“Braddock kept a small party of the men nearby at most times. His two regular companions were the executioner, Slater, and his assistant—his new assistant, I should say. I killed the old one. These men, you might almost have called them bodyguards. Certainly they were much closer to him than I was. Whether or not they had his ear I couldn’t say, but they were fiercely loyal and protective and were rushing forward even as the young man’s body fell. They set about the family, Reginald, Braddock and these two of his men, and cut them down, every single one of them: the two men, an older woman, a younger woman, and of course the children, one of them an infant, one of them a babe in arms . . .” I felt my jaw clench. “It was a massacre, Reginald, the worst atrocity of war I have seen—and I’m afraid I’ve seen a great many.”
He nodded gravely. “I see. Naturally, this hardened your heart against Edward.”
I scoffed. “Of course—of course it has. We are all men of war, Reginald, but we are not barbarians.”
“I see, I see.”
“Do you? Do you see at last? That Braddock is out of control?”
“Steady on, Haytham. ‘Out of control’? The red mist descending is one thing. ‘Out of control’ is quite another.”
“He treats his men like slaves, Reginald.”
He shrugged. “So? They’re British soldiers—they expect to be treated like slaves.”
“I think he is moving away from us. These men he has serving him, they’re not Templars, they’re free agents.”
Reginald nodded. “The two men in the Black Forest. Were these men part of Braddock’s inner circle?”
I looked at him. I watched him very carefully as I lied: “I don’t know.”
There was a long pause and, to avoid meeting his eye, I took a long drink on my ale and pretended to admire the waitress, pleased to have the subject changed when Reginald at last leaned forward to give me more details of my forthcoming journey to Corsica.
Reginald and I parted outside White’s and went to our carriages. When my carriage was some distance away I tapped on the ceiling to stop, and my driver climbed down, looked left and right to check that nobody was watching, then opened the door and joined me inside. He sat opposite me and removed his hat, placing it on the seat beside him and regarding me with bright, curious eyes.
“Well, Master Haytham?” he said.
I looked at him, took a deep breath and stared out of the window. “I’m due to leave by sea tonight. We will return to Queen Anne’s Square, where I will pack, then straight to the docks, if you would.”
He doffed an imaginary cap. “At your service, Mr. Kenway, sir, I’m getting quite used to this driving lark. Lots of waiting around, mind, could do without all that, but otherwise, well, at least you ain’t got Frenchmen shooting at you, or your own officers shooting at you. In fact, I’d say the lack of blokes shooting at you is a real perk of the job.”
He could be quite tiresome sometimes. “Quite so, Holden,” I said, with a frown that was intended to shut him up, although chance would be a fine thing.
“Well, anyway, sir, did you learn anything?”
“I’m afraid nothing concrete.”
I looked out of the window, wrestling with feelings of doubt, guilt and disloyalty, wondering if there was anyone I truly trusted—anyone to whom I remained truly loyal now.
Ironically, the person I trusted most was Holden.
I had met him while in the Dutch Republic. Braddock had been as good as his word and allowed me to move among his men, asking them if they knew anything of the “Tom Smith” who had met his end on the scaffold, but I wasn’t surprised when my investigations proved fruitless. No man I asked would even admit to knowing this Smith, if indeed Smith was his name—until, one night, I heard a movement at the door of my tent and sat up in my cot in time to see a figure appear.
He was young, in his late twenties, with close-cropped, gingery hair and an easy, impish smile. This, it would turn out, was Private Jim Holden, a London man, a good man who wanted to see justice done. His brother had been one of those who had been hanged the same day I almost met my own end. He had been executed for the crime of stealing stew—that was all he had done, steal a bowlful of stew because he was starving; a flogging offence, at worst, but they hanged him. His biggest mistake, it seemed, had been to steal the stew from one of Braddock’s own men, one of his private mercenary force.
This was what Holden told me: that the fifteen-hundred-strong force of Coldstream Guards was made up mainly of British Army soldiers like himself, but that there was within that a smaller cadre of men personally selected by Braddock: mercenaries. These mercenaries included Slater and his assistant—and, more worryingly, the two men who had ridden to the Black Forest.
None of these men wore the ring of the Order. They were thugs, brutes. I wondered why—why Braddock chose men of this stripe for his inner circle, and not Templar Knights? The more time I’d spent with him, the more I thought I had my answer: he was moving away from the Order.
I looked back at Holden now. I had protested that night, but he was a man who had glimpsed the corruption at the heart of Braddock’s organization. He was a man who wanted to see justice for his brother and, as a result, no amount of my protesting made the slightest bit of difference. He was going to help me whether I liked it or not.
I had agreed, but on the understanding that his assistance was kept secret at all times. In the hope of hoodwinking those who always seemed one step ahead of me, I needed it to appear as though I’d dropped the matter of finding my father’s killers—so that they might no longer be one step ahead of me.
Thus, when we left the Dutch Republic Holden took on the title of my gentleman’s gentleman, my driver, and, to all intents and purposes, as far as the outside world was concerned, that’s exactly what he was. Nobody knew that in fact he was carrying out investigations on my behalf. Not even Reginald knew that.
Perhaps especially not Reginald.
Holden saw the guilt written across my face.
“Sir, it ain’t lies you’re telling Mr. Birch. All you’re doing is what he’s been doing, which is withholding certain bits of information, just until you’ve satisfied yourself that his name is clear—and I’m sure it will be, sir. I’m sure it will be, him being your oldest friend, sir.”
“I wish I could share your optimism on the matter, Holden, I really do. Come, we should move on. My errand awaits.”