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The Mechanical Turk

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In the end of the eighteenth century, a chess playing automaton that came to be known as 'The Turk' was devised and toured through Europe and elsewhere on exhibition, where it played a series of matches against many competitors, including in its later years Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

A cabinet with a chess board atop it sat in front of the carved figure of a man in Turkish garb and turban, whose arm was able to pick up and move the chess pieces. The cabinet and various mechanical workings concealed the operator who hid within: the true face of the automated chessmaster.

"All those little men running around, how ever do you keep them straight? This one moves down and back and that one moves wherever she pleases and that whole row only moves down and never back -- and I as much as anyone understand how difficult it can be to make a horse go in a straight line, but never? Honestly." And the speaker laughs as though it was the height of wit. "Oh, your highness, you do flatter me," he adds, still chuckling, "but no, sadly, chess is not the game for Percival Blakeney."

Chauvelin betrays his self-control to let his lip curl in disgust at this pronouncement from that ass Blakeney, who holds court with the Prince of Wales and a number of the other young bucks standing about gabbing like fishwives. The man has said something else that Chauvelin has not heard, but it sends the circle around him into fits, the ladies tittering behind their fans. Sir Andrew Ffoulkes laughs loudly at whatever the sentiment may have been, and the asinine display is enough to sicken him. It's been clear for some time that he has neither sense nor skill to lead the band, but there is no doubt in Chauvelin's mind that young Ffoulkes is a member of the League; Blakeney's display on its own would be bad enough, but it is worse yet to know that this whelp who fawns over the likes of Blakeney is one of those who've been stealing those accursed aristos from under the Republic's nose.

And speaking of –- some middle-aged buffoon dressed in a ridiculous manner that is clearly after Blakeney's fashion walks near, arm offered to the ci-devant Comtesse de Tourney. Chauvelin's mouth quirks and he inclines his head towards her in the mocking suggestion of a bow, and her painted cheeks color a darker red under her white powder, prissy mouth drawing up tight as she and her escort veer away sharply to give Chauvelin a wide berth. The departure suits him well enough. To be sure, there is no love lost between himself and Madame Guillotine's rightful quarry, and he is only too happy to offend her sensibilities and offer himself some small amusement.

He consults his pocket watch to find the time only half past midnight. He has watched the crème de la crème of London society for near an hour now, surrounded by their sickening excess as he's sought any sign of nerves that might betray the Pimpernel's identity. For most of that hour he has seen little besides Blakeney making a spectacle of himself, not even a sign of Marguerite, a misfortune of its own, for he had hoped to speak with her, to try one last time to convince of her folly in staying with that twit. Marguerite St. Just staying in England was like setting a diamond in a tin ring: it sullied the stone.

It was regrettable, he may admit, the way he'd been forced to induce her assistance, and she may even have been more eager to help him if he'd used a kinder means, but politeness and decorum are a luxury Paul cannot afford. Yesterday was for politeness, today is for action. If he does not close the net now, the Pimpernel will go free and tomorrow will be too late for either.

His eyes glance to the clock again, whose hands seemed to have slowed as they've approached the hour of Marguerite's meeting. Patient he may be, but every man has his limits.

"We're near an hour out from Calais," Dewhurst says, a little hesitantly, as he frowns at Percy from the doorway, and Percy can't blame him. Some picture he must make, slouching, cravat undone, face in Lord knows what condition. "I thought you'd want to know."

Percy's mouth twists. "Yes, Tony, thank you," he says, "if you would, could you give this to Ozzie?" and he hands Tony a note stamped with the Pimpernel's seal. "He'll know what to do with it." Tony excuses himself awkwardly, and Percy watches Tony's retreating back with some sympathy. He knows at least part of Dewhurst's concern, for even a ship that sails as true and fast as his Daydream can't make the Channel in less than four hours; an hour out means he's spent far longer than he cares to admit holed up in his cabin brooding. It is a bad time for it, all told, with the men's morale flagging as it has with the news of Armand's capture, but Percy has his own demons to face this dawn.

There is no man more dangerous than one who has no home, no heart to lose, and for some months Percy has convinced himself that he is that man. His life was forfeit to the mission of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the only love in his heart for his fellow man and dedicated to saving their lives from the tyranny of the new republic. But a man's heart may do funny things, and it seems now that every ounce of passion Percy has poured into his mission as the Pimpernel has found its way back to its proper home in the course of a few short hours.

The Scarlet Pimpernel has done many difficult things in these past months: disguises, subterfuge, dangerous escapes under the most eagle-eyed of guards. His adventures have tried his courage, sent him to the limits of what he knew mind and body capable of. But there is no doubt in his mind that none have tried Percival Blakeney's will power as much as allowing Marguerite to leave that footbridge last night without pulling her into his arms. She has suffered too much, he knows now, both at his hands and that blasted Frenchman's. He can only imagine the manipulations his Margo has endured: her liaison with Chauvelin, his deception regarding St. Cyr – how heavy their deaths must have weighed on her mind, on the sweet nature he had always thought her to possess before he had been convinced of her betrayal. When he has returned her brother safely to her, as he had promised her in the guise of the Pimpernel, he will beg her forgiveness for the wrong he's done her. And before that he may have chance to exact some compensation for the price Marguerite has paid from the other source of her pain.

Chauvelin is a damned clever man, and there will no doubt be a trap laid for him when they arrive in Calais, indeed Armand's capture itself may have been largely to provide bait to lure the Pimpernel across the Channel. At least he has the measure of the man now; a known opponent is always easier to defeat in a battle of wits than an unknown one. Chauvelin's biggest failing – aside from his arrogance and blind devotion to a misguided, vile cause – is that he believes too much in what his eye sees, as so many do. It is this fact that has allowed the Pimpernel to hide behind the stupidest, best dressed man in England for nigh on a year, and it is one he will continue to exploit as long and as often as possible, perhaps even this day. The thought is oddly cheering, and it is enough to force Percy from his chair. Near an hour is plenty of time to put on a fresh waistcoat, retie the queue his hair sits in, and do something about his face -- a shave, at least. It will do the men some good, he thinks, for him to take a turn about the decks freshly made as ever.

When he steps onto French soil, it will be with his sword and mind at the ready, and his best foot forward.

It is an uneventful ride, but an unsettling one, as his mind turns over and over all of the clues he must have missed, all of the signs he disregarded. The sense of dread that has crept over Chauvelin has come to feel like a heavy cloud sitting in the carriage, like fog over the Channel. It is a boon to know the identity of the Pimpernel, but that knowledge has done its fair share of damage. Oh, how Chauvelin has cursed himself. To be sure, he's known since he began tracking that accursed Englishman that his foe had a mind unlike any he had known, but to disguise himself as he had. . . . Blakeney had seemed so inane, so ineffectual and empty-headed that it was beyond reason to think he had any connection to the League. Not so beyond reason now, and the antitheses of ineffectual, the plan of a mind so cunning and determined that Paul can hardly fathom it. Every moment that Blakeney breathed, it seemed, he maintained the facade of a brainless peacock -- even in the company of his own wife, to judge from Marguerite's reaction.

He does not know what else may be capable of. And it is only here, with nothing but his troubled thoughts for company, that Paul can admit his traitorous mind gave a moment's pause. So inhuman has the Pimpernel seemed at times, and so complete has Blakeney's deception been -- as though his whole being was a glamour thrown over the eyes of all who saw him – that it is all too easy to believe him something supernatural. Many a time has he heard the guards at the gates whisper among themselves about the phantom that more often than not steals away from Paris in broad daylight.

They have arrived in Paris almost before he knows it, and he shouts orders, threatens his underlings. He has strong coffee brought, and food. Even proof of a real phantom wouldn't be able to save Chauvelin in the report he must make to Citizen Robespierre in a few short hours. There is no sleep for the righteous, it seems, and he must work now to save his own skin, to show the citizen what his next move in this chess game against the Pimpernel—against Blakeney will be.