You are on page 1of 13

T he

BESTof MEN
CLAIRE LETEMENDIA

EMBLEM McClelland & Stewart

PROLOGUE
Cadiz, Spain, July 1642

t a sharp bend on the road to Cadiz, Laurence heard a strangled cry pierce the air, as of a man being choked.

God damn, he muttered, reining in his horse. If there was trouble

up ahead, he could not circumvent it. To his left, sheer cliff descended to the sea miles below, and to his right, the barren, rocky hillside rose up too steeply for his horse to negotiate a path. Yet what did he care, anyway, he thought; he had no fear for himself. Urging his mount forward again, he rounded the bend. Some twenty yards from him, a couple of men were assaulting an elderly fellow: one held a knife to his throat while the other searched him roughly. Both thieves were barefoot and scrawny, dressed in rags. They were jeering at their victim, doubtless pleased to have hit upon such easy prey, and so intent on their work that they did not notice Laurence. Nearby, indifferent to the spectacle, a pack mule stood nosing at the dusty earth. Heaving a sigh, Laurence drew out his pistols. Empty as they were, he levelled them at the thieves. Djale, he yelled resignedly. They turned, clearly taken by surprise. One bolted off immediately and scrambled up the hill, agile as a mountain goat.

c l a i r e

l e t e m e n d i a

Laurence watched him disappear before addressing his accomplice, who still had his blade tight to the old mans neck. I said, leave him alone! And get lost before I shoot you. Get lost yourself, you son of a whore, the thief retorted with impressive bravado. I was here first. Laurence could not help smiling. Im not in your trade, and I have money. Ill give it to you, if you release him. He tossed the pistols some distance from his horse, catching as he did so an anguished flicker in the old mans eyes. Wary but curious, the thief squinted at Laurence as he dismounted and reached into his saddlebag. He withdrew his purse and poured from it a few coins, letting them slide through his fingers. Next he shook the purse, which emitted an unmistakable clinking sound, and threw it on the ground. You can have the horse as well. In fact, you can have everything. The thief s confusion was so obvious that Laurence nearly laughed; no sane person would freely surrender his horse and weapons in such desolate countryside. So, what are you waiting for? he demanded, becoming impatient. The thief stepped away from his victim to approach the purse, staring at it greedily. As he was about to snatch it, Laurence moved faster, kicking him in the shoulder. He howled, though he did not drop his knife. Grabbing Laurence by the knees, he brought him down, and they wrestled together in the dirt, rolling dangerously close to the edge of the precipice. The thief was all muscle, his grip on the weapon like a vice. He fought harder than Laurence, who only wished to allow the old man time to escape, and then let it all end quickly. At length Laurence stopped struggling altogether. The thief was on top of him, aiming the steel point at his heart. Laurence gazed straight into his eyes and knew: the thief was afraid. Whats wrong with you, never killed a man before? he taunted him contemptuously. The thief scowled and bore down with the knife. But as the tip of the blade pricked Laurences flesh, he smelt the thief s rotten breath full in

t h e

b e s t

o f

m e n

his face and the stink of it roused his disgust: he was not prepared to die like this. He struck at the knife, which flew from the mans hand, and they began to wrestle again. He was unconscious of his actions, relying on instinct honed by long practice, the blood pounding in his ears and seething in his veins as if he were in the midst of battle. Suddenly he heard the thief shriek, and felt him grow limp and heavy. He thrust aside the body and lay back, panting; he must have managed to fish out the slim dagger that he always kept in his doublet, for it was driven to the hilt into the thief s chest, and his left hand was wet and sticky with gore. He looked over at the old man, who was still beside the mule, his expression a mixture of puzzlement and awe. Youre safe, said Laurence. You can be on your way. Bless you, sir. The mans face, brown and wrinkled like a cured olive, broke into a wide grin. He picked up the purse, the scattered coins, and the pistols and set them down neatly beside Laurence. Then he went over to the corpse and, without a hint of distaste, pulled out the dagger and cleaned it on the thief s rags. You took a wild risk, in letting him have the advantage. To bluff with ones life is true courage. He frowned at Laurence thoughtfully. Or else madness. It wasnt courage, Laurence said, sitting up to accept the knife from him. Whichever the case, you saved my life. The man produced a flask from a pocket in his travelling cloak and offered it to Laurence; it contained cool water, more reviving to Laurences parched mouth than any spirits. Are you bound for Cadiz, as I am? Laurence nodded, drinking. In return for what you have done, you must come to my house there, as my guest. I insist! Laurence hesitated. He would have preferred to refuse, but more thieves might be lurking about, and he did not want to leave the fellow unprotected. Very well, he said, as he rose, wiping his hands on his already stained breeches.

c l a i r e

l e t e m e n d i a

God is great, the man exclaimed, patting him on the shoulder. God is great. As they proceeded together on foot, walking their beasts, the man explained that he was a merchant returning from Tarifa. I had to collect a bolt of silk, and while I was waiting to receive it, my two servants fell ill. They could not escort me back, but I was in a hurry to get home, so I set out alone. What a fool and I could have been a dead fool had you not chanced by and rescued me. My name is Jos Moreno, sir. What is yours, and where are you from? When Laurence told him, he seemed bemused. An Englishman, are you? You dont look like a foreigner and you speak with no accent. Indeed, at first I confess I thought the same as the thief that you were another brigand, he remarked, surveying Laurences garments. Yet with this handsome black stallion not to mention your gold, and your expensive arms you are more of a target for robbery than I. Dusk had fallen by the time they arrived at Cadiz. Jos guided him through winding streets to a passageway between high, forbidding walls. They reached a door upon which Jos knocked several times, in a distinct pattern. A servant as brown-skinned as he admitted them into a large torch-lit courtyard where fruit trees and flowers bloomed; the house was constructed in a square around it, with covered galleries on all sides. While Laurence peered around, amazed that such beauty and luxuriant growth could be so perfectly concealed from the street beyond, the servant bowed to him, handed him down his saddlebags, and led away his horse and the mule. Then Jos took him beneath one of the galleries, saying, We should not eat until we have cleansed ourselves. He paused a moment before calling out, Khadija! A most extraordinary woman emerged from the shadows: she was an African, her skin not black but a ruddy copper hue. She wore indigo robes, with a cloth of the same colour wound about her temples, and

t h e

b e s t

o f

m e n

her ears were pierced with gold rings from the top to the bottom of both lobes. Her hair was dressed in tiny plaits, sticking out from beneath the cloth like so many spiders legs. At the corner of each eye there were three short scars, as though to simulate the lines of a smiling person, and her nose was long and fine, like Joss. Her age could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty years old. Jos addressed her in what Laurence recognised as Arabic, and she went away, head held high as if she were a princess rather than the slave that he presumed she was. Khadija will bring us fresh linen and make food while we perform our ablutions, Jos told him. In a separate room off the courtyard was the bath, wide and deep, like a rectangular pond, filled with scented water. Jos paused once more, regarding Laurence intently as if to gauge his reaction, and then began to undress. Laurence held back, embarrassed by the layers of grime beneath his clothes; he had not been able to wash properly more than once or twice in the past few months. What is it, sir? Jos inquired, as he sank into the water. Are you not accustomed to bathing? Or is it that you have never seen a circumcised man? he added, in a low voice. But I have. I knew a Jew in The Hague. Jos considered this carefully. Could he practise his faith, where he was? I believe so. I hope so, at any rate. Again, Jos appeared surprised. But you are a Christian, no? I am . . . nothing, Laurence said, as he bent to rinse the thief s blood from his hands. You are not nothing in the eyes of God. Remember that. I shall be frank with you, sir, Jos continued. My birth name is not Jos. It is Yusuf. Were you a Muslim?

c l a i r e

l e t e m e n d i a

I still am. There was a silence. Do you regret now that you saved me? asked Yusuf. Not at all though isnt it forbidden for you to worship? It is forbidden these days even to have infidel ancestry. As you may know, more than thirty years ago the conversos were almost all expelled, and amongst those of us left, few are brave enough to cling to our true religion. I could bring the Inquisition down upon me just for taking this bath. So Yusuf had risked his own life, Laurence realised, in inviting him here. After they had dried themselves, Yusuf gave Laurence a clean shirt. My sons, he said. He is away doing business on the Guinea Coast, where I bought my Khadija. She is now the lady of the house. My first wife died when I was still captain of a ship. I have five sons who are grown and gone to sea they inherited my passion for it. At table they were served by Khadija. Yusuf took no wine himself but filled Laurences cup generously. When the plates were cleared, he brought out a pipe and lit it. After inhaling, he passed it to Laurence, who was familiar with the smell: he had smoked hashish as a youth with his tutor Seward in Venice, and on a few occasions since. Relaxed by the drug, he listened more than he talked, yet he began to suspect, from something in Yusuf s manner, that his host was deliberating over an unspoken question. Finally Yusuf put down the pipe. I must ask why do you claim to be an Englishman? I am sure that you have Barbary blood. I should call you a Moor like myself, if it would not insult you. Oh no, Im used to being called many things, said Laurence, amused. Im only half English, though. My mother is a Spaniard. Ah, that explains your facility with the language. Is she in Cadiz? Shes in England. I havent seen her in six years. You have been away a while. As a soldier?

t h e

b e s t

o f

m e n

For most of the time. So what brings you to my city? Laurence laughed shortly. No good reason. Are you by yourself ? Yes. Where will you go next? Laurence shrugged. You are welcome to stay with me however long you wish, Yusuf said, or I could find you passage to Africa, or to the Indies, should that strike your fancy. There is also a ship in harbour bound for the English coast. She leaves within the week. Or would you prefer to travel by land? Laurence shrugged again; he had absolutely no answer. Khadija! cried Yusuf. Our guest is in need of advice. Khadija came bearing a small woven basket. She tipped it on to the table and about a dozen small, shiny, oval-shaped shells fell out, smooth on one side and etched with what resembled little teeth on the other. Pick them up and put them in my hands, she told Laurence, in accented Spanish. Then I shall let them fall where they will, and read them for you. They will speak of your future. Im sorry, but I dont believe they can, Laurence said, forcing a smile. Then what have you to worry about? asked Yusuf. It would be churlish to decline, so Laurence did as she bade. He must pretend interest, he reminded himself, as she surveyed the shells, her broad lips parted in concentration. You tried to kill yourself today, she began, her tone clear and certain. Laurence betrayed no reaction. Privately, he was unsettled. Even if his host had described to her what had happened on the road to Cadiz, there was an earlier event about which Yusuf could not be aware. A woman has poisoned you, she went on, sending a shiver down his spine. Now you are in hiding, from the world and from yourself. Yet

c l a i r e

l e t e m e n d i a

soon you will cross paths with another woman, who will deserve your love. She has the name of a great queen and she will give birth to your child, if you are ready for her. But if you do not spit out the poison, you will lose her. His scepticism returned: it was the sort of vague, trite prophecy that Juana might have invented, assuming that everyone wanted to hear about love and fertility. In his case, this could not be further from the truth. The strange apprehension that he had just felt was probably the hashish working on his troubled mind. Again, Khadija ordered. Obediently he gathered up the shells. This time when she released them they jumped apart and scattered as though possessed of their own force. She absorbed their arrangement and said with the same certainty, You alone can prevent a tragedy in your land, and what you have that was stolen holds the key. What is it that I have? Laurence demanded, his pulse quickening. Can you tell me? Khadija made no sign that she had heard, putting the shells back in their basket one by one. She was too astute to spoil the impact of her guesswork by elaborating on it, he thought wryly. Remarkable, however, that she should have been quite so fortunate. She gestured to him to give her his hands; hers were soft, her fingers slender and pliable as those of a girl. Was he meant to thank her, he wondered, or was she offering him some kind of blessing? Her expression at once tender and severe, she inspected his palms, calloused from riding, and his nails, broken from months of living rough; and she rolled up his sleeves to the elbow, palpating the lean flesh of his forearms with her fingertips. You earn your way with your hands, she commented. He is a soldier, Khadija, Yusuf informed her. Not any more. He makes his living through games of chance. Laurence blinked at her, astonished. And the night this was done to

t h e

b e s t

o f

m e n

you, she said, touching the scar on his left wrist, you played a game that changed your fate. He gasped, shuddering as she caressed it. Khadija, now you are scaring him, said Yusuf. Hell think you are a witch. She dropped Laurences hands and leant forward to murmur in his ear. You must go home. Why? he whispered, his voice as tremulous as the rest of him. That is for you to learn. She slipped from her arm a thin leather bracelet, which seemed to contain something stitched inside. Here it will protect you on the journey, and remove the worst of the poison, she said, looping it about his scarred wrist. Wear it until it falls off of its own accord. As she fastened it, uttering words in another, incomprehensible language, he felt every nerve in his body tense and he could not avert his gaze from hers. Then she ran her hands over his face, as if to release him from her spell, and smiled sadly. He bowed his head, trying to comprehend what had passed through him, and when he looked up, he was half relieved to see that she had vanished. Yusuf was refilling the pipe. Apparently oblivious to his guests unease, he started to talk about the many ports he had visited, and the many occasions that he had braved death when his ships had been overrun by pirates, or swept into storms or wrecked on hostile shores; and he spoke of his love for the ocean, as whimsical a mistress as the goddess Fortune herself. There is no life without her, he concluded, and maybe one day I shall set sail for a last time. He fell silent, regarding Laurence with his dark, hooded eyes, before asking, Which course will you choose tomorrow? I dont know, Laurence said. I honestly dont know. Not so, Yusuf told him quietly. In your heart, you have already decided.

Copyright 2009 by Claire Letemendia Cloth edition published 2009 Emblem edition published 2010 Emblem is an imprint of McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Emblem and colophon are registered trademarks of McClelland & Stewart Ltd. All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency is an infringement of the copyright law. Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Letemendia, Claire, 1960The best of men / Claire Letemendia. isbn 978-0-7710-5271-2 I. Title. ps8623.e899b48 2010 c813'.6 c2009-906992-x

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporations Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program. Typeset in Caslon by M&S, Toronto Printed and bound in the United States of America

McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 75 Sherbourne Street Toronto, Ontario m5a 2p9 www.mcclelland.com 1 2 3 4 5 14 13 12 11 10

The Best of Men


By Claire Letemendia It is 1642, and Laurence Beaumont has just returned to England after six long years fighting and avoiding fighting in the European Wars. Having fled his home to escape the responsibilities of his noble birthright, he has been a lowly infantryman in Spain, a spy for the Germans, and a cardsharp in a Dutch brothel. He has seen horrors visited upon men, women, and children by enemy and ally alike, and he no longer has faith in God, in causes, or even in humankind itself. As the clashes between King Charles I and his mutinous Parliament come to a crisis and England is thrown into civil war, a reluctant Beaumont is drawn back into the world of warfare and intrigue when he discovers coded letters outlining a plot to assassinate the king. Soon the conspirators one of whom is among the most powerful men in the kingdom are in hot pursuit, and Beaumont must find proof of their identities before they overtake him. Pressed into service by the secretary of states ruthless spymaster, Beaumont finds himself threatened on all sides, facing imprisonment, torture, and worse if he makes a single wrong step. The ravishing Isabella Savage, a practiced seducer, wants to help, but may only lead him deeper into the conspiracies within the kings camp. And all the while Beaumont is haunted by a prophecy and by the memory of a devastating betrayal. The Best of Men brings to vibrant, realistic, and bawdy life the battlefields, taverns, and aristocratic bedrooms of the 17th century. Laurence Beaumont is an unforgettable character, and Claire Letemendia is a dazzling storyteller.
Hardcover Amazon | Indigo eBooks Kindle | iTunes | Kobo

Random House of Canada | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads