It had all gone wrong the moment that FSB man had come into the kitchen, Lucas would reflect later. But admittedly this was not the time to ponder when and what had gone wrong when and how.
The trouble had started for real when he exited the bar by the back door, as Katerina had instructed. The alley itself seemed blessedly empty and free of any FSB presence, as he had more or less feared there would be. But the alley was abandoned and he allowed himself to take a deep breath in relief. He had made it out. He had gotten his hands on the evidence he needed and he was alive and in one piece. He even had managed to get rid of his attacker and the only visible evidence of that was a graze on his hand that he had not even noticed until he was outside again. But it did not matter. He had a plane ticket and a false identity; he could get out of Russia and the sooner he did that, the better it would be. And he had the evidence of Connie's treachery and some microdot document in his pockets as well. For the first time since he stepped on Russian soil, he felt like he might have a chance to succeed.
But he was being optimistic too soon. Katerina had told him that the alley would lead back to the street and that was what he did. Once he was at a main street again he could take a taxi back to the airport. It was only a matter of hours now before he would be back in London.
But things were never that easy. When he emerged from the alley and looked to his left, he saw a group of four grim looking men on the pavement. FSB. There was no doubt of that. They might as well have had it printed on their shirts and written on their foreheads. The back-up, it must be the back-up Katerina had mentioned that would be coming. And when he looked to his right, he saw another group of four men coming in. There was no doubt that this was no coincidence. He was being hunted.
Lucas hoped that he may have been in time in stepping back into the alley, but he rather doubted that. Spooks were a suspicious lot and he was rather safe than sorry. Panic was making his heart race in a way that suggested he had just run a marathon. He might find himself doing that before long too if his suspicions were right. The FSB had not become one of the most effective intelligence agencies by recruiting idiots. And there were eight of them; one of them was bound to have seen him.
Running might draw attention, but there was nothing else for it. He briefly considered going back into the bar and hide in the kitchen, because that would be the last place they'd expect him to run to now that he had been seen outside the bars, but he dismissed the thought almost right away. There were only two ways out of there and with eight FSB officers in pursuit, it would be only too easy to cut off his every escape route. The alleys and backstreets were a better, not to mention safer, option for him now.
And so he ran, trying to block out all other sounds. If he hard running footsteps behind him now, the panic might take over completely. It was already fighting for dominance, forcing memories of Russian prison on him, whispering that was his fate if he did not manage to make it out of here somehow. It was all the motivation he needed to run as fast as his legs could carry him.
In hindsight he would never be able to tell how long he had run or how far, but he was sure that he had run far. He did not know where he was or even where his pursuers were, but he thought that for a moment at least he had lost them. Lucas was not at all at ease, but he felt that he had at least gotten some breathing space. He would not have any real rest until he stepped foot on British soil again. Now all he needed to do was to find a taxi that would take him to the airport, back home.
He wondered if his information had been acted on yet. He supposed so. Merlin would not let any danger within a three mile radius of Arthur exist, not even when it was not even directed at his king. And he did seem to care about what happened on the Grid for some reason. He would have no reason to keep this information to himself and Ros would have no reason to believe he was lying. By the time he was home again, Harry might be back in his office and everything would be as it should be. It was an altogether encouraging thought.
He was snapped out of his daydream by shouting voices behind him. They were shouting in Russian and now that he heard those, he could hear the running footsteps that accompanied them.
The panic returned with a vengeance. He had not shaken his tail at all. They were still hunting him. But the panic might be a good thing now, even if Ros would scowl at him for being so ruled by it if she ever were to find out about it, because it kept him going, kept him running, even though his body screamed for a moment of rest. And his pursuers were closer behind this time. He could hear them and they were closing in too. They knew this place like the back of their hands and Lucas's knowledge of Moscow was about eight years out of date. They had the advantage and he knew it. What was worse was that they knew that he knew.
The pursuit went on for another eternity, but when he found himself staring at a dead end, he knew he was done for. There was no way out of here – he was in a courtyard with walls on three sides – and he would not have the time to run back and take another alley. Even though he had run for the longest time and could feel the sweat trickling down his brow and back, a cold shiver went through him. Not again. Please God, not again. His hands were shaking as well. Lucas thought he would beg them if he could, beg them to let him be or, if that was not to be, to shoot him and get it over with. Anything was better than to be condemned to hell again, even death.
He turned around, but the sight that met his eyes was no encouraging sight, not by a long way. They were here, all eight of them. There was no fighting them. One or two FSB officers, he might have managed that, maybe even three of them, but not eight.
Don't you bloody well dare give up. Lucas vaguely recalled that Ros had said something along those lines when he had been carried into the van after he had been saved from Morgana's hospitality. He had been semi-conscious at the time and the details were blurry, but the Section Chief's voice stood out. And she would be right. He could not throw in the towel yet, not while he still had the use of his own two hands and he had vital evidence to bring to London. True, he may not win this, but if he were to go down, he could at least go down fighting. It was better than the alternative. He had never regretted not having a gun more. He would have stood more of a chance, especially because his opponents were in the possession of them.
The FSB officers knew that they had him, that he had nowhere to run. They also knew that, when it came to a fight, he could never win. Lucas saw smiles appearing.
But those were short-lived when all of a sudden a storm started and not just any storm, but a whirlwind. And it was far too sudden to be natural. One might almost say that it was magical.
Lucas felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. Had he not seen Morgana do this, had he not been in such a whirlwind himself, he might never have realised what was happening, but he did. And there was only one person Lucas knew about that was capable of doing this.
And that was very unlike the FSB officers, who stared at the storm with barely concealed confusion and, in two cases, even fear. The chances had turned and Lucas could feel the smile Merlin thought of as creepy find its way onto his face. He was not lost yet, quite the contrary. The FSB did not stand any chance against what Merlin could do.
To his surprise though the warlock was not alone. When the storm ended as abruptly as it had begun, Lucas did not only see the familiar figure of Arthur's servant, looking like he had encountered a ghost, but also a young man with dark hair, several years younger than Merlin by the looks of it.
'Are you all right?' Merlin did not sound like Merlin at all. He sounded worried. Come to think of it, Merlin sounded like he would sound when he was afraid something bad had happened to Arthur. Lucas had never found himself on the receiving end of such a tone of voice.
'You bloody well took your time,' he commented, in an attempt at flippancy, not knowing what to do with the concern.
The FSB officers were still in the process of processing what on earth had just happened. Lucas imagined that they would not know what to do with this. Heaven knew he had not believed in such a thing as magic until he had seen it with his own eyes, that first time when Merlin tried to magically blast out the door of one of the basement holding cells.
One of them had recovered himself. 'Drop your weapons!' he demanded in heavily accented English.
Merlin's companion, dressed like a knight of Camelot, even if Lucas was certain he had not seen him when he had been in Camelot, did not listen. Quite the contrary, he drew his sword. The sound of it conveyed his intention well enough. He was however the only one of them who had a weapon at his disposal.
Another Russian, who looked particularly unnerved by what he had just seen, pulled the trigger of his gun. Lucas ducked, a habit borne of years of experience in the Service, but he should not have bothered; the bullet was deflected on the magical shield Merlin had conjured up. 'Stay back,' he warned them. His voice sounded cold now, unforgiving, a tone of voice Lucas was familiar with. 'Don't come any closer.'
Lucas moved to stand between Merlin and his yet unknown friend. The young man looked unkind and determined. The expression on Merlin's face seemed to be an exact copy. It was an expression that did not seem to suit him at all.
One of the FSB officers was rapping a report into his phone. Lucas was out of earshot, but he'd bet this month's salary that he was calling for more back-up and even the powerful Merlin could only take so many. But they could not yet afford to leave, because even disappearing in a whirlwind took some time and in that time they could all three of them get shot. And Lucas had no intention of getting shot in the foreseeable future.
Merlin's friend had seen the man on the phone as well and reacted to it by throwing a knife at him. The Russian stood a bit off to the left side, which meant that he had to throw in front of Merlin and Lucas to hit him. But he was young and quite possibly fairly inexperienced, and his aim was a bit off. Lucas had to step back and drag Merlin back with him to avoid that either one of them would end up with a knife in the throat. The second knife the young man threw did hit the target though. The FSB officer fell to the ground, dead. His aim had not been off in the slightest.
This action had made shooting fair game. The FSB may be utterly unfamiliar with knights and warlocks, but they knew an attack when they saw one, and if they had the word retreat in their dictionary, Lucas had never seen any proof of it. Magic or no, they had orders that Lucas, and the information he carried, were not to leave the country. And whether that ended up with Lucas either taken prisoner or dead, that did not seem to matter to them.
But they were going up against the most powerful warlock to ever live. Merlin may not look it and Lucas himself had been sceptical about it himself – Merlin had not exactly shown much impressive magic during Operation Camelot – but there was no doubt that he was powerful. He did a step forward as he threw his hands forward. 'Scildan!' he commanded. 'Astrice!'
The first spell made a shield rise up in the air between them and the Russians, the second blew three of them off their feet. Lucas was fairly certain that at least one, maybe two of them, did not survive the collision with the wall against which they were thrown. It was a new side to Merlin, one that he had not seen before and one that he, if he was really honest, found a bit frightening. People tended to underestimate Merlin, because he was so singularly not dangerous looking, but that happy goofy grin was not necessarily anything more than a mask.
Lucas stayed a bit back during the fight. It was something he wasn't used to. He was used to being in the thick of it, but today he was the only one unarmed and apparently he was the one in need of rescuing. Even Merlin's friend, who only had a sword, gave the impression of wanting to join in the fight. And apparently he had more than just a sword as a weapon; he too sent a spell at the Russians. But he was standing half behind Merlin and his aim was not straight again. Had Merlin not done a step to the left, the spell would have hit him instead of the two FSB officers who were blasted back and fell to the street. They did not get up again.
Merlin took care of the last of the FSB squad and turned back to Lucas, beckoning his friend with him. He looked jumpy and ill at ease, but he managed a tentative smile. Lucas could at least understand that. The two of them had never been good friends, had even been enemies at one point, and it had influenced how they treated the other ever since. What should they say?
Lucas settled for the Ros Myers approach: sarcasm. 'You couldn't choose anything a bit more spectacular?' he inquired mockingly.
Merlin arched an eyebrow in what appeared to be surprise, but then recognised what Lucas was doing and he joined in with something that looked remarkably like relief. 'You're just like Arthur,' he commented. 'There's just no pleasing you sometimes.'
Flippancy was good, Lucas supposed. 'Who's your friend?' he asked, looking at the young man with the bad aim.
Aforementioned young man smiled, but that, like the sarcasm Lucas had just used, seemed to be copied from Ros Myers; it didn't reach his eyes. Lucas had seen that same look in the eyes of his tormentors in prison and the resemblance was so strong that he could not suppress the cold shiver that went down his spine. Spooks may be a suspicious lot, but they also had a sixth sense for danger.
'My name is Mordred,' he replied. The smile was still plastered on his face. 'Shall we go back?'
Merlin nodded and Lucas found himself doing the same, but his eyes remained fixed on Mordred. He knew the legends reasonably well, but he knew from experience that quite a bit was in reality quite a bit different from how legend would have them believe. The basic things were the same though. Morgana had indeed been bad, Arthur was good. Mordred, according to legend, was bad. An alarming thought wriggled its way into his head and made itself comfortable there: Mordred's bad aim was not a bad aim at all…
Arthur hid behind a pillar, the way he had done when he was ten years old and he played hide and seek with Morgana in the council chamber. That was where the similarities ended though. When he was ten years old he had not been trying to catch traitors and there would not have been dire consequences when he was found out before the time was right either. When he was ten years old, his definition of betrayal was when Morgana told Uther that he had been hiding in the stables in order to get away from his lessons again. Arthur rather thought that had been a simpler time in a simpler world and therefore preferable over the day and age he now found himself in.
Or maybe it had nothing to do with which land and which era one lived in. Maybe his father had shielded him from the worst and now that he was grown up, he got to see the world and the people that lived in it for real and that included all the bad sides. And Arthur Pendragon had seen far worse betrayals that his half-sister running to his father to tell on him. Morgana, Agravaine… But he had never expected that he would face it in London as well.
Arthur had never seen himself as truly a part of Section D. He had never been made to feel truly welcome here and he knew that his skills in spying were not up to scratch, something Ros never tired of reminding him. But Connie had taken him under her wing and Arthur found that, albeit with some difficulty, he could keep up when necessary. Occasionally, he even felt like he was really contributing to the success of an operation.
And now he had found out that the woman he had looked to for guidance, the grandmother-like figure who had been kind to him in her own unique way from the moment he had stepped foot on the Grid, was a traitor. He would not deny that this hurt. Another betrayal and in a place where he had least expected it. Would it ever end? If even in London he was not free of it, then what hope did he have for Camelot?
He could see her now, on the telephone, as she marched across the Grid. Had he not known better, Arthur would have believed her to be working on just another normal operation, calling some official or other to find out something about what Al-Qaeda was doing. As it was, it was far more likely that she was arranging her own escape route.
And that was a theory that was confirmed when she took her handbag and walked over to the pods. What vexed the king of Camelot was how calm she was, how in control. Good grief, she did not even give the impression of being nervous or otherwise ill at ease. She had just killed a man, had condemned him to bleed to death all alone. Ben had been alone in the end and Arthur did not need a vivid imagination to imagine just how bad that would have been. Arthur knew there was a realistic chance that he would not die of old age in his own bed and he had no objections to that, but he hoped that he at least would not be on his own when the end came. Ben had been and it made him all the more angry.
'Step away from the pods.' Ros sounded even more furious than Arthur felt; her voice was low, almost soft, but it vibrated with hatred and loathing. Arthur had never seen Ros Myers in a state of shock before, but he had seen it when they had found Ben's body. Her face was as pale as a sheet and he thought that she might actually start to cry, something that was not like her at all either. She had not stayed in the paper archive any longer than two, maybe three, seconds before she had turned away and all but fled.
'Something the matter?' Connie did stop and looked at Ros in what appeared to be surprise, but where this woman was concerned, they could take nothing for granted. She had deceived all of them and none of them had ever suspected that something about her was not as it should be. Maybe it should Arthur make feel a bit better about himself that Ros had been as blind to her treason as the king himself had been, but it didn't. Time and again he failed to notice the betrayal that was taking place right under his very nose until it was too late. And he had known Connie reasonably well, or so he thought.
'Operation Renaissance.' Ros all but spat the words. There was no sign of shock on her face. The anger had replaced any grief she might have felt at Ben's death and in a way it was reassuring, something that had not changed, even if Arthur found his world turned upside down once again. 'That's when they turned you, isn't it? You and Harry working to persuade the Russians they had a mole. He came back from Moscow the same.' She snapped her fingers. 'You didn't.'
The finger snap was his cue. Dolby had, after another shouting match with Ros, agreed to seal off the building. Apparently the proof the file about the operation had offered was not enough for Dolby to arrest Connie – or he had been too busy processing the fact that he had stupidly passed the Sugarhorse names on to the very person who had betrayed Sugarhorse to the Russians in the first place – and it was only after he had learned of Ben's death that he had paled until he was so white that Arthur would have mistaken him for a corpse, had he not known better, and he had ordered security to do as Ros asked and, to the king's relief, to get Harry Pearce released with immediate effect. At least they had managed to achieve that, even if they had not been able to salvage the Sugarhorse network. It was only a small consolation, but after this disastrous day even the smallest consolation was welcome news.
Arthur was not the only one to come out of hiding when Ros gave the sign. Security came forth as well and restrained Connie before she could make a dash for the pods and escape at the last possible second. The rest of the core team, as in so far present and alive, followed Arthur's example. Jo still looked shaky and her eyes were still red from the crying she had done. Malcolm, on the other end, looked even more restrained than he usually was.
Connie's smile was positively evil. 'You realise it's too late? I've already sent the names.' Even now that she was caught, she did not seem too concerned about her fate, even though with all her experience she would know better than anyone in this room what awaited her. It was almost, Arthur observed warily, as if she knew something the rest of them did not, something that would keep her out of prison. And that was unlikely to mean anything good.
'Not the right names, I'm afraid.' He was distracted at the familiar voice of Harry Pearce. The Section Head looked pale and exhausted, but the very fact that he was back on the Grid tempted Jo into a tentative smile and made Malcolm seem just a little bit more at ease. Ros was the only one who did not give a physical reaction, even though her boss's release must mean the most to her, considering what he meant to her. The Section Chief never took her eyes of the former intelligence analyst. 'Names I gave to Richard because I knew you'd be working hard to get him to trust you.'
'Almost made it.' Connie, in reaction to seeing the man she had so skilfully framed for treason, merely smiled. This was not the behaviour of a defeated foe. This was a foe who still had some tricks up her sleeve. Arthur had defeated enough enemies to know when he really had beaten them and to know when there was still danger to be feared. It reminded him of when he had executed Caerleon, who had died with that menacing twinkle in his eyes, as if he knew that this was far from over. And even though Arthur had not believed that at the time, he had learned the truth of it before long. Connie was exactly the same. This was not over yet. If anything, this had only just begun.
'Almost,' Harry agreed.
'Why?' he heard himself ask, even though he could not remember giving himself permission to do so. He was not even sure he wanted to know the answer to his question. Arthur had asked the same thing of Agravaine and he had not liked what he heard then. It had only made him sad. What made him believe that this woman was any different? Still, he had to ask, had to know why someone he had trusted more than any other on this team had followed the what seemed to be becoming a national trend in Camelot by betraying him, betraying the people she had worked with for so long. 'Why did you do it?'
Arthur was not sure if he even knew the woman who looked back at him. 'Don't get yourself worked up over this, Arthur,' she said. The words coming out of her mouth were the words of the Connie he had come to know, but now it did not seem to fit anymore, not after what she had done. 'It wasn't personal.'
The king of Camelot shook his head. 'You're wrong. This is personal. Betrayal always is.' Her betrayal had failed because of Harry. It had been a relief to hear that the wrong names had been given to the FSB, even if Arthur dreaded to think what would happen now to the people that belonged to the names. He doubted they were even still alive, given how Alexander Borkhovin and Maria Korachevsky had died. But the network was still intact and Connie was captured. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that this had only just begun. And he could not shake the feeling of being betrayed either. 'You just keep telling yourself it's not personal so that you can keep on doing what you're doing and you can go on sleeping at night and looking at your own reflection in the morning.'
There were always excuses, things people told themselves in order to make them believe in their own actions, things they told themselves to justify them. But when scrutinised, none of those reasons could stand up for longer than two minutes. Morgana had told herself it was her right to rule when really it was just her hatred of Camelot and Uther than had made her into who she had become. Agravaine had loaded the blame for his sister Ygraine's death on Arthur to mask the fact that he only helped Morgana because he was in love with her. There had to be more with Connie as well.
'Why?' he repeated.
For a moment Arthur thought she was going to refuse, but then she spoke. 'I did what I thought was right.'
It was the same nonsense he had heard before; some greater good to mask more personal reasons. 'Morgana said the same thing,' he remarked, a hint of sadness to his voice that he didn't want there to be. 'And in the end she was left without friends, without anyone who truly cared about her. Is that truly worth it?' He didn't know why he was still pleading with this woman when by all rights he should hate her for what she had done. And he did that, but like it had been with Morgana, there was not just anger.
The former intelligence analyst shook her head, but not as an answer to Arthur's question. 'You don't understand this day and age, Arthur.' She almost sounded like the kind woman Arthur had come to know, except that he knew now that person was just an illusion. She did not truly exist. 'You don't understand the politics and the balance in the world.' She snorted. 'And Britain is wrong here, just a pathetic little country, putting a fig leaf of British democracy over the actions of a monster.' The smile she added to her words was nothing short of evil. 'Why don't you ask Ros? She will understand.'
One glance at the Section Chief made it clear that Ros would like nothing better than to throttle the elderly woman on the spot. Of understanding was no sign. Apparently she did not even think this worth an answer, because she kept her silence, maintaining murderous glances at the traitor.
Jo shook her head. 'What about Ben?' She may have tried to sound demanding, but she was too shaken to really pull it off. 'He didn't deserve this.'
'I had no choice.' Connie sounded wholly unconcerned.
'You had a choice!' Jo protested, tears in her eyes.
'Sometimes it's easier to think that you don't.' Arthur found himself quoting Guinevere. It was one of her sayings, something that was entirely true as well. 'You did have a choice. You chose not to stay loyal to your friends.' And when it all came down to it, that was the truth of it. It was an ugly truth, one that made Arthur sick to his stomach, but then, treason was always ugly, always nasty and always left both parties unsatisfied and often heartbroken. 'You killed Ben, put Lucas at risk. Tell me, did you sell him out eight years ago as well?' It was just a hunch, something he had quietly wondered about. Lucas had once remarked that he didn't know who had done it, at the campfire during the journey to the Isle of the Blessed, and had added that he may never know. He probably didn't expect Arthur to give it any more thought, and he hadn't, until now. Lucas had been convinced that his arrest in Moscow was not a coincidence and Arthur agreed. And the chances of there being two traitors were astronomical at best.
'I had no choice,' the analyst said again. Apart from her mouth not a single facial muscle moved. She either did not care or put on a very good show of not caring.
Harry looked disgusted. 'Get her out of my sight.'
The guards made to obey. Connie merely smiled triumphantly, as if she knew something the rest of them were yet ignorant of. 'I'm sure we'll see each other again.'
'I sincerely hope not,' Ros said.
Arthur heartily agreed, but as he watched Connie being led away, he feared Ros's hopes may be in vain.