chris replied with a dry smile as Josiah and Nathan rode up.
The older man laughed as he pulled his mount to a halt. "Then you might be waitin' a long time for it," he said, "but we're ready for whatever happens in the meantime."
"As we all should be," Chris said, a slightly grim tone permeating his voice. "Buck, JD, this is Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson."
Greetings were exchanged.
Nathan looked around. "Guess we're just waitin' for Ezra Standish," he noted.
"If he decides to join us," Vin added with a hint of doubt.
Chris lifted his head at the sound of another set of hoofbeats thudding up the dirt road. Soon Ezra appeared on his chestnut horse, dressed to perfection in a high - collared green coat and royal blue cape, his deadly walking stick stored in his saddle at his side.
"I am pleased to see that I am not too late, gentlemen," he drawled as he rode up, his brown hair smooth and unruffled beneath his fashionable high - crowned hat.
"Decided to face the inferno after all?" Chris asked, tilting his head a little with a slight grin. He glanced over at Vin, who was wearing a small, surprised smile.
Ezra returned the smile, a gold tooth flashing among his natural ones. "Let us simply say your argument was sufficiently compelling," he said, shifting in his saddle. "Besides, the gaming these days has been far too dull to provide me with proper amusement."
Buck coughed. "Well, I think we can promise this won't be dull."
Chris watched as the men gathered together in preparation for the ride to the tavern. They were a small, motley group, varying greatly in talent and temperament, mismatched in many ways. Yet as he studied them, something made the small hairs on the back of his neck stir a little. There was something very strangely right about this group, an intangible connection he could not begin to define. He had no cause to feel that way - some of them were strangers, after all, and for all he knew they would not survive their first mission - but still, he could not shake the feeling. Well, he thought, time would tell.
"All right," Chris said aloud, riding to stand before the other six men and gazing sternly at them. "This is the final threshold. After tonight, there won't be any turning back. I was asked to advise you all of what we'll be facing; many of you know already. None of this is going to be easy; we're going up against people who will use any means to stop us, no matter how bloody or painful. And trust me, I've seen what they're capable of. If we're caught, they will have no mercy."
He was careful to rest his firm green eyes on each man as he spoke, drilling into them the importance of his words. "The Pimpernel and myself need to know that each man is fully ready to face whatever comes. If anyone here has the slightest doubts about this, now is the time to ride away. There will be no shame in it, and I won't hold it against you. But after this moment, you won't have this chance again."
Several minutes passed. Chris studied them closely, waiting, hoping they would all stay but thinking it might be otherwise. The only sound was the wind in the trees and the breathing and nickering of the horses as they fidgeted in the cool evening air. The men looked back at him, determined, perhaps a bit anxious, but unwavering in their decision. None of them made a single motion to ride away.
Finally Josiah sighed, a smile wandering onto his face. "Well, Chris, it looks like you're going to have to put up with all of us."
Chris swept them all with his gaze, grateful and a bit uneasy. He had never planned to be a leader of men in this sort of enterprise, but he was not about to abandon the fight. There was too much at stake.
"Very well, then," he said, picking up his reins with a nod. "Let's go."
With that, they struck out on the road to the Fisherman's Rest.
Half an hour later found them outside of a large, inviting tavern, its lattice - paned windows glowing warmly from the fires within. As they approached the establishment, Chris noted that several horses were in the adjoining stable; some if not all of the rest of the League had already arrived.
The stableman and his assistant did not seem at all surprised by the group as they reined in and dismounted; perhaps, Chris surmised, Percy had told them that they were to be expected. He noticed a range of emotions on the faces of his men as they walked up the tavern's smooth stone walkway; Vin was cautious, Ezra curious, JD about ready to burst from excitement. This was going to be interesting.
Inside, the Fisherman's Rest gave every indication of its reputation as an old but well - used tavern. It wore its age well, from the ancient but well - preserved timbers to the gleaming red tile lining the floor. Wooden tables, marked with the signs of countless years of drinking and dining, were placed in orderly fashion around the large coffee - room, flanked by tall seats worn smooth. Brightly polished pewter plates and tankards decorated the shelves on the walls, and over the huge fireplace gleamed several pieces of brightly polished brass. Overhead, two large brass chandeliers spread their brilliant glow over the entire room.
They were not alone; at the other end of the large room sat a small knot of well - dressed men, their heads together in conversation, the smoke from their pipes already forming a small cloud which drifted about the rafters. As Chris and his friends made their way into the room, one of their number quickly stood, tapped another of his group on the shoulder, and began conversing quietly, gesturing towards the new arrivals.
"Damn," Chris heard Buck mutter. "Looks like it's off for tonight, Chris."
Chris glanced back at him and frowned. "What?"
Buck nodded at the tall figure. "Well, that's Percy there, and it looks like he's having some kind of party. The Pimpernel won't come anywhere near the place with other people around."
The tall man straightened - it was indeed Sir Percy Blakeney - and began walking towards them. Chris said nothing, but was hard put to suppress a smile.
Ezra sighed as he unclasped his cloak. "We may at least get a decent game of cards out of the evening," he muttered.
"Christopher!" Percy exclaimed in a delighted voice as soon as he was close enough to extend his hand. "Bloody good to see you again!"
Chris smiled cordially and shook the nobleman's hand, noting that his friend was fashionably dressed as always. "Good evening, Percy," he replied. "I see you started the party without us."
"Oh," he waved a perfectly manicured hand towards the small assemblage, all of whom were now watching them keenly, "merely exchanging gossip, nothing too serious. Won't you and your friends join us? We can make the introductions over some proper pipes and some of my good host Jellyband's best ale."
Chris glanced back at the other men; a few looked uncertain, but he was sure Percy would explain all momentarily. He turned back to Percy and undid his cloak. "We'd be happy to," he said with a grin.
"Excellent!" Percy exclaimed. "And perhaps we may find time to discuss a few important matters, eh?"
Several minutes later, Chris's men had shed their traveling coats and were relaxing by the fire. The introductions had gone quickly; they had seen many of Percy's friends around during hunts and social occasions and found it easy to relax in their company.
There was Dewhurst, of course, at Percy's side as always. The black - haired, sharp - faced Farleigh sat nearby, along with an older, round - faced, somewhat portly gray - wigged gentleman whose name had been given as Lord Osbert, but whom everyone seemed to call Ozzy. Next to Ozzy lounged a long - legged, red - haired, thin - faced man clad in dapper clothes and an air of fussiness, who introduced himself as Lord Elton.
At the table next to this group sat two very fashionable young men, apparently the most youthful of the group. The elder of the pair, designated as Benjamin, was taller than his counterpart, with a wide, handsome face, dark curly hair, and snapping gray eyes. The other man, who called himself Hal, was shorter, a little more stocky, and possessed thick sandy hair, a long face, and a somewhat anxious expression. The two noblemen were brothers, a fact somewhat hidden by their dissimilar looks but revealed by the closeness between them apparent to anyone who observed them long enough.
Percy's friends were indeed the same men whom Chris had met at the reception, but there was nothing to be seen in them now of the fancy fops who had fretted over so over the ruination of a few hundred yards of silk. Their clothing was still as fashionable as Percy's, but their speech and manner were devoid of the brainlessness they had exhibited before. They appeared to be sober, serious men, and Chris also noticed that they had added one more to their number, a very young man no older than JD with a round, youthful face, curly brown hair, and oddly familiar green eyes.
Chris had harbored a private concern that his friends, particularly JD, Nathan and Vin, would be greeted with apprehension or objection by Percy's men, who were so far above them in class and wealth. However, a few moment's observation proved to him that they were all accepted readily into the group; Vin fell into a hunting discussion with Elton and Farliegh, Ezra had quickly organized a game of hazard with Hal and Benjamin, and JD and the young brown - haired man appeared to be discussing horses.
"Have you told them aught?" Chris heard Percy mutter into his ear.
Chris shook his head. "Just that we're supposed to meet the Pimpernel here tonight. I'll leave everything else up to you. But they're ready for the fight, Percy, as I am. They won't let you down."
"Oh, I'm certain of that, my friend," was the pleased response, as Percy took a lazy draw on his long pipe. "Poor Shovelin'! We'll have him quite turned around before all this is over. Makes me pity the poor fellow, almost."
Chris chuckled. "Say, Percy, who's that young man talking to JD? I don't remember seeing him at the party."
Percy glanced over to where the two were conversing. "Ah! That brave young scoundrel is Armand St. Just, Marguerite's brother."
This information gave Chris something of a start. "She allowed her brother to join the League? He looks rather young for all this dangerous business. I wasn't too sure about letting JD in on this - Armand looks even younger."
A serious gleam pervaded Percy's eyes for a moment. "That boy's courage exceeds his youth, dear boy, trust me," he replied quietly. "The French had him once, and even Chauvelin's tortures failed to persuade him to betray his loyalty to me. Despite his tender years, I trust him with my life, as much as any of my men. I am sure your young Mr. Dunne will prove just as surprising."
Half an hour passed in friendly conversation before Percy finally rose, ale glass in hand. Silence gradually fell over the group as all eyes turned to the tall figure.
"My friends," Percy began in his smooth, cultured voice, "I am quite delighted that you were all able to join us tonight for our little gathering. But I daresay it was not chance that brought you to this fine establishment tonight, correct?"
Chris's men looked at each other, unsure how much to reveal; the Pimpernel's activities, however philanthropic, were also illegal.
Seeing their expressions, Percy hastened to say, "Fear not, my friends, you are in safe company here. You were planning to meet someone, perhaps? Let us say - the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
Buck shot Chris a perplexed look as some of the others muttered a little. Then he cast a quick glance at JD.
JD's hazel eyes widened. "*I* didn't say anything!" he hissed in protest.
Armand nudged him. "It's all right," he said to JD, in a light voice thickly laced with the accent of France, "they blame me for this sort of thing quite a lot, too."
Percy laughed a bit. "Loose lips did not divulge this fact to me, my friends," he assured Chris's men. "I received this news from an unimpeachable source, the Pimpernel himself!"
All six of Chris's men opened their eyes wide at this news.
"You know the Pimpernel, Sir Percy?" Buck gasped.
"Quite intimately, my friend," Blakeney said with a grin.
JD looked around, astonished. "Is he here?"
Ezra was peering very sharply at Percy, his green eyes narrowed. "I suspect he is much closer than we think, Mr. Dunne," he murmured softly.
"Gad, Percy," muttered Farleigh, the short, dark - haired nobleman with the sharp face as he prepared to take a drink of his ale, "you and your flair for the dramatic! Do you intend to draw this out until Christmas?"
"I hope not," said Hal as he sadly eyed the large pile of winnings sitting in front of Ezra. "I'll be bankrupt by then."
Percy grinned. "You are quite right, my friends, the suspense must be ended at once - the urgency of our work demands it. Gentlemen, the Pimpernel is not only present, but he stands before you now."
Chris's men glanced around, slightly confused.
"But, Percy," Buck ventured with hesitation, "*you're* the only one who's standing."
"Precisely, Mr. Wilmington," was the firm reply.
A few moments of silence followed, broken only by Buck's mildly puzzled laughter.
"Hell," he said good - naturedly, "it almost sounds like you're tryin' to say that you're the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Chris eyed his old friend with an even, serious gaze. "That *is* what he's saying, Buck."
Buck stopped, shot Chris a very surprised look, and for years afterwards Chris would swear that he saw Buck grab the seat of his wooden chair in an effort to keep himself from falling out of it. Most of the other men simply stared, dumbfounded; Vin muttered a very soft and highly amused, "Well, I'll be damned!"
"I understand your surprise, my friends," Percy said quickly. "My men here and myself have done all we could to prevent suspicion, and I daresay we've been astonishingly successful."
"Yeah, I'll say you have," Buck gasped, his large blue eyes traveling from face to face among Percy's group. He glanced at Chris. "Is this a prank or something?" he said in a sharp whisper. "I mean, Percy and these men couldn't be...I mean, they're - well, they're - "
Chris smiled. "Nincompoops?"
The other man paused, a bit thrown. "Um...yes."
His friend very slowly shook his head. "It's not a prank, Buck. I didn't believe it, either, but it's true. Trust me."
Buck frowned a little, eying Chris keenly as he sat back. "I do trust you, Chris," he said in a low, rather stunned tone as his eyes darted between Chris and Percy. "It's just, the thought of this all being true - is sort of hard to take in, right now."
"Lud, my boy," laughed Ozzy, the older, gray - wigged of the group, "we often find it hard to believe ourselves! None of us ever imagined being involved in a mad scheme such as this. Yet, here we are."
"It is madness, to be sure," Percy agreed, squaring his shoulders, his voice becoming somber as he looked at each of Chris's men in turn, "but it's this type of insanity that the world needs right now. The darkness in Paris grows deeper by the hour. Christopher has sworn to me that you are all men who are not afraid to face that darkness, and bring as many of those poor suffering souls out of the prisons and back into the light as we can. I trust him with my life, as we must all trust each other with our lives in order to safely do what must be done. There will be no glory in this, nor any great reward when it is over; I can only offer you danger, adventure, and a bloody grand story for your grandchildren to hear someday, if you are still willing to join our small band."
Silence fell in the coffee room as Chris's men absorbed these words.
Finally Buck cleared his throat. "Well," he said quietly, "you certainly *sound* like the Pimpernel."
After looking around for a moment, JD stood up, his hazel eyes bright with purpose. Chris watched him carefully; JD had so lionized the Pimpernel that Chris had been unsure what the young man's reaction upon meeting him would be. Would he be disappointed that it was someone as seemingly unheroic as Percy? Or would he be unnerved at being in his idol's presence at last?
Instead, Chris was relieved to see JD gaze at Percy with a mixture of quiet awe, respect and restraint.
"I'm not gonna try an' speak for anyone else," he said in a strong, even voice without hesitation, "but I'd be very proud to join you, sir, and face whatever they want to throw at me."
"And we should be proud to have you, my boy," Percy replied firmly. After a moment he threw a proud glance at Chris, who could only give a small shrug, an impressed light shining in his own eyes. JD might indeed prove surprising.
Josiah stood as well. "I owe you men my life," he said in his deep, rich voice, glancing at the members of the League. "It would be pretty ungrateful of me not to try and reduce that debt a little. If the Lord got me out of France safely once, I suppose He can do it again."
"I suspect we shall all keep that good gentleman quite busy, my friend," Percy chuckled.
"Wouldn't mind usin' my freedom to help other people get theirs back," Nathan noted.
"I'm not afraid to go back to Paris," Vin said with a dry smile. "It's the Frenchmen who shot at me last time who should be worried."
Ezra grinned as he gripped his lethal gold - topped walking stick. "It sounds like a most intriguing endeavor, and I believe the wagering is still quite good in France."
"Not to mention the women," Buck admitted, rubbing his chin.
A grim smile crossed Chris's lips as he regarded his men, then turned back to Percy.
"You know how I feel, Percy," he said in a steely voice, every inch of his expression taut with determination. "I don't care a damn for glory, or adventure. My wife's people need my help. I couldn't save her, or my son. But I can help them, and I'll do whatever you ask to make that possible." He paused and drew a deep breath. "So, it looks like you've got seven more members for your League."
Percy smiled. "And the League is most happy to have them, sir, I assure you," he proclaimed, picking up his mug of ale. "A toast, gentlemen."
There was a brief rustle as every man took his mug of ale in hand and stood.
Percy hoisted his glass, his blue eyes burning brightly. "To the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, new members and old. May God be with our endeavors, and may the time soon come when our services shall no longer be required."
All assented to this toast, and as Chris drank with the others, he could only hope with all of his heart that the words of Sir Percy Blakeney would prove to be prophetic.
Thank you so much for reading!!! I hope you enjoyed it!!