In the warm, dim candlelight, the pale marble might almost have been the skin of a living woman. The man standing by the tomb did not touch the effigy, as if to preserve the illusion for himself; his own face was scarcely less pale than the carved one, and they seemed well-matched in this, although the serene death-mask was beautiful, and his face was not.
There was no other light: he had not lit the lamp; the old-fashioned windows, high and narrow, did not let in much of the thin moonlight; and the priest had gone to bed many hours gone. The gleam of approaching torches was visible through the mausoleum's door even before the sound of hooves reached him. He did not move from the tomb for long, precious minutes, even as the horses came snorting and blowing loudly to a halt outside the door; at last when the boots rang on the stone in the hallway, he bowed his head and crossed himself, and turning made a light, inhuman leap for the window above, catching the sill with one hand and pulling himself easily through.
He came quietly around the building; the horses knew him and did not make a noise, and he was not obliged to kill the three guards, merely knocking them unconscious with the hand-guard of his sword. He lowered the last gently to the ground, took the best mount and set the others down the road back to the manor.
There was a great deal of shouting behind him before he had gone very far, and when he came to the river ford, the water was boiling furiously. The horse threw up its head and refused to go on, but he dismounted and stepped into the water as if he had no fear of being maimed. And indeed, the river cooled the moment his boot came into it, and great gouts of steam rose up; he leaped into the air at precisely the right moment, just as it froze, and came down upon the now-solid surface without being trapped. Now the horse obeyed his quick pull on the reins, and they were swiftly across, the ice melting under them just a little too slowly.
The road lay open before him, winding down out of the mountains towards the coast, and the fresh westerly wind carried with it a powerful smell of the sea, so that the salt he tasted on his lips might almost have been from the ocean, and not from tears.
Jack hopped to the window, struggling with his second boot; Molly pressed an armful of clothing into his arms, kissed him hurriedly, and pulled the curtains behind him as he squeezed out onto the ledge. From outside he could see Harte's lamp moving down the corridor: almost at her bedroom door. He was full of joy despite the danger; a reckless idiotic laughter kept trying to swell up out of his throat, but he at last managed to repress it long enough to summon up a wind to carry him down.
His concentration was lacking, and the air current dropped out from under him before he was to the ground, so that he tumbled the last ten feet and fetched up against a hedge that tore his shirt. But not much shaken, he managed to pull on his coat, stuffing his neckcloth and smallclothes into the pockets, and ran for the wall. He did not bother using the wind this time, the wall being scarcely higher than he was; he only jumped, caught the top with his broad hands, and pulled himself up and over.
He was whistling by the time he reached his inn: something by Mozart; he could not quite remember the name, but he was sure it was from Figaro. His friend Heneage Dundas looked up from his newspaper as Jack came into their shared common room, and shook his head at the torn shirt, the marks of dirt and grass, and the clothing all ahoo.
"Too close by half, Jack, and you will be brought by the lee if you keep this up."
Jack laughed, his spirits too high to pay attention to the chiding. "Oh, Hen, what can he do, so long as he don't catch me in his bed? He cannot call me out for anything less, you know, not when he is wearing two bands and eight rings, and I have no swordmaster of my own."
"No; and you may wish for one all your days at this rate. Lord, Jack, the fellow is almost an admiral, and you will never get a ship so long as he is in command of the port."
"Well, then, I shall have to put up with staying ashore a while," Jack said, grinning. He naturally wished to be bonded someday, as he could not advance to post-captain or admiral without a swordmaster, but that was still a way off; he expected to make his own name first, and so long as Molly Harte was making his stay ashore so pleasant, he was none too loathe to put off his return to sea, and he went to bed singing.
Harte had savaged three lieutenants and a captain so far, every one of his aides was creeping about trying to avoid his attention, and even his swordmaster Ehrlich had left him, going out onto the balcony of the office to amuse himself by pitching acorns at squirrels. The commodore's temper was by no means to be assuaged: he knew perfectly well that he was being cuckolded, and by whom, and he knew just as well that he could not possibly challenge an unbonded lieutenant, not yet even a commander, unless the offense was openly proved. There were too few wind workers, and they too useful in the Navy, for the Admiralty to look kindly upon any man who wantonly slaughtered one by setting his swordmaster upon them, and Aubrey had as much talent as gall: he could already carry wind for a frigate, unbonded, and he was spoken of much for the future.
Harte scowled at Captain Berman therefore, although that gentleman might have expected a more handsome reception, arriving as he did with two Spanish prizes in tow, and continued scowling despite the still more handsome prize of which Berman informed him: "And sir, we were also fortunate enough to find a free swordmaster among the crew of the Gaviota."
The quick calculation of the advantage he should win with a free swordmaster briefly raised Harte's spirits, for as senior officer he should have the right to award the man's bonding; but Berman continued, "Although he is natural-born, and has only two rings; he was aboard, I gather, as a hired sword to the three merchants traveling as passengers."
These severe disadvantages instantly making the man worthless for use in the Navy, Harte was ready to seethe once again, when suddenly he straightened in his chair. "Well, Berman, that is very good, very good indeed," he said, beaming. "A free swordmaster; we must arrange for his bonding at once."
"Sir, perhaps I did not mention," Berman said, looking askance as he caught some sense of the tenor of Harte's thoughts, "but it is not only that he has but two rings. He is not a young man: thirty, or near to it, by my guess; he can never be worth binding for an officer, and he says he can pay ransom," he finished, with some desperation: he saw several thousand pounds slipping from his pocket, for a swordmaster was a personal prisoner, and he would not need to share the ransom with his crew.
But Harte had already seized upon pen and ink to draw up a set of orders, a vicious glee in his face. "Nonsense!" he cried, in almost manic spirits. "Waste a free swordmaster, prime to be bound, and send him back to our enemies? I dare say he has just not had the opportunity to show his merit. No, no, it will be a fine thing for some young officer, I am sure. Thank you, Berman; make sure he is securely guarded, and have him brought here tomorrow morning."
Jack came back to his rooms late once again, almost disgracefully rumpled and none too steady on his feet; there had been a masque at Mrs. Paulson's, and she had a prodigiously fine, lush garden; the grass had been as soft as a bed, and Molly had liked very well to be atop him. He tried to be quiet going up the stairs, expecting Heneage to be asleep; but then he saw the light under the door and came into the common room more ordinarily.
"Why, you are up late," he began, then saw the sealed envelope upon the table and the look of anxiety on Dundas's face; it sobered him very quickly, and he at once took up the papers and opened them.
"Hen, oh, Hen!" he said, looking up with a beaming smile spreading across his face; he did not immediately notice that his happiness was not at all reflected in his friend's expression. "You will never credit it; you have been telling me all this time that Harte would use his influence against me, and look here: I am made commander; I am to have the Regina, and a bonding besides, after you were telling me I should never have a swordmaster, ha ha! I would never have believed it; it must have come from the Admiralty, something for that action in the Livingston."
But his mirth was stopped up after a moment; Heneage remained grim, and Jack could not fail to perceive it, once his initial burst of joy had passed. "Lord, Hen, am I playing the fool? It is never from Harte?" He turned the letter over and looked more closely at the seal; it was familiar. "Oh, Christ," Jack said. "He cannot mean to do me a good turn. You know something of this, I can see it in your face: pray tell me at once."
"I have only heard rumors, Jack, so perhaps I am mistaken; you must keep it in mind," Dundas said. "But it is this swordmaster. Berman brought the fellow in; he was taken aboard a Spanish prize, and—and I believe Berman had thought he would be ransomed."
"Ransomed?" Jack said, stricken. "A free swordmaster, ransomed? How many rings?"
"Oh, Jack—I am sorry, Jack—two. And he is illegimate."
Jack sprang up and paced the room, his face a pale and sickened white. "By God, Hen, that he should bind me to such a—it cannot be borne. I will have to refuse."
Heneage said nothing, only gazed on him with deep sympathy. Jack walked the room three times, struggling to keep his countenance. He was speaking nonsense, of course, and knew it; legally and physically he could not be forced to bond, but as a practical matter it could not be refused: doing so would sink his career at once. He would never be offered a second bonding or a second command, having turned away the first.
He turned to the decanter to hide his face; he knew he was betraying himself. "I suppose there is no chance that he is newly-sprung?" he asked, controlling his voice with an effort.
"Berman thinks he is near thirty," Dundas said, not attempting to cushion the blow. It was old for any swordmaster to still be free; the man must be even worse than he sounded, or perilously unlucky.
"Thank you for telling me, Hen," Jack said. He drank the glass of port very quickly, without turning around, and said over his shoulder, "I will have to be up early, so you will forgive me for abandoning you." He fled to his room, where he spent the rest of the night staring hard at his ceiling and trying to think into existence some avenue of escape.
Morning came first, however, and dull with lack of sleep he scrubbed his face at the basin and dressed. His best breeches were grass-stained from the night before; he stared at the marks. He could never admit it to anyone, but he deeply regretted his folly now. He had never imagined he had to fear any such reprisal; the deep malice of it was wholly foreign to his nature, and he even now could scarcely conceive that he was to pay so heavy and permanent a price.
The papers still lay upon his dresser, however, and could not be denied, so he took care with his appearance: Harte should at least not have the pleasure of seeing him openly dismayed. Jack scrubbed his breeches clean, opened the window and called in a breeze through the sun-warmed air above the black-topped neighboring roof; it vigorously billowed out the breeches and left them only a little damp. His shirt was clean; he took especial care with his neckcloth, brushed his hat and coat, and fixed his Nile medal in his buttonhole: it was due to the occasion, even if the swordmaster was as wretched as report had painted him.
He had no appetite at all and did not try to get any breakfast; instead he went by the tailor's and purchased his epaulette. He had long dreamed of the moment and had in happier days gazed on the bright gold threads with unconcealed longing; now he received it upon his shoulder as the mark of the gallows, and trudged up the hill to the headquarters.
There was pity in the eyes of the aides as he was shown in to Harte's office; he tried to ignore them. Harte was at his desk and did not look up immediately; Ehrlich was sitting idly in an armchair, toying with a knife, and he gazed at Jack with an unfriendly eye. Jack was left to stand before the desk at attention for long minutes, but he was used to such things, and he could see the harbor through the window, the Regina bobbing gently at anchor. She was small, an older brig, but neat and trim, and a powerful consolation: he had wanted a command far more than a bonding, and his spirits rose a little as he reminded himself that he could yet make a name for himself, and his fortune, no matter his partner.
He took no particular pride nor any false modesty in his talent; he had been marked for the sea ever since he had summoned up the wind and flung about the contents of his nursery in a tantrum at the age of two, and it was as much a native part of him as his arms and legs. Most wind-workers were fortunate if they could call a breath of air, unbonded; they schemed from the day they were commissioned to win a strong swordmaster to give them enough power to drive a smaller ship and guide a larger. But Jack had enough ability for that without assistance, and even the worst swordmaster, he thought, could hardly fail to amplify his skill somewhat. And Jack could not help thinking, with some guilt, that if the man were truly incompetent, there was every likelihood he would get himself killed, perhaps even in a way that could justifiably be called heroic in a report, and then there was every likelihood of Jack's being allotted a second and more suitable partner.
He encouraged himself with these agreeable speculations, imagining himself returning laden with prizes and made even more interesting to Molly Harte by a state of mourning. He could not entirely deceive himself into cheerfulness, however, and when Harte at last put down his pen and sat back, lacing his fingers over his ample belly, Jack found his castle-in-the-air dissolving quite away in the face of the commodore's nasty smile. "Well, then, Aubrey; quite ready?" Harte asked. "Bring in Master Maturin, Hawkesworth," he said, speaking to his aide.
Jack summoned his courage and faced the door; then all hope, all spirits went plummeting together: the man was thin, ill-favored and stooped; unshaven, even, and with untidy hair. His fingers and wrists were bare, only the two thumbs adorned, and he looked thirty if he was a day: Berman had been generous. Only the most iron determination to give Harte no satisfaction enabled Jack to control his expression, and he could feel his features take on a rigid cast.
Harte looked triumphantly at Jack and said, in satisfied tones, "Gentlemen, allow me to present you to one another; Captain Jonathan Aubrey, Master Stephen Maturin."
Maturin, having come into the room, looked at Jack, looked at Jack's bare hands, and straightened abruptly, his already pallid face going still more white and bloodless. "What do you mean here, sir?" he said to Harte, in sudden passion, speaking an excellent and clear English, with no trace of Spanish accent. "Captain Berman had said I might pay ransom; and in any case, I am no fit match for a young officer. You cannot intend this; it is a rank absurdity."
Harte was taken aback at defiance from this quarter, and in his corner Ehrlich raised an eyebrow, running his fingers across the flat of his knife: such blunt speech was skirting the edge of insult, and for one moment Jack entertained the wild hope that Maturin should cross the line, and get himself killed before they were ever bound. He was ashamed for the ungenerous thought as soon as it had crossed his mind: Maturin had spoken in his defense, owing him nothing, and surely a swordmaster of thirty would be glad of any binding.
In any case, it was no use: Harte was speaking. "You must be aware, sir, that by the terms of war you are lawful prize, and your bond is ours to award, if we wish it. Besides, I am quite sure," and at this he turned to smirk at Jack, "that you and Captain Aubrey will deal very well together indeed; let us have no more argument."
Maturin turned and looked at Jack. "You cannot be forced as I can," he said, urgently. "Surely you cannot desire this binding; why do you not refuse?"
It was a wretched temptation despite all the reason in the world; Jack stared back at him, hardly knowing what to do. He had never contemplated the idea of an unwilling bondmate; he had always thought well enough of himself to imagine that any swordmaster granted him would be happy for the match. But Maturin very clearly did not care for the idea, despite everything, and Jack found that the notion of forcing the binding was entirely appalling to him: yet to refuse would be the end of everything, and he could not bring himself to do that, either.
"This is quite enough," Harte said, growing annoyed. "Come forward, and give him your rings; unless you should like for me to call in the guards?"
Maturin did not move, but gave Harte a furious glare of contempt that suggested he was perfectly willing for the guards to come. Ehrlich got out of his chair. Jack felt a surge of fresh anger: Harte would be glad of an excuse to make this still more miserable and unpleasant by calling in the guards and causing a scene.
"Sir, I should like a private word with Master Maturin," he said sharply, and dared Harte to refuse him with a look: the situation was a very irregular one, and he did not think Harte would have the courage to say no; he was proven correct, and they were permitted to step out onto the balcony.
Here, however, Jack's invention failed him, and they stood only staring at one another in complete silence. After a moment, Jack took off his hat and ran the back of his hand across his brow; he was sweating, though the morning was not yet run. "Sir," he said; he hoped more words would come, but none presented themselves, and he stopped there.
"Why would you acquiesce to this?" Maturin said, as though Jack's breaking the silence had loosened his tongue. "You are young to be bonded in any case; you ought to be matched with someone five years your junior, not senior, and you cannot think me a prime candidate."
Jack blushed; it was hard to know how to answer this without being rude. Yet Maturin was being very frank, and he felt it freed him a little from ordinary bounds. "I will be honest, sir: I am none too eager to be bonded just yet. It is early in my career, and I have made no name for myself with which to merit a—a choice of partner, but you must see, the offer cannot be refused," he concluded, a little desperately.
"Ah. I see." Maturin dropped his head and turned away, leaning upon the railing. "Did you reject him, or fail to reject his wife?"
"What?" Jack said, staring. "He never said—who could have told you—"
"No one at all; one reason or the other would be the most likely cause for him to force this upon you. But perhaps it was a mistress instead."
"Oh! No; or rather, I mean—that is to say—his wife," Jack said, giving up his instinctive attempts at excuse. "I was very stupid about it," he added in natural candor, coming to lean upon the railing beside Maturin.
They stayed in this attitude some minutes, neither speaking. "I must confess," Jack ventured, "I had always thought that swordmasters wished to be bound; that it was a natural sort of inclination."
Maturin's answer was very low. "I was bound," he said. "She died in childbirth."
"Oh," Jack said, stunned; he recovered enough to offer a few platitudes. "I am sorry for your loss; was it recent?"
"A year ago last month; I am no longer safe in legitimate mourning," Maturin said, a deep bitterness evident in his tone. Yet after a moment he said, "I have been abominably rude, I see; I beg your pardon. I should have made it plain from the beginning: there is not the slightest objection to you, in yourself; it is the general act of bonding a second time to which I object."
"I am glad to hear it," Jack said emphatically, meaning the words in several senses; it was already flashing through him that if Maturin had been bound to a woman, he would of course scarcely have gone into battle, and if she had not been a very great lady, undoubtedly he would not have had many insults to redress. The lack of rings might mean nothing more than the lack of opportunity, and at least the man had been considered worthy of bonding by someone, in the past.
Thus encouraged, Jack found it abruptly easier to consider the matter. He looked back into the room; Harte and Ehrlich were speaking together with many glances towards them, and surely would cut short their interview soon. Maturin still stood bent over the railing, silent and very obviously unhappy.
"Sir, I will not force you," Jack said, very decidedly, and saw Maturin look up at him in some surprise. "No, certainly not; but I will ask you to consider: you cannot hope to stay unbonded for long with this war going, even was you returned to Spain; there is a sad shortage of swordmasters."
"Yes," Maturin said, very low. "I know you are right; it was a fool's hope."
After this he was quiet again, and Jack cast about for something else to say. "That is the Regina, over there," he said, pointing her out: the harbor was prettily framed in a gap between the trees, and the clean white sails against the ocean were attractive. "She is my ship; or rather, would be—that is—" This line of conversation belatedly struck him as somewhat unfair, hinting at pressure, and he dropped it awkwardly.
But Maturin seemed not to take it so; he looked where Jack pointed and studied the ship. "She seems well enough; I suppose you would be glad of her?"
"Oh! Yes, she would do splendidly, for me," Jack said, with eager enthusiasm. "Though to be sure she is a little old, her rigging and sails are all first-rate. I am a wind-worker, myself," this he said a little diffidently, not liking to seem as though he was showing away, "and so, you know, we can go pretty much as we like, and if we get so much as a whiff of a prize I dare say we can catch them. And then, she has six fire throwers among her complement, a great deal for her size; we should do nicely."
"Do you expect a great deal of action, then?" Maturin asked.
"I should hope so, indeed; there is no convoy about to be escorted at present, and so we must be given a cruise in all justice; even Harte cannot keep a ready ship in harbor to no purpose," Jack said.
"Ah," Maturin said, thoughtfully; but nothing more.
Jack looked at him, considering, and took the risk of adding, "It is a hard life, to be sure, and I dare say it is nothing like what you have been used to; but if you will permit me to be so bold, I will say that the work answers very well, for grief. My own mother died, just before I was sent to sea, and I am sure I should have suffered a great deal more had I not been so occupied."
Maturin said, so low as to be speaking mostly to himself, "Yes; it might answer, at that. Sir," he said, straightening, "I am obliged to you for your courtesy, and for this counsel; are you certain you wish to proceed?"
"Why, yes," Jack said, a little surprised at himself to find it was no great stretching of the truth. Yet after all, the fellow was not hard to talk to, and if he was not pretty that was not so very important; he certainly had no air of being a coward, which had been Jack's greatest fear. "But I do hold to my word, sir, and if you do not like it, I will certainly tell the Commodore that I cannot accept."
"No, you are correct that it cannot reasonably be avoided, and if I must be bound, I see no objection here." He bowed slightly, saying this, an old-fashioned courtly gesture that confirmed in Jack's mind his picture of Maturin's past life: bonded early to some country-lady, perhaps a rain caller with great estates, rarely leaving her home, and deeply attached; he felt both very sorry for the fellow and greatly relieved for himself.
They went back inside, and Harte scowled and motioned with one hand. "Very well, get on with it," he said, ungraciously; it was so very inappropriate that even Ehrlich looked away. Maturin spared him barely a swift look, that again full of contempt, and turned to face Jack.
Jack swallowed and held out his hands; Maturin slipped the rings off his thumbs and eased them onto Jack's. The rings were still warm from his body, and they tingled as they expanded to fit Jack's larger hands. He did not immediately feel any different, but when he reached for the wind, meaning only to call a light breeze, it answered far more quickly and filled his senses; he was only dimly aware of a blizzard of paper behind his back and Harte's squawk of alarm as the curtains all came billowing in.
Stephen's eyes were steady and dark, a shining fixed point, his hands resting lightly on Jack's wrists. Jack rubbed his hands together in the formal gestures, letting his fingers and palms caress the rings while his own power continued to flow. The increase of strength was very marked, far more than he had expected, and heady. A flush was rising in Stephen's pale face; abruptly he closed his eyes and swayed, and his long narrow fingers tightened on Jack's wrists.
Jack took a deep breath and released the wind; the bond had taken, and he knew very well what was required to secure it. "Sir," he said to Harte, his voice thickened but steady, "it is accomplished; where may I take him?"
Harte, behind his desk with handfuls of paper, looked up and said, viciously, "Carry on, Aubrey; it would be as well to have it witnessed."
Jack stared at him uncomprehending for a moment; then an almost uncontrollable rage swept through him as he understood Harte's meaning. Catching the surge of emotion from him, Stephen snapped his head up straight and opened his dazed eyes; his hand went to his waist where a sword ought to have hung, and Ehrlich sprang across the room in two impossible strides to put himself squarely in front of Harte.
Jack lost his anger in fear: Ehrlich was deadly, and in the throes of the binding and weaponless, Stephen would be easy prey; aside from his concern for Stephen, with the binding scarcely half-formed any wound could easily kill them both: there were any number of cautionary tales whispered during training about such hideous possibilities. With a perfunctory salute for form's sake, Jack seized Stephen around the waist and literally dragged him out onto the balcony; there he heaved them both over the railing, and called the wind to carry them down into the garden.
The power flowed through the rings again; Stephen shuddered in the circle of his arms and moaned, then began to scrabble frantically at his clothing before they had even reached the ground. Jack blushed hotly and half-carried him into a hidden gap sheltered by bushes; he could feel Stephen's arousal against his leg, and though there was no natural attraction on his own side, there was a startling sympathetic effect, furthered by the intimacy of having his neckcloth unwound, and his coat pushed off his shoulders. He shrugged it off onto the ground and lay down upon it, drawing Stephen down with him. Stephen's hands were pleasantly warm on his skin, if more calloused than in his experience, and Jack knew his duty, after all; he helped Stephen to open his breeches and unfastened his own, and with a last nervous glance he slid them down and turned himself over.
Stephen did not seem very practiced, as was not surprising, given that he had been bonded to a woman before. But even in the grip of the binding, he was clearly struggling to be gentle; and though they were much of a height, Stephen perhaps a few inches taller, he was lean and slight in comparison to Jack's much greater bulk: it was not very painful after all. Stephen having fully entered into him, Jack was able to relax to some extent, and this eased matters further, so that shortly he had even taken a little pleasure from the experience.
But the instant Stephen reached his release, any physical response became insignificant: Jack involuntarily raised the wind, so violent it rattled the doors and windows of the house behind them; the rings upon his hands grew hot; and he came to a wholly unexpected climax on the extraordinary sensation of strength and power which rushed into him. Jack made a small inarticulate noise of surprise and crumpled flat; Stephen was already gone limp upon his back, and scarcely twitched.
By all rights they ought to have had a private room, a comfortable bed, food and wine prepared, and been allowed to spend the rest of the day together in quiet, recovering from the strain and letting the bond settle. Instead, after only a few minutes Jack pushed himself up from the ground and struggled back into his clothes. He did not think it impossible Harte would send guards to find them, and he had endured more than enough humiliation at the man's hands; he had obeyed the letter of his orders, and could not be reproached in regulations, and he was determined to be gone. Stephen was little more than dead weight, but fortunately he had scarcely undressed, and Jack tucked him back into his breeches and laced him up again with no difficulty beyond embarrassment.
No one paid their staggering progress through the streets a great deal of mind; drunken naval officers were not an uncommon sight in the port town, even though the hour was early for it. Jack ended by carrying Stephen upstairs to his room over his shoulder; thankfully, Dundas had gone out, so no explanation was necessary, and at last he gratefully dropped Stephen onto his bed, shut the door, and crawled in beside him.
He woke alone, to ravenous hunger and the sound of voices in the next room; he had slept the clock around, and it was morning again. His boots had been removed while he slept, and a coverlet placed over him. He put himself to rights and went out; Heneage and Stephen were sitting together talking civilly, and there were eggs, half a roasted chicken, and a loaf of fresh bread waiting for him. He tore into the food gladly, too hungry to worry much about embarrassment, and by the time the inner man was satisfied, he could see that Hen and Stephen were easy together: it was vastly encouraging.
Indeed, Stephen looked better: he had shaved, and there was some color in his face still from the previous day's activity. His clothes were still painfully shabby, and Jack realized with a start that it was his duty now to remedy their deficiency. He made several calculations in his head, and privately hoped his prize-agent might be prevailed upon to advance him some money, given the promotion.
"I should be very obliged to you were we to first arrange for the return of my sword," Stephen said in response to Jack's tentative suggestion. "I have not been easy since they took it from me aboard the Gaviota."
Berman handed it over, somewhat ungraciously; he still looked on Stephen with a mournful eye. The sword was plain-sheathed and plain-hilted, saving a broad hand-guard, but Stephen drew it gracefully, and the blade was remarkably straight and true. To Jack's uninformed eye, the steel looked to be of very high quality, almost blue in color, and honed to a fine edge. Stephen bowed to Berman and seemed pleased; it was a little difficult for Jack to tell for certain, his habitual expression being so reserved.
To the tailor's, after, and at last to the Regina; her crew were well-prepared, having been given an extra day's grace by the bonding, and she was in fine trim: brass polished, deck freshly holystoned, sails washed to pure brilliance, crew well kitted-out; Jack took possession of her with great pleasure. She was certainly old, and would not have been a fast ship in the hands of another captain, but her masts were sound, and barring a few rotten spars he hoped to replace, he was quite sure she would hold any wind he could give her. The crew, too, pleased him; the first lieutenant, Tom Pullings, a lean fellow with a pleasantly homely face and an open look about him, his manner neither standoffish nor too anxious to please; the promised six fire throwers, all looking much alike with their close-cropped hair and their red eyes, save for their captain, a black fellow named Carlson even taller than Jack himself; and the rest a crew of solid, able seamen, with a handful of the useful gifts among them in weaker form: a couple of wood shapers, a rain caller, and even a fellow with just a touch of metalworking ability as armorer. The ship's midshipmen were all likely and engaging, too, with one young fellow, Blakeney, a wind worker himself, and the others with varying amounts of water working skill.
Stephen followed him upon his rounds without much interest at first, but after a while the novelty of it all caught his interest, and he began to look with a little more attention at the sails, the rigging, the crew. They in turn looked back at him with the liveliest curiosity; commanders so rarely having swordmasters, many of them had never served with one before, and even a master of only two rings was an impressive figure to them, shabby coat or no.
The cabin was small and dark, and they would be a little cramped: it was not really intended for more than one occupant. Having ducked into it for a moment, Jack could scarcely help considering the implications of sharing such close quarters with an intimate; when he came back out, Stephen, waiting just outside and absorbed in the scene through the stern windows, absently leaned in and kissed him on the mouth. They sprang apart instantly, both looking equally startled, and Jack went scarlet as he realized that Stephen had caught the idea from him.
Pullings was gazing at the wall with a wooden expression, a tolerant smirk clearly struggling to make itself seen. It was the sort of behavior expected of the newly-bonded, and hardly cause for great embarrassment, yet Jack had not in the least expected to indulge in it; nor, from his expression, had Stephen. They could not very well discuss it at the moment, however, so very stiffly, Jack told Pullings to continue the tour.
By silent agreement they put off any conversation on the subject until they should have privacy; but on at last returning to Jack's rooms, they found Dundas waiting, ready to take them to a celebratory dinner. Jack's friends had not liked to make much of the occasion when they had thought it cause rather for mourning, but encouraged by Heneage's report of Stephen's character, they now felt it only appropriate to make some recognition of the event.
On their return, many hours later, they had little more success in discussing the matter; they had been fed well, toasted enthusiastically, and were too drowsy to think of anything but sleep, being both somewhat the worse for wine. Stephen stared when Jack offered him the bed, refused to entertain the idea, and went to fetch the rug from the common room, which he placed so as to position him between the bed and both the door and window.
Jack stared in his turn, particularly at the unsheathed sword that Stephen put in easy reach. Though he was very tired, he could not bring himself to let this pass without remark. "Stephen, I am scarcely in any danger here," he ventured, wondering if perhaps Stephen's previous bonded had been of a somewhat fearful nature.
Stephen, already rolled up in a blanket and rapidly descending towards sleep, only murmured, "Yes; go to sleep," with the sort of patient tone reserved for invalids and children, and thus quelled, Jack gave up and followed his example.
They might have talked in the morning, but it was easy to put off amid the bustle of washing and dressing, and then orders for a cruise came with breakfast: at once there was no time for anything but a tearing hurry in all directions, beginning with the task of packing up their things. On asking, it proved that Stephen had no possessions to collect from headquarters and nothing in the world but what was on his back; Jack blushed for the Navy and apologized, until Stephen took his meaning and set his mind at ease.
"No, no; I was not pillaged at all. Other than my sword, I had nothing aboard but what I am wearing; I brought nothing else away," Stephen said.
Jack desperately longed to ask, but Stephen possessed a certain natural reserve, heightened by his visible grief, and in any case an inquisition would have been impertinent; so he stifled his curiosity and merely asked if Stephen should like to acquire any books.
"Yes, indeed, as many as can reasonably be had," Stephen said. "I imagine you will be amused at my lack of forethought, but I confess it had not occurred to me that there would be so much idle time aboard ship, and I was puzzled what to do with myself on the voyage out. I do not suppose it would be possible to purchase an instrument?"
"Do you play?" Jack asked, surprised and pleased; his own violin was still in its case under his bed; he fetched it now. "There is an instrument-maker in town, but I am afraid he is too dear for my purse except for purchasing strings or pegs; but there may be something at one of the pawnshops. In any case, you are welcome to make use of my fiddle whenever you like, of course."
"Oh! I thank you," Stephen said, picking it up and running the bow across the strings with some skill. "It is a handsome instrument, but I confess I prefer the cello; I am more used to it, in any case, or the pianoforte, but one of those could scarcely be got aboard ship."
"A cello: how splendid," Jack said, gladly. "I saw one at the broker's across from the Rose, not a week ago; let us go fetch it at once, and we may have duets."
Jack's sea-chest sent off and the cello acquired, they lingered only a short while longer in the town, visiting the tailor and the booksellers. Stephen's new clothes were scarcely begun, but Jack emitted sufficient gold to induce the tailor to promise at least a pair of breeches and a coat, to be delivered to the boat the next morning; there were a couple of spare shirts ready, which they took; the rest should have to wait their return.
Once aboard, Jack was kept busy the rest of the day, going to and fro around the ship. Within a few hours he had come to barely even notice Stephen trailing along after him as if on a string, so quiet and unobtrusive as he was, and the crew lost their tendency to stare after a few hours, Stephen having failed to chop anyone's head off. Jack did pause just before going up to the tops, to offer him a hand, but Stephen looked at the men overhead moving upon the rigging, climbed tentatively onto it to get his bearings, and then swarmed all the way up with impossible speed.
Jack blinked and followed him more slowly up to the cross-trees. "Lord, Stephen, I have never seen the like; you have never been on the ropes before?" he said, panting a little.
"No," Stephen said, shortly, and looking closer, Jack realized that Stephen was now gazing fixedly out into space and his hands were white-knuckled where he gripped the mast as it dipped and rocked with the motion of the ocean and the wind.
Tactfully, Jack made no mention of it, but only suggested that Stephen should come down with him, and kept a hand on Stephen's arm as they descended in a more human fashion. Stephen still looked a bit sickly by the time they reached the deck once again. "You know, Stephen, I can bring myself down if I fall in the rigging; there is no sense in your climbing up after me," Jack said. "Indeed, if you was to fall, trying to catch me, it should be very difficult for me to manage to bring us both safe to the ground."
Stephen gave him a warm look of gratitude, but said, "Thank you, Jack, but I must be able to go where you go. I will have to develop a head for it; I imagine it can be done, with practice." He looked up at the tops with a wry expression, and shook his head.
Their first evening aboard ship passed quietly, the day having been such an active one, and there was not the least awkwardness when they slung their cots side by side and went to sleep within inches of one another. So too went their first week at sea; Jack was anxious to have her a taut ship and a happy one, and he spared no effort or energy to make her so, particularly in these early days which he knew would be so important in forming her character. But by Saturday matters were settled enough; Jack had enough money to have his officers to dinner occasionally, and he was sure enough of the cook to invite the members of the fireroom to dine with him.
The dinner was a success; it took place at the usual naval hour of three, and afterwards Jack was extremely cheerful, very pleasantly full, borne up by a small lake of wine, and not in the least tired. Stephen willingly assented to some music, and they played together with great pleasure for a couple of hours, coming swiftly to an understanding of each other's styles. Jack laid aside his fiddle with a sigh of contentment at last, and stretched luxuriously as Stephen put away the cello. He thought to himself idly that it would be splendid to have a girl with him right now, to cuddle in his lap and to take to his cot.
He passed some moments in elaborating on this idea in his head; then Stephen came over to him, kissed him passionately, and knelt between his legs. Jack stared, swallowed hard, then let his head fall back and clenched his fists upon his thighs while he gasped for breath. Stephen might not have had any practice at this, but Jack had only had the pleasure once before and was not inclined to be critical: it was not an act you could ask a gentlewoman to perform, and a whore in Barbados had charged him half a crown for it.
"Oh, Christ," he said, and came. Belatedly he thought he ought to have given warning, but Stephen swallowed about him, then dropped his forehead to rest against Jack's broad thigh, panting himself. Jack tried to think of some way to offer satisfaction that would not involve returning the favor precisely; he did not think he could bring himself to put his mouth on another man in that way. But then Stephen struggled to his feet, and Jack saw that he had finished, too.
Stephen saw his surprise and said, briefly, as though he were embarrassed, "It is often so; you must know the bond conveys strong feeling."
"Yes, of course; I just had not thought," Jack said lamely, blushing. "Thank you," he added, not quite sure it was the thing to say, but at a loss for any other response to the situation.
Stephen looked a little amused and inclined his head, so it went over well enough; and now being both somewhat spent, they went to bed and thus avoided the necessity for any immediate conversation, which might have been awkward. They were easy again in the morning, but the act had more long-reaching effects: Jack was of an eagerly amorous nature, and having been so stimulated, he had a difficult time restraining his thoughts whenever he and Stephen were alone together, which in course led to a more physical response that transmitted itself across the bond.
Stephen was mildly surprised the second night, startled the third, somewhat wild-eyed by the fourth, and on the fifth, lying sprawled on his back on the floor beside Jack, both of them limp and breathing heavily, he asked a little plaintively, "Is this frequency quite natural, for you?"
"Well—that is—I have not often had the opportunity, but—it does come easy to me, I suppose," Jack said, blushing fiercely. "You need not, at all, if you have any objection," he added, beginning to feel ashamed; it was after all very like forcing Stephen.
"It is just rather different," Stephen said, sounding dazed but not unhappy. "I do not suppose Caterina and I lay together more than once a week, if so often," he added, with an unusual frankness; it was the first time he had ever mentioned his former bondmate's name. "But it must simply be a difference in nature." He yawned immensely, reached out his hand to his sword, half-buried among a heap of clothes but still in arm's reach, drew it, and went straight to sleep without even getting into his cot.
After this Jack made some attempt at self-control, but it was not markedly successful: it proved amazingly difficult to deliberately not think of something, and there were few other distractions at hand. In any case, it was impossible not to see that their relations were doing Stephen a great deal of good: he had begun to eat better, he slept soundly, and by the time they were a month out of shore, he had gained half a stone of weight and some color in his face, losing the pinched, unhappy look that had been so marked. Jack did not think him happy, precisely, but he was at least much improved in both health and appearance, and Jack felt he should not have to blush for his condition.
The ship's far-seer reported the French convoy a week later: three small but prosperous-looking merchantmen, and their escort the Lyonnaise, a neat little brig somewhat larger than the Regina, with ten ports for fire-throwers, all lightly scorched, although naturally this was a common tactic: the Regina herself had eight ports, not six. Jack considered the report, plotted the positions of the ships on his maps, mulled on a plan of action, then came up on deck carrying his map. "Mr. Blakeney, to me; Mr. Pullings, take the rest of the midshipmen and set me up a current to this marked position; we have enough natural wind to make it in good time if you can give us three knots." Pullings thus dispatched with the rest of the water-workers, Jack turned his attention to Blakeney. "Do you know how to set a distant wind going, in air you cannot see?" he asked. "No? Well, I will show you the way of it, then you will help Mr. Pullings by giving us a steady blow into our main topgallants; we will see to it you get some practice at it shortly."
Then the long, straining hours on deck, grappling with the slow, reluctant heaviness of ocean air that liked to go its own way, and this made worse by the distance; the only consolation was that he sensed no artificial current in the air about the French ships, and this might well mean they had no wind worker aboard themselves. The crew worked as quietly about him as they could, his steward Killick hovered with glasses of cold water, and when the evening wore on and the wind began to drop, fighting him, Stephen came and put his warm, strong hands on Jack's shoulders, and fresh strength flowed into him.
He slept so deeply all the next day as to be unconscious, but the morning after he awoke fresh and eager in response to the signal to beat to quarters: the Lyonnaise was just in sight to the east, the rest of the convoy far along to the north of her, too far away to help and with an unfavorable wind for running for French ports. "Well done, Tom," Jack said, clapping his lieutenant on the shoulder. "All hands to make sail; I will bring the wind from south-southwest." The crew gave a cheer and turned to the task willingly; while they bustled about, Jack watched the Lyonnaise trying to beat into the wind, grinning: they certainly had no wind worker aboard.
They closed with the other vessel around noon. Gouts of flaming napalm launched from the French fire-ports as soon as they came into range—from seven of them only, Jack was pleased to see—but the midshipmen on the firing deck below knew their work, bringing up waves to drag the missiles down into the ocean, and the ship took little harm from them. The one time a fire took hold in the mizzen-mainsail, Carlson swarmed up from below where the Regina's fire-throwers were returning their own barrage, gave it a savage glare, and doused it without Jack even having to draw away its air.
"Close with her amidships," Jack roared, "All hands prepare to board." He drew his own cutlass and moved to the rails.
"What are you doing?" Stephen was beside him, catching at his arm. "You cannot mean to go aboard."
Jack shook him off impatiently; his spirits were running very high, and he was full of eagerness to cross over. "Send my men over and hang back myself? Stephen, do not be absurd. For England, lads, and Regina!" Jack shouted the last, turning back, and the hands looking up at him cheered wildly; he set his foot on the rails and leaped.
He did not precisely comprehend what he saw at first, because he was busy catching himself: there was a great deal of blood on the French deck, and it was unexpectedly slippery. The men were coming after him, the cheer dying on their lips and their forward movement quelled. Four cleanly decapitated corpses already lay on the ground, swords and axes still clenched in their fists: Stephen had jumped over first, and he had cleared an empty space at the rail where the Reginas were coming across.
Even as Jack stared, another head rolled by, a look of almost comic surprise on its face; some of the Frenchmen were starting to back away, and Stephen was killing those who remained as if they had been presenting their necks to an executioner. There was an awed, shocked silence behind him. Jack himself had seen swordmasters fight on deck before; at the battle of the Nile, he had seen Admiral Collingsworth's swordmaster Baytun take five heads and kill seven others; he had even twice witnessed formal duels, that pinnacle of the art: yet he had never seen anything like the pitiless ease of Stephen's work. Not a single weapon in the hands of the Frenchmen touched him, though he was hard against their front line; there was a constant ringing of steel as he fended off axe and sword with his own blade, and almost with the regularity of clockwork, his arm darted forward, the blue-tinted blade flashed in the sunlight, and another head went flying.
The French captain was on his own quarterdeck, with a clear view of the slaughter; he shouted orders, and with his fragmentary knowledge of French, Jack understood him to be telling his men to surround Stephen and bring him down by weight of numbers. Jack shouted a warning and leaped forward, hacking at the men who were trying to keep him from reaching Stephen's side; the rest of the Reginas followed him with fresh fervor.
Jack broke through the ring in time to see Stephen take another head, snatch the sword out of the dead man's hand, thrust it backwards to impale a second directly behind him, and at the same time turn to decapitate a third. The Frenchmen directly around him were dropping their swords and struggling against their own fellows to get away; a cheer was going up from the Reginas, and Jack looked up to see the French colors coming down.
Stephen was looking about him with a terrifyingly murderous intention upon his face; Jack pushed forward and gripped his arm. "Stephen, it is over. Stephen, they have surrendered," he said urgently; he desperately wanted this deadly stranger gone, and his own Stephen back: reserved, cool, quiet; his heart was pounding wildly.
Stephen looked at him blankly for a dreadful moment, then abruptly his hand was in Jack's hair and he was kissing Jack with passionate hunger. Jack dropped his sword out of surprise and gripped Stephen's shoulders, but Stephen was not to be put off. "Stephen, we must wait," Jack said, trying not to squeak: Stephen's thigh was sliding between his legs. "We are on deck—Stephen, I must accept their surrender first, then—Stephen—" It was impossible; his neckcloth was on the deck soaking up blood, his shirt was gaping open, his breeches were only staying up because he was holding them with one hand, and Stephen was doing his best to pry that off. "Mr. Pullings!" Jack said, backing hastily towards the Regina; he was appallingly certain that if he did not get himself off the deck, Stephen should take him upon it.
"I will make your excuses, sir." Pullings was not even trying to hide his grin; but Jack did not care in the least, if only he might escape. At last he got loose long enough to hop back across to the Regina, Stephen followed him, and they were safe from the worst embarrassment. His coat did not reach the cabin, but his breeches did, and he managed to kick the door closed before Stephen dragged him down to the floor.
He staggered back out alone more than an hour later, impelled only by the awareness that it was a shocking insult to the French captain to keep him waiting so; he was walking stiffly, and his legs liked to tremble. Stephen had fucked him vigorously, then sucked and licked him to full hardness and taken him again; at some point during this second engagement, Jack had abruptly gotten the idea of the thing, and he had begun to meet Stephen's thrusts enthusiastically. He was now sore, exhausted, and horribly conscious that he had been noisy towards the end; his cries of, "Stephen, yes; oh, harder," had undoubtedly been audible on deck, and he could not help but feel it had been a shameful display.
He did not look directly at the faces of his crew, which were somehow managing to combine respectful attention with sly mirth, but went straight to the rail and across to the Lyonnaise with a leap that cost him some pain on landing. Pullings was sitting with the French captain and his lieutenants in their cabin, speaking in English with one of the latter, and when Jack came in he rose and saluted at once.
Jack nodded to Tom and turned to the captain. "Monsieur, je suis desole de—de n'avez pas recevoir—de n'avoir recu—oh hell," he muttered, under his breath, wishing Stephen were here, with his great facility for languages.
The French captain was already nodding, however, and speaking to the lieutenant too quickly for Jack to understand; he stood and held out his sword, presented across both hands.
"Monsieur, my captain says, no apology is necessary; he understands perfectly. Your so amiable lieutenant has conveyed to us your recent happy occasion, and we congratulate you upon your bonding," the lieutenant said, with a glint of amusement in his eye that Jack could see shared by the other French officers; he relaxed a little even as he blushed.
"Oh; thank you, indeed. Pray be so good as to tell him I beg he will keep his sword, and that I should be very honored if he would be so kind as to dine with me—tomorrow," Jack said, hastily amending the invitation as he went: Stephen was sprawled out across the floor of the cabin, and there seemed as much likelihood of moving him as of shifting an unwilling cat, even if Jack himself had been in any state to entertain.
The captain sheathed his sword again, and the French officers all looked pleased by the gesture; then the captain bent down to the table and offered a small box. Jack took it with some puzzlement and opened it to find eight rings gleaming at him in a little heap.
"My captain says, these are those for which the head could be certified as the death blow by our surgeon; however, there were two others, the bodies trampled, and he should be perfectly willing to affirm them, if desired."
Jack looked up, still stunned, and said hurriedly, "Oh, no; thank him for me, but I am sure Stephen should prefer only unquestioned provenance," and here he bowed deeply, "and my honor to your dead; we will salute them this evening."
He carried the little box back to his cabin and stared at the rings, stirring them with a finger; he had almost never heard of such a thing: eight rings in a single battle. Of course, there had been a great advantage; the French certainly had not expected a swordmaster, and had not been properly organized to meet one. And the Reginas had been almost as surprised and thus had not rushed forward the way they ordinarily would have, which would have cut the battle short sooner; but even so it was a prodigious accomplishment.
However, he was not quite as overjoyed as he knew he ought to be: the customary method would have Stephen put on the rings, then transfer them to Jack's hand one each night until they were gone, sealing them with appropriate ritual. Jack had liked it quite a great deal just now, but he did not at all look forward to being pounded like that eight nights in a row. Yet of course he could not suggest otherwise: it would be wretchedly ungrateful.
Thankfully, he did not need to; the next morning, Stephen said that his custom was rather to keep the rings on for the full number of nights, and transfer them all at once. "In my opinion, this practice seals the rings more closely to me, and the strength which they add to the bond on their eventual transference is thus magnified," he explained.
"Oh, certainly; however you prefer," Jack said, very relieved: he still could not quite sit comfortably. "But Stephen—" he said, only to cut himself off; he had been about to ask what Stephen had meant about his custom: it was odd to talk of custom when you had only ever won two rings before. Yet this was too close to the forbidden line; Stephen for the most part behaved as though he had sprung full-grown from the Gaviota, with no previous life, and Jack was punctilious in observing this limit. "Would you like some more coffee?" he said now, to cover his near-gaffe, and passed over the pot.
It was a busy day; although the merchantmen were no match for the Regina, even with a number of her crew told off to the Lyonnaise, they still needed to be rounded up and secured, and their water-workers struggled to the utmost to try and carry the vessels out of reach, all their sails stripped down to keep Jack from simply blowing them back into range. But with Mowett and the midshipmen countering their efforts and Jack filling the sails, the Regina easily caught them, and as soon as they came into range, down came their colors.
Even then, getting the four prizes back to port was no easy matter; even the smallest-possible prize-crews left the Regina almost bare of hands, and to compensate for the deficiency of men, Jack was obliged to make the sailing for all five vessels virtually unchanging by keeping a steady wind in all their sails. He could never have done it before the bonding; even with the added strength it was a tremendous effort. By the eighth night, he was so limp with fatigue as to offer no tension at all, and it proved amazingly pleasant to have Stephen stroke and caress and finally, gently take him, their hands interlacing over the warm metal bands.
"Jack, Jack!" Heneage was waving from a table, and Jack beamed and strode across the street to join him. He was alone; he had taken Stephen to the tailor's to be fitted for more clothing, and stepped out without telling him to get a drink.
"I did not expect to find you in Gibraltar, Hen; have you got a ship, then?" Jack said, seating himself.
"Yes; the Galilee, I am just waiting for her to be scraped before we put out to sea. Lord, Jack, I heard the news of your prizes this morning; you must be rich as Croesus."
"Oh, I am tolerably well in pocket," Jack said, grinning. "Though you have no notion how quickly it goes, Hen; Stephen wants a short sword, and a set of throwing knives, and nothing but the work of some outrageously expensive fellow named Valencio will do; I dare say I will end up with my fortune on his sword-belt, like some fellow with a mistress in diamonds and himself in a threadbare coat."
"Very likely indeed," Hen said, laughing. "This is nonsense; you must have taken near thirty thousand pounds of shipping, from what I hear. You must tell me— Jack, whatever are you wearing?" he asked, interrupting himself; Jack had just lifted a hand for the waiter.
Jack held out his broad hands complacently; not a finger was bare, and the expanse of gold was dazzling in the sunlight. "Ain't I like a jeweler's shop? It makes it a little awkward to get a grip on a sword, though, but I dare say Stephen will replace them with a band as soon as ever I give him the chance, ha ha!"
"He never won eight rings on a single cruise," Dundas said disbelieving, bending low to inspect the new rings closely for the inscribed ship's names.
"No; in a single fight," Jack said, enjoying his friend's amazement. "It was the damnedest thing, Hen; and there were two others besides, but they had gotten trampled in the melee, and I did not like to accept where there was any question they were cleanly headed, though their captain offered very handsomely to certify."
There was a small but loud party of officers at the next table over: post-captains, older than Jack and Heneage, with their swordmasters, and their attention had been caught by the talk of rings. One of them, a very thin, hatchet-faced fellow, red-cheeked, with a band pinned around his right cuff and a couple rings on either hand, said now, very loudly, "It is a shocking pity to see what the Navy is come to, when a young officer is allowed to get away with such capers as to claim eight rings won in a single battle; does it sound very likely to you, Marsden?"
The swordmaster thus addressed was a big man, broad-shouldered, and his face was florid with wine as well; he looked at Jack's hands and answered with open contempt, "Eight rings, by a two-ring man? Nonsense; and no swordmaster worth a penny would let his bonded out alone, to answer insults on his own."
Jack was blazing with anger, his rings were scraping against the hilt of his sword though Dundas was reaching across the table to restrain his arm. "No officer worth his salt would make flings that could not be answered and get others to issue insults for him," he cried, "and if you like to say something to me, sir, I beg you will do so direct: my name is Aubrey."
"Oh; if you recognize the subject, then I can hardly deny my words," the captain said. "I am Johnson, and I am certain Marsden will be happy to answer for me."
"Jack, if you would be so kind as to make my reply: he may do so at any time, so long as it be soon." Stephen was there, coat off and in an untucked shirt, with bare sword in his hand and that deadly gleam back in his eyes.
Jack realized too late what he had done: committed Stephen to a challenge against a man whose capabilities he knew not at all, except that he was a fourteen-ring man and bound to a post-captain. He went pale with unhappiness, but there was no way out of it now, and he said very stiffly to Johnson, "Will tomorrow morning suit? Seven o'clock would not be too early, I suppose?"
"It will do perfectly well," Johnson said, smirking. "There is a respectable field behind the hospital, and the location may be convenient for you; I do hope we will see you there."
Jack nearly answered this, but Stephen touched his shoulder and said very quietly, "No; there is nothing to be gained by bandying words with a man who will insult even as he offers satisfaction; let us away, now." Heneage had already gotten up and settled the account, and they left at once.
"Stephen, I am so damned sorry," Jack said, full of misery, as soon as they were well away and out of earshot. "I ought never to have said anything."
"If you wish to apologize, let it be for skulking off in that appalling manner, and forcing me to come running through the street half-dressed looking for you," Stephen said severely. "Have I to put a leash on you, for all love, to curb this recklessness? But if a man chooses to give insult to a stranger for no cause, I am very willing to answer him; it is an absurdly offensive manner of going about in the world, and merits the strongest possible reproof."
The morning was bright, clear, and cold; when Stephen rose, Jack anxiously drew him close to the fire and pressed hot coffee on him, and eggs and bacon, but these last two Stephen refused. "I do not eat before a duel, my dear; it draws away the blood and dulls the mind. I ate well last night at supper, and am not hungry. Enough of this smothering; I will begin to think you are afraid for me."
Jack instantly denied it, lying energetically; Stephen himself seemed not in the least concerned. They walked together to the field, Jack's head drooping upon his chest; he was full of anxiety and sorrow. Heneage met them at the site as second, and Johnson had a friend, Rochester, another captain, with his swordmaster. The magistrate, informed by both sides, was there as the independent witness, and to make certain no workings were used to affect the outcome.
Stephen and Marsden both stripped off their coats and unsheathed. The field had been used often for the purpose before, and there was a dusty flattened square that hardly needed to be marked, though the magistrate's little assistant ran around it with a measuring-line and marked off the corners with red sticks for formality's sake. The two men stepped into opposite corners, saluted, and stood waiting.
"Faites," said the magistrate, and they moved at once towards the center of the square, the position of strength. Marsden reached first and occupied it, smiling, and smiling still set upon Stephen, a flurry of tremendous blows from those massive shoulders. The smile fell away after four passes: Stephen's clothes were not so much as disarranged, the blade had never come even near him, and he had not yet attempted a single blow of his own. Marsden pressed the attack, almost lunging, even swinging overhand: an ugly stroke, too coarse for honor. Yet none broke through Stephen's defense, and at last Marsden overbalanced himself and took one step too far: now Stephen was in the center, calm and graceful as a dancer, and he did not even bother to follow up the advantage as Marsden stumbled to the edge of the square.
It was a display of contemptuous mastery; Marsden obviously felt it, and he actually hesitated a moment before closing again. His blade wavered a little as he came; suddenly Stephen blurred with speed, and Marsden was standing empty-handed before him, with the blue-steel blade just kissing his throat, and Marsden's own sword quivering hilt-up in the grass outside the square.
"Down," Stephen said, gently, and Marsden knelt under the pressure of the sword at his neck. Stephen looked at Johnson. "Your apology to my bondmate, sir, or else his head; at once, sir."
Johnson was pale with horror, standing so nearly at the edge of the square that his friends were holding him to keep him out of it; this jarred him into action, and he looked across the field at Jack desperately. "Apologize—most sincerely," he said, barely coherent. "I beg your pardon, sir, for any offense—all a misunderstanding—"
It was a pitiful display, but Jack could not help but feel sympathy for him; he felt he should gladly have gone down on his knees if the circumstances were reversed, and he immediately said, "I accept your apology, sir; pray mention it no further. Stephen, honor is quite satisfied, I promise you," and saw the slender gleaming steel rise and lift away, not a drop of blood spilt, and Stephen coming towards him, out of the square, while Marsden stumbled away to Johnson's side.
Jack had never imagined such a moment before; he found the sensation positively feudal. "This is how Arthur would have felt, I suppose, watching Lancelot make fellows kneel to him," he reflected privately, trying not to swell too indecently with his relief and satisfaction: now that it was over, the conclusion so little in doubt the whole way along, there was a very natural flow of spirits in having faced and won his first duel as a bonded man.
He could tell from Stephen's rapidly glazing eyes that his efforts at repression were not successful, and he made haste to give his thanks to the magistrate, and beg Heneage to forgive their abrupt departure. Having grown a great deal more pragmatic about such arrangements, Jack did not even bother trying to get them back to the inn, but only ducked into the woods, propped Stephen against a tree, and worked open their breeches before pressing up against him. Stephen moaned gratefully, and abruptly Jack went to his knees and tentatively took him into his mouth.
The skin was very soft and tender, and there was no unpleasant taste such as he had imagined; the sensation of Stephen swelling against his tongue was oddly, perversely thrilling. He reached down and gripped his own shaft; he was hard, and stroked himself with urgent, rapid movements as he sucked. Stephen moaned again, his hands sliding caressingly over Jack's head, and his hips thrust a little. Jack drew back so as not to choke, and abruptly Stephen guided him away; though Jack moved to the side hastily, he was still close enough to see Stephen pulsing as he spent, and he shuddered, squeezed down a few more times and brought himself off.
They nuzzled together and kissed, leaning heavily upon the uncomplaining tree, but the air was still cold, and very soon they put themselves back together and retreated to their quarters, and the warmth of Jack's bed.
The story of the duel had gone around the entire island by dinnertime, following hard on the equally interesting news of the eight rings, and Jack was humming something cheerful the next afternoon as he watched Stephen examine his new acquisitions at the weapon-dealer's shop: he had been congratulated a great deal, and Stephen regarded with open envy by many of his colleagues; they had shaken their heads over his luck and told him it was not the least bit fair.
A smooth bracelet now sat on his wrist, the gold of his first ten rings melted down; seven new ones, half of Johnson's rings, were upon Stephen's hands, waiting for the moment of transfer which should come in a week's time. They flashed as Stephen weighed and swung and threw; at last he wrapped the two bands of wicked knives around his thighs, and slung the short sword on his right hip. He walked back and forth, experimentally, then nodded and took off the knives. "Box these, if you please; the short sword I will wear."
He had a new coat on, in a handsome shade of dark green, and sand-colored breeches, with a fresh white shirt; he was shaved and brushed and trimmed. Jack eyed him with a proprietary satisfaction, and felt he might with justice congratulate himself: it was indeed a marked contrast to Stephen's appearance on their first encounter, and it had not been achieved without some pains on his own part. Stephen had not the least interest in clothes excepting whether he could fight in them, and would happily have worn his old black coat until it had fallen apart at the seams to reveal a threadbare shirt patched at the elbows and breeches with an awkward tie replacing a missing button on the placket. He had to be coaxed to shave, dragged to the barber's, and he grew peevish and complained about it all to boot; despite all of this, Jack had gotten him creditably put together, and he was well-pleased with the results.
They were going to the Governor's house for the evening; he regarded the occasion with happy anticipation. Aside from the general tide of congratulations and applause, Lord Keith was very pleased with Jack's success, which had put several thousand pounds into his own pocket, and Jack knew they would be looked upon with favor; to make things still more pleasant, there was to be dancing, and some music by a German fellow who reportedly could play like an angel upon the violin.
The room was crowded and warm, but thanks to the cool weather, not overly so; there were a great many ladies, and Jack scarcely stopped dancing from one end of the assembly to the other, beaming all the while. Stephen watched him tolerantly from the side, speaking quietly with a couple of other swordmasters; Jack saw him on the balcony a little later, demonstrating some arcane movement to a young fellow not yet bonded.
He took the lovely young Miss Winthrope in to dinner, and joined Heneage and a few older post-captains at one of the tables, along with an Army colonel and a young lieutenant of marines; they were discussing the state of the war on land, and Bonaparte's recent successes.
"I tell you, if he once gets his fleet into the Channel and holds it for an hour, England is lost," Colonel Southby said, gloomily. "You fellows at sea are spoilt, having it all your way; if you had ever been on a battlefield opposite Bonaparte, you would not be half so merry."
"Pray, Colonel, do explain how he can be so dangerous; I do not perfectly understand it, beyond France having so many men, because have we not a great many allies?" The young lady with Dundas, a Miss Helen Callum, had been listening to his proclamations of doom with great interest, as had the other ladies at the table, including Jack's escort.
"It is his gift," Southby said. "And the way he uses it: no one has ever before considered far-seeing much of a military talent, but he has made it so. He observes the smallest details of his own forces as well as those of his enemies, he scours the countryside; nothing escapes his attention, and he is able to somehow hold all of it in his head. If he is at a disadvantage, he will never meet you, no matter how you think you have him pinned; instead he will eel about you, divide his men into troops of ten if need be to slip past, and if ever you come upon him and he seems to be at a loss, the moment you have committed yourself another ten or twenty thousand men will appear out of nowhere, and you will be brought low."
He shook his head again. "No, if he ever brings his Grande Armee across, we must sue for terms; he would wreak merry havoc across Britain."
"Colonel, I believe you must be exaggerating to frighten us," Miss Winthrope said. "My father is a far-seer himself, and he is lucky if he can see us coming when we are half a mile from home."
"No, not in the least, Miss Winthrope," Captain Simpson said earnestly. "It is perfectly true. His gift is prodigiously strong, you know: they say he could stand in Moscow and tell you what a lady in Lisbon was wearing to dinner."
"And that without his even being bonded, for he kept himself unattached all these years," Southby said. "What he will do now that he has a swordmaster, I shudder to think."
"Oh!" cried a young lady to whom Jack had not been introduced, on the other end of the table. "Has he been bonded at last, then? To whom, pray, Colonel, I have heard nothing of this; yet it must surely be the talk of Europe."
Her reaction was mirrored, if less openly, around the table; Colonel Southby preened a little at thus having delivered a thunderbolt, and answered, "My dear, yes; he has just accepted Count von Neipperg, an Austrian nobleman, and close to the Emperor; a very gifted swordsman and a dangerous fellow indeed."
"Are you quite certain of the name, Colonel? I had heard that he was courting the Intangible," Captain Rourke said, in some surprise. "Did he give it up?"
"Surely the Intangible is already bonded?" Miss Winthrope murmured to Jack. "Or am I mistaking him for someone else; his name is Domonova, is it not? I must sound dreadfully stupid to have to ask such a question."
"Not a bit of it, Miss Winthrope," Jack said quietly back, "I am pretty sure you are right, and I suppose he is, or was, but a swordmaster may lose his bonded, without it is his own fault; perhaps the fellow took a fever, or some such, and then he would be left loose."
Colonel Southby was answering Rourke. "Oh, yes, Bonaparte was courting him," he said. "In fact, I understand a bond price on the order of five million livres was offered."
"Good God!" Dundas cried first, but his words were echoed around the table. "They refused such a sum?"
Southby smirked with the air of someone who expects to deliver an eclat, and said, "Oh, no; the family accepted, but the fellow scarpered off." After permitting the exclamations of surprise to die down, he went on, "Said he was much obliged, but no, he should prefer not to bond again. At all, mind you, not just Boney, which anyone could understand and ought to be respected; but he meant to wear the willow all his days, and naturally they would not hear of that. So off he went, leaving his first bond price behind, and no one has seen hide nor hair of him since." He sat back, well-satisfied with the reception this piece of intelligence received.
"I beg your pardon, Colonel, but I confess I cannot quite believe it," Miss Helen said, out of the murmur. "Did he not have some improbably enormous number of bracelets, nine or some such? Surely he could not be wandering about Spain unnoticed."
"Oh, Helen, you must have heard; it was the most romantic piece of news that could be imagined, and I heard it everywhere," the unknown young lady said. "He buried her in the rings; his bonded, I mean, Lady Caterina."
"Buried her in the rings? How extraordinary," Miss Winthrope said. "Can you imagine such a thing?" she added, turning to Jack.
Jack answered somehow; he was not perfectly certain what he said, but it satisfied her for the moment, and she turned back to the main body of the table. The name had done it; before, he had been paying more mind to the neckline of Miss Winthrope's dress than to the conversation, but though he had not immediately recognized the name as the same as Stephen's lost bonded, some familiarity about it had caught his attention, and then a moment's review made everything appallingly clear.
Stephen appeared at his shoulder scarcely a minute later, evidently having sensed his distress; he made apologies to the other members of the table and begged pardon, but Jack was needed, some difficulty about the ship, deepest regrets; then he whisked Jack away. "Are you taken ill?" he asked quietly, a look of concern and puzzlement on his face, once they were out in the cool night air and on their way back to the inn. "Has something happened?"
Jack stared at the ground and did not answer immediately. He could hardly imagine how to ask, how to say it; there was surely no question, but he could not see how to frame it without giving Stephen the lie. "Is it Stephen?" he blurted suddenly, thinking miserably that he could hardly bear it if the answer were to be no, to have been lied to all along.
He stopped in the street when Stephen did. Their eyes met, and Stephen looked away first. "Ah," he said.
After a moment, Stephen said, "Yes, it is, and Maturin as well; I took Caterina's surname once we were bonded, in the Spanish style; but when I returned the bond price, I judged it no longer mine to use." He added, quietly, "I have never lied to you, Jack, I assure you."
Jack sighed explosively; he had been holding his breath quite unconsciously. "Oh, Stephen, why the devil have you never said anything?" he said.
"To what purpose?" Stephen said. "I have been a great deal happier to forget it myself; I saw no point in dwelling upon the past."
"But you must see it is quite absurd," Jack said uneasily. He had no idea what to say; it was impossible to free Stephen, and if it had not been, he did not think he could bring himself to do it. "I can apply for a post on land, on the coast," he offered quietly instead, "if you would rather—"
"Never in life," Stephen said immediately.
"Well," Jack said, cheered a little, "I suppose it would be a wicked waste. But Stephen, you might have been sleeping outside Boney's door if you liked, or had some royal princess; instead, here I am, not even a post-captain, and no notion of a title. Anyone who learned of it should think you thrown completely away. You ought to have spoken at the outset."
"Certainly, if I wished to permit that creature Harte to sell me to the highest bidder, like a piece of cattle," Stephen said. "I had not the least desire to be bonded to that tyrant Bonaparte, nor to anyone who should use me as some sort of shield for delivering insults, or as some sort of ornament. My dear, I beg you will not take the least notice of anything the world should say upon the subject. I am happy as I had never hoped to be in life again."
= End =
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