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For King and Country

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Sir John Reese, Chevalier of the Angevin Empire, Order of the Star Chamber, Second-Class, former King’s Agent and current secretary-in-private to my lord the Count of Bayeux, casually flipped back the lace cuff at his right wrist before raising his hand to knock at the door. In his left hand, he carried a tray with two silver carafes, a sugar bowl, and two china cups. It was three minutes of seven, and he was about to bring my lord his morning beverage. Normally, this would be the job of a valet, but the Count, being both a noted eccentric and a very private person, preferred to dress and shave himself, so this particular task fell to Sir John.

He was just about to bring his knuckles down against the oaken surface when he heard the quiet command “Enter,” from the inner chamber. Smoothly he lowered his hand to open the door, stepped inside and placed the tray on the round central table, where his master sat in his usual chair, facing the glass doors out onto the balcony, a grimoire open in front of him. “Good morning, Sir John.” Harold Pinson, Count of Bayeux, looked up at his partner and friend with a small half-smile.

***

Lord Harold had been sitting in the exact same chair two years earlier, when Reese awoke to find himself tied to a bed in an opulent and unfamiliar room. His first instinct had been to fight the restraints. He hadn’t remembered falling asleep in a place like this, although it was true that his memory wasn’t what it had been, of late – start drinking before Lauds, and you’d likely find yourself in a stupor before Sext.

"Calm yourself, Sir John.” The man in the chair was of average height and slight build, dressed in an elegant but severe version of the finery favoured by Anglo-French nobility. His movements were stiff and ungainly as he came over to the bed to release the bonds, and he heavily favoured his left side. “You were somewhat agitated when my servants brought you here, so it was easier to restrain you to prevent you from hurting yourself and others.”

The moment his hands were free, Reese moved like lightning, and in seconds had his captor pinned in a chokehold against the wall. “In God’s name, tell me who you are and how you know my name.” he hissed.

“Who I am is not important,” his captor gasped, glancing down at the arm which was applying slow and steady pressure to his windpipe. “The question, King’s Agent, is who you are without your commission, and who you want to be now that it is gone.” The man raised his eyes to John’s and just *looked* at him – and the memory of the geas hit him like a physical blow, a punch in the gut.

He’d volunteered the first time they’d asked. For the safety of the Empire, they’d said – he would be protecting King and Country. It wasn’t until he and Kitty Stanton had found themselves betrayed and outnumbered in Budapest that he realized exactly what he’d agreed to. He’d felt the geas break the moment she died, and then the full horror of it returned to him – what he’d done, what he’d become. He’d been sick with disgust then, retching until there was nothing left but dry heaves. After that, his escape across the continent had been a blur of adrenaline and alcohol, a desperate and futile attempt to outrun his memories.

The man in front of him raised a delicate hand and laid it across his forehead, muttering something in Latin under his breath. The pain and pressure ceased for a moment, and Reese was able to draw a breath.

“There now, Sir John.” His Anglo-French had a slight but distinct English inflection. “It’s all right. I know what they did to you in the King’s name – broke you, bound you and made you a killer. I know the dreams and memories that plague your sleep, and I know that you need a purpose, as well as a job. I also know,” and here his voice took on a harsher edge “that there are enemies within the heart of the Empire, threatening the continued existence of the House of Plantagenet. But in order to stop them, I need a partner. Someone with the skills to intervene.”

“How could I agree to work for you?” Reese had spent the last several months feeling hollow and exhausted, the memories haunting him awake and asleep. Yet here, in the presence of this man, they had receded. “I don’t even know your name.”

“You may call me Harold Pinson; I am count of Bayeux.” Lord Harold had been walking slowly towards the balcony, hands clasped behind his back, but now he turned to face Reese. “And I ask you this, Sir John - will you swear an oath to me, serve me, make me keeper of your geas?”

***

For a few moments, Reese was busy with the cups and saucers, pouring unsweetened café for himself and a cup of the strange Asian leaf tisane, with one sugar, which was the only thing Lord Harold would drink. “Good morning, my lord.” He set down the cup. “Did you sleep well?”

“As well as could be expected – there were no visions. We can therefore hope to complete our research today.” With a gratified sigh, Lord Harold took a sip. “And you, Sir John? Have my charms been working?”

“Very well, thank you, my lord.” In an unconventional but expected breach of protocol, Reese had seated himself in the opposite chair. Since he’d come to Bayeux, and sworn his oath to Lord Harold - it was if the memories were still there, but the weight of them was lighter. “When I woke this morning, I felt – happy.” His lips quirked in a grin, half-hidden by the rim of his cup. “It must be this job.”

***

The days which followed that initial meeting had been filled with activity, as Reese began to establish a new training routine, and was outfitted and equipped in a manner befitting a vassal of the venerable and ancient House of Bayeux. He’d been in the fencing salon, practicing his parry-riposte when the summons came to attend my lord the Count.

Lord Harold was waiting in his chambers, reading. On the table before him lay a file and a small jewellery box. The file contained a detailed description of a woman, an innkeeper in the town, as well as a date, time and location. “This is your mission – find the woman, observe and deduce. An event will occur at the time and place indicated, which will involve her, either as victim or perpetrator.”

This was obviously some sort of test. “What event, my lord? What is going to happen?”

“That, Sir John, is your job to discover.” Lord Harold passed him the box. “You’ll need this was well.”

Inside was a heavy gold signet ring, bearing the arms of the Counts of Bayeux. Reese drew in a sharp intake of breath. “My lord, you can’t mean to give this to me.” He was a nothing more than a former solider and washed up agent of the Crown with a broken mind. But wearing this ring, he would command the full power and authority of county. People would treat him with the same respect and deference as the Count himself.

“When we met, Sir John, I asked you to give me a very great gift.” Lord Harold arched an eyebrow at him. “I hope that this might be something I can offer you in return. Practically speaking, it will grant you better cooperation from the local Guard, and give you access to resources as needed.” He gestured at the box. “Put it on.”

Reese did. Lord Harold was still sitting in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of him. His lips weren’t moving, but his voice continued, a whisper in Reese’s ear, as if he hadn’t stopped speaking. “The signet serves an additional purpose as well.” Silently he held up his left hand, where a matching ring still resided. “The law of sympathy allows for the use of identical objects, particularly those with symbolic significance, as talismans. Combined with the somewhat unusual bond between us, such items can be used for communication. The teleson is all very well, but it is unreliable, expensive, and extremely public.”

Reese *had* once had been a King’s Agent, and the matter was not a complicated one. By the evening of the second day, he had identified the assailant, the cause and the potential harm. He presented these findings to my lord the Count in an informal interview in his private chamber after supper, over glasses of St Couerlandt-Michele brandy.

Lord Harold carefully reviewed the dossier, and asked a few thoughtful questions. Then, seemingly satisfied, he set the documents down. “It appears you’ve determined an effective course of action for this case, Sir John. Are you prepared to do what is necessary?”

“Indeed, my lord.” Reese inclined his head.

“Then go, in the name of the Count of Bayeux. Preserve and punish.” Lord Harold’s eyes went hazy for a moment; then cleared. “This is an order.”

And at the word of command, he felt the bindings of the geas tear loose inside him. “Yes, my lord.”

***

As there were no pressing cases, they were free to spend the day reviewing files, revisiting the details of the Oxford matter and trying to puzzle out the remaining connections. Lord Harold had developed an extensive timeline and even created a diorama of events, but some of the latest information that Reese had uncovered led to startling new conclusions. In short order, they were both in shirtsleeves, with cuffs rolled up and coats and neck cloths abandoned in a pile on the bed.

Despite his injuries, Lord Harold was a surprisingly active thinker, pacing around the room, tapping absently on the table, and occasionally snapping his fingers without speaking when he was in the middle of a train of thought but wanted Reese to bring something to him. At one point, Reese had to stand silently in a corner while Lord Harold worked a complicated web of connection spell seemingly in his head, aided by nothing more than a map and a pinch of sugar for components. By the time the candles were lit and the bells were ringing for Vespers, they had a complete dossier of everything they’d gathered on the Conspiracy. Energized by the activity, Lord Harold eschewed further delay, and ordered that a carriage be prepared immediately to take them to Caen, from which they could catch the night train to Rouen.

Reese gathered up the elements of the dossier, threw on his coat, and quickly returned to his own rooms to acquire a few items for the journey. After buckling on his rapier, he made sure to pocket some additional bullets for his revolver. It would not go amiss to be prepared.

***

He’d assumed that the cases were tests, practice runs, at least at first – aside from living in or around the environs of Normandy, the individuals had no connection to each other, nor seemingly to any larger pattern that he could discern. Every few days there was a new file. In Lord Harold’s clear, meticulous handwriting, the description of a person – peasant, commoner, noble. A date, a time and a location.

Reese had thought the details the product of some prodigious network of informants, although in truth, he’d seen no visitors the chateau. Indeed, aside from the handful of servants, it seemed that the Count was a recluse, and the reactions of surprise and interest that his use of the signet raised from the people of Bayeux lent strength to his conclusion that Lord Harold held a carefully cultivated reputation as a wealthy, crippled eccentric. No one knew what he looked like. It was rumoured that he was grossly disfigured, and never left his house. He’d had a fiancée, but she had died, or was it that she suddenly disappeared? And then, there was the black carriage that used to drive out to the chateau, every fortnight, like clockwork, at least until a year ago – or was it two years ago?

Reese’s successes with the cases added to the growing reputation of the otherwise unremarkable local Armsmen, in addition to creating the local legend of a mysterious “man in black” who was known to help and rescue the citizens of Bayeux, often saving them from danger at the last possible moment. Unfortunately, this also drew the attention of the Criminal Investigator’s Office for the Duchy of Normandy, in the particular person of Lady Jocelyn Carter, an ambitious and unconventional daughter of New England nobility who had proved herself especially dogged in pursuing Bayeux’s vigilante hero. Eventually, using his best efforts at charm and the power of the Count’s signet, Reese was able to agree a careful truce with her – no questions asked, and no untruths given.

It wasn’t until much later that Lord Harold directly involved himself in a case. Despite great effort, they had not been able to determine the exact nature of a certain event, so he’d insisted on going with Reese to the location, waiting shivering in the carriage for the designated time. It was well past Nocturns, and Reese, perched in the on the box, tried to keep alert for danger. Lord Harold appeared to have dozed off, but then at once he gave a cry, and started up in the seat. Reaching into the pockets of his coat, he began pulling out a pen and a folded sheet of foolscap, muttering to himself “No, it’s wrong, of course – I’m an idiot, and I’ve misread the symbology. Sir John!”

“My lord?”

“You must get to Le Harve, as quickly as possible – several lives depend on it.”

“Certainly.” Reese took up the whip. “I’ll return you home, and then get a horse from the stables.”

“No time for that.” Lord Harold clambered swiftly but awkwardly down for the carriage. “Don’t concern yourself with me, just drive like the devil and don’t look back.” His voice took on that familiar note. “This is an order, Sir John. Go!”

Reese returned the next day, bruised, exhausted, and bleeding slightly but triumphant at having succeeded in preventing a plot to bomb the docks and assassinate the Marquis of Cherbourg.

Lord Harold was waiting for him. “I expect you have some questions for me, Sir John.”

“Some.” Reese collapsed into the opposite chair. “You have the Talent – you have something, but you’re not a Sorcerer, not even an unlicensed one. I’d have noticed.”

“Indeed, I am not a Master, nor would I even have passed examinations for Apprentice. But I do have a Talent – one that is nearly undetectable, and generally considered impossible to predict, train or control.” Lord Harold sighed. “I’m a precognitive. At times I can see into the future – only in brief bursts of vision – images of places, people, symbols, and moments in time. And it’s my particular gift to predict crimes of violence and treason.” He rubbed his face in his hands. “I have the ability to foresee disaster, and I’ve spent my life studying – history, thaumaturgy, religion – in order to better understand and use my gift. But look at me. What can I do to stop them?”

Reese sat, stunned slightly at the enormity of the confession. To regularly witness, unbidden, crimes of violence, unknowing and unable to stop either the events or the visions for years on end – his benefactor was as haunted as he was. “But you could go to the government, place your Talent at the service of the Empire.” Despite everything, Reese was still a King’s Man at heart. “They could use the information, perhaps stop the crimes.”

“I used to do so. Nathan Ingram, Master Sorcerer and Earl of Oxford – he was a very dear friend of mine, and my contact in the Court. We were at school together, you see.” Even Reese had heard of the Sorcerer Earl – popular, influential and close to the King. The brutality of his kidnapping and murder had been shocking, with details appearing in all the papers. It remained unsolved to this day. “I knew, you see. I knew that something was going to happen, but I couldn’t make full sense of the visions, and I failed to act in time.” Lord Harold’s voice had taken on a terrible emptiness. “Then he was gone, and I couldn’t – there was nothing I could do. Which is why I was so very grateful, when the visions led me to find you, Sir John.”

Reese felt the significance of this moment, the enormity of it as he searched desperately for the right words to answer the unasked question. Yes. Anything. Always. In the end, he could find none, and could only respond with a gesture – he knelt, head bowed, and presented his sword, as he had done to give his oath – first as the King’s man, and later as Harold’s.

Lord Harold raised the sword and set it aside, then gently took his hands – still stained with dirt and blood - and lifted them to his lips. “Thank you, Sir John. In this, as so many things, I am in your hands.”

***

“Sir John! Ah, there you are.” By the time he returned, Lord Harold had struggled back into his own coat, and was now grappling with the lace of his neck cloth, which Reese immediately knelt before him to help tie. “I was thinking that with Lady Jocelyn’s help, we may be able to place our evidence before the Chief Criminal Investigator for the Duke of Normandy. He has a reputation for great perspicacity, and although I cannot be absolutely sure of anyone, I think it unlikely that he has connections to the Conspiracy.”

“Lady Jocelyn said that he is cousin to the Marquis de London, and he has connections at the Palace, as well. It might be the opening we’ve been looking for.” The cases had been the start of his redemption, but this would be a further opportunity for atonement, and perhaps a chance for them both to finally come in from the cold.

“It would be good to have a contact in the Court of St. James again. However, it would run the risk of revealing our existence and work to our enemies. It will be a dangerous move, and could quite probably end with both of us dead.” For a moment, Lord Harold looked grim. Then, decision made, he shook his head slightly and rose to his feet. “Still, there’s nothing else for it. For King and Country, is that not so, Sir John?” Lord Harold was smiling, and there was a teasing note to his voice.

Reese instinctively moved into place a half step behind his master, who turned slightly to catch his glance as they walked towards the door. Looking into the dark, surpisingly kind eyes of the man who’d rescued him, and who quite literally held his soul in keeping, he knew that whatever else happened, he had already been saved. “Indeed, my lord. But most of all, for you.”