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Run Aground
by Idler


Title: Run Aground
Author: Idler
Author's Website: none
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Pairing: William Bush & OFC
Rating: PG-13
Author's Disclaimer: They don't belong to me...
Author's Notes: Novella-length, primarily Hornblower book-verse, fitting into the time between the end of "Flying Colours" and the beginning of "Commodore Hornblower".



Chapter 1


April, 1812

She entered the inn's common room and was surprised to find him settled there, deep in his usual wing chair by the fire, a glass of brandy waiting untouched at his elbow. She hastened to his side, though he did not seem to notice as he stared fixedly into the leaping flames. She gently laid a hand on his shoulder, and only then did he slowly turn to look up at her. The expression on his face was one she had never seen there before: a curious and unsettling mixture of resolve, of hope -- and of fear.

Concerned, she drew up a chair to join him. "Did your friend not arrive?" she asked, softly.

He shook his head, and returned to his study of the fire. "Oh, no... he was here. He had to return to his ship." His voice was distant, preoccupied.

"I am indeed sorry." She smiled reassuringly at him and placed a comforting hand on his arm... perhaps he was simply disappointed. "I know you would have liked to have spent more time in his company."

He regarded her bleakly. "No. No... that is not it. He brought me... this."

He looked down; only then did she notice the objects in his lap. He handed her a heavy parchment envelope, inscribed

Capt. William Bush, Esq.
HMS Nonsuch

She held it in her hands, not daring to breathe.

"And... this."

She returned the envelope to him as he handed her a black japanned box. She opened it slowly, carefully. Inside, nestled amid cream colored silk, lay a single object glittering in the firelight. An epaulette.

She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "My God."

He smiled shakily at her. "Indeed. I am to be his flag captain. He said..." He shook his head in wonder; his eyes seemed unnaturally bright. "He said... he'd have none other."


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


June, 1811

The Witch of Endor rocked gently in the swells as if she were anxious to be gone, away from this enforced immobility. It would not be long, now... she awaited only the arrival of her captain. Then she would be released from her captivity, freed to fly back to England at last.

Her captain's boat was fully manned, and idling alongside the flagship. Her crew sat stolidly in the unseasonably warm sunshine, waiting patiently, trying not to appear to be watching the two officers above them at the entry port.

"Goodbye, Mr. Bush." Hornblower smiled, corrected himself. "Captain Bush. Godspeed."

Hornblower continued to smile, unwilling to allow the moment to end. Unwilling to release Bush's hard hands.

"Goodbye, sir." Bush grinned back at him, playing the game. "Horatio."

Bush managed to detach his hands from Hornblower's grasp and made his way to the entry port. Hornblower knew that he could hardly lean over the side to assure himself that Bush safely navigated the descent. The fire he had seen blazing in Bush's blue eyes at the flag captain's tactless offer of a bosun's chair had decided that for him. He did, however, allow himself a sigh of relief at the absence of either obvious confusion or resounding splash.

He watched as the boat pulled away, the oars rising and falling in perfect rhythm. Bush sat calmly in the sternsheets, as though he had done this a hundred times and was a captain of long standing. Hornblower knew, of course, what this moment must have meant to him.

Bush's impassive features were dignified, almost patrician in their stillness. Though one had only to look at his hands to know that it was an accident of birth, and not reflective of circumstance. Those hands Hornblower had clasped were craggy and battered. Scarred and misshapen knuckles, a legacy of God knew how many boarding actions; old, puckered burns forever tattooed with the blue-black stain of powder; callouses borne of his ungovernable tendency to throw himself into whatever task he had set his seamen to, a testament to his unswerving belief that one led men, and did not drive them.

And this was the first time he would lead a command of his own... and, no doubt, the last.

Hornblower watched with no small measure of guilt as Bush swung himself out of the boat and climbed the Witch's side with surprisingly little difficulty, his strong arms compensating easily for the added burden of the wooden leg.

It was a curious thing, he mused. Had he been asked to describe Bush, he would have painted a picture of a far larger, sturdier man. Bush was indeed physically powerful, but it was his inner steel and implacable temperament that gave him true stature. But that steel was to be tested, he knew... and soon.

Admiral Gambier had given Bush command of the Witch, charging him to return the lovely little cutter to England, carrying dispatches from the fleet. But, once there, he would find that there was precious little chance of a sea appointment for a one-legged and exceedingly junior captain. Gambier had made mention of a dockyard post available at Sheerness. Bush, typically, had attempted to muster an appropriate amount of enthusiasm so as not to distress his captain. Hornblower had seen easily through his forced cheer to find the veiled terror in his eyes. Putting Bush in a dockyard, behind a desk, would be akin to putting a lion in a cage.

But there was damn little he could do about it. Worse, he knew with brutal and inescapable clarity that it was he who had brought Bush to this. When Bush had fallen on the splintered deck of the Sutherland, blood pulsing from the remains of his shattered leg, he had stubbornly insisted upon being left there. Hornblower had coldly countermanded those orders, and Bush had been carried below. For Bush's sake, he had told himself then. He had eventually come to the uncomfortable realization that it had been for his own.

Despite his best intentions and protestations to the contrary, he had allowed Bush to occupy a place in his heart that he thought had been carefully guarded. He had not fully understood it himself until the seemingly endless overland journey that was to take them to Paris and certain death. For him, it had been misery; for the wounded Bush, it could only have been hellish. Bush had borne it as best he could: sometimes lucid, sometimes not, but in silence except when a particularly jolting lurch wrenched an outcry from him. But through the worst of it, Bush had clung to his hand like a drowning man; at times, so tightly that he could feel his bones grate. It had left his hand stiff and sore for days. But that was a small thing, and he had said nothing of it.

He had allowed himself to find satisfaction in his friend's recovery. Bush, for his part, had seemed accepting of his loss -- until he had begun the desperate attempt to learn to walk again. Hornblower had been aghast, then, to see the stark fear in Bush's eyes. This stolid man who had stood unmoved in the very teeth of a screaming gale, before violent broadside, or the mad crush of hand-to-hand combat was terrified by his own unaccustomed weakness, and by the uncertain existence that now lay before him. Once as he had been helping Bush stand after yet another painful fall, he had looked into those honest blue eyes -- and found only reproach. It was at that moment the sure knowledge of his own guilt had stabbed him in the heart.

He had pulled away then, unwilling to face the man whom he had condemned to life. But he had been incapable of maintaining that distance for long. Bush's equanimity had returned with his strength, and he never spoke of it. Even Hornblower's firmest resolve could not withstand the quiet onslaught of Bush's steadfast good will.

And now their roles were reversed. Bush wore a new uniform which had been hastily assembled from the sea-chests of several of the fleet's captains and fitted by the flagship's own tailor. And bearing a commander's epaulette on the left shoulder -- a thing undreamed of during those dark days. Hornblower still wore the old and crumpled uniform coat that had survived French captivity. He would purchase a new one in Portsmouth, though not with the anticipation of some new posting; instead, it would be selected with dread. For all that awaited him in Portsmouth would be court-martial. He had not only allowed the Sutherland to be destroyed... he had struck her colours.

Admiral Gambier had been encouraging; the mere fact of Bush's promotion was clear evidence of that. Gambier himself had survived court-martial following the miserable affair at Basque Roads. There Gambier, a deeply religious man -- one could almost label him a zealot -- had proved more inclined to distribute religious tracts amongst his men than round-shot amongst the French. But his subsequent court-martial had been a whitewash, a farce. Hornblower knew that he had insufficient patronage to expect the same -- nor would he want it.

Hornblower sighed and extracted a small telescope from his pocket. Even that was not his: everything he owned had been lost with the Sutherland or taken from him in captivity. He peered through it and located Bush, who was already deep in the throes of getting the little cutter underway. He smiled; he could almost hear Bush's familiar bellow. Men were scurrying, antlike, aloft. Almost as one, the great gaff-mainsail and jibs were hoisted and the topsail tumbled out of its lashings.

Once released they billowed and filled and the little cutter came to life, gliding smoothly out of the shadow of the fleet. It had been smartly done, particularly when one recalled that this was a newly assembled crew, under a new captain. He obviously need have no fears on Bush's account: whatever disabilities his injury may have caused, his seamanship was in no way affected. Hornblower found himself grinning hugely, deeply satisfied. Bush, at least, was back in his element: for now, that proved to be enough.

***


Chapter 2


Bush had been so focused on climbing the Witch's low side without evidence of effort that he was wholly unprepared for the reception that greeted him on deck. He had been piped aboard with as much ceremony as any captain of long tenure, and was astonished to find a proper ship's company awaiting him. He had expected a rag-tag assembly of the dregs of the fleet; certainly not these competent-looking seamen neatly attired in their duck trousers and identical checked shirts obviously fresh from the flagship's slop-chest.

The sight unnerved him. He had followed many a captain through innumerable entry ports, and supervised the assembly of countless side-parties, but never, not once, had those pipes been for him... and recent events had all but convinced him that any hope of it was lost. He swallowed hard, schooled his face to a mask of proper authoritative stillness, and began to read himself in. And discovered, with some distress, that the words that had been so sharp upon the page only moments before were now unaccountably blurred.

Something had tugged at the edge of his memory; after the proper introductions were completed and words had been spoken, he turned back toward the entry port. Standing beside it, bosn's pipe dangling on its lanyard round his neck, was a familiar stocky figure. He stared in disbelief. A little grey could be seen in the man's unruly curls -- rather like his own, in fact -- but there was no mistaking that cheeky grin. "My God. Styles."

"Aye, sir. 'S me, right enough." The man bobbed, and knuckled his forehead. "Bos'n now, sir, in Volcano."

Bush raised an eyebrow. "But... what are you doing here, then?"

Styles' grin widened. "The cap'n asked for volunteers to take the Witch t' Portsmouth, an' then come back on th' dispatch-packet. When I 'eard it was you who was t' take 'er... well..."

Bush inclined his head. "H'm. Even after all these years, you could not resist the opportunity to try my patience once more."

"Aye, sir. That's 'bout it."

Bush grunted, and turned away. Stopped, looked over his shoulder, smiled slightly... a smile, perhaps, that only Styles might see. "And Styles... thank you."

Styles nodded. "I'd not 'ave missed it, sir."

As he stood for a moment, watching Bush as he limped awkwardly aft to confer with the cutter's master, the Marine drummer beside him nudged him sharply in the ribs. "Thought fer a minute he weren't glad t' see yer."

Styles shrugged, unconcerned. "Nah. That's just 'is way."

The drummer grinned, displaying crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. "Bet 'cher glad he ain't dead after all, eh?"

Styles shook his head, his face suddenly solemn. "I was. But y'know, Jonesey, now... now, I ain't so sure."

For months he had thought both Bush and Hornblower were dead. Everyone had. He had been delighted to hear of their escape, and curiously proud of their audacious recapture of the Witch. But now as he watched Bush, he felt only regret. To him, Bush had always been immovable, a tower of strength upon which he could confidently rely. That tower had been battered, mercilessly shaken to its very foundation, and now, for the first time, he was unsure of its resilience.

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by Bush's harsh blare. "Styles! If you intend to remain a bos'n, I suggest you stop mooning about like a love-sick girl and shift yourself aft!" Styles hurried to his side, grinning despite the rebuke. Perhaps all was right with the world after all, he thought contentedly.

Bush's hands were calmly clasped behind his back, his expression unruffled as ever; but as he caught Styles' eye, Styles could sense the excitement that was barely held in check. Bush nodded to the sailing-master. "Very well, Mr. Jameson, Mr. Styles... let us get her under way."

Styles, raising the silver call to his lips, studied his captain's profile. The same quiet confidence, the air of calm authority: all that had not changed. All was right with the world, indeed.

The Witch was soon well underway, and had set her course for Portsmouth. Bush had to admit to himself, grudgingly, that it had been nicely done. Appearances had not been deceiving; these seamen knew their business. As did Styles: Bush was gratified to observe that Styles had become an exceedingly competent bos'n, passing his orders quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of fuss. Matthews had been an excellent tutor, he concluded. It did not occur to him that perhaps he had taught Styles much as well.

But though his men were beyond reproach, the Witch most certainly was not. He looked about the little vessel's maindeck in dismay. Upon close inspection, it was obvious that she had been woefully neglected during her year in captivity, a condition which sufficed to further Bush's lack of regard for the quality of French seamanship.

Styles, beside him, followed his gaze and eyed the Witch's weather-beaten deck in disgust. "God, sir... she's a mess. Th' dockyard'll 'ave their 'ands full wi' 'er."

"No, Mr. Styles..." Bush turned to him, a wicked gleam in his eye. "You will."

"Sir?" Styles asked, his voice full of trepidation, as though hoping against hope that he did not already know what was in his captain's mind.

"You are my bos'n, are you not?" Bush raised a questioning eyebrow at the burly seaman. "With honour comes responsibility."

Styles groaned inwardly, but nodded respectfully nonetheless. "Aye, aye, sir." He hurried off, bellowing the names of those seamen unlucky enough to not be occupied elsewhere.

Bush calmly surveyed the maindeck from his position aft near the tiller. Styles obviously had matters well in hand. He was already busily setting parties to the work of replacing the tattered rigging, holystoning the shabby decks to their former pristine whiteness, restoring a bright sheen to tarnished brass. Bush smiled to himself. Damned if he would bring this ship -- his ship -- into Portsmouth in a disgraceful state.

He looked up into the rigging; the sails were drawing well, and the Witch was holding her course without effort. It would be some time before he would find it necessary to change tack, and thus could take full advantage of this opportunity to study his charts. Bush nodded to the master. "I shall be below in my cabin, should I be needed," he said, and headed for the companion hatch.

The companion ladder was short but steeper than that on the flagship: he stumbled on it and nearly fell, barely catching himself in time. He hoped that his misstep had gone unnoticed, as it would hardly do for the captain to be seen nearly landing in an undignified heap. Odd, that he had not been troubled by it when they were bringing the Witch in to rejoin the fleet. No, he thought, smiling a bit at the memory of it... it was not odd at all. He had only once left the maindeck; in fact he had scarcely left the tiller during those few long days.

Bush was not overly tall; still, as he entered the tiny, airless cabin, he had to stoop and bend his head to avoid knocking himself senseless on the deck beams. Fortunately, some prior captain had wisely situated the chart-table directly under the skylight; he could avail himself of both the light and the additional headroom it afforded. He leaned on the table, spreading out the charts before him, and was soon preoccupied with pen and brass dividers.

An hour, then two, passed unnoticed. His concentration was broken at last by some unfamiliar sound; he raised his head and was surprised to find that the late-afternoon sun had faded, and the cabin had grown surprisingly dim. The noise repeated itself, more urgently. Someone was tapping at the cabin door... and had been for some time, it seemed.

"Come," he called.

The cabin door opened to reveal the stocky figure of Styles, carrying a tray in one massive -- and none too clean -- paw.

Bush shook his head helplessly at the sight. "God spare me, Styles... please tell me that you are not the cook as well."

Styles grinned. "No, sir, just 'elpin' out, like."

Styles bustled about the minute cabin, laying out the meagre silver, and filling a wine goblet with what appeared to be a decent claret. "Th' flag cap'n sent 'couple bottles over for ye'." He pulled out a chair, and gestured to it. "'ere, sir, 'afore it gets cold."

Bush sighed, returned his pen to its stand, and stumped over to the table.

Styles watched him expressionlessly. "I'll 'elp ye, sir, wi' yer chair. An' beggin' yer pardon sir... I set some of th' men 't riggin' a handrope fr' th' ladder."

Bush stopped in the act of lowering himself into the chair, and lurched upright. "Damn your eyes, Styles!" he flared. "I am not some helpless goddamned cripple!"

Styles stood stock-still, staring openmouthed at Bush and the raw fury blazing violently in his blue eyes. Bush glared back at him until Styles dropped his gaze to the floor, and mumbled "No, sir. Sorry, sir."

"Leave me, damn you," Bush growled savagely.

Styles obediently fled, the door slamming shut behind him. He was not so completely taken aback that he failed to notice the sound of a wine goblet smashing against the bulkhead, as though it had been hurled there with considerable force.

Bush flung himself into the chair, still furious... but, more than that, deeply ashamed. He watched the rivulets of claret drip down the bulkhead like blood to join the puddle already staining the floorcloth. Styles was right, of course.

He had been blinded by the joy of it, by the fulfillment of every sea-officer's life-long dream. He had allowed himself to believe that this was the beginning, and not the end. But this was not a command. This was a brief pleasure cruise, a sham. It was suddenly painfully clear that to have been given command of the Witch was no honour. Someone had to bring her in to Portsmouth for refit and to deliver the fleet's dispatches; a senior midshipman could do it. But he was the officer least-needed by the fleet, the one who would not be missed. To think otherwise was folly. Bush could think of several one-armed captains still on active service. There had been Nelson, too, though Bush could hardly utter his own name in the same breath with that of the fierce little admiral. But a sea appointment, for a one-legged captain with no interest or influence? Impossible, unheard of... he knew it. And his promotion? It was a gift, a recompense for damages. Unearned.

He thrust the untouched plate aside. Sham or no, he was not going to waste what little was left to him by sulking belowdecks. He left the cabin, brushing roughly past a small knot of seamen without so much as a glance of acknowledgement. Fortunate, perhaps, as he might have noticed their faces, some furrowed with honest concern, others openly curious. The Witch was a small vessel, and his voice had lost none of its power during his time ashore.

Bush carefully climbed the companion-ladder- -- disdaining the damned hand-rope -- -and walked to the rail. He leaned on it, staring out into the gathering darkness. He could hear the wind thrumming in the shrouds and stays, a strange sort of music that only one born to it could hear. He took a deep lungful of the crisp air, enjoying the salt tang of it untainted by the more mundane odours of civilization, touched only by the muted scents of tar and hemp.

He felt a constriction in his throat, a heaviness in his chest -- matched only by the emptiness of his heart. He would have been hard-pressed to fully articulate the thoughts causing this profound yet indefinable sadness. Had he been able, he might have realized that despite his inability to put it into words, he knew that this was the last time he would feel truly alive. Men went to sea for a number of reasons, and many loved the life, but for him it was at the very core of his being. Time spent ashore was meaningless; it was only at sea that life had purpose. And strangely, he had felt most alive when his life was most in peril: from wind and waves, or enemy shot. That was life itself, and it was over.

He ran his eyes slowly over the deck, taking in the graceful beauty of the little cutter. With all plain sail set, the Witch was scudding along like a wraith about to take flight. He sighed thoughtfully. The Witch of Endor... Saul's witch. The Biblical Saul had lost everything; even God had turned his hand against him. Saul, in his desperation, had gone to her. She conjured the shade of the dead Samuel for him, foretelling his destiny; and then... when he was faint from weakness, she offered him sustenance, strengthening him to meet that fate.

This Witch had shown him his own fate all too clearly. Sustenance, though, was another matter entirely. He ran his hand gently along the polished oak of the rail, much as a man might caress a lover. 'So, Witch...' he mused '...do you have that for me?'

He shook his head at his own absurd foolishness, and began to slowly pace the deck. No comfort there, he found; the rhythmic thud of the wooden leg as it struck the deck planking echoed hollowly in his ears. It was inescapable: he would never be free of it, and he hated the very thought. He turned away in disgust, and headed for the companion way.

Someone was there before him; in the dimness, he could barely make out a shadowy figure kneeling at the base of the ladder. The man unshuttered his lantern and reached up to begin the task of disassembling the hand-rope; the lamplight illuminated them both.

Styles looked up at him; Bush was ashamed to see a trace of fear in the big man's eyes. Humiliation, rage, loss... all overwhelmed him, defeating any chance of apology or kind word. In its place he snapped, coldly, "Leave it."

***

The passage to Portsmouth was fast and uneventful, much to Bush's deep regret; there were no gales or adverse winds to delay them. He slept as little as was humanly possible; the crew became accustomed to the sight of his vague outline haunting the darkened deck like some lost soul, and to the irregular sound of his step above their heads throughout the night.

All too soon, the Witch's anchor splashed into the light chop of Portsmouth harbour. Bush stared past the tossing whitehorses, past the other vessels anchored there, to gaze at the city beyond the cobbled quay. Every other time his ship had dropped anchor here, he had felt brim-full with anticipation. His arrival had meant new orders, a new posting, or perhaps simply a run ashore, with all the pleasures Portsmouth might offer. No run ashore, this, he thought grimly. Run aground, more like: stuck, hard and fast.

He heard footfalls tentatively approach, then stop; he turned to find Styles a few paces distant, waiting patiently to be noticed. It was time: Styles had assembled the side-party at the entry port. The man had performed his duties well, but had kept his distance these last few days, treading warily about him as one might around an unpredictable cur.

Styles had deserved better, he thought with regret. And it was too late now to make amends. "Mr. Styles..." he tried to keep the harshness from his voice "...have my dunnage -- there is not much -- transferred to The George."

Styles eyed him curiously. "Yer not goin' 'ome, sir?"

Bush's detached expression did not falter. "No... not as yet. I will take a room there, as I am called to testify on Captain Hornblower's behalf at his court-martial. After that... after that, I suppose I shall."

Styles shook his head. "'Tain't fair, sir."

"No, Mr. Styles... it rarely is."

They walked together to the entry port; no words were necessary. Bush looked over the assembled crew, nodded to them, and touched his hat. "Thank you, men... you have done well."

Styles' pipe sang out, and Bush was gone, a waterman's boat carrying him the short distance to the quay. Styles watched him as he stepped awkwardly onto the jetty and carefully climbed the stone steps, the fleet's dispatches tucked under one arm. He sighed heavily. "So 'ave you, Cap'n. So 'ave you."

It was not lost on him that Bush had never looked back.

***


Chapter 3


For a few brief moments, Captain Horatio Hornblower stood dazed and alone, blinking in the bright sunlight. The court-martial was over, finally behind him. The Court's deliberations had ended, and he had reentered the cabin to find the hilt of his sword toward him, waiting for him to take it up again. 'Most honorably acquitted.' The words still rang in his ears, though he did not yet fully permit himself to believe them. The doubts and recriminations that had so occupied his mind were apparently not shared by the Court; their decision had been swift and unanimous. They had pored over numerous reports and depositions, including his own, and heard his first lieutenant's direct testimony; a testimony that had been delivered in a strangely flat and dispassionate tone. Strange, perhaps, to one who had known Bush so well... but it had proved entirely effective.

The doors to the great cabin opened abruptly, disgorging an ebullient group of uniformed officers, each intent upon wringing his hand, or clapping him heartily upon the back. And there at last was Bush, his hand outstretched. Hornblower accepted it and clasped it warmly; Bush's familiar firm grip was an anchor in the storms that raged within and threatened to take him flat aback.

Bush smiled, and added his own congratulations to the multitude. But the smile seemed somehow forced and did not reach his eyes. Odd, Hornblower thought, so different from the exhilarated captain he had bidden farewell on this very deck only short weeks past. Perhaps Bush was merely tired, or, conceivably, in pain. He had come to know the man well enough during their years of service together to know with complete certainty that Bush would never admit to either, even if pressed. Thus he returned the smile as if nothing were amiss and moved on to the other well-wishers who crowded around him.

Bush stood apart and watched the noisy and jubilant assemblage for a moment, then turned his back on them and stumped away; he knew Hornblower would not notice. Simply being aboard the Victory -- even at anchor -- was torture, and he wanted rid of it. All of it -- the creak of her timbers, the measured slap of the waves against her hull, the mingled odors of tar, salt air, and massed humanity. The past few weeks had been an endless stream of farewells, and he had had enough.

A hastily-mustered side party piped him off; the flag-captain's own cox'n rowed him ashore in the captain's gig, though Bush paid it little attention. He was instead lost in thought, and remained so throughout the short carriage ride to The George. He entered the small room that had served as his temporary lodging, stripped off his uniform jacket, and clawed violently at the neckcloth that seemed suddenly to strangle him. He sagged miserably into the room's single chair. For the first time in his life -- or at least, in his Naval life -- he had no idea of what it was that lay before him.

Immediately after his arrival in Portsmouth he had been summoned to Whitehall to deliver his sworn testimony and reports to the Admiralty; however, to his consternation, he had been given no orders. He had attempted to convince himself that perhaps they had been awaiting the outcome of Hornblower's trial before he could be safely given an appropriate appointment ashore: an attempt which, thus far, had proved less than wholly successful.

He considered the notion of taking a short leave at home prior to receiving an assignment -- if one was indeed forthcoming -- but rejected it immediately. His mother and sisters had come to Portsmouth from Chichester promptly upon hearing the news of his Lazarus-like resurrection; to his relief, they had not stayed long. They had clucked and fluttered about him much like a brood of overwrought hens; the prospect of enduring their ministrations for days on end loomed before him like an eternity spent in hell.

He was still seated uncomfortably on the room's hard chair, staring blankly at the wall, when he was abruptly summoned back to the present by a brisk knock at the door. He rose, opening it to find a uniformed midshipman saluting him crisply with one white-gloved hand while proffering a letter with the other. "Commander Bush, sir? The Admiralty's compliments."

The midshipman stood waiting patiently as Bush accepted the letter, broke the heavy Admiralty seal, and rapidly scanned its contents. As Bush looked up, the young man added, "A carriage will call for you within the quarter hour, sir." The midshipman saluted him once more, and left him standing there in the doorway, his thoughts in a turmoil of questions and uncertainty.

A summons to Whitehall, again, with no further explanation. He sighed and began to pack. If nothing else, a lifetime at sea had left him fully resigned to patiently endure whatever vagaries the Admiralty might display.

***

Bush examined himself critically in the long mirror the Admiralty had thoughtfully provided on the parlour wall, knowing that legions of nervous captains before him had doubtless done the same. He straightened his neck-stock and twitched down his waistcoat for what seemed the thousandth time. Fair enough, he decided. He even smiled slightly despite himself at the sight of the still-unfamiliar commander's epaulette, though the smile faded as his gaze traveled downward. One polished silver-buckled shoe, not two. He squared his shoulders and glared back at his reflection in defiance. That had been gained honourably, and could not be helped.

He knew full well that he had been summoned here to be awarded command of nothing more than a desk in some godforsaken dockyard. It was simply the way of things, and had to be accepted as such. Though he would be damned before he would forsake his pride and humbly grovel for it.

He began to pace the thickly carpeted floor, and felt some small satisfaction in the observation that it had gotten considerably easier to do so. After leaving the Witch in Portsmouth, he had immediately had located a tradesman all too familiar with the flood of men missing limbs and had been fitted with a proper leg to replace the jury-rigged one Hornblower and Brown had built. Now fully healed, he was no longer forced to bear his weight on his bent knee: the leg could be fastened directly to what remained of his own. Though it was still somewhat painful, he felt far better about it. He retained a marked hitch in his gait -- always would, no doubt; even with practice there could be no concealing it -- but recovering the use of his knee had made a world of difference.

He looked up sharply as he heard the polished door creak open. The bored-looking young man framed in the doorway studied him disdainfully and snapped "Bush?"

Bush returned the contemptuous stare as though the elegantly uniformed man were nothing more than an uncommonly slack midshipman. Clearly he was some admiral's pampered aide who had never seen the sea but from some drawing-room window. "Yes," he responded coldly.

Surprisingly, the young man smiled slightly at that and ducked his head. "Please, sir, come with me." It seemed to Bush that the man was somehow oddly gratified that he had been immediately recognized for precisely what he was. He led Bush down a seemingly endless corridor, finally halting before a gleaming mahogany door. He raised his hand to knock; hesitated, and turned back. "Good luck, sir. I have heard of your escape, and the recapture of the cutter. I wish..." he hesitated, shamefaced. "I wish you the best." He swung back and knocked at the door, then opened it to announce "Commander Bush, sir," and motioned for Bush to enter. "Admiral Chadwick, sir," he whispered as Bush passed.

Bush entered the richly appointed room and snapped to attention in front of a huge and ornately carved desk that dwarfed the grey and wizened man seated behind it. He recalled that in his prime Chadwick had been something of a fire-eater, bold and innovative. It was startling to realize that this must be the same man; yet as Chadwick looked up, Bush could see that the fire had not yet left his eyes.

"Ah, Commander Bush." Chadwick motioned to a chair. "Please, sit. There is no point in aggravating your injury further."

Bush lifted his chin. "There is no need for that, sir; I am quite recovered."

The admiral studied him with a calculating eye. Bush looked fit enough and there had been a hint of challenge in his response, however respectfully it had been delivered.

"Nonetheless, Commander... sit. I dislike peering up at you."

Bush obeyed, and lowered himself smoothly into the indicated chair, hoping that his face did not betray him.

Chadwick folded his arms and settled back into his chair, fixing him with a steely and uncomfortably penetrating stare. "As you must be aware, Commander Bush, due to your unfortunate injury your prospects for reassignment are now most limited. Admiral Gambier did, I believe, inform you of the availability of a post as commissioner of the dockyard at Sheerness?"

Bush nodded. "Yes, sir, he did."

The little admiral grunted. "Aye, a nice safe posting, with no further threat of losing life or limb to enemy shot. I have no doubt that an efficient officer such as you were would brook no nonsense from those dockyard thieves or tolerate incompetence and slackness from the labourers."

"No, sir, I most certainly would not." Bush's words were emphatic, yet a hint of resignation -- one might almost call it hopelessness -- was visible in his eyes. Try as he might, he could not entirely conceal his lack of enthusiasm for the prospect of spending the remainder of his career badgering unwilling and often corrupt minor dockyard officials. Yet... he could hardly afford to do otherwise. The salary was generous, he knew, and would be much appreciated by the sisters who depended on him. And the notion of idly living out his life on half-pay did not even bear thinking about.

"So." The grey head nodded firmly. "It is settled, then. If Bonaparte continues his quest for power -- as I am certain he shall -- I predict that you will be an exceedingly busy man before long."

Bush attempted to muster an eager response and failed miserably. "Yes, sir."

Chadwick eyed him speculatively. "Did you know," he began, "that some of Britain's enemies can be found within her very shores? No, I do not speak of foreign spies, Commander: I speak of our own countrymen. Our country is desperate for revenue, especially now as we prepare for an escalation of this war which we know to be inevitable. Yet the smugglers -- British smugglers -- continue to bleed us dry. Smuggling is rife along our coasts, and accepted by much of the citizenry as an honourable profession. The Revenue Service is incapable of controlling it; and, at times, seems most unwilling to do so as well."

Bush was entirely perplexed at this new tack their discussion had taken, yet he could not fully contain his curiosity. "Unwilling, sir?"

"Aye, Commander: unwilling." The admiral watched Bush narrowly, gauging the man's reactions. "Not long ago the captain of the revenue-cutter Swallow confronted the schooner Kent -- a well-known smuggling vessel -- and, in the words of his own report, "was warned their guns were in readiness to fire" and "by reason of their superior force, was obliged to sheer off". The same stalwart captain was patrolling Saltburn Bay when the Kent boldly sailed in and ordered Swallow away. That brave man promptly left with his tail between his legs, allowing the Kent to deliver her contraband cargo unmolested."

"He hauled off, sir? Twice?" Bush's tone was a mixture of incredulity and indignation, the authenticity of which was undeniable.

"He did indeed, Commander, without a shot fired. Anathema to a man of action such as yourself, eh?"

Bush was uncertain of how best to answer; the admiral had made it abundantly clear to him that he was a man of action no longer. He had the uncomfortable sensation that he was being made sport of, and did not like it; and was thus provoked into growling an imprudent response which the admiral's ears could not quite catch, though it sounded suspiciously like "...goddamned coward..."

Chadwick concealed a smile. No, he had not misjudged the man. Not at all.

"The Navy has dispatched one vessel to... aid... the Revenue Service in the control of this foul traffic; although one is insufficient, it is all we had to spare. It seems you have provided us with another badly-needed cutter, Commander. Would you care to stay with her?" He now smiled freely, enjoying the faint play of expression on Bush's face despite the man's obvious efforts to remain outwardly unmoved. "Or is the lure of the dockyard too great?"

***


Chapter 4


Bush leaned back against the cracked and dusty leather of the coach seat, grimaced, and rubbed the back of his neck in a futile attempt to relieve the knot of tension that had stubbornly settled there. He had set out for Cornwall immediately upon receiving his orders: the same orders that were now spread open across his knees. He had been studying them, vague as they were, desperately trying to glean some further knowledge or insight from their pages. He closed his eyes as the coach jolted along the rutted track, allowing his thoughts to drift back to the events of the past few days.

He had been stunned by Chadwick's words; so much so that -- to his shame, now -- he had gasped audibly and had been merely able to stammer "Thank you... thank you, sir."

Chadwick had grinned indulgently; he knew full well the enormity of his offer, and the effect it must have had on the officer before him. "My aide will deliver the full orders to your lodging as soon as my clerk completes them, but I can tell you the bones of it." He leaned forward across the desk; his smile vanished and was immediately replaced by a grim intensity. "The Trade has been particularly brisk in Cornwall, and much of it appears to be centered around Mount's Bay. The transfer of goods and the subsequent loss of their revenue are harming us deeply. But of greater concern to me is the transfer of information. Napoleon himself claims that most of the information he receives from England comes to him via the smugglers.

The revenue service has been incapable of controlling this traffic; it is my belief that their efforts have been less than, shall we say... wholehearted? The whole miserable affair smacks of collusion, though as yet I have no evidence to prove it. Given my suspicions, you will have full authority, and will report to no one but me. You are to have as little contact with the local Revenue Service as possible..." Chadwick's eyes narrowed "...which ought not to be a difficult thing to achieve. Relations between the Service and the Navy have never been cordial; and I suspect that they will not be at all pleased to have your 'assistance'. Particularly as they are only noticeable by their absence."

"'Th' devil's awa wi' th' Exciseman,'" Bush muttered, under his breath.

Chadwick's eyebrows rose. "Burns? You surprise me, Commander." He smiled suddenly. "May you continue to do so.

You are to leave immediately for St. Michael's Mount, to direct the actions of the two cutters we can spare. Your lodgings in Cornwall have been prearranged for you; you will be taken to them. The cutter Greyhound has recently arrived on station, under the command of a Lieutenant James Dawes. He is young, but comes highly recommended; he has shown both intelligence and initiative. Your Witch of Endor will be refitted for revenue work: she and her officers and crew will join you as soon as that refit is complete."

Bush had smiled then at Chadwick's words -- 'your Witch of Endor'; they made him smile even now. She was still his, after all. Bush knew that he was no doubt expected to direct the cutters' movements from shore, but try as he might, he could find nothing in his orders that specifically commanded him to do so. He would maintain his official lodgings, but could not begin to imagine himself anywhere but on the deck of the Witch.

His excitement, though, was becoming tinged with more than a bit of trepidation which was increasing steadily as the miles fell away. This was the first time in his many years of service that he would truly hold a full command, one in which the planning and the responsibility for success or failure rested squarely on his own shoulders, and he could not help but wonder whether he was equal to the task. He had served many captains throughout his career and knew full well that rank was not necessarily reflective of ability. He had always been confident of his own proficiency for successfully implementing another's plans; he knew that Hornblower had implicitly trusted him to do so. And he had been content with that, as he had been more than aware of Hornblower's superior ability from the start.

But Bush was also more than aware of Hornblower's lack of faith in his capacity to act on his own initiative. He smiled ruefully to himself... he had been far more aware than Hornblower ever knew. Hornblower had been quite wrong about that; he had never truly comprehended that his faithful first lieutenant had understood him thoroughly.

So Hornblower had indeed been wrong. Could it be that he was equally mistaken here? Bush was unable to call to mind a single instance in which he had failed Hornblower; any actions under his command had always been successfully carried to completion. So was that mistrust truly based in fact or was it simply a reflection of the man's constitutional unwillingness to share the consequences of failure? That was an attitude rarely found amongst those in authority -- most were more than eager to cast blame on inferiors, whether deserving or not -- but he knew from bitter experience that Hornblower possessed it in abundance.

Time would tell, he supposed.

He looked up from his reverie and began to gather up the scattered papers. His instincts had told him some time ago that they were nearing the coast. The air was crisp and clear and sharply tinged with salt, awakening that primal fire that resided in every true sailor's heart -- that fire which still burned brightly in his own.

The coach slowed, and rocked to a halt in front of a small but tidy-looking inn. The Two Brothers: this was the lodging engaged for him by the admiralty. Bush stepped carefully down onto the worn cobbles and stretched to ease the stiffness of the journey from his body. He withdrew the admiralty's letter from his jacket, opened the door... and found himself face to face with a tall, aproned, and unsmiling woman whose very demeanour clearly indicated that it was she who presided there. A large, bulky man loomed over her shoulder, yet Bush found the woman to be the far more forbidding presence.

Bony and angular, she glowered fiercely at him, her eyes level with his, her hands planted firmly on her hips. Her jaw jutted and her lips compressed into a thin hard line as she studied him, her gaze traveling from head to foot and back again.

"You'd be Commander Bush, then," she demanded.

They were of an age, yet under that grim and relentless scrutiny he felt more like an errant schoolboy than a commander in the King's navy.

"Er... yes, ma'am."

She sniffed, and regarded him as one might consider a particularly poor specimen of horseflesh. "The admiralty graciously informs me that I am to provide you with room and board, and allow you to commandeer my parlour without so much as a 'by-your-leave' so you might confer with your officers whenever it suits you." Her caustic tone left no doubt of her lack of enthusiasm for the prospect.

"Indeed, madam." He held out the envelope bearing the Admiralty seal; she accepted it grudgingly, feeling the thick packet of notes it contained. He was beginning to recover his wits; he did not let go of it, and coolly raised an eyebrow. "Though perhaps you would prefer me to make other arrangements?"

She snatched the envelope from his grasp and hastily secreted it into a vast pocket of her smudged apron.

Bush smiled humourlessly. "I presume that means I am welcome."

She harrumphed, and glared coldly at his smile. "And you'll not be using my establishment for sailors' drunken revelry."

The gaze he returned was as frosty as her own. "Only that of their officers, madam."

His sarcasm fell on deaf ears. "Brendan will show you up. I have more pressing matters than yours to attend to." She spun on her heel and was gone, with a final disapproving twist of her sensible skirt.

Bush stared after her, bemused. She would make a better bos'n than most, he thought.

The big man grinned down at him, chuckling at Bush's nonplussed expression. "Mara." He shook his head. "My sister."

***

Bush restlessly paced back and forth across the scarred wooden floor of the small whitewashed sleeping-room. As he had expected, it was clean -- almost painfully so -- but spartan and cheerless. The establishment accurately reflected its owner, it seemed.

He dragged his watch from a pocket and glared at it angrily; to his disgust, the hands had scarcely moved from the last time he had done so. It was nearly time; but it would not do at all for him to be early. He had sent a messenger to Greyhound instructing her officers to join him here; the lieutenant who had been given command of the Witch was also due to arrive from London by coach, or so he had been told. He wanted the full assembly to be present when he joined them, as it would not be seemly for him to be found drumming his fingers anxiously upon the tabletop, impatiently awaiting their arrival. He smiled self-consciously to himself; he had learned more theatrics from Hornblower than anyone would have guessed.

Theatrics or no, he felt faintly foolish standing in this barren and miniscule room of a backwater Cornish inn turned out in full-dress uniform, complete with glittering epaulet and sword, and immaculate white breeches. The breeches were particularly hateful... he had always preferred trousers, and now had more than good reason to do so. There was no point in being more obvious than was absolutely necessary. He would dispense with this ridiculous pretense as soon as was practicable. But not yet.

It was time enough at last, he decided, and cautiously made his way down the inn's back stairs. He stood unobtrusively in the shadows just outside the parlour entry, taking a moment to quietly study the uniformed men who were to serve under his command. He watched them as they smiled, sharing ale and conversation like old friends. But my God, he thought helplessly, what an unholy collection of the Navy's flotsam. All of them. Men, not so grievously wounded as to be forcibly retired from the service, but badly used all the same. Here, an eyepatch; there a pinned-up sleeve; another's face was horribly scarred with a jaw knit awry.

These were men whose very appearance might inspire misgivings, not confidence. It was difficult enough, he knew, to inspire men to follow fearlessly into the madness of battle; near-impossible, perhaps, when their leader was a constant reminder of the perils that awaited them there. Here, though... here, they could yet serve: as he could. He sighed; at least he would not be a curiosity amongst them.

Bush considered these men, trying to envision them as they once must have been: bold, eager, full of ambition and enthusiasm. Did some of that still linger? These men were battered, indeed, but perhaps not yet beaten. As he watched, steady grey eyes met his own. A young lieutenant had noted his presence; he ambled over and saluted casually. So casually, by God, that he had even kept his left hand jammed in his pocket. "Captain Bush? I am Lt. James Dawes, sir."

He caught Bush staring pointedly at the offending arm, and grinned without a trace of awkwardness. "Happened in an engagement with a Frog privateer... we took her, but not without a bitter fight. My arm became entangled in the rigging as our mizzen was coming down. Damn near wrenched it off before one of the men could cut me free. It is of little use now, but at least the surgeon was not forced to remove it." He looked down at Bush's legs and reddened. "Sorry, sir... I meant no..."

Bush waved off the stammered apology. "Never mind." He looked about him; the other officers were now obviously aware of his arrival, and were watching attentively. He gestured to the long table in the center of the room. "Very well, men... shall we begin?"

He stood quietly at the head of the table, waiting, as the others took their seats. Hornblower, he knew, would have offered a speech, one of but few words yet still inspiring these men to lofty heights of loyalty and service. He held no delusions whatever regarding his own ability to do so; thus he dispensed with formality, pulled out his chair, and joined them.

He laid the packet containing his orders on the table. "As you must already know, we are commanded to control the illicit activity..." he smiled grimly "...the 'Free Trade', as the good people of Cornwall call it -- that runs rampant along this coast. I understand that during the past weeks Greyhound has been patrolling the area, making her presence known. That shall work to our advantage. The Witch of Endor, our second cutter, will be joining us shortly; in fact I had expected her commanding officer to have joined us by now. But until then..." He began to outline the plans that had begun to take shape in his mind and rapidly became immersed in discussion, completely forgetting his earlier anxieties.

The ideas flowed easily around the table; Bush had sought thoughts and opinions from each of the men seated there with him. After an initial tentative silence, they had begun to cautiously speak their minds, and were now freely engaged in intense exchange, sharing the benefits of the past weeks' experience. But the conversation faltered as each became aware of the sound of rapid hoofbeats; a rider was approaching at what seemed a most reckless pace. Bush broke off in mid-sentence and glanced out the window in time to see a heavily lathered grey slither to a stop in front of the inn. He watched as the uniformed rider slid off, tossed the reins to the waiting post-boy, and sprinted for the door... and burst breathlessly into the room.

Bush studied the young man framed in the doorway. The lieutenant's uniform was travel-stained and dusty, his breeches darkly marred by sweat from the mount that still stood blowing gustily outside -- but still, he was somehow familiar. Tall, but slight. Fair, and handsome, some might say, though unsettlingly feminine of feature. Pretty, more like.

The young man looked wildly about the parlour until his eyes met Bush's steady scrutiny. He snapped to attention. "Captain Bush, sir?"

Ah, thought Bush, the voice was also familiar, a fact which allowed him to properly place the young man at last. The Admiralty, of course: this was the aide, the useless puppy who had escorted him to Chadwick's office. Oh God, he wondered suddenly, his mind churning... had something happened to Chadwick? Was this entire operation to be called off before it began? Or had Chadwick himself had a change of heart and properly cast him back upon the beach? Bush schooled his face to a rigid mask, betraying none of it, and snapped curtly, "Yes. Report, Lieutenant."

"Lieutenant Fanshawe, sir." The young man fumbled in his jacket for a moment and withdrew a packet, proffering it to Bush. "My orders, sir."

Bush accepted them, breaking the seal. He read them, frowned, and read them again.

***

Whitehall

Admiral John Chadwick looked up from his papers as the sound of a tentative tapping reached his ears. He glared irritably at the door; this new aide would require some breaking in -- at the moment, the young man seemed utterly terrified even to be in his presence.

He sighed heavily; he never imagined that he would actually come to miss Fanshawe. "Yes, yes, Andrews... come."

The young man cautiously poked his head into the room. "Sir... Admiral Summerscales to see you, sir."

"Damn it, Andrews... do not leave him waiting in the hallway like some damned peddler," Chadwick snapped crossly. "Show him in."

The aide flushed a deep crimson, and opened the heavy door with a self-conscious flourish.

Chadwick immediately forgot his irritation and smiled warmly as the admiral entered. "Hello, old friend."

Summerscales returned the smile, a twinkle glimmering in the depths of his brown eyes. "So, where is our young Fanshawe today? Off settling last night's gambling debts, or is he instead attending some society drum?"

Chadwick ignored the question. "Come, Douglas... a drink, perhaps?"

Summerscales moved to the sideboard and busied himself with the decanter and a glass. "So..." he asked over his shoulder "...you sent Bush to Cornwall, eh? And whom did you put into the Witch?"

A vague smile played across Chadwick's worn features. "That is where you will find Lt. Fanshawe, Douglas."

Summerscales nearly choked on the first sip of his brandy. "Fanshawe?" he croaked, when he could finally speak at all.

"Yes... I believe that is what I said."

"But..." Summerscales frowned, perplexed. "You and I both know that Fanshawe could not effectively command so much as a jolly boat in a mill-pond. Bush will be forced to take command aboard the Witch, else the operation will fail before it has even begun."

"Hmm." Chadwick slowly and deliberately filled his pipe, then looked up, his expression one of bland innocence. "I suppose he shall."

Summerscales stared incredulously at his friend for a long moment, then erupted in a great peal of laughter. "Damn you, John. You had this planned all along."

The laughter was infectious; despite himself, Chadwick found himself joining in it.

Summerscales at last caught his breath and returned to his brandy, though an occasional chuckle still escaped him. "Fanshawe... good lord." He shook his head in only partly-feigned dismay. "He might be my sister's boy... but God help Captain Bush."

Chadwick smiled, but the smile held a touch of sadness. "May God help me. I failed my own son. Perhaps I can still do something for your nephew."

"Failed him?" Summerscales eyed his friend curiously. "Your son is a captain now; you ought to be rightly proud of him."

"No, I failed him. He holds a rank which he did not truly earn, and I fear he will come to grief because of it. I knew he was being promoted too far, too fast... and that it was due to my influence. But I was too consumed by my own career -- by my own success -- to act, and now it is far too late; he is beyond my reach. He has come to believe that he has earned the rank which my own has bought him."

Summerscales looked confused. "But Fanshawe? How does this concern him?"

Chadwick heaved a rueful sigh. "Fanshawe is much like my son. He has not earned his rank of lieutenant; he knows little of the ways of the sea... or of leadership. Nor has he aspired to learn. Here..." he waved his hand, indicating the well-appointed office "...here, it makes little difference. But if this war continues much longer -- as I fear it must -- he may be called upon: England will need every one of her officers. Every one. But it would be a great disservice to the Navy and to the men whose misfortune it is to serve under him. I had despaired for Fanshawe, but did not know what to do.

Then I was presented with the problem of the disposition of Commander Bush. Fanshawe learned of his story, and was captivated by it: the famous Hornblower's trusted right hand, badly wounded, captured, and presumed dead. Yet mounting not one but two daring escapes, aiding in the recapture of the long-lost Witch of Endor and bringing her in triumph home to the fleet. And, despite his hardships, unwilling to accept a well-earned comfortable -- and lucrative -- post ashore.

After having finally met the man -- who was singularly unimpressed by him, no doubt -- Fanshawe came to me, requesting to be reassigned to wherever Bush was sent. I warned him that Bush was most common, without influence, and socially far beneath him." Chadwick eyed Summerscales sadly. "And do you know what he said? He told me 'Perhaps, but he is nonetheless the better man.' Given that unaccustomed degree of insight, I could not in good conscience refuse him."

Summerscales shook his head skeptically. "I hope your good conscience can withstand the result."

***


Chapter 5


Bush looked up from the paper to stare at Fanshawe in disbelief. Fanshawe, for his part, seemed blithely oblivious of his captain's agitation.

"My baggage..."

"Dunnage..." growled Bush, in disgust.

"My 'dunnage', sir, is arriving with the coach, as is my manservant."

This was pushing things too far. "Manservant?" Bush demanded, his voice rising, reflecting both fury and utter astonishment.

"Er... yes, sir." Fanshawe blinked in surprise. "Is there some difficulty?"

"There are no servants aboard these vessels. Only seamen," snapped Bush.

"Oh, is that all." Fanshawe smiled disarmingly, rummaged in a pocket and withdrew a folded note, handing it to Bush. "My uncle -- Admiral Summerscales, by the way -- suggested as much, and assigned him to the revenue service. That way, he can serve with me without fear of being pressed -- as revenue crews all carry a protection."

"You, Mr. Fanshawe, still serve the Royal Navy, and as such remain bound by the Articles of War." He caught Fanshawe's long-lashed gaze, and held it. "All of them."

Fanshawe's eyes widened. "Sir, I must protest. Do you mean to suggest..."

"I mean to suggest nothing, Mr. Fanshawe," Bush interjected flatly. "I am merely... reminding you. I expect you will not forget it. Now... if you are to join us," he barely suppressed a sigh as he gestured to a vacant chair, "please do so."

He reclaimed his own, and studied the men surrounding the table. Merely faces, now... but they would not be so for long. "My orders tell me -- and you men of Greyhound have confirmed it -- that Harry Carson is the man at the root of the worst of the local smuggling activity. Everyone knows it, but no one has cared to prove it or dared attempt to stop it... until now. We will do so, though we shall find ourselves at a distinct disadvantage until we are joined by the Witch -- with Greyhound alone, we shall undoubtedly be outmanned and outgunned at every turn. Much as I hate to admit it, we cannot stand and challenge him gun for gun. At least..." he grinned wolfishly... "not yet. But... this is what I propose we do until then: our Greyhound can certainly snap at his heels..."

***

"Empty..."

Bush slammed his fist furiously -- and far too hard -- onto Greyhound's starb'd rail. The self-inflicted pain pushed his already frayed temper beyond the breaking point, and he gave vent to it with a stream of obscene invective that would have done credit to even the coarsest bos'n.

He angrily turned on Dawes and Fanshawe who were staring, seemingly transfixed by his wrath. "Put her about, damn you! There is nothing for us here. Or can you do no more than gawp at me like a pair of frightened rabbits?"

Chastened, the two officers promptly scuttled away; he vaguely heard Dawes as he issued the proper orders, and felt the cutter begin to respond.

Bush struggled to fight down his rage. Two weeks... two weeks, it had been, of sailing impotently up and down this coast. For nothing. It seemed that wherever they were, the smugglers were not, always one step ahead. Greyhound had nosed cautiously into this bay, fully expecting to find the tiny vessel that had tantalized them for the past day and night; appearing, and then vanishing as if it had never been. Instead, the bay was calm and peaceful, as if mocking them... mocking him.

He saw himself with frightful clarity, in that moment... stamping about -- or at least foolishly attempting to; it was surely a ludicrous sight -- and cursing violently, like some comedic madman. Had he been Hornblower, he would have merely cleared his throat.

No. Had he been Hornblower, the bay would not have been empty.

He turned tiredly to Greyhound's master, his anger gone... replaced now by disgust, and a sharp sense of uselessness. "Mr. Burton, take us home. We can revictual, take on water, and give the men a decent meal. We shall begin again tomorrow."

"Aye, sir." Burton nodded, and mopped his face with the huge red handkerchief which typically protruded from a pocket. An' begin chasin' shadows again, he groused silently. He watched his captain clump wearily up and down the tiny scrap of decking -- doubtless the only 'quarterdeck' he would ever walk -- his frustration evident in every line of his face, in the set of his shoulders, and was suddenly deeply ashamed of his own.

The light was fading as Greyhound's cable payed out, the anchor splashing loudly into the waters of Mount's Bay. The men cheered at the sound, knowing that it heralded spirits, fresh food from ashore, and a night of skylarking under the watchful eye -- he had but one, after all -- of the bosun.

To Bush, it was the sound of failure.

After a myriad of details were seen to -- to their captain's tight-lipped satisfaction -- and all was secure, Greyhound's officers were at last rowed ashore. Bush passed the brief journey in silence: he barely looked up as the boat bumped gently against the salt-crusted stones of the quay. Wordlessly, Bush hoisted himself out of the boat and began to trudge slowly up the path, as if reluctant to leave his ship behind, perhaps as an admission of defeat. Dawes delayed a moment to pass a few final words to his cox'n before clambering ashore and falling into step with Fanshawe. Through the growing twilight, the windows of the Two Brothers glowed cheerfully in the distance; from this aspect, it looked almost hospitable. The thought of good food and a glass caused Fanshawe to quicken his step. "Come on, Dawes..."

Dawes snagged his arm; at that pace they would have quickly overtaken their captain, and left him toiling slowly in their wake. He shook his head. "He may not cherish our company... but leaving him behind would do him no good."

Fanshawe stared at Dawes for a long moment, then shifted his gaze to watch his captain's back. "You are right... I did not consider that." Dawes had an open and pleasant face, and -- more than any other -- seemed to accept him as a fellow officer, and not an object of amusement. He was suddenly overcome by the need to speak his mind, and the words tumbled out before he could stop them. "Do you know, Dawes... he is not quite the man I thought he was."

Dawes frowned. "And what did you expect?"

"When I first heard of him, saw him... he seemed so... so..." Fanshawe faltered in embarrassment, "...heroic." He laughed self-consciously. "He seems somewhat less so upon closer inspection."

Dawes thoughtfully considered his words for a moment. "All heroes do, I should think. You ought not to judge too quickly, Fanshawe."

Fanshawe smiled. "Evelyn."

Dawes' friendly face returned the smile. "Evelyn, then. Give him a bit of time; he is well accustomed to battle, but this cat-and-mouse game of smuggling is another thing entirely. He needs to find his feet."

Fanshawe rolled his eyes. "Poor choice of words, that."

Chuckling companionably, the two men followed their captain's slowly retreating figure at a more leisurely pace, with the small knot of warrant officers trailing a respectful distance behind. The stately procession eventually reached the inn; Bush immediately left them, brushing brusquely through the swinging door that led to the inn's back rooms. He had obviously located Mara Bryce, the inn's unpleasant proprietress: a sharp exchange of voices issued from behind the closed door, and their captain's face was dark with anger when he ultimately emerged.

The parlour's few occupants were grudgingly evicted, allowing Greyhound's officers to gratefully take their place. Several bottles of an adequate claret made a timely appearance, thus cheering the assembled party still further and taking the edge from their recent disappointments. Save for Bush, who sat silently apart from the jovial assembly, wholly unaffected by their increasing good humour.

Mara staggered into the parlour, struggling under the weight of a steaming and heavily-laden tray, and placed it with an aggrieved thump on the center of the table. As her eyes ranged along the faces of the battered men gathering there, her lip curled with unconcealed scorn. "God, look at you. A right sad lot of seamen you are, the very flower of the Royal Navy. Small wonder you are here, instead of at sea where you belong. And you will be outmaneuvered once again tomorrow, just you wait and see."

Bush's face was rigid with anger as he stood to face her, eye to eye; but somewhere deep within him he believed there was truth in her words. When he spoke, his voice was icy. "Madam, I must warn you..."

"Oh yes, the able Commander Bush. You have been far too successful..." her voice dripped with contempt "...in blundering about on your own to seek anyone's advice. Why indeed should you heed mine?"

"Why indeed should you offer it?" he snapped.

"God help me, I do not know. Pity, perhaps. Or the sooner to be rid of your lot." She shrugged indifferently. "In any case, there will be a run tomorrow night, in Carson's Cove."

Bush eyed her angrily, with obvious mistrust. "And how, precisely, do you come to know this?"

Mara laughed scornfully. "Everyone in Mount's Bay knows this. Everyone 'cept you, that is. The signs have been under your very noses all along, but you -- you sorry fools -- haven't the wit to see them." She stepped to the window that overlooked the bay. "Look here, Commander."

Bush, his face like stone, reluctantly joined her. "Yes? And what is it that I have so stupidly overlooked?"

"Do you see the inn on the bluff across the bay? Mother Redcap's? The good Mother is a... a 'friend' of Carson himself." She plucked a substantial telescope from a high shelf which had until now escaped Bush's notice, and held it out. "Take a closer look."

Bush accepted it; to his surprise, he found it to be a beautifully balanced instrument, of exquisite quality -- It was far finer than his own. Bush wondered momentarily how she might have come by such a lovely thing; had she been anyone else, he might have asked.

He leaned on the window ledge and brought the inn into focus; even in the gathering dusk the fine glass allowed him to clearly pick out even the smallest details, from the yellow flowers in the boxes to the large sign depicting a red-hatted woman cheerfully stirring a large pot. "I see nothing amiss."

She shook her head in disgust. "You truly are a useless lubber. Look at the wind vane."

Bush was growing tired of the game, but complied nonetheless; he might as well play this out, he thought wearily, and not lose his temper once more for her amusement. "So?" he demanded, unable to completely conceal his irritation.

"God." She sighed resignedly, as a teacher might when faced with the dullest of pupils. "And which way is it pointing?"

His sigh matched hers. "West."

"And the wind is...?"

"Backing south'rdly." Understanding began to slowly replace the aggravation that had seemed indelibly etched on Bush's face. "But... is it not simply broken?"

"Oh, no; it's not broken. It shows the way the wind blows, it does." She laughed, though there was a bitter edge to the sound. "But it has naught to do with the weather."

Bush studied her as if to somehow discern her motives... or even, perhaps, her veracity. Failing miserably, he jerked his head sharply toward the door. "Leave us. And shut the door behind you."

He turned back to the men seated at the table; they were all staring, the food and drink long forgotten. Fanshawe was the first to break the stunned silence. "It could be a trap, sir."

Bush laughed; it had a sinister quality which Fanshawe found unsettling in the extreme. "Oh, I expect it is, Fanshawe. But it places us closer to our quarry than we have been thus far. We must see this thing through. Tomorrow."

***

Two bells of the first dog found Greyhound beating up the coast, keeping to her usual patrol. To any observer, it was just another day, apparently no different from the one before. But this day... this day, as she had approached the inlet known to the local citizenry as Carson's Cove -- after the smuggler who boldly used it to deliver and receive his contraband cargo -- she had hurriedly dropped one of her boats before continuing northward. She would, in time, return.

Dawes and Fanshawe covertly watched Bush's face as the men labored at the oars. Both young officers had earlier suggested that they take charge of the scouting party, to spare their captain the difficulty of going ashore in this rough country. Bush had declined the offer with sufficient vehemence to assure them that they pressed the issue further at their peril. The master was perfectly capable of taking command of Greyhound's feint northward, he had said. Her captain was needed here.

Her captain, however, was finding his earlier excitement waning, with a gnawing anxiety rapidly assuming its place. The prospect of action at last had been intoxicating: but... for what to prepare? Had Mara Bryce spoken the truth, or was she instead sending them into the jaws of a trap or on some fool's errand to divert them from a rich run elsewhere? She was an unlikely informant, as she obviously had no love for the Navy. Still, he could not ignore the possibility that her information was correct. He could not let them slip through his fingers again.

And if it were a trap? Well, he considered, that would have to take care of itself.

As the launch ground noisily onto the pebbled shore, Bush felt his heart sink still further. Carson had chosen his landing place wisely indeed: the beach was broad and open, with no cover at all. It was bounded at the rear by a seemingly impenetrable cliff, though he reasoned that there must be a narrow and winding track leading through it, doubtless wide enough for a string of pack ponies to be led carefully along it: there had to be a way to carry the goods inland. He struck off towards the cliff, his mind struggling to beat down the apprehension and doubt, and instead grapple with the problem at hand.

Once the track was discovered, he could post his men along it to lurk unnoticed in the shadows until after the goods were landed. Once laden and hampered by the darkness, the unforgiving terrain, and the pack animals, the local men could be easily taken and the goods seized. But that would allow the smugglers themselves to go free. And that would not do. Bush wanted them all; wanted them with a fiery passion kindled from the ashes of the past weeks' disappointment and failure, and from a future lost and never to be regained.

He would not... could not... fail this time.

Fanshawe watched with dismay as his captain struggled across the uneven ground. They had tramped all round the inlet, surveying the stony beach and the distant scrub trees that formed its border. The scouting party had returned with news that there was indeed a crevice that afforded a passage through the cliff face to the post road inland; it was narrow and treacherous, but obviously well-used. The footing here was bad, very bad, and Bush was clearly tiring, and having great difficulty keeping his balance. Fanshawe could stand the sight of it no longer -- too many years spent in the service of elderly admirals, perhaps -- and hurried to his side. He grasped Bush's elbow, saying, in a low voice "Here, Captain, allow me to assist you."

Bush roughly shook his arm free as he snarled, "Leave off, Fanshawe, you damned useless molly." He gathered up the shreds of his tattered dignity and stalked off across the shingle as best he could.

Dawes had seen the incident unfold, and fell into step beside Fanshawe, who still wore an expression of wounded surprise. "Never mind, Ev... it is not you. He still feels the loss of the man he was, and cannot accept the man he is. But he will, in time."

Fanshawe eyed him curiously. "As you have?"

"No. Not yet." Dawes chuckled, and reached out with his good arm to clap him solidly on the shoulder. "I deserved that, my friend."

Bush finally halted to catch his breath, leaning heavily on a boulder that had long ago fallen from the cliff's face above. His officers warily joined him as he surveyed the vast expanse of open beach that lay before them. Dawes looked around him, his trepidation plain. "Quiet as the grave, sir," he whispered. It was truth, indeed... the only sounds were those of the waves and the mournful cries of the curlews that wheeled overhead.

Fanshawe shuddered delicately. In the growing twilight, with sea-mist rolling off the water's surface and beginning to wisp inshore, the deserted beach was undeniably eerie. "If we were to be trapped here, with this cliff at our backs, we might well dig our own graves."

Bush silenced him with a fierce glare, and viciously hissed, "Hold your tongue, damn you!" Later he must speak to the man regarding one of the most basic tenets of command: One might be wrong, but one must never be unsure. Not publicly, at any rate. Privately, he too was at a loss. They could never conceal themselves close enough to shore to mount a surprise attack; even if they burst from the distant trees at a dead run, the smugglers would have more than sufficient time to put to sea in their boats. There was no closer cover to speak of; the beach was empty save for the myriad large mounds of seaweed washed up by the tides. It did indeed look for all the world like a graveyard.

Bush's blue eyes suddenly lit with excitement. He stepped away from the boulder, calling to the men of the scouting party who had dropped to rest on the shingle. He jabbed a finger at three of them. "You, Perkins... and Cooper, and Bates... get back to the launch. Row back to Greyhound -- she must be at the rendezvous point by now -- and get shovels, quickly." He hastily pencilled a note on a scrap of paper, and thrust it at the startled Perkins. "Give this to the master. And..." his mind was working furiously, the rapidity of his thoughts surprised him, "...and bring a small cask of pitch. Quickly, men! Run!" He turned back to his officers; they were regarding him as if he had gone mad.

"Shovels, sir?" Fanshawe's handsome face wrinkled in confusion. "Why ever for?"

"Why, Fanshawe?" Bush smiled thinly. "Why, so we might dig our own graves, of course."

***


Chapter 6


Six small boats knifed swiftly through the black water. Their oarlocks were muffled; the men lay on the oars, sending the boats silently into the pitch-darkness of the bay. Carson had chosen this night carefully, with a seaman's sure knowledge of the weather: a thick darkness, illuminated only by a pale sliver of moon, with even that often obscured by scudding clouds and the sea-mist that lay heavily on the water's unruffled surface. Before them, a single light glowed from a crevice in the face of the cliff that loomed blackly in the distance -- the signal that all was well, and that men waited to receive what the boats would bring them. The boats, filled to capacity with brandy, tea, tobacco, and lace had been dropped in response. Money would change hands, as would a single small package.

Men slid soundlessly into the chilly water as the keels touched bottom and drew the boats more firmly onto the shore, then settled to the task of offloading their cargo with a quiet efficiency borne of long experience. It would not take long, and they knew their shore-bound counterparts would soon emerge from the darkness. A shuttered lamp was lit, its feeble light a signal that all was nearly done.

An owl hooted softly from the distant trees; all else was quiet. Dead quiet.

One of the smugglers raised his head, suddenly startled. The barest suggestion of movement had caught his eye; it seemed, unbelievably, that the mounds of seaweed were... stirring. Surely a trick of the light, he thought, chiding himself for his superstitious foolishness. The man bent again to his task, though not without a vague sense of foreboding. As he worked, dark figures begin to slowly arise from the beach, long strands of weed still clinging to their shapeless forms; in the faint lamplight, they appeared as ghouls exhumed from the earth itself, their graveclothes mouldy and decayed from ages spent in dank and long-forgotten tombs.

The smugglers froze as if suddenly rooted to the sand, transfixed by the horrors that surrounded them. The man nearest the lantern shrank back in fear as he found such a spectre arising from the weed-strewn shingle, very nearly at his feet. The lamplight illuminated the figure's face; it was misshapen, inhuman. It thrust its ruined face close; in the flickering light, it seemed the face of a demon cast forth from the bowels of hell to walk abroad amongst the living. "Put up your hands, or prepare to meet my maker," it hissed.

The man shrieked and dropped to his knees, gibbering in terror. The others followed his lead, though despite their submission the creatures were relentless, seizing each one without mercy. Demonic flames flared behind them; the odor of burning pitch, like the fires of hell, filled the air. Their boats... their only means of escape from this nightmare... were ablaze, the flames roaring, greedily consuming them.

A figure detached itself from the darkness and approached the ghastly tableau; the grim spectres had no need to see its face. One of the phantoms, incongruously, grinned hugely. "Damn fine owl, sir."

The figure entered the circle of light, the flames glinting off the brass and lace that marked him as an officer in the King's navy.

One of the captured smugglers stifled a sob of relief, and quavered, "We... we thought you was devils, zur."

"And I am the Earl of Hell, eh?" Bush's smile was a fearful thing, almost evil in its intensity. He turned to the sergeant of marines, who stood with his hands clamped firmly on the collars of two of the still-terrified smugglers. "Well, Stokes... your beauty has stood you in good stead tonight."

Stokes grinned back, though his scarred and misshapen face turned the gesture into a hideous grimace. "Thank'ee sir... at yer service."

Bush nodded. "I can indeed rely on that, Stokes. And on your marines, I see." He gestured toward the cliff face, from which Stokes' marines were leading a slow procession of pack ponies. Several were already laden with trussed -- and faintly protesting -- bundles slung carelessly across their backs. "They also did well tonight."

He turned his attention back to Dawes... and Fanshawe, who was fastidiously brushing sand and bits of seaweed from his uniform with obvious distaste. "Load the goods onto the ponies as they had planned... but that is where their plan ends, and ours begins."

"Sir?" One of the marines was striding toward him, a small canvas-wrapped package dwarfed by one rawboned hand. "Sir... I found this on one of 'em. Might be important."

Bush accepted it; the waxed canvas wrapping was unmarked, with no indication of the identity of the intended recipient. "Thank you, Hughes. Well done." He frowned as the contents tumbled out into his hands: a small book, leather bound. A dried and rusty stain on one edge suggested that its owner had not parted with it willingly. He opened it carefully and sucked in a breath. "Well done indeed, Hughes. Had this fallen into the hands of the French..."

The book was a work of art. A most dangerous work of art, for all of them.

The first several pages were a wonder of neat script and tiny watercolor images. Every signal flag used by the fleet in peacetime and in battle had been carefully reproduced and meticulously explained: including, to Bush's horror, the list of substitute signals to be used in the event of capture of the originals. The balance of the book contained hundreds of precise entries that documented the entire British fleet, listing each vessel's number and strength. Aboard ship, it would have been dropped over the side at the first hint of capture; obviously, its creator had had no such opportunity.

"Good God," muttered Bush, shaking his head. Important? Deadly, more like. The book had been a labour of love, the product of countless hours of painstaking effort by some unknown and conscientious officer... and might have doomed them all. Thank God, he corrected mentally. And, he realized with astonishment, he must also thank Mara Bryce.

He tucked the book safely into his jacket as marine Sergeant Stokes dragged one of the captured smugglers to stand cringing fearfully before him. "This 'un had it, sir."

"So." Bush eyed him coldly. "You would sell your countrymen."

The smuggler's frightened expression turned to a sullen mulishness. "Some toff give it t' me, t' give t' 'arry Carson... 'twas wrapped up, like." He shrugged. "Din't know wot was in't."

Bush could barely contain his rage, and turned away before the temptation to shoot the man where he stood became too powerful to ignore. These stupid, shortsighted men. They thought only of their own small profit, and gave no thought at all to the cost. Truly evil, traitorous men like Carson used them, and their mindlessness.

Carson was not even among them; he had stayed with his ship. The blazing boats were signal enough that the operation had gone awry; he had turned tail and left his men. Cold bloody bastard, thought Bush. It was a cold bloody business.

Carson's vessel had fled unchallenged, which told him that Burton, Greyhound's master, had properly obeyed his orders and remained hidden in a nearby inlet, though Bush could well imagine what it had cost him in pride to do so. But with the balance of Greyhound's crew ashore, there would have been no hope at all of a successful engagement. That would have to wait until next time.

And there would surely be a next time. Bush knew deep in his bones that he had made an enemy this night; an enemy who would not rest until one of them breathed his last. It was more than the loss of tonight's revenue; even more than the loss of vital information that would now never reach the hands of the French. It was the loss of Carson's sovereignty over this place. And that? That was personal, and would not be forgotten.

Though Carson was not the only one destined to be surprised tonight. He smiled slightly as he considered the likely reaction of the local authorities when he presented them with not only the captured contraband but with Carson's men and local accomplices as well. Perhaps no one had dared cross Carson before -- but things were different, now. Very different.

Bush turned to his lieutenants. "Ready?"

Dawes nodded. "Aye, sir." He indicated the string of scrubby ponies, dwarfed by their huge burdens. "It will be rough going up the cliff, laden as they are. Stokes, here, and his marines will shepherd our prisoners. He roped them together, and..." he grinned wickedly, "...cut their waistbands. They'll have a devil of a time climbing the track whilst holding up their trousers. No doubt they'll be too preoccupied to try to escape."

Bush chuckled in agreement. "No doubt. I will have to commend Stokes on his ingenuity."

"And you, sir?" Dawes looked suddenly ill at ease. "The cliff-track..." his voice trailed off uncertainly.

Oh God. The cliff track. Bush's heart sank as he looked up at the cliff; the path must be nearly vertical in spots. Flushed with success, he had not spared it a second thought... but there was no chance at all he could scale such a thing. And damned if he would have one of the ponies unloaded so he might sit astride it like some ridiculously overgrown child.

He was suddenly glad of the darkness, and turned toward it. "Mr. Dawes, you are in command of the balance of tonight's activities. I trust you will safely deliver this night's profit to the authorities. Take Fanshawe with you, and what men you need."

Dawes nodded firmly. "Yes, sir. You can depend on me, sir." He quickly turned away, calling, "Stokes... assemble your men."

"'Ere, you." Marines tugged roughly at the smugglers. "Git up... let's go." One by one, they resentfully got to their feet and moved a few grudging steps toward the path which led to the village and the authorities.

Halfway up the path, Dawes looked over his shoulder; down on the beach, flames still flickered at the shoreline from the dying embers of the smugglers' boats, casting faint fingers of light along the shingle. The small knot of Greyhound's men left behind were busily engaged in pulling the longboat from the scrub where it had been hidden. But Bush still stood immobile where they had left him; hands clasped behind his back, watching them go up the track... without him. Then the path turned sharply, and he was lost from sight.

***

Greyhound had barely dropped her anchor in Mount's Bay when Bush ordered his boat hoisted out; he seethed with impatience as the hastily-mustered crew rowed him ashore. He had spent the brief return passage in a tempest of anxiety and anticipation: eagerness to hear the account of the revenue service's reaction coupled with worry that Dawes and his men had successfully delivered both captives and goods without incident. The walk to the Two Brothers seemed interminable, though as he approached the inn, it was apparent from the quiet that his men had not yet arrived: while he waited for them, he had a duty to perform.

He entered the inn to find it nearly deserted; not surprising, given the lateness of the hour. Brendan, Mara's huge and silent brother, was bustling about, tidying the small parlour, readying it for the next day's business. He studied Bush for a moment, then wordlessly jabbed a thick thumb in the direction of the kitchen door. Bush nodded his thanks, and pushed through it into the still hot and smoky room.

Mara was seated at a well-worn table with a huge mountain of potatoes piled before her. A second, equally imposing mound resided in a cast-iron pot beside an ever-growing hillock of skins. She must have heard him enter; his step was loud and unmistakable on the scarred wooden floor. She ignored him completely, and continued to wield her paring knife with a single-minded determination.

Bush cleared his throat. "Madam... Miss Bryce. I... we... owe you our thanks."

She looked up at last, her face grim. "So I have heard."

"Miss Bryce... you have placed yourself at considerable risk by helping us. But..." Bush shook his head slowly, "I cannot understand why you would do so, as you obviously bear little love for the Navy."

She laid the knife aside and seemed to come to some sort of decision. She tiredly pushed a few damp strands of hair from her face with the back of one rough and bony hand, then sighed. "Did you never wonder about the name of this inn? I once had two brothers, not one. Our brother Francis was shot down in the street, and left there to die like a dog."

Bush studied her thoughtfully, considering for the first time that there might be good reason for her bitterness. He sat down beside her, and nodded. "Go on."

"There had been a run the night before -- one that the revenue officers conveniently ignored -- but they did not ignore information that Francis had smuggled goods in his possession. They were brave men indeed -- as long as their quarry was alone, and defenseless, in the light of day. They approached him from behind and ordered him to halt. When he did not, they shot him."

She challenged him, her eyes snapping with anger. "Francis was in the wrong, I know; I warned him, but Harry Carson can be most persuasive. Still... is a man's life worth no more than a pound of tea, and a bit of lace?"

"I am truly sorry for your loss, madam. But..." It seemed to Bush that the obvious question must be asked. "Why did he not heed their warning? He may not have been killed had he obeyed them."

"He never heard them," she retorted. "Your precious damned Navy saw to that. He was left nearly deaf after Trafalgar."

Bush raised an eyebrow. "Your brother was at Trafalgar?"

"Aye," she answered; her pride was evident. "He was indeed. His ship fought alongside Victory, beside Nelson himself; and when Victory could fight no longer, his ship took her place."

He frowned, eyeing her narrowly. "And what ship was that?"

"Temeraire." She smiled despite herself, despite the anger and the sorrow. "The news-sheets called her 'The Fighting Temeraire'."

The frown deepened. "Francis Bryce?"

"No... Harris. Bryce is..." she hesitated, "my husband's name."

Bush shook his head, smiling slightly at her, but his eyes were faraway: it was not her face he saw. "Harris... Francis Harris," he repeated softly. "Gun captain, number 8 larb'd. Good, steady man."

Mara was staring at him strangely. "Lieutenant Bush. My God. Francis often spoke of you. I... I would never have guessed that you were that same man."

Her artless words jerked Bush abruptly back to the present. His eyes blazed with fury, and he controlled his voice with an effort. "No madam, I am certain you would not," he snapped coldly. "I am merely... what remains of him."

The inn door slammed resoundingly behind him as he stormed through it. He took a deep breath of the clean air, and struggled to regain his composure. The damned woman was a witch, a viper, never missing an opportunity to remind him of his deficiencies... and, suddenly recalling her words... she had been married? The hapless soul must have been deaf and blind; or, at the very least, dead drunk. Though, he reflected, the man was obviously absent: he must have regained his senses and fled shrieking into the night.

The image, once conceived, cheered him considerably.

***


Chapter 7


A quarter-hour later Bush was still staring into the night sky, though his wrath was slowly fading to be uncomfortably replaced by more than a twinge of shame at his most ungentlemanly behaviour, though by rights the woman in question could scarcely be deemed a lady. He turned at the sound of a heavy tread behind him; Brendan nodded a greeting and fished in the pocket of the innkeeper's apron tied about his thick waist.

"This come for you this mornin', sir."

Bush accepted the packet and examined its contents closely in the light of the candle dwarfed by Brendan's massive fist. He smiled broadly, though the smile quickly gave way to the anger that lately seemed always to smolder just beneath the surface, threatening to ignite at the slightest provocation. "And she never mentioned it... that damned..." He bit off the expletive; the wretched creature was the man's sister, after all.

The big man considered him mildly. "You didn't give her much of a chance to tell you anythin', I'm thinkin'."

Bush stared at him for a long moment, then chuckled ruefully. "No... I suppose I did not."

Bush's quiet laughter died aborning as both men turned abruptly to stare down the narrow post-road where a few tiny spots of light bobbed, growing larger as they drew nearer to the inn. Torches, surely, but there was no way to tell as yet whether they belonged to friend or foe. An uneasy glance passed between the two men. Were they carried by Dawes, Fanshawe, and the loyal men of Greyhound? Or had the smugglers overpowered them, and -- supported by the local populace, no doubt -- now approached the Two Brothers to finish the job? Bush knew that in that event he would be taken, certain sure... and his death would not be an easy one. Brendan, and Mara too, if their role in this had been discovered: an informant's life was not worth a tallow dip as far as smugglers were concerned.

As the party drew nearer snatches of song carried by the night breeze reached Bush's ears. "'The Fireship', by God." He grinned at Brendan, visibly relieved. "Greyhounds."

By the time the raucous company reached the steps of the Two Brothers, however, Bush's grin had been immovably replaced by a stern glower. "Silence, there", he snapped. "You sound like a lot of chattering jackdaws, not King's men." From the shadows Brendan watched him, incredulous. It was nearly beyond imagining that this same man had been weak with relief only moments before.

"Sgt. Stokes, take these men back to Greyhound." At those words, Bush could see more than one of the hands glance longingly through the smudged panes of the inn's windows, perhaps dreaming of the forbidden delights -- ale, and whisky -- that lay within. "Extra rum ration when they are aboard."

The men erupted in a delighted cheer, which Bush immediately quelled with a dangerous glare. He motioned to the inn door. "Dawes, Fanshawe: come... I would hear your reports."

Once seated at a small table in the parlour, Dawes promptly launched into an energetic account of the night's events. Bush was gratified to learn that the passage from the beach to the inn had been singularly uneventful; no locals had lurked in the shadows to attack the party and free their fellows. "But sir," Dawes grinned. "You should have seen the face of the revenue officer at the Customs House when he caught sight of all those loaded ponies. Stunned, he was."

"And when we informed him that it was all from Carson's Bay..." interjected Fanshaw, with an amused chuckle. "Well... then he went white as a sheet, sir. Told us we'd best be measured for our coffins come morning. And that's when Dawes here told him... told him..." His mirth became too much to contain, and bubbled over into outright laughter. "He said... 'never mind that, we've already dug our graves!'"

Dawes was now laughing too, and the sound of the two young officers' merriment warmed the small room. Bush could not help but join in it, though he was well aware that there was more truth in the warning than the others needed to know.

The captured smugglers -- after they had grudgingly unloaded their precious contraband into the hands of the revenue officer -- had been deposited in the local gaol; the press would collect them on the morrow. Small wonder the men of Greyhound were in high spirits -- each man pressed earned them a twenty pound bounty, a fraction of which would be shared equally amongst them. 'Blood money', the smugglers contemptuously called it; there would be many local families turned against them after this night.

"Well done, Mr. Dawes, Mr. Fanshawe. And there is more good news for you, Mr. Dawes... you shall be pleased to know that Greyhound is your domain once more. The Witch is due to arrive tomorrow forenoon, so we shall be doubled in strength, and you shall be rid of Mr. Fanshawe, and of me." He nodded to them, and pushed back his chair. "I shall bid you good night, gentlemen."

He left the two young men and began climbing the stairs; the sound of their companionable laughter followed behind him. He paused at the top and listened for a moment, and thought of those officers with whom he had shared laughter, or a pint, or a watch. Some were gone, now... and others had simply gone on.

***

Bush had lost track of how long he had been waiting; he had awakened at first light, and been awkwardly pacing the quay for longer than he could recall. But the first sight of the Witch as she tacked gracefully into the bay had wiped all the weariness of waiting from his mind. He knew it was foolishness -- but his heart had swelled with pride as he watched her, nonetheless.

She was his. And he had taken her. He, and Hornblower, and Brown. It had been Hornblower's idea -- it always was -- but could they have done it, without him?

"God, sir..." a hushed voice breathed, interrupting his thoughts. "She's beautiful."

He turned, startled, to find Fanshawe at his side... perhaps the lad was not hopeless, after all. "Aye. She is, at that."

She looked much the same; even the additional boats now hung about her could not conceal her beauty. Her new bowsprit was fully retracted, making it appear much like her original, though Bush's experienced eye could see that when run out to its full length it would be nearly as long as her hull, and capable of supporting a great spread of jibsails. Despite her grace, the Witch was stoutly constructed: clinker-built, with great depth of keel. Sturdy enough to grapple and board any smuggler's flimsy vessel -- providing she could catch it. The additional jibs, coupled with the great gaff-mainsail, would grant her the extra speed she needed.

As they watched, the sails vanished neatly from the yards, and her anchor cable roared out the hawse-hole. Bush smiled and breathed an unconscious sigh of contentment: she was here.

Someone scanning the quay with a glass must have caught sight of his uniform, as she immediately dropped a boat which was already being rowed -- smartly, too, he noted -- toward him. He raised an eyebrow at his lieutenant. "So, Mr. Fanshawe... see to the shifting of our dunnage. Or do you wish to stand admiring her till sundown?"

Fanshawe smiled and touched his hat. "Aye, sir. Consider it done."

Later Bush would recall that the smile had seemed tainted with fear.

***

Bush heaved himself through the Witch's entry port to the trilling of calls, unfolded his orders, and, with little ceremony, briskly read himself in.

He could not help but recall the first time he had been piped aboard this vessel -- not surprising, as it had been the first time he had been piped aboard any vessel. He looked back towards the entry port, at the bosun, half-expecting to find Styles there. Of course he was not; Bush had known it... yet somehow he still felt vaguely disappointed at his absence.

"Sir... there's a parcel come for you, just a'fore we left th' dockyard."

"A parcel? From the Admiralty?"

The master shook his shaggy head, and pursed his lips in disapproval. "Nossir. From a seaman. 'E were a rough lookin' cove, for all 'e were a bos'n."

Bush frowned slightly. Styles. It had to be.

He started down the companion ladder, noting that the hand-rope was still in place, a fact which prompted an odd twinge of both amusement and shame.

The cabin also looked much the same as it had, albeit considerably cleaner, and freshly painted. Bush smiled ruefully as he noted that the floorcloth was new, and no longer stained with the claret spilled from the goblet he had hurled with such violence. Ah yes... he thought. The parcel. There it was, on his desk. It was long and bulky, wrapped in oiled sailcloth and bound in twine, secured with a reef knot.

He sat down at the desk and carefully unwrapped it to reveal a blunderbuss. As he examined it, he came to realize that it was the blunderbuss. The one that had lain beside him on the deck as he had steered the Witch out of the hands of the French to freedom. He held the flared muzzle to the light and found the inscription that had so appealed to his cockeyed sense of humour. "Unlucky is he who stands before me."

Styles had no doubt nicked it before he left the Witch, knowing full well that it would have vanished into the hands of some dockyard worker had he not. His conscience must have got the better of him. Bush shook his head... he would never fully understand the man.

He heard another boat bump alongside, and cast an eye out the larb'd window; as he expected, it was Fanshawe with their dunnage, and Poole, the 'manservant' whom Fanshawe had brought with him from Plymouth. To his relief, he had apparently been quite wrong in his hasty suspicions about the relationship between the two men. Poole must have been sent by Fanshawe's uncle simply to keep the lad out of trouble. A fine choice, it seemed. Poole was small, and colourless... he actually had a sort of unsettling invisibility about him. One never noticed his presence, yet somehow, when Fanshawe needed him, he was there at his elbow. But Poole was a proper seaman, could hand, reef, and steer -- in fact, had proved a dab hand at the tiller -- so any disquieting feelings he might engender could be readily overlooked.

A glance astern revealed Greyhound, snubbing at her anchor cable like a restive colt. He smiled... he felt rather the same way himself. All was aboard, there was no need for delay; they could resume their coastal patrols immediately -- this time, in strength. "Unlucky is he who stands before me" indeed, he thought, and headed for the door... and the sea.

On deck, Bush turned to the master and called, "Take her out, Mr. Drummond. Signal Greyhound to weigh anchor and take station astern."

"Aye, aye, sir." The master nodded briskly, and turned, bellowing his orders. "Hands to the windless... lively there!"

The anchor began to rise from the depths as the dripping cable was hauled inward; Bush listened to the master's confident voice, and knew that the Witch was in good hands. He, however, had a significant problem in his own. The master was fully capable of handling the Witch under any circumstance, in any emergency. The first lieutenant, unfortunately, was not.

He forcibly pushed that predicament to the back of his mind; there would be time enough to deal with it later. At the moment, he had to concern himself with the behaviour of this cutter -- an infinitely more pleasurable occupation, if the truth be told.

She handled as sweetly as he had remembered; it was all he could do to not take the tiller himself.

***

Their patrol well underway, Bush had reluctantly quit the deck; a packet of letters and dispatches had arrived with the Witch, along with the usual bundle of muster-books and purser's logs. He could no longer avoid giving them his proper attention, and was thus awash in the paperwork he loathed.

A tap at the cabin door provided welcome diversion; he looked up gratefully. "Come."

Fanshawe bustled into the cabin: clearly, a man with a mission. "Sir... I wish to report a seaman for punishment."

Bush stared at him in disbelief... they had barely cleared land. "And what did this man do?"

Fanshawe's handsome face radiated righteous indignation. "He was insolent, sir; he did not respect me."

Bush eyed him coldly. "You have not yet given him reason to do so."

"But sir... I am a lieutenant in the King's Service." He drew himself up importantly. "He must respect the uniform."

Bush slowly pushed the chair backwards and rose to his full height, then braced his hands on the desk and leaned across it. They were nearly nose to nose; Fanshawe shrank back a pace under the force of Bush's obvious rage.

"Damn you, Fanshawe..." he roared. "'Respect the uniform'? Yours is not a 'uniform'... on you, it is a... a..." Bush spluttered with fury, groping for words. "It is a... a... a costume." He took a deep breath, tried to master his wrath, and failed. "For God's sake, Fanshawe... how did you contrive to pass your lieutenant's examination?"

Fanshawe winced in the face of his captain's wrath, assuming an expression surprisingly reminiscent of that of a rabbit caught in a snare. "Well, sir... my uncle, my godfather, and his flag captain..."

"Dear God." Bush shook his head helplessly. "Say no more." He sighed and began to noisily pace the cabin. "So... it falls to me."

Fanshawe trailed behind him anxiously. "But sir, my uncle..."

Bush turned abruptly and rounded on the young man, who had to stop short to avoid colliding with his captain.

"Damn you, Fanshawe... what have you been playing at?" Bush snapped, viciously. "This is no yachting holiday. You have been at Dawes' and my elbow for weeks, yet have learned nothing from it and apparently see no need to do so. But you will learn, Fanshawe." Bush's tone was chilling as he repeated the words as if they were a verdict of doom. "You. Will. Learn."

***


Chapter 8


By week's end, the pristine copy of Falconer's -- of which Fanshawe had been so proud -- was bent and crumpled, spotted with salt-stains and smudged with the occasional tarry thumbprint. In short, showing every sign of hard usage... a condition which was abundantly shared by its owner, who was currently seated at his miniscule desk, head pillowed uncomfortably on a grimy arm but snoring loudly nonetheless.

Bush, sleepless and pacing irritably in his own cabin, was scarcely less uncomfortable. He had known that Fanshawe was unprepared for his duties as first lieutenant from the moment he read the man's orders. He had hoped -- vainly, it seemed -- that Fanshawe would have been well aware of his deficiencies and would have sought to rectify them himself. Yet it appeared ludicrous now to have imagined that this pampered popinjay would have even considered such a thing. No, the failure had been his own. But what had he done to deserve such a useless first lieutenant?

Regardless, this paper-skulled first lieutenant presented a significant and delicate problem. Bush knew that he could put the young man ashore at the earliest opportunity and be done with it... yet his pride made him reject that possibility out of hand. A lieutenant's name was inextricably linked with that of his captains, and his abilities -- or deficiencies -- presumed to reflect the training he had received in their service. He himself was known as having served under Harvey, and Sawyer, and... he stopped his relentless traverse back and forth across the cabin to close his eyes for a moment... and Hornblower. He would be damned if his name would be permanently bound to Fanshawe's without making at least an attempt to fashion the man into some vague semblance of a proper officer.

But how? Bush grimaced at the very thought, tiredly running a hand across his brow. Fanshawe was as ignorant as the greenest midshipman; unfortunately, he could not be treated as one. Bumbling midshipmen were common enough; the men expected it, accepted it, and listened to their dressings-down or the swish and crack of the bos'n's rattan across juvenile haunches with indulgent smiles, and knowing looks... knowing all the while that it was part and parcel of the moulding of a boy into an officer worthy of obedience and respect. But those methods, while effective, could hardly be applied to a commission officer. He had to publicly treat Fanshawe with the formality and regard expected of a captain to his first lieutenant -- the latter's ignorance notwithstanding -- and had to demand the appropriate level of respect from his men.

It still rankled that he was forced to support him as he had done a week past, after Fanshawe reported a seaman for insolence... the report that had brought this whole miserable situation to the fore. Fortunately, the seaman had indeed been insolent, though mildly so; it had been the sort of thing that an experienced officer would have dealt with swiftly and immediately with no more than a look and a word. Instead, the man had been called to the captain's cabin -- doubtless a daunting experience for him, in and of itself -- and Fanshawe had spoken to him. Bush himself had remained silent, though in glowering over Fanshawe's shoulder had informed the man that such behaviour would not be tolerated. No comment had been necessary.

That message had been relayed efficiently throughout the lower deck: he was certain of it. The men now gave Fanshawe every appearance of respect, though Bush knew full well that it was of a hollow sort. He could only hope that some measure of it might be earned, one day.

But today? Today, it simply made him angry. Angry, that such a useless coxcomb disgraced a lieutenant's uniform. He had earned his own through sweat and blood, back-breaking labour, and humiliation. It had been a long hard climb without interest or influence. He knew, of course, the considerable power of both, and had learnt to be tolerant. One had to be. What he found unendurable was Fanshawe's indifference; his unwillingness to earn the gift he had been given. And such a gift: he was young, and whole, with an ocean of opportunity laid before him.

But dammit, thought Bush grimly, he would learn.

***

And thus Fanshawe's education began. Fueled both by Bush's indignation and acute sense of duty it proved neither easy nor pleasant. Bush kept him on the hop, engaged in every aspect of seamanship, from the intricacies of navigation to the handling of sail to the handling of men -- all to be accomplished to his own exacting standards. And this? This was but the beginning.

Fortunately, there was much to do: a crop of a dozen brandy tubs, lashed together and weighted with stones, had been found washed up on the shore of Mount's Bay. A common enough practice, crop-sowing was -- particularly when local preventive men were especially vigilant. Given their bulk, casks of spirits were among the most difficult -- though lucrative -- goods to smuggle. Typically, casks had to be unloaded onto shore and promptly collected by local men, or transferred offshore to waiting tub-boats. Both methods took far too much time and exact coordination and ran too great a risk of discovery when watchful patrols were about. When patrols were frequent, and revenue officers sufficiently determined, crop-sowing became the transfer method of choice.

Bush -- being more than sufficiently determined -- had set both Greyhound and the Witch to putting a rapid halt to it, particularly as Mara Bryce had offhandedly commented to Dawes that Harry Carson had recently 'taken an interest in farming'. They committed themselves to the interception and inspection of all local vessels, as smuggling craft engaged in this practice were fitted with a tell-tale wooden rail running inboard along the length of the hull, commonly known as a tub-rail. The tubs, lashed together and weighted with stones, were hung outside the hull below the waterline with the sinking-rope secured to the rail by small lashings. When the delivery vessel innocently sailed close inshore, the lashings were cut, the tubs promptly sinking to be discreetly recovered by local men at a later, more opportune time.

Thus Fanshawe's days were filled with patrols, endless tacking and wearing, heaving-to and cutting-out -- all of which were done under Bush's critical and unforgiving eye, and unfailingly sharp tongue. And when not so occupied, he was given charge of one of the boats that rowed ceaselessly off-shore, towing a grapnel or 'creeping-iron' along the sea bed in hopes of snagging a sinking-rope. This fishing for half-ankers had proved surprisingly successful, so much so that both Greyhound and the Witch were now preparing to drop anchor in Mount's Bay to deposit their rapidly burgeoning cargo ashore at the Custom House.

Most of Bush's men grinned at the thought of the Custom Officer's horror and the smugglers' frustration when the size of their 'catch' became widely known. But to the Witch's harassed first lieutenant, the splash of the anchor meant a hoped-for moment of peace, and some rest -- though he was fairly certain that Bush would bedevil him with some new and unpleasant task in short order.

"Mr. Fanshawe." Bush's sharp summons abruptly broke into his thoughts, confirming his fears. "Signal to Greyhound 'Captain repair on board'. I shall be in my cabin; inform me when Lieutenant Dawes arrives."

"Aye, sir," acknowledged Fanshawe, relieved that it had been no worse. He turned to the signalman. "Hoist the signal, if you please." He squinted up at the flags as they soared smoothly aloft; all was in order. He nodded to the seaman. "Well done."

Greyhound's boat was immediately dropped in response and rapidly traversed the short distance to the Witch of Endor's side; Dawes scrambled through the entry port, glancing about for his commander. Bush was not to be found, though there was Fanshawe -- Dawes had not recognized him at first glance. Browned by the sun, and sporting a uniform in dire need of cleansing, he bore little resemblance to the immaculate model naval officer he had been when last seen.

Dawes brightened, pleased to see his friend; though, admittedly, his friend appeared somewhat the worse for wear. "So, Ev... how do you find the Witch?"

Fanshawe groaned. "A trial, indeed. And there is no cause to call me 'Ev'..." he sighed. "I do believe my given name is now 'damn you'." He wisely bit off his next comment, as a tell-tale regular thud betrayed his captain's approach.

Bush welcomed Dawes with a smile and nod, then turned a searching glare on his First. "Have you nothing to do, Mr. Fanshawe?"

Fanshawe took a deep breath and visibly braced himself. "No sir, not at present."

"Well, then," snapped Bush brusquely. "I shall remedy that directly. The casks must be unloaded and transferred ashore; rig a parbuckle..." Bush broke off as Fanshawe began to gnaw his lower lip in apparent consternation. He studied the young man's bewildered features for a moment. "You do not know how, I assume?"

Fanshawe barely suppressed a grimace. "No, sir... unfortunately I do not."

Bush heaved an exasperated sigh. "Very well. Take a seaman with you." He gestured to a small knot of offwatch seamen cheerfully engaged in mending whilst one of their number regaled them with tales of the delights of some foreign port. "Any one of those men can assist you."

Fanshawe studied the group, and pointed. "You there... that man..."

"'That man' has a name," Bush snapped, sotto voce. "I'll trouble you to learn it, and use it."

Thus chastened, Fanshawe hurried off, the nameless seaman in tow. Bush shook his head in disgust, but refrained from comment. He turned to Dawes, a proper lieutenant if ever there was, and mustered a half-smile. "Walk with me, Mr. Dawes..." They slowly paced the weather side, Bush peppering him all the while with questions. "Tell me... how does Greyhound serve? Does she still gripe a bit in stays? Perhaps if you were to shift..."

Bush had nearly forgotten how pleasant it was to discuss the finer points of seamanship with a like-minded colleague; Fanshawe would have goggled at him like a witless child had he so much as attempted to do so. The clang of the Witch's bell eventually recalled to Bush the passage of time -- he would have been quite unaware of it otherwise -- prompting him to extract his watch from a pocket. He scowled darkly at it. Fanshawe ought to have finished and reported back long ago.

"A moment, please, Mr. Dawes..." Impatience overcame him; he headed below to observe Fanshawe's progress, knowing full well that what he would find would not please him in the least. He ducked into the darkened hold; as his eyes adjusted to the reduced illumination he found Fanshawe, a smear of tar across one cheek, torn lace trailing from a cuff, his stockings laddered and sadly drooping. The young lieutenant never noticed his captain's arrival. His face was a study in concentration as he sawed busily at a rope with a ridiculously small -- though highly ornamental -- knife. Bush watched him, not knowing whether to burst into laughter or curses. The seaman, clearly, was enduring no such internal struggle: his mirth was evident, a thing which infuriated Bush beyond reason. His officers -- deserving or not -- were not to be laughed at.

He dismissed the seaman with a dangerous growl and turned on Fanshawe.

"Damn you, Fanshawe..." he snarled.

The deeply wounded expression on Fanshawe's face as he looked up at his captain left Bush entirely -- and uncharacteristically -- speechless. In an instant's unaccustomed clairvoyance, he realized that he knew that face. Not the expression, precisely -- he had always managed to conceal that -- but he knew the emotions that fostered it all too well. He had suffered under the stinging lash of Hornblower's casual and thoughtless derision for so many years: he had grown accustomed to it, and had accepted it as no less than he deserved. But... it had done him no good, after all.

He eyed Fanshawe sternly, but softened his tone. "For God's sake, Fanshawe... use a proper knife, and not that damned plaything." He withdrew an enormous, battered seaman's clasp-knife from a pocket and handed it to the astonished Fanshawe. "Keep this until you go ashore and find yourself a real knife." Bush glowered at him fiercely. "Lose it and I will have your liver, I swear it. Do you understand me?"

"Aye, sir," ventured Fanshawe, who had no doubt at all of his captain's sincerity. He braced himself for the dressing-down he had come to expect... to be delivered, no doubt, with Bush's full volume and seaman's vocabulary.

Bush nodded. "Very well. Carry on, then, Mr. Fanshawe."

Fanshawe gaped after Bush's retreating figure. He could think of no rational explanation for his captain's response, but he was grateful for it, all the same. Though the returning seaman... Parker, as he had discovered... looked somehow disappointed at the loss of his afternoon's entertainment, as his ear had been recently pressed to a seam in the bulkhead.

Bush emerged on deck to rejoin the waiting Dawes. "Mr. Fanshawe needed some..." he grimaced, "direction." A sigh escaped him; he knew it was improper, but try as he might, he could not stifle it. "What did I do to deserve this useless lubber?" He shook his head. "Perhaps a better question might be 'What did he do?'"

Dawes stared at him incredulously. "You do not know, sir?"

"Know what?" Bush's eyebrows knit together darkly; it must have been a serious offense indeed. "What is it that he did?"

"He asked, sir." Dawes said, simply.

"What??" Bush squawked in disbelief. "He asked... for..." he spread his hands helplessly, "...for this?"

Dawes nodded firmly. "For this. And... for you, sir."

The colour drained from Bush's face; he gripped the rail as if its support was the only thing keeping him upright. Perhaps it was.

He felt shaken, and sick. Heartsick at the extent of young Fanshawe's folly... and heartily sickened at his own.

***


Chapter 9


"...sir? Sir?" A voice dimly penetrated the mists that had closed in upon him; he felt a hand cautiously touch his arm. "Are you unwell, sir?"

Bush blinked; Dawes was staring at him, his face screwed up in anxious concern. 'Yes...' he thought, vaguely. "No." He shook his head as if to clear it. "No, Dawes... I am quite well. It was nothing." He managed a thin smile. "Nothing at all."

He lifted his chin and his face settled into its usual stern expression; it was as if the incident had never transpired. "Mr. Dawes, see to the landing of your seized goods, and arrange for transport inland to the Customs House. Mr. Fanshawe will be supervising the landing of our own."

"Aye, aye, sir." Dawes nodded, and touched his hat. As Bush made his way to the companion hatch, Dawes took a moment to glance about him; Fanshawe was nowhere in sight. Still belowdecks, no doubt tremulously awaiting a further visitation from his captain... and the wrath that invariably trailed him like some truculent shadow. 'Poor Ev...' he thought, sadly. He had come aboard with such romantic notions about the sea and the Service, only to have them so thoroughly dashed to flinders and replaced by a harsh and most unforgiving reality. But, Dawes reflected, that was the way of the Service -- and more common than not. He grinned, and headed for the entry port.

This time, Fanshawe heard the distinctive sound of his captain's approach and stood aside, ready and waiting -- and full of apprehension.

Bush barely spared a glance at Fanshawe or at the parbuckle he had rigged; it was a simple thing, really, once one understood the principle. The casks stood ready to be hauled up the inclined rails, the lines were decently in place. All that he had ordered had been done, no doubt under able seaman Parker's watchful eye. But, unaccountably, a tackle hung directly over him; it had been rigged from the masthead, apparently while he had been deep in discussion with Dawes. He turned his full attention to it, carefully examining the butt-slings, his callused, competent hands testing each knot.

"You did this, Fanshawe?" he demanded harshly.

Fanshawe barely checked a sigh before it escaped. "Yes, sir." He stood at rigid attention, prepared for the worst. He had followed his orders... but he had gone beyond them. "I feared the largest casks were too heavy, and rigged the tackle and slings as a precaution. Parker instructed me, sir."

Bush harrumphed, and studied him for a long moment. "Well done. Though you might use a cat's-paw in place of a buntline next time. Begin transferring the casks topside; a boat is alongside to receive them." He turned away, leaving Fanshawe to the task.

Fanshawe was, of course, left entirely speechless.

***

Two loaded carter's wagons rattled to a stop in front of the low stone building that served as the Customs House. As Bush and his lieutenants disembarked, the half-dozen seamen perched on the casks grinned to each other, thinking of the small share of the reward that would eventually make its way into their pockets.

Bush stepped through the door to find himself standing before a round-faced man seated at a substantial desk. He was dressed in a dark blue and vaguely naval uniform, though to Bush's eye he was clearly no seaman.

The man regarded them imperiously, as though much impressed with his own importance. "You again... Fanshawe and Dawes, was it not? And this must be Commander Bush." He rose, and thrust out his hand; it was pale and soft, instantly confirming Bush's initial impression of a man who loved the trappings of service but not the doing of it. "Captain Richard Turpin, Board of Customs. Pleased to meet you at last, sir."

"Thank you, Captain," replied Bush evenly, though somehow managing to subtly convey his opinion of the man's title. "I have some seized goods that require storage."

Turpin peered out the window at the heavily laden wagons. When he turned back to Bush his face was pale. "Good God, sir."

Bush raised an eyebrow. "I am but performing my duty."

"No, Commander Bush... you are playing a most dangerous game, interfering in the Trade."

"And you would not."

"No, sir. I would not." Turpin heaved a disconsolate sigh. "I do not. I deplore the Trade as much as you, but... I live here, amongst these people, with my wife and my family. If I lifted a hand against them, none of us would live out the week." The portly customs officer studied Bush for a long moment. "As I fear you will not, sir. Harry Carson is a treacherous man to cross."

"And that is my concern, not yours." Bush curtly responded. "Perhaps I have less to lose."

Turpin shook his head sorrowfully. "I would not be in your shoes, sir."

Bush replied with a scathing glare and filthy oath, and started for the door. "Dawes, Fanshawe... the bos'n will see to the wagons," he snapped, over his shoulder. "Our business here is finished."

Dawes, however, did not immediately join them; instead, he towered over the pallid little man, looking down at him with a frigid disdain. "Shoe, sir," he said sharply. "Singular. And you would be hard-pressed to fill even the one."

The words had not been meant for Bush's ears, but he had heard them nonetheless. As they walked in silence along the cobbled street, he covertly studied his two young officers, both clearly curbing their usual exuberant stride to accommodate his graceless one. The surprising fact that he had somehow earned Dawes' regard did much to dispel his ill humour, and he could not help but smile.

"Dawes, Fanshawe... I must visit the Two Brothers to collect what posts or dispatches might await me there. You will join me for dinner?"

It had been only half a question; there was only one possible answer. "Er... yes, sir," chorused his lieutenants, glancing from him to each other in surprise. "Thank you, sir."

Mara Bryce regarded the three naval officers coldly as they entered her inn, and wordlessly relegated them to a small table in a darkened corner. Bush, facing the door, idly watched the human traffic of local men and travelers as they came and went, each enjoying the comfort of a hot meal or pot of ale in the cheerful companionship of others.

The door opened to admit a newcomer, seemingly blown in on a wind of good will. He was an uncommonly handsome man, a bluff and jovial auburn-haired giant. His entrance caused an immediate commotion; he was promptly surrounded by a throng of companions. He greeted each with a slap on the back, or a hearty handclasp, or -- in the case of the women -- a playful squeeze. Bush found himself grinning as well as he watched; the man fairly exuded an aura of good fellowship and humour.

He watched with growing amusement as the man caught sight of Mara Bryce, and attempted to slip a hand round her waist to draw her close. Bush could not hear her response, though he did not need to: she regarded the newcomer with plain disgust, and shot back some comment with her usual derision. Unaccountably, the man persevered; Bush shook his head in wonder.

Dawes noted the gesture. "What is it, sir?"

Bush chuckled. "I am watching the lovely Mrs. Bryce put some unfortunate soul in his place... though why he persists, I cannot begin to imagine."

Dawes turned to look over his shoulder at the scene; when he turned back his face was grim. "That is no 'unfortunate soul', sir... far from it. I had quite forgotten; you have never laid eyes on the man. That, sir, is Harry Carson."

My God, Bush thought, feeling his blood run cold. He now watched the tableau with a different eye. Carson's wheedling, ingratiating smile hardened; it took on a different, more sinister character as his hands slid gently down Mara's shoulders to rest lightly on her upper arms. As Bush looked on in mounting apprehension, he saw Carson's knuckles whiten as his grip tightened; Mara tried ineffectually to twist out of his grasp. Her face was contorted with anger; her struggles merely made Carson's smile more venomous.

"If he suspects that she has passed information..." Bush began to rise from his chair

Fanshawe reached across the table to firmly grasp his captain's forearm. "And if he does, sir, it is only a suspicion. But if you go to her aid, it will be a certainty... and you will have placed her in grave danger."

Bush glared at him in impotent fury, but reluctantly settled back into his chair, knowing that his young officer was correct. "Damn. I had not considered that, Fanshawe... thank you."

Fanshawe smiled tightly. "I did learn a few things at Whitehall, sir... and intrigue was chief amongst them."

"Still... if he attempts to harm her on our account..."

Dawes eased his sword in its scabbard. "If he does, sir, he will have to deal with all three of us."

Bush anxiously watched the scene unfold before him; despite Carson's vise-like grip on her arms, Mara did not shrink from his grasp or accept defeat. She faced him, toe to toe, her eyes blazing, apparently giving as good as she got.

He shook his head in disbelief. "The wretched woman has grit, I will give her that." He forced himself to remain in his chair, fighting the temptation to intervene that was almost too powerful to conquer. No man had the right to abuse a woman so... no matter how miserable a termagant she might be.

Carson snarled at her; she staggered back a pace as he abruptly thrust her from him. He spun on his heel, and strode out with a sizeable portion of her patrons following closely in his wake.

Mara stood glaring at the door, rubbing her arms absently. She turned and caught sight of the three naval officers watching her; the fire roared up in her eyes once more as she regarded Bush with obvious contempt. She marched angrily across the room to confront them.

"Did it please you to watch as I was manhandled by that ignorant lout? Though it's a fat lot of good you'd have been in a fight, in any case."

Bush could barely contain his fury. Dry biscuit alone in the Witch's cabin would be a more pleasant supper than he would find in this accursed woman's presence. He rose, wordlessly tossed a few coins on the table, and abandoned them.

Mara sniffed, and watched him as he left, her eyes glittering angrily and with a sort of triumph.

"Mrs. Bryce... please," Fanshawe implored quietly. "Do not rush to judgment. Captain Bush was fully prepared to come to your aid. It was I who prevented him from doing so."

She studied the young man's handsome face, and found only truth in it; still, she was reluctant to accept it. "He was, you say?"

"Yes, ma'am." Fanshawe declared, with a half-smile. "We very nearly had to hold him down. But you seemed in no real danger, and our coming to your defense may have placed you in greater peril. We eventually... convinced him."

Mara folded her arms. "Hmph. So he takes orders from his lieutenants." She tossed her head in disdain. "And I have the bruises to show for it." She stalked off to tend to her patrons -- though now, unfortunately, they were far fewer in number.

Fanshawe sighed sorrowfully. "I suppose we cannot dine here either, given her treatment of our captain." He eyed Dawes as though hoping he might demur.

"Hardly," Dawes snapped, and began to gather his possessions. As they pushed their chairs from the table, Mara returned and mutely placed a tankard before Fanshawe. He frowned, perplexed. "But I did not ask for..."

She interrupted his protest. "Perhaps not, Lieutenant; but you may find that your captain wants it, nonetheless."

Curious, Fanshawe picked it up and peered into its depths. There was no liquid of any sort in the vessel -- but there was a note.

***

"There she is, sir!"

Bush peered up through the early morning mist to where Fanshawe was clinging to the shrouds, telescope trained on the horizon. At first glance he looked every inch the seasoned officer, with his tar-stained jacket and wind-tossed queue, though Bush had to hide an amused smile as he observed the fingers of Fanshawe's free hand entwined in a death-grip on the lines. "Where away?"

"Two points t'starb'd, sir!"

"Very good, Mr. Fanshawe; you may come down." Fanshawe hid his relief manfully, Bush thought. Perhaps those years spent at Whitehall had taught him something useful after all.

The past fortnight's patrol had been a humbling one, though not for Fanshawe; rather, it had proved so for his captain. Bush had not been a whit less demanding -- perhaps even more so, if anything -- but the astonishing revelation that his first lieutenant was aboard of his own volition had taken the edge from his anger. The young man had responded, expanding under Bush's attention like a plant emerging from a long drought... and it shamed him to learn that Fanshawe had a lively intelligence and willingness to please that went far to compensate for his lack of experience.

The young man arrived on deck at Bush's side with an audible thump. "She is just as Mrs. Bryce's note described her, sir; there cannot be two with that patched lugs'l."

Bush nodded, satisfied. "Signal Greyhound, Mr. Fanshawe, that the lugger is in sight."

It was not long until the vessel was in view from the deck; both cutters quickly bore down on her in the freshening breeze. The lugger's crew soon found themselves facing five cannon on each beam; they gaped mutely from one cutter to the other.

Bush snatched up the speaking trumpet and roared, "Heave to! Heave to... or I'll sink you!"

Dawes turned calmly for'r'd to the seaman standing attentively at Greyhound's bow-chaser. "Fire a shot across her bows, gunner."

Bush's voice from starb'd, amplified as it was and accompanied by the splash of a nine-pound ball landing just off the lugger's larb'd bow left no doubt as to the likelihood of the outcome were they to disobey. The lugger abandoned any attempt at escape and lay hove to, dispiritedly awaiting them.

Greyhound had immediately dropped her quarter-boat; Dawes, followed closely by a small complement of marines, was already scrambling up the lugger's dingy, flaking side. He exchanged a few words with the civilians awaiting him then went below, leaving two of the marines standing watchfully on deck.

Bush stood impassively studying the lugger, though his thoughts belied his calm demeanour. The vessel had not attempted to flee, though such a maneuver would have been folly, given the presence of not one but two armed cutters. Her business this day may be entirely innocent, and his information in error. But... that also suggested that if it was not, any evidence of unlawful activity would be carefully concealed.

As if to confirm his thoughts, a blue-jacketed figure appeared on the lugger's forepeak. "Cap'n Bush, sir?" Dawes called, shaking his head in disgust. "I am sorry, sir... but there's nothing here. Nothing."

"Nothing?" Bush repeated. "Have a boat swayed out; I am going aboard her." He stepped aft and drew the master aside, passing a few quiet words before heading for the entry port. As the boat splashed gently into the water, he turned to Fanshawe. "Mr. Fanshawe, the Witch is yours until my return."

Fanshawe's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline, though it took but a moment for his face to split into a broad grin. "Aye aye, sir. Thank you, sir."

Bush hauled himself aboard the lugger, and looked about the littered deck. It was an ill-kept craft; a Navy bos'n would find himself at the gratings had he permitted such gross neglect. "Nothing here, eh, Dawes?" He raised an eyebrow, then stumped aft to the companion. "Perhaps. But I shall go below to see for myself. Come... and bring your marines."

As Bush gingerly descended the narrow ladder, he blinked and grimaced involuntarily as the heavy stench of rotting fish assaulted his senses. His brow furrowed. This was not right. No one whose livelihood depended on his catch would permit such waste in fair weather, within sight of shore... no matter how slovenly their habits.

The stench grew even more intense as he made his way aft. The captain, a greasy, swarthy man, tried his best. "We... we ran short of salt, sir. We was turnin' back... but... but we..." As he spoke, he sidled protectively against the door of the aft-most compartment.

Bush shouldered the man aside and pulled open the compartment door, and barely fought down the nearly uncontrollable urge to cast up his accounts right there on the filthy decking. A mound of fish covered half the compartment -- but that mound had been left there for far too long. It was barely recognizable as having once been fish -- it was now little more than a reeking, putrefying mass.

The captain tried to maneuver himself between Bush and the door, gabbling, nearly incoherent in his haste. "I'm so sorry sir... we was goin' to shovel th' mess over th' side... soon as we're on our way again I'll set th' men to it... there's no need for ye to stay 'ere..."

Bush brushed the feeble apologies aside, snatched up a shovel that stood propped against a bulkhead, and thrust it into the nervous, fluttering hands of the captain. "Dig. Dig, damn you."

The man gaped at him in horror. "But sir, surely... there's no need..."

Bush stepped a pace closer. "Dig."

The man shrank back, retreating from the sheer intensity of Bush's glare. He reluctantly poked the shovel into the slimy mass, gagging from the fresh wave of an almost palpable stench that arose to engulf them all.

It was not long -- though it seemed an eternity -- until the shovel clinked against a metallic object. The lugger's captain hesitated, and looked about him, as if hoping that the sound had gone unnoticed. It had not.

"Keep digging," growled Bush.

The man turned miserably back to his task. In a few short moments, he uncovered the hasp to a trapdoor, and -- with the encouragement provided by Dawes' drawn pistol -- scraped the door clear of its slimy filth. Bush gestured to a marine, who gingerly levered it open to reveal that the deck was in truth a false floor, creating a space 'tween decks -- a space that was, at this moment, crammed with a multitude of green-painted casks, stout cable, and a single large stone.

"I have seen all I require." He gestured to the marine now restraining the ship's captain. "Bind his hands and feet. And..." he smiled coldly as inspiration struck him. "...leave him in here."

As they gratefully emerged into the sunlight and fresh air, Bush turned to Dawes. " Send a prize crew aboard her; I shall return with you to Greyhound." He cupped his hands around his mouth; he had no real need for a speaking trumpet at this distance. "Mr. Fanshawe... escort us in."

Fanshawe's astonishment was visible even without a glass. Bush raised an eyebrow at Dawes, who appeared nearly equally astounded. "The master will keep him out of trouble. And it may do the lad some good."

The three small vessels were soon well underway, sailing easily with the wind and heading for Mount's Bay. Bush had watched the Witch narrowly as her sails were unfurled. It had not been done smoothly -- but it had been done. The sea was fine, the wind fair; he nodded, smiling slightly as he watched her, recalling with unexpected clarity the heady mix of terror and exhilaration that had marked his own first time. Satisfied -- far more so than he would have believed possible a mere fortnight ago -- he went below.

***

They had stripped off the worst of their stinking clothing in Greyhound's cramped cabin. Dawes had stepped aside: Bush was washing the stench from his face and arms as best he could using the tiny basin. Dawes watched his captain silently in the filtered early-morning light, seeing for the first time the scars, now faded silver, which crisscrossed his back and sides. Bush reached for the coarse towel, and turned to face him. As he did so, Dawes could see yet another long and savage scar bisecting his midsection, just under the ribs, as though someone had endeavoured to cut him in two. Apparently the loss of a leg had not been his captain's first dance with death.

Dawes stood, self-consciously watching him; painfully aware of his own damaged arm, which hung at an unnatural angle from a drooping shoulder, the wrist flexed, fingers curled uselessly toward the palm.

They studied each other for a long moment; it was Dawes who first broke the silence.

"She's a hard mistress, the sea."

Bush grinned, an act that took years from his face. "Aye. But I'd not take another."

Dawes chuckled. "Nor I. Though I doubt another would have us."

He prodded the reeking pile of cloth that had just that morning been his best working uniform. "I ought to pitch this lot overboard, I suppose. There'll be no salvaging it."

Bush eyed him blandly. "Mrs. Bryce sees to my linen as part of my board. I will present her with yours as well."

Dawes stared at him incredulously. "You're joking, sir... she'll hand you your head."

"Perhaps she will try." He shrugged. "She loathes us so desperately -- and me, particularly, it seems -- but her love of the admiralty's coin is far stronger. I cannot help but pull her nose now and again."

"Hmm." Dawes pulled on a clean shirt, slipped into his waistcoat, and began to do up the buttons; a challenge indeed, with one hand, though he seemed to take no notice of it. "But you should watch your step with that one." As soon as the words had left his mouth he wished he could somehow retrieve them. He looked up, aghast, expecting to find himself once more on the receiving end of Bush's volatile anger; instead, he was greeted with a wry smile.

"Sound advice for me at any time, I should think."

***


Chapter 10


Bush felt unusually pleased with himself as he and his lieutenants stood on the quay watching the bustle of activity surrounding the lugger now securely moored at the dockside. The taking of another smuggling vessel and her cargo had been a victory... but had not been the most important one this day. Fanshawe's grin as he had disembarked from the Witch had been clearly visible from shore, and had more than repaid the cost of Bush's anxiety. The master had come ashore as well, and had quietly confided to Bush that "th' young 'un 'ad need of a little 'elp, but 'e done all right... all right indeed." Bush smiled as he watched Fanshawe eagerly recount every detail of the experience to Dawes; he vividly remembered that excitement, and was surprised to discover that a measure of it had been reawakened in himself.

Bush's indulgent smile faded as he caught sight of a familiar portly figure hurrying toward him. Turpin, he sighed inwardly. For a revenue officer, the man seemed most unwilling to discharge his duties. Bush frowned, thinking carefully. 'Unwilling'. That was precisely the word Chadwick had used back at the admiralty, months ago. So he should not find the man's lack of enthusiasm surprising, after all... indeed, he had been forwarned of it.

Bush blandly nodded a greeting. "Captain Turpin."

Turpin gazed from the lugger to Bush, a horrified expression crumpling his pink features. "Do you desire an early death, sir... for yourself, and for your men?" He shook his head incredulously. "I am frankly surprised you have been permitted to live this long. I have warned you, and I shall warn you again: Harry Carson is king here... not me, not you." He dusted his chubby palms together. "I wash my hands of it. I may regret your deaths... but they will not surprise me."

Bush shrugged, turning his attention from the useless Turpin to watch his men as they worked. "Perhaps not. But at least I shall have no regrets; I will have done my..." his voice trailed off as he watched a seaman come ashore, several thick packets tucked under an arm. "You there, Hoxby," he called, his voice carrying easily to the shoreline.

The man stopped in his tracks and looked up at his captain. "Yessir?"

"What have you there?"

Hoxby started toward him, shaking his head. "Dunno, sir. I was told to put 'em with the rest of th' raffle."

Bush frowned. "Bring them here." He carefully opened the first, shook out the pages, and studied the florid script. "French," he mused. "French documents... aboard a British fishing lugger."

Turpin was eyeing him carefully. "And do you read French, Commander Bush?"

The question was met with a stony silence as he continued to page through the document, though Bush's native honesty, as usual, got the better of him. "No... no, I do not," he eventually admitted, reluctant to reveal the shortcoming that had bedeviled him so often under Hornblower's command.

"I do, Commander, most fluently." Turpin reached for the papers. "May I?"

Bush knew it was merely foolish pride, yet he could not bring himself to turn the missives over to the ineffectual Turpin. He deftly extracted the papers from the man's soft, grasping hands and quickly refolded them, tucking them safely into their scuffed leather packet. "Lieutenant Fanshawe will translate them. But thank you." He had no idea whether Fanshawe could actually do so... though he realized suddenly that he would be astonished if the young man could not.

"You will excuse me, Captain Turpin, but I have work to do. I assume you will accept these goods at the Customs House?"

Turpin sighed. "Have I any choice?"

"No." Bush snapped, though privately relishing the man's evident distress. "None at all."

***

The Two Brothers was strangely deserted but for the three naval officers who sat quietly but steadily devouring an immense breakfast, consuming vast quantities of coffee as rapidly as the serving-girl could refill their cups. Dawes wiped his mouth with a napkin and leaned back in his chair with a contented sigh. "I feel almost human again, though I fear I still must reek of rotten fish" He grinned, and shook his head. "How did you know to look under that wretched mass? You seemed so certain."

Bush looked up from his plate; his answering smile was almost sheepish. "Certain?" He shook his head reflectively. "No... far from it. But it seemed right. Its presence made no sense... and it was the last place anyone would have cared to look."

"That's true enough, sir." Dawes studied his captain thoughtfully. Most captains went far to convince others of their infallibility... but this man was clearly not most captains. He had not known what to make of Bush, at first; the man had been so bitterly angry, uncertain, difficult to approach because of it, yet not properly setting himself above his officers as a captain ought. But now? Dawes smiled inwardly as he watched the older man tucking into his meal with all the enthusiasm of any foremast jack. Now, he was certain that he would not change him if he could.

His comfortable reflections were, however, abruptly interrupted as Mara Bryce stormed out of the inn's back rooms, her face contorted with fury. Bush shot a brief conspiratorial glance in his direction; Dawes could only shake his head as if to absolve himself from guilt. She planted herself squarely before Bush, her chin jutting defiantly. "Burned your damned stinking uniforms."

Bush continued to consume his breakfast undeterred; in fact, he did not even look up. "Thought you might," he remarked.

Her eyes blazed. "You... you... you dared give me those filthy, stinking rags... they reek as if you'd lain with every foul trollop in Portsmouth. Though I doubt the likes of you would have the coin for it... nor would you find even one willing, for any price."

An almost invisible smile quirked the edge of Bush's mouth. "Sadly, 'twas was not trollops, madam... merely pilchards."

Outraged at his cavalier dismissal of her anger, she opened her mouth to respond but was too furious to even find the words. She spun on her heel and strode indignantly off to tend to the fire, which she poked vigorously as if Bush himself were roasting upon it.

Fanshawe had braced himself for Bush's sharp reply, and had been astonished to see his captain respond instead with this grave amusement. He followed Mara's enraged departure with his eyes then, greatly daring, grinned knowingly. "Reminds you of your wife, does she, sir?"

Bush shook his head with vehemence, all traces of humour wiped away. "God no, there is no wife at home." He shrugged. "I could never bring myself to marry a woman only to leave her alone for months, even years at a time. Then come home old, used up, missing a spar or two," he sighed ruefully, "or never come home at all. If I loved her enough to marry her... how could I?"

None of them noticed as Mara dropped the poker and fled, nor would they have recognized her as the woman now slumped against the wall of the kitchen, her face in her hands, quietly sobbing as if her heart would break.

Fanshawe studied Bush carefully; his heartfelt words had come as something of a surprise. This was an aspect of his captain that he had never seen, and certainly not anticipated... an unselfish concern for the needs of a wife was not typical, at least amongst the officers he had known at the admiralty. One took a wife and left her to manage on her own... and that was that.

Bush scowled, as if impatient with his own thoughts. "Enough of that maundering; it is hardly likely now..." He thrust his plate away, drained the tepid dregs of his coffee and looked about the room in hopes of more. Finding no one in sight to provide it, he reluctantly pushed the chair from the table and made to rise.

The scrape of the chair summoned Brendan who emerged from the kitchen, coffee pot in hand. "Leaving, sir? More, sir, afore y'go?"

"Yes, thank you." Bush nudged the mug in his direction. Coffee -- real coffee, and not that concocted from burnt crumbs -- was not to be declined. He regarded the big man calmly, though with an evident twinkle in his blue eyes. "What has become of your lovely sister, Brendan? Was it something I said?"

Brendan regarded him soberly . "T'was somethin' like that, sir."

"H'm. I shall have to curb my tongue in future, then," he replied, though the lightness of his tone implied quite the opposite. Bush turned to the fair-haired lieutenant seated at his side. "Fanshawe, arrange to have two casks of ale sent to the cutters; the men have more than earned a small reward for their efforts." He smiled. "I suspect you will have more success with Mrs. Bryce than I."

Fanshawe nodded; he had no doubt of that, though he could hardly say so. "Aye sir; I'll be just a moment."

He rose and stepped quietly into the kitchen to find Mara bending over the waist-high chopping block, efficiently transforming a handful of carrots into neat and uniform bits.

"Mrs. Bryce?"

Mara brusquely scrubbed a forearm across her eyes and looked up from her work; the young man was astonished to find her usual dour expression absent, her eyes red and swollen. She looked suddenly very small and improbably forlorn.

Fanshawe hurried to her side, and touched her arm. "Ma'am?" He stared down at her, his eyes full of concern. "Are you all right, ma'am?"

She dropped her eyes and briskly resumed her work. "Onions," she replied shortly. "Been chopping onions."

Frowning, Fanshawe surveyed the tidy piles before her; there was not an onion among them. "But ma'am..."

"You need ale. Heard you." She raised her head, her severe mask in place once more. "Brendan!" she called sharply.

She regarded Fanshawe steadily as her brother appeared in the doorway. "Two casks of ale to the cutters, Brendan."

"Aye, Mara," he nodded, and headed down the narrow stairs to the storeroom.

"He will see to it... though I suggest that you not broach them tonight." Her gaze did not leave his. "Your time would be better spent in Carson's Cove."

Fanshawe raised an eyebrow. "Tonight, you say?"

"So I hear."

"Mrs. Bryce, I cannot thank you enough; Captain Bush will be most grateful to you as well." He studied her speculatively. "Though... for the life of me, ma'am, I cannot imagine why..."

"I do not do it for him," she snapped, and turned her attention back to the task at hand, ignoring him entirely.

He had been dismissed.

***


Chapter 11


Dawes and Bush abruptly broke off their discussion, turning in response to the sound of rapid and purposeful footsteps ringing on the worn cobbles of the quay.

"Mr. Fanshawe," Bush nodded to his young lieutenant as the man hurried to his side. He turned to study him more closely; Fanshawe appeared somewhat disheveled, as if he had nearly run all the way from the inn. "Is all arranged to your satisfaction?"

"Aye, sir, it is indeed," answered Fanshawe breathlessly. "The casks should arrive forthwith. But sir... we were given far more than ale."

Bush scowled impatiently, as he posessed little flair for the dramatic. "Do go on, Fanshawe."

"Aye, sir," he replied quickly, chastened. "I spoke with her regarding the ale, and she sent her brother off to see to it. But she also passed along some information for you, sir. Mrs. Bryce told me that we ought to be waiting in Carson's Cove tonight, as there is a run..." Fanshawe's voice trailed off as he heard some small noise behind them; he turned to find Poole at his elbow. "Ah, Poole," he smiled. "There you are."

Poole bobbed, knuckling his forehead. "You sent for me, sir?"

"Indeed I did, Poole." Fanshawe turned apologetically to Bush. "A moment, please, sir."

Fanshawe stepped a pace away to speak softly to the seaman, handing him a packet. Poole tucked it into his jacket, knuckled his forehead again, and hurried up the path toward the town.

Fanshawe watched him for a space, then turned back to Bush and Dawes. "An errand, sir; I beg your pardon. Now... as I was saying, Mrs. Bryce assured me of a run tonight, to be landed in Carson's Cove."

"Hm." Bush's brows knit in thought; her willingness to share this knowledge was a perplexing thing indeed, though he had to admit that her information had been wholly accurate thus far. He forced a smile despite his concerns, as he had no wish to share them at present. Certainly he, as a first lieutenant, had never been privy to his captain's doubts and uncertainties -- If, indeed, his captain would have ever dared admit to the possession of such a thing. "And we can hardly disregard an opportunity to annoy and harass the Trade, gentlemen. Ready your ship, Mr. Dawes, and rejoin us aboard the Witch at the first bell of the second dog. Come, Mr. Fanshawe... we have work to do."

***

"No." Bush shook his head adamantly.

Two expectant faces studied his: Bush's lieutenants had learned the meaning of his tone and expression well enough, and waited in silence for him to continue.

"This time, we shall attack from the cutters. There is little to be gained by lying in wait for the local men; there will always be more to replace them. Only Carson himself dares land goods in Carson's Cove -- and it is Carson himself whom I want. Stop him, and we shall stop this wretched business. Allow him to escape, and we accomplish nothing at all."

"Mr. Dawes, when you leave here, you will ready your ship and begin your south'd patrol. We shall do likewise, but to the north'd. After full dark, we will return and lie to, cleared for action with all lights doused and in silence, and allow him to enter the bay -- then pin him against the shoreline like a bloody great bug." Bush grinned maliciously. "His own domain shall work against him -- and then we will swat him."

Both lieutenants chuckled, appreciating the coarse image. "And so we shall, sir," agreed Dawes, draining his small glass of port, and replacing it on the chart table.

"So let's be about it, gentlemen: you are dismissed." Bush nodded. "Good hunting, Mr. Dawes."

"Oh, sir, that reminds me... I sent Poole into town to make a purchase for me..." Fanshawe dug into his pocket and produced Bush's battered clasp-knife.

Dawes' eyes widened. "For God's sake, Ev... where on earth did Poole find that great monstrosity?"

Fanshawe coughed a warning. "This one belongs to the captain. He lent it to me until I could acquire my own."

Dawes smiled apologetically in Bush's direction. "Forgive me, sir; I meant no offense. It simply looks like something that ought to have come from a topman's pocket."

Under Hornblower's command, Bush would no doubt have ignored the comment entirely. Hornblower himself had been loathe to indulge in casual conversation; it was entirely natural that Bush had adapted to his ways. Away from Hornblower's restraining influence, however, Bush's open and unpretentious temperament was beginning to reassert itself. He had always kept his own council, but he sensed somehow that exceptions must, occasionally, be made.

He eyed Dawes seriously. "It did."

"It did, sir?" Dawes repeated, obviously burning with curiosity. "Whose was it?"

Bush relented, and smiled. "Mine."

Fanshawe frowned. "Yours, sir? But... you began belowdecks, as a seaman?"

"Oh no; I came aboard as a midshipmite, all of fourteen years old. I had had little, as a child... then suddenly I had fine new uniforms, and grown men hurrying to obey my smallest order..."

Dawes nodded slowly, though not entirely following this seemingly new tack. "I do understand that, sir. It would be difficult not to take advantage..."

Bush laughed aloud, a most unexpected sound. "Take advantage? No, it was far more than that... I was a wretched little git. Stubborn, as well; the first lieutenant could not even have it beaten out of me, though he tried often enough -- the gunner's daughter and I became well aquainted in short order. But my captain was a wise man, though I damned his eyes at the time. He summoned me to the quarterdeck, handed me a bundle of slops and sent me for'rd... after he had assigned me to my own division, the very men I had abused for so long. I messed with them, stood watch with them, slung my hammock with theirs... it was a sort of hell, for a while, as they gladly repaid me in kind." He grimaced, recalling the sheer humiliation of it.

"But one of the men -- the captain of the foretop -- understood. I was young, and agile, and..." his mouth lifted ironically "...invincible, so he took me in hand and trained me as a topman. Not surprising, as I had already spent much of my career at the masthead. It was hard work... aloft in any weather, pitch-darkness, or cold, and subject to the whims of my officers, whether sensible or not. But I learned... and learned far more than I had expected."

"God knows how long I might have served there: it had been nearly a year when we lost two midshipmen and a lieutenant at the Saintes and I was needed aft again. But before I left, the seaman who trained me gave me his knife." He turned it over in his hands. "This knife. 'So I'd not forget,' he told me." Bush looked up to study the two young officers gravely. "I have not forgotten. Though I do, upon occasion, need reminding."

"Do... do the men know of this, sir?" asked Fanshawe, clearly horrified by the very notion that his captain's disgrace might be common knowledge among the crew.

"I expect they do," Bush shrugged nonchalantly, "as the navy is far too small for secrets. There is always someone who knows... and gossip spreads faster than the pox, belowdecks."

Dawes studied his captain, trying to reconcile the officer who now stood before him with the officious midshipman he claimed to have once been. He would never have guessed it... and yet, it explained much. He had known other senior officers equally skilled at seamanship, but few who possessed the same aura of unquestionable certainty that he was fully capable -- or, rather, had once been capable -- of performing any shipboard task with the same competence he demanded of any of his men. And he could think of fewer still -- none, perhaps -- who commanded without the subtle hint of condescension that tainted most captains' dealings with their men. Bush had no need for it. His men knew that for a time he had been one of them, amongst them, and that men like themselves had earned his respect. And that, Dawes realized, was the difference... a difference which Fanshawe, as yet, did not understand. But perhaps he would, given time.

He smiled at Bush, as he now fully appreciated the knife's importance. "It is fortunate that you did not have it when you were taken prisoner in France."

"Ah, but I did. I have been rarely without it."

"But it must have been taken from you then, sir." Dawes regarded him curiously. "How is it that you still possess it?"

"The surgeon who..." Bush hesitated a moment, an unconscious grimace flitting across his face. "...finished the job the French began sent it to the admiralty for me after he learned of our escape and return to England. He had kept it, for some reason."

"You had become friends, sir?"

"No... it was hardly that. In truth I remember little enough; they say I was dragging my anchor for the next world a good part of the time. And even when I was aware, we had little to say -- he was Italian and spoke poor French, and I spoke neither. So I held my tongue." Had bitten clean through it, more than once, though he considered the mention of that particular detail most uncalled for.

He raised an eyebrow, changing the subject. "But surely there are other matters requiring your attention at present, gentlemen?"

"Aye, sir," they chorused, and headed for the door.

Fanshawe, frowning, walked with Dawes toward the Witch's entry port. "But I still do not understand. I wonder why the surgeon kept it, and why he sent it back?"

Dawes stopped, and studied Fanshawe solemnly. "If Captain Bush does know, you can be certain that he will not tell us. But frankly, Ev... I think the why of it is unnecessary. The important thing is that he did." He shook hands with Fanshawe. "Good luck, my friend."

"And to you." Fanshawe smiled, and watched him until he had vanished aboard Greyhound once more.

Alone in his cabin, Bush absently rubbed the knife with a callused thumb before replacing it into a pocket. He was much relieved at the opportunity to do so, as he had lately questioned the wisdom of lending it to Fanshawe, half-expecting the young man to lose it overboard. He grinned to himself. No doubt he would have sent Fanshawe over the side after it if he had.

He recalled the surgeon taking it from him as though it had been yesterday. Even below on the orlop he had been aware that Sutherland had struck and had been boarded. He had ordered the surgeon to the quarterdeck, to locate Hornblower... if indeed he still lived... for instructions, and the man had not yet returned. Alone but for the groaning wounded, he had somehow managed to push the shrieking agony to a distant corner of his mind, walling it off to be dealt with at some later, better time. He had been so very cold, and was shaking violently, his muscles rigid with the effort of endurance... but he raised himself on an elbow to meet the stranger who entered the cabin with a clenched jaw and defiant glare nonetheless.

The man had approached the makeshift table, studying him carefully, obviously noting his uniform and the gold lace of an officer. He slid an arm beneath Bush's shoulders, gently easing him out of his bloodied uniform coat. He must have felt the weight of the knife; he removed it and slipped it into his own pocket.

Bush had objected; the man had misunderstood, and spoke for the first time. "Non temete, faro' tutto il possibile per voi. Non siamo più in guerra, non qui, non ora." [1]

He had not understood the man's words, though he had grasped their import clearly enough. He had watched the surgeon impassively as he rolled up his sleeves, tied on a bloodstained apron that had been lying forgotten on the deck and turned up the lantern, illuminating the blood, and the damage, and the blade in his hand.

Bush took a deep breath and headed for the companion, as he did not care to relive the moment further.

***

Night deepened; it was a perfect night, a 'smugglers' moon' -- almost no moon at all, a thick layer of clouds obscuring the feeble crescent more often than not. The Witch of Endor heaved gently in the swells near the mouth of Carson's Cove, her brailed-up sails and the silence of her crew as they sat quietly on deck belying her otherwise warlike appearance. All her guns were run out, her deck sanded, and slow-match smoldering, though its glow was carefully concealed. She was nearly invisible in the darkness, yet ready to spring into action as could ever be, Bush thought approvingly, casting a critical eye along her shadowed deck. Greyhound had briefly signalled her postion with an infinitesimal flash of blue light; he could trust Dawes to have her equally well-prepared.

Fanshawe stood tensely at his elbow, scanning the horizon with the night-glass, though there had been little enough to see in the dragging hours since nightfall. The clouds parted fleetingly, allowing a stray shaft of moonlight to weakly illuminate the water's surface. Bush felt Fanshawe's body suddenly stiffen.

"Sir..." he whispered urgently, handing the glass to his captain.

Bush followed the young officer's pointing hand, his experienced eye quickly locating a darker smudge against the horizon. He strained to pick out the details of it; what he saw made his expectant face darken with fury. "God damn them!" he thundered.

Fanshawe jumped as the curse pierced the silence.

"There is no longer a need for quiet, Mr. Fanshawe." Bush snarled, his face clearly revealing his wrath even in the darkness. "That is no smuggler's vessel... it is a revenue cutter." He studied the cutter through the glass, though its image juddered as his hands shook with the effort of mastering his rage. A long red commissioning pendant streamed from her mizzen, adding fuel to the fire already threatening to consume the remnants of his self-control. "And she dares to fly a pendant. God damned useless fools and their playacting..."

Fanshawe frowned in puzzlement, though not venturing to speak in the face of his captain's anger.

Bush noted the gesture; he snapped the glass closed and stumped up and down the decking for a few paces until he had regained some semblance of composure. "I am sorely tempted to board her and haul the damned thing down myself. Only a King's ship in commission merits a pendant, though revenue vessels are permitted to fly them during a chase." He glared at the cutter as it made its leisurely way southr'd. "She is clearly pursuing nothing -- though our chance of success this night has fled, nonetheless."

He heaved an exasperated sigh, and raised his voice. "Look alive, you men; staying here is pointless now. Mr. Fanshawe, signal Greyhound; we shall take up our usual patrol."

The Witch was beating north'rd as Bush sat dispiritedly at his desk, doggedly resigned to the completion of the report documenting the night's failed mission. He had allowed himself grand visions of his two cutters boldly swooping into the bay, seizing Carson and his elusive sloop, thus putting a dramatic end to Carson's illicit activities once and for all. But those visions had been turned to dust. At least this night's failure had been no fault of his own; it was merely infernal bad luck that brought the revenue service on one of its rare ventures from port, blundering blindly into the cove and doubtless frightening off every smuggling craft in the vicinity.

Sighing, Bush replaced the pen in its stand and looked up from the log, then leaned back in his desk chair and massaged his aching temples with a hand. It was full dark, and the cutter was still, subdued. He could hear the faint sweet tone of a fiddle from somewhere for'rd, playing counterpoint to the music of the water gurgling about the rudder below.

He rose and stretched, smiling now as he recognized the tune.

Fanshawe had the watch; he had best take a turn on deck to assure the lad that he was not alone, though he needed reassurance less and less these days. He shrugged into his jacket, settled his hat upon his head, and carefully mounted the companion ladder.

He became aware of a rough texture in his grasp and looked down, suddenly surprised by it. He could not recall when it was that he had begun to use the hand rope, though upon reflection he could recall being grateful for its presence on more than one occasion. He was astonished to realize that he had simply become used to it, accepted it. He had become used to and accepted much, it seemed.

Thoughts of the hand rope recalled the image of the man who had placed it there for him. At the time he had been deeply moved by the man's simple compassion -- and blindly enraged by his need for it. Styles, of all people... Aboard both Renown and Hotspur he had badgered and driven the man unmercifully, though not out of cruelty or spite. Indeed he had initially labeled the man as a troublemaker, and yet... an understanding had grown between them. He had sensed something worthy in that rough, crude man, and would not allow it to be lost. And Styles had -- eventually -- proved him right.

Bush emerged into the quiet darkness, savouring the clean salt air after the closeness of his cabin. He walked to the rail and leaned on it, staring into the night sky; felt the familiar weight of the knife in his pocket. Even in France he had missed it when he had thought it gone forever -- like so much else -- and still remained profoundly glad of its surprising return. He ran his hand gently over the polished oak of the rail. The movement was somehow familiar: he recalled with a start that it was here, months ago, that he had stood desolate, certain that all was lost. But this Witch of Endor... his Witch... had sustained him after all, and much had been returned.

"Sir?"

Bush looked up. Deep in thought, he had not heard Fanshawe's step on the planking. The young lieutenant touched his hat, decorum maintained... but was studying him, the worry evident in his brown eyes even in the faint moonlight.

"Is all well, sir?"

"Yes, Mr. Fanshawe, it is." Bush paused for a moment as the honest truth of his words struck home, and his taciturn face slowly relaxed into a heartfelt, satisfied smile. "It is indeed."

***


Chapter 12


With plans thwarted and the trap harmlessly sprung, the two cutters resolutely continued their fortnight's patrol. Oddly, there was nothing, no untoward activity; it was as though smuggling were suddenly a thing of the past. Bush had the terrible creeping notion that his every move was being watched and anticipated, though his practical nature eventually succeeded in thrusting those fears aside as unreasonable. Carson must simply have moved his business elsewhere. Thus Bush ordered his ships back to Mount's Bay; it was time for supplies and, perhaps, some cautious questions.

Bush stood aft, hands calmly clasped behind his back, impassively watching as Fanshawe supervised the loading of the stores. He turned his attention to the quay as a heavily laden boat cast off, and was surprised to find Munro, Greyhound's one-eyed bos'n, aboard amongst the water-butts. He had sighted the man bustling about ashore, overseeing the allocation of provisions to the two cutters. While aboard Greyhound, Bush had found him to be a steady, reliable man despite his somewhat piratical appearance: Dawes delegated his authority with intelligence, it seemed. Munro scrambled aboard and approached Bush with a salute and an incompletely suppressed half-smile. "Sir, there is a messenger from the revenue service waiting on the quay. He ordered me to give you this."

Bush broke the seal on the note and opened it; his expression darkening as he read its content. "So Captain Turpin 'requires' my presence immediately." He looked up sharply at the bos'n, his blue eyes flashing cold fire. "Turpin and his damned cutter interfered with our work in Carson's Cove a fortnight ago; he will not interfere with my work today. Tell his messenger that I will come to the Customs House when I am ready to do so, and not before."

"Aye sir," acknowledged Munro, turning away before Bush could notice the successful escape of an exultant grin. No trumped-up revenue officer would order a captain of His Majesty's Navy about. His captain, particularly. Come to think of it, it was difficult to imagine his captain as intimidated by anyone at all.

The sun was still well above the horizon when Bush found himself able to relax his vigilance and survey the deck with a sense of satisfaction. Working parties were busily completing what few repairs were needed after a mere two weeks at sea; fresh stores had been delivered, and were even now were being stowed neatly in the hold. There was little else requiring his attention; he reluctantly returned his gaze to the quay. Turpin's uniformed messenger was still waiting patiently, standing immobile in the very spot he had occupied throughout the afternoon. Earlier, it had pleased Bush to make the man wait, though now that all was complete he could hardly continue to do so with a clear conscience. He sighed inwardly, knowing that he could put off his interview with Turpin no longer.

Reluctantly he went below, slipping out of his faded and stained working jacket and into his second-best. That, he decided with some disdain, would do for the likes of Turpin. He studied himself critically in the small and clouded mirror fastened to a bulkhead, harrumphed, then straightened his neckcloth and retied his queue. He had his pride, and would not appear before Turpin unkempt, though the man hardly deserved even that small courtesy.

Satisfied, he reemerged on deck, and wordlessly touched his hat to the side party as they piped him off. The boat crew, sensing his mood, covered the short distance to the quay in no time at all -- though after he was safely ashore shared private grins, confident that a squall or two loomed on the horizon for a certain Revenue Officer of their acquaintance.

Bush favored the messenger with a look of frigid disgust; the man had watched with an ill-mannered curiosity as he had awkwardly stepped out of the boat and maneuvered across the uneven cobbles. "I am now ready to meet with Captain Turpin."

The uniformed man considered him sadly. "Sir, I fear that Captain Turpin has some unhappy news." He said no more, no doubt in repayment for being pointedly ignored all afternoon. Bush, for his part, felt it beneath his dignity to press him further, though his mind entertained a variety of possibilities -- each more dire that the last -- during the silence that persisted all the way to the Customs House door.

The messenger opened it. "Captain Bush, sir."

A curiously muffled voice came from within. "You will forgive me if I do not get up, Captain Bush." Bush's eyes widened as they gradually adjusted to the dimness. Turpin was seated at his desk, a wide and bloodstained bandage enveloping his head. The man was barely recognizable: one eye was empurpled and nearly shut, his lip split and swollen.

"My God!" Bush blurted, forgetting his temper. "What happened?"

Turpin eyed him angrily, the livid bruising of his face adding weight to his outrage. "I warned you, Captain, what would happen if you continued to interfere with Carson and his men. But it was I who paid the price, this time."

Bush caught his breath. "And... your children? Your wife?" he asked quietly, dreading the answer.

"Your concern does you credit, Captain, though it is somewhat late." Turpin's words were heavy with irony. "They are safe enough... for now. But you continue to interfere at their peril. Not to mention mine." He shifted uncomfortably and glared up at Bush, no doubt bitterly resenting every ache and bruise. "I was completing my reports late two nights past when Carson's men burst in, taking me by surprise. I was outnumbered and quickly overcome; they bound my wrists and ankles, then kicked me insensible. When I recovered my wits the next morning... well, sir..." he snapped, abruptly gesturing to the door to the storeroom. "Open the door and see for yourself."

Bush stumped over to the door and wrenched it open. "Dear God..." he breathed, aghast. The room was nearly empty; only a few small casks and boxes listed forlornly against one wall. Mere days before, this same space had been nearly full to bursting with confiscated goods -- goods which Bush and his men had accumulated during months and months of laborious patrol.

"And this was left for you, Captain Bush, driven into the door on the point of a knife." As Turpin held the note toward him his lace cuff spilled away from his hand, revealing the purple bruises encircling his wrist. "Perhaps I ought to be grateful that it was not instead driven into my back."

Bush accepted the note, and began to read. His eyes widened, his eyebrows climbing skyward. He looked up at Turpin, his face like thunder. "This is absurd."

"Indeed," Turpin snapped. "But despite its excess, it is not to be taken lightly."

***

Bush's face was grim as he heaved himself through the entry port. "Come," he said shortly as Fanshawe approached, his handsome face full of questions.

Fanshawe dutifully followed Bush into the Witch's tiny cabin. "Shut the door," Bush said over his shoulder, without turning around.

"All the goods, Fanshawe... everything we have collected, all we had accomplished..." Bush's voice was quiet, emotionless, though the bleak look in his eyes as he slowly turned to face the young lieutenant belied his apparent composure. "All gone. All of it is back in Carson's hands once more."

"Dear God," Fanshawe murmured softly, and frowned. "But... are you certain that it was Carson who did this, sir?"

"Quite. Only the goods confiscated from Carson and his associates were taken. He left that which was not originally his -- though that left little enough."

"Honour amongst thieves, sir?"

Bush grunted derisively, not dignifying the comment with an answer.

"And Captain Turpin, sir? Was he...?"

"Beaten. But he saw Carson's men clearly enough. And..." Bush withdrew a paper from his pocket and handed it to Fanshawe. "They left this for me."

As Fanshawe's eyes moved over the paper, his expression began to waver. His lip twitched despite his best efforts to control it, and he began to read aloud.

"To Captain Bush on board the cutter Witch of Endor now lying at Mount's Bay.

Sir,

Damn thee and God damn thy two Purblind Eyes thou Buger and thou Death looking son of a Bitch. O that I had been there (with my company) for thy sake when thou tookes those men and goods of mine on board the Witch of Endor these months past. I would cross thee and all thy Gang to Hell wher thou belongest thou Devil Incarnet. Go Down thou Hell Hound into thy Kennell below and Bathe thyself in that Sulpherous Lake that has bin so long Prepared for such as thee for it is time the World was rid of such a Monster as thou art no Man but a Devil thou fiend O Lucifer. I hope thou will soon fall into Hell like a star from the Sky; there to lie (unpitied) & unrelented of any for Ever and Ever Which God Grant of his Infinite mercy. Amen.

H. Carson

Mount's Bay January 14 1812 & fast asleep." [2]

Fanshawe looked up; the hand he had clapped over his mouth all that separated him from dissolving into gales of laughter -- though the sight of Bush's grim features sobered him considerably.

"You find this amusing, Fanshawe?" Bush growled. "Despite the extravagant words... the consequences are grave. It is far more than an affront to our pride."

"My apologies, sir." Fanshawe's eyes widened as the full implications finally struck home. "But sir... how shall we tell the men? With the goods now vanished, they will not get their expected bounty."

Bush shook his head in warning. "You will say nothing, Mr. Fanshawe. Our men have done their duty, and I shall see they do not suffer for it." His share of the bounty for the confiscated vessels themselves was unaffected by the loss; he tried not to think of how much his sisters would have appreciated the additional funds. His own needs were few enough... the bulk of his pay would have to suffice, for them.

"And, Mr. Fanshawe, there was something else. A letter, from the Admiralty: Admiral Chadwick wishes a meeting. He also suggested that you accompany me, as your uncle is eager to learn of your progress." Bush sighed. "God knows, there is much to be done here... but we must depart tomorrow for Portsmouth."

***

The coach ride was interminable; the ill-sprung vehicle seemed to lurch to a stop at every dusty little town between Cornwall and Portsmouth, and covered the short stretches of clear road between at a leisurely -- and most agonizing -- pace.

Fanshawe had fumed and fretted, though Bush had merely settled himself in a corner, pulled his hat down over his eyes, folded his arms, and apparently gone to sleep. Rather, observed Fanshawe affectionately, as accustomed to inactivity and boredom as any common tar.

They reached Whitehall at last; Fanshawe took his leave of his captain, and disappeared into the Admiralty House with all the delighted anticipation of one finally returning home after an extended stay in a foreign land. A thing which was doubtless close enough to the truth, Bush thought with no small amusement. For himself, though -- this place was foreign territory indeed.

Chadwick did not keep him waiting long; an anxious aide soon ushered Bush into the opulent office.

"Ah, Captain Bush," Chadwick nodded, indicating the chair placed opposite the massive desk. "Please sit down." He shuffled idly through a stack of papers for a long moment, then raised his head to study Bush with steely intensity. "So, Captain Bush... tell me; how are you faring?"

Bush tried his best not to shift under the Admiral's careful scrutiny. This was not at all what he had been expecting. "We have done well, sir." He placed his logbook on the admiral's desk. "It is all in my reports, sir."

Chadwick did not look at it; instead, held Bush's gaze. "In your words, Captain."

"Yes, sir." Bush took a deep breath, and launched into a careful accounting of the past months' activities: the vessels taken, and cargo confiscated. "My officers and men have performed with courage and distinction." He sighed. "But sir, it was all for naught."

Ah, thought Chadwick. Now he is coming to it. "Oh?" He settled back in his chair, folding his arms. "And why is that?"

Difficult as it was to do so, Bush knew the words had to be spoken. "All the contraband, sir... all that was stored in the Customs House, awaiting transport... all of it is gone. Carson's men raided the Customs House four nights past, and took back all we had taken from them. We were at sea at the time, sir." He steeled himself for the recriminations to come; instead Chadwick merely grunted an acknowledgment.

Bush frowned; the admiral did not appear to be the least bit surprised by the news. "So you knew of this, sir?"

Chadwick smiled tightly. "Before you did, Captain."

"Sir?" Bush's frown deepened.

"Rumour, Captain, nothing more." That it was clearly much more was patently obvious even to Bush, though Chadwick's expression made it equally evident that further queries would be most unwelcome... and would remain unanswered

"But I do still have these, sir." Bush extracted a packet of papers from the inner pocket of his uniform coat. "A signal book, and these letters. The importance of the signal book is clear, sir... but I see no significance to the letters; they discuss mere trivial matters. I assume the lugger from which we took them must have been carrying the post."

"You read them, then, Captain?"

"No, sir." Bush reluctantly admitted. "Lieutenant Fanshawe translated them for me. And Captain Turpin offered to do so as well."

Chadwick pursed his lips, lost in thought. "And what of Turpin, Captain? Do you believe that he was involved in this affair? "

"No, sir," Bush replied, shaking his head emphatically. "Turpin's injuries were real enough. Carson has threatened the lives of his wife and family, and I have every reason to believe that he would make good those threats were Turpin to act against him."

"As you have so boldly done."

"Well... yes, I suppose so, sir." Chadwick was astonished to see Bush color slightly, as if faintly embarrassed at the approbation. "We have."

"And I trust you will continue to do so." The elderly admiral rose, signalling that the interview had reached its end. He slowly walked Bush to the massive door, then swung round to face him, eye to eye, all trace of formality gone. "But have a care, Captain Bush; I fear you are navigating treacherous waters."

Bush grinned. "I have weathered worse, sir."

"Indeed." Chadwicke thrust out his hand; as Bush took it, the admiral studied him closely. Bush's blue eyes were lively in his tanned and weatherbeaten face, his hand hard and calloused in the admiral's frail grip. Chadwick returned the smile. "And so you have."

***

Bush manfully stifled a despairing sigh. The return journey from Portsmouth to Mount's Bay was rapidly proving to be fully as tedious as their arrival; perhaps even more so, as Fanshawe seemed determined to recount -- in extraordinary detail -- his meeting with his uncle, Admiral Summerscales. Bush had retired early the previous night, and had thus been spared an immediate recitation, though now it appeared he was a captive audience with no avenue of escape. "Of course, I told him everything," Fanshawe had declared.

This was a thought which discomfited Bush in the extreme; in fact, it made him cringe. The less heard on that subject the better, he thought, and thus replied to Fanshawe's incessant commentary with the most noncommittal of sounds, though the young man -- to his dismay -- continued undeterred. Bush allowed the words to fade into the background as he considered his own audience with Chadwick. He had expected far worse; in fact, had feared immediate reassignment. Chadwick's response -- or lack of it -- to the loss of the contraband was indeed perplexing. And even more disquieting was the notion that Chadwicke had somehow known of the theft. But how...

"Sir?"

Bush dragged his thoughts back to the present. The coach was quiet, and Fanshawe was regarding him with a decidedly wounded expression. His distraction must had been obvious; the thought shamed him. He of all people should know better, as he had been the unhappy recipient of a similar careless disregard often enough.

He sighed; guilt was far worse than boredom. "My apologies. Go on, Mr. Fanshawe..." though his words were interrupted by a quick shake of the young officer's head as he felt the coach's leisurely progress slow even further.

"No matter, sir." Fanshawe peered briefly out the dusty window and turned back to his captain with a gentle smile. "It can wait. It appears we have an opportunity to leave this infernal box at last."

Both men disembarked gratefully at the steps of a small post house. The coachman had informed them that the horses were to be rested -- from what, precisely, Bush was not certain -- and there would be sufficient time for some refreshment.

They stooped to enter through the low doorway, and found the post house crowded and buzzing with conversation. They eventually managed to locate a small vacant table; and had hardly seated themselves before a plump serving girl appeared, bearing two brimming mugs of ale. Bush took a long and appreciative draught, sat back in the chair with a contented sigh, and grinned at his young lieutenant. "Good stuff, this..."

In place of a reply, Fanshawe frowned, cocked his head as if listening to some far-off sound, and held up a hand in warning.

"What is it, Mr. Fanshawe?" Bush studied the young man, concern mounting in his eyes.

Fanshawe wordlessly shook his head, then abruptly pushed back his chair, rose, and approached a nearby table. He spoke quietly but urgently with the men seated there, then returned, his expression grimly set. He sat down heavily and searched Bush's face for a time, as if reluctant to speak.

"Sir..." He faltered, and began again. "Sir... those men passed through Mount's Bay this morning. I could not help but overhear..."

"Spit it out, damn you." Bush growled, denying the sudden chill in his bones. God, what was it? His ships... his men...

"Sir..." Fanshawe took a deep breath. "They say that an innkeeper was found dead in Mount's Bay this morning... a woman. They did not hear her name... but rumours mention smuggling... and Harry Carson..."

"Dear God." Bush closed his eyes for a moment, stricken. "Mara."

***


Chapter 13


Bush sat in shocked, defeated silence for a space, then passed a hand over his drawn face and sighed explosively. The legs of his chair grated a harsh complaint as he thrust it violently from the table; it teetered a moment as Bush rose and strode abruptly for the door without a backward glance.

Fanshawe scrambled to his feet and followed, eventually joining his captain as he stood on the steps of the inn, staring at the empty mail coach with a poisonous loathing. "Damn..." Bush snarled. "We cannot depart from this squalid little town for an hour at least, and then travel at a snail's pace besides." He regarded his young lieutenant intensely. "And that will not do. Find us some sort of transport out of here."

Fanshawe skeptically considered the ramshackle stable that leaned adjacent to the inn. "I cannot imagine they have much to offer, sir."

"Goddamn it, Fanshawe, anything will serve. A phaeton or a dung-cart... I do not care. Just get it." Bush's eyes flashed dangerously. "NOW."

"Aye, sir." Fanshawe nodded and hurried off, caught up in Bush's urgency.

Bush's face was dark with an ill-concealed mixture of anger and resentment as he glared at the horses dozing, listless and slack-hipped, in the stableyard. Time was, he thought irritably, that he would have had a mount saddled and been long gone by now. But... damn it... not anymore.

He began to pace with the feverish intensity of a man who knew that he must, simply, move -- even if there was nothing more to be done. To his relief Fanshawe eventually appeared, nervously driving a rather disreputable looking cart; though the horse, to Bush's eye, appeared sound enough. The young man looked up guardedly, as if expecting his captain's disapproval. "I am sorry, sir... this is the best I could find."

Bush grunted disparagingly. "It will do, Mr. Fanshawe. It must." He hoisted himself into the seat and slid over, taking the reins from his surprised lieutenant. He gathered them up with an easy familiarity, and immediately set the horse into a brisk trot.

The cart rattled and bounced along the narrow road to Mount's Bay. Bush concentrated on the driving, saying nothing, though his face was pale and pinched with apprehension. Fanshawe watched him closely, though he could not begin to fathom his captain's thoughts. He had been initially somewhat astonished at the intensity of Bush's reaction; but, upon reflection, he came to realize that perhaps it was not so surprising after all. Bush was of course accustomed to the necessary losses of battle: but Mara Bryce had been a civilian, and a woman, and -- if rumour were true -- her loss may have been a deliberate, violent act.

Fanshawe sighed sadly, deeply troubled. Admittedly, Mrs. Bryce had been a forbidding soul, though she had softened somewhat in her treatment of Bush's lieutenants when Bush himself was absent. And of course there was the disconcerting encounter in her kitchen; she had obviously been weeping, and thus was not entirely the prickly and unreachable creature she had first appeared. Neither, come to think of it, was his captain.

And the depth of his captain's despair was too painful to watch and endure in this useless, frozen immobility. Fanshawe could withstand it no longer, and quietly ventured, "We do not know for certain, sir, after all... perhaps it is someone else."

Bush rounded on him with fearsome rage; he had never before seen his captain so angry.

"Damn you and your damned childish prattle, Fanshawe!" he roared, his face suffused with fury. "It can BE no one else."

They passed the best part of an hour in mute discomfort. Fanshawe, wishing to avoid further exposure to Bush's wrath, prudently held his tongue. He sat stiffly, helplessly wondering what he might say or do... needing to do something, but finding it quite beyond his grasp to argue with his captain on his captain's own behalf. He knew full well that Bush had had no choice but to use the information Mrs. Bryce had provided; he would have been derelict in his duty -- no better than Turpin -- had he not. And that damning information had been given freely; his captain bore no more guilt for this than he would for the death of any man lost in battle. But Fanshawe also knew that his captain's anger -- and his stiff-necked pride -- would not permit him to acknowledge the cold truth of it. Thus the wall of silence remained between them, dense and impenetrable.

A heavy sigh prompted Fanshawe to hazard a tentative glance in his captain's direction. Bush's blue eyes were bleak; his gaze did not shift from the roadway before him, but he began to speak, so quietly at first that Fanshawe had to strain to hear the words over the rhythmic beat of the horse's hooves. "I am sorry, Mr. Fanshawe. I have no right to abuse you for my own failure. You bear no blame for this. But if I caused her death... for my own satisfaction... to prove something, that I was still capable..."

Fanshawe frowned. "But sir..."

Bush ignored the interruption completely. "It is one thing to be willing to risk my own life... that is the way of the Navy; I have known and accepted that risk since I was little more than a child. But who am I to have risked the life of another? I should have known. Turpin was right, it is a dangerous thing to interfere."

Bush once again fell silent for a time, but was ultimately astonished to find normal conversation possible and -- almost -- welcome. "Mr. Fanshawe, do you know what happened to William Galley and Daniel Chater... a Kentish revenue officer and his informant?" His voice was deceptively mild.

Fanshawe, realizing that this time an answer was indeed called for, murmured, "No, sir."

"They had had some success against the Hawkehurst smugglers... at least until they vanished. It seems the Hawkehurst men killed them both. They had been beaten insensible, then dragged behind a horse... one was buried alive, and the other thrown -- still living -- into a dry well, and heavy stones rolled in upon him. And they are not the only ones. Thomas Griffin of Turnbridge had also been an able man. He was found several days after he had gone missing -- alive, but tied to a post, with both eyes gouged from his head. He was," Bush said dryly, "far less able thereafter."

Fanshawe concealed a shudder. "You did not ask for her aid, sir. She..." The look in Bush's pale eyes caused him to sensibly leave the rest unsaid.

After what seemed an inordinate stretch of hours, they at last reached the Two Brothers, though Bush's heart sank even as it came into view. The inn was only dimly lit, despite the gathering darkness; its emptiness mocked him, and confirmed his worst fears. He was out of the cart in an instant, wordlessly tossing the reins at Fanshawe, leaving him behind to see to the exhausted horse. He clattered noisily into the inn, moving faster than he had ever thought he could... it was vacant, deserted... and blundered through the common room to burst through the kitchen door.

Mara Bryce, up to her elbows in a washtub, looked up at him blankly.

"Dear God," he blurted. " I... I thought you were dead."

"Dead?" She paused to consider this, momentarily perplexed. Understanding slowly dawned, replacing her confusion with a profound disgust. "Hardly. Disappointed, are you? No... old Liza Fielding -- you'll know her as Mother Redcap -- must have been struck by an apoplexy last night. They found her in her kitchen this morning." She scowled crossly. "The whole town seems to be there, tonight."

"Disappointed?" Bush repeated incredulously, his overwhelming relief giving way to astonishment. "I feared Carson had got to you... that he gained some knowledge of your aid to us, and... and silenced you."

Mara stared, speechless for a long moment, then shook her head in a mockery of disbelief. "This possibility has just become clear to you? Then you are even more stupid than I gave you credit." She glared at him, her eyes flashing, and planted her hands firmly on her hips, heedless of the dripping soap. "Or are you simply more callous? You have used me, just as your damned navy uses its men with no thought at all of the risk to their lives, or for those who are left behind. How dare you burst in here, suddenly full of mawkish fear for my welfare? Am I to believe you? I am merely a means to an end to you." Her voice hardened into a derisive sneer. "You keep your damned concern. I do not want it. Least of all from you... you... you pathetic shell of a King's man."

"God damn your eyes, woman," Bush hissed. "I have given..." He bit the words off sharply before he could reveal more to this... this screeching harridan. This witch was intolerable; why in God's name had he been the least bit concerned for her welfare? He could no longer restrain his temper -- and he no longer cared to attempt it. He spat the words out, each one laced with a harsh and virulent rage. "Madam, I deeply regret whatever it is was that has been done to you, whatever has made you what you are... but..." he thundered, in a voice still capable of reaching the masthead in a full gale "...may I remind you that I bear no responsibility for it."

She easily matched him in both fire and volume. "And I might say the same to you."

They glared malevolently at one another; each gone to quarters, all guns run out, their anger smoldering like slow-match. Bush's eyes narrowed; he readied his broadside, waited for the uproll... and hauled down his colours. A slow smile spread across his face. "I strike."

She had held the weather gage, after all.

***

Brendan, retrieving a keg from the cellar storeroom, froze in mid-stride. He had heard the angry voices above him; some poor sot was getting the sharp edge of Mara's tongue, but he had given it little thought. It was surely common enough, anymore. But this? This was a sound he had not heard for... well, for far too long... and had hardly expected to ever hear again.

It was her laughter, silvery and genuine; now joined by a deeper, resonant counterpoint.

And it worried him.

***


Chapter 14


Evelyn Fanshawe stood stock-still in the inn's kitchen door, unable to believe his eyes. Mara Bryce was obviously very much alive -- and, to his sheer astonishment, she and his captain were laughing together with unrepressed abandon, like uninhibited children. Despite their mirth, they must have heard him enter: with visible effort, they collected their wits and turned, still smiling, to greet him.

"It seems, Mr. Fanshawe, that you were correct." A trace of apology crept quietly into Bush's smile. "It was someone else, after all."

Fanshawe grinned, delighted. "It pleases me to no end to discover it, sir." He turned to Mara. "Captain Bush was most distraught at the prospect of your loss, ma'am; he..."

Bush shot the young man a reproving glance, interrupting him before he could reveal too much. "Surely you exaggerate, Mr. Fanshawe," he said, with mock severity -- though fervently hoping his lieutenant would perceive the truth veiled within the jest.

Fanshawe did, it seemed, and nodded. "I suppose I do, ma'am -- but we were indeed concerned for your safety."

Relieved, Bush turned back to Mara. Too late: the damage was done, the fragile spell already broken. Her smile had flown, and her face had gone suddenly ashen, though it rapidly settled back into its usual closely shuttered mask.

Still deathly pale, she lifted her chin and glared haughtily down her nose at both of them. "If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I have chores to attend to." She marched from the room -- abandoning the task in which she had been engaged, entirely forgotten.

Bush mastered his surprise and confusion, hastily concealing it behind the unreadable countenance of a captain. "As do we, Mr. Fanshawe," he snapped. "As do we." He turned on his heel and strode purposefully from the inn, more than willing to leave those dark and unfathomable waters astern.

Fanshawe could do nothing but follow.

***

Bush nodded to the side-party as he was piped aboard the Witch, infinitely grateful for the return to a world over which he held some measure of control -- a world that had sense, and order. He turned to Fanshawe as the young man emerged through the entry port. "Mr. Fanshawe, hoist to Greyhound 'Captain repair on board'. I shall expect you both in my cabin upon Dawes' arrival."

"Aye, sir." Fanshawe responded, touching his hat. "Make the signal, Fitzgerald." He watched attentively as the seaman bent on the proper flag and sent it soaring aloft. Despite the growing darkness, Greyhound immediately repeated the signal and dropped a boat: no need to fire a signal gun. Dawes obviously had been awaiting the summons, and had set a man to watch for it. Fanshawe smiled in admiration: it would be good to see Dawes again.

Belowdecks, Bush stepped into his small cabin, appreciating its homely familiarity. The lamps had been lit in anticipation of his return; the dim light comfortably revealed that everything was the same, as he had left it. He sank into a chair with a sigh, and closed his eyes, seeking a moment's respite from his disordered thoughts. But a sharp sense of discomfort persistently intruded upon that fleeting peace. He reluctantly opened his eyes and looked about the room once more. He had been quite wrong: all was in place, but nothing was the same. He had left this vessel secure in the straightforward knowledge of his mission -- to control smuggling on this coast -- and had returned sure of nothing at all, except the certainty that there was far more at stake than he knew... or was permitted to know.

The intense preoccupation with Mara Bryce's wellbeing had temporarily driven that harsh reality from his consciousness -- an insight that perplexed him in the extreme -- but it had now returned with a vengeance. There was no time to consider it, though, he realized as a tap on the cabin door roused him from his musing. "Enter," he called, curtly.

He rose as Dawes, followed closely by Fanshawe, ducked through the low doorway.

"Please be seated, gentlemen." As his lieutenants arranged themselves at the table, Bush poured three glasses of brandy, though leaving his own untouched as he restlessly prowled the small confines of the cabin. He had seen their earnest faces: eager for news, for action, for a plan...

And he had none of these, not yet, but there was no good in keeping it from them. As a subordinate he had been left in the dark more often than not. But he had always known that his captain was fully prepared for any eventuality, ready to emerge victorious by some brilliant stroke of innovation. His silence might cause his own officers to reach a similar conclusion -- and he could not bear the thought of it. He ceased his pacing, settling himself in his own chair between them. "Gentlemen, there is precious little to tell you." He studied the two young men soberly. "I am not even certain why my presence was requested. The meeting with Admiral Chadwick was short, and it seemed pointless. He merely required me to recount our progress to date -- information which was contained in my reports. But he seemed to wish it delivered directly from me."

Dawes winced. "You must have found it difficult, sir, to tell him of the loss of the contraband."

"Indeed." Bush admitted. "But he already knew of it -- before I did, he said."

"He did, sir?" Fanshawe eyed him curiously. "But how?"

"How?" Bush had tortured himself with the same question a hundred times since. "God knows; Admiral Chadwick did not say." He frowned speculatively. "I think the better question asked is 'Why?'. Why did he not share that information with me? And why did he wish to interview me to no apparent end?"

"Begging your pardon, sir..." Dawes hesitated uncertainly. "But did he appear to suspect that you might be in collusion with the smugglers?"

"What?" Bush flared, incredulous, though the fire in his eyes was swiftly extinguished. "I... I do not know," he mused. "I had not considered that. It seemed," he shook his head, as if doubting his perceptions, "more as if he were seeking something from me."

Dawes frowned. "And do you believe he found it, sir?"

"Do you know, Dawes... I think perhaps he did. When the interview was ended, he appeared to be..." Bush groped for words. "Content. Satisfied. He wished me success... and warned me, as I left."

"Warned you, sir?" Fanshawe inquired, intrigued. "Warned you of what, precisely?"

"Of danger," Bush said slowly, remembering the admiral's voice and the intense, almost fanatical, glint of his eyes. "Of 'treacherous waters', as he put it." He carefully studied the rapt faces of his lieutenants. "Though much help that was. So we must be watchful. But in the meantime, we will continue our pursuit of Harry Carson. We will cut off this damned serpent's head before it has the opportunity to strike, and we will use every means we have to do so." He eyed them defiantly; defying his own sentiments as well. "Whatever the cost."

"Sir?" The incredulous gasp escaped before Fanshawe could suppress it.

Bush's eyes flashed dangerously. "Whatever the cost, Mr. Fanshawe. I was concerned for Mrs. Bryce, but..." he hesitated fractionally, "...but I was quite mistaken."

Something in his voice made Dawes look up sharply to study his captain's face. The lines about Bush's mouth had deepened; his blue eyes were grim and troubled. Mystified, Dawes opened his mouth to comment, and closed it again at the almost imperceptible shake of Fanshawe's head.

"But mistaken no longer," Bush avowed, in a tone that brooked no discussion. "I believe there is more in the balance than a few casks of contraband -- and it is of far greater importance than any of us."

He watched with a rare touch of pride as both young men regarded him calmly, ready to do whatever he asked of them without question. Each was doubtless full of uncertainty, though neither would dare express such emotion to him. He recalled his own days as a lieutenant, though rarely alone as these men were; the wardroom had seen its full measure of shared anxieties and bravado.

Fanshawe looked up at the sound of the cutter's bell, and made to rise. "I beg your pardon, sir; I have the watch."

Bush shook his head. "I shall take it, Mr. Fanshawe." He regarded the two young officers sternly, though the flickering lamplight revealed a glimmer of humour lurking in the depths of his blue eyes. "Stay, Mr. Dawes: Greyhound can manage without you for a while longer, I should think. And I shall take it amiss if the level of brandy in that decanter has not fallen by the time I return."

As the cabin door closed behind their captain, Dawes refilled their glasses, settled comfortably back into his chair, and studied his friend closely. "That was clearly only part of the story. What in God's name happened?"

Fanshawe snorted derisively. "I wish to God I knew. During our return today, we heard vague rumour of the death of a woman innkeeper here in Mount's Bay; rumour that also alluded to smuggling, and Harry Carson."

Dawes gasped, appalled. "Mrs. Bryce?"

"No, though that was our conclusion as well. When we believed she had perished at Carson's hands, Captain Bush was quite undone -- at once both distraught and fearsomely enraged. It was... difficult... to watch, James."

And, Dawes considered wryly, equally difficult to be the only target at hand, no doubt. He must have borne the brunt of Bush's rage and distress, though it was most interesting that Fanshawe had voiced concern and not complaint.

"I have no idea what passed between them when he discovered that we were in error: by the time I found them, they were laughing together." Fanshawe shook his head in well-remembered amazement. "Laughing. And yet... when I clumsily revealed the depth of Captain Bush's concern for her, she became..." He paused, searching for words to adequately describe that which he did not understand.

Dawes grimaced, and supplied a word from his own acquaintance. "Repelled."

"No, I think not." Fanshawe frowned, considering it. "Strangely, James, I believe what I saw in her eyes was terror... the terror of a trapped animal, with no hope of escape. How Captain Bush perceived it, I do not know. He did not pursue it, and has not spoken of her since."

"Small wonder," Dawes growled, and changed the subject. "And you, Ev... what was it like, returning to your old haunts?"

"Extraordinary." Fanshawe stared thoughtfully into the amber depths of his brandy. "It was... an awakening, perhaps. It was a long -- and quiet -- journey home at times, which granted me much opportunity for thought... and..." he faltered briefly, discomfited. "And an example to observe."

He fell silent, idly tracing the lip of the goblet with a finger, pondering how much to reveal. Dawes made no comment, but Fanshawe sensed the man watching him, waiting, in his very silence inviting him to share it. He had been isolated aboard the Witch for too long with no one in whom to confide: he felt suddenly overcome by the need to articulate the thoughts that had so occupied his mind that day, and the words spilled out, far beyond any control.

"James, I saw that life as I had never seen it before. My old friends welcomed me -- their long lost Evelyn -- back into their world of wealth and ease. And I had been so eager to return to it. But I found it different, changed. Hollow, somehow. I did not know precisely why -- not until this afternoon, when it all became evident. It seems that I am no longer the man I was -- if I had been a man at all. That life -- everything that I had thought so important -- is empty, devoid of anything but the pursuit of pleasure, and has no purpose. No meaning, and nothing to be accomplished or risked. It is a life in which the measure of a man is counted by his titles and his wealth, and not by his ability, or his courage, or his honour." He at last looked up from his glass to study Dawes, his brown eyes intense even in the half-light. "I would not -- no, I cannot -- go back. Not now, not ever. And, strangely, I am grateful."

"Although we are a most unlovely lot?" Dawes smiled sardonically.

"Because of it, perhaps." Fanshawe heaved a melancholy sigh. "But the Bard has said it far better than I:

'In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
none can be thought deformed but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty; but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks, o'erflourish'd by the devil.'
[3]

Dawes suddenly found himself too moved to speak; drained his glass, instead. The fiery liquid steadied him, and turned his thoughts from their dangerously maudlin course. He cleared his throat harshly. "And your uncle, the Admiral? Did you speak of this to him?"

"I did indeed, though I suspect he hardly believed me at first. He wished to know everything I could tell him about Captain Bush and his methods, and my duties and responsibilities aboard. When I eventually convinced him that I spoke the truth, he began to pepper me with a multitude of questions." He frowned, as a sudden thought struck him. "I do believe I just sat for a proper lieutenant's examination."

Dawes raised an eyebrow. "And did you pass?"

Fanshawe smiled gently. "I believe so. Though he offered me an attractive opportunity to return to..." he hesitated. "To service within the admiralty."

"And you did not accept?" Dawes asked with a ghost of a smile, knowing the answer.

"The Evelyn Fanshawe of six months ago would have leapt at the prospect." Fanshawe's smile faded. "But Ev Fanshawe did not."

Dawes looked up at the sound of the muffled irregular thud emanating from the deck above his head, and listened as it died away for'rd. "Our captain." He studied Fanshawe closely. "Do you still find him... lacking?"

Fanshawe groaned. "I was such an ignorant fool."

"Indeed," Dawes chuckled as he refilled his friend's glass. "But you are learning."

***

The captain in question paced the weather deck, though his thoughts, to his annoyance, were persistently interrupted by images of his perplexing encounter with Mara Bryce. He at last conceded defeat, and allowed himself a moment to consider it. That woman... He ceased his pacing, and shook his head in resignation. He would never understand her. One moment laughing, the next in flight. It hardly mattered. He had, of course, weakly given in to sentiment, foolishly dismayed that his clumsy attempts at gathering information had caused the death of an innocent -- a woman, at that. And she had laughed at his honest concern for her, then been repulsed by the very thought of it. It was not the first time for that, and was surely not to be the last; he had best get used to it. He sighed, resumed his pacing, and forcibly turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand.

It was not long, however, before his mind conjured a sudden memory of another captain pacing endlessly on quarterdecks past. Bush had always observed Hornblower's pacing with a reverence akin to awe: it was not to be interrupted, for he knew with unshakeable certainty that his captain's deliberately measured steps produced immeasurably astute cogitation. Bush realized grimly that his own pacing was no doubt done in unconscious imitation: it was a great pity that duplication of the insight was a far more difficult thing.

He would simply have to do the best he could.

***


Chapter 15


The next few weeks passed in a blur of mediocrity and half-accomplished tasks. Bush drove them hard, as if determined to reclaim all that was lost, but there was little to be found. Enough, perhaps, to keep him from moving on, away from Carson's Cove -- but there had not been even the slightest glimpse of Carson's elusive sloop.

The day began inauspiciously indeed. A cold and penetrating rain fell from bleak skies, dripped from the rigging, and made its way down Fanshawe's collar with a relentless efficiency. He drew his tarpaulin coat more closely about him, resignedly aware of the futility of his efforts. Dawes had taken Greyhound to the north; perhaps their hunt had been more fruitful, though most assuredly it was no more pleasant. Fanshawe wondered idly about his old friends ashore; on days like this one he could almost... almost... envy them their glittering society, and their utter unfamiliarity with physical discomfort.

He awkwardly opened his telescope with fingers damp and stiff with cold, and scanned the rocky, irregular coastline. His eyes watered in the wind.

"Fine day, eh?"

Fanshawe started, and turned to find Bush at his side. The man was, unbelievably, completely serious. His blue eyes were alight with pleasure, with the pure enjoyment of this life unfettered by the mundane, dragging tasks of life ashore -- perhaps even with the pure enjoyment of being alive at all.

The enthusiasm proved infectious, and Fanshawe smiled in reply, forgetting -- for the moment, at least -- his earlier complaints. "Aye, sir... that it is."

Bush nodded, and turned his attention to the coast. Fanshawe raised his telescope and feigned the same, instead surreptitiously studying his captain's profile: impassive, unmoved, one might even have said stolid were it not for the gleam in those eyes. How simple a thing it would be to underestimate this man, he mused, though it would indeed be a grievous error -- and loss -- to do so.

As Fanshawe watched, he saw Bush's eyes narrow and sharpen, his attention clearly caught by some irregularity of the mind-numbingly dreary, rock-strewn coast. "There, Mr. Fanshawe." Bush indicated a black and forbidding outcropping jutting far into the sea, foam boiling around its base. "There. What do you see?"

Fanshawe quickly located the movement, and carefully studied its source through his telescope: he frowned in puzzlement. "It appears to be a ship's boat, sir... though there has been no larger vessel in sight." He scanned the coastline in either direction: it appeared deserted, though its irregularity afforded perfect concealment for any vessel blessed with a sufficiently shallow draught to work inshore. And so it had: there, at last, was the source of the boat, as a sloop appeared from a nearby inlet and tacked round the headland. "Is it Carson, do you think, sir?" he breathed, at once hopeful and strangely apprehensive.

As the sloop flitted nimbly from them, a white puff of smoke appeared at her stern; a flat bang reached their ears. Bush grinned with satisfaction. "There is little doubt of it." He raised his voice so that all might hear. "We have hunted her long enough, Mr. Fanshawe... today, she is ours!" Bush swept a glance over the deck: his men were poised, waiting. "Run out the bowsprit! Set all jibs'ls!"

It was done in a moment. The additional jibs flogged briefly, then billowed like a great white cloud as they caught the wind and hardened. With the increased press of sail, the Witch leapt forward like a live thing in hot pursuit of her prey. "Clear for action!" Bush bellowed. By God, he thought, how I have missed this.

It was nothing like the preparations on a ship of the line, but his men bent to their tasks as diligently as if it were: Bush observed with a trace of pride that, within bare moments, the Witch was as ready as she would ever be. His men were clearly eager to engage; the air was palpably charged with their excitement. Best give them something to do, Bush thought: the powder in the always-ready bowchaser might well be damp. It would be wise to clear it and reload afresh. He turned to the gunner. "Try a ranging shot, Mr. Reid."

The gunner nodded, carefully took aim, and pulled the lanyard. The men cheered as one of the sloop's tops'l yards abruptly sagged, its sail hanging uselessly. The sloop valiantly persisted in her attempt at flight, but the distance between the two vessels began to close with dramatic speed.

Despite the cheers, Bush scowled and paced the deck. No. It had been too far: they should not have hit her, despite the gunner's skill. There had been no flying spume where the ball had taken a lucky skip from a wave crest. No, it should have been a clean miss, falling well short. But... his eyes narrowed against the cold wind. But there was the evidence, the ruined yard, its sail drooping helplessly like a broken wing. The sloop was clearly struggling to make good her escape. Bush stopped abruptly, transfixed, studying the sloop. "A broken wing... my God," he muttered. He spun around, eyes blazing. "Put her about!"

He pressed the telescope to his eye, desperately seeking the small boat, finding her already nearing the rocks just offshore. "Put her about, by God!" he bellowed. "Break off this chase... we must take that boat! Work her in as far as you dare, Mr. Drummond. She's already too far inshore for us to follow... pick your men and stand by to launch the larb'd boats on my signal, Mr. Fanshawe. You must cut that boat out and take it! Do not allow them to land!"

"Sir?" The doubt in Fanshawe's mind was clearly evident in his voice.

Bush did not turn from his relentless study of the boat, and the three men now visible in it. "Grouse, Mr. Fanshawe."

"Grouse, sir?" Fanshawe frowned, missing the allusion entirely.

As the Witch slewed dangerously onto her new tack, Bush spared a glance at the young man at his elbow. "Have you never gone shooting on the moors, Mr. Fanshawe?"

Fanshawe eyed his captain as if the man had gone mad, yet managed a respectful "No, sir."

"In spring, the hen protects her nest when you come near. She feigns a broken wing, fluttering wretchedly nearly at your feet, inviting your hot pursuit -- an easy catch, to be sure. She draws you after her, only to fly safely away when you are sufficiently far from her clutch." He raised an eyebrow at Fanshawe's obvious astonishment. "I have not always been at sea, Mr. Fanshawe."

"Assuredly not, sir." Fanshawe agreed, with a masterful immobility of countenance.

"There is something in that boat, Mr. Fanshawe, that we are not meant to find. Carson has done his best to draw us away, but he will soon discover that we will not take his bait so easily."

Fanshawe nodded firmly. "Rest assured, sir... we will find it, whatever it is." He strode from his captain's side, barking his orders. Bush stood at the rail, listening to the young man. He smiled, watching him -- though the smile was long gone before Fanshawe could detect it.

Soon, he stood at the entry port looking down at his lieutenant as the young man clambered into the lowered boat. "I wish you success, Mr. Fanshawe... once you have taken her, search the boat thoroughly and report to my cabin with anything you have found."

He watched the boats row briskly off towards the coast: wishing he were with them, knowing that as captain his place was here. It was time young Fanshawe tried his wings. It was difficult enough, though, to go below and sit outwardly unruffled at his desk, waiting powerlessly for the fledgling to return. Had any captain worried so about him? he wondered. He smiled wryly, as he doubted it.

It seemed an age before he heard a boat, then two, bump alongside. He forced himself to wait, carefully schooling his face to stillness. At last, a tap on the door. "Come," he called flatly.

Fanshawe strode in, wetted by salt-spray but proper, his hat tucked neatly under one arm. He was followed by three men, herded through the cabin door by the glowering bos'n. "The boat was empty, sir, save for these three men. And they carried nothing at all."

The men remained silent, staring defiantly at Bush, though their poisonous gaze was for naught as Bush did not deign to raise his eyes from the papers. "We could do with three able hands, bos'n. As they obviously carry no protections, you may press these men." He at last looked up to study them dispassionately. "You are now in the King's service, gentlemen. You will serve him well, or suffer the consequences." He slowly rose from the desk and moved to face them, running an appraising eye over them as if measuring their fitness.

Bush suddenly reached out and grasped the middle sailor's wrists, forcing his palms upwards. It was as he had suspected from the man's carriage, his walk, everything about him: the hands in his own were smooth and uncallused, the nails scrupulously clean. "You are no seaman," he snapped.

The other two began to protest, but the man pinioned in Bush's grasp merely stared back at him.

Fanshawe studied the man for a moment, and shrugged carelessly. "Il ne nous est d'aucune utilité. Voulez vous que je le tue, Monsieur, et que je le jette par dessus bord comme nous l'avons fait pour les autres?" [4]

The man remained immobile, but his sudden pallor was quite beyond his control...

Bush's half-forgotten, limping French was sufficient enough to grasp the gist of Fanshawe's words, particularly when considered in light of the reaction they elicited. He looked from one to the other: Fanshawe was attempting to suppress a triumphant smile. "This man is a Frenchman, sir... I believe he is the cargo that was not to fall into our hands. Perhaps we ought not to toss him overboard after all."

Bush nodded firmly. "No doubt. Bos'n, take these men below and put them in irons." As the bos'n roughly shepherded them out of the cabin, Bush turned back to his lieutenant. "Well done, Mr. Fanshawe."

"Thank you, sir." Fanshawe acknowledged, his face impassive, hands clasped behind his back, the very picture of decorum... though no amount of decorum could completely eclipse the delight in his eyes.

***

The Witch had made her scheduled rendezvous with Greyhound: Dawes now sat in Bush's cabin, decidedly disappointed at having missed the action entirely.

"I wonder, sir..." he mused aloud, falling silent as he realized that it was not his place to question his captain's judgment.

He looked up to find his captain staring intently at him, though not in anger. Bush raised his eyebrows. "You wonder what, Mr. Dawes?"

"Well, sir," Dawes said slowly, as if still working through his thoughts. "Could it be to our advantage if Carson does not know for certain that we have taken these men?"

Bush studied him closely. "I do not know, Mr. Dawes. But I think you may be right."

"In that case, sir, may I suggest..." Dawes' confidence was expanding by the moment. "Perhaps we ought not to return to Mount's Bay, and instead put in elsewhere." He paused, considering it. "Bournemouth, perhaps. I know it well, and can discreetly engage horses from a family friend. We can have these men safely in Admiral Chadwick's hands before Carson is any the wiser."

Dawes was thinking rapidly, now, and Bush did not interrupt him. "And sir, I would select Sergeant Stokes and two men of his choosing as their escort." He grinned. "Stokes is a fair hand with horses, I know -- and only a very brave man would dare challenge him."

"Indeed," nodded Bush, envisioning the huge marine. The man's grotesquely scarred face would give anyone pause. Interesting how a liability in any other circumstance had become a valuable asset -- though he also knew full well that Stokes himself would doubtless not agree.

***

As it happened, it was Dawes who apprehended Carson; surprised him on a lee shore, with the wind against him. One day earlier, they had packed their three captives off to Whitehall in the able though none-too-gentle hands of Marine Sergeant Stokes and his men, and were now returning to Mount's Bay, running southerly along the coast.

Bush was seated at his desk, grimly labouring over the current -- and as yet unfinished -- entry in his logbook. Writing had never been a favourite pastime, and now, knowing that his books were destined for scrutiny within the Admiralty, it had become a daunting chore indeed. He looked up sharply at the sound that reached his ears. Gunfire! Ship's cannon -- a 10 pounder, no doubt. From the s'thrd. He forced himself to return to his writing, as he heard footsteps clattering down the companion ladder.

"Enter," he called, in response to the urgent rap upon the cabin door, though he continued to write even as Fanshawe bustled in.

"Captain Bush, sir... we have heard..."

Bush replaced his pen in the stand and looked up at last. "Gunfire. I heard it as well, Mr. Fanshawe."

"I believe it must be Greyhound, sir... if so, we will be up to her shortly. We cannot be too far astern."

"Indeed." Bush rose from the desk and shrugged into his jacket, doing his best to conceal his excitement; it took all his control not to rush on deck as Fanshawe was clearly keen to do. "So, Mr. Fanshawe... let us go see what she has uncovered."

Bush emerged on deck and cast an eye upward; Fanshawe had obviously made all sail before going below. They were taking full advantage of the wind, and -- as the young man had correctly assessed -- ought to arrive in support of Greyhound within minutes.

As they did, though their presence was wholly unnecessary: the confrontation -- if one could venture to deem it so -- was already long over. Bush studied the tableau as they ran down upon it; he could easily visualize the scene as it must have played out. Dawes must have surprised the sloop deep in the inlet. With little sea-room, and the wind against her, the sloop had been trapped on a lee shore, and Greyhound's single shot had been sufficient to induce the sloop's commander to cooperate, and lie to. There was little else he could have done -- and lived. Though the sloop was much the same size as either one of the cutters, she was carvel built -- her light hull and shallow draught were built for speed, and incapable of withstanding even the cutter's frail broadside.

Dawes was, obviously, already aboard her. One of Greyhound's boats idled alongside the sloop; Bush could see the bright red splashes of the marines' coats as they stood guard, crowding the sloop's narrow deck. He studied her carefully through his glass as they drew nearer; clearly this was the vessel that had vainly tried to lure him away. She was a trim and well-kept craft; perhaps not held to the navy's fanatical precision, but ready for anything nonetheless. Greyhound rocked alongside, her guns run out and trained on the sloop -- she, also, was ready for anything.

As was the sloop's captain: Carson himself stood on deck, calmly assessing Bush in turn as he made his way through the entry port. This was Bush's first opportunity to meet Carson face-to-face; aside from the brief glimpse of him in the Two Brothers, the man had remained a near-mythical figure. However, Bush thought wryly, unlike most men Carson managed to retain those near-mythical proportions up close as well. The man was extraordinarily tall and solidly muscled, his square-jawed, handsome face crowned by a mane of waving auburn hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck. He was every bit the landsman's image of the dashing sea captain -- an image which most quite fail to achieve.

"May I welcome you aboard, Commander Bush." Carson said silkily, stressing Bush's de facto rank, whilst making a great show of studying the single epaulette on Bush's left shoulder. "It is indeed a pleasure to meet you at last. Your men were just completing their inspection."

As if in confirmation of his words, Dawes' clear grey eyes appeared over the coaming of the hatchway. He quickly mounted the ladder to stand beside his captain, shaking his head. "Sir... we have found nothing out of order here... and I have looked very thoroughly indeed."

Bush raised an eyebrow. "Nothing?"

Carson folded his arms and looked down at the young lieutenant. "Nonsense, Mr. Dawes," he said roundly. "Tell your commander what it is that you have found."

A crimson flush crept over Dawes' collar and rapidly ascended to his hairline. "Er... two bottles of pickles and a flying fish put up in neat spirits, sir." [5]

"Illegal contraband, indeed." Carson declared. "Wouldn't you agree, Commander Bush?"

It was Bush's turn to change colour, though his tone remained cold and emotionless. "Perhaps you do have nothing today. You must, after all, still dispose of the goods you removed from the Customs House."

Carson raised a disdainful eyebrow. "I know nothing of that: I merely ordered my men to post my note to you. They chose the manner of doing so on their own initiative. But it is no concern of yours in any case. Theft is a matter for the constabulary, is it not, Commander?" Carson smiled unpleasantly. "And I expect your recent experiences have made you well aware of the extent of their enthusiasm in that regard."

Bush roughly took hold of his anger, forcing it inward; Carson was baiting him, and he refused to allow himself to rise to it. He knew -- as they both knew -- the theft would be entirely ignored by the authorities ashore. But there was, still, one card left to play. He swept the deck with a casually disinterested glance, and coolly raised an eyebrow. "You appear to be missing a boat."

Fury flared briefly in Carson's eyes, though his face remained blandly impassive. "Yes," he drawled mildly. "A regrettable accident."

"Indeed." Bush offered a wintry smile. "We, on the other hand, have recently acquired one."

The two men eyed each other with thinly veiled antagonism. Carson drew himself fully erect and regarded Bush contemptuously, pointedly emphasizing the difference in their heights. "Get off my ship, Commander. You have no business with me this day."

The smaller man was not to be so easily intimidated, nor would he be goaded into an impulsive response. He studied Carson -- the damned traitor -- with undisguised disdain, though his voice was flat and expressionless. "One day I shall be pleased to watch as you dance the Tyburn jig." His eyes narrowed; they looked almost inhuman, soulless and remote. "And dance you will. I shall see to it."

Bush took a step closer, nearly thrusting a shoulder into Carson's broad chest. The big man looked down into those pale and merciless eyes... and hesitated. He had always held the upper hand, had always been the dealer of fear, and of death, and had taken his full enjoyment in it... but this man remained unafraid. Like him, this man -- a King's Officer -- had also dealt death... but this man had confronted fear, and pain, and death before. They were nothing new, and had no hold upon him. He had faced them, stared them down, and emerged still living from their grasp. This knowledge was indisputable and strangely unsettling, and Carson recoiled from its touch.

Fanshawe watched in awed silence. He was well acquainted with the power of his captain's blazing wrath -- he had been the unhappy target thereof, often enough -- but had never before seen this chilling menace. Carson and Bush could not be more different, oil and salt-water; he wondered fleetingly whether the mixture were explosive.

Carson's eyes flickered briefly away; Bush seized the moment. "Mr. Fanshawe, Mr. Dawes. We are finished here." With dignity intact, he turned his back on Carson, and left him.

Bush sat motionless in the boat, his face devoid of expression, though inwardly shaking with suppressed emotion. Wondering what had possessed him to press the confrontation -- and why Carson had so readily withdrawn from it. As an King's Officer he had never been much troubled by challenge. He had encountered many a rough customer, true enough... but that was in his world, and not in this one. In his world he had been supported by the uniform on his back, the Articles of War... and the ever present spectres of the lash and the noose. Seamen, no matter how belligerent, were steeped in the notion of subordination. Carson, however, was subordinate to no one. Or... Bush blinked in astonishment at the notion... or was he?

***

His men had been working with industry and dedication; thus, with some distaste, Bush had brought the cutters into harbour and ordered the hoisting of the 'Easy'. Soon the calm waters would be aswarm with local boats bringing all manner of young -- and not so young -- ladies aboard, to be wooed and won in what little privacy might be found in the cramped and uninviting darkness below decks. He knew full well that his men would be far more relaxed without his gimlet eye upon them, so he gratefully went ashore, leaving Dawes and Fanshawe in command of the cutters. It would be nothing new for Dawes, he was certain. But for Fanshawe? He grinned to himself at the very thought. Fanshawe's patience would be sorely tried indeed, and he would doubtless receive something of an education this night.

He would spend the night at the Two Brothers, despite the galling memory of Mara Bryce's disgusted rebuff. For reasons he could not even begin to explain, he had looked for her upon his arrival... and had found himself disappointed to discover that she was gone, sitting up with an ailing friend. Thus he dined hastily, alone, and retired early to his customary room. He found it as he had left it -- impersonal, and cheerless. He wasted no time in dousing the light; though sleep, when it eventually came, was fitful.

Annoyed to find himself wide awake once more, he heard the inn's clock strike three. He shifted irritably on the bed; he had never slept well ashore, in this unaccustomed stillness. The four walls oppressed him; he had to get out, into the air. He sat on the edge of the bed, quickly lacing the leather sleeve that joined wood to flesh with the ease borne of long practice, not sparing it a second thought.

He dragged on a shirt, leaving it loose, and breeches... one stocking, one shoe. He did not concern himself with the balance of his uniform: there was no real need for propriety, as no one would be abroad at this hour, he was certain, and he would be only a moment, merely needing but a breath of clean air. He quietly made his way down the stairs, stepped into the night, and began to slowly pace the worn cobbles of the street, hands clasped behind him, thinking hard. He knew he was missing something... but what?

It seemed to him that he had a number of unrelated, disjointed facts with no clear thread to connect them. He knew that Carson was the ringleader... that much was obvious, and that the man had considerable support from amongst the townspeople. Even his passing confrontation informed him that Carson was driven by more than simple profit; he had seen this man's kind before. Carson was a bully, one who enjoyed his power over others, enjoyed the mixed fear and admiration in others' eyes, and savoured every moment of their anxious, submissive obeisance. And, until their arrival some months ago, no one had overtly challenged that power. Turpin, who had the official status to do so, was reluctant to place himself in harm's way, and in fact had already suffered at the hands of Carson's men for his grudging aid to the Navy's efforts.

Bush frowned a moment: it was not quite true that Carson lacked a challenger amongst the citizens of Mount's Bay. By providing information to him, Mara Bryce was repeatedly providing that challenge, while knowing full well that she placed her life in jeopardy. But she did so for no clear purpose, it seemed; she obviously loathed him and the Navy he represented almost as much as she despised Carson. Bush smiled humourlessly. Perhaps she regarded the Navy -- and himself -- as the better of two bad bargains.

But was it all so simple, that this was no more than the same smuggling of goods that was rampant all along England's coasts? If it were, he would most likely not have been placed here. Admiral Chadwick knew more than he disclosed, that much was abundantly clear. But Chadwick did not consider sharing that information -- or the identity of his informant -- with him. But why? The admiral may not have been thoroughly convinced of his integrity from the start -- but he certainly appeared to have become so during their brief meeting. So if his reticence was not rooted in mistrust, what was it? Chadwick might have come to his own conclusions, but may be unconvinced... or... or was reluctant to believe them, and wanted confirmation...

Dear God, he thought hopelessly, it was all so... Bush stopped, suddenly aware of the large, bitter drops now pattering on his shoulders. As he stood in perplexed consternation, the skies opened; the rain became a sheeting deluge. He turned to beat a hasty retreat into the shelter of the inn, but was shocked to find the inn's small light glimmering faintly in the distance. Deep in thought, he had walked a considerable way. Making a run for it was, unfortunately, a thing of the past; to even attempt it now on the uncertain footing of the rain-slick cobbles was to surely invite disaster. Thus Bush was soaked to the skin by the time he reached the parlour of the quiet, slumbering inn.

Chilled, he stirred the embers of the dying fire; it flickered up into reluctant life and he stood before it, grateful for its feeble warmth. He had run his hands through his sodden hair in a futile attempt to dry it when it occurred to him that despite his pacing and agonized deliberation, he was no closer to a solution. Only wet. He sighed helplessly and leaned closer to the fire, resting his head against the forearm he had laid along the mantel. This was sheer folly. Hornblower would be able to see it clearly... but try as he might, he could not. He thought suddenly of Griffin, the Revenue officer who had sacrificed his eyes in pursuit of the smugglers, and grimly realized that he was no better off than that unfortunate soul: he also groped blindly in an unfamiliar darkness, the answers unseen and just out of reach of questing hands, as invisible to him as if they had not been there at all.

This was not the life for which he had been born. Seamanship, the thousand details of welding a raw company of lubbers and landsmen into fearsome fighting jacks; and transforming tons of timber, acres of canvas, and miles of rigging into a formidable fighting machine and keeping her that way despite gales and waves and enemy shot all striving to tear her to pieces: all that he could do, and do well. Could still do -- he knew it. But that had been taken from him forever, and he was left with this. This. The thought, the planning, the insight that separated the leader from the led. And this? This was too much. He leaned heavily against the mantel as if rooted to the spot: motionless, overwhelmed.

He did not notice the slight squeal from the hinges of the carefully opened door, nor did he hear the soft tread of approaching feet in the outer hall. And he remained also quite unaware that Mara Bryce stood in the doorway, quietly watching him, her shoulders sagging under the weight of her despair.

"Oh, Eli..." she breathed, disconsolate. "What shall I do now?"

***


Chapter 16


God, it was so cold. Mara Bryce shivered as she scurried from the inn to the henhouse, its outlines still indistinct in the predawn gloom. The previous night's rain had brought with it a blistering chill, glazing the grass under her feet with ice-rime that crackled frostily with every step. She had spent the better part of the night tending to old John Barnes until his fever had finally broken. He was now resting comfortably, though there was no respite for her, as her healthy -- and hungry -- patrons would soon be volubly demanding her urgent attention. She slipped inside the squat and ramshackle structure, placed her lantern on a hook, and began to gather the morning's eggs, yawning hugely as she did so.

Her basket was barely half-full when she abruptly became aware of the indistinct murmur of voices. It startled her... she rarely encountered anyone about at this hour. Her fatigue was forgotten: she was instantly alert, straining to make out the words, muffled as they were by windows tightly shuttered against the cold.

"...oh, aye... 'twill be a rich 'un tonight." She heard a rumbling chuckle. "An' 'arry 'imself says 'e'll be waitin' ashore fer it. Says'e canna trust no other... not wi' this 'un."

"Carson's Cove, then?" This was a new voice, louder and more distinct.

"Nay... not wi' them damned rev'nue men nosin' about. Prussia Cove, t' th' north'rd."

Both men laughed, this time, and began to move away... Mara could hear the crunch of their footsteps on the frozen grass. She stood, hardly daring to breathe, listening until she could hear them no longer. Her heart sank; she knew what it was that she must do, but an overwhelming fear and foreboding gripped her and held her motionless. She closed her eyes against it for a moment, then took a deep breath and eased the door open, peering tentatively around it. Not a soul was in sight. She slipped out and cautiously darted back to the inn.

Mara abandoned the basket, eggs -- and her lodgers' breakfast -- wholly forgotten, and took the stairs two at a time, holding her skirts free of her ankles. She rapped urgently on the door to Bush's room. Receiving no response, she turned the knob, calling quietly "Captain... Captain Bush!" The door swung open to reveal an empty room: vacant, showing no sign of any previous occupation. The bed was neatly made -- one might have bounced a shilling upon it. He was gone.

She clattered back down the stairs and ran to the window that overlooked the bay. She took the telescope from its customary shelf, ignoring the usual catch in her throat at the sight of it, and snapped it open. She sighed with relief... even in the dim light, the fine glass revealed the outlines of a cutter: the Witch still rode peacefully at anchor. But not for long, it seemed, as she could see vague figures hurrying about on the jetty. Clearly there was no time to lose. Mara turned to her desk, tore a scrap from her ledger, and penned a few brief words. She sanded the ink and shook it, glancing hurriedly about the room, wondering how she might deliver it without arousing suspicion. Her gaze settled on the abandoned basket. She thrust the note among the few eggs residing there, and hurried out the door.

The quay was crowded with stores and knots of busy seamen, though Mara easily located the tall, fair-haired figure in the midst of it all. "Lieutenant Fanshawe, sir!"

He turned, his momentary annoyance at the interruption rapidly giving way to genuine surprise. "Why, Mrs. Bryce!" Fanshawe felt distinctly protective feelings for this woman -- despite her often brusque treatment of his captain, she had taken considerable risks to aid them as best she could. And perhaps some measure of his emotion was a reflection of his captain's own protective concern, typically kept well-hidden -- though he alone had seen the full force of it first-hand. Thus he smiled kindly down at her. "Have you come to see us off today, madam, and to bring us good fortune?"

She ignored his well-bred cordiality. "No," she snapped, abruptly handing him the basket. "I have come to bring you this."

Fanshawe peered into the basket, frowning as at first he saw nothing more urgent than a few speckled hens' eggs. He extracted the note and unfolded it, eyes widening as he read and digested both its implication and its importance. He tucked the note deep amongst the eggs once more and scanned the bustling men, his eyes settling on a familiar figure. "You there, Poole!" he called sharply.

Poole immediately added his burden to his neighbor's, ignoring the man's mute protestations, and obediently trotted to Fanshawe's side. The young lieutenant nodded a brisk approval. "Deliver this to Captain Bush immediately, Poole. Go with the next load of stores."

"Aye, sir." Poole tugged at his forelock and accepted the basket, eyeing its contents curiously. "Eggs, sir?"

"Eggs, Poole," Fanshawe said with finality, clearly indicating that no further discussion of the matter was warranted. "See that Captain Bush receives them at once."

He turned to Mara, though the effusive words of thanks died on his lips at the sight of her back as she headed up the track towards the Two Brothers. "Thank you, Mrs. Bryce," he called after her. "For the eggs."

She looked back then and nodded, smiling slightly at last. "For the eggs."

In the shadows cast by the quayside chandlery, a still figure followed Mara Bryce's departure with his eyes. He had watched her breathless arrival, and had carefully noted the exchange of the egg basket and its hasty delivery to the Witch.

Harry Carson smiled, deeply satisfied. The deed was done.

***

"Tonight, sir?" the master repeated, incredulous. He shifted a wad of tobacco from one grizzled cheek to the other, studying the note and frowning speculatively. "But it'll be a dirty night for sure... the barometer's droppin' like a vicar's britches in a knockin' shop..."

"Indeed, Mr. Drummond," interrupted Bush sternly, though the master was relieved to see an ill-concealed flicker of amusement in his captain's eyes. Fanshawe and Dawes managed somehow to confine their own to a shared droll glance.

Though all colourful imagery aside, Drummond was undeniably quite correct. Dawes frowned. "But would Carson risk landing valuable cargo in such weather?"

Bush was silent for a moment, considering it. "Perhaps." He had read the signs as readily as the master had done, and knew a run would be a chancy proposition at best. But... if the cargo were worth the risk, it most certainly would be worth the capture. He returned his attention to the chart. "I might," he mused. "Particularly if I knew that my pursuers read the weather as well as I. The very improbability of a run might prove to be an effective cover indeed." He grinned at them; the mounting excitement in his blue eyes was plain. "But we shall be waiting for him."

Both the Witch and Greyhound departed as soon as was decently proper, outwardly displaying little of their captain's inward urgency. They backed their sails just north of Prussia Cove, sending small parties ashore and discreetly overland as dusk began to darken the already leaden skies. The master was no fool and knew his weather; as they settled in to wait the wind blustered round their ears, driving sharp crystals of ice that stung any flesh imprudently left unprotected.

Bush suppressed a shiver -- it would not do to reveal his discomfort -- still, he turned up his collar in a futile attempt to block at least a portion of the sleety onslaught. He scanned the cove, its details now growing indistinct in the rapidly gathering darkness. This was a far different landing spot: instead of the barren, rocky beach of Carson's Cove, dense reed beds extended nearly to the edge of the muddy shoreline. Bush noted with satisfaction that the landing party was concealed quite effectively within the reeds; even as he was fully aware of their presence he could see no outward signs of it. The wind that whistled through the trees behind them whipped through the reeds: they swirled and thrashed before it, successfully concealing any disturbance caused by their occupants. Fanshawe was at his left, his men ranged behind them; Dawes and his men were similarly arrayed within the reeds on the opposite side of the cove. They were ready for anything, from any quarter.

Bush smiled despite the piercing wind and the trickle of icy water that was already beginning to seep its way into his sea-boot. Carson's fear of these men must have exceeded his fear of the weather to induce him to risk landing valuable cargo on a night like this one. Bush found this notion surprisingly warming.

His warmth diminished as the night dragged on. There was no movement at all, from land or sea, save for the brutal wind and a single shot fired into the darkness by an idiot seaman who swore he had heard something creeping about in the rushes. Investigation at dawn revealed little. Perhaps something had been there, but it was most likely no more than the fool's overactive imagination -- a thing for which he would pay dearly at the gratings, if Bush's present state of mind was any indication.

Dawn also heralded the return of Greyhound and the Witch; their boats were a welcome sight as they battled inshore through the heavy sea. Bush surveyed the cove with disgust as he watched his men clamber stiffly into the boats. They were all nearly frozen, and it was all for naught. He attempted to console himself with the thought that throughout the past months they had been successful more often than not, though it remained a cold comfort indeed.

He would try again tomorrow.

***

The night passed crouching in the rushes followed by hours spent on deck in the biting wind as they clawed their way back to the shelter of Mount's Bay had done Bush no good. He trudged miserably up the track toward the Two Brothers, feeling as if the wind's raw chill had penetrated his very bones. He had spent most of his life cold, wet, or both, and had always accepted it without complaint. But today? Today every old wound was reasserting itself; his damaged leg ached abominably, far more than the usual daily reminder he had learnt to live with. Must be getting soft ashore -- or too damn old, more like, he dourly reflected. Still, he looked gratefully at the brightly-lit windows of the inn that, to his intense relief, was in sight at last. Strange, how such a place had come to feel remarkably like home. He opened the door, and a gust of warm, smoky air perfumed with the scent of roasting beef -- beef that had never seen the inside of a cask -- rushed out to greet him. He smiled with wholehearted appreciation and did not begrudge the last few steps to the crackling fire. As he began to strip off his sodden boat-cloak, he felt hands assisting him, and heard a female voice at his back. "Please allow me to take that for you, sir."

He turned, still smiling, to find Mara Bryce bundling the dripping garment over one bony arm. Her usually grim features softened at the sight of his honest gratitude, and she blushed and dropped her eyes. "I... I will hang this to dry for you, sir," she stammered, inexplicably moved. She had used her anger and her sorrow as a shield for so long; it was a perplexing thing to discover that it was not, after all, impenetrable. Her defenses had begun to weaken two nights past as she silently watched this man as he stood oppressed by the twin burdens of responsibility and self-doubt. It was only then she had realized that she was not alone in her loss, or in her pain.

This evening, well aware of his past night's failure -- in Mount's Bay, news traveled fast, amused derision even faster -- she had watched his laborious approach from the window, and had recognized the effort that was apparent in his face at every step. It had awakened the ache of memory, and with it, other emotions thought long forgotten.

She frowned, nonplussed. "Please, sir... sit. I'll bring you something hot."

His smile faded: he was in no mood for whatever scornful comments she must surely have in store. "Ah, Mara..." he sighed, vaguely mustering the feeble jibe. "Whatever would I do without you?"

To his astonishment, she did not respond with her usual sharp retort; instead, he was rewarded with a faint smile before she turned away to hurry off to the kitchen. Had he been any less wet, less frustrated, or less miserable, he might have reacted with alarm at her abrupt change of demeanor; as it was, however, he was merely glad of it, accepting it without question.

He made his way to a table and sank into a chair with a dejected sigh, tiredly running a hand across his brow. Mara was back in an instant with a mug of dark and steaming tea which, judging from the heady fumes rising from its surface, was laced with a substantial measure of brandy. She placed the mug on the table before him, her fingers lightly brushing the back of his hand as he reached for it, almost -- but not quite -- by accident. He looked up, bewildered. Surely he was mistaken.

Perhaps not. Her face was a study in genuine concern -- and, for a moment, the flicker of an expression that he knew well. He had seen it often enough, before... but hardly expected to ever see again -- certainly not here, not now, and most assuredly not on the face of this woman. He stared up at her, taken too flat aback to do anything more, and she smiled more openly.

"I'll bring your dinner, Captain Bush."

'Captain', was it now? What in God's name had gotten into this woman? He leaned thoughtfully on an elbow and watched her as she returned to the kitchen. He had reluctantly come to believe that that aspect of his life was over. While in France, he had observed that Brown had made no attempt to conceal his popularity with the women of the de Gracy household. And Hornblower? He sighed, and slowly shook his head, still incredulous that a man so profoundly gifted could be so very unaware of the capacity of others. He had known all about his captain's dalliance with Marie, though Hornblower had apparently thought his first lieutenant had lost his vision, or his senses, and not simply part of a leg. But all that had gone on around him; even after his convalescence had ended it was painfully clear that no one had considered him in that particular light.

There had been a woman in Portsmouth, since, with a ready smile and laughing eyes; they had passed more than a few agreeable evenings together. Bush had flattered himself then with the thought that her interest had not been purely financial, though in the cold light of day he had been less than convinced. But Mara Bryce? Indisputably the last person on earth he would have expected to do so now. Still... with a bit of meat on her bones, and that smile on her face, she might not be half bad, at that...

He was abruptly startled from his bemused meanderings as a shadow darkened the surface of the table. He looked up to find Brendan glowering down at him, a daunting sight indeed. The big man planted himself unbidden in the chair across from him, leaned across the table and immediately came to the point. "Ye'll not harm my sister," he growled.

Bush stared at him in astonishment, taken aback by the force of the man's words, not to mention that until a mere moment ago, the thought of Mara as anything other than a mercurial and sharp-tongued harridan had never -- or, hardly ever -- crossed his mind. "I am a gentleman and a King's Officer," he snapped, his words frigid and stiff with indignation. "She would come to no harm at my hands."

"Ye'll keep yer bloody hands off her, y' will."

He initially felt a flash of outrage -- how dare the man -- but something in the burly man's eyes made him bite back his furious retort. Utter sincerity and concern... much the same protective feelings he might have for the well-being of any of his own sisters. And... and perhaps, something more. He sat back in his chair, and nodded. "Tell me."

Brendan blinked, seemingly taken aback by the sudden acquiescence, and cleared his throat. "My Mara's had a hard time of it, she has, sir, an'... an' I fear for her. You'll know she was married, sir..." He smiled sadly. "You'd never guess it now, sir, but she was a diff'rnt woman, then. Her man -- Eli Bryce -- was master's mate in the old Impulsive. He was a rare 'un, Eli was: smart, an' a natural-born leader. His Cap'n -- a damn fine man himself, by all accounts -- could see it plain, an' promised to try to get 'im commissioned. We was so proud of him: ye'll know that a few fine captains have come up from belowdecks. But Impulsive was lost in '97, off th' Spanish coast. Eli was pulled from the sea, but bad wounded -- his leg broke to flinders -- an' they brought him home. His cap'n came here... imagine that, sir, here... to see him, an' to tell him that he could sit for his lieutenant's examination when he was well. An' brought him a fine telescope... to use when he made cap'n, he said." Brendan sighed heavily. "They done their best to save his leg; the Admiralty'd not want 'im with one... er... beggin' yer pardon, sir..."

"Go on." Bush's face was expressionless.

"Mara nursed 'im for months, but his leg... it wouldn't knit, and had to come off. He seemed to be gettin' better, after that -- even up and about a bit -- but he took a turn for the worse -- fever, it was -- an' left us. My Mara lost the child she carried soon after. She ain't been the same, since... not till you come along. I ha' seen how she looks at you, 'specially when you can't see her... but make no mistake, sir. She don't see you. She sees her Eli, and what might ha' been.

She's done her best to deny it, sir... to you, to me, an' to herself... but she can't. I want to see her like she was, again, sir -- happy, y'know -- but you'll not stay here. You'll go, and she'll be left again. An'... well, sir..." the big man sighed. "I don't know if she could bear it."

Brendan fell silent; the two men eyed each other speculatively for a long moment. Bush nodded, touched by the depth of the man's love for his sister, and smiled gently. "I do understand. You can trust me, Brendan... I swear I shall not harm her."

"Hmph." Brendan shot him a dubious scowl in return. "And ye'll answer t' me if ye do." He indicated the kitchen with a ham-sized fist. "She's in there alone, just now."

The man was right. The thing had to be done, and done straight away while matters were still well in hand. Bush sighed and rose to comply. He met Mara just inside the kitchen door; she looked up in surprise from the laden tray she carried.

"Mara..." He took her burden from her, setting it aside, and placed his hands lightly on her narrow shoulders. For all her strength of temperament, she felt startlingly fragile, as though she could easily break with the slightest mishandling. He knew suddenly that it was indeed true: he would most certainly shatter this woman if he misused her. His expression altered as the realization struck him, and she did not miss it.

She looked him squarely in the eye. "There is someone else."

Bush studied her gravely, somehow knowing that no good would come of telling her of her brother's words. He looked fondly into her eyes, smiled ruefully, and -- to his shame -- seized the convenient lie. "There is, Mara. I cannot betray your trust."

She smiled through her disappointment, and sense of loss... he was every bit the man she had imagined him to be. "I understand. Forgive me, Captain."

He nodded. "Forgiven. And... thank you." He studied her -- with a degree of regret that astonished him -- as she turned away. Strange, it was, how something he never had suddenly seemed as something lost. But he had told her only half a lie, he realized. Her rival was not of flesh-and-blood, but his devotion was no less passionate. He would forsake anyone and everything at her merest call. The sea was his true love... and the bond with her would outlast all others.

***

Mara Bryce none-too-gently escorted the last shambling patron from the Two Brothers and gratefully bolted the door behind him. She leaned weakly against it, heaving an enormous sigh of relief and exhaustion: the sooner this night was over, the better. She had made a bloody great fool of herself with her clumsy and unwelcome advances, she thought, as she disgustedly returned the scattered chairs to some semblance of order -- though using, perhaps, a bit more force than was necessary.

She ran a weary but appraising eye over the room, judging it sufficiently ready for the morrow, and began to bank the fire for the night. Something nagged at her, unsettled her -- she turned, and started in fright as her eyes detected a shadowed form watching her from the depths of the faded wing chair near the hearth.

She gasped in involuntary alarm. "Captain Bush!" A moment later, she mastered her distress sufficiently to recover both her voice and her composure. "Please forgive me, sir, I did not see you there; I was just locking up," she declared formally, as though she were addressing a stranger. "But you may stay as long as you like, sir... may I bring you something more?"

Bush studied her expressionlessly. Even after her initial shock had passed she seemed discomfited and ill at ease, and he regretted being the cause of it. Perhaps there was something he might yet offer, to make amends... He indicated the full glass of brandy in his hand. "Another, thank you."

Mara nodded, though frowning slightly; Bush was typically most restrained in his consumption of spirits. This was unusual; perhaps his damaged limb still plagued him. In any case, it was none of her affair. He could drink himself into insensibility if he cared to do so.

Bush turned back to the fire, listening as she busied herself with the decanter.

She reappeared at his elbow, proffering a brimming glass. "Will there be anything more, Captain Bush?"

"Yes." He smiled tentatively up at her, and indicated the adjacent chair. "Please... will you join me?"

He looked as self-conscious as she felt; she had to smile at that, and wordlessly settled into the chair by his side.

Bush handed the brandy back to her. "Here... it was intended for you, after all." He studied her carefully; when he finally spoke, his words were not at all what she had expected. "Your brother Francis... did he speak of Trafalgar, and... and after?"

Mara eyed him curiously, but slowly shook her head. "No. He was so very deaf when he finally returned to us. It was... too difficult."

"I am sorry that I did not know of it." Bush offered a rueful half smile. "We were all somewhat deaf for a time, after Trafalgar... I fear I failed to notice." He leaned back into the chair and sipped at his brandy, lost for a moment in the memory of it: he was once again a young lieutenant bellowing to be heard amid the raging din and bloody horror of the lower gundeck, the great guns roaring out destruction from all sides... He shook his head abruptly, marshalling his thoughts, in the present once more. "Mara, may I tell you of your brother?"

Her grateful smile provided all the answer he required. He regarded her for a moment, considering what he might tell her... enough, but not overmuch. Some aspects of a sea battle even he did not care to recall, allowing the terrible images to become with time muted and blurred, almost surreal. He would spare her that, at all costs; some things were best left to lie in the dusty vault of memory. But he would tell her what he could.

He took a deep breath, and began. "I was fourth lieutenant aboard Temeraire. Your brother served in my division; I knew him to be a steady and reliable man. But that day, he was my right hand... and," he smiled gravely, "at times, my left. We were engaged on either beam..."

In the end, perhaps, he told her too much. Told her of her brother's unflagging energy and discipline as they drove the harassed and decimated gun crews from one battery to the other, eventually pounding both enemy vessels into submission. And told her how the bloody offal under their feet, merely dragged aside in the heat of battle, became his men once more after the guns were stilled.

He told her of the aftermath when, numb and stupid with shock and exhaustion, he had been sent as prize-master into the Spanish prize Monarca. Nearly voiceless from shouting, he had motioned for her brother to accompany him; the man had followed without even a flicker of protest. And he told of the long and hopeless night as they fought to keep the foundering Monarca afloat during the storm that followed on the heels of the battle -- and of the sense of defeat and despair that consumed them as they had watched her slide beneath the roiling waves.

He fell silent for a time, then turned to her. "You should recall your brother's service with pride." He smiled slightly. "As I do."

Nearly overcome, she impulsively touched his arm. "I thank you, Captain Bush."

The brief touch warmed him as the brandy had not. He awkwardly caught her hand as she withdrew it. "William." It was half a question, half an appeal.

Mara nodded. "William it is, then." She rose, and smiled down at him. "I shall bid you good night, William... morning comes early, and I got no sleep last night."

He watched her as she left him. It could be no other way, he mused. He had given his solemn word. It was his honour -- and, absurdly, his lie -- that left him sitting in this chair, alone but for the dying fire.

***


Chapter 17


Bush awoke from dreamless sleep to a dawn that proved cold yet calm, the rising sun bleakly shrouded by sullen grey clouds. As he dressed he turned an assessing, professional eye to the scrap of melancholy sky visible from from the window of his room at the Two Brothers and, surprisingly, he smiled. Tonight, he thought. It will be tonight; the perfect dark and moonless night for Carson to attempt to land his valuable -- and illicit -- cargo.

He made his way down the narrow stairs and entered the inn's common room, already crowded and bustling with the morning's trade. Brendan brought him a steaming cup of strong coffee; as he gingerly sipped at it he studied the crowd, unobtrusively listening to the scraps of conversation that swirled about him. He at last caught a brief glimpse of Mara as she turned from one table to another. She seemed to sense his presence and looked up, her eyes meeting his from across the room. She scarcely smiled, yet the understanding in the glance they shared warmed his heart.

As Bush left the inn behind him, his mind was busy turning over the day's plans, though some small part of it was pleasantly occupied with thoughts of the evening before. Despite all their earlier exchanging of broadsides, he had engaged Mara Bryce on an equal footing: not as a man meets a woman, but as a man greets a friend. It felt exceedingly strange, yet at the same time curiously familiar. He had nearly forgotten how much he had missed an easy friendship, one untainted by the rigid distinctions of status and rank. He had briefly experienced such a thing in France: in his virtual captivity he had found the freedom to express -- and accept -- a genuine and equitable comradeship. It had been a precious though short-lived thing, very nearly able to temper his own feelings of anger, helplessness, and loss and render them somehow tolerable. It had been almost worth the price.

Preoccupied with his thoughts, Bush was but barely aware of his surroundings until he rounded a corner and found himself directly in the midst of a stately and slow-moving funeral procession. He studied the tableau before him in surprise. A fine hearse drawn by a sable mare regally plumed in black -- the deceased must have been someone of considerable importance. Odd, it was, that he had heard no mention of it at the inn.

A group of townspeople followed in the hearse's wake; an older woman looking up from dabbing at her red-rimmed eyes was the first to notice his presence. Her expression immediately transfigured from sorrow to venomous rage. "You." she hissed. "You did this."

"I, madam?" Bush stared, incredulous. "I think not. You are quite mistaken."

"You, or your men." The trailing crowd stopped and ranged supportively behind her back as she glared at him, her eyes now flashing murderously, her breath coming in ragged gasps. "Two nights past. He thought he saw a light in Prussia Cove, and believed it to be some lost soul in trouble in the gale." Her voice faltered for a moment, and caught in a desolate sob. "He never returned. His brothers went seeking him only to find him dead on the path with a bullet in his belly... he had tried, somehow, to drag himself home. But he could not. Instead he died there, alone, in the cold. For nothing." She took a step toward him. "You were there. I know. You killed my son as he tried to help another. My elder son..." she broke down completely. "My... my Harry."

A younger woman stepped from the crowd, flashing Bush a poisonous glare as she took the older woman's arm in a consoling gesture. "Mother Carson..." she murmured softly.

"Harry?" Bush blinked. "Harry Carson?" Dear God, that single random shot in the darkness had struck down the very man he had sought. What were the odds? He was not a gambling man... but the odds against such a thing had to be astronomical. Almost... unbelievable. He frowned. Quite unbelievable. The women's emotion seemed real enough, but...

"Open it," he snapped harshly, gesturing to the hearse's shining ebony doors.

The younger woman gasped, and stepped protectively in front of the latch. "Please God, sir, have some respect for the dead... and the living. We have suffered enough at your filthy hands."

"Open it. Now."

Bush's many years at sea, expecting -- and receiving -- immediate, unquestioning obedience must have been apparent in his voice; it had a markedly similar effect on land. One of the townsmen drew the brass bolt, and grudgingly opened the hearse's rear doors; Bush stepped closer and leaned far into the grim vehicle, his eyes unaccustomed to the thick darkness. Steely hands from within gripped his collar and arms, and dragged him unceremoniously inside. Stout rope was passed round his wrists, then his body, pinioning his limbs, a gag forced into his mouth, and his eyes bound tightly with a cloth. In an instant he was helpless, incapable of movement, speech or sight... but fully able to hear the slam of the doors, the crack of a whip, and the laughter that followed in the hearse's wake.

Bush lay helplessly on the wooden floor of the hearse, reciting a silent litany of vile invective, cursing both his idiocy and his naïvité. The vehicle was jolting along at a breakneck pace; whatever his fate might be, he would no doubt meet it soon enough. His mind relentlessly brooded over the destiny of revenue officers foolish enough to blunder into the hands of those whom they pursued. He had always expected to fall in action: in battle one moment, gone to glory the next. In fact he thought he had, more than once. But that was not to be. His end, when it came -- today, were he fortunate -- would be ugly, and painful, and prolonged. He would assuredly spend his time in Hell this day.

After what seemed like hours -- though surely it could not have been that long -- Bush heard the driver call out, and the hearse slewed to an abrupt and bone-jarring halt. He felt the floor shift beneath him as the driver clambered down from his perch, heard the metallic scrape of the bolt as it was drawn open and was dimly aware of light filtering through the blindfold. He steeled himself for whatever would come. Hands pulled at him, roughly dragged him from the hearse, and tossed him to the ground like so much baggage. A coarse, drink-raddled laugh echoed in his ears. "'at'll learn ye," a man's voice slurred.

There was a creak of hinges, then silence.

Surprised at being alive and for the most part undamaged, Bush began to assess his situation. His cheek scraped on hard-packed earth, and the rich scent of horses filled his nose. He was in a barn, seemingly alone but for the animals that shifted in their stalls. He could hear them as they stirred, nosing aimlessly in the fragrant hay. He began to systematically test his bonds, hoping to find some weakness, unwilling to simply lie patiently awaiting his own end.

"That will gain you nothing."

The voice, when it came, was startling... and then again, it was not. Bush recognized it immediately. He growled deep in his throat, unable to speak, but equally incapable of controlling his fury.

"Am I to fear you, Bush?" Carson chuckled heartlessly. "I think not. You look most foolish, trussed as you are. Without your ship and your officers and your men at your back you are but half a man." He paused for a moment, considering; Bush heard him tread closer, felt him rudely nudge the wooden limb with a booted foot. "No... come to think on it, Bush... you are somewhat less than half."

If you do not fear me, thought Bush grimly, then why am I bound hand and foot? He growled again, viciously, vainly attempting to give voice to the contempt that overwhelmed him.

He never heard it coming. A heavy boot connected solidly -- and precisely -- with the vulnerable spot just under his breastbone. The sudden explosion of white light behind his eyes and the sudden, blazing agony drove all conscious thought from his brain and breath from his body. He curled convulsively inward, consumed with the desperate struggle to breathe. He heard Carson's silky voice, as if from a great distance, barely audible over the roaring in his ears.

"I have been told I ought to kill you outright... but frankly, Bush, you are far too diverting." Carson laughed quietly. "I expect you to amuse me further, and for some time to come. As you did two nights past, Bush. I trust you passed a pleasant evening in Prussia Cove? I thought of you often as I sat by the fire... an evil night, was it not?"

Bush groaned inwardly, recognizing the truth. Of course it had been a set-up. Not a trap to lure him and his men to their deaths but merely a game, carefully calculated to make him look the fool. Carson could have ended it that night as they crept unsuspecting into the marsh. But he had not, preferring instead to taunt him. Carson enjoyed this, it was obvious. Bush had known many a lower deck bully much like him, men who took delight in manipulating others, and lorded over their messmates by instilling fear and weakness instead of relying on leadership and shared respect.

Carson clucked his tongue in mock sympathy. "You ought to have gone to Sheerness, you know. You are a fool, Bush... even one as slow as you must see that now. In a battle of wits, you are quite unarmed: outclassed and outgunned at every turn. How did you manage to rise to commander's rank, Bush? Surely on Hornblower's coattails, I should think. You are a truly dreadful judge of men... you misplace your confidence, and back the wrong horse. And of those whom you do rightly trust? The Lord may deal bitterly -- but you shall find that I bring far, far more calamity than He."

He laughed derisively, as if appreciating a private jest. "Should you live that long. I have not yet decided. I have matters awaiting me this night, so you shall have a little longer. You shall remain here, cooling your heels -- one, at least -- whilst I conduct my business. Your men will not dare venture from the harbour without you, their leader -- I find that a sad thought indeed. Rather like the blind leading the blind..." Carson paused, meaningfully. "Hmmmm... now, there's a thought."

His soft chuckle was deceptively chilling, and made Bush's blood run cold; he had not forgotten the horrifying tales of captured Revenue Officers found cowering and helpless, eyes torn from their skulls or burned beyond use. He forced himself to stillness as he heard Carson's footsteps draw closer: he would not give the man the satisfaction of revealing even the merest trace of fear, though he knew full well that by doing so he condemned himself to an unspeakable fate. But he would meet it with what was left of his pride. He had already lost too much.

Bush tensed, anticipating another blow. With hands pinioned behind him he could not fight back or even attempt to protect himself, but this time, he would be prepared for it. Instead, he heard the soft tread of booted feet on the earthen floor, and the creak of hinges, and felt a soft gust of air as the door swung shut, leaving him alone once more.

He lay still for a moment, chest heaving in impotent fury, then brutally thrust his damaged pride aside and forced his hands to resume their meticulous study of the knots that held him fast. Blindfolded, unable to see, he turned his full attention to the visualization of the information his fingers provided. The bonds were tight, and he could feel the skin of his wrists chafe cruelly as his hands twisted within the rough cordage. He would have the marks to show for it.

As Captain Turpin had, he recalled abruptly. Also overpowered by Carson's men, Turpin had not managed to free himself, and had been brutally beaten and forced to lie ignominiously until he was eventually found. But for Turpin there had been a tomorrow. For himself, he was certain that if he did not get free this day would be his last. Though, he reflected grimly, if he were found like this -- helpless, a failure -- there would be no more days in the King's Service in any case. Not at sea: perhaps an indulgent admiralty would relegate him to some God-damned dockyard to spend his days forgotten, a broken figure of pity -- or worse, amusement. This command had been his only opportunity to prove himself able: of that, he was certain. If he failed, he might as well die here and now.

But as Bush's mind had strayed into this treacherous ground his hands had remained diligently occupied, and abruptly intruded upon his dismal thoughts with equally unwelcome information. The knot that pinioned his wrists was a simple one, a Tom Fool's knot -- through the ages countless children inflicted it upon unsuspecting playmates. Simple, yes... but tied in the bight as it was, it tightened with every effort to remove it, and was quite impossible to escape unless one had access to the free ends -- ends which were, at the moment, firmly secured round his legs.

He sighed mentally, and shifted his attention to the second set of knots. Tying his legs at the ankles had been out of the question; thus the bonds were affixed just above his knees. He bent awkwardly backwards until his fingers located the knots and, blessedly, the free ends of the rope. Any seaman worth his salt was accustomed to loosing the most intricate of knots despite pitch darkness, spray-swollen cordage, sickening motion and dizzying heights. He explored the knots, mentally constructing their image. Had it not been for the gag, he might have smiled. 'Child's play' indeed.

Bush worked methodically, feeling the knots loosening one by one under his benumbed fingers. After the last fell away, he was able to slowly unwind the numerous turns that encircled his body until at last only the handcuff knot remained. He carefully selected the proper turn of the knot, and began to work the free end through, inch by painstaking inch. At last it loosened, and he roughly pulled his hands free. He stripped off the gag and blindfold, and gingerly hauled himself upright. As sensation gradually returned to his limbs he leaned heavily against a post and surveyed his surroundings, eyes slitted against the unaccustomed light, half expecting Harry Carson to be blandly watching him, lying in wait, ready to toy with him further.

But no, he was alone. His initial impression had been correct: he was in a small stable, with two of the four loose-boxes occupied by obviously well-kept horses. He unsteadily made his way to first one window, then the others. It seemed that his captors had indeed left him alone and unguarded, apparently not anticipating his ability to free himself. But, Bush reflected dourly, what did freedom avail him? He had no idea of precisely where he was, and it would take far too long for him to make his ungainly way back to Mount's Bay on foot. He would surely be discovered -- and even if not, Carson would have ample opportunity to make his run and be gone by the time he could put to sea. The thought infuriated him and he mentally railed against his limitations, regarding the wooden limb with renewed loathing. 'If only...' he thought.

And why not? he wondered. What had he to lose? His pride was already in shreds; he could do it little more damage by trying. He still had hands and head, knees and thighs... could he, still?

He approached the closest animal, a robust, well-made chestnut... and drew back a step as the mare laid her ears flat and whirled to deliver a violent and well-aimed kick at the side of the loose-box, her iron-shod hooves drumming an evil tattoo on the wooden floor. He spoke quietly to her: she responded with a second and even more lusty blow that rattled the door upon its hinges.

Bush abandoned the chestnut, looking past her to his only hope. The smaller red bay stood quietly, eyeing her stablemate's antics with a frank curiosity. He approached her -- now fully understanding the necessity of the empty stalls that separated them -- and she pricked her ears as he stretched out a hand to stroke her neck. "So, lass..." he said softly, unconsciously reverting to the accent of his youth, the accent of the blacksmith's nephew and valued right hand. "Shall we try?"

He had her saddled in a moment; some things were never forgotten. Mounting would be a challenge indeed, he realized. Once up, he had damned well better stay on. Bush led the mare to the side of a grain bin, where she stood patiently waiting as he clambered ungracefully upon it. He took a deep breath, and eased himself carefully into the saddle. It felt odd indeed -- his balance was clearly awry, and muscles still weakened from long convalescence and enforced idleness were hesitant, unused to this activity -- but it felt... He grinned. It felt... marvellous. He looped the useless stirrup and its leather over the pommel, gathered the reins... and they were off, slipping quietly out the stable door.

After they had cleared the stable unchallenged, he reined in and took his bearings. His seaman's sure sense of direction quickly informed him that the stable lay northwest of Mount's Bay. A single track led back towards the village; clearly the hearse in which he had been imprisoned had kept to that primitive road, though he dared not. But he also needed to make all haste, so he skirted the edge of the woods that lined the track, ready to duck into the thick bracken to avoid the watchful eye of any who sought him.

He touched his heel to the mare's side, and quickly discovered that a sitting trot was a most uncomfortable affair on this close-coupled creature; with some trepidation he eased her into a slow canter. Realization hit him in a mad rush of emotion: it was like coming home. There were things -- unimagined, precious things -- still left to him after all.

The joy of it was fleeting, however, and could not succeed in overshadowing Bush's fury at what Carson had done to him. And what he, in his own plodding stupidity, had done to himself. He had allowed himself to be so easily duped, and looked a blundering fool. Despite his successful escape, he had lost. Carson had won this round. He found his wrath mounting uncontrollably; by the time he reached the quayside he was shaking violently, and could barely see for the red rage that gnawed at his soul.

He slid from the mare's back, catching himself on his sound leg, though even it nearly buckled weakly under him from the unaccustomed strain. Despite his anger, he could not bear the thought of this willing creature coming to harm, so he began to rapidly undo the buckles of the girth. As he did so, however, inspiration struck, staying his hand in mid-action. He fastened it securely once more, and slapped the mare soundly on a sweaty haunch. She trotted off a few paces, then stopped to pull a few mouthfuls of grass from the quayside green. The fire in his eyes flickered and died for a moment. "I thank you, lass," he said, softly.

He turned, and made his way to the water's edge, calling sharply for a waterman's boat. "Witch of Endor," he snapped to the boatman, and coldly watched the frantic activity erupt on the Witch's ordered deck as his approach was suddenly recognized.

Evelyn Fanshawe watched with mounting concern as Bush carefully made his way up the side. Something had happened... his captain was moving gingerly, almost as if in pain. He was unaccountably filthy, bore a smear of dirt high on one cheekbone and a murderous glint in his eye. As the piping of the hastily-assembled side party at last fell silent, Fanshawe peered earnestly at his disheveled captain. "Captain Bush? Are you well? I was most concerned when you did not return this morning..." He subsided into silence under the force of Bush's icy glower.

"It was nothing," Bush grated harshly. "I was... detained."

***


Chapter 18


Bush stepped through the narrow doorway into his cabin, closing the door firmly behind him. His anger was rapidly giving way to a profound relief, though it was a relief much disturbed by the sick realization of just how slim the margin between life and death had been. His own impulsive, ill-considered actions had rendered him utterly helpless, wholly at Carson's mercy... and, perversely, only Carson's arrogant and sadistic nature had given him reprieve. He needed a bit of time alone to come to grips with it, away from prying eyes and probing questions. Just a bit of time here, in this familiar place where he belonged. He had, frankly, despaired of ever seeing it -- and, perhaps, anything else -- again. He sighed and moved, almost unconsciously, to the sideboard.

Glass clinked upon glass. Bush looked down, astonished and dismayed by the tremor in his hands. He had always held nothing but contempt for those who found their courage in a bottle, and would not join them; thus he obstinately left the filled glass to repose abandoned on the polished wood, and began to pace the floor. The memory of Harry Carson's words still chilled him. He could not help but hear them echoing in his mind, taunting him. It was made all the worse by his increasing suspicion that Carson had been entirely correct in his assessments.

"...half a man..."

"...you are a fool, Bush... a truly dreadful judge of men... you misplace your confidence..."

"...the blind leading the blind..."

"...you ought to have gone to Sheerness..."

This last thought brought him up short, and stopped him abruptly in mid-step. He stood stockstill in the cabin, wholly aghast. "Ought to have gone to Sheerness?" How on God's earth did Carson know that he had ever been offered a post in the dockyard at Sheerness? Only a few at the Admiralty were aware of it. The Admiralty. Bush paled as the realization hit him like a physical blow -- one far more damaging than anything Harry Carson had delivered. Dear God, the Admiralty. Shaken, incredulous, he closed his eyes against the sudden dizziness that threatened. He had always been a King's man, fiercely loyal to the crown, willing to lay down his life in its service. And now? Now, he had to somehow accept that the loyalty he offered was not always deserved. This was a betrayal, and a transgression so much more repugnant than the smuggling of a few casks of spirits, or even the clandestine transfer of men or information. And here he stood... a fool, half a man, in the midst of it all

In his arrogance, Harry Carson had told him too much... and had pushed him too far. Perhaps the blind could indeed lead the blind, Bush resolved grimly, and half a man might sometimes prove to be more than enough.

He resumed his pacing, though he had taken barely a dozen steps before his thoughts were interrupted by a respectful tap on the door. He groaned inwardly. Fanshawe, no doubt. He had to relate the whole miserable, humiliating incident to Fanshawe -- there was no avoiding it. But he surely did not relish the thought.

"Enter," he acknowledged, with a deep and profound reluctance.

As predicted, it was Fanshawe who bustled through the cabin door. Bush could see that the young man was near to bursting, consumed with questions -- though to his credit, he stood quietly at attention, awaiting the invitation to speak.

Bush was not yet prepared to indulge his first lieutenant; instead, he eyed him sternly. "Are we ready to put to sea, Mr. Fanshawe?"

Fanshawe reddened. "No. No, sir... not quite. You see, sir... we... I... still have some men ashore..."

"WHAT?" Bush thundered, immediately furious at the young man's effrontery. "You gave them leave?" The thought of his men skylarking in the town while he lay helpless, at Carson's mercy, was simply too much to bear.

Fanshawe's color deepened further, yet his brown eyes met Bush's own without flinching, and he shook his head firmly. "No, sir. Not leave. I sent parties ashore to search for you, sir."

Speechless, Bush stared incredulously at this young man who had, somehow, suddenly grown into the uniform he wore.

Fanshawe studied his captain uneasily, discomfited by his silence. "I was that worried, you see, sir. Mrs. Bryce had seen you leave the inn... but then, sir, you seemingly vanished into thin air. I... I became most concerned, and felt compelled to act."

Bush found that he could no longer meet Fanshawe's eyes. He turned away toward the stern windows, hands locked in the small of his back in rigidly enforced stillness, his gaze faraway. "And you had reason to be." He briefly related the bald facts of the shameful affair to the young man standing attentively behind him. It was a most difficult thing to admit one's abject failure to a junior officer, yet it had to be done. His second-in-command deserved to know.

He was rescued from that humiliating task -- though not before he had relayed the worst of it -- by the clatter of feet on the companionway. He had been vaguely aware of the sound of a boat bumping alongside some moments before; apparently one of the returning men had something pressing to report.

"Lt. Fanshawe!" an urgent voice called, as knuckles rapped wildly on the cabin door. Fanshawe opened it to admit Poole, red-faced and gasping.

"Lt. Fanshawe! I've heard, sir, that the captain may well be d..." Poole's face went white as he recognized his captain's profile against the hard glare from the windows.

Bush studied the man calmly. "Go on, Poole."

The man stammered momentarily, as if now suddenly reluctant to speak. He looked helplessly from Bush to Fanshawe and back again.

"Yes, Poole?" Fanshawe prompted. "Do go on."

Poole considered his feet for a space, then looked up imploringly at his captain. "I don't wish t' shame you, sir, but they was braggin' about it at Mother Redcap's..."

Moved by the man's simple loyalty, Bush came away from the windows to drop a hand on his shoulder. "Good man," he said, kindly. "But no need. Mr. Fanshawe knows."

Poole flushed self-consciously at the gesture, then smiled with obvious relief. "Thank 'ee, sir."

Fanshawe nodded briskly to his captain. "I shall recall the rest of the men, sir. Discreetly." He turned to Poole. "Find them, and be quiet about it."

"A moment, Poole." Bush held up a hand and frowned, slowly turning the possibilities over in his mind. Fanshawe had unwittingly given him the germ of an idea. He stood silent for several long minutes, then began to work through his thoughts aloud. "No," he mused, and shook his head. "No. Do not keep it quiet. Take more men with you, Poole, and go to every public house in search of your shipmates. Tell them -- loudly -- that you have heard rumour that I am being held in..." He went to his desk and unrolled the chart, running a battered finger northward along the coast, considering it carefully. "In... in Newlyn. Make it known that Lt. Dawes is taking Greyhound there to mount a rescue. But do not breathe a word of the truth, not even to our own men until they are aboard. I do not want some damned fool with a loose tongue to put paid to our plans." He looked up from the chart. "And Poole, send any men you find to Greyhound."

As the door banged shut behind Poole's hurrying figure, Bush turned back to Fanshawe. "Mr. Fanshawe, go find the waterman who ferried me to the Witch, bring him aboard, and hold him here. An elderly man, black boat, red strake. His absence may be remarked upon, but at least he will not tell anyone that I am here."

"I will get him, sir." Fanshawe smiled. "And I shall leave a few empty gin bottles in his boat. That may provide explanation enough for his disappearance. Anyone looking for him would expect to find him insensible in a hedgerow."

"Very good, Mr. Fanshawe," Bush nodded, meaning it, pleased by the young man's quick imagination though finding it disconcertingly familiar. "Do so, without delay."

Fanshawe headed for the cabin door but hesitated, incapable of mere departure. He felt compelled to ask, to know; he had glimpsed raw red marks on Bush's wrists as he had unrolled the chart. Obviously far more had happened to his captain than he had been told. "Sir, you never finished... how did you get free, and make your way back here?"

'Damnation,' Bush sighed privately. Was there no escaping it? "It took no more than time and patience, Mr. Fanshawe. Carson eventually left me alone, and in due course I worked the knots free. There was a horse available, so I took her..."

"You rode, sir?" Fanshawe interrupted incredulously. "A... a horse?"

Bush regarded his lieutenant with a stony glare. "A horse, Mr. Fanshawe. Does this surprise you?"

Fanshawe blinked, flustered. "Yes, sir... er... no, sir... I..."

Bush allowed the young man to writhe under his stern scrutiny for a few moments more, then relented, and smiled. "It surprised me, too, Mr. Fanshawe," he said quietly.

Fanshawe was staring at him with an odd mixture of awe and admiration, a thing which Bush found quite impossible to endure. There were a few men who deserved such regard -- in fact he had served one, gladly. But he himself was no hero, no hand at tactics. He was merely feeling his way in the dark: the blind leading the blind. "Off with you, Mr. Fanshawe," he snapped crossly. "We do not have all day."

Fanshawe was not deceived in the least but successfully hid his smile, schooling his face to bland innocence. "Aye, sir. And Captain... shall I send a message to Mrs. Bryce, to tell her that you are safe? She would be..." he hesitated delicately, "...most obliged."

Bush was silent, hearing Carson's words in his mind, reluctant to believe them... yet it was a possibility he must entertain. 'You misplace your confidence...' Carson had said. "No," he said firmly. "There will be time enough later."

***

Lieutenant James Dawes sat stiffly in his cabin aboard Greyhound, exceedingly perplexed. His captain had appeared unannounced, hatless, clad in a sweeping boat-cloak and boarding from larboard, disdaining the customary ceremony. Fanshawe had accompanied him, and both had wordlessly quit the deck and led the way to Dawes' own cabin without a backward glance, expecting him to follow.

Fanshawe had indicated a chair, and had taken a seat beside him. The two lieutenants now watched in silence as Bush shed his boat cloak to reveal the full uniform beneath -- including the fighting sword at his hip. This was a departure from the more casual order Bush usually maintained at sea: a faded, tar-stained coat, its epaulette tarnished from the past months' exposure to the elements. It had made him one of them.

This uniform suddenly set him apart, created a distance where there had essentially been none. Bush looked down, across the widening gulf between them, and at last began to speak. "As far as I am aware, gentlemen, Harry Carson still believes that I am firmly bound and gagged and lying helplessly in his stable."

Dawes shot a startled glance at Fanshawe, who nodded imperceptively. 'Later,' he mouthed.

Bush continued, unaware of the exchange. "While I was there, he told me a great deal. More than he should have, he will find -- in fact, he has told me precisely what I must do. He plans to make his run tonight, as he seemed convinced that you and Mr. Fanshawe will remain at anchor without me to lead you. Carson was most... vocal." Bush grimaced involuntarily, prompting Dawes and Fanshawe to share a fleeting look, both wondering what, precisely, had been said.

"Knowing that, we may have the opportunity to stop Carson here and now -- but I was unsure how to send the cutters to intercept the run and yet have it appear that I was still held captive. But by acting on his own initiative and sending men ashore, Mr. Fanshawe has given us an opening that may prove useful. We have made it known ashore that Greyhound will depart to search for me elsewhere under your command, Mr. Dawes, and the Witch will remain safely in harbour, with a few small search parties sent ashore. Mr. Fanshawe will remain aboard her."

"Sir!" objected Fanshawe explosively. "With all due respect, sir, I must protest. You cannot leave me here, doing nothing, while my men are in danger."

"Indeed I can, Mr. Fanshawe." Bush snapped sharply. "And you will not be 'doing nothing', as you so insubordinately suggest. You will be most visible." His momentary irritation subsiding, he offered the ghost of a smile to the young man's enthusiasm. "But our Witch will fly false colours. Give a uniform coat and hat to the carpenter, Oldham -- he is about your size, and his hair is as fair as yours. From shore, no one will know the difference."

He studied his two young lieutenants gravely, well aware that both drew much of their assurance from his. He dared not allow them to sense his fear that Carson's derisive dismissal of his ability was well founded. He had had time to further scrutinize his plans, and still, they made sense. They were simple enough, and perhaps the element of surprise would serve him well. "I doubt Carson will return for me before morning... though if he does, he will find me and the mare long gone. But Mr. Fanshawe here was most astonished that I could ride, and perhaps Carson will share his disbelief. I released the mare still saddled and bridled -- should she find her way home it may appear that I fell or was thrown, so they may waste their time searching for me in a ditch, instead. Mr. Fanshawe has located the waterman who delivered me to the Witch, and is holding him aboard, so there will be no one ashore with sure knowledge of my return."

Bush shifted his full attention to Fanshawe. "Mr. Fanshawe, go -- very visibly -- back to the Witch, and get Oldham fully rigged in your stead. Return as quickly as you can. We must weigh anchor before the tide changes, and I would regret leaving you behind," he smiled faintly, "doing nothing."

"Aye aye, sir," Fanshawe grinned, and left them, eager to put his part of the plan into motion.

As the sound of his hurried step on the companion ladder faded, Bush turned back to Dawes, his face deeply lined with concern. He looked suddenly old, tired. "I dared not hold Mr. Fanshawe longer... but there is more, Mr. Dawes."

He held Dawes' eye, and did not flinch from brutal honesty. This much, at least, he had to share... it was his lieutenants' right to know -- particularly if things went against him, and they were forced to carry on alone. "Carson also called me a poor judge of men, that I have misplaced my trust. He flaunted knowledge that he should not have had, so I must believe that he spoke the truth. Much as I wish it were not so, it appears that someone amongst us is not entirely what he -- or she -- may seem."

***


Chapter 19


Dawes stared in shocked disbelief, his captain's words still hanging in the air like some oracular pronouncement of doom. "Someone amongst us is not entirely what he -- or she -- may seem."

"Are you certain, sir?"

Bush sighed, shook his head, and sat down heavily in the chair behind the desk. Dawes winced as it creaked in protest. "I can come to no other conclusion, Mr. Dawes. Carson as much as told me so."

Watching him, Dawes could easily recall the expression of disgust that had crossed Bush's face as he had spoken of that interview. Clearly, some most unpleasant things had been said. "Sir..." Dawes ventured softly, "sir, if I may ask... what exactly did Harry Carson tell you?"

Bush grunted noncommittally, buying time, unwilling to reveal too much. But perhaps it might be better shared, unaccustomed as he was to doing so. Dawes might have some insights, and he knew somehow that he could safely discuss it with this young man without dangerously imperiling proper order and discipline.

He swallowed his pride, and reluctantly replaced it with practicality. "Well, Mr. Dawes, Carson made his low opinion of me quite clear. He suggested, in fact, that I ought to have accepted the position I was offered in Sheerness, at the dockyard."

Dawes frowned. "But... even I did not know of that, sir."

"Yes." Bush nodded, pleased at the young officer's quick appreciation. "And Harry Carson certainly should not have known of it. But he was most eager to display the fact that he did. I believe that he did not expect me to escape, and took great pleasure in telling me that I had been..." he smiled humourlessly "...a fool, and had misplaced my trust. He offered a few threats, then left me alone to fully enjoy that knowledge, and consider my failure... and my eventual fate at his hands."

"I have known a few men like him, lower-deck lords who abused their power over weaker shipmates, ruling by reminding others of their limitations." Bush shook his head. "But those men were no better than petty tyrants, and had no real capacity to lead. They could command nothing larger than a bread barge. Carson is a bully, no doubt, but he does have both ability and power."

"And something more, sir." Dawes interjected flatly, his level grey eyes uncharacteristically troubled. "There is something truly foul and frightening that lurks within the man, not far beneath the surface. I had several opportunities to observe him before you arrived on this station. Harry Carson cares for no one, and will stop at nothing... and the stories men tell of him suggest that his cruelty is boundless. And it has often been said that no one who bests him lives long thereafter." Dawes took a deep breath, digesting the implications. " I have seen enough of him to believe it, and have watched him take great enjoyment from others' pain and misery. He... he makes my flesh creep, sir."

A surprising admission from a naval officer; however, Bush was inclined to agree. He may not have been able to see the perverse pleasure on Harry Carson's face, but he had heard it clearly in his voice. And had felt it... felt both the boot in his gut and the chill in his soul. "As well it should, Dawes," he affirmed stoutly, to reassure the young man, knowing that such a confession of fear had taken considerable courage. "As well it should. The man has the support of someone with real authority, and he holds considerable power over any number of people here in Mount's Bay who can keep him informed of our actions."

"And did he suggest who any of these people might be, sir?"

"No." Bush thought for a moment. "No, he said nothing specific. It may be anyone." He fell silent, brooding. Anyone... perhaps even someone he had begun to think of as a friend. "But there was one thing I did not understand..." his voice trailed off, as he groped to recall Carson's exact words. "He mentioned 'one whom I do rightly trust... the Almighty may have dealt bitterly with them, but that he would do far worse...'" He shrugged. "It makes little sense to me."

"Sir..." Dawes was staring at him, wide eyed. "Sir, that would be Mara."

"Mara?" Bush frowned skeptically. "But how... Are you certain?"

"I am. It's scripture, sir... from the book of Ruth." Dawes smiled slightly at Bush's apparent disbelief. "My father is a parson, sir. I have read it many times."

He turned to his bookshelf, and pulled down a battered Bible. As he laid it on the desk and began to smoothly flip through the pages, Bush watched him, suddenly struck anew by the realization that the young man's movements were entirely one-handed. And he, he of all people, had barely noticed. He had nearly forgotten it, simply because Dawes had allowed it. Dawes was doing his best, and making do with what he had left without apology or complaint.

It was what he -- and, indeed, all of them -- must do. Now. Forever.

"Here, sir." Dawes' voice broke into his thoughts. "I was struck by the aptness of her name from the first, sir, which is why I remembered it."

Bush read aloud a portion of the passage his lieutenant had indicated. "Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty..." He looked up from the pages. "Dear God. I believe you may be right." He was not certain which was worse: the sick fear that she may prove to have been an informant, or the near certainty that she was now in great danger.

The sudden bereft look on Bush's face was not lost on Dawes. "Shall I send someone ashore to look after her, sir?"

"No." Bush could scarcely believe he had been able to speak the word so normally. "No. I dare not risk anyone going ashore and revealing our plans. For once we have the element of surprise in our favour, and we dare not lose it." He pulled out his watch, and flicked open the guard. "And time is short. We shall miss the tide if we delay much longer."

He scowled at it, mentally cursing both time and tide. "Though once we are at sea there will be plenty of time to reach Prussia Cove. You and your men know the coast thereabouts, do you not?"

"Yes, sir," nodded Dawes, following the direction of Bush's thoughts. "We do. With only one cutter at my disposal, I often sent a party ashore to attack from overland. Even if the smugglers' vessel managed to elude Greyhound, we could at least recover the goods, and our efforts would not go entirely for naught."

Bush very nearly smiled, the thought of action shouldering personal concerns to the margins of his thoughts for the moment. "Very good, Mr. Dawes. You shall lead a similar party again tonight. Pick your men, and be ready. We shall land you well clear of the cove; work your party inland and take up your positions as quickly as you can, and wait. With luck, we shall catch Carson between us, and end this."

He made to rise, though the effort was strangely awkward. Dawes heard a sharp intake of breath, and noticed that Bush checked his hand as it moved involuntarily to his body. It seemed, Dawes concluded, that not all of Carson's assaults had been verbal. But his captain made no mention of it, so Dawes too remained silent as he watched him shrug gingerly back into the boat-cloak and make his careful way up the companion ladder.

As they emerged into the late afternoon's sullen light, Bush looked about him at the orderly deck, and the panorama of seamen busily preparing to get under way. He could scarcely believe that it had been only this very morning that he had lain humiliated, kicked like a beaten dog, helpless at Carson's feet. Now he was restored, returned aboard Greyhound, where he had begun when he came to this place. He studied her men, seeing them with fresh eyes as he had seen them for the first time that day. Munro, the one-eyed bos'n. The master, Jameson, with one sleeve of his faded blue coat flapping emptily in the freshening breeze. Stokes, the hideously scarred marine. All the others. And he knew with the strength of conviction that there were no other men on earth he would rather have beside him this day.

And Fanshawe. Bush watched as the young man strode aft toward him. Even without uniform coat or hat, he looked a proper officer now, and very nearly was. He had come far since that first day... as they all had. Bush regarded his lieutenant sternly, thoroughly concealing his approval. "So, Mr. Fanshawe. Have all the men returned?"

"For the most part, sir. Only a few have not."

Bush cast an eye at the shore, then narrowly studied the leaden sky. "We can wait no longer," he snapped. "The stragglers will have to board the Witch instead, and await our return." He smiled slightly, suddenly aware that many of the men were covertly watching him. "A great pity they will miss this."

He turned to his lieutenants. "Get us underway, Mr. Dawes." Bush's smile widened to a broad -- and now, surprisingly genuine -- grin. "We have a smuggler to catch."

***

Bush stood at the entry port as the last of the boats idled below, awaiting its officer. The balance of Dawes' chosen men were already pulling strongly through the gathering dusk towards the shore, faces blackened, ready to conceal their boats and disappear soundlessly into the forest. "Good luck, Mr. Dawes."

Dawes smiled, teeth startlingly white in his cork-smeared face, and shook hands with his captain. "Thank you, sir. And to you as well." He turned, and grasped Fanshawe's hand. The two friends studied each other gravely for a long moment, each knowing that it might be the last.

"Ev."

"James."

They merely spoke each other's names; more was unnecessary. And even Fanshawe knew how unlucky farewells often proved to be.

***


Chapter 20


Bush sat at the small desk in Dawes' cabin, poring over his charts in the fading light and thinking of Dawes and his men as they were even now concealing themselves in the rushes of Prussia Cove. He straightened, rubbed his weary eyes for a moment, and had to smile in self-conscious amusement as the awareness of his own position struck home. He had often reported to Hornblower just before action to find his captain similarly engrossed. It was difficult to fully accept that this was now his own true and rightful place.

He could, however, appreciate that he was not the only one aboard navigating unfamiliar waters. He knew, deep in his bones, what this night would bring. If his instincts held true, this would be Fanshawe's first foray into close action. It would be far different for the young man than anything he had experienced before -- it was hardly the deliberate and controlled contest of the fencing sallee or the touching off of gleaming Mantons on the lawn at a distant and unmoving target. His own first experience had come early -- he must have been all of thirteen. At that age one felt invincible, and the excitement and anticipation did much to overcome one's dread. The shaking terror came later, after all was done.

But Fanshawe was older, and inexperienced, and must certainly -- and wisely -- be suffering considerable trepidation. Bush pondered this uncomfortable state of affairs for a moment, knowing that something must be done to put the young man at ease, as his men deserved better than a fearful commander. Perhaps a quiet word with him might be advisable. "Hughes!" he called sharply.

"Yes, sir?" The marine dozing on his feet outside the cabin door came instantly alert, opening the door to stiffly address his captain.

Bush looked up impassively from the welter of papers. "Hughes, find Lt. Fanshawe and bring him to me."

"Aye, sir." Hughes touched his hat and -- now wide-awake -- scrambled quickly up the companion ladder.

Bush had barely returned his attention to the charts when knuckles rapped smartly on the doorframe. He stifled a quiet chuckle. Trust Hughes to act with his usual efficiency, he thought, regardless of the nature of his assignment... or recent somnolence. "Come," he called.

Bush regarded his lieutenant closely as he entered the cabin, recognizing the faint lines of strain sketched on the young man's features. He knew that it would not do to immediately imply that Fanshawe might be nervous about the night's upcoming action. Though true enough, it would be seen as a criticism, a lack of trust, and would do far more harm than good. "So, Mr. Fanshawe..." he began, by means of justifying the summons. "You reported that a small number of our men did not return. Have you spoken with Poole? Could he not locate them, or did they merely fall behind? He seems an observant man... did he hear anything of interest while he was ashore?"

"If he did, I do not know of it, sir." Fanshawe shook his head. "Nor can I answer any other of your questions. Poole was one of those men who did not return in time for our departure." He shrugged, unconcerned. "But no matter. Poole is intelligent enough to board the Witch or to conceal himself ashore until our return."

"I sincerely hope so. But..." Bush frowned. "But he is the one man ashore fully aware of our plans. If Carson got to him..." He indulged in a moment of worried silence. "Mr. Fanshawe, ask amongst the men to determine who may have seen Poole last. Bring him to me."

This time, it seemed an eternity before Fanshawe knocked on Bush's door once more. Bush was gratified to observe that as Fanshawe entered, he was followed closely by a squat, muscular seaman, a reliable man he knew well as gunner's mate from Witch of Endor.

"Ah, Fitzgerald," Bush smiled slightly, attempting to put the man at ease as well as to conceal his own anxiety. "So... it seems that you were ashore with Poole this morning. Tell me as best you can about the time you spent with him."

"Aye, sir." Fitzgerald knuckled his forehead, and launched into a long-winded description of the morning's activities. "We went to th' Fox n' Hounds first, sir, an' found some o'our lads there, an' then more -- Thomas an' Jenks it was, sir -- at th' Dolphin, an' sent 'em all off t'Greyhound. We was movin' on t' th' Mermaid, but Poole -- beggin' yer pardon, sir -- ee' needed th' privy..." Fitzgerald blushed furiously, nearly overcome with the embarrassment of discussing such an unseemly matter with his captain. "An' sir... that's when I lost 'im."

Bush nodded, studiously ignoring the man's discomfiture. "Not surprising, under the circumstances."

"Er... yes, I s'pose so, sir. I... I waited, sir, but I couldn't wait for 'im any longer an' get 'ere in time. So I fetched th' men from th' Mermaid, an' off we went."

"You did well, Fitzgerald, to alert the others and return when you did." Whether that would prove to be so was anyone's guess, Bush knew, but there was no changing it now. He rose from his chair behind the desk and stepped around it to study the stocky Irishman intently. "So all was quite ordinary? None of the townspeople attempted to delay you, or interfere in any way?"

"No, sir. No problems a' tall. An'... fact is, we saw Cap'n Turpin, too, when we left th' Dolphin; 'e wished us a good day. Poole spoke pleasant to 'im."

"Indeed?" Bush frowned; it seemed to be somewhat forward behaviour for the quiet and unassuming Poole. "And what did he say?"

"Somethin' 'bout th' weather... an'... right odd, it was, sir... somethin' 'bout a button."

Bush blanched, and unexpectedly grasped the seaman's arms; his blue eyes stared into the man's with a peculiar intensity. "Try to remember, man. Exactly."

Fitzgerald looked back in momentary fear; his captain's grip was painfully strong. "Oh." He brightened. "Now I remember, sir. 'E said 'Sir, yer pocket's unbuttoned.' An' Cap'n Turpin says 'So it is. Thank you.' Funny thing, though, sir... it weren't, not that I could see."

Bush released the man from his suddenly nerveless hands and stared, stricken. "Oh my God."

Perplexed, both men gaped at their captain as if he had abruptly taken leave of his senses.

"The gauger's pocket," Bush breathed. "Dear God... I had nearly forgotten it. We played at smugglers, as all children do..." He roughly checked his mounting alarm and forced himself to impassive stillness. "The gauger's pocket was a hiding-place where money or information was exchanged. And..." He closed his eyes in helpless frustration. "And the signal that something was there to be collected was the mention of an unbuttoned pocket."

Eyes still closed, Bush stood immobile, desperately sorting out his disordered thoughts, unwilling to face the appalling truth. When he opened them again, the truth had been confronted, and the blue eyes seethed with a firestorm of fury. "Poole was passing information. They know," he snarled bitterly. "Everyone knows." He turned to stare out the stern windows, mentally cursing Poole for his duplicity and deceit. How had Carson managed to ensnare him, to influence him sufficiently to betray his own shipmates, his Navy...

Or... The thought struck Bush like an icy hand that clenched his heart. Or had he been placed here from the start? Placed here by someone in the Admiralty with ties to Carson? But how...

He knew. With a frightening, chilling clarity, he knew.

He turned on Fanshawe, the heated ferocity now gone cold: icy and remote, and somehow far more terrifying. "And you..." he stated flatly, emotionlessly staring at the young man as if seeing a stranger in his place. "You brought him."

Fanshawe stood silent, grey-faced and miserable, and Bush watched him, disbelief at once both tempering rage and feeding it. Dear God, no. Not you, Bush pleaded soundlessly. Resist. Protest your innocence. Say... something. Anything. But please God, let it not have been you.

Fanshawe opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again. He swayed and staggered back a pace, knees nearly buckling.

And he does not deny it. "Get out of my sight." Bush hissed, now white with rage. "I have no further use for the likes of you." He regarded the marine coldly. "Take him to his quarters, Hughes, and keep him under guard until he is called for."

Hughes roughly grasped the ashen lieutenant by the arm and propelled him toward the door, determined to get him out of the cabin before his captain committed the act of violence that lurked so closely behind those frigid blue eyes.

***


Chapter 21


Bush held himself in rigid, iron-fisted command until the cabin door clicked closed, and the sound of footfalls faded. He stumbled blindly to the chair and collapsed into it, as if no longer able to bear the crushing weight of the defeat and loss that now oppressed him.

He felt chilled and sick, barely able to draw his breath. Dear God, how stupid and deluded he had been. Poole was the very last person he should have sent ashore to pass the news. Past images crowded close, barely considered at the time, yet now fraught with meaning. It had all been a puzzle, with pieces only now recognizable and falling inexorably into place. Poole, and Turpin, and... he hesitated, nearly choking on the thought. And Fanshawe.

Poole. Colourless, innocuous Poole. Nearly unnoticeable, yet somehow always there. There at Fanshawe's elbow, trusted to carry messages to town and always return. Trusted to deliver Mara's hastily scrawled communications from Fanshawe's hands into his own. And, dear Lord, trusted with the damning knowledge of his escape, and the plans to catch Carson tonight, unawares.

"You have misplaced your trust..."

Carson's words: they viciously mocked him now. Bush's hands tightened convulsively on the arms of the chair, maintaining a grip on something -- anything -- solid and immoveable. He should have known; indeed, Poole had unsettled him from the first, though he had dismissed his fears as his initial suspicions regarding the nature of Poole's 'service' to Fanshawe proved unfounded. And just this very morning Poole had stared at him in shocked surprise, clearly not expecting to find him alive and well and standing in his cabin. Poole had gone there seeking Fanshawe, and had been at a loss for words... and would have no doubt remained so had it not been for Fanshawe's timely prompting. Fanshawe had averted suspicion, and even made it possible for Poole to pass vital information ashore. To Turpin.

And Turpin. Turpin had not been nearly the officious, ineffectual minor bureaucrat he had seemed. What better way to conceal one's collusion with the smugglers than to ostensibly work against them? No doubt he had been in league with Carson all along... small wonder he had been more angry than frightened after the beating he had received at the hands of Carson's men. Men who, it seemed, remained unaware of Turpin's involvement. Or... perhaps not. Turpin had protected himself, even ruthlessly apprehending the occasional crew and leaving them to cool their heels, isolated in gaol until they could be collected by the Press. He gladly accepted the blood money, and perhaps at the same time removed any who knew -- or suspected -- too much.

All Turpin's dire predictions took on an even darker and more sinister complexion as Bush viewed them in such a light. Turpin had clearly warned him off, but he had been too blinded by the desperate need to prove himself to have seen it. He made to rest his head in his hands, but they cramped as he opened them, and he blankly realized his death grip on the wood for the first time. He stared into his palms, now marked deeply with the imprint of the carved wood. Seaman's hands, they were, scarred and calloused. And as out of place as he was: far out of his depth, naively allowing the truth to slip through his fingers like dry sand.

He shook his head helplessly. The truth. He had no idea, now, what was truth and what was falsehood. He would have staked his life on Fanshawe's loyalty. He had permitted himself to take an unexpected pleasure in watching the young man blossom from worthless aristocrat to worthy man, and had found a strange satisfaction in knowing that he had played his part in bringing it about. But he had been wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Or so it seemed. Bush sighed, and closed his eyes, seeing Fanshawe as he had been in those first exasperating weeks. The young man had been immaculate, too pretty by half, awkward and wholly unskilled, enduring the brunt of his captain's ill-tempered frustration in wounded silence. He could easily recall the hurt on young man's face in response to the words he had heard almost daily from his captain: 'Damn you, Fanshawe'.

Fanshawe's captain repeated them again, now, aloud. "Damn you." Months ago, when he had at last ceased deriding the young man and began to teach him instead, he had assumed that Fanshawe's burning desire to learn had been genuine. Fanshawe had seemed so consumed by it, so eager. He thought back to their visit to the admiralty, as Fanshawe had prattled on about his meeting with his uncle, Admiral Summerscales. The young man had been so delighted to prove his rapidly burgeoning abilities to his uncle. And, Bush considered, what had he said? 'And of course, sir... I told him everything.' Then, those words had made him cringe.

Now, they nearly stopped his heart.

'I told him everything.' And thus was the information delivered to the Admiralty: through Fanshawe's visit, and within the vast number of letters the young man had posted to his uncle since that meeting.

It all seemed so simple, and so painfully, brutally obvious. But... Bush sighed, it was still difficult to accept despite the evidence. He still could not grasp that he had been so wrong about a man he believed to have come to know so well. He had not truly known Poole, or Turpin; thus mistaken assumptions were not wholly surprising. It took time to sound a man's depths, and he took his time in doing so, but his judgments once formed had always proved most reliable.

He had certainly come to understand Hornblower well enough, he reflected; perhaps better even than the man had understood himself. Certainly better than Hornblower ever knew. At times Fanshawe had even vaguely reminded him of the young Hornblower, and perhaps, he thought contemptuously, that was responsible for blinding him to the truth. But the resemblance was there, without doubt: once encouraged, the young man exhibited both the same thirst for knowledge and a similar tendency to hold himself accountable...

Bush's thoughts ground to a halt and he looked up, light and hope dawning. Hold himself accountable... could it be? Fanshawe had never admitted guilt; in fact, he had appeared as shocked at Poole's treachery as one might expect. Earlier that same day he had been worried enough to send search parties to look for his missing captain, and had been visibly shaken by Bush's account of his narrow escape. But Fanshawe -- again, echoing Hornblower -- was possessed of great mental agility, and no doubt recognized the likelihood of his uncle's involvement, and his own unwitting part in it, far ahead of his captain. He would have adjudged himself guilty, and may have been reluctant to divert the blame by pointing accusingly at his uncle.

Blood, it seemed, was always thicker even than sea water.

But though it was pleasant to contemplate the possibility that Fanshawe was entirely innocent, it was not enough. Bush glanced through the stern windows, casting an eye at the sky, and consulted his watch. In little more than an hour, they would reach the spot where Carson and his men awaited them. Before then, he had to know for certain. He was taking his ship and his men into battle -- for battle it was, even though his enemies were, this time, his own countrymen. And the outcome was as uncertain as if he were facing the French. If he were to die betrayed by one of his own, he would not die in ignorance -- nor did he wish to die with the condemnation of an innocent man on his lips.

"Hughes!" Bush called abruptly. "I am now ready for Lt. Fanshawe. Bring him to me."

Hughes' acknowledgment was immediate; it was glaringly obvious to Bush that he had been awaiting the command. The marine corporal had seen and heard all that had transpired, and knew full well that Bush would wish to confront Fanshaw in short order, though God only knew what his thoughts were regarding Fanshawe's innocence or guilt. And only God would know. Neither the marine's face nor his demeanour would dare give anything away.

As Hughes' crisp footfalls faded, Bush sighed, and doggedly considered the sorry predicament in which he now found himself. Carson knew far too much. Knew that he was free and aboard Greyhound, and knew that he planned to attack tonight. Another man might very well call off the run... though Bush knew beyond doubt that Harry Carson would not. He had bested Carson by escaping, and he knew with a cold certainty that the man would be consumed with rage, and was even now lying in wait for the opportunity to settle the score.

But... there was some faint hope. Though Carson knew much, he did not know everything. He had no way of knowing that Bush was aware of Poole's treachery, and thus would not be walking blindly into the jaws of a trap. And even Poole did not know that Dawes and his men would already be in place when Carson arrived. Some small element of surprise was still his, he reflected. He merely had to take it, and use it. Merely. He sighed again.

But oh, God... Mara. There had been plans to be made, and action for which to prepare. He had done his best to not dwell upon what Carson might have done to her -- he could not allow it -- but now in this lull, in the quiet of his cabin, all those thoughts came roaring back with a vengeance. She may very well be dead by now; and, given what he now knew of Carson, her death would have been neither quick nor easy: Carson would have taken a monstrous pleasure in dealing with her himself, and would no doubt wish to prolong the enjoyment of it for as long as possible. Bush could only hope that Carson in his arrogance would have seen no need for haste, and thus put off his grotesque entertainment until after the night's work was ended. He shuddered. God willing, Carson would never have that opportunity -- unless it were already done.

His thoughts were interrupted by Hughes' brisk rap on the door. "Mr. Fanshawe is here, sir."

Bush watched expressionlessly as Fanshawe was led in: the young man was pale, eyes rigidly downcast. "Thank you, Hughes. Now leave us." He fixed Fanshawe with a frigid glare. "Well, Mr. Fanshawe? Explain yourself."

"Sir..." Fanshawe's voice was almost inaudible, and he did not look up. "Sir, I... I must inform you that I am guilty, sir. I..." He swallowed hard. "I told them." Fanshawe held out a sheaf of papers; they rustled with the sound of dry leaves in time with the tremor of his hand. "My confession, sir."

Bush accepted the papers, and somehow kept his face impassive as all hope shriveled and died a painful death, with a fierce anger resurrected in its place. "I wish to hear it from you directly, Mr. Fanshawe."

"Please, sir, no..."

"So you are a coward as well as a traitor, Mr. Fanshawe?" Bush spat. His anger began to escape his tight grip, and threatened to overwhelm his rigid reserve. "Damn you, Fanshawe."

At this pointed reminder of his early days under Bush's command the young man looked up, anger flaring bright in his brown eyes, though it was just as quickly replaced by a profound grief. "I have failed you, sir... you were right about me from the start."

Bush raised an eyebrow, and glared coldly at him. "So it seems."

"I am a fool. An idiot. I stupidly believed that..." Fanshawe hesitated, as if reluctant to continue. "that... others... were at last beginning to see me as a man, and not a worthless wastrel. He was suddenly so interested in my progress, in you, sir, and in our mission... and I gladly told him everything he wished to know, like some deluded child."

Fanshawe sighed heavily, but Bush offered neither comment nor change of expression. Best to allow the young man to speak without prompting, he knew. Thus he waited.

"I ought to have known, sir. He never took much interest in me before, sir... if anything, I believe I merely amused him. He was mightily amused by my wish to serve with you, sir. He sent Poole to me. As a... a nursemaid to look after me, he said."

"Chadwick." Bush said flatly. Perhaps he could, indeed, force the truth of it.

Fanshawe looked up at that, his eyes wild. "Oh, dear God, no, sir. My uncle, Admiral Summerscales."

His initial suspicions confirmed, Bush frowned in an effort to conceal his relief. He would hear this story out before he dared come to final judgment. "But why?"

"I have asked myself that very question, sir, and I am not entirely certain. Uncle Douglas was always fortunate in battle, but markedly unlucky in the matters of prize money and influence. It galled him, sir, to find himself yellowed, with only his pay to support him, while others with lesser ability and nerve remain at sea, gaining both undeserved glory and a substantial share of the squadron's prizes. He has become a bitter and unpleasant man, now that Aunt Vivienne is gone. He had nothing left... until..." Fanshawe grimaced. "Until I believed he had taken an interest in me. He was suddenly much as he was again, sir, almost as I remembered him. And I, naively, never once questioned his motives. He used me, sir, and I allowed it. I ought to have known... but I was too eager for his approval, and too great a fool."

Perhaps we are fools together, Bush thought, as he narrowly studied the young officer, wanting with all his heart to believe him, though grimly resisting the impulse. If it were all a pack of lies, the young man's time ought to have been better spent on the stages of Drury Lane. But he had been wide of the mark too often to be caught out again. Time and deeds would have to prove him right or wrong.

"Trust me, sir, I..." Fanshawe faltered

"Trust you, Mr. Fanshawe?" Bush snapped. "I think not. I am not yet fully convinced of your innocence. But you will not remain here in safety. You will be at my side, and will face whatever danger you have brought us. With me, and with your men." Bush regarded him coldly. "And I swear to you, Mr. Fanshawe... if you dare play me false, I will shoot you myself."

***


Chapter 22


It was time.

Greyhound eased quietly into Prussia Cove, and there she was. Not Carson's robust vessel this time, but a fragile, trim sloop, her lines clearly French and designed for speed. Even as Bush watched, the welcoming beacon that shone from the cliff-top was extinguished, giving the Frenchman fair warning to flee. Her captain must have seen it, though the sporadic twinkle of muzzle-flashes that were now visible on the beach were no doubt signal enough. Bush's heart sank: Dawes had been discovered, it seemed, and he could do nothing about it. Not yet.

Not yet, but soon. Bush glanced about his cutter's narrow deck and felt a surge of pride. His men were at quarters and ready for anything, yet those who met his gaze found a moment to nod or grin at their captain, even as they tied strips of white cloth securely round each other's arms to distinguish friend from foe. They anticipated a fight, and were seemingly as eager as he was to begin it.

The Frenchman put his helm down, and the sloop began to go about in flight, tacking gracefully even closer inshore. Bush swore viciously. He knew from the charts that he could not follow; given Greyhound's deeper draught he would surely run them aground were he to attempt it. If he took the time to wear, he would be too late. The lighter sloop would be gone, flitting quickly for safety -- and France -- and his sturdy cutter could never hope to catch her.

Bush began to pace the small scrap of deck, his face darkening with frustration as he grimly considered the very real prospect of the sloop slipping through his fingers as he watched. He snarled another oath under his breath. It would not, could not happen again. Not this time.

The anger welled up, blackly blotting out all coherent thought. Anger at Carson, at Poole, at Fanshawe, at the admiralty, at himself, the fate that put him here, and not in the open sea where he belonged... God damn them! Damn the bounty, the sloop, and whatever secrets she carried... "Damn them all!" he roared aloud, his wrath overtaking him. "Sink her!"

Shocked, the gunners looked back at him, this raging figure, fury embodied, and grinned horribly as they were swept up in his powerful riptide of emotion. They sighted their guns with more than the usual care, no longer aiming to merely disable, to board and take her. They held up their hands, ready. Ready, and fully prepared to kill.

"FIRE!" Bush's leather-lunged command split the night and all six cannon spoke as one.

The graceful sloop had been built for speed and not for broadsides. Even the weight of iron thrown by Greyhound's 10-pounders was too much for her lithe elegance. The frail hull crumpled, and the men cheered, for now not caring that their portion of whatever bounty she carried was headed to the bottom of the bay. They had won, and that was enough.

Shrieking, terrified men bobbed in the dark water, flailing wildly, and Bush ignored them. 'Now...' he thought bitterly '...now we will end this.'

"Well done!" he cried, over the din, which quieted immediately at his voice. "Take us in, Mr. Jameson. You men, prepare to man the boats."

The men hastily retrieved cutlasses and pistols, and stood ready, their white armbands gleaming faintly in the darkness. At Bush's steady encouragement, Jameson worked her in as close as he dared, though he allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief at Bush's order to heave to.

As the sails were backed, and the cutter lost way, Fanshawe obediently took his place at Bush's elbow. Bush turned, and studied him carefully. "Your sword is in my cabin, Mr. Fanshawe," he said quietly. "I suggest you retrieve it."

Fanshawe's eyes met his, and Bush would forever remember his look of gratitude. The young man nodded. "Aye, sir." He smiled. "You'll not regret it."

"See that I do not, Mr. Fanshawe," Bush snapped, though the emotion visible in his eyes belied the sharpness of his words.

The boats were dropped, and the men clambered into them, each man carefully watching his captain as he took his place in the sternsheets of the longboat. Bush was quiet, now, though a fierce and pent-up fury still radiated palpably through his stillness. The men caught his intensity and rowed powerfully, quickly traversing the distance to the shore. Their momentum carried them far up the shingle, well onto dry sand.

The moon was breaking fitfully through the clouds; its feeble illumination crept over the high wooded bluffs that flanked the beach and revealed, to Bush's extreme satisfaction, that this narrow strip of sand and shingle lay empty. He could now discern that the musketry fire visible from the bay actually came from within the rushes at the fringe of the sand, and even further back into the dense underbrush at the edge of the woods. Dawes and his men were performing admirably, Bush reckoned, keeping Carson's men occupied and thus allowing the main force to come ashore in strength.

Men leapt from the boats, and pulled them securely ashore. "Steady, men..." Bush whispered quietly, allowing them time to draw their weapons and begin the attack with clear heads. He nodded to Fanshawe who had taken his place at his left, his unsheathed blade already gleaming in the filtered moonlight. Bush drew his own sword, and held it high. "Greyhounds..."

His ringing bellow was abruptly drowned by the far louder roar of guns -- heavier guns, not muskets. Bush looked wildly about him as the marine at his elbow clutched his chest and crumpled to the ground. Confused, men scattered, some staggering, falling, all seeking cover that was not there as the full-throated report came again, shot spattering into the sand. This time, Bush's eye caught the muzzle flash, and he realized with horror that it had come from above them, from the bluffs that loomed high above the shore. Dear God, it had still been a trap, designed to lure them in. His blood ran cold as he knew that he had missed it, never expecting a mere smuggler's cove to be so expertly defended. The guns spoke again, and Carson's men burst from the darkness, suddenly upon them.

Fanshawe remained solidly at his side as they came. God, they were everywhere. Bush slammed the guard of his sword hard into the face of one; as the man went down he plunged the blade deep into the smuggler's body, pinning him, writhing, to the sand. Bush shut his ears to the sound of the man's agonized screams and viciously jerked the sword free. He sensed a presence behind him, and whirled in time to block the upraised arm brandishing a cutless, felt his steel bite through the flesh and thud solidly into bone -- months of anger and frustration freely lent their power to his arm.

He felt Fanshawe beside him, heard his ragged breath as his sword clashed violently against another, then the young man was forgotten. It was a matter of survival: there were two more, now, each with faces grimacing with strain as their steel rang against his own. They pressed closer, and Bush did his best to stand his ground but found he could not hold it: he was forced inexorably backwards, feeling his way uncertainly over the treacherously soft sand. He caught his breath in alarm as his shoulder abruptly collided with something solid, bringing an end to his reluctant retreat. Just as quickly, he recognized the strakes of the longboat as they pressed into his back. He stepped forward a pace into his attackers, driving a fist into the midsection of one, and caught the other's sword with his own, thrusting the man backwards with a desperate heave.

In the moment's reprieve, Bush flung himself over the gunwale of the longboat, landing heavily across the thwarts. He snatched a marine's emptied and abandoned musket from the bottom of the boat and swung it like a club, smashing the stock into the faces that now peered over the edge. As they fell away, he dropped the weapon, and lunged awkwardly into the bows. He quickly trained the longboat's swivel at the muzzle-flash from the nearest bluff; but the puff of flung rock splinters well below quickly informed him that even at maximum elevation, there was no hope of taking it out of action. He reloaded the swivel, ignoring the musket ball that thudded into the planking only inches from his thigh, and trained it on more men as they emerged from the trees. He dragged the lanyard, and a few dropped in their tracks, but the rest were suddenly amongst them.

Bush snatched up his sword and took stock of the confused situation as best he could. Several of his men were down, but the others were fighting bravely, and a satisfying number of the smugglers already lay prostrate in the bloody sand. He was astonished to find Turpin standing amongst them with pistol in hand, calmly taking aim at a marine who struggled with one of Carson's men. Bush cursed, and dragged the Service pistol from his belt, but even as he cocked it a large, somehow familiar dark shape detached itself from the shadows, knelt, and shouldered a weapon. It roared once, and Turpin dropped like a stone.

But oh God... Fanshawe was staggering, clutching his side as dark blood seeped from between his fingers to stain the white fabric of his breeches with a spreading smear that shone blackly in the filtered moonlight. Dawes was surrounded, struggling with three of them -- impossible odds for a man with but one useful arm. The longboat's swivel was useless in this melee: were he to fire, he would kill his own men just as surely as Carson's men could.

Bush's blood was up and pounding in his ears; it was not humanly possible for him to wait and watch from this comparative safety while his men were being slaughtered before his eyes. He raised his sword and leapt from the bow of the longboat, roaring at the top of his lungs. The smugglers turned and gaped at the sudden emergence of this fearsome apparition, giving Dawes time to dispatch one with a violent slash.

A lifetime at sea and his own fighting instincts goaded Bush to hit the beach at a dead run; harsh reality intervened when smooth wood met soft sand. The abrupt landing threw him sprawling hard and rewarded him with a revolting mouthful of the salty sand; he came up spitting, and cursing obscenely in rage and frustration. He was on his knees, struggling to rise and shaking his head to clear it when something hard and unyielding struck him solidly in the temple, and the world went black around him.

***


Chapter 23


Mist. Dark grey mist. He could see nothing else. The panic rose uncontrollably, gibbering in his throat... God, what had happened? Bush lay motionless, attempting to breathe, to gain control of the terror. Snatches of memory began to return; with them, wildly disordered sensations of fear, of shame, of rage. He abruptly raised himself to his elbows, and felt a firm hand pressing him back. The sudden wave of overwhelming nausea and dizziness he experienced was sufficient to convince him to comply without a fight.

"Not so fast, Captain. You've had a right nasty knock on the head."

Bush recognized the voice immediately, and turned his face toward it. "Dawes?" he croaked. "What... what happened?"

"Here, sir..."

Bush felt something heavy and damp being lifted from his forehead. He reached up and rubbed his eyes: to his profound relief, they had simply been covered by a cloth, though they still felt strangely gritty. Even the low light dazzled him for a moment, but he was able to blearily make out Dawes returning a length of flannel to a basin.

Dawes turned down the lamp still further, pulled up a stool, and sat down. "You are back aboard Greyhound, sir." He smiled slightly, but even in the semi-darkness Bush recognized the gesture as hollow, perhaps merely intended to put the worst of his fears to rest. "We have your prisoners below -- what's left of them, at any rate -- and the wind is fair for Mount's Bay. We shall drop anchor there presently, sir."

"Mr. Dawes," Bush began severely, mustering a composure that belied his internal disarray. "Do not attempt to indulge me." His eyes narrowed, fighting the sick giddiness that threatened as he studied Dawes' wavering and still-indistinct features. "Report, Mr. Dawes. And leave nothing out."

"Aye, sir." Dawes nodded awkwardly, guilty as charged. He had to admit that the order was not unexpected. He knew perfectly well that his captain would demand a full report as soon as he was even remotely capable of hearing it, and any effort to mollify him would be fruitless. Thus he took a deep breath, marshaled his thoughts, and began.

"We crossed overland without incident or challenge, and took our places in the rushes and in the edge of the woods. And so we waited. Eventually the sloop showed herself, and began to approach the shore. I had directed my men to remain hidden until she had landed her cargo, and only then begin the attack, but one of Carson's men blundered upon Stokes in the darkness, and we were discovered. We managed to hold them in the woods, away from the beach. I did not know how many there were, sir, but I feared we were badly outnumbered. But Carson would not know that, provided we did not venture onto open ground."

"And we held them, sir, even after you..." Dawes regarded Bush with ill-concealed curiosity "...you sunk the sloop." He fell silent, awaiting an explanation, but as none was immediately forthcoming, he pressed on. "When your boats were landed, sir, we attempted to drive Carson's men toward the beach, to trap them between us." He shook his head in well-remembered astonishment. "We had never anticipated that Carson would have mounted guns above us on the bluffs. His men knew, of course, and held their ground, giving the gunners a fair shot at you as you came ashore."

"We did our best to come to your aid, sir, and I believe Carson's men broke from their cover too soon. I would have held them back and continued to fire upon you from the bluffs." Dawes grinned, more genuinely this time. "Fortunately, Carson's rabble was far less disciplined. We followed them, and joined the engagement on the beach."

"It was chaos, sir, for a time. Then you... er... fell, and Carson saw his opportunity. He clubbed you on the head with a musket-butt before he could be stopped. But your men fought like demons, after that, and turned the tide. They did you proud, sir."

Bush could not bring himself to share in Dawes' smile. "And the bill, Mr. Dawes? What of that?"

Dawes' smile vanished, and he shook his head sadly. "We lost some good men, sir. Seven dead -- Stokes, MacCallops, Martin, Davis, Andrews, Kittridge, and Hughes. And nine more wounded, some severely."

"God." Bush fell silent for a moment, thinking of those men. Seamen and marines both. Stokes, his twisted, hideously scarred face finally at peace. And Hughes, the sentry asleep on his feet at his cabin door, never to be there again. Disjointed images from the battle suddenly resurfaced: Hughes had been at his side, and had fallen at the first blast of those mounted guns.

And another image, painful, and unwelcome. Dark blood welling between clenched fingers, white breeches suddenly slick with gore. "Fanshawe?" Bush asked quietly, dreading the answer.

"He is..." Dawes grimaced and looked away, unable to meet Bush's eye. "Still alive, sir. He is on deck... I feared moving him much further. His wounds are deep, and he has lost a considerable amount of blood."

Bush closed his eyes helplessly, and heaved a great sigh of regret. "I ought to have left him aboard the Witch... or sent him packing long ago. He was no fighting sailor... he did not belong here." And Dawes, he considered, did not yet know the half of it.

"Had you done so, sir..." there was a peculiar edge to Dawes' voice, a note which made Bush uneasy. "Had you done so... you would not be here. It would be you, sir, on deck, sewn up in sailcloth -- if you were a fortunate man. Fanshawe had been wounded, badly enough for any 'fighting sailor'. But he saw you fall..." Dawes' voice trailed off, his eyes distant, as though in the dimmed lamplight he could see the scene before him. He had seen it, over and over, since that awful moment. It had seemed to unfold slowly with a crystal clarity, though he knew full well it had truly taken only a heartbeat to transpire. And he had been too far away, his pistol emptied... he had seen and heard all of it, and could do nothing at all to stop it.

He told the story in a voice flat and detached, as if it had happened to someone else... the only way he could. Carson had rolled the senseless Bush onto his back, withdrawing a knife from a sheath at his waist as he did so. He bent over Bush's still, motionless face, considered it for a moment, then straightened, and smiled a cold and menacing smile. "No," he had mused. "I want you to see what you have become... and what I have made you."

He shifted the knife to his left hand, unhooked the unfired Service pistol from Bush's waist, and lowered the weapon to press the muzzle firmly just below the knee of Bush's sound leg. The sharp click of the lock as he cocked it seemed deafening even amidst the din of the struggle that swirled around them; the memory of it still sent cold fingers up Dawes' spine. Carson had laughed with a perverse, chilling delight, and hissed, "You've been plenty of trouble with one... but you'll be far less with none at all." He smiled with genuine regret. "It's such a pity, though, that you are not awake to appreciate this. I would have so enjoyed hearing your screams, both before... and after."

Dawes paused for a moment, as if to steady himself, though his words still came in the short disjointed phrases of a man attempting to come to grips with heartbreak. "Fanshawe somehow found the strength... he leapt at Carson. He managed to deflect the weapon away... the shot went wild, sir... but Carson still held the knife. They struggled, and Fanshawe tried his best, but he was weakening fast and his hands were slick..." Dawes winced at the memory of bloody hands desperately grappling for the knife, sliding... "He lost his grip, sir, and Carson took full advantage... an abdominal wound, sir, deep and deadly."

Bush sharply sucked in a horrified breath. "Oh, dear God." For once, he meant it. "How wrong I was about him." He closed his eyes tightly, and was quiet for a space. When he opened them again, they were steady, and ice-cold. "And Carson?"

And Carson. Dawes could recall that moment as well, with equal clarity. Carson had released Fanshawe's body, and the young man dropped to the ground like a rag doll. He bent and wiped the knife blade carelessly on Fanshawe's white breeches, leaving an obscene red smear, and smiled down at the two officers now motionless at his feet. It had been a loathsome smile of arrogance and triumph, and Dawes had wanted nothing more than to extinguish it forever.

And he had done it. His hand had been mechanically reloading the pistol even as he watched, training surpassing horror. He brought the weapon to bear, and aimed it steadily at Carson's broad chest. He cocked it, and Carson looked up at the sound. Their eyes locked, and it was Dawes' turn to smile as he squeezed the trigger.

But that was a tale he could not trust himself to tell. Not now. Now, he merely smiled tightly in a vague echo of the memory. "By then I had reloaded, sir, and I shot him. With a most inappropriate amount of pleasure." He chuckled, though there was no humour in the sound. "The fight went right out of his men, after that."

"Seven good men dead, and perhaps more to follow." Bush shook his head in dismay, wincing slightly at the pain the movement caused. "All because I lacked the wit to realize the vastness of the plan."

Dawes shrugged, a vastly eloquent -- albeit one-sided -- gesture. "It is often difficult for an honest man to recognize the treachery of others, sir."

"Even so... I could have been the death of you all."

Dawes eyed him seriously. The articulation of such harsh self-reproach was unsettling, and unusual for his captain -- in fact, was unusual for most captains he had known. Perhaps it was merely a natural reaction to exhaustion and injury. Or, he realized, with a sudden flash of insight, perhaps instead it was in response to the impending loss of a valued officer and friend. He studied Bush carefully, now realizing that his captain felt as bereft as he, and it pained him.

He tried to offer what solace he could. "Aye, sir, you might well have been, as any captain might. As it happened, though, your... er... unconventional appearance provided the distraction we needed to take them." He laughed hollowly. "So perhaps you saved us all instead, sir... and their treachery got them nowhere, in the end. Carson is gone. Turpin, too... we found him amongst the dead. We also found Poole at the edge of the wood, his throat cut. I cannot say whether it was done by one of our men or by Carson himself. We'll get no information from him, in any case."

"A pity... I would have liked to stretch his neck myself..." Bush's voice faltered, causing Dawes to consider his captain closely. His face was pale, the blue eyes vague and unfocussed.

Dawes placed a hand on his shoulder. "Rest, sir... your men are safe, and Greyhound is in good hands."

"I know, Dawes." His eyes closed despite his best efforts, though he managed a faint smile. "I know."

***

Bush returned to full awareness to find himself propped in a chair at the Two Brothers; he remembered little of how he had arrived there. He recalled having insisted upon walking, but also dimly recalled Dawes half-carrying him at times. He needed to see to his men... and... oh, dear God... to Mara.

He struggled to rise, but a bulky figure loomed over him. A vague image nagged at his memory, telling him that he had seen this figure before. Tonight. On the beach, perhaps... shouldering a musket... Turpin falling...

"Stay, Captain." A deep voice intruded upon the half-formed thoughts, and drove them back into the shadows. Mara's brother Brendan looked down at him, concern etched on his heavy features. "Stay. Your wounded men are here an' being cared for. Lieutenant Dawes has seen to your prisoners, and is even now writing his report. Yours can wait a little longer, sir," Brendan added kindly, at Bush's vain attempt to speak. "We'll get a bit of brandy in you first, now that you're awake."

As Brendan turned away, Bush reached out to seize his arm. The big man turned back in surprise; given Bush's weakened state, his grip was unexpectedly strong, the fingers digging into his arm with surprising force.

"Mara, Brendan..." Bush was clearly fighting to stay conscious. "Is she..." Words failed him, though the distress on his face spoke volumes.

Brendan smiled down at him, and stooped to place one beefy hand on his shoulder. "Never fear, sir, she's safe an' well. I knew what was to happen tonight -- the reasons can wait 'till tomorrow -- and I knew Carson would come for her." His grin widened. "So I took her first. I put her the one place Harry would never think to look: where he would have put her himself. She's in the stable, sir, where you were held this morning. But well hidden. There's a trap door in the floor under the stall where Harry keeps his brown mare. An evil creature, that one... she'd sooner kick or bite as look at you, and keeps the curious away."

"An' that's where Mara is, sir. I sent a man to fetch her home. Safe enough, though I expect she's madder than a wet hen at being left there." He chuckled. "Though I should think she and that mare ought to get on famously."

Bush blinked as Dawes' face suddenly appeared over Brendan's shoulder. Alarmed, he looked up at his lieutenant, fearing the worst. "Fanshawe?"

Dawes forced a smile. "The doctor's with him now, sir."

Bush had time for one last thought before the encroaching darkness claimed him again: 'Alive... both of them...'.

***

Hours later, as dawn was breaking, Mara Bryce slipped quietly down the inn's narrow hallway. She was relieved to be free from the dank darkness beneath the stable; she had crouched there for what had seemed like hours unending, unable to act, and beset by all consuming worry, not knowing what she would find when -- and indeed, if -- she was finally set free.

She had emerged to find injury, and death, and salvation. Brendan still lived, unharmed, and Carson was no more. But the cost had been high. Thus she silently made her pilgrimage, keeping vigil with those who had paid the price. She paused in the hallway, her hand on the latch, sighed sadly, and eased open the door.

And stopped short, astonished to find William Bush asleep in the chair beside Fanshawe's bed. His face was drawn, the livid bruise on his temple standing out sharply against his greyish pallor. One of his trouser legs hung empty, and the wooden limb lay abandoned in a tangle of wood and leather in a corner, out of reach, almost as if it had been hurled there in a fit of anger, or disgust.

She hastily made to leave, not wishing to disturb either man, but a slight movement caught her eye as she began to turn. Bush had straightened and was eyeing her defiantly as if daring her to offer some objection, or to even consider the notion of sending him away. But Mara merely nodded, and wordlessly approached the bedside. She placed a hand on Fanshawe's forehead, her own brow creasing with concern as she detected its mounting warmth. As she turned away, her eyes met Bush's in sympathy and she moved to gently examine his bruised temple, though her hand lingered there as he closed his eyes and leaned wearily into her touch.

Both remained motionless, neither wanting the brief moment to end, each quietly grateful for the other's safety. Mara bent quickly and lightly brushed her lips to his hair, then left him, closing the door behind her.

Bush shifted uncomfortably in the hard chair, though still retaining his firm grip on Fanshawe's hand, glad that she had come, yet relieved that she had gone without asking him to explain. He was not entirely certain that he could have done so. But someone had done the same for him, though he had little more than a vague memory of it. Vague enough that he had no notion of whose hand it had been -- the surgeon, one of Sutherland's men, even Hornblower himself. Or perhaps it had been no more than his own fevered imagination conjuring some wished-for comfort. But he had felt a hand in his during the darkest hours of each night, during those hours when the soul was most likely to slip its moorings. That unknown hand had kept him securely anchored in safe waters, and prevented him from drifting silently away.

This, he considered, was the very least he could do in return.

He looked up as the door creaked open once more. Mara had returned: she unfolded the blanket she carried and spread it over him, tucking it securely about his shoulders. She blew out all but one of the candles and left the two men alone in the quiet darkness. Perhaps she had somehow understood that this was a service performed gladly, and one equally important to them both.

***


Chapter 24


Hinges creaked and Bush snapped upright, stifling an oath: the movement had proved violently painful, as his chin had sunk nearly to his chest as he slept in the unforgiving wooden chair. The persistent dull roar in his ears and the ache in his skull made focused thought elusive, and he blinked in momentary confusion. Only thick darkness showed outside the windowpane... dear God, how long had he been here? But Fanshawe's hand was warm in his, and that was all that truly mattered...

No. Clear memory of the enormity of all that had happened struck Bush with the ferocity of a physical blow, banishing any thought of physical discomfort and turning his soul to ice. No, it was not all. Not nearly.

"Get him out of here," a harsh voice rapped sharply, in the manner of one accustomed to demanding -- and receiving -- ready obedience.

Bush, now fully awake, bristled at the tone and turned irritably toward the source of the command. A stout, balding man stood in the doorway, assessing him with unconcealed distaste. Small wonder, Bush realized with sudden, bitter disgust. He must be a sight indeed... the blanket had fallen unnoticed to the floor as he slept, plainly revealing his still sand-covered shirtsleeves and trousers and, to his chagrin, the absence of a limb.

He opened his mouth to issue a sharp retort -- he had a lifetime of experience in dealing with such impertinence -- but shut it again as Mara appeared at the man's shoulder, drawing him aside to offer a few quiet words.

The man turned back to Bush and nodded, but did not smile. "My apologies, Captain. I did not realize who you were, given..." He pursed his lips, curbing the tactless remark. "Still, sir, I must insist..."

"Indeed." Bush snapped; he was not above giving vent to his wrath at the man's expense. There was much, after all, to be angry about. "You might have asked."

The man raised an eyebrow at that. "Quite so." He crossed the room to offer Bush a conciliatory hand. "Doctor Philip Greene."

Bush accepted the hand but eyed the man coldly, giving no ground. "Captain William Bush."

"I must attend to your officer, sir, and I would ask that you allow me to do so. I shall inform you as soon as I am finished." Greene studied Bush gravely, assessing the livid bruises on his temple and wondering at what damage lay beneath. "And see to you, as well."

Bush shook his head in firm refusal. "I do not require your attention." Further exercise of his temper, however, was forced to bow to necessity. "Though if I am to leave here, I do require the means to do so." His eyes flickered to the floor where the wooden leg lay abandoned where he had hurled it, far out of his reach.

Greene followed his gaze and nodded. "Ah. Of course." It was plain enough how the thing had come to rest there, thus he prudently refrained from further comment.

As Greene moved to retrieve the errant limb, Bush gently disentangled his fingers from Fanshawe's limp hand. By the time Greene turned back, he was waiting with all the dignity his disheveled condition would permit. He accepted the appendage with a curt nod of thanks, and quickly restored it to its proper place.

Bush stood and turned away, though he was struck by the sudden -- and very real -- fear that this was perhaps the last time he would see Fanshawe alive. He turned back, and studied the young man for a long moment, then reached down to touch his shoulder. It felt deceptively sound, warm and solid beneath his fingers, and his eyes betrayed him -- they burned painfully for a moment, and he had to blink and master his emotion before he could trust himself to face the doctor again.

Composure regained, Bush straightened and nodded to Greene, his face closed, unreadable. He left Fanshawe's side and made his determined way to the door, steadfastly defying the almost overwhelming temptation to look back. Farewells were difficult enough, he had found, and once made were best left behind.

Mara was awaiting him in the narrow hallway, her face a match for his in its severity. "How long has it been since you have eaten?" she demanded. Without waiting for an answer, she took his arm as a lady ought, though Bush had the uneasy suspicion that she was making herself available in case he needed her support. "Come... you must eat. The doctor will find us, when he is done. First, however..." she paused, and eyed him critically. "There is a bit of hot water awaiting you."

They walked slowly and in silence until they reached the door to Bush's own room. To his extreme relief, Mara slipped her hand from his arm, apparently satisfied that he could, indeed, manage this much on his own.

She nodded briskly. "I shall be waiting here, should I be needed."

Bush gratefully closed the door behind him, and proceeded to make fair use of the small comfort Mara had provided. He watched with a strange detachment as the clean, steaming water turned murky, tainted with the grime he methodically washed from his body. It was not the first time he had cleansed himself of the stains of battle -- far from it. In a lifetime of service, he had faced the unpleasant, dirty aftermath of many an engagement, and had stood to watch as more than a few fellow officers had been committed to the deep. His mood then had been one of deep regret, but it had been tempered by the knowledge that he, at least, had survived. There had been little time to further pursue such introspection -- the frantic activity required to return a damaged vessel to a state of readiness always saw to that.

But this time was far, far different. This was not the carefully ordered world of an efficient First Lieutenant -- a world in which, under his direction, all damage was repaired and disorder immediately put to rights. He had always assumed that the gritty details of such matters were not properly the captain's concern. But that, he was discovering, was hardly the case, and that damage extended far deeper than timber and cordage -- he could no longer indulge in such simple clarity. As captain, he was now acutely aware that some things could never be put to rights, and were never to be made whole again. Still, the damage must be faced and dealt with. It was simply the way of the Service, like it or not.

He dragged a comb through his damp hair, taming the unruly waves as best he could, and meticulously retied his queue. As he moved, it seemed that every part of his body protested the abuse that had been forced upon it these few days past. Mentally damning his unaccustomed frailty, he dressed slowly and carefully in the clean linen Mara had set out for him -- she must have appreciated his regard for proper decorum, and sent someone to the Witch to obtain it even as he slept. He shrugged awkwardly into his uniform coat, tugged his waistcoat into place, straightened his neckcloth, and studied himself critically in the mirror. Mara had brushed the evidence of battle from his coat, and surprisingly, it looked none the worse for wear.

He sighed, disgusted. Pity the same could not be said for him.

He regarded his reflection with a merciless eye, grimly recalling the last time he had done so. He had faced the mirror in the waiting room at the admiralty, just before Admiral Chadwick had offered him this post. It seemed a lifetime ago... and, in fact, it was.

At the time, he had chafed against what he had seen as his future: a future in which he would no longer be regarded as the skilled officer he had become in a lifetime at sea. He had still believed that the man he saw reflected in that mirror was the same man he had always been: capable and strong, resolute and fearless.

But he had been wrong. That man had existed, but another now stood in his place. The man who stared back at him from this mirror looked old. Worn. Tired. The man who once could toil for days without rest had instead slept insensible in a chair while there was work to be done, and duty to perform. His own body had failed him. He had tried his best to carry on as he always had, and had fallen on his face... literally, and most embarrassingly so. It was true, indeed -- some damage could never be put to rights, and some things were never to be made whole again. But damage had to be faced, and could not be ignored. True for ships, and equally true for the men who worked them.

Bush squared his shoulders, twitched down his waistcoat for a final time, and glared defiantly at his reflection. He would acknowledge the truth and confront it, and he would do so on his own terms, without excuse or apology. He turned briskly, and barely caught himself in time as the floor lurched treacherously underfoot. He leaned heavily against the washstand until the giddiness subsided. Casting a final disgusted glower at the mirror, he opened the door. Damage must be dealt with and it was time to begin, whether or not he felt ready to do so.

Mara was there in the hallway, patiently awaiting him. He took a bleak satisfaction in the observation that his inner disarray was not outwardly evident, as she nodded a brisk approval at the improvement in his appearance. Though, he recalled with a sudden chill, she had not known him as he once had been.

It was a fair measure of Bush's state of depletion that he allowed himself to be led into a small sitting room and installed at a table near the stone hearth. Mara left him then, after insisting that he would feel much improved if he were only to eat something. Despite her promises, Bush remained unconvinced -- the very thought of food made him feel more than a little ill once more.

He did his best not to grimace when she returned to place a steaming plate in front of him. She must have sensed his aversion all the same, and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I know. But you must."

It was clearly apparent that she would stand over him until he tried. He made a half-hearted attempt -- and soon found that his body triumphed over his emotions.

Mara returned bearing a small glass of brandy just as Bush was mopping the last traces from his plate with a bit of bread. She smiled at him as she settled into the chair opposite his own. "Better," she said kindly, and placed the brandy within his easy reach. As he accepted it, she studied him closely, and was pained by the deep lines of strain still apparent in his face -- and there was little more comfort to offer, she thought helplessly, though she did her best. "Be assured, Dr. Greene will do everything one can do. He is... a friend. Brendan rode to Falmouth to fetch him this morning. He was the man who looked after..." she hesitated. "After... my husband."

"Eli." Bush supplied, softly.

She frowned, perplexed. "I never told you."

"But Brendan did."

Her frown deepened. "And what more did he tell you?"

A great deal, Bush recalled, though none of it would be better shared. "Little else," he demurred, unwilling to lie to this woman a second time, as he had regretted the first more than once. The mention of Brendan's name turned Bush's thoughts along a different, and far more pressing tack. He shook his head slowly. "Brendan. He was there, on the beach." His blue eyes narrowed as he defied the pounding in his head to sort through hazy memory. "And he shot Turpin."

Mara nodded. "Indeed he did. And high time it was, too."

"But how did Brendan come to be there at all?" Bush frowned. "Who... who told him of our plans?"

"Of your plans? No one did. Carson knew -- courtesy of your man Poole, of course -- but he revealed it to none of his men. Brendan was there to help unload and transport the goods." Mara eyed him with thinly veiled disbelief -- this man seemed unwilling to accept the simplest and most obvious explanation, thus she felt compelled to provide it with brutal clarity. "He was one of Carson's men."

Bush stared at her, incredulous. "Brendan?"

Mara sighed. "Smuggling is a way of life here, in Mount's Bay. Everyone is involved, whether it be in the act or in the purchase. It was quite true that becoming allied with Carson and his smugglers was a dangerous business... but refusing to do so was frequently fatal." She shook her head slowly in amused disbelief at Bush's evident astonishment -- surely it was the blow to his head that had slowed his thoughts to this pedestrian crawl. "And from whom did you think I was getting my information?"

"I never guessed -- I had assumed that it was merely overheard... "

"Hardly." She smiled humourlessly. "Brendan obtained it from Carson himself, of course, right along with that fine brandy you're enjoying."

Bush promptly replaced the glass on the table. "You... you were still trading with them?"

"Of course." Mara answered roundly. "How could I do otherwise? I could think of no better means to conceal my aid to you than by continuing my business with him. It was bad enough for me that you were lodging here. Carson always reserved a particularly unpleasant fate for informants."

"But why aid me at all, then?" Bush was still visibly confused. "It was surely not for my benefit -- you made that plain enough from the day I first darkened your doorstep."

Mara gravely considered her hands for a long moment, as if deciding whether or not to explain. "You are quite right; it was scarcely that. You -- your navy -- had cost me my husband." She leaned forward and studied him intently, rapping a forefinger on the table, punctuating her words. "But Harry Carson had already caused the death of one of my brothers; I would not lose another. I have already lost too much. Brendan had joined Carson merely to protect Francis, though..." she sighed heavily. "Though little good came of it. But even after, Brendan could not simply leave his employ -- no one who did so remained alive for long -- and you and your men were making it equally dangerous for him to stay." She regarded him steadily, her eyes imploring him to understand. "So... it was Carson who had to go. You -- God help me -- you were my best hope."

Bush stared at her, astounded by her revelation. "So you used me."

"No more than you did me, I'll remind you," Mara snapped. "I did indeed." She glared sharply at him for a long moment, then relented, and her gaze softened. 'At first, ' she added mentally, though she dared not articulate the thought.

Bush interpreted her sudden silence as proof that she had been concerned for no one but Brendan -- and herself. He doggedly reviewed the facts as he knew them, finally assembling the pieces of the puzzle that had eluded him for so long. There were still gaps, pieces missing.

"But..." Bush shook his head, and, grimacing, immediately regretted the wisdom of such a precipitous maneuver. "I still do not understand... what was it that made Brendan help us that night?"

"Perhaps it'd be better if Brendan himself explained it."

Bush looked up at the sound of the deep voice to find Brendan smiling down at him, his bulky shape all but filling the doorway. "Good to see you, sir, up and about and takin' nourishment."

"Thank you, Brendan." Bush nodded gravely. "And it seems I owe you my thanks for much more." He indicated a chair, and Brendan settled his expansive frame in it.

He rested beefy forearms on the table, and began. "My pleasure, Cap'n. Harry Carson had many friends in this town, but Mara an' me -- we weren't among 'em. I was one of his men -- a man has to live, y'see -- but I knew him for what he was, sir: the devil himself... a serpent. If you crossed him, he'd strike, an' you'd not go easy. There's nothin' he liked better than to hear you scream an' beg him to let you go quick." His face twisted with disgust. "I'd take my own chances, but I couldn't let that happen to my Mara."

"I'd been told that Harry knew somehow about Mara helpin' you -- it's not only Carson who has friends, y'know, sir -- so I got her out of his reach quick enough. But I couldn't fathom how he'd found out. I knew of the run that night -- we all did -- and it would'a been right peculiar had I not been there. So I went, an' I watched. An' when I saw your man Poole with Harry, I knew, an' I knew you'd had a rat in your midst all along."

He leaned across the table, his expression intense. "You'd be walkin' into a trap, sir, and wouldn't likely live to walk out of it. If that happened, Mara would be as good as dead, an' my life wouldn't have been worth much either. My best bet was to stay, an' to help you if I could."

"After you came ashore, an' all hell broke loose, I spotted Cap'n Turpin. At first I thought he had come an' brought men to help you, but when he took aim at Lieutenant Dawes, I knew different. It all made sense to me then. Before you came, sir, Turpin hadn't been able to stop us because hadn't honestly tried to. He was one of us -- though he put plenty of us in the gaol to save his own hide." He regarded Bush solemnly. "Dawes is a good man, an' I couldn't let him come to grief because of that scum. So I gave Turpin what he deserved -- a bullet in his connivin' brain.

After that, sir, I did what I was able to do, fightin' alongside your men. I saw what Harry did to you, and to young Mr. Fanshawe." He shook his head angrily. "I only wish I could'a got to him before Lieutenant Dawes did... I'd a' gladly killed him myself.

Soon as Carson fell, his men lost their nerve an' ran. I stayed, an' helped get you an' your wounded back to th' ship." His face sobered. "Poor Mr. Fanshawe... he sensed he was goin' fast, an' he did his best to tell Dawes everything he knew. God, sir... it was an awful thing to watch. An' sir..." he paused, questioning the wisdom of the decision to tell Bush the rest of it. But Bush had to know, and Fanshawe had earned that much. "All the while he kept askin' for you, prayin' you weren't gone. An' when he finally saw you bein' brought aboard still living, he just smiled, and said it had been worth it."

"Dear God." Bush closed his eyes and rested his head in his hand. Had it been?

Brendan watched Bush in silence for a moment, sensing that no more needed to be said. He stood quietly and nodded to Mara, brother's intuition discerning that she would see to the rest. She knew and understood more than most, and he wished for the moment that he had not come between them. He had believed it had been the right thing to do -- he still believed that -- but perhaps the right thing to do was not always right, after all.

***

Greene entered the room to find Bush completely oblivious to his surroundings, instead intently absorbed in writing what he assumed must be an official report. He stood quietly and watched for a moment: Bush was scarcely recognizeable as the man he had first encountered, now attired as he was in spotless linen and a freshly brushed uniform coat, queue tidied and tightly wrapped. Greene regarded him clinically. There was little to show for the man's recent experiences, save for the worrisome bruising, and a bit more pallor than one might expect from a man of the sea.

Greene cleared his throat, and Bush looked up, his face businesslike and professional. The Captain's mask had been donned along with the coat, it seemed. "Report, Doctor Greene," he demanded sharply, much as if he were on his own quarterdeck.

"Your young officer is still with us, Captain." Greene pursed his lips and frowned as he shook his head. "The damage to his thigh is not overly serious, though you..." he hesitated delicately, "...obviously know all too well the dangers of any wound. It is, of course, the abdominal wound which grieves me. It is perhaps not as severe as I first feared, however. It seems strange, sir, but he apparently turned toward his assailant even as the knife entered his body, and the blade impacted the anterior aspect of the iliac crest... struck the hip bone, sir," he added hastily, in response to Bush's dour scowl. "I do not believe the vitals were pierced, though only time will tell."

"So there is the chance he may survive?"

Bush's tone was detached, dispassionate, though Greene could clearly recall Bush gently touching the young man's shoulder as he left him. The gesture had been strangely paternal -- and surprisingly affecting -- and very much at odds with this brusque captain who now faced him across the table. He could not bring himself to offer false platitudes nor could he brutally dash all hope; thus, he compromised. "Some. But little more. His condition is grave, and the fever is rising. He has a long and difficult road to travel, and I cannot be certain what lies at its end. Even if he lives, he may never be the same, after."

Bush regarded him expressionlessly: there were no cracks in this captain's mask. "None of us are."

Greene blinked. Perhaps the mask did not conceal everything, after all. "Er... no. I suppose not." He regarded Bush with a far more generous eye -- this man was perhaps not nearly as remote as he was striving to appear. "Indulge me for a moment, Captain."

Bush sighed: the man would not be rebuffed, it seemed. "Very well." He closed his eyes and submitted to Greene's inspection of his battered skull. The man's cool fingers deftly probed the bruise, and Bush eventually relaxed under his sure touch, answering his questions without hesitation... though perhaps without admitting those details he deemed to be unnecessary. He opened his eyes as Greene finished.

"You have a hard head, Captain Bush." Greene smiled wryly. "Though I suspect you may have been told that before."

Bush allowed a small smile in response. "Once or twice."

"There is no real damage, though you may have the very devil of a headache and perhaps occasional dizziness for a day or so more." Bush guiltily avoided his eye, confirming his suspicions regarding the extent of his patient's symptoms and hardheadedness, and Greene found a measure of amusement in that. "There is nothing I can do beyond suggesting rest, decent food, and the tincture of time." He glanced at Mara as she appeared in the doorway with a tray. "It seems to me that you are already in good hands." He patted her narrow shoulder as he passed, and smiled down at her... though, curiously, she did not return it.

***


Chapter 25


Bush had gone the next day, after a night spent at Fanshawe's side. It had been a sleepless night, one in which hope had risen and ebbed, and risen and ebbed again, echoing the rhythms of the tide that now lapped against the Witch's sturdy planking as she rocked at anchor in Mount's Bay. But there was little to be gained by a death-watch, and -- even with Carson gone -- Bush still had a sworn duty to perform. Thus he had resolutely put to sea, and with a grim determination prowled the bays and inlets of the rugged Cornish coast. But seven days and nights had passed, and all remained deathly quiet: there were, of course, other men whose Trade would flourish in Carson's absence, though it seemed they had all prudently gone to ground for the moment, unwilling to follow too closely in Carson's footsteps.

So Bush had returned to Mount's Bay with a reluctance equal to that which had accompanied his departure. At sea, there had been a curious comfort in the ability to hold unwelcome news at arm's length. At anchor, unfortunately, it could not be avoided for long.

He could, however, send a messenger in his stead, and not confront it directly. He had called for Dawes, and would dispatch the young lieutenant ashore. As Bush sat at his desk awaiting him, he told himself that Dawes and Fanshawe had been close friends, and Dawes would naturally be eager for news -- and, in the same breath, he cursed himself for his cowardice.

He was able to offer some small salve to his conscience by reminding himself that he did, admittedly, have a great deal of work to do. He had sent a tersely worded report to Admiral Chadwick before their departure, but the official account to the Admiralty still loomed before him. He hated the process of writing, of painstakingly constructing the formal reports, all the while knowing that his every word would be reprinted in the Gazette for all to see, and worse, carefully scrutinized and dissected by those damned desk-bound warriors at the Admiralty. He had always been a man of a great economy of words, never using ten where one would suffice. It had been a quality highly prized by harried captains, but one which, to his dismay, had suddenly become a grave liability.

Sighing, he dragged out several sheets of paper, preparing for the numerous revisions he knew from experience to be inevitable. He dipped his pen and began: the introductory copperplate was certainly simple enough. It would be the objective account of the action, and his part in it -- or lack thereof -- that would prove difficult to write. But it had to be written, and the truth of it, bare and unadorned, would doubtless prove to be his undoing. It was grim enough to dispassionately write of the fate of others, but it was a dismal thing indeed to seal one's own.

He knew that he had ultimately done what Chadwick had asked him to do... yet there were still so many unanswered questions. He had blundered badly; stumbling about in the darkness using instinct instead of intellect, and had wrought a great swath of destruction in the process. It was laughable -- almost. Despite his initial trepidations, he had eventually managed to convince himself that he might be equal to the task. But he had been wrong, and other men had paid dearly for it. He had stubbornly, stupidly refused to accept his limitations -- all of them -- and others had died for his conceit, willingly offering their lives as fair trade for his own. Men had died under his command many times before, but it had never been like this. This time, it was not the French, or the Spanish, or the unforgiving sea. This time, his own failure had killed them.

He thought then of Fanshawe as he had left him, fighting his own battle in the small room at the top of the inn's narrow stairs. Dear God, he thought, he had been wrong about so many things, but none so spectacularly wrong as his assessment of that young man. Would there be an opportunity to rectify his error, or was it already far too late for that?

Bush looked up, his blue eyes ice-cold. Some errors, though, could be set right. He thrust the unfinished report aside, as his honour and sense of duty demanded that another missive be written first. He reached for a clean sheet of paper, dipped his pen, and sat staring at the unblemished surface, unwilling to begin, yet knowing what must be done. The Service had been his life for as long as he could remember, and he had willingly placed it above all else. It had been painful to accept the incapacity suddenly forced upon him, and he had seized the opportunity to prove himself still able. But if he truly valued the Service -- and his own integrity -- he had to openly admit that, for the first time, he was not.

This admission, made in solitude, colored Bush's thoughts darker still. He had always known his own place and, within it, had served his country and his captain well. Until now. This time he had overstepped his bounds, believing himself capable... or worse, had been blinded by another's reflected glory, and had taken some part of it for his own. This notion was truly repugnant, and lent Bush sufficient impetus to at last put pen to paper. He resolutely embarked upon this final journey, the black marks on the paper irrevocably charting his passage. He had not gone far, however, before a knock at the cabin door roused him from the task.

He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, rubbing his temples with a hand. "Come," he called, his voice sounding, to his ears, surprisingly composed.

As expected, it was Dawes who stepped through the door. "You wished to see me, sir?"

Bush studied the young lieutenant evenly. "Yes, Mr. Dawes. I posted a report to Admiral Chadwick prior to our departure. Go ashore immediately and determine whether his reply awaits me."

"Aye aye, sir." Dawes responded, and stood quietly awaiting his dismissal.

Bush had resumed his writing even as Dawes replied, and he did not look up from it again. "And see to our wounded, Mr. Dawes." It had been strange indeed to have them ashore, and to be unable to check on them as a captain ought. But he carried no surgeon, and the cutters had precious little space for convalescents... and was no place at all for one whose survival was uncertain.

"Aye, sir." Dawes studied Bush gravely, sensing the depth of his captain's anxiety. He offered what small acknowledgment he could. "And I shall report to you immediately upon my return."

"Very well, Mr. Dawes. You are dismissed." Bush continued to write, avoiding Dawes' eye, and maintained -- to his own mind, at least -- the fiction of detached authority.

The door closed behind Dawes leaving Bush alone once more, and the only sound in the cabin was the relentless scratching of his pen. It seemed not long, however, before Bush heard the distinctive sound of a boat bumping alongside. His heart sank. He had heard no hail, nor pipes -- it had to be Dawes, and the speed with which Dawes had returned promised bad news indeed. Had Fanshawe been alive, Dawes surely would have spent more time at his side.

He heard feet on the companionway, and braced himself for the sharp knock at the door. "Enter," he called, briskly, when it came. Losses had to be faced, and accepted with composure, after all.

Bush looked up from his work, preparing to offer Dawes what inadequate condolences he could muster, but was surprised to find instead a slight figure clad in a plain boat cloak. He stared, momentarily speechless, then was out of his chair and at attention in the space of a heartbeat. "Admiral Chadwick, sir. My humblest apologies..." He glowered darkly at the bos'n, who had suddenly appeared, red-faced and panting, at the admiral's shoulder.

The typically unflappable bos'n was stammering with anxiety. "M' sorry sir... I didn't know... 'ee come up t' th' larb'rd side like no one a'tall..."

The little admiral deftly defused Bush's explosion. "Had I wished for ceremony, Captain Bush, I would have given you ample time to provide it." He nodded to the warrant officer standing nervously behind him. "Your bos'n is not at fault."

Bush eyed the bos'n sternly, half-convinced at best. "Dismissed, Mr. Garrity," he growled, "and keep a sharper eye in your head."

As the bos'n mumbled his acknowledgment and fled, Bush turned to Chadwick, who had already begun settling himself in one of the cabin's simple chairs. Chadwick glanced at the welter of papers on Bush's desk. "Your official report to the Admiralty, I presume?" Chadwick looked up at him, his face solemn. "I believe I will need a drink for this, if you might spare one."

Bush felt the color drain from his face, though he kept his expression impassive as he poured an ample measure of brandy and handed it to the Admiral. He had expected this, to be chastised and officially removed from duty. He had not truly fulfilled the Admiralty's expectations. It was as simple as that, and would be dealt with immediately, though he had hoped to do so on his own terms. It was abundantly clear to Bush now that Chadwick's discreet and unheralded arrival was a gift, the admiralty's way of offering a last opportunity to resign with some shred of pride intact. And of course, he thought sardonically, without any official admission of miscalculation on their part.

He abruptly realized that he was still standing immobile at Chadwick's side as the admiral regarded him curiously. "Pour one for yourself, Captain... and do sit down."

Bush complied and was grateful to sink into the other chair, as both legs suddenly felt wooden and vaguely threatened to betray him. He took a deep breath and waited, much as a condemned man waits for the executioner at dawn.

"I spoke with Douglas Summerscales yesterday." Chadwick sighed. "And it is even worse than I thought. I had believed... hoped, almost... that the loss of his wife had unhinged him in some way. Difficult as that would be to accept, it would at least explain his actions. But this... dear God."

Bush shifted uneasily; it was painful to know that his own actions had brought about Chadwick's distress. "Loss changes a man, I suppose, sir."

"Does it? Must it?" Chadwick's deep-set brown eyes flashed; his anger was clearly evident and not yet fully tempered by his sorrow. "Douglas... Admiral Summerscales... deliberately betrayed everything he had ever believed in, and betrayed all those who ever believed in him and counted him as friend. And why?" He shook his head in disgust. "Money. Profit. It was nothing more than that. And he is blind to the extent of his guilt."

Chadwick settled back into his chair, his expression grim. "Harry Carson, as you confirmed, had long been in league with the revenue officer Turpin. I had suspected that even before I assigned you to this post, but I had no direct proof. Turpin covered his tracks well, being just effective enough to dampen my suspicions and pass himself off as merely weak, frightened of the possible consequences of interference." He paused for a moment's reflection. "A fear that is not completely unfounded, as you well know. In the revenue service it is the rare officer who pursues his occupation with enthusiasm at the risk of his own welfare." He considered Bush gravely and offered a sad and fleeting smile. "Most unlike our Navy."

Bush offered no comment, so Chadwick sighed and sipped at his drink. "But it seemed to me that perhaps Turpin enjoyed some greater protection. I had proposed that someone be assigned to quietly investigate smuggling in and around Mount's Bay, but despite some initial interest, my suggestions were summarily dismissed. I began to wonder why."

"At about the same time, I noticed a sea-change in Douglas Summerscales." He shook his head sadly. "My dear friend. As a captain, Douglas had been an unholy terror to the French... but he had not been successful in the acquisition of prize money. It had not been important to him at the time, and I believe he harbored few regrets. But then... his world turned upside down. He was high on the captains' list -- acting-commodore, in fact -- when he caught some dreadful fever in the Indies. He survived it though his health was broken, and he was quite unable to serve at sea again. Douglas returned to England, to a rear-admiral's post ashore and the arms of his lovely wife, and he seemed content with that. Sadly, she fell ill soon after and lived only a few months' time, leaving Douglas with nothing but his debts. He became increasingly bitter and depressed, though I offered to help in any way I could. But he rejected my aid, and somehow began to repay his creditors nonetheless. I assumed that he had accepted another's help, and I would not intrude upon his pride by questioning him further."

Chadwick took another taste of his brandy and paused for a moment, his eyes faraway and deeply grieved. "I had mentioned my suspicions regarding Richard Turpin to Douglas, and he began to take an interest in my investigations. I thought nothing of it... in fact, I was pleased that he had taken an interest in anything at all. I shared my concerns with him, and we often discussed the matter at great length. I thought myself fortunate to have a trusted friend in whom to confide."

"Though my request for an official land-based action was denied, I hold sufficient influence to conduct further private investigation, and thus I did so. I sent a promising young officer to Mount's Bay in the guise of a laborer. He reported that he had become acquainted with Carson and was gaining his trust... and then he disappeared." Chadwick's eyes hardened. "He has not been heard from since, though his body has not been found."

"It seemed at times that Carson had been forewarned of my actions, and I began to suspect that someone within the admiralty supported his dealings and was passing information to him. I could scarcely believe it -- certainly I did not wish to -- but I could not in good conscience ignore my suspicions. I knew that no one at the Admiralty could legitimately hinder the assignment of a coastal patrol without arousing suspicion. Thus I sent you." Chadwick regarded Bush with a cold and dispassionate scrutiny that made him want to fidget. "You, with no ties to the admiralty. All reports of you convinced me that you were quite unlikely to come to hasty judgment, and would require considerable evidence and persuasion before formulating a conclusion."

'Slow and stupid, in other words,' thought Bush darkly, though he sensibly refrained from comment and studied the depths of his glass instead.

"Nor were you likely to become allied with any conspiracy, should one exist." Chadwick considered him intently. "Your honesty was never in doubt."

'But yours?' Bush thought, and this time he could not hold his tongue. "And what of Evelyn Fanshawe?" he asked quietly, though his voice was flat and faintly accusing. "He was a... a pawn in all of this?"

"No." Chadwick closed his eyes briefly, and sighed. "At least... he was never intended to be. I doubt you are aware of it, but he was assigned to you at his own request. He was adamant... and frankly, I thought it would do him good. God knows he was wasting his life as it was. Later, however, as things became more clear to me I recalled that Douglas was quite alarmed by Fanshawe's transfer, and had sent a man along to mind him." His eyes glinted coldly. "Poole, of course. It meant little to me at the time. But dear God... had I only known."

"I continued to discuss my plans -- and your reports -- with Douglas. I thought nothing of that... until much later, in the course of conversation, it became clear to me that Douglas knew details that I had not shared with him." Chadwick rose and walked the few paces to the stern window, staring out at the bay, and the sea beyond. "It was difficult to believe that I had been so misled. I realized that it was possible the information had come from Mr. Fanshawe: perhaps innocently... or perhaps not."

"And so you summoned us." Bush frowned; that pointless meeting of several months past suddenly had a purpose indeed. "You wished to take our measure."

Chadwick swung round to study Bush intently. "And I did. I remained convinced of your integrity. I also knew that you were unaware of any corruption within your ranks... it was plain to see that you would never tolerate such behaviour, nor would you conceal your knowledge of it." The admiral smiled. "You fly your colours openly enough, Captain Bush."

Bush was in no mood for compliments, and instead regarded Chadwick coldly. "And what did you learn of Mr. Fanshawe?"

"Mr. Fanshawe..." Chadwick sighed, choosing to overlook the challenge in Bush's blue eyes. "Mr. Fanshawe spent considerable time with Douglas and conveyed a great deal of information as to your activities, though there was never any direct discussion of a conspiracy." He smiled humourlessly. "Douglas' new aide is a man of my own choosing, and provided me with exhaustive detail.

My first impulse was to remove Fanshawe from your command, but I knew that I must not arouse Douglas' suspicions." He winced, perhaps at the recognition of his own callousness. "Perilous as his situation was, I had to consider it a gift. I had hoped that his presence would deter Douglas from deeper and more sinister involvement, or would provide the proof I needed if Douglas overtly attempted to enlist his aid. Perhaps it would provide the means to get to the truth without unnecessary bloodshed. And if not?" Chadwick's eyes were troubled. "If not, it was no different from what I must always do: knowingly send good men into harm's way."

Bush looked up from his drink, angry now and not bothering to conceal it, convinced that he had little to lose. "And that it was," he snapped. "Clearly the admiral found nothing wrong with the spilling of English blood."

"And for what reason?" Chadwick voiced the question that Bush had left unspoken. "Money. Bitterness. Resentment against a Service that to his mind had used him up, and then spat him out upon the beach like Jonah."

"Bitter enough to betray his country." Bush could find no excuse whatever for such behaviour, only a cold and mounting rage.

"No. Not in the eyes of the Admiralty, at any rate, though I view it somewhat differently." Chadwick shook his head in disgust, though perhaps it would be a distinction sufficient to save his friend from death, if not disgrace. "Douglas took a perverse delight in admitting his dealings when I confronted him. He found a curious satisfaction in allowing Carson to operate under his protection for a percentage of the profits. He told me that as long as there were taxes there would be smuggling, and any attempts to stem that tide were futile. He might as well benefit from it instead, and collect 'what he was owed'. He further justified his actions by disposing of any sensitive documents Carson obtained. Douglas was ostensibly transferring them to French agents in Britain, as far as Carson knew... but was actually selling them back to the Crown through a proxy. He proudly maintained that he was reliably keeping vital information out of the hands of the French, and was making a tidy profit besides."

Bush sat immobile, astounded by the extent of one man's self-deception... and self-absorption. He raised his eyes to Chadwick's, and met them steadily. "And does he know of Mr. Fanshawe, sir?"

"He does." Chadwick sighed, and looked away. "I believe that is the one thing he does regret. I suppose in that regard I am as guilty as he, for despite my personal concerns I deliberately sent Fanshawe back into the lions' den, hoping that he would be of use. To his credit, Douglas did attempt to discourage him, and later even offered an opportunity for a most lucrative return to Whitehall, but Fanshawe would not be persuaded to change his mind."

"That is unfortunate, sir." Bush's tone was glacial. "But at least Fanshawe acted with honour, and as befitting an officer."

Chadwick studied Bush solemnly. "Yes, Captain, it is unfortunate. As are many things we must do for the good of the service."

"Yes, sir." Bush nodded formally, his worst fears realized, now firmly convinced of the true reason for Chadwick's visit. He had best seize the bull by the horns and get it over with. "Sir, I do understand your meaning, and I am currently writing my..."

"Captain Bush." Chadwick snapped, stifling Bush's words with a single, stern glower. "Do not act in haste."

Bush sat silently, awaiting the rest. But Chadwick condescended to offer no more, and instead got to his feet and gathered his cloak. Confused, Bush rose as well. As he followed the elderly admiral out of the cabin and up the companion steps he privately lamented Chadwick's most uncomfortable habit of leaving a great deal unsaid. He would be left with even more to brood upon than before.

"Oh. One more thing, Captain." The admiral turned back, and reached inside his boat-cloak. He withdrew an envelope and handed it to the mystified Bush. "It seems I am employed as post boy, as well."

Bush accepted the envelope and turned it over. He studied his name, written in a strong, bold hand that he knew as well as his own.

Hornblower's hand.

***


Chapter 26


Bush tore his eyes from the page in his hands in response to the insistent knocking at the cabin door. "Yes, yes..." he called crossly, and immediately regretted his momentary irritation. It must be Dawes, with news. It was a guilty measure of the strength of his reaction to the message he held that all thoughts of Fanshawe had flown from his mind.

He sighed and turned reluctantly to face both the door and grim reality. "Enter," he called, in a fractionally more pleasant tone: Dawes deserved at least that much, particularly if the news he carried was as expected.

At the invitation Dawes burst through the doorway, his face wreathed in smiles. "Sir!"

Given the look on Dawes' face further words were unnecessary, thought Bush, though Dawes was clearly bursting with them, restraining himself only with prodigious effort. Thus he merely nodded, allowing the young man to continue unchecked.

The words tumbled out. "He'll be all right, sir! Dr. Greene tells me that it was a close thing, and that it will take time, but it seems that Ev is tougher than he appears. He is still quite feeble, but the fever is nearly gone, and Dr. Greene suspects he will be terrorizing the women tending him within the week." Dawes grinned. "Quite a lot of them seem willing to risk it, sir."

"That is good news indeed, Mr. Dawes. Thank you." The strength of Bush's relief battered down his already shaken captainly reserve, and he responded with an answering smile. "Two bits of good news in this day, it seems." Bush winced inwardly at his own impulsive candor, though if Dawes found his captain's forthright manner unseemly he did not show it.

He appeared grateful for it, in fact. "Two, sir?" Dawes studied him with friendly regard. "May I ask... good news from the Admiralty, perhaps?"

"No, Mr. Dawes... a letter from an old friend." There was no harm in conveying the content of the letter to Dawes -- after all, Bush considered, proper order had already been thrown to the winds, and Dawes would know soon enough in any case. "It seems that Captain Sir Horatio Hornblower has some business in Cornwall, and would be pleased to call upon me at the Two Brothers." He colored slightly, abashed at revealing this unexpected display of his former captain's benevolence, and dropped his gaze to read the brief lines again. "He would like to share my company, and wishes to convey some news of a personal nature."

"Captain Hornblower is coming here, sir?" Dawes stared, impressed. "I have heard so very much about him; I had hoped someday to meet the man, though I never imagined..." He pondered this for a moment, then cautiously ventured the question that had often come to mind during the past months. "I know that you served with Captain Hornblower for many years... is he anything like you, sir?"

"God's teeth, Mr. Dawes." Bush looked up sharply and regarded his lieutenant with an expression of genuine horror. "All England should be grateful that he is not." He scowled impatiently. The very idea of such a ridiculous fancy had to be immediately dispelled. "No, Mr. Dawes, there could be no conceivable likeness. Chalk and cheese, we were."

How could he possibly explain to Dawes that Hornblower was some sort of higher being, worlds removed from the likes of him? It sounded odd, but it was also true. He groped for some way to explain it, for the concept of a Hornblower so diminished was too much to bear. But fluency failed him, as he had few words he deemed adequate to the task. "He is the finest captain a man could serve, Dawes. Always thinking, always a pace or two ahead... Captain Hornblower has an uncanny ability to plan, to put himself in the mind of the enemy. I can claim no part of that. I was merely the one he chose to ensure that his orders were properly carried out."

Bush fell silent, the impact of his words striking home like a physical blow. I was. The words left a bitter taste on his tongue. For whatever his role, whatever his value, those days were past, gone, and there was no use in reflecting upon them. There was nothing left but for the occasional charitable visit, done out of courtesy. It had to be accepted: there was nothing else to do.

Nothing but to put an end to this foolish conversation. "Enough of this nonsense, Mr. Dawes," Bush snapped. "You are dismissed. When Greyhound is in good order you have my permission to return to shore. I expect you are wanted there."

"Aye aye, sir." Dawes studied his captain closely, watching the dreary burden of acceptance settle once again on the older man's shoulders. His own experience allowed him to fully comprehend it, yet he had also come to know this man well as he served under his command. "Iron sharpens iron, sir." He smiled enigmatically. "And so one man sharpens another."

Dawes could be so damned impenetrable at times, Bush thought dourly, and glowered fiercely at him. "Just go, Mr. Dawes."

***

Horatio Hornblower stepped out of the chill drizzle into the warmth and lively bustle of the little inn. As he shook the rain from his hat, he looked around the crowded room and eventually located Bush deep in a chair near the fire. The sight of his old friend brought a smile to Hornblower's face, and he rapidly made his way to Bush's side. Bush must have recognized his step -- not at all surprising, having heard it upon the quarterdeck for so many years -- and looked up. A welcoming smile creased Bush's face as well, and he rose to greet him.

Hornblower accepted Bush's proffered hand, and shook it warmly. "Come, Bush, let us sit down. I have been dreaming of nothing but dinner for the past hour... and we have much to talk about." He was gratified to see how effortlessly Bush led the way to a nearby empty table, without a trace of self-consciousness. Given his weathered features and commander's uniform, he looked as sturdy and dependable as ever. It was much as one might expect, Hornblower mused: Bush had obviously endured the loss of a leg with his usual stolid acceptance of adversity.

Bush settled comfortably into his chair and motioned for the huge innkeeper, who responded with a companionable smile and the prompt delivery of two tankards of foaming ale. He took a deep drink and set the mug carefully on the table before him. His blue eyes were lively; it was obvious that he was bursting with curiosity and was for once unwilling to allow Hornblower to torture him with waiting. "So, sir... what news?"

Hornblower suppressed an indulgent smile. Despite this unaccustomed directness, Bush would never truly change, he thought comfortably. Were fortune kind, allowing them to become doddering admirals, shore-bound together in some dusty corner of the Admiralty, the 'sir' would still be evident in Bush's voice. It was pleasant to think of it... and even more pleasant still when he considered the nature of the news itself. "I am to go to sea again, Bush. A squadron is fitting out as we speak, preparing to sail for the Baltic."

Bush accepted the news with a raised eyebrow and low whistle. "The Baltic, sir? A damned powder keg, that place is."

"Indeed, Bush," Hornblower nodded. "We must be there in strength in the event someone strikes a spark. And I..." he paused, as he was still coming to grips with the notion himself "...I have been named as its Commodore." He shook his head in wonder at the whims of fate -- and of the Admiralty -- that had decreed it. "Commodore, with a flag captain under me."

Bush's honest delight in a friend's success showed plainly on his weather-beaten face. "Congratulations, sir. A just reward for all you have done... and it's about damned time." He grinned. "Commodore, eh? And First Class, with a flag captain? And who is the lucky devil?"

Hornblower smiled inwardly, warmth spreading through him like fine brandy, and leaned across the table. "Not who, Bush." He prodded Bush's arm. "You."

Bush sat back in his chair, astonished, his face alight with unrestrained emotion. Joy, pride, hope, relief... all of which abruptly vanished, as a candle flame might be snuffed by a frigid draught. He shook his head vehemently. "No. No... sir."

Hornblower could only gape at Bush, wondering if he had heard the man correctly. "No? Whatever do you mean, no?"

"I mean NO, sir. I cannot accept it." Bush's jaw was set, determined. All evidence of friendship had fled, and the old mask of distant formality was rigidly in place once more.

Hornblower continued to stare, and still could not believe his ears. Bush had always been willing to accept his judgment without question... at times, to a most irritating degree. He had occasionally wished that Bush would challenge his thinking, but this was hardly the moment he would have chosen for him to begin to do so. This sudden change in his behaviour was utterly inexplicable. "But... there must be fifty captains ahead of you who would leap at this opportunity."

Bush folded his arms across his chest and studied Hornblower expressionlessly, though he failed to completely conceal the fire that smoldered in his blue eyes. "Perhaps you might ask one of them, sir," he said flatly.

Hornblower struck his hand on the table, causing several of the inn's patrons to turn and stare at the two officers grimly eyeing one another across the scarred surface. "Damn it, Bush," he snapped. "What is wrong with you? I do not want one of them. I want you, and I will have none other."

"What is wrong with me?" Bush echoed bitterly, glaring back at him with a face now dark with anger. "That much is clear enough to anyone with eyes. If you ask out of some sense of duty, or obligation... if you think that you owe some debt to me, do not concern yourself further. You have asked, and your indebtedness is now repaid. I do not want your obligation, and I will not accept your pity."

"Good God, Bush, that is hardly why..."

"Then tell me why." Bush demanded coldly. "Surely there is someone better suited."

"Why?" Hornblower repeated uncertainly. "Why do I ask for you?" He had not paused to consider this himself as, to his mind, there had been neither alternative nor likelihood of refusal. He fumbled through his own racing thoughts and emotions... this was not the reaction he had expected, or been prepared for, and this was apparently not the predictable William Bush he thought he knew so well. "You are the finest seaman I have ever known, and... and..." Words failed him, and his voice trailed to silence.

"And should you fall, sir? I would command the squadron. Surely you must consider that." Bush shook his head firmly. "I have proved that I cannot adequately command a few revenue cutters. I had planned to request reassignment to the dockyard... that, or resign my commission."

Hornblower eyed him in disbelief. "But... you have been successful, when all's said and done."

"Poorly." Bush snapped. "Clumsily. And at a high price."

"There is always a price. You of all people must know that: you have paid it more than once with your own blood. I have read your reports. How many men did you lose? Nine? Ten? Of how many? And you did accomplish your objective; Carson is dead, his nest of smugglers is no more... and a corruption that fouled the Admiralty itself has been excised. Is that not enough?" Hornblower's voice rose slightly as his irritation mounted. "Recall that I lost Sutherland, and accomplished damn little in doing so. Those of my men who did not lose their lives lost their freedom, and I need not remind you of what you lost that day."

Bush doggedly refused to be placated. "The French did that, sir. Not you. This was different. I led my men into..."

Hornblower held up his hand to stop him. Bush, in his unsophisticated way, had crystallized the thought that he in his confusion had been unable to articulate. "Yes, Bush, you led your men. And that is precisely why I need you. Any captain can give orders... but not all can lead. Your men... did they question your orders? Did they object, or did they follow you?"

"They followed me. Dear God, they followed me." Bush sighed, anger abruptly replaced by a look of utter desolation, a sea change that shook Hornblower to his very bones. The man across the table seemed no longer the competent, confident Bush he had known so well, and relied upon so often. He had never seen Bush look so lost.

No. He had seen the same fathomless anguish in those eyes once before, during those early days in France when Bush despaired of ever learning to walk again. During that bleak and dismal time, Hornblower had been forced to set aside his natural reserve and had extended both his hand and kind words of encouragement, urging the fallen Bush to rise and try again, after what seemed -- time and time again -- like certain defeat. It had been difficult, though his mind had shied like a nervous horse from the reasons why it should be so.

The few times his mind began to consciously grasp the truth of it he found it impossible to contemplate. Through his own actions and his own failures, his greatest fear had been precisely visited -- not upon himself -- but on Bush, the closest thing to a friend he had ever possessed. He could not bring himself to speak of it, and thus merely offered his presence. It had sufficed, at the time.

But this Bush would have none of it, and Hornblower felt a helplessness greater than that he had felt even during those dark days. Then, Bush had expected too much of himself far too soon, and had been profoundly shaken when he found himself unable to fulfill his expectations. And this was no different. Bush had done well in this, his first command. But Bush, for some reason, was holding himself to impossible, unreachable standards. It never occurred to Hornblower that he himself had set them.

All Hornblower -- being Hornblower -- could do was to sit, and listen, and contemplate his own impending loss.

As he did so Bush found his voice again, and continued. "They trusted me. Followed me. And I..." he caught Hornblower's gaze, and did not flinch from it: his courage at least, Hornblower observed, was as it had always been. "I failed them. I fell on my face, and was not there to lead them."

"But you were," Hornblower interrupted, suddenly inspired by the truth of it. "You were, and you did. Even without you leading them in body, you still led them in spirit. Did they surrender, or turn and run?"

"Of course they did not." Bush scowled. "But that means nothing. I was not there. I fell..."

Bush's distress was too painful: Hornblower could not permit it to continue. "A thing that might happen to any captain, at any time. Not even Nelson himself walked his quarterdeck at the end of Trafalgar, yet the battle was won. You know," Hornblower reminded him gravely. "You were there."

Bush eyed him with unconcealed disgust. "I am no Nelson."

"No." Hornblower's brief smile softened the word. "Nor am I. The men of my squadron do not know their commodore, nor will they. But they will come to know their captain. And the men will trust you, just as they will know that I trust you." He reached into his coat and withdrew an envelope, and handed it to Bush. "And the admiralty trusts you." He raised an eyebrow. "Admiral Chadwick was most vehement in that regard."

Bush reluctantly accepted the envelope, running his fingers over it as a blind man might, turning it in his hands as if to convince himself that it was real and not some illusion borne of wishful thinking. The heavy wax admiralty seal caught the firelight, shining dully like spilled blood. He looked up, confusion twisting his features; though Hornblower thought he could also detect a flicker of hope in those familiar blue eyes.

He smiled gently at Bush, and handed him a small parcel. "And you will need this as well, my friend." He rose, and placed a hand on Bush's shoulder, which felt as unyielding as if it had been carved of oak. He knew full well that further prodding of this stubborn man would do more harm than good, and hoped that time and deliberate consideration would accomplish what his words had not. "Think on it. Please. We will speak again tomorrow." He collected his hat and cloak, and stepped out into the evening.

Before starting down the track, however, he looked in through the window. Bush was still sitting at the table where he had left him, now with shoulders bowed, his head in his hands. The parcel remained before him, unopened, untouched. The sight depressed Hornblower enormously; the thought of going to sea with any other captain had removed the joy and anticipation from his spirit entirely.

***


Chapter 27


Mara entered the inn's common room and was surprised to find Bush settled there, deep in his usual wing chair by the fire, a glass of brandy waiting untouched at his elbow. She hastened to his side, though he did not seem to notice as he continued to stare fixedly into the leaping flames. She gently laid a hand on his shoulder, and only then did he slowly turn to look up at her. The expression on his face was one she had never seen there before: a curious and unsettling mixture of resolve, of hope -- and of fear.

Concerned, she drew up a chair to join him. "Did your friend not arrive?" she asked, softly.

Bush shook his head, and returned to his study of the fire. "Oh, no... he was here. He had to return to his ship." His voice was distant, preoccupied.

"I am indeed sorry." Mara smiled reassuringly at him and placed a comforting hand on his arm... perhaps he was simply disappointed. "I know you would have liked to have spent more time in his company."

Bush regarded her bleakly. "No. No... that is not it. He brought me... this."

He looked down; only then did she notice the objects in his lap. He handed her a heavy parchment envelope, inscribed

Capt. William Bush, Esq.
HMS Nonsuch

Mara held it in her hands, not daring to breathe.

"And... this."

She returned the envelope to him as he handed her a black japanned box. She opened it slowly, carefully. Inside, nestled amid cream colored silk, lay a single object glittering in the firelight. An epaulette.

She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "My God."

Bush smiled shakily at her. "Indeed. I am to be his flag captain. He said..." He shook his head in wonder; his eyes seemed unnaturally bright. "He said... he'd have none other."

Mara sat silently, as stunned as he. She had lived with the sea at her doorstep all her life, the sister of a sailor and the wife of another, and thus was no stranger to the ways of the Navy. But never in her experience had she heard of such an extraordinary second chance: a one-legged officer -- no matter how skilled -- was invariably condemned to relative inactivity, his days lived out aground and bereft, left behind by more fortunate men. The best he might hope for would be command of a Revenue cutter or courier brig. It may have seemed unfair, but it was the Navy's way. She knew it as well as did the bewildered man beside her, and found it no surprise that he was utterly overcome.

Bush closed his eyes and sighed despondently; he found the burden of false hope far heavier even than the weight of impossibility. "I cannot accept this; it is absurd. God only knows how he convinced the Admiralty of such a ridiculous notion. He claims to believe I am capable... and perhaps... once... I may have been. But not now, not... as I am. It is sheer foolishness to think so -- I have proved that much."

Mara studied Bush's strained face, knowing with all her heart that he had abundantly proved his worth. But she also knew this man, and knew full well that he would not hear her, not now. Instead she smiled gently, touched his arm, and changed the subject. "Ev is so much better. Have you spoken with him this evening? Go, sit with him awhile. I will be here when you return."

He nodded wordlessly and rose to comply, obviously relieved by the prospect of turning his beleaguered thoughts to something else for a time. She watched him as he carefully navigated the stairs, knowing that within the space of a heartbeat everything had changed. He could not remain here, not now, whatever her own feelings were on the matter. It would be a simple thing indeed to convince him that his fears were justified, and that his proper place was now ashore. But if she did... he would never be the same, and she would never forgive herself for knowingly inflicting a wound far more grievous and disabling than any he had already endured.

As Bush disappeared from view, Mara heard a familiar voice beside her. "So he's to be goin', then?"

She turned to face her brother. "Aye, I expect he will."

"It's right that he should. He has made few friends in Mount's Bay." Brendan gazed down at her, his face filled with concern. "Save one or two. An' thank God he kept his distance."

"Because you asked it of him." Mara stated flatly.

"He gave me his word." Anger coloured Brendan's heavy features. "And still he told you?"

"He did not." Mara looked up at him sharply. "I have spent a great deal of time with Ev these past days, and in the course of it I have learned much about his captain: Ev speaks of little else. He told me some of it... it was not difficult to guess the rest."

Brendan moved closer, encircling her shoulders with a protective arm. "I knew he'd go, one way or another." He shrugged. "Fact is, I figured he'd disappear one dark night, with no one but Carson t' be the wiser. And you'd be left again. It was clear enough what was beginning to pass between you and I knew I must stop it. I would not see you harmed."

Mara studied him silently and nodded, as if acknowledging the sense of it. It was plain that his actions had come from his heart; there was no point at all in letting him know that he had broken hers, instead.

***

Bush, however, was wholly unaware of any disquiet but his own. He reached the top of the stairs, tapped gently on the door, and slowly opened it as Fanshawe called, "Please come, Captain Bush." The welcoming voice was stronger, far more so than it had been for days.

As was the man himself: still thin and worn, though the hectic flush that had stained the young man's cheeks was now replaced by a more natural, if pallid, hue. "How did you..." Bush smiled slightly, pleased to see him so much improved. "Heard me coming, did you?"

"I can't deny that, sir," Fanshawe grinned faintly up at him from the pillow. "Your step is rather... unique."

Bush sat down, not wishing to tire the young man overmuch; he remembered the depth of this weakness all too well. He also recalled how impatient one became with the prodding and perpetual tending and the endless, interminable discussions of one's health, and thus avoided the subject entirely. He eyed the young man with mock severity. "I trust Mr. Dawes was here."

"Indeed he was, sir." Fanshawe smiled, grateful that Bush granted Dawes a bit of leave each day in which to do so. Not all captains would have given it a thought, he knew. But, as he had discovered, this man was not all captains, and deserved better treatment than he had received at the hands of one of the Admiralty's own.

Fanshawe's smile vanished as his thoughts followed the well-worn path they had trodden endlessly during these past few days of lucidity. One expected to be placed in danger by one's enemies -- that was a hazard of the Service, to be sure -- but the very thought of betrayal within that same service could scarcely be grasped. And such perfidy from within one's own family was repugnant in the extreme, and must be acknowledged. "When Admiral Chadwick was here, sir, he gave me this." Fanshawe plucked at a letter that lay opened on the coverlet. "From Uncle Douglas."

Bush studied Fanshawe's face; he knew him well enough to recognize the veiled anger in the young man's eyes. Thus he said nothing, and waited. Fanshawe would tell him in his own time, and in his own way.

Fanshawe sighed, and the temper receded. "I could not bring myself to even speak of it to you, sir, until today." He shook his head sadly. "The man has changed out of all recognition. He expresses some remorse for what has happened to me." The anger and indignation flared again. "But shows none at all for his actions."

Bush nodded. Chadwick had told him that much, at least.

Fanshawe was clearly torn between fury and despair. "I cannot believe he is the man I knew. I thought I knew him... but I did not, truly. Perhaps I could not recognize the weakness within him." He fell silent for a space: the effort of strong emotion had been taxing indeed.

"I can clearly see it now. Though Uncle Douglas lost a great deal, he lacked the strength to withstand adversity and disappointment, and his weakness exposed the rot within." Fanshawe studied Bush carefully. "I understand now that it need not be so."

Bush's thoughts refused to grapple with the meaning of Fanshawe's words; the reminder of the admiral's lost health and career sent them back amongst the shoals of his own troubles, instead.

"Sir?" Fanshawe's voice broke abruptly into his melancholy reflections. "If I may say so, sir... you seem, er... adrift. Is there something amiss?"

"No." Bush's face registered confusion. "Yes. I... I do not know. I have been offered Nonsuch." He shook his head vaguely. "Flag captain. Post rank."

Fanshawe smiled, looking genuinely delighted. "May fair winds go with you, sir."

Bush's blue eyes refocused in the present, and he snorted derisively. "I am going nowhere but the dockyard, I should think. I must refuse it; Sir Horatio is merely exercising his sense of honour and obligation. The winds have blown dead foul for me of late."

"Yes... I suppose there is a great deal of truth in that, sir," Fanshawe agreed, openly studying Bush's wooden limb and nodding soberly. He sighed sympathetically, and lay silent: to Bush's eye, perhaps discomfited by the notion of having so narrowly escaped a similar fate.

After a time Fanshawe frowned, as if puzzled. "Sir, what does a proper seaman do when the wind shifts against him? Does he run for harbour?"

"Of course not. He resets the sails and changes tack, but keeps to his course." Bush glared at the young man in sudden frustration. "For God's sake, Fanshawe... have you learned nothing these past months?"

"Oh, I have, sir -- quite a lot, in fact." Fanshawe regarded him mildly. "But... have you?"

Bush stared at the young man for a long moment, a muscle working in his jaw. He swallowed hard. "Cheeky bastard." His voice steadied. "You will never make a respectable officer."

"Indeed I hope not, sir," grinned Fanshawe. "But perhaps... having been given the influence of a certain captain, I might someday make a good one."

Bush rose and managed, somehow, to muster the ghost of a smile. "Perhaps."

Fanshawe reached out a hand, and Bush took it. "Good luck, sir."

Bush shook his head. "I do not know if..."

"Yes." Fanshawe nodded firmly. "You do."

And for once the tables were turned: Fanshawe had at last left his captain entirely incapable of speech.

***

Later, to his consternation, Bush would discover that he was utterly unable to recall descending the stairs to the common room, nor could he say precisely how or why he found himself at Mara's side. He only knew that he had gone to her, and to the hearth, for the warmth and comfort they provided in the midst of chilling, storm-tossed waters.

Mara offered a friendly and noncommittal smile. "And how is your lieutenant this evening?"

"Impertinent." Bush grimaced, tight-lipped, and avoided Mara's eye. "And sadly misled."

Mara made no comment, and Bush offered none. It was clear enough to Mara that Fanshawe had given Bush his wholehearted support; it had been her purpose in sending Bush to him, after all. She studied Bush out of the corner of her eye. The firelight threw the lines on his face into sharp relief; his face was closed, shuttered, giving nothing away. But that alone spoke to her far more eloquently than any words.

The pain Mara felt for him moved her to speak. She had not intended to do so -- it was not her place -- but she could not stand idly by and watch the fulfillment of a dream slip needlessly away. She knew far too much about the emptiness lost hopes left behind them. "You believe that you cannot accept the Commodore's offer. Do you not respect him?"

Bush scowled darkly at the very suggestion. "Of course, more than any other; I would gladly have died for him, given the chance. But... at that last battle, aboard Sutherland..." he looked away, as if ashamed. "...I fell, and could do nothing."

"And you were taken below."

"I was... because Captain Hornblower so ordered. I wanted... no, I demanded... to stay." He looked up at her now, blue eyes flashing defiantly. "I could no longer die for him... but I could still die with him. I could not leave him there to meet death alone, on the empty quarterdeck of a dying ship."

"Just so," she nodded. "And just as Evelyn Fanshawe would have willingly died for you, or at your side. You must know that you make a mockery of his courage if you do not accept this posting."

"But..." Bush shook his head in disgust: why did no one understand? "But... I am no Hornblower. I am hardly worthy... of the posting or of Fanshawe's bravery."

"Ev seems to think you are. And Commodore Hornblower does as well, it seems. Why did he give the order that you be carried below? I should think there is little time for concern for one man in the midst of a losing battle."

Bush frowned, perplexed: he had never considered this before. "I... I do not know."

"I do. He did not wish to lose you." Mara eyed him calmly. "He has come back for you... should he lose you now?"

He studied his hands, unable to meet her eyes. She had no knowledge of the thousand times he had been found wanting, his slightest inadequacies brutally exposed by Hornblower's thoughtless derision, and he could not bring himself to tell her of it. "That cannot be. You do not know him."

"No, I do not," Mara conceded. "But I do know you. You may not be another Hornblower -- but you are William Bush. That was enough for Evelyn Fanshawe."

"And that damn near got him killed." snapped Bush.

"By his own choosing." Mara countered. "Should such a choice be dismissed lightly?" She turned to look steadily into his eyes. "You did the same for another, and he has accepted your gift with gratitude and pride. He appreciates that its value is priceless, and knows that it cannot be replaced."

"But it is not the same as it was." Bush blue eyes were bleak.

"Perhaps not." She studied him intently, willing him to understand. "But it has been tested, and it has not been found wanting."

She left him standing in front of the fire, gazing numbly into it as if the answers would appear deep within its heart. He was still there when she drew the bolt on the inn's door, and extinguished the lanterns, and she did not disturb him.

***

It was the rich scent of coffee that woke her. Mara sat up and looked about, momentarily at a loss. Grey light had scarcely begun to creep through the windows: Brendan was up and about early, it seemed. An uneasy suspicion assailed her as she dressed hurriedly and clattered down the stairs.

Her breath caught for a moment as her eyes found the small neat bundle waiting at the inn's doorway: the few possessions this man of the sea kept ashore. She blinked away the tears that threatened, and turned, hearing voices in the parlour. Brendan was there, placing a steaming mug into Commodore Hornblower's hands as Bush looked on, grinning hugely. The expression on Bush's face -- and the twin epaulettes that now adorned his shoulders -- left no doubt of the decision he had made. His smile softened as he turned and saw her, and he crossed to her side, leaving his commodore to enjoy Brendan's conversation and his coffee.

Bush took her hand and kissed it reverently, as if it were the slim white hand of a duchess and not work-reddened and nearly as calloused as his own. "I thank you, Mara Bryce, for all you have done for us... and for me."

She tried to smile, caught as she was between pleasure and tears. "The sooner to be rid of your lot, you'll recall."

The gentle jest rang hollow, and Bush's high spirits were forgotten as his eyes met hers. He found, to his astonishment, that for reasons he could neither name nor articulate he could not bring himself to break the touch shared between them. All he had ever wanted but thought lost forever was now at hand, yet something unexpected, and unlooked for, and surprisingly precious was here within his very grasp, only to be left behind. It came down to a choice, one far more painful than he could have ever imagined. Though perhaps it had only to be set aside for now, and not abandoned forever. There was always time. "I will come back to you, Mara. I promise you that."

"I know, William," Mara said quietly. "I know."

They stood in silence, each studying the other, knowing that no more could safely be said or done. Neither, however, would be the first to break the handclasp that still joined them.

Mara proved to be the stronger, and gave his hand a final, gentle squeeze as she released him. She touched his arm. "Godspeed, William." she said softly. She lifted her chin. "Now go, Captain Bush -- your command awaits you."

Bush turned as Hornblower approached them, wholly unaware of the exchange but for Mara's final words. "Indeed it does, Captain, indeed it does. There is much to do..."

As Bush could well imagine: Nonsuch had to be manned, provisioned, and properly fitted out... His professional mind began to organize, to plan, to efficiently calculate her needs, and he smiled despite himself in anticipation of this undreamed-of return to the world he thought was no longer his. "Aye, sir."

He turned back to Mara, who had seen his smile and did her best. She nodded firmly, dismissing him, denying her own emotions. "Farewell, Captain Bush."

She walked with him as far as the doorway and watched him go, even managing a smile at the last glimpse of his familiar irregular gait as he strode off at Hornblower's side and into the chill grey dawn. The expression on his face as he left the inn behind him had told her all she needed to know, and had given her the strength to stand quietly to watch him as he left her. He looked whole again, complete.

As she watched, he placed a restraining hand on his companion's forearm, halted, and turned back. He grinned, and raised his hat to her in farewell. The joy on his face was hers as well, and she bravely smiled back, and waved, and knew in her heart that she would never see him again.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *


William Bush, 1766-1814

"...there were a hundred and twenty captains junior to Hornblower, men of most distinguished record, whose achievements were talked of with bated breath in the four quarters of the world, and who had won their way to that rank at the cost of their blood and by the performance of feats of skill and daring unparalleled in history... Yet there was no hesitation about his decision. There might be more brilliant captains available, captains with more brains, but there was only one man that he wanted.

"I'll have Bush," he said, "if he's available."

~ C.S. Forester, "Commodore Hornblower"


One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the thousandth man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.

~ Kipling, "The Thousandth Man"


~ The End ~



[1] "Do not fear me, I will do what I can for you. We are not at war, not here, not now." [back]
[2] Quoted verbatim -- aside from the necessary substitution of names and dates -- from a note left for the captain of the revenue cutter Speedwell, c. 1700. [back]
[3] Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. Act III, Scene IV. [back]
[4] "So he is of no use to us. Do you wish me to shoot him, sir, and put him over the side as we have the others?" [back]
[5] True enough; this was the 'cargo' found when revenue officers boarded the pleasure yacht Atalanta in 1828. This incident provided much merriment throughout the smuggling fraternity for some time thereafter. [back]



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