The Magnificent Seven/The Scarlet Pimpernel Alternate Universe
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 there, the trouble had calmed to a dull roar but was still howling away.
The contention seemed to center at a table 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 with a gleaming silver buckle in the hatband and a pair of elegant white gloves carefully folded, and in one hand he loosely gripped a tall 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 and your mother 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 your way through the colonies and 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, Standish 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.
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 the throng 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. As he also resumed his seat, he looked 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 day, 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.
t 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 a loaded pistol; 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. 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 need...*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 seemed lifted to a bright new purpose, one whose nature sent all thoughts of danger to the dim and distant shadows.
Chris raised 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. His expression held firm. "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 require 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 foppish 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 ever 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 Standish say it was? The right arm. Well, it would be interesting to see if Percy would even try to guess where 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 cocked his head a bit, a bright look in his blue eyes as he regarded Chris with a small smile. "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, my friend, 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. "At last 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 saw how that infernal machine was devouring men, women and children whose only crime was that of displeasing the wrong people. And I knew 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 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. "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 some time, and knows the city intimately. We had quite an 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.