Chris hated parties.
As he and Buck rode in one of the Wilmington's carriages towards the palace of the Prince of Wales, he fidgeted and wished the evening was over already. Even before tragic events overtook his life, he had never been one for mingling and socializing, preferring small, private soirees to the huge, lavish events such as the one he was now facing. The dark-colored silken finery felt unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and he was fighting off the urge to regret accepting the invitation. But he had to talk to Percy.
"Calm down, Chris, this isn't an execution," Buck admonished him. Unlike Chris, his friend had no qualms about attending the reception, and was resplendent in his finest suit of clothes, a striking sky-blue silken coat with matching breeches and gold striped vest. A small glittering aquamarine flashed at his throat, nestled in the folds of his cravat.
Chris sighed, pressing his lips together. "That's what I keep telling myself, but so far I'm not convinced," he murmured, brushing at his sleeve.
"Well, don't worry," the other man said cheerily, his fingers checking his neckwear to make sure it was properly tied. "After tonight, when everyone gets a chance to see you're still around, they'll leave you alone again. Unless they want something from you, of course."
Chris nodded with resignation, then glanced at their surroundings. "You'll have to thank your father for letting us borrow one of his carriages. I still haven't gotten my stable back up and running yet, except for Valor."
His friend shrugged. "He had no problem with it, as long as I didn't take one of the better ones. I think he was just a little put out that *he* wasn't invited."
Chris smiled a little. "I'm sure his distress bothered you a great deal."
"I cried the whole time I was getting dressed," Buck said with a chuckle, as the carriage rounded the drive and approached the palace.
The large building was aglow from within with what seemed like a million candles; in the golden glow, Chris could see a host of fine carriages lining the drive in front of the sweeping stone staircase, and the flash and glitter of the rich occupants as they departed their conveyances and floated up the long stairs to the brilliantly illuminated front door. Through the tall glass windows, he could see the colorful throng of guests swirling across the ballroom floor, their silks and jewels sparkling and shining in the candlelight. The soft strains of music drifted through the air, mingled with the lilt of talking and laughter.
He sighed as the carriage stopped at the base of the staircase. This was going to be worse than he thought.
"Chin up, Chris," Buck whispered as he patted Chris's shoulder while they alighted from the carriage, "it can't be any worse than the Conciergerie."
"I'm not so sure," was the muttered reply, as the vehicle clattered away. They walked up the steps and past the small groups of attendees chatting in shining groups on the stone porch, Buck's brightly colored blue and gold finery sharply contrasting with Chris's more somber ensemble of black and plum.
Inside, Chris blinked against the brightness of the thousands of candles glowing in the arms of the enormous crystal chandeliers hanging from the elaborately cast and painted ceiling. Through the tall gilt doors past the reception area, he could see the dancers whirling in the ballroom, amidst the swishing of silk and soft clicks of the shoes on the gleaming marble floor. The foyer was crowded with groups of people, all dressed in the height of fashion, the men in their embroidered velvet court dress, the women in their high-waisted, full-skirted dresses of brightly colored silks and satins, jewels gleaming at their throats.
As they passed through the entryway, they were met by a young man in a powdered wig, dressed in a red velvet uniform and holding a long black wooden staff topped with a golden knob. Behind him was another man, similarly dressed, carrying a list.
"Name, sir?" he inquired in a haughty voice.
Chris gave his answer, and the young man turned to the man behind him as the second attendant scanned his list. After receiving a curt nod, the steward turned back to Buck and Chris and passed the nod along.
"You may proceed, gentlemen," he said, his tone losing none of its superior air. After this benediction, the man stepped to the doorway, struck the ground once with the long wooden staff, and bellowed, "SIR CHRISTOPHER LARABEE AND THE HONORABLE WILLIAM WILMINGTON!"
Chris winced, gritting his teeth. "Damn, I hate that," he sighed as they carefully stepped down the short stairway into the foyer.
Buck shrugged, looking around. "At least it lets the ladies know I'm here," he said, scanning the room with a growing smile. ""Looks like I shouldn't have any trouble staying on the dance floor tonight..."
A sound of rustles and footsteps filled the air, and Chris looked up to see several people, all friends of his, walking towards them with expressions of recognition. He braced himself; he knew this would happen when he attended his first social gathering since the tragedy, but preparing for it wouldn't make this any easier.
Many of the well-dressed men and women greeted Buck, but indulged most of their attention on Chris.
"Good to see you again, Sir Christopher," the men said, shaking his hand, "Wondered when you'd join us again. Terribly sorry about your family, dreadful business."
"We were very sad to hear the news," the women exclaimed as their eyes welled up. "How brave you are to bear it so manfully!"
These sentiments were expressed over and over, with variations of words and the degree of sincerity, until Chris was ready to bolt for the door. By the time the last well-wisher walked away, he was almost shaking.
"Are you all right?" Buck inquired as Chris wiped his face with his pocket handkerchief.
Chris nodded. "Fine, Buck, just..." He sighed, folded up the handkerchief and put it back into the pocket of his coat, his green eyes sweeping the crowd. "I know they mean well, but...they just don't know, that's all." He shook his head, his expression one of thinly veiled outrage as he surveyed the glittering crowd. "How they can dance and drink like this when people are being slaughtered by the hundreds every day, I have no idea."
"Well, that's going to change soon. We'll see to that," Buck promised him. "In the meantime, if you don't mind, I'm going to see if Lady Audrey over there needs a dancing partner."
"Go ahead," Chris replied with a casual wave of his hand. "I'll be fine as long as no one else tries to smother me with good wishes."
"Sir Christopher! Odd's fish, but I'm so glad you decided to come!"
Chris jumped a little at the boisterous voice and looked up. Sir Percy Blakeney had entered the room, and as usual, every other activity in the area ceased so that the occupants could gaze in awestruck admiration.
He stood in the doorway leading to the ballroom, posed perfectly at the top of the short stairway, his shining crown of golden hair and brilliant smile outshining all others in the room. His graceful six-foot-odd frame was clad in a stunning court ensemble of dark blue velvet, the edges along the front of the coat, the collar, and the large cuffs trimmed with large embroidered flowers of pink, cream and purple, mingled with sparkling silver thread. Beneath the coat shimmered a cream satin waistcoat stitched with light green and gold flowers. At his neck frothed a bountiful white cravat, decorated with a gold and sapphire brooch; his hands were all but hidden beneath the frilly ruffles at the ends of his sleeves. In one hand hung a long, lace-trimmed handkerchief as snowy white as his silk stockings, and his feet were shod in gleaming black shoes with gold silk bows. He was easily the most beautifully dressed man in the room, and appeared perfectly comfortable with this fact.
Chris heard Buck give an amazed snort.
"Good evening, Percy," Chris replied amiably as Percy approached them. "You're looking, er, well."
"Blasted kind of you to say so, my friend," was the flattered reply as they met. "And Mr. Wilmington as well! How the devil are you, sir? Delighted to see you finally managed to persuade our friend to end his hibernation."
This was all spoken in a somewhat fey, prattling manner that bordered just to one side of simpering. Buck nodded pleasantly at the salutation, but seemed somewhat discomforted by the baronet's excessively pretty attire.
"I'm doing quite fine, Percy," he muttered, self-consciously adjusting his coat as he stared at Percy's finery. "So are you, it seems."
Percy flashed a brilliant grin. "Sink me! I shan't deny it," he declared, waving the handkerchief for emphasis. "My tailor delivered this just this morning, and I'm simply mad for it! Cost a demmed fortune, but a fellow must be properly attired, even if it do take his last shilling." He brushed one hand over the intricate embroidery which all but covered the front of the coat. "La! But I swear, I don't ever want to take it off. Perhaps I shall have a matching nightcap made, and wear it every night to bed!"
Here Percy erupted into his inane laugh, enormously amused at himself. Chris smiled politely, Buck managed a sideways grin.
"Yes, that's one smashing suit of clothes," Buck muttered as Percy's giggling finally began to subside.
"I'm so thrilled you approve," was Percy's gushing reply. "Now, sir, I do hope you don't mind if I borrow Christopher for a few moments. I am in the midst of the most ferocious debate, and I must insist on his participation to back me up. Would you be so good as to excuse us?"
Chris had never seen relief flood Buck's eyes as it did at Percy's inquiry. "Oh-certainly, Percy, I've got to go find Lady Audrey anyway. Have a good time."
He smiled, cast a significant glance at Chris as if to say, 'Good luck, you're going to need it', and walked away into the glittering crowd. Chris watched him go, barely able to suppress a smile as he imagined how surprised Buck was going to be when he discovered the secret Percy was concealing beneath the silver thread and lace ruffles.
"Now, my friend," Percy said, gently taking Chris's arm and guiding him up the three stairs into the ballroom, "we mustn't waste a moment. At this moment we are involved in a most dire discussion, and your opinion is highly looked for."
Chris glanced at him; this sounded serious, but Percy would never be so foolhardy as to discuss anything secret in the middle of a crowded reception. Suspecting that this might be part of the ploy, he simply nodded and said, "I'll help in any way I can, Percy."
"Good show!" the other man responded, and they moved into the ballroom.
The Prince's ballroom was enormous, a breathtaking array of shining marble walls lined with round polished pillars. Overhead the massive crystal chandeliers winked and sparkled as they shed their light on the bejeweled dancers below, the gracefully matched pairs waltzing along to the lilting music.
Chris followed Percy to one corner, where a small knot of men stood waiting. Chris recognized most of them, and was not surprised to see that they were only slightly less elaborately attired than Percy. Each man was arrayed in an extravagance of lace, ruffles, shimmering silks, and a wealth of flounced cravats and expensive jewelry. The face of every man in the group wore an expression of lazy indifference, as if it was an immense effort simply to work up the energy to enjoy themselves.
"Gentlemen," Percy greeted them with a bright smile, "I've returned, and as you can see I've brought a most wonderful surprise. I trust you are all acquainted with Sir Christopher Larabee?"
Muttered affirmations, greeting and offers of condolences resulted, and Chris accepted them all graciously, secretly amazed that the group was able to muster the incentive to speak at all.
"I hear you've been having a discussion," Chris said, putting his hands behind his back and trying to relax, fully aware of how incongruous his plain clothing was among their peacock-like finery.
"Oh! It's perfectly dreadful," one of the guests, a tall man with a thin face and red hair, exclaimed passionately, clutching his handkerchief in despair. "A most horrible waste!"
"Come, Elton, don't mince words," a shorter, dark-haired man sniffed in a deep voice, his sharply featured face florid with outrage. "It's final proof that the French have gone mad."
"Farleigh's right," a young member of the group announced earnestly, his gray eyes large and alarmed. "We must write a letter! A strongly-worded letter, and make them stop!"
The other men burst into fevered conversation, and Chris looked around, confused. "Is this about the Revolution?" he asked.
"Oh, bother the bloody Revolution, Christopher!" Percy exclaimed, his voice trembling slightly with fury. "Those damn French are ruining thousands of yards of perfectly good silk to make hot-air balloons!"
This explanation caused an outburst of enraged oaths and expressions of disbelief.
"Lud, we've got to stop them before they destroy all that beautiful Parisian fabric!" proclaimed a stocky gray-haired older gentleman, his round face wearing a look of profound agitation.
"Where will it come from, if it don't came from France?" another of the group, a young man with thick sandy hair, queried anxiously.
"Now boys, boys," Percy soothed, holding his hands out in a calming gesture. "We mustn't make ourselves faint with excitement. Cool heads must prevail, and here is one of the coolest in England." He turned to Chris. "What are your thoughts, my friend? Is this not most atrocious?"
Chris thought it was one of the silliest things he'd ever heard anyone argue about, but cleared his throat and simply said, "That's one of the words that comes to mind, yes."
"What if they use up all the silk?" fretted the gray-eyed young man. "What if they start using the satin, and the taffeta, and the velvet-"
"I'm not so sure a velvet balloon would float, Benjamin," muttered Farleigh with a frown.
"Well! Thank God for that, sir," Percy exclaimed, patting Farleigh on the shoulder. "The velvet shall not be imperiled, at least. But we cannot stand by and allow those rascals to misuse that marvelous silk. I promise to take this matter up with His Highness this very evening!"
"Causing trouble again, Percy? Most shameful of you."
Chris turned at the sound of the drawling male voice, recognizing it at once. The dancing had stopped, and walking towards them was a tall, black-haired gentleman with a long, handsome face and lazy brown eyes. The man smiled at Chris and nodded, a gesture Chris instantly returned; Lord Tony Dewhurst had changed quite a bit since the time he, Chris and Percy had made mischief at school together, but had never lost any of his grace, good looks, or cultured civility. He was, however, dressed just as ostentatiously as the other men in the small group, and wore the same expression of insipid boredom.
Tony was smoothly leading a woman from the dance floor, and as Chris looked at her, he knew almost immediately who she had to be. She was nearly as tall as Tony, and moved with a regal bearing which flowed through every line of her slender figure. The brightness of her glistening green silk ballgown, embroidered with silver thread, and the flash of the emeralds which blinked from her throat and nestled among the feathers set in her thick red-brown curls, utterly failed to outshine the quiet fire of fierce intelligence blazing in her green eyes. She saw Chris, and a small, sympathetic smile touched her full lips, but before she could speak, Percy's voice cut through the air.
"Trouble? Nonsense, Dewhurst, merely acting to halt a grievous wrong!" Percy said emphatically.
The woman laughed; it was a sweet, musical sound of pure amusement. "It appears that something has managed to put Sir Percy in a passion," she teased, her light voice permeated with a lilting French accent. "Perhaps the price of lace has risen again?"
"Alas, my Marguerite knows me too well!" Percy replied fondly with a smile, taking the woman's hand. "But that would merely be an annoyance, this is more of an outrage. However, in your sweet presence, I shall choke my anger off for now." He turned to Chris. "Sir Christopher Larabee, pray allow me to present my wife, Lady Blakeney."
Chris bowed gracefully. When he brought his head back up, he saw Lady Blakeney eying him with gentle compassion.
"Such a great pleasure, monsieur, after all that my husband has told me of you," Marguerite said with a smile. "I must thank you for being such a good friend to him all these years."
Chris glanced over at Percy. "You're very kind, milady, but I do hope he didn't tell you *everything* about our school days together."
Percy barked out a laugh. "Begad, my friend, I'm not that daft! The lady would never speak to me if she knew the mischief we indulged in then."
Marguerite gave him a tolerant smile and turned to Chris. "You see, Sir Christopher, how my husband keeps secrets from me! Perhaps later you will be good enough to tell me of those school days. I believe there was an incident involving a bowl of noodles and a horse?"
Percy gasped and whirled on Dewhurst, shocked. "Tony, you *told* her!"
Dewhurst appeared unintimidated. "Lud, Percy, *everybody's* heard about that one..."
Marguerite gave them an amused look before returning her gaze to Chris. Her expression softened as she took a step closer and gently touched his hand. "But such tales can wait. I have also heard of your sorrow, and I hope you will permit me to express my sympathy for your loss. I am a child of France as was your wife, and deeply regret that the madness of my countrymen turned so unforgivably on one of their own. I pray God will rest the souls of your wife and son, and give your heart peace."
Her voice had dropped to little more than a whisper, every word uttered with complete sincerity. Chris stood awkwardly for a moment, unsure how to respond; this was completely different than the quick, almost offhand condolences he'd been receiving all evening. He'd expected Marguerite, a former actress, to be superficial and posturing, but as he looked into her eyes, he recognized the light of understanding, as if she knew full well the horrors that he had faced and despised their cause as much as he did.
Finally Chris cleared his throat and nodded, recovering enough to quietly say, "Thank you, Lady Blakeney. You have my appreciation, and Sarah's and Adam's too, I'm sure."
Marguerite nodded in acknowledgement. As she stepped back to join her husband, a blare of trumpets came from the outer porch, causing a flurry of expectant muttering among the guests.
Percy perked up instantly. "Zounds, it appears His Highness has arrived," he said, fluffing up his cravat and looking at the other men. "To your ladies, my friends! The shocking matter of the silk shall be dealt with before the night is through!"
The others scurried off into the crowd as Percy hurriedly smoothed his lace cuffs and adjusted his jacket. He threw Chris a quick glance. "You may stand with Lady Blakeney and I, Chris, all right? I daresay it's high time you met the Prince. I do hope he remembered what I told him to wear, the royal wardrobe is in a ghastly state, simply ghastly! If he has chosen the wrong cravat, I shall perish of embarrassment."
Chris took his place, checking his clothes quickly but feeling less than anxious about the matter. There was a great deal of excitement in the foyer, and after a few minutes a royal attendant ran into the ballroom, resplendent in a scarlet velvet coat, white silk breeches and stockings, and a large royal blue satin sash draped over one shoulder. The man stopped at the doorway, struck the long black gold-topped staff in his hand once on the marble floor, and yelled, "HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, THE PRINCE OF WALES!"
There were many trumpet blasts and flourishes, and a loud rustle swept through the air as every person in the room executed a deep bow of respect. After a few moments the royal party entered the ballroom. At its center was a round middle-aged man with rouged cheeks and a curly dark brown wig, dressed in a highly ornate green and gold velvet outfit, shining jeweled medals dangling from the gold sash hung across his ample middle. His face had a rather florid air of dissipation about it, but the sagging muscles lit up instantly at the sight of Percy, and as the crowd rose to its feet the Prince made straight for Blakeney.
"Percy!" the Prince exclaimed in a rough but delighted voice. "You're looking most splendid this evening."
Percy grinned and bowed again. "Your Highness outshines us all, I'm sure," was the smooth reply. "Were my suggestions satisfactory to the royal taste?"
Prince George smiled proudly, adjusting the lapels of his gold-threaded coat. "Most satisfactory, old fellow, but I'm afraid I must sack one of my valets. The man cannot tie a cravat properly to save his life."
Percy sighed into his huge lacy handkerchief. "La, how tiresome! The quality of service really has gone down lately. But don't sack the poor rascal-allow me to send over my valet to tutor the man in his duties. He is quite the artist in such matters, and will have your fellow suitably knotting the royal cravats in no time at all!"
This appeared to greatly please the Prince, whose ruddy face broke into a huge grin. "Splendid!" he proclaimed.
"Now, Highness," Percy continued, laying a hand on Chris's shoulder, "allow me to present a most excellent friend of mine, Sir Christopher Larabee."
Chris bowed, wondering what he was going to say to the Prince of Wales.
But the Prince merely nodded quickly, muttered the word "Delighted," and turned his attention fully back to Percy. Chris blinked, but was not terribly crushed, thankful only that he did not have to talk to the Prince while the entire ballroom listened on.
"Listen here, my lad," the Prince was saying to Percy, taking a step closer, "you'll not believe who I heard from a few weeks ago."
"You Highness must forgive me, but I'm far too dull tonight to venture a guess," Percy replied in a lazy voice.
"Well," the Prince said in a vaguely amused tone, "that man from France, the agent from the French Republic, is writing me again-it's the third time now-trying to tell me that you're the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
Chris tensed, trying not to show his surprise. Someone knew Percy's secret! Time seemed to stop for an instant as he felt his skin grow cold-what would happen now? Would they arrest Percy? What would the baronet do now that his ruse had been discovered?
The timeless instant ended, and Chris looked to Percy as covertly as possible, to see what would happen next.
To Chris's amazement, Percy threw back his head and exploded into his foolish laugh. The entire room followed suit, the marble walls ringing with the sound.
Chris smiled, although he was anything but amused, and quickly studied the faces of the room. To his relief, not a single person seemed to be taking the statement seriously.
"Sink me, but that fellow is persistent!" Percy chortled, delicately dabbing at his moist eyes with the lacy handkerchief. "Insane, but persistent, 'pon my soul! Hem!"
"Most persistent, and it's driving me mad, frankly," the Prince confessed. "He's insisting you revealed yourself to him as the Pimpernel, and that you trussed him up in an abandoned theater and left him wearing the Pimpernel's ring to make it look as though *he* were the man! Utter nonsense, of course, and I told him so."
Percy shook his head and coughed, his smile disappearing. "It's more than nonsense, sir!" he proclaimed, his voice now tinged with outrage. "It's slander, by God, to mingle my good name with that of that impudent scoundrel. I, go traipsing off to France in the rain and mud? I, crawling about those horrid grimy prisons looking for aristocrats to rescue? Why, I'd spoil my clothes!"
The Prince shrugged. "I believe I've made my position quite clear to him this time, but he won't be persuaded, I fear. As absurd as it is, he has sworn to the death that you're the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Percy gasped a little and went very pale. With a slight moan he fell against Chris, pressing the handkerchief to his face. Startled, Chris gave a grunt and did his best to support his fainting friend, although, as Percy was over six feet tall, the task proved rather awkward.
"Oo!" the baronet groaned, staring at the Prince. "I simply cannot bear such insults to my honor! To accuse me of such disreputable behavior-" He swallowed and looked at Chris. "It's quite upset my constitution, I fear. Christopher, do be a good fellow and help me find someplace where I may soothe my nerves. I won't risk ruining this coat of mine by falling to the floor."
"Certainly," Chris said in a strained voice.
Percy glanced at the Prince. "Pray do pardon me, Highness. If I may join you later?"
"By all means," was the regal reply. "And calm yourself, Percy, you've nothing to fear. Only a fool would believe that man's rantings."
"Your Highness's kind words are much appreciated," Percy said in a weak voice. "Oh-and do mind that third button on your waistcoat there, it's looking a bit tarnished."
With that he staggered off with Chris's guidance, as the ballroom crowd chuckled fondly and shook their heads at the Frenchman's accusations.
The Prince watched them go, then turned back to his entourage. "Right then, where can a chap find a good game of cards?"
The small room close to the foyer was dark and deserted when Chris and Percy stumbled inside, Chris almost falling over from the weight of his limp friend. Despite its modest size, the chamber was richly furnished, with gilt tables, a satin divan, and a wall full of leather-bound books surrounding them. Pale moonlight slanted in through the tall, velvet-curtained windows.
As soon as they were inside and had closed the door, Chris helped the stricken baronet to the divan, easing him down onto the slick fabric.
"There you go," he gasped, thankful to have deposited his burden. "Is that better?"
"Were we followed?" Percy's low voice was muffled by the lacy handkerchief he was pressing to his face.
Chris straightened and shook his head. "No, I think everyone is with the Prince."
"Ah! Excellent," Percy announced in a firmer tone, dropping the handkerchief from his face and reviving almost at once. He looked up at Chris and broke into a wide smile. "What sport, eh?" he chuckled.
Chris could only stare down at him, thoroughly confused and a little angry. "Sport?" he repeated in a tight whisper. "Percy, that man in France knows who you are!"
"Who, Shovelin'?" Percy gave a small snort and waved his lacy handkerchief dismissively. "Not to fear, my friend, you saw what happened. The man's regarded as a crazed revolutionary fanatic."
Chris felt his teeth grinding together as his bewilderment increased. "Percy," he said with great patience, "forgive me for not feeling reassured by that, but who the hell is Shovelin, and what makes him think you're the Pimpernel? If I'm going to risk my life in this, I believe I'd better know."
Silence fell for a moment as Percy studied his friend, the mirth gradually fading from his blue eyes. At length he nodded.
"Yes, dear boy, so you should," he murmured softly. "Gad, but I should have told you before. I never would have thought he'd write His Highness again, but sink me, I should not have been surprised." He gestured to a nearby chair. "You'd best sit down."
Chris did so, settling himself on the gleaming wooden chair's striped upholstered seat and drawing close. Percy was sitting up now, bathed in the moonlight, a most serious expression on his face.
"First of all," Percy said in a hushed voice, "his name is not Shovelin'. I only call him that to see his blood boil, because demmit, the man is simply too much fun to infuriate! No sense of humor at all."
"So you have met him?" Chris urged.
"Zounds, yes," Percy replied, glancing out of the window. "Several times. Frightful fellow, no style at all. Insists on wearing nothing but black, which is all right, but he wears it without the slightest hint of panache. I've completely lost hope in him."
Chris jumped in quickly, almost beside himself with impatience. "So what's his real name?"
Percy pursed his lips for a moment, the somber light returning to his eyes as he faced his friend. "Well, in truth, Christopher, you may know him from your days in France. His name is Chauvelin."
"Chauvelin," Chris repeated, scowling in thought. An image leapt into his mind of a man, younger than himself but old in zealotry, with lengthy straight raven hair tied into a queue, a long, handsome face whose attractiveness was tempered with an underlying air of subtle cruelty, and sharp black eyes gleaming with blind fanaticism and cold ambition. Chauvelin was one of the highest-ranking members of the Committee of Public Safety, whose task it was to purge France of its less loyal elements. He was also one of Robespierre's most trusted agents, whose dedication to the Revolution and the justice of the guillotine was known and feared by all in Paris. An elegant man with a deep smooth voice, who moved with cat-like grace as he oversaw the arrest and executions of the condemned. Chris had heard of him often while in Paris, and had seen him several times, going about the bloody business of the Committee with ruthless efficiency.
"As you may know, he is quite the dangerous fellow," Percy went on, "and if we ever run into any trouble on our ventures, he will most likely be the source."
Chris glanced at Percy. "And...he knows you're the Pimpernel?"
Percy grinned a little and shrugged, reclining back on the divan. "Yes, but he can do little with the knowledge, besides make himself look like an ass to the English Court. One day I'll tell you how it all happened. I'd love to know how he convinced Robespierre he wasn't the Pimpernel, when we left him tied up with my old ring and some rather incriminating documents. Zooks! But that must have been a most amusing scene."
The dandified nobleman shook his head, sat up and stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket. "At any event, you must know that Chauvelin is a most determined rascal, and is very eager to do all he can to find me and my men, and discover our hiding places when in France." He looked over at Chris, his blue eyes serious. "He is quite brutal, and not above using some rather ungentlemanly forms of interrogation. You must not underestimate him, and you must warn those who join you of his merciless nature. They should understand what they may face if they enlist in this endeavor."
Chris nodded. Having faced the horrors of the Revolution before, he knew it would be a difficult battle; however, the prospect of facing the terror seemed less daunting than the idea of allowing it to roll on unabated. "I'll be certain to tell them, Percy," he assured the baronet, his green eyes hard with resolve. "But if they feel the way I do, it won't prevent them from joining us."
"Excellent!" Percy said with a smile. "Do you feel you've found all the men you require?"
There was a moment of silence as Chris pondered the question. "Well, there's six of us, possibly seven. I suppose that's enough."
"The perfect number," was Percy's reassuring reply. "A small group that can slip in and out quickly, eh? And if they are at all like my men, they will be able to do the work of twenty. Are you familiar with the Fisherman's Rest?"
Chris frowned. "That tavern by the seacoast?"
"The very same," Percy smiled. "It's our rendezvous point in England; the landlord, Jellyband, is quite an excellent friend of mine, and knows all. Bring your men there five nights from now, and we shall set you all on your new adventure. We have been using my yacht, the 'Day Dream', for our journeys to France, and you and your men shall travel with us for now; she is a beautiful craft, and I daresay can easily hold our combined number. I believe between our two bands, we shall drive poor old Shovelin' to distraction in no time!"
He chuckled a little, then threw a look at the closed door. "Well, shall we rejoin the party? I fear Margot will quite forget me if I don't appear for at least one dance, and I simply must address the silk problem to the Prince."
He rose from the divan, and the two men proceeded to the door.
As they walked, Chris laughed a bit and shook his head. "Hard to believe those men were so upset over that, I have to admit. Of all the foolish things to worry about!"
Percy sniffed. "Well, dear boy, it *is* a horrid waste."
His friend shrugged, unwilling to echo that sentiment. "Yes, but to go on like that...If those men were in the League, we'd never get anything done. They'd be afraid of ruining their suits."
Percy stopped suddenly several feet from the door and turned to Chris, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. "Zounds, my friend, but I almost forgot to tell you..."
His comrade blinked, disbelieving. "You don't mean..." He paused, then pointed out the closed door. "*Those* men..."
Percy grinned slightly. "And Dewhurst, are the members of my League, among the bravest in England. Yes, sir, I most emphatically do mean precisely that."
Chris's eyes widened slightly, as he tried to picture that group of fey dandies enduring the horrors of France. "But, Percy, they..." He stopped, suddenly realizing. "It's an act, isn't it?"
"But of course, old boy," was the pleased response. "Begad, can you think of anyone *less* likely to be suspected of being in the League than a group of brainless ninnies concerned only with such trivial matters? They pull it off splendidly, I must say. At times, it's quite a lot of fun!" He turned and reached for the door handle.
Chris paled as a new and horrible thought suddenly occurring to him. "Percy?"
The other man looked back at him, his handsome face expectant. "Hm?"
Chris wasn't quite sure how to phrase his question. "Um-you don't expect my men and I to wear those fop clothes, do you?"
Percy smothered a laugh. "Lud love you, my friend! Not at all. Your men may deflect suspicion in whatever manner they see as suitable. However, if any of them desire to adopt our disguise, pray tell them that I will be more than happy to assist them. God knows London can always use more men of fashion!"
He grinned, pulled his handkerchief out once more, and opened the chamber's large gilt door. Bright candlelight flooded the room as the two men stepped back into the party; another moment, and the door was closed, wrapping the room and the secrets shared within its walls once more in darkness.
The dancers were just completing their set as Chris and Percy rejoined the reception. As they approached the floor, they saw Dewhurst and Marguerite standing to one side, watching the couples swirl past them.
"Recovered, Percy?" Tony asked in a languid voice.
"Oh, yes," Percy sighed with a shake of his head, as the dance ended. "Although I may have to dispatch a strong missive to that scoundrel in Paris, demanding that he halt his libelous claims at once. Perhaps Lady Blakeney will assist me in forming the proper French phrases with which to berate the rascal?"
Marguerite smiled. "I believe, my husband, that you need only send him your latest perfume bill. Surely that will convince him how mistaken he is."
"Ha! So it would," Percy barked. "Sink me, but perhaps I shall insist that he pay the demmed thing as punishment for linking my name with that impulsive jackanapes. T'would serve him right for upsetting me so."
Chris understood that this was all said for the benefit of those around them, so that any eavesdroppers would harbor no suspicions over any connection between Percy and the Pimpernel. He watched it all keenly, aware that he and his men would have to perfect such skills themselves if they were to avoid detection.
The musicians began playing a waltz, and Percy's blue eyes lit up as he turned to his wife.
"La, darling, they're playing that delightful new dance!" he exulted. "I do hope that the company of Dewhurst here hasn't dulled you too much to indulge the wishes of your husband?" He gracefully extended one arm.
The Frenchwoman laughed and elegantly placed one gloved hand on the baronet's elbow. "On the contrary, his company has been most enjoyable," she replied. "And most enlightening as well!"
Sir Percy threw his best friend a look of mock warning as he led his wife onto the floor. "Tony, if you said anything to her about the hot custard incident, I promise I shall flay you alive!"
Tony's unimpressed response was a stifled yawn, followed by a wide smile which was immediately answered. Then Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney were swallowed up in the sparkling sea of dancers.
Chris stood quietly by, watching. He slipped a glance at Dewhurst, wondering if he knew about the new members soon to join the League. But he could discern nothing in the tall nobleman's relaxed posture and bored expression; it was hard to believe by looking at him that he was a member of the League at all.
Turning his eyes out to the ballroom floor, he found it easy to locate Percy and Marguerite among the crowd; not only did Percy tower over most of the guests, but the two of them moved with an exquisite grace unmatched by any of the other dancers.
They were truly a beautiful couple, but as Chris studied them more closely, he realized that their charm had nothing to do with the fancy velvets, satins and jewels they wore. There was an unusual completeness to them as they danced, each looking into the eyes of the other as if no other living being existed around them. There was no trace of the shallow fop on Percy's handsome visage now; as he looked into the face of his wife, his blue eyes blazed with solemn adoration, an expression so intimate and intense that Chris felt almost ashamed for observing it. Marguerite was returning her husband's gaze with equal ardor, her face reflecting a fervent love even the greatest actress in the world could not counterfeit.
Pain seared Chris's heart; had he looked that way at Sarah, the few times they'd danced? Suddenly he was lost in another sea of swirling dancers, his memory sweeping him back into her embrace on another ballroom floor. He could hear the gentle music playing, feel the warmth of her in his arms as they whirled around the room, mindful of nothing but each other. He worshiped her; she worshiped him; and there was no time but that night, no world but their own, a world which would last forever.
Chris blinked, suddenly aware of the moisture stinging the corners of his eyes. Trembling, he drew a deep breath, thankful that no one was watching him as he shook himself from his reverie. Composing himself, he straightened, wondering at the strange vision which had passed so quickly. For an instant it had seemed so real; now it was gone, replaced by a more grim reality, in which Sarah was beyond his arms and the road before him was uncertain and dangerous.
He looked back out to the floor as Percy and Marguerite went past. A sudden pang went through Chris as he watched them; the deep emotion which flowed between them was not simply attraction, but a far more profound passion, one mingling immense love with a deep dread of separation. What could have happened between them in the past, to engender such powerful feelings? It appeared to be more than the fact that Percy was involved in a highly risky venture; the light in their eyes revealed the sort of longing born only through intense suffering, the nature of which Chris could only guess at.
But Chris was not in the habit of speculating over the pasts of others, even those of his friends; his mind looked to the task ahead, which would lead down paths far from the glittering palace of the Prince. As Percy and Marguerite waltzed by, oblivious in each other's arms, Chris observed them in resolute silence, promising himself that he would do all in his power to aid the Pimpernel in his cause, and ensure that neither Percy nor Marguerite would ever have cause to stand to the side, as he did, with empty, aching arms.
For a photograph of the very cool authentic late 18th century court outfit that Sir Percy's reception suit is based on, please go to: