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Authors: Claire Letemendia

The Best of Men

BOOK: The Best of Men
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INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM FOR
The Best of Men

“Astonishingly good. It’s a novel of conspiracy, passion and treason, set during the English Civil War…. [The] hero, Beaumont, is seriously crush-worthy and the plot full of twists and turns. The read of the year…. Buy it!”

– Imogen Lloyd Webber

“[Claire Letemendia] skilfully reduces all of the machinations that caused and accompanied the civil war to a few heated discussions and even fewer military engagements…. Give Beaumont an automatic revolver in place of his single-shot flintlock pistol, or a fast car to replace his worthy steed, and Beaumont emerges as a Jason Bourne and James Bond hybrid.”


Winnipeg Free Press

“Exciting … [with] a swarthy, wonderfully attractive main character…. The plot will ensnare you.”


Globe and Mail


The Best of Men
stands out. Debut author Claire Letemendia has the right sort of academic pedigree to get the details right…. The reader is swept away in the world Letemendia shares.”


January Magazine

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, 1960-
   The best of men / Claire Letemendia.

eISBN: 978-0-7710-5274-3

   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 Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2P9
www.mcclelland.com

v3.0

To Emily and Felix

He that weareth his heart in his fore-head, and is of an overt and transparent nature, through whose words, as through cristall, ye may see into every corner of his thoughts: That man is fitter for a table of good-fellowship, then a Councell table
.

Upon the Theater of public employment, either in peace or warre, the actors must of necessity weare vizards, and change them in evarie scene
.

Wherefore a Prince may pretend a desire of friendship with the weaker, when he meanes, and must, contract it with the stronger
.

From Robert Dallington’s 1613 translation of the
Civil and Military Aphorisms of Guicciardini
which he dedicated to the “High and Mightie Charles, Prince of Great Britain,” the future King Charles I.

PROLOGUE
Cadiz, Spain, July 1642

A
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. “
Déjale
,” he yelled resignedly.

They turned, clearly taken by surprise. One bolted off immediately and scrambled up the hill, agile as a mountain goat.

Laurence watched him disappear before addressing his accomplice, who still had his blade tight to the old man’s 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. “I’m not in your trade, and I have money. I’ll 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 man’s 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. “What’s 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 Laurence’s flesh, he smelt the thief’s rotten breath full in
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 man’s 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. “You’re safe,” said Laurence. “You can be on your way.”

“Bless you, sir.” The man’s 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 one’s life is true courage.” He frowned at Laurence thoughtfully. “Or else madness.”

“It wasn’t 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 Laurence’s 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.

“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 José Moreno, sir. What is yours, and where are you from?” When Laurence told him, he seemed bemused. “An Englishman, are you? You don’t 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 Laurence’s 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. José guided him through winding streets to a passageway between high, forbidding walls. They reached a door upon which José 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 José 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
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 José’s. Her age could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty years old. José 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,” José told him.

In a separate room off the courtyard was the bath, wide and deep, like a rectangular pond, filled with scented water. José 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?” José 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.”

José considered this carefully. “Could he practise his faith, where he was?”

“I believe so. I hope so, at any rate.”

Again, José 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,” José continued. “My birth name is not José. It is Yusuf.”

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