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 was in 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.
At the center of this terror was the large public square in the center of the city, a massive plaza once known as the Place Louis XV. Constructed as a monument to that king, it had at one time boasted a large statue of him at its center. Then came the Revolution; the statue was brought to the ground by the hands of the people, who constructed in its place a new, more terrible sovereign-the guillotine. Now named the Place de la Revolution, the square was the staging ground of the executions; hordes of citizens mobbed its space every day, cheering as the enemies of the new Republic met their doom, the blood of the condemned-noble and peasant alike-mingling together to stain the cobblestones red.
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 Republic. A sign on the building identified it as the home of the Committee of Public Safety, one of Robespierre's most crucial organizations, dedicated to rooting out those who failed to embrace the new ideals. 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.
He was not old, only a few years past thirty, but the fire of fierce fanaticism burning in his expression had an ancient and terrifying lineage. 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-crumpled 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 Francaise. 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 the Committee, 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.
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 of the ideals 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? He had received information that the English were hiding the Marquis de St. Cyr and his family in an effort to save them from the justice of the guillotine. Should it have come as a shock when he threatened to tell Blakeney of their affair unless she discovered where the condemned aristocrats were being kept? 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, on condition 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 unless she succeeded. Armand, as it turned out, was also member of that accursed League, and the arrest had afforded Chauvelin the chance to try to get as much information out of the boy as he could. It had been a disappointment that, despite torture, Armand would say nothing.
He had felt sure that Marguerite would do anything to save her brother, including obey his wishes and 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 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 she and Chauvelin 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 during 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 expression. "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 while 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 proudly, from the ancient 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 hope we're not interrupting anything."
"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 Lord Tony Dewhurst, of course, at Percy's side as always. The black-haired, sharp-faced Lord George Farleigh sat nearby, along with an older, round-faced, somewhat portly gray-wigged gentleman whose name had been given as Sir Osbert Digby, 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 cheerful fussiness, who introduced himself as Lord Phillip Elton.
At the table next to this group sat two very stylish young men, apparently the most youthful of the group. The elder of the pair, designated as Sir Benjamin Llewellyn, was taller than his counterpart, with a wide, handsome face, dark curly hair, and snapping gray eyes. The other man, who gave his name as Lord Hal Stowmarries, was shorter, a little more stocky, and possessed thick sandy hair, a long face, and a somewhat anxious expression.
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 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 Farleigh, 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 as the two of them relaxed next to the fire, smoking their long clay pipes and watching their men.
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 Prince's reception."
Percy glanced over to where the two were conversing. "Ah! That brave young scoundrel is Armand St. Just, Marguerite's younger brother. Remarkable lad, and she dotes on him terribly. They raised each other, you see, after their parents died when they were children; he is her only living relative in the world."
This information gave Chris something of a start. "She allowed her only living relative 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, my friend, trust me," he replied quietly. "And I fear even Margot would not have been able to dissuade him from joining, if she had known at the time. 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. 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 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 and popular, 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 in his usual sarcastic manner 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. 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 Percy's firm reply.
A few moments of silence followed, broken finally 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...well, you saw them at the reception...I mean, they're-well, they're-"
Chris smiled. "Nincompoops?"
The other man paused, a bit thrown. "Um...er, 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 member 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 children 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.
After a few long moments, JD looked around and 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 as he firmly clasped Chris's shoulder. "And the League is most happy to have them, sir, I assure you!" he proclaimed. After giving his old friend a grateful smile, he released him, stepped back and picked up his tankard of ale, directing his gaze to the entire group. "A toast, gentlemen."
There was a brief rustle as every man took his drink in hand and stood.
Percy lifted his tankard, 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.
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