"YOU DON'T BRING ME FLOWERS"
The atmosphere inside the dimly lit, cavernous local tavern carried a variety of odors. It was a musty commingling of alcohol and decaying wood, with a touch of less-than-fresh fish...
And, faint but unmistakable, the fragrance of wild tropical flowers.
Blossoms of all shapes and shades seemed to blanket every vine, shrub, and tree on the East Indian island of Pulau Pulau. Their fragrance bathed the French colony, even seeping indoors. It was a horticulturist's paradise of romantic bouquets.
And on this particular day, it only served to rub in the sense of irritated depression felt by one Jack Stiles, American spy turned exporter's attache turned hero in disguise.
He and Emilia Rothschild, his ersatz employer, had argued again. It was a daily--nay, hourly--occurrence between them, wrought more often than not by the friction of his free-spirited ways against her scientifically methodical precision. But this fight had been particularly heated.
Grunting a sigh, Jack slumped lower atop the splintery barstool and downed his ale, heedless of a hangover--or any more drastic aftereffects. A dozen conversations buzzed around him like the island's fat mosquitoes, mingled snippets of English, French, and the native language oozing past his awareness. But he was too busy sulking to eavesdrop.
It wasn't bad enough that Emilia was a British intelligence agent, his partner in covert operations on this forsaken island to which President Jefferson had effectively exiled him. It wasn't even bad enough that she was radiantly beautiful.
She also had to be the most self-righteous, stuck-up, over-dignified person he had ever known.
To be fair, for the most part, he was having the time of his life on Pulau Pulau. It wasn't every day a born adventurer more or less fell into the role of a masked swashbuckler and mythical defender--the Daring Dragoon, drawn from the legends of the natives.
But that other percentage of the time...
Well, usually when he and Em argued, Jack defended his unorthodox way of getting things done with his equally unorthodox American wit--plus the fact that his methods tended to work about as often as Emilia's intellectualizing. But sometimes, she was as stubborn as he. And when that happened, she could make the volcanoes on neighboring islands look like candles on a birthday cake.
Which was when Jack would gloss over his pride with a choice morsel of repartee, stomp indignantly out of Em's secret lab... and quietly skulk away to lick his wounds.
Right now, he couldn't even recall what the latest blowup had been about. The local brew could have had more than a little to do with that, he allowed.
His cup was empty. Scowling to himself, Jack stood up, dropped a few coins on the bar, and started weaving between tables on a path toward the door.
"Ten centimes to learn your fortune, Monsieur!"
Jack's brows knitted; he peered down at the boy who had stepped in front of him as he came out of the tavern. The lad was about ten years old and much like any other on the island, brown-skinned, barefoot, and with worn clothes hanging on his bony, half-starved frame. But he had quick, lively dark eyes. Jack leaned down, hands on his knees, and assumed a slightly patronizing smile.
"You don't look much like fortuneteller, kid."
"My grandmother, Monsieur." The boy lowered his gaze. "Please, Monsieur... we have no food."
A dismissive reply had readied itself on the tip of Jack's tongue, but the boy's beseeching tone and expression stirred in him an uncharacteristically charitable mood. Sighing, he reached into his waistcoat pocket, and held out a handful of centimes to the boy. "Here, take it, kid."
The boy's eyes widened at the generosity, but he shook his head. "My grandmother and I cannot take without giving in return. Please!" He took Jack by the hand and began pulling him toward the street.
"Okay, okay!" Jack rolled his eyes and followed his persistent young guide across the rutted dirt road, to where an old woman in dark blue robes sat in the shade of a palm tree. She looked as thin as the boy. Her long gray hair was drawn back, and her face was lined with years of life and knowledge. In spite of himself, Jack assumed a respectful attitude as he sat down on the frayed cushion which faced her.
"Ma'am, your grandson won't take any money unless I come over here and have my palm read, or whatever it is you do. But I've gotta warn you, I don't go in for this fortune-telling mumbo-jumbo--"
The old woman seized his hand, turning it over in her bony grasp, gazing intently at his palm as she traced its lines with her thumbnails. Put off, Jack shifted uncomfortably.
"You have secrets," the woman pronounced at length in a faint, reedy voice.
Jack arched an eyebrow. "Maybe I do, maybe I don't."
She ignored his flippancy. "I see you will form an alliance with someone."
"Really. Blonde, brunette or redhead?"
"There is... a woman. Close to you." The fortune teller closed her eyes.
Emilia?Jack was growing more and more interested, in spite of himself. "Go on."
The woman's eyes snapped open. "You are angry with her, yet fear to lose her. Beware. The work you do, the secrets you keep, will put her life in grave danger."
Something deep within Jack's nerves was jangled by the cryptic warning; it struck too close to feelings he staunchly refused to acknowledge. "Okay, I think I've heard enough..." He moved to rise, but she gripped his hand with surprising strength and urgency.
"Do not blame yourself!"
Gently but firmly, Jack withdrew his hand from her grasp. "Look, lady, it's been real, but I gotta go." He dropped a handful of centimes on the cushion. "Buy yourself a new crystal ball or something."
As he stalked away, he refused to accept that the old woman's words were galling him. If Emilia ever got herself in trouble... well, it was her own fault in trying to interfere with situations he had well in hand. It was no doing of his, even if he always ended up getting her out of the dilemmas she created--and even if she claimed the reverse was true.
Reluctantly, Jack started to make his way home through the marketplace he so loathed; he hated shopping. Nevertheless, despite the shoving of shoppers and the calls of merchants advertising their wares, it was the quickest route.
Pushing past a particularly large native, he literally bumped into Emilia. She was standing before Abdullah's kiosk, and looked ready to offer a choice reproach as she turned. But when she saw Jack, she scowled and folded her arms.
Glaring right back, he stepped past her and continued on his way.
He hadn't taken more than ten steps before a conversation in French caught his attention. Three French soldiers stood facing a native merchant across the plaza, and Jack recognized one of Captain Brogard's underlings, Lieutenant Dubois.
"Please, I have no money to pay the tax!" the merchant pleaded.
"That is no excuse!" Dubois gestured at his two flanking soldiers. "Confiscate his goods."
A faint smile curved Jack's lips; finally, someone to take his frustrations out on. With stealthy quickness, he ducked into shadow behind a row of merchant booths.
Only moments after Jack had realized the brewing situation, Emilia too had sensed it, and was drawn from her dark thoughts about her partner. She could predict what was to come. Giving Abdullah a hasty thank-you, she moved through the crowd toward the place where the soldiers were shaking down the merchant.
The familiar devil-may-care laugh forced a smile from Emilia. Looking up, she saw a figure cloaked in red standing precariously on the palm-thatched roof of a seller's kiosk, equally familiar brown eyes gleaming behind a black mask.
"Didn't anybody tell you jokers you've gotta buy something before you can ask for a refund?"
The Daring Dragoon leaped, cat-nimble, from atop the kiosk, landing before the soldiers. At Dubois' snarled command, the other two rushed forward, drawing their swords.
Two opponents were less than a challenge. In a single sweeping movement, the Dragoon dodged the charge of the first, turning to deliver a blow to the man's back that hastened his forward momentum. Unable to regain his balance in time, he staggered full tilt into the trunk of a palm tree, his head impacting with a dull thud.
The Dragoon had not lingered to watch his first opponent go down, but turned quickly to the second, just in time to parry a sweeping sword blow delivered by a man who was a little quicker and more clever. Their blades ground against each other for a moment before the Dragoon's knee came up sharply, slamming into the soldier's gut. The soldier doubled over with a gasp, and the Dragoon seized him by the back of the neck, hauling him up to deliver a tidy coup de grace to the jaw with his fist. He let the man slump senselessly to the ground, then turned to the waiting Lieutenant Dubois, tightening his grip on the sword in his left hand.
Emilia stood at the edge of the watching crowd, holding her ground against the jostling and cheering of a handful of young native men. And in a single fluid rush, her awareness took in two realizations at once.
"Father! Father!" a boy called out, pushing his way through the crowd, just returned from the island's missionary school to find his merchant father the object of a duel between a soldier and the Daring Dragoon.
At the same moment she saw the child--as did Dubois and the Dragoon, who froze in defensive postures--Emilia perceived the movement of a dark-robed figure in the crowd. She caught a glimpse of the tip of a native blowgun beneath the broad-brimmed, concealing hat.
In a moment her mind raced through the calculations of trajectory, and Emilia reacted on instinct.
Hurling herself into the open space cleared by the fight between the soldiers and the Dragoon, Emilia rushed to the child and swept him into her arms, half-hearing a short, low whistling sound. An instant later, she felt a pinprick of fire in her right shoulder. Even as she turned her head, taking in the yellow feathers that tufted the end of the small, sharpened bone shaft protruding from her skin, a tingling numbness began to race outward from the dart's point of intrusion.
Dizziness followed like a physical blow, and she dropped to the ground, the frightened boy ducking out of her grasp as she fell.
Before her vision clouded, she saw a lot. She saw Dubois gaping at her, the Daring Dragoon's presence all but forgotten. She saw that the mysterious wielder of the blowgun had slipped away.
And she saw her masked partner start to move toward her, stunned. For a moment he was not the Dragoon, but Jack.
Emilia channeled all her formidable will into her eyes, forcing him to remember his current identity. He froze, and every spat they had ever had was forgotten as she read his torn and helpless gaze. But at last he obeyed her silent plea, and in a glimmer of crimson, retreated.
Emilia's mouth was dry, and her muscles were leaden. She closed her eyes, for a brief instant wondering if she would ever open them again.
Governor Croque's voice was taut and shrill. He screeched the name like an imprecation, stalking into the home of his own personal physician--a Frenchman, and the only decent man of medicine on the island. Brogard was standing at the doorway of one of Doctor De Ronsard's guest rooms, looking in, and flinched at the governor's call.
Not waiting for Brogard to stutter out a word, Croque seized him by the shoulder and pulled him down the hall, away from the door. He spoke in a hissing whisper.
"Brogard, what happened?"
The Captain's gaze shifted uneasily. "A child got in the way, mon Gouverneur. Madame Rothschild ran out to pick him up, and..."
Croque silenced him with a curt shake of the head and a murmured French curse.
It had been the idea of one of Brogard's men to kill the Daring Dragoon with a native plant's poison, once used by the locals for hunting. A man now well on his way to the remotest post possible--if anything could be more remote than Pulau Pulau--lest Croque's brother, Emperor Napoleon, learn the credit was due someone else. Now, how Croque wished that man were still present to take the blame.
At that moment, one of the doctor's maids stepped from the foyer. Following on her heels was Jack Stiles, that insufferable American, and he looked volatile. To say the least.
"Where's Emilia?" he demanded without preamble.
Croque looked to Brogard, and the Captain gestured for them to follow him back to the room where Doctor De Ronsard was leaning over the bed.
In it lay Emilia, startlingly pale. Her breathing as marked by the rise and fall of her bosom was steady, but faint.
Stiles took one look at her before turning away, his eyes blazing, and his gaze swept the room in search of something he could smash. To Croque's unease, that gaze settled upon him for a moment.
"How did this happen?" Stiles snapped.
Croque shifted where he stood. "It was a native heathen with some sort of primitive blowgun. We... have not caught the culprit yet. But rest assured he will be punished!" Croque shot a stern glance at Brogard, who blanched.
Without answer, Stiles folded his arms and glared over at De Ronsard. "How's she doing, Doc?"
The physician released Emilia's wrist and stood straighter, adjusting his monocle. "Not well, Monsieur. The dart was removed quickly, limiting the amount of poison to enter her blood, but it is a very deadly substance. I must confess to you... I predict Madame Rothschild will only grow worse, and not better. These native poisons are unstudied, and we do not know a cure for them. Two days, perhaps three..."
Stiles growled something under his breath and glanced around again. The destructive look had returned. And his eyes lighted on a tray resting on the bureau, arrayed with De Ronsard's instruments. He stalked toward it.
Fortunately, Brogard had the prescience to step forward and take Stiles by the arm. "Perhaps it would be best for us to go and let the doctor be. And surely, there are affairs of Madame Emilia's business to be put in order..." He stopped, apparently realizing how that sounded.
The American glared potently, then heaved a deep sigh. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"We will call for you at once if there should be any change in Madame Emilia's condition," Croque said placatingly.
"Do that," Stiles replied, and stalked out the door with a last backward glance at Emilia. Croque and Brogard both sighed in relief as the door closed.
De Ronsard shuffled over to the bureau, picked something up from his tray, then did a double take. "Hmm, now that is most curious..."
"What is it, Doctor?" Croque queried.
"The dart which was taken from Madame Rothschild's shoulder. I was certain I left it here, but it is not. I suppose I must have misplaced it..." He shrugged. "No matter. I fear it would not help her. I do not know what could."
Soberly, Croque and Brogard looked at each other, then turned and started for the door.
From De Ronsard's house, Jack went to the home of one of Emilia's scientific friends, a British anthropologist who had spent a number of years studying the native culture. He carried with him the dart which he had secreted away. Word traveled quickly on Pulau Pulau; Joseph Wetherby already knew of Emilia's condition, and caught on to Jack's purposes quickly.
It didn't take Wetherby long to identify the poison, and the plant from which it came--its name a tongue-twister that began with X and ended in two I's. He protested that De Ronsard was correct; no cure was known for the poison. Grimly thanking him, Jack returned to the Rothschild estate.
In Emilia's secret lab, Jack ravaged the bookshelf which contained all her scientific notes. In her years on Pulau Pulau, perhaps she'd researched its poisonous plants. But he could find no reference to it. And two hours later, with a despairing sigh, Jack thumped the last notebook down onto the desk and looked emptily at the scattered books and papers surrounding him.
Em's going to kill me when she sees this mess,he thought automatically, then shook his head at himself.
Emilia was part of his life here. He had to acknowledge that. And he didn't know how to go on without her.
A raucous squawk and a feathery flapping heralded the arrival of Jean-Claude, the carrier parrot, Jack and Emilia's trusted informant and messenger. He was a more intelligent creature than a mere bird had any right to be; Jack had never questioned how. He wasn't particularly sure he would have wanted to know.
"Ah, poor Emilia!" Jean-Claude lamented in his French-accented voice, pacing on his perch. "I have been at Doctor De Ronsard's window to look in on her."
"Tell me about it, J.C." Jack dumped a stack of notebooks from the desk chair and sat down, feeling suddenly weary.
"It's my fault this happened to her! We both know that dart was meant for me. If I hadn't gotten so worked up over that pointless argument with Em this afternoon, I wouldn't have been there, and maybe she wouldn't have either. And it wouldn't have happened."
"And a merchant would have been robbed of all he owned by Captain Brogard's men," Jean-Claude retorted.
"What's more important, that guy's baubles or Em's life?"
"Jack, you cannot accuse yourself of this. You could not have known."
"Not knowing is no excuse." Jack folded his arms over his chest, implacable.
Jean-Claude sighed. "You will not be of use to the people or to Emilia's cause in this state, my friend."
"Hang her cause. My cause right now is more important, and that's saving her life. I gotta do it somehow... I don't know how, but I will."
The parrot tilted his head. I suppose that if anyone can do it, it is the Daring Dragoon. Vive la resistance!" he crowed, and took off in a flurry of feathers.
"The Daring Dragoon," Jack snorted. "Not this time."
Huan-Ji was one of the last of Pulau Pulau's native medicine men schooled in the old ways. Black magic and voodoo aside, he knew more about the effects and use of native medicinal plants than anyone.
He was also more than a little annoyed when Jack appeared on his doorstep late in the night.
Jack stood at the door of the hut, holding a lantern that only served to light the thunderous expression on the old man's face. "Please, Sir. I've got a problem, and you're the only guy on the island with a chance of helping me solve it."
Sighing, Huan-Ji stepped back from the doorway, admitting the uncharacteristically meek American. He knew of this one. But the insolent rogue who served the local exporter now bore an expression of urgency--almost desperation.
"You come, of course, because of the illness of Madame Rothschild," Huan-Ji pronounced.
Jack removed a folded handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket, and unfolding it, produced a bone dart tufted with yellow feathers. "She was poisoned. I got ahold of the name of the stuff, but..." Jack proffered the note from Wetherby. "Nobody knows a cure, unless you do."
Huan-Ji took the note and glanced it over, and Jack breathed a sigh of relief that the native sage could apparently read English as well as speak it. After a moment, he looked up. "I know of this gray-fever weed."
"Is there a cure?" Jack asked urgently.
"There is a chance, perhaps, if the plant which yields it has not died out. It grows on Tapu, a neighboring island, high on the mountain there." Huan-Ji moved to a shelf beside his fireplace and picked up an ancient tome, thumbing through the yellowed pages, then held it out to Jack. The open page depicted a drawing of an exotic, blood-red flower.
"My people called it the fire orchid," Huan-Ji went on. "Its petals can cure the gray-fever. But the path to reach it is a dangerous one--the volcano is the home of powerful fire gods who are angered by intruders."
"If it means saving Emilia, I'll take 'em on." Jack gazed down at the picture, memorizing the color and shape of the flower he was to seek, then turned to leave.
Captain Brogard stood in the open doorway.
"Bon soir, Monsieur Stiles." The Frenchman's voice somehow managed to sound both neutral and threatening.
"What in Croque's name are you doing here?" Jack ground out.
"Did you not think I saw you slip the dart away into your pocket? I knew what you were scheming, and though you do not strike me as the most capable of men, you have your resourceful moments." Brogard folded his arms. "You have been quite clever to find out how to cure Madame Emilia, but I do not think you could survive for more than a few minutes alone on Tapu. Therefore, I suggest we go together."
For some reason, Jack's thoughts went back to the warnings of the fortune teller the previous afternoon. His presence as the Dragoon had endangered Emilia's life, just as the old woman had foreseen--and here before him, apparently, stood the subject of the alliance she had predicted.
Jack laughed. It was a hard, humorless sound.
Brogard's eyebrows arched. "Do you find something amusing, Monsieur Stiles?"
"Life," Jack spat back. "Alright, Captain, I guess I have to do what I have to do. Let's go get ready for our little trip."
"Good fortune," Huan-Ji said softly, as Jack followed Brogard out the door.
Two hours after his conversation with the medicine man, Jack quietly stepped once more into the room where Emilia lay. Behind him, Doctor De Ronsard closed the door.
Jack gazed down at Emilia with a sinking feeling. She was if possible even paler than before, almost ashen in pallor, and her sunlight-colored hair was damp with perspiration. She was so still that as he sat down in the chair beside the bed, impulsively he took her wrist between his fingers. The weak flutter of a pulse reassured him, but not much.
"You didn't look this bad when you made everybody think you were dead." Jack slipped his fingers across her palm until they entwined with hers, squeezing gently. "Well, I got you out of that mess. And if I have anything to say about it, you're going to stay in the land of the living this time, too."
The silence in reply was more painful than he had expected. Sighing heavily, he closed his eyes for a moment. He gathered the thoughts that had been in his mind all night, fueled by his nameless, gnawing sense of guilt.
"Em, Baby, if you die... then the Daring Dragoon dies with you."
The words bore the weight of a promise. He sat still for a moment longer, feeling strangely awkward, then carefully disengaged his hand from hers and stood up.
"Well... I'll catch you later," he murmured roughly, and strode to the door without looking back.
At Jack's arrangement--thanks to his position as attache to the owner of an exporting business, something he had never dreamed he would find useful--he and Brogard would be sailing for Tapu at once. The island was close by, and the ship's captain had assured them they would arrive by late morning. He was an acquaintance of Emilia's, and as concerned as they for her recovery.
Through much of the voyage between islands, Jack managed to sleep fitfully on the deck of the Tristesse. Brogard did the same down below. Neither wanted to, but it had been a long night, with an even longer and more difficult day ahead of them.
Time was crucial if they had a chance of saving Emilia. But when Brogard woke Jack late in the morning, the respite seemed all too brief.
"Wake up, Monsieur Stiles. We are near Tapu."
With a weary groan, Jack rolled onto his back. "Are we there yet?" he mumbled as he sat up.
"That is what I just said."
Jack blinked and squinted in the late morning sunlight. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, he glanced up at Brogard--and then did a double take. "Well, don't we look informal!"
The Captain was out of uniform, wearing instead simpler and more functional garments of a drab gray. He glanced down briefly at his clothing as he replied, "I am not here as a servant of the French government, Monsieur Stiles. This is a matter of personal duty."
"Oh, right." Jack got to his feet and moved over to the deck railing near the bow, leaning against it. Tapu rose from the turquoise waters as an almost triangular mass of green and brown, fringed with a golden beach.
Captain Montereau, master of the vessel, appeared at his side. A Frenchman opposed to Napoleon, he knew of Jack and Emilia's espionage duties, and often helped them by smuggling things--and people--onto and off of Pulau Pulau.
"Tapu is uninhabited, Monsieur Stiles. It is little more than a volcano rising from the sea--it will not be an easy climb for you and Captain Brogard. Are you certain I should not send some of my men to help you?"
"Come on, how hard can it be to find one measly little flower? I'd go alone if it were up to me."
"If you say so, Monsieur..." Montereau folded his arms. "You and the Captain should gather your supplies. My men are preparing the longboat to take you ashore."
Jack grinned wanly. "I can hardly wait..."
The beach of Tapu was a wild, desolate place, empty except for squawking sea gulls, bare except for purple-flowered vines that spilled over the dunes. It was bordered by a forest of palm trees and tall, silver-green conifers. It was into this forest that Jack and Brogard began their hike when Montereau's men put them ashore.
"This place is ever hotter than Pulau Pulau," Jack murmured, using his sleeve to wipe beads of sweat from his brow. He paused to shift the harness of the pack he carried.
Brogard stopped as well, looking impatient. Though he was only half as muscular as Jack, surprisingly, he didn't appear to be uncomfortable with the load he carried--or the heat. Jack grudgingly had to give him credit. Perhaps Brogard wasn't quite the cream puff he'd taken him for.
"Tiring already, Monsieur Stiles?" The Frenchman's tone was vaguely baiting. Giving him a scowl, Jack stopped fussing with the straps and plowed onward through the brush.
"I should have insisted that I do this on my own," Brogard sighed, following him. "You are clearly not up to the challenge of such labors."
Jack bit his tongue to keep silent.
Between the mundane employment that served as his cover, and the necessity of keeping his skills secret to protect the identity of the Daring Dragoon, Jack had seen his public image on Pulau Pulau become that of a weak-willed, talentless idiot. Even here, with Brogard present, he had to continue to play the fool.
He smiled grimly at the irony. Jack Stiles had become Emilia's helpless patsy--but the Dragoon had compelled her more than once to play the part of his victim in turn.
The forest gradually thickened into jungle. Brightly colored birds squawked overhead, and the air thickened with the damp, sickly sweet smell of rotting vegetation. The terrain began to take on an increasing upward slope, no more than an hour after Jack and Brogard began their trek; the climb was only going to become more difficult from here on.
And there was no sign of their quarry, either. Flowers were abundant in the mossy humus between the trees--but most of them were colored in shades of pink, purple, yellow or white. The few red ones they found didn't come close to the drawing Huan-ji had shown them.
Jack slapped at a particularly plump mosquito that had lighted on the back of his hand.
Brogard, who had taken the lead a while earlier, paused in his march and turned to look wryly at Jack. "Are the insects troubling you, Monsieur Stiles?"
"Not at all. I was just disciplining myself for a naughty thought I had."
The Frenchman frowned. "I will never understand your American idea of humor."
Jack harumphed and continued on.
Within the overgrown emerald depths of the jungle, darkness came well before sunset, rendering them unable to continue their search. At length when they came to a reasonably level clearing, Brogard politely commanded Jack to build a fire, then took a pistol from his pack and moved off into the underbrush. Only a few minutes after Jack had succeeded in sparking a flame on a pile of dry wood, he heard a shot.
Brogard returned a few minutes later, carrying the skinned carcass of an animal. Jack knew better than to ask what it was, other than dinner.
But the scent of the meat, as it roasted over the fire, made him realize how hungry he was. He and Brogard settled down to their rough meal in mutual silence.
Later, as he was picking the last scraps of meat from a thighbone, Brogard appeared to make an attempt at conversation. "So tell me, Monsieur Stiles. What was your occupation before you came to Pulau Pulau?"
Put on the spot, Jack fumbled for a moment before shrugging with false good humor. "Well, what do you think? I've spent my whole life--attache-ing!"
The Captain tilted his head to one side. "I can only assume you are fairly good at it, if Madame Rothschild employed you. I know her standards are very strict."
"Boy, are they ever..." Jack agreed, his mind elsewhere for a brief moment, before the first part of Brogard's statement sank in. "And I happen to be the best at what I do, Cappy," he added defensively.
"A bold statement, Monsieur." Brogard took a drink of water from his canteen. "It occurs to me I have heard you speak little of your political views, and I find that uncommon for an American. I am curious, then... where your loyalties lie? Aside from your loyalty to Madame Rothschild, of course."
Jack scowled, hedging swiftly. "Captain, my loyalties lie right here." He patted his belly. "Life has taught me to look out for number one. As long as I'm fed and comfortable, what do I care who's running the show?"
Brogard's expression was blank, with what could only be mild surprise, for a moment before it shifted into distaste. Slowly he stuffed his canteen into his pack. "Monsieur Stiles, you consistently manage to lower my opinion of Americans day by day. Good night." With that, he turned away and laid down on his side.
"Good night yourself," Jack replied stiffly, stretching out on his back.
The bad taste in his mouth wasn't from the unidentifiable dinner. It was from the lie, necessary but bitter on his tongue. He was an American patriot with a deep unspoken love of his country--and an equal hatred of Napoleon's oppression. But his cover demanded civility toward the French authorities he secretly opposed.
A flapping sound in the branches overhead startled him to alertness. Sitting up swiftly, he gaped as he saw the parrot in a miniature French uniform and tricorn hat who perched above him expectantly.
"Jean-Claude, what are you doing here?" Jack hissed sharply. He glanced over at Brogard, but muffled sounds that could only be snores were emanating from the Frenchman's vicinity.
"Be civil, Jack! I have flown a long way!" Jean-Claude ruffled his feathers indignantly. "I have come to tell you that Emilia is still holding her own against the poison. Doctor De Ronsard is highly impressed by her tenacity."
"That's good to know," Jack responded, still a little shortly. "I just hope she stays living until I get back."
"I have bad news to bring as well..." Jean-Claude cleared his throat. "Croque had Lieutenant Dubois arrest Monsieur Subang, the merchant you saved yesterday, for tax evasion. Subang's brother works with the French resistance, and when his goods were confiscated, they found coded intelligence letters his brother had entrusted to him."
"Oh, great," Jack groaned.
"Indeed. If they can crack the code, they may discover the names of operatives opposed to Napoleon--perhaps even yours or Emilia's."
Jack sighed. "Look, J.C., I can't worry about this now. I'll see what I can figure out when we get back to Pulau Pulau, but right now..."
Brogard rolled over, mumbling in his sleep.
"We'll talk later. Vamoose!" Jack commanded, and Jean-Claude flapped away with an insulted huff.
When Jack laid down again, worries crowded in, but at length he succeeded in drifting off to sleep.
He dreamed about a lady friend he'd known in Boston. It was a pleasant dream. Only, he hadn't remembered her to have played so rough...
Jack awoke with a start, to discover the ground was shuddering beneath him. Half-awake, he experienced a moment of sheer panic and clutched at a tree root, seeking stability. There was none.
The tremor subsided, and Jack's gaze roamed across the camp nervously. The fire was out, but enough gray early-morning light was trickling through the jungle canopy for him to see Brogard sitting up, alert and grim.
"An earthquake," the Captain pronounced obliquely.
"No kidding..." Jack warily got to his feet, almost expecting the ground to lurch again. "Tell me that doesn't mean this volcano is about to blow."
"Monsieur, I know nothing of volcanoes. I merely suggest that we get on with our task here and leave, tout de suite."
"No argument here!" Jack hurriedly began to break camp.
The hike, which was increasingly becoming a climb, continued. As the sun rose higher, the cool morning humidity turned into sweltering heat. There were no red orchids to be found.
Jack was beginning to despair. If he let himself, he could almost feel Emilia's time running out.
And time was also running out on the job the Daring Dragoon had to do back on Pulau Pulau.
Jack, he reminded himself, shaking his head. He had made a promise, and he would have to find a way to do this one as himself. And by himself.
Lost in pondering how he could steal the coded messages from the Governor as plain old Jack, his mind strayed from the path before him. Absently he pushed his way through a stand of bushes...
And fell headlong, sliding and rolling down a steep and unexpected slope. His ribs protested vehemently as he crashed against a gnarled black tree trunk.
Rubbing the back of his head, he blinked his vision back into focus, and saw a spark of red before him.
He gaped and leaned forward, taking in every detail of the tiny, fragile plant. A slender maroon stem rose from a nest of leathery olive-green leaves, and at the top of that stem perched a delicate blood-red orchid no bigger than a silver dollar.
Realizing Brogard had picked his way down into the ravine, he turned to the Frenchman in a moment of excitement. "Look, this is it!"
Brogard hurried to his side and leaned down, studying the flower. "It seems so. Congratulations... I think." He let down his pack, removed a small spade, and carefully unearthed the orchid from its mossy resting place.
"Okay, let's get out of here," Jack urged.
Traveling downward, they would make better time than they had on the way up, but it would still be a long hike. Brogard led the way, following the marks he had etched into tree trunks as they passed by before.
As the hours passed, daylight faded once again, but this time they didn't need it. Brogard produced a lantern, and they continued on in the dark.
Jack had become aware of increasing tremors in the ground over the course of the day. And another earthquake, stronger than the morning's, occurred not long after dark.
"I think Huan-Ji's fire gods are getting hungry," Jack murmured, cautiously letting go of the tree branch he had grasped to keep his balance. Brogard ignored him.
"You know, there's just one thing I can't figure." Jack switched topics abruptly as he fell into step behind the Captain. "Who fired the dart? Obviously it was meant for the Dragoon--but I can't see any of the locals wanting to knock off their beloved crimson crusader." He smirked to himself.
"I have not given it consideration yet," Brogard responded stiffly. "My duty at hand is to save Madame Rothschild's life, and then I will find the culprit."
"Oh, come on. What else has there been to think about on this little camping trip but getting your hands around the neck of the guy who did it?"
Brogard paused in his step, almost causing Jack to bump into him. The Frenchman said nothing, but even with his back turned, something in his body language set off warning bells in Jack's head. He'd had certain barely-realized suspicions at the back of his mind, but with Emilia involved, he just hadn't been able to take the thoughts seriously.
"You're holding out on me, aren't you, Brogard?" Jack asked guardedly.
The Captain uttered a resigned sigh and turned to face Jack. "What will you have me say? That it was the plan of the Gouverneur and myself to dispense with that insufferable Dragoon? Oui! And Emilia stepped into the way. The last thing I wanted was to harm her--but it was too late."
Rising anger knotted in Jack's chest. He clenched his fists. "So it was you..."
"What is done is done, Stiles. And if you do not come along, we may lose our chance to undo it." Brogard turned to continue down their path.
Jack reached out and grabbed him by the straps of his pack, turning him around. "Oh no you don't, Brogey..."
Brogard glanced disdainfully at the hands which grasped him, then lifted his eyes and locked gazes with Jack. After a moment, he snorted.
"What will you do, Stiles? Do you sincerely think you can hurt me?"
Jack clenched his jaw. And some part of him decided then and there that Brogard would not leave Tapu alive.
"Okay, Brogey, you've had this coming for a long time." Jack shoved an astonished Brogard against a tree trunk and stepped back, rolling up his sleeves.
"And... just so it's the last thing you ever know... I'm--"
With a startled intake of breath, Jack turned to see the light of a lantern bobbing between the trees, and belatedly he recognized Captain Montereau's voice. He shot a hasty glance at Brogard, who gazed back with a wary expression.
The interruption had broken the spell of rage, and as he realized what he'd nearly said, Jack let out a windy sigh of relief. Shaking his head, he stepped past Brogard and moved toward Montereau.
"What's shaking, Cap? Besides Tapu, I mean." And me... Jack took a deep breath and held it, still not quite believing what might have just happened.
Montereau was oblivious to Jack's rattled state of mind. "One of the men waiting for you onshore reported the earthquake to me. I feared you might be in need of help. Have you had any success in finding the fire orchid?"
"We have it." The voice was Brogard's. Jack looked over his shoulder at him, but the straight-faced Frenchman did not return the glance.
"Good, then." Montereau nodded. "If we hurry, we can be back to the ship within a few hours. I think this volcano is not the safest of places to be at the moment."
"You said it," Jack murmured, and started walking. He didn't look back. Even with the critical moment gone, he didn't trust himself to be near Brogard for a while.
Well, Montereau had unwittingly been just in time to avert disaster; Jack's secret identity was still intact. However, it might be a while before Brogard let his guard down in the presence of Emilia's insolent attache again.
The Tristesse reached Pulau Pulau by mid-morning. Jack, Brogard and Montereau hurried with the orchid to Doctor De Ronsard's house. There, under the French physician's dubious supervision, Huan-Ji took over. There was nothing to be done after that but wait.
Well, almost nothing. Worn out from the trek on Tapu, Jack laid himself out on a divan in De Ronsard's parlor, and slept as though dead until late afternoon.
After waking, his first thought was to find out Emilia's condition. As he stepped into the hall, De Ronsard was emerging from Emilia's room to speak with Croque and Brogard.
"Ahh, Monsieur Stiles, good. Gouverneur, Capitaine, I have excellent news! Monsieur Huan-Ji's potion seems to be working--Madame Rothschild has improved. You may look in on her if you wish."
Within the room, Huan-Ji was standing beside the bed. Emilia was still unconscious, but her breathing was markedly better, and a little of her color was starting to return.
Croque beamed, and Brogard let his shoulders slump as he sighed in relief. Jack himself grinned and held out a hand to Huan-Ji. "I owe you one."
The medicine man waved a hand dismissively. "If you will excuse me, there are others requiring my help." With that, he stepped past them and headed for the door.
"This calls for celebration," Croque declared. "Gentlemen, will you come with me to my chateau for a toast?"
De Ronsard shook his head. "Sometime later, perhaps, mon Gouverneur. For now I must stay with my patient."
"I would be delighted," Brogard said, never one to pass up a chance at the fine vintage in Croque's wine cellar.
A plan was beginning to form in Jack's mind. "Sure, I'm game." With one last appreciative nod to De Ronsard, he followed the Governor and Captain out.
This time, not even Brogard saw him swipe a small glass bottle from the bureau.
Croque's chateau was nearby. When they arrived, he ushered Jack and Brogard into the parlor and called for a bottle of his best wine to be brought. Within moments, a servant stepped in, carrying a bottle and three glasses on a silver tray; Croque had her set it down and dismissed her.
"Allow me," Jack offered with feigned gallantry, picking up the wine bottle and starting to work on the cork. Now was the time for a little distraction. He cast an offhanded glance over the two Frenchmen's shoulders, then did a double take and assumed a sudden look of distaste.
"Hey, what is that, a rat?"
With alarm, they both turned to look, giving Jack just enough time to produce the vial and tilt a little of its contents into two of the glasses. "Oh, I'm sorry, it was just a shadow," he said blithely, already in the act of pouring the wine by the time they looked back at him.
"I should hope so," Croque murmured. "I detest rats."
Just not the one working for you,Jack added silently, glancing at Brogard. "Well anyway. Here's to Emilia's full recovery, eh?" He raised his glass.
"Ahh, oui." Croque chimed his glass against Jack's, with Brogard reluctantly following his lead. Then the Governor sat down on the sofa. "Now, the two of you must tell me all about your experiences on Tapu."
Jack and Brogard looked uncomfortably at each other. It was Brogard who answered.
"Ah, well, mon Gouverneur... there is really nothing to speak of."
"Yeah, what he said," Jack murmured.
Croque frowned doubtfully.
Brogard tossed back the rest of his wine, and yawned abruptly. "Mon Dieu, it has been many hours since I slept... if you will pardon me, Gouverneur, I believe I should retire for the night."
"Very well, Captain. You have earned your rest."
As Brogard moved toward the door, Jack could see him already swaying drowsily. Croque sipped his wine in a more leisurely fashion, however, and he was still alert.
"So, Guvvy," Jack began guardedly, "I heard you had that pesky merchant Subang arrested for tax evasion while we were gone."
"Indeed. And it was most fortunate! For we learned that the man's brother, who has disappeared, has been working to subvert Napoleon's authority on this island. He had left with the merchant a number of letters in code." Croque took a sip of wine, beginning to blink sleepily. "One of my brother's best experts at decoding is on the way here as we speak. As for Subang, he will be executed in the morning."
"Well, good for you." Jack leaned forward slightly to study Croque's face. "Say, you're looking pretty tired yourself. Maybe you should get along to bed. We wouldn't want you too tired to put down those insurrectionists, now would we?"
The Governor rubbed his eyes. "Yes, perhaps you are right, Jack... after all, my worry for Emilia has been quite taxing." Yawning, he stood up and moved toward the doorway. "I shall have one of the servants see you out..."
"No need," Jack replied swiftly. "I think I can find my way. G'night, Guv."
Croque mumbled something as he disappeared through the parlor door.
Jack waited for a few minutes, savoring the last of his undrugged glass of wine, then slipped out the parlor door and made his way to Croque's study. Feeling a vague sense of deja vu, he searched for the coded resistance letters; this time, as he'd hoped, his objective was in the desk drawer.
"Heaven forbid you ever get smart enough to get yourself a safe, Croquey," Jack remarked to no one, stuffing the bundle of letters inside his waistcoat.
He spent the next ten minutes scrawling out a fake set of coded letters with Croque's own pen, an irony he didn't find unamusing. Then he placed the imitations in the drawer, and with one last glance around the room, made his retreat.
When he turned a corner in the hallway, he almost collided with a servant.
"Oh, excuse me," Jack bluffed hastily. "Looks like I've gotten lost trying to find my way out of here after all. Umm, would you mind...?"
Rolling his eyes, the servant gestured for Jack to follow.
Once out of the chateau and home free, Jack started on the shortcut through the marketplace, on his way to stash the letters safely in the lab. He still had a predicament to solve: how to save the merchant slated for hanging. He was determined to do it without risking more lives in the guise of the Dragoon. He only hoped he could come up with a plan in time to steal a few more hours of sleep first.
Running footsteps startled him out of his reverie, but he wasn't quick enough to dodge the small figure that barrelled into him. He grunted and staggered back a step, recognizing in the moonlight Subang's son; the boy started and turned to run away, but Jack caught him by the shoulder.
"Hey, easy there, kid! What are you up to?"
The boy thrust out his chin defiantly. "I ran away from my mother and uncle. He took us to stay with Huan-Ji after my father was arrested."
The old geezer, so that's what he meant about having other people to take care of--he's got Subang's insurrectionist brother and family holed up.Jack shook his head and knelt down to level his gaze with the boy's. "Look, kid, there's a big reason he did that. Why'd you run off?"
The answer was delivered with a child's guilelessness. "I want to find the Daring Dragoon, and ask him to save my father."
That did it. Jack sighed, standing up, and patted the boy on the shoulder.
"I'll tell you what, kid. I'll ask my..." He smiled faintly. "I'll ask my parrot to take the Dragoon a message. Now you get back to your mom at Huan-Ji's place before somebody sees you, okay?"
The boy's face lit up, and he ran off the way he had come.
Jack nodded to himself, a new resolve crystalizing. The people needed the Dragoon--and besides, if he let what happened to Emilia discourage him from doing what he did best, Brogard would win. And there was no way he was going to let that happen.
In the light of lanterns, Captain Brogard paced atop the gallows platform, trying to fend off a roaring headache. He was beginning to wonder if the contents of the Governor's wine cellar were such a prize, after all.
In half an hour, the sun would rise, and the merchant Subang would be hanged. But Brogard was uneasy. The intervention of the Daring Dragoon was past due already; Croque wanted every precaution possible to be taken, to ensure that the caped fop did not sabotage their plans yet again.
As Brogard stalked back and forth, someone bumped into him from behind, and he turned to encounter the bare-chested, black-hooded figure of the executioner.
"Pardon, Capitaine."He must have had a rough night of it too, judging from the even greater than usual gruffness of his voice. Brogard nodded curtly to him. With a slight bow, the executioner moved off, and began to inspect the noose.
There was nothing to concern Brogard there. He yawned and continued his listless vigil.
Sunlight was gleaming on the horizon when Croque stepped out of the chateau, rubbing his eyes. He'd slept heavily, and yet he still felt exhausted. He would have to tell the servants never again to buy wine from the source of the previous night's toast.
At least Brogard was apparently his usual efficient self. The gallows stood ready, guards were stationed in the courtyard, and an audience had gathered to watch the hanging of Subang... or the arrival of the Daring Dragoon.
As Croque nodded in satisfaction, Brogard ascended the steps. "Everything is in readiness, mon Gouverneur."
"Very well." Croque moved to the bottom step, hands clasped behind his back, glossing over his hangover with an air of perfectly polished aplomb. He watched with an expression of neutrality as the condemned man was led up onto the platform, the noose fitted around his neck. Brogard read the charges, then ordered the executioner to make ready.
"Un... deux... trois!"
The trapdoor dropped away beneath Subang...
And he fell to the ground below the platform, the rope snapping from his weight.
A gasp rose from the gathered crowd as Subang, confused but unharmed, sat up and looked around in puzzlement. And then a cavalier laugh rang out in the cool morning air, accompanied by a flash of crimson that swept down into the courtyard from a rooftop above.
"Excuse me for dropping in. I must have left my invitation in my other cape."
"Get him!"Croque howled.
Half a dozen soldiers rushed to obey the order--and Croque watched helplessly as the Daring Dragoon knocked them senseless, one and two at a time. He was an apparition, a red-cloaked demon, invulnerable and unstoppable.
Brogard had stood frozen at the Governor's side, watching the unfolding disaster.
"Don't just stand there, imbecile!" Croque snorted, and gave the Captain a shove that sent him into the fray. Brogard hastily drew his sword and staggered toward the Dragoon, looking not at all prepared for battle.
The Dragoon delivered one last punch to the jaw of a soldier, then turned to Brogard... and beckoned.
With the snarl of a mad dog, Brogard rushed at the Dragoon, raising his sword. Blades clashed. And a shiver went down Croque's spine as he saw the set of the Dragoon's jaw, something in his eyes behind the mask; there was at that moment a fury in him that Croque had never seen before.
Brogard had endured enough humiliation and defeat at the hands of the Dragoon to possess a fury of his own. He fought back all the harder. The Dragoon parried a blow from Brogard's sword and quickly sidestepped, turning with a whirl of his cape--and rushed up the steps of the chateau, straight toward Croque.
The Governor gaped as the Dragoon leaped past him to the top step, but he had no time to panic over the enemy's proximity. Brogard bolted after the Dragoon with a bellow of rage, swinging his sword, and Croque ducked. The blade sailed over his head, slicing a few hairs from his wig.
"Just a little off the top, Croquey," the Dragoon retorted, then shoved Croque out of the way. Brogard was on him almost instantly. Croque backed away, giving his maddened Captain and the swashbuckler a wide berth.
The Dragoon parried three more blows from Brogard before giving him a kick in the stomach that sent him tumbling down the steps. Brogard sprawled on the ground, dazed and knotted up in pain.
"That was for Madame Rothschild," the Dragoon announced darkly, and raised his sword to give Croque a mocking salute. Then he vaulted over the broad stone railing of the steps, dropping into the saddle of one of the horses tethered below. A moment later he had caught up the reins, urged the horse into a gallop, and disappeared through the gates.
"Guards, after him! Brogard, get up!" Croque scuttled down the steps toward the insensate Captain. "That is the fifth horse that rogue has stolen!"
As a bevy of dazed soldiers rushed to pursue the Dragoon, Lieutenant Dubois limped across the courtyard, gingerly stepping over Brogard's limp form. "I am sorry to report that the prisoner Subang is... gone, mon Gouverneur. He must have escaped in the confusion."
Croque uttered a snarl of frustration, staring toward the gates through which the Daring Dragoon had fled.
"Lieutenant... that fits perfectly with my day."
It was evening when Jack visited Doctor De Ronsard's house and found Emilia awake, sitting on a cushioned seat by the window. She was still somewhat pale, but her smile when Jack stepped into the room was one of the warmest she had ever given him. "Hello, Jack."
"Hi, Em." Jack felt a little awkward, wanting to suppress the relief he felt at seeing her well, but not really sure why. Shrugging, he pulled up a chair by the window seat and sat down, resting his hands on his knees. "How you feeling?"
"A little weak. My temperature is still a bit high. But I'm getting better." Emilia smiled. "Huan-Ji was here earlier. He told me all about how the Daring Dragoon saved Subang from the gallows. I'm very impressed, Jack. You actually succeeded in something without my help."
Jack scowled. "You should've seen it, Sister."
"However did you do it?"
"I disguised myself as the executioner, waltzed right up to the gallows, and sabotaged the noose! Then all I had to do when the rope snapped was keep Brogey and his goons distracted while Subang made a break for it. Thanks to Captain Montereau, he and his family are long gone by now." Jack grinned. "And when Napoleon's codebreaker gets here, Croque is going to find out he has a copy of my mother's apple dumpling recipe, instead of resistance communiques."
"Well done, Jack!" Emilia lauded, and smiled mischievously. "So I suppose this means you've decided the life of the Daring Dragoon isn't over, after all."
"How did you--?" Jack fumbled, blushing beet red.
"A little bird told me."
"Yeah, a little spy of a bird in a tricorn hat, I'll bet." Jack grunted indignantly. "That Jean-Claude. He's not a parrot, he's a weasel with feathers."
"Yes, well. It was a sweet gesture, but I've shared a coffin with you once before, Jack. That was more than enough for one lifetime." Emilia smiled at her own joke, almost ruefully, and then a sincerity crept into her unexpectedly gentle eyes. "But I do owe you for saving my life again."
Jack dropped his gaze to the floor. "Well, don't say I never bring you flowers."
A distant rumbling like thunder rolled in from the horizon, and they looked out the window, to see evening sunlight painting thick gray plumes of smoke with brilliant colors.
"Looks like Tapu really has blown its top," Jack sighed. "I guess now it'll be raining ash for weeks."
"Well, it shouldn't be a problem. I'm sure you'll do a simply marvelous job cleaning it up."
Jack scowled--but the word "cleaning" suddenly reminded him of the state in which he'd left Emilia's laboratory. He forced out a false chuckle. "Oh, that reminds me, Em... there's something you'd better know about your lab."
The next person to pass by the door would have heard Emilia's voice, shrill with reproach.