Harlequin's Slash Fic

The Alchemy of Resurrection

Title: The Alchemy of Resurrection
Author: Julien
Universe: Hornblower
Characters featured: Horatio/Pellew
Category, Word count: Story; 12317 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: The Indefatigable is on a diplomatic mission, taking Tapling to Malta. While they wait through Tapling’s interminable negotiations with the Grand Master, Horatio takes the opportunity to raise a forbidden subject with Pellew.
Notes: This story is set in Malta in 1797 or thereabouts – before Napoleon captured the island in 1798, and before the Caravaggio altar piece was lost in an earthquake. (Just to show off that I’ve done my research!)
First published: 8 December 2002 in Horatio Hornblower & the Prix d’Amor

 

 

The Alchemy of Resurrection

 

The table was discreetly cleared – except, of course, for the decanter of port, which the four men began passing round from one to the other, each filling his own glass – and the servant left, quietly closing the cabin door behind him. Once their mouths were each moistened with the strong spirits, Captain Pellew at last asked the question that had obviously been uppermost in his mind for some time: ‘So, where are we conveying you, Mr Tapling, and why?’

‘The Mediterranean,’ the diplomat promptly replied.

Pellew smiled, though there was precious little humour in it. ‘No doubt you realise that you’ll have to be more specific than that.’

‘This really is an excellent port,’ Tapling commented, before taking another thoughtful mouthful. ‘With an exquisite aroma.’ But when he raised his gaze and his nose from hovering over the rich brown liquid in his glass, he perceived that Pellew’s patience was almost at an end. ‘A place of some strategic significance to Great Britain,’ Tapling elaborated, glancing left and then right at Pellew’s two young lieutenants. ‘Especially when one considers the routes through which our wealth flows back home from the far–flung Empire…’

Pellew had deduced the answer, of course, but he left it for his lieutenants to display their own knowledge and judgement – and Kennedy, of course, deferred to Hornblower, with a smile and a slight lift of his chin. ‘The island of Malta,’ Hornblower suggested. ‘Or maybe Port Said. I believe you are referring to the route from India.’

‘Indeed I am, Mr Hornblower,’ Tapling replied, ‘indeed I am.’ And he smiled, amused by the pride that blatantly painted itself across Pellew’s face. Still, there was much to be impressed by in this very promising young man. ‘Your first guess is correct – you are conveying me on a mission to Malta.’

‘My second question remains unanswered,’ Pellew said. ‘Why?’

‘I believe you’ll find all you need to know in your orders, sir, and I am sure that you can surmise much of the rest. But I am not at liberty to discuss the details any further.’

Pellew just stared at Tapling for a moment with a hint of annoyance – which was, nevertheless, overridden by the fact that he knew the necessities of diplomacy as well as any man in the room. ‘Very well,’ the captain muttered. And he swallowed a swig of the port before pushing his chair back, and fetching the sealed orders from his desk.

Of course Pellew had not been permitted to open the orders until the Indefatigable was safely away from England and on the open sea, when there would no longer be any danger of any man learning their destination. He sat there now at the head of the table, sipping his port and reading through two pages of closely written script, while the others remained politely silent. But when he was done, Pellew did not scruple over sharing the Admiralty’s orders with his officers – he handed the pages to Hornblower with no ado, and indicated that Kennedy should get up and go to read them over Hornblower’s shoulder.

‘It says remarkably little,’ was Pellew’s summation, ‘other than we are to support and promote your mission in any way that you see fit.’

‘Exactly so,’ Tapling agreed.

‘And in what way may we support you at present…?’

Tapling smiled. ‘Just get me there safely, Sir Edward. Just, please, get me there safely!’

 

Some while later Tapling finally retired for the night, having praised his way through three full glasses of the captain’s port. Archie also made his excuses – tactfully, though with a knowing smile for his best friend – and he withdrew, leaving Horatio alone with Pellew.

The two men sat there for a while, looking at nothing in particular unless it was the empty glasses and the depleted decanter and the worn varnish on the timbers of the table.

Eventually Horatio quietly asked, ‘What do you think it is that Mr Tapling isn’t telling us?’

Pellew stirred, as if recalled from a deep reverie. ‘Oh, one can’t ever be sure with these diplomats. If anything of significance has occurred in recent times, I am not aware of it. Perhaps it is nothing more than wanting to ensure Malta isn’t tempted to become another of France’s “sister republics” – though why they should want to is beyond me.’

‘Perhaps, with their links to Italy and the Catholic Church…’

‘But Italy was forcibly occupied. There’s no reason to suppose Malta would surrender without a fight, and there’s been no hint of the French preparing further campaigns in this area.’

‘Then maybe we are seeking to base a fleet there, to protect Malta itself as well as the sea route to Port Said.’

‘Maybe,’ Pellew said with an absent nod, obviously still lost in his own thoughts.

Horatio watched his captain for a few moments, spying a hint of tiredness around his eyes, a weariness in the set of his mouth. There was every chance that anyone less familiar with Pellew’s face than Horatio wouldn’t have even noticed, but it was there nonetheless. Well, perhaps that wasn’t so surprising. The Indy had only just returned to Portsmouth after participating in a lengthy though ultimately successful blockade of the French supply lines, when the Admiralty saw fit to order her to sea again. They had left Mr Bracegirdle behind to manage the Indy’s prizes, given up their plans for shore leave, and sailed as soon as a bare minimum of their supplies could be replenished.

‘It will be an easy run to Malta,’ Horatio murmured to his captain in reassurance. ‘If there’s any trouble, all we need do is outrun it.’ For it was explicitly expected that there would be no fighting undertaken while on a diplomatic mission, unless there was no other way to avoid capture.

‘Yes,’ Pellew replied, just as softly. ‘Yes.’ Then he sat up straighter, and his quick dark eyes fixed on Horatio, searching for anything – such as pity – at which he might take offence.

Horatio bore the examination well, even happily. It had been years since he felt any self–consciousness under Pellew’s gaze, and even longer since he’d dropped that boyhood habit of immediately feeling guilty as soon as he suspected any kind of accusation.

When Pellew looked away, Horatio simply said, ‘I think I’ll turn in, sir.’

‘Yes, of course. Goodnight, Mr Hornblower.’

‘Goodnight, sir,’ he said, as gently as he dared. And then he got out of there before Pellew could renew his examination and discover something that the captain of the Indefatigable would consider utterly unforgivable.

 

Within two hours of making anchor in the easternmost harbour of the town of Valletta, Tapling had sent a letter to the Grand Master of the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights of Malta, and received a message in reply. Still mulling over the contents, Tapling ushered the Indy’s senior officers before him into the captain’s cabin so that they could confer in private.

The three naval officers stood close together, trying to ignore the heat of Malta’s climate while awaiting Tapling’s information. ‘That was rather prompt, sir,’ Horatio commented sotto voce.

‘Yes, it was,’ Pellew thoughtfully replied.

‘Even though Mr Tapling claimed we weren’t expected,’ Archie said.

‘Perhaps… anticipated would be apt,’ Pellew concluded.

‘Well,’ Tapling declared to his audience, apparently unaware of their deliberations, ‘this is heartening. The Grand Master, Constantin Donato, offers us the hospitality of the Palace for the duration of our stay.’

‘Do you mean to say –’ Pellew began in irritated tones.

‘He specifically invites myself,’ Tapling smoothly interrupted, ‘and you, Sir Edward, along with Mr Hornblower.’

‘I see.’ The captain was obviously unimpressed, presumably at not being consulted, or perhaps at being so inconvenienced.

In any way I see fit – those were your orders, were they not?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then, consider this an exercise in… muscular diplomacy.’ Tapling smiled, and gave a polite half bow. ‘If you would speedily pack a few necessities, gentlemen.’

Pellew rolled his eyes. ‘Very well.’ He turned away for a moment, considering. ‘Mr Kennedy, I must leave the Indefatigable to you. I’m sure you are aware of what needs to be done.’

There was silence for just a shade too long a moment, before Archie managed to say, ‘Y–yes, sir.’

‘Well?’

Archie glanced at Horatio for inspiration, but his friend merely nodded encouragement. ‘S–supplies, sir, depending on what we have and what is available. The m–maintenance work that was left undone in Portsmouth.’

‘Exactly. Of course, the purser and the carpenters know their responsibilities well, and you know which of the men you can best rely on.’

A moment dragged. ‘M–matthews, Jones and Braithwaite, sir.’

‘That would be my assessment, yes. I have one sobering piece of advice, Mr Kennedy, and that is to limit shore leave as much as possible, though the men will be restless for it. Valletta is not the safest port in the world in which the men can seek rest and recreation.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Pellew had been distracted by his own considerations and annoyances – but now he looked carefully at his young lieutenant, and he softened somewhat. ‘Mr Kennedy,’ he said, ‘I swear on my life that you are the only man in this cabin, or indeed on this ship, who has any doubts about your ability to carry this responsibility.’

Archie glanced again at Horatio, who smiled. ‘Yes, sir,’ Archie replied, a little more confidently. ‘I believe I can keep the men busy, sir. And I wanted to report, sir – the three cannons that misfired during our last engagement? I think I know what the problem was, and Jones has suggested a solution. I can ensure that is carried out.’

‘Good man,’ Pellew muttered, though he soon grew distracted again. Turning away to his desk, he began gathering papers together. ‘Carry on, then, Mr Kennedy. I would wish you luck, if I thought you needed it. Mr Hornblower, make ready to disembark, if you will.’

‘Aye aye, sir,’ Horatio and Archie chorused, before walking out of the cabin together.

They paused in the gallery to make their farewells. ‘Your good luck continues, Horatio,’ Archie ruefully said.

‘I’m not so sure. Diplomacy – muscular or not – is hardly a strength of mine.’

‘Taking command of the Indy, even temporarily, is hardly mine.’

Horatio shook his head. ‘You underestimate your abilities.’

You were made to be a captain, Horatio. I was not.’

‘I wouldn’t be so sure. In any case, you make a damned fine lieutenant, Archie, and as such you will do yourself proud for these few days.’

Archie grinned at him. ‘Think of me, insisting with all my borrowed authority that the men swab the decks and mend the sails, rather than visit the local taverns and brothels…’

Horatio returned the grin. ‘Think of me, holding my tongue, and lying through my teeth.’

They shook hands, and Archie heartily clapped his friend on the back, before they parted ways.

 

The Grand Master was a tall and lean man, though he had a fleshy face. It appeared that he enjoyed his creature comforts, and yet his habitual expression seemed as cunning as a fox. He was effusive in his welcome, but appeared to weigh his every word before he spoke it to ensure that its meaning and its significance were no more or less than he intended. The pauses for consideration may have been because English was less familiar to him than his native language of Italian – but Horatio suspected not, for Donato’s English seemed more perfect than his own.

Horatio could tell that Captain Pellew took an immediate dislike to the man – though he felt sure he was the only one to perceive it. It seemed inevitable that a man’s sense of duty be tested by the severest of trials.

And a severe trial it was… Tapling and Donato talked and talked and talked, carefully circling the heart of the matter while never drawing any closer. It was all Horatio could do to keep a polite smile on his face and an interested light in his eye. By the time an hour had passed, Pellew was becoming patently impatient – but by luck or by good judgement, that was when some rather strange refreshments were provided.

Horatio peered into the small cup that Donato handed him, which seemed to contain warm mud. Pellew was regarding his own cup with a lack of enthusiasm. ‘May I inquire,’ Horatio began, glancing at Tapling to see if he was doing something unforgivable, ‘as to the nature of this… rather delicious looking beverage?’

Tapling laughed good–naturedly. ‘Haven’t you ever had coffee before, Mr Hornblower?’

‘Coffee? Yes, sir, a few times. But it appeared very different to this.’

‘And yet coffee it is,’ the Grand Master smoothly assured him. ‘Brewed in the ways that our friends to the East employ, rather than our friends to the West.’

‘I see,’ Horatio said, glancing again at Tapling, wondering how the diplomat would take this talk of friends. But Tapling seemed unperturbed. Horatio raised the delicate porcelain cup, sipped at the muddy liquid, and almost managed to suppress a grimace.

‘Let me pour you a fresh cup,’ Donato said.

‘Oh,’ Horatio protested, ‘but I have yet to finish… e–enjoying this one.’

All three of the men laughed at him now, and not so good–naturedly.

Donato elaborated, ‘Please – I have been very remiss in my hospitality, so do me the honour of letting me serve you something that you may find more to your taste.’ Even as he spoke, he filled another cup by pouring from two jugs simultaneously. The other liquid – the one that wasn’t coffee – appeared even muddier.

When Horatio put down the first cup, however, and took the second into his hands, the aroma in itself seduced him. ‘But that’s chocolate! I smelt it once, only once, in Spain.’ He sipped carefully at the mixture, and then took a mouthful. ‘Delicious! Truly delicious!’

More laughter, and at his expense. But Horatio smiled. It seemed the first genuine moment in the entire interview. He swallowed the contents of his cup – at least until he reached the oddly–dry sediment at the bottom – and then looked hopefully for more.

‘Mr Hornblower!’ Tapling gently remonstrated. ‘Forgive us, Grand Master. In England, chocolate is valued higher than gold, but I fear Mr Hornblower is not aware of that fact.’

Donato, however, was already pouring him more, a gratified smile on his face. ‘Please – let me serve a beverage more valuable than gold to my brothers from Britain.’

A quiet chuckle from Tapling, and a satisfied smile, as if they had achieved something significant. ‘Indeed,’ he murmured. ‘Indeed. For we will appreciate it far more than would our sisters in France…’

And it seemed that the Grand Master was silently though vastly amused by the observation.

 

At dusk, Horatio and Pellew were shown to their own suite of rooms, which appeared to have once been a dormitory and living area for a group of six Knights. There was a long central room, containing a table and low benches. At the far end, a huge square window looked over the palace’s tangle of inner courtyards; it was too large to be glassed, of course, and it let in the constant noise as well as the fresh air, but it also provided the natural light reflecting off the sandstone walls. Six cells opened off the main room, three to a side, each with its own bed and a small table. The two men chose the cells against the outer wall – Horatio’s to the right and Pellew’s to the left – which had obvious advantages conferred by the rows of small square windows just below the high ceiling.

A meal was brought to them, along with the information that Tapling was dining alone with the Grand Master that evening. Horatio let out a happily relieved sigh as soon as they were alone, to which Pellew responded with a smile. The two men ate in companionable silence, easing into the unanticipated relaxation.

Afterwards, Pellew brought out a book, and sat at the table reading by the light of the two lanterns.

Horatio, however, could not settle. It was too hot to settle! For a while he gazed out the window at what he could see of the palace and its constant drifts of people and bobbing lanterns. Then he looked up and made the effort to pick out a few familiar constellations; but he soon tired of that, for Malta’s night sky paled into insignificance for anyone who’d sailed an endless ocean by starlight alone. Then he lit a candle and wandered into his room. A few long minutes were spent arranging and rearranging the few possessions he’d brought with him – mostly a change of clothes, of course. He’d remembered to bring a book, but soon found that he wasn’t in the mood to glean anything useful from the latest text on geometry. He headed back out to the main room, and strolled up and down the length of it for a while – unobtrusively, or so he thought.

‘For God’s sake, Mr Hornblower! Have you not learned by now to take your rest while you may?’

‘Yes, sir,’ he answered, feeling hurt – and feeling foolish for being so. ‘I’m sorry, sir.’ Horatio sat himself down on the windowsill, and returned to his examination of all that passed below him in the courtyards. But no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t seem to keep still. Almost without realising it, he was soon back to pacing up and down the room.

Pellew closed his book in surrender, and looked up at him. ‘There is always a price to pay for pleasure, Mr Hornblower. I suspect that the cost of all the coffee and chocolate you drank will be a lack of sleep tonight.’

‘Oh,’ Horatio said, mostly just feeling foolish now.

‘Come, then, we’ll go for a walk. I could do with some clean air, and you might be able to walk off the worst of it.’

Horatio smiled, and happily headed off at Pellew’s side. They walked up through the palace grounds, with their backs to the town and the two harbours, until they reached the gates leading out through the main defensive walls. Much to their surprise, they were permitted to leave and were faithfully promised that they would be permitted to return. It seemed that the Knights knew well who they were.

Pellew nodded courteously, and led Horatio out along a road that wound up into the nearby hills. The land around them seemed rocky and barren; but under the moonlight it was beautiful, too, in a stark kind of way. Everything around them was colourless varieties of grey, of course, but Horatio thought he could spy the odd hints of precious blue and velvety white and pure black.

As they rounded a cliff in the road’s climb, all Valletta suddenly lay before them. The irregular darknesses of the buildings tumbled down towards the harbours, dimly lit here and there by the glow of lamps and candles. The Indefatigable was one black shape among many against the dark water, visible mainly due to the white lines of her furled sails catching the moonlight. ‘There’s the Indy, sir. All looks well. At least from this distance!’

‘Yes,’ Pellew dryly replied, ‘but I suspect that even in Mr Kennedy’s worst nightmares he couldn’t manage to sink her while safely anchored in a friendly harbour on a calm night. Well, not in so short a time, anyway…’

Horatio laughed under his breath. That was a remark he would not repeat to Archie himself, for fear of prompting exactly such a nightmare… Poor fellow. Horatio could only hope that in time Archie would gain a larger measure of confidence, for it was the only quality he lacked.

The excursion Horatio was sharing with Pellew had been silent until now. Although Horatio was wary of breaking the mood, eventually he couldn’t help but ask, ‘You sought clean air, sir? I thought the palace and its grounds remarkably free of fumes and refuse.’

‘Indeed. But I do not care for the rarefied airs of politics.’

‘Sir?’

‘One of the things I love most about putting to sea is that politics can never survive long in a bracing ocean wind.’

‘Indeed,’ Horatio echoed, pondering the heart–pounding notion that he’d never once heard Captain Sir Edward Pellew use the word love before.

‘Politics,’ Pellew said, almost spitting the word in his disgust. ‘Sometimes I fear that all human interaction inevitably sinks to the level of politics! Where everything that is done is about manoeuvring for self–interest. Everything that is said has been finessed to the nicest degree. Everything said and done takes all possible ramifications into careful account, with nothing more than one’s own gain in mind.’ The man expounded to the dark night that lay quiet about them: ‘Nothing is ever said simply because it is true, and nothing is ever done solely for the sake of honour, or because it is right.’

Horatio made the mistake of drawing breath.

Pellew turned to glare at him. ‘Do you laugh at me, sir?’

‘No, sir,’ Horatio promptly replied, though he found that he couldn’t quit smiling. ‘I am taking delight in your… fierceness, sir.’

The moonlight clearly etched Pellew’s arched brow. Surprise warred with disdain on that dark–featured face. But Horatio refused to acknowledge the inappropriateness of such a remark.

Both men fell silent again as they returned to the palace and their rooms. And, in the event, it wasn’t the chocolate and coffee that kept Horatio awake that night. It was the fact that he was pondering using the word love in conversation with Captain Sir Edward Pellew. Simply because it was true.

 

Trying not to betray his sense of suffering, Pellew accompanied Tapling to another meeting with the Grand Master – along with young Hornblower, of course. To judge only by Tapling’s air of satisfaction, Pellew would have assumed the negotiations were going well – nevertheless, he had already resigned himself to a long and fruitless stay in Malta. Matters moved at a tedious pace in the doldrums of diplomacy.

Today the main topic of conversation was fresh water. This was something dear to a seaman’s heart, of course, and apparently the island of Malta shared a ship’s need for such supplies. ‘We have no lakes,’ Donato explained with an exaggerated shrug, ‘and no streams that survive through the year.’

It seemed that Horatio’s curiosity was piqued. ‘Then from where do you get your water, sir?’

‘From under the ground, Mr Hornblower. There is a water table at sea level – and yet it is never quite enough.’ The Grand Master glanced at Tapling. ‘Or perhaps the British are more cunning in exploiting such resources than we are…’

Tapling inclined his head. ‘It will be the first matter I investigate on my return home. If we are able to assist our brothers in Malta, then of course we will be glad of the opportunity.’

Donato seemed satisfied with this, though he immediately turned to Horatio again; wily enough to use the young man for his own purposes in this conversational battle. ‘What do you know of alchemy, Mr Hornblower?’

The change of topic threw Horatio, but only for a moment. ‘Uh – the transformation of lead into gold. Or, at least, the search for a way of doing so.’

‘Quite so.’

‘I understand,’ Horatio offered, ‘that the two substances are very similar in many ways, though they appear very different, so the search may not be in vain.’

‘While you are investigating the exploitation of water tables, Mr Tapling, you might inquire into the possibilities of transforming salt water into fresh water.’ The Grand Master looked about him at the three Britons. ‘Now, that would be the true alchemy!’

And they all laughed politely, playing along with the game to one extent or another – though of course it was a perfectly serious topic with benefits far beyond Malta’s own interests. Maintaining his interested smile, Pellew settled further into his chair, trying to maintain his attention as well. Despite his frustrations with Tapling’s diplomacy, the latter was more difficult than the former, because Horatio was there.

Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower. He had first come aboard the Indefatigable years ago, under a dark cloud indeed, but he had soon proven himself worthy. He had soon… Pellew had soon realised that he loved the young man. That this might well be the one great love of his life. And, strangely enough, Horatio had grown fond of him, too. Inappropriately fond. But over their years together, the opportunities, both major and minor, passed them by. Some things were not meant to be. Pellew had commended himself on his courage a time or two before, though he was complacent enough now to admit to a few regrets. He could afford a little complacency, because it was too late to do anything now about this love. Usually, he was even glad that it was so. Usually, he was glad that, after all this time, it was impossible to begin something new.

Sic transit gloria mundi,’ Donato intoned.

Tapling’s chuckle recalled Pellew’s wandering thoughts. Thus passes the glory of the world. Indeed. Pellew shook himself, overlooked Horatio’s glance of concern, and laughed politely once more.

 

Horatio and Pellew were free for the rest of the day, and so they returned to their rooms. Pellew sat at the table with paper and ink and correspondence, while Horatio wandered over to the window again, to view the comings and goings in the palace courtyards. At present, the Knights were filing into a church for their midday worship, dressed in long robes and bowing their heads in humility.

‘It seems a strange combination,’ Horatio observed, watching them carefully, ‘to be a soldier and a monk at one and the same time.’

Pellew replied, ‘But you are a fighting man, Mr Hornblower, and you believe that you have God on your side.’

‘Yes, sir. But I would have thought that the life of a fighting man does not sit well with vows of austerity.’

‘And in what ways are you not austere?’ Pellew cleared his throat, apparently deciding to quickly change tack. ‘Think of the archangel Michael, Horatio, at the head of God’s armies with flaming sword in hand, righteously smiting the wicked…’

Horatio had turned to gaze at his captain, entranced by the image. He whispered, ‘Is that how you see yourself, sir?’

Pellew flinched. ‘Good Lord – no!’

But Horatio suspected that he had just fallen in love with Captain Sir Edward Pellew all over again. What a glorious man!

‘A captain’s duties require the writing of many reports and much correspondence, Mr Hornblower,’ Pellew stiffly announced. ‘You can make yourself useful today as my secretary.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio replied, still glowing. He drew nearer the table where Pellew sat.

Pellew pushed a small pile of letters as far away from himself as possible. ‘You will be a captain yourself one day, and the best way to learn this aspect of your future duties is by performing them.’

‘Yes, sir.’ He sat down, obediently leaving most of the table’s sturdy length and breadth between them. But it was a long moment before he could turn his attention to the task at hand. For Horatio wasn’t sure which image affected him most – a righteous Pellew at the head of God’s armies, or a flustered Pellew who knew full well that he was adored.

 

Eventually they ran out of letters to reply to and reports to write. Eventually they had explored everything they were permitted to of the palace and the fort, the cathedral and the hospital. They had ranged further afield, and roamed through the eerie silence of the cemetery, the fallen magnificence of the medieval ruins. There were paintings in one of the smaller churches – unsettling, dark paintings – that seemed to capture Pellew’s imagination, but not Horatio’s. They accompanied Tapling to another two interminable meetings with the Grand Master. They dined three times at the English Auberge, the lodge where the Knights of British background lived. But eventually even Pellew ran out of ways to pass the time.

Horatio wandered out of his room after bathing one morning to discover Pellew reading a book. It was the same book he’d had before, and apparently he was starting it over, though he seemed rather dissatisfied at having to do so. Well, Horatio could offer Pellew the text that he had brought, even though geometry wasn’t the most exciting topic in the world. Or he could… He could take the rare opportunity of talking to his captain. Really talking to him. Of… speaking about love. Simply because it was true.

Gazing out through the window, Horatio looked at the church where the Knights worshipped. He recalled their conversation of a few days before, and murmured, ‘We are not monks, sir.’

‘Heavens, no,’ Pellew absently agreed.

‘But there are times, sir, when I wonder if you haven’t taken a vow of chastity.’

Silence. Horatio turned around to see the effects of this bold opening move. Pellew seemed about to speak, then thought better of it. He looked carefully at Horatio. He deliberately put his book aside, and frowned in consideration. And apparently he concluded there was no point in pretending that he wasn’t aware of to what Horatio was referring. ‘This is a topic that we have never before discussed,’ Pellew neutrally observed.

‘No, sir.’

‘Then why do you raise it now?’

Horatio decided that he may as well lay it all on the line. ‘There are times, sir, when I would rather not be chaste.’

Pellew snorted. ‘Well, then, I suggest that you go find one of the many who will be happy to assist you in such an endeavour. In fact, perhaps you have already read the report I have here from the last captain who bought supplies in Malta –’ and he found it amidst the pile of correspondence – ‘warning that the girls of Valletta are so pretty and so cunning that they will soon own all that the men can give, and more.’

‘But that would not be for love, sir.’

Apparently Pellew found himself wordless. And it did not seem to sit comfortably with him, that he could not argue.

Nevertheless, Horatio persisted. Into the silence, and in the most peaceable of tones, Horatio continued, ‘It is you whom I love, sir.’

There! Now there lay the truth between them, the truth that had remained unspoken for years.

Pellew closed his eyes for a moment, and – unexpectedly – his expression eased a little, as if the truth brought with it some sense of relief. ‘And I you,’ he quietly offered, not letting Horatio’s courage go unanswered. ‘But that does not mean we should not remain chaste.’

‘Do you never tire of restraint?’

‘I never tire of honour.’

‘Refusing me is a matter of honour?’

Pellew cleared his throat. ‘I am thinking of your career.’

Horatio smiled, and softly said, ‘There is nothing I aspire to that is worthier than being your lieutenant.’

Then I would be depriving the service of a man who could be her greatest captain.’ Pellew got up from the table, and clasped his hands behind his back. On seeing Horatio’s reaction, he continued, ‘Give me no false modesty, Mr Hornblower. You have capabilities and potential far beyond those required in any lieutenant of mine.’

‘Perhaps working together, sir, we are better as a team than we would each be alone –’

‘No.’ Pellew was standing upright and true, at his most commanding. ‘You are a natural leader, and as such you will reach your full potential by commanding a ship, not merely being one part of a ship’s crew.’ He took a breath. ‘And let us not forget the slight matter of the Articles of War. If you were court–martialled for sodomy, they would hang you, Mr Hornblower, and then all I would have to hope for is that they should hang me, too, because I could not bear being the instrument of such a disgraceful death for England’s finest young man.’

Horatio drew closer, though the table remained solidly between them. ‘If I am England’s finest, then how can you resist my love?’

‘I do not claim that it has been easy. Of course there are times when I grow weary of restraint. But that is where this conversation began, and I will thank you not to trouble me with the same arguments.’

Obediently remaining silent, Horatio sat on the bench by the table. He let his head fall – but his resentment must have been obvious, because when Pellew spoke again he sounded rather irritated.

‘Why now? Why after all these years?’

‘Because we may soon run short of opportunities.’

‘So you would render meaningless your own honour and restraint? Does your chastity count for naught?’

‘It would not be meaningless!’ Horatio protested, lifting his head again. ‘We only ever tried to act for the best.’ He leaned forward with his elbows on the table, warming again to his theme. ‘Perhaps the situation has changed, sir, and perhaps acting for the best could include… the best could now include our love. Perhaps we have both benefited from living honourably. Perhaps the men we are today can safely manage a relationship that we couldn’t have in the past.’

Pellew was staring at Horatio, as if wondering how on earth to argue with that.

Horatio took the opportunity to continue, ‘I do not flatter myself that my career will advance sooner than yours. One day soon they will make you Commodore, and I am sure that your restraint will mean that you will not take me with you to your new command. And I will have lost you, and all I will be left with is regret.’ Into the silence, he quietly repeated, ‘I would rather not be chaste all my life.’

This point seemed to belatedly register with Pellew. ‘You cannot mean…? You have never…?’

Horatio shook his head.

Pellew considered this for a moment, obviously taken aback. ‘So I should indulge you from a sense of guilt? Or pity?’

‘No. I ask it only for love.’

‘Then do not try to pressure me.’

Horatio sighed, and found a knot in the wood of the table to worry at. ‘I asked Mr Kennedy.’

‘I see,’ Pellew said stiffly. He turned away, perhaps imagining the two young men together…

‘He said he would be prepared to do it for the sake of friendship. I suppose it was too much to ask that he share the same urges. It is not a common thing, to feel what we do.’

‘And, so…?’

‘And, so… we did nothing. It did not seem right, for him to feel little more than pity for a friend, and for me to – Much as I care about Archie, much as I love him, I would have been denying what my heart demanded.’

‘I see.’ Pellew sat down again at last – at the far end of the bench on the other side of the table. He murmured, ‘I was not… I was not aware that you… I had assumed that you were not chaste.’

‘Does it make any difference?’

Pellew cast him a look that seemed to betray the fact that – ‘It only makes me love you the more,’ he confessed in a whisper. ‘But I will not – I will not indulge you, even for the privilege of… conquest.’

‘Then nothing will ever tempt you?’

‘No. No, nothing.’ Though he didn’t sound entirely certain.

Horatio sighed. ‘I could wish you would save me from bitterness.’

‘Bitterness? How so?’

‘In years to come, I will look back on my life, and I will have known what it was to love, to really love – but I will also remember that the object of my love thought our feelings dishonourable.’

‘Guilt – once more, guilt. Your bitterness or lack thereof is your own concern, Mr Hornblower.’

Horatio looked across at him. Waited until Pellew reluctantly raised his gaze to meet Horatio’s own. ‘You would not bless me with one day – one day only, sir, in all the years of our lives together – on which you treated our love as an honourable thing?’

Pellew grimaced. But then he seemed to be considering the notion. He wasn’t happy about it – indeed, he was obviously irritated. But he was considering it. ‘One day, you say. But would it be possible to then return to what we are now?’

‘We have restrained ourselves for so long; I see no reason why we couldn’t continue to restrain ourselves. Especially once we are back on board the Indy, and living our regular lives.’

‘One day,’ Pellew mused. ‘One day, here, in this stolen season.’ He shook his head. ‘What of duty? What of our duty to the service?’

It was a last ditch defence, and they both knew it. ‘I am as mindful of our duty as you are. But can there be no small corner of our lives that is for us alone? One day, in which we do the service no harm, and ourselves much good. One day, sir…’

Pellew was silent.

Horatio got up and walked around the table, approaching him slowly. There was no need to push any further – Horatio simply settled himself on the floor beside where his captain sat, and lay his head on the man’s thighs, face tactfully turned away. Eventually – it was probably only moments later, though it felt like an eternity – Pellew settled a hand on Horatio’s head, and stroked his hair. Once, twice, thrice. Horatio sighed. He felt no triumph. Oddly, he felt rather sad. It seemed right that they grow used to the idea before proceeding any further, so he continued to sit there, curled up by Pellew’s feet, and he enjoyed the embrace for what it was. For the unique comfort that it was. ‘I love you, sir,’ he murmured.

‘And I love you. But what price do we pay for this pleasure, Mr Hornblower?’

‘Perhaps none that we cannot afford.’

Of course Pellew would not subscribe to such optimism. Nevertheless, his hand cupped Horatio’s nape and encouraged him to rise. Horatio did so – getting to his knees, and daring to slip his hands around Pellew’s waist. And then Pellew’s arms were encompassing him, holding him, drawing him up, and Pellew’s mouth was on his own, and they were kissing – kissing as feverishly as if they had years to make up for. Which, of course, they did.

 

Pellew lay beside Horatio on the young man’s narrow bed in the austere cell. Between kisses, he drank in the sight of his lover, his beloved – the places he had seen before, nut–brown from the sun, and all the pale places that had been a mystery to him. Beautiful. Of course, Horatio was beautiful.

Beautiful, and eager, and untried, and responsive… In all his guilty dreams of this impossible moment, Pellew had never dared to suppose that he would be Horatio’s first. The fact was daunting and wonderful all at once. Luckily, they were both satisfied, for now at least, with caresses, with kisses. With the simplicity of lying together naked – a luxury neither of them had counted on ever occurring. Pellew’s hands were gently soothing – not provoking, not yet. If he only had one day, then he would make every moment count, and they should not rush to completion.

Horatio was gazing up at him with those deep brown eyes, utterly open, utterly trusting. Utterly adoring, utterly content. That was what unnerved Pellew most, perhaps – that Horatio should be so profoundly happy just to be there with him, lying together. Naked. Loving. Pellew had found himself a good definition of heaven. And the absence of this, of course, would be hell.

‘One day only,’ Pellew murmured. ‘What should we do? What do you want me to do?’

A gentle smile. ‘I am in your hands, sir.’

‘And so I must devise all necessary strategy?’

‘Yes, sir. Don’t you have plans?’

‘I hardly dared to… to fancy what would happen, if I was ever this blessed. I hardly dared to dream. I certainly made no plans!’

The smile grew into a grin. ‘If you are as unprepared as I, then we must be creative.’

‘Creative…? Do you see now why I postponed this day for as long as I could? I cannot possibly live up to your expectations.’

Horatio laughed, as undaunted as any young man. Pellew had left such confidence behind some years ago. ‘Touch me,’ Horatio murmured, taking Pellew’s nearest hand, and guiding it to Horatio’s manhood. Pellew gasped as he grasped silky skin, hot hardness, generous girth – even as Horatio groaned to be so grasped. ‘All I expect is pleasure, sir.’ Those eyes darkened as completion grew closer and closer still. That perfect complexion flushed, bloomed. ‘You are obviously quite capable – of giving me that.’

‘Horatio… do you not want this to last?’

‘I am sure –’ he replied, voice catching as his body demanded his full attention – ‘you can make me feel this – oh God! – all over again. And again. And –’

Horatio was suddenly pushing up against him, seeking more of those feverish kisses, and Pellew’s world collapsed around him in the most delightful confusion as the young man’s seed pulsed over Pellew, anointing him.

 

‘And you, sir?’

Pellew smiled down at his lover, his beloved. The young man had barely recovered after being inundated with the first pleasure ever given him by another – and yet his first thought was for Pellew’s pleasure. ‘Oh, I am perfectly happy,’ he assured Horatio. ‘Take your time.’

‘But I want you to… as well.’

‘I know.’ Pellew pressed a kiss to his temple, and settled further into Horatio’s indolently warm embrace. Heaven, indeed! ‘You must be patient with me. I’m sure you are capable of feeling that way again, and again, and again, and all in the space of a morning. In fact, I think we should test such a happy hypothesis. But I – I no longer have a young man’s stamina.’

Horatio abruptly opened his eyes, and grinned at him. ‘Maybe you just haven’t had the right inspiration for a while.’

‘There is always that fact to take into account, of course.’

A hand worked its way down between them, began boldly exploring where it would. There was no finesse to the caresses, but the honest curiosity and the unlooked–for adoration more than made up for the lack. When all was said and done, Pellew would rather be here in this bed for this day, than in any other man’s bed for a lifetime – no matter how practiced or knowledgeable or cunning that other man might be.

‘Oh God, to touch you, sir…’ Horatio was murmuring. ‘Just to touch you is a miracle.’

Pellew wouldn’t have thought it possible, until he knew Horatio. Wouldn’t have thought it possible that such artless, simple caresses could provoke him so far. But combine them with Horatio’s presence, Horatio’s love, Horatio’s words –

‘To see your fierceness with my eyes was wonder enough. To hear your fierceness. But now to feel your fierceness with my hands…’

‘Stop it, stop it,’ Pellew protested. But he was lost, and he knew it.

‘To be held in your righteousness…’

Pellew tightened his arms around that beautiful body. To be blessed by the young man in his prime, in his perfection. It was too much, too much.

‘You are my archangel, sir.’

And Pellew spilled over at those words, those ridiculous words, those utterly sincere words. He almost sobbed with the pleasure, with the relief – and then he almost sobbed with the sadness. ‘One day only,’ he gasped, still shuddering. ‘It will break me to let you go.’ To hear you call me ‘sir’ tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, while remembering you calling me ‘sir’ at such a moment today. ‘I should never have let you talk me into this.’

Horatio was hushing him, soothing him. ‘No, sir, don’t trouble yourself with that. Don’t think of tomorrow. Think of today. Today is all we ever have.’

Pellew stared at him, still achingly sad. But he could see the sense in what Horatio said.

‘Enjoy today for what it is.’ He smiled, fondly. ‘Archie taught me that.’ He smiled, fondly, thinking of his friend.

Jealous, and grieving, and scared – Pellew nevertheless managed to find an answering fondness within him. For there was indeed only today.

And they were kissing again. A hard, driving kiss, with their feverishness becoming frantic. Because for this moment at least, Pellew couldn’t match Horatio’s equanimity. He couldn’t even come close.

 

As usual, Tapling sent his man down at midday to ask after their plans. Pellew met the fellow at the door, to explain they were both feeling somewhat indisposed, and to ask if they could be left undisturbed for the day. Then Pellew returned to Horatio’s bed.

Unfortunately, however, it seemed the ruse did not work, for another knock sounded within half an hour. Pellew shrugged on his robe and his fiercest scowl, and went to see what the problem was.

Luckily it wasn’t Tapling himself – it was three serving boys from the kitchens, bearing baskets of fruit and bread, jugs of wine and water. ‘With the Grand Master’s compliments, sir,’ one of them murmured with a charmingly odd inflection, ‘and he hopes you will allow one of his personal physicians to attend you.’

‘That won’t be necessary, but please convey my gratitude for his most generous offer.’

‘Yes–suh,’ the boy said with a giggle. Then he tugged his forelock as if imitating the sailors he’d seen. ‘Aye–aye–suh.’

Pellew chuckled, found them a coin each, and made sure they’d return his compliments and his gratitude to Donato. And then, once they’d scampered out the door again, he called Horatio out for some much needed replenishment.

 

That night they slept close together in the narrow bed, despite the heat: Horatio wriggling back to fit snugly with Pellew; Pellew curled around his lover, his beloved. Somewhere, deep in the night, Horatio rose from dreams and turned to blindly seek another kiss. Pellew woke immediately, and just as immediately began answering Horatio’s renewed hunger. It was an eerie kind of encounter, lying there in the filtered moonlight. This time, there were no words, no whispered endearments, no verbal reassurances. Just Horatio, bold and fearless, taking what he most wanted, giving what was most needed.

After Horatio fell asleep again – their positions reversed, with Horatio curled around Pellew this time – Pellew was left to wonder if the young man had even woken fully. Pellew himself lay awake for some while, trying to take in every detail of being held by Horatio. Trying to remember it well enough to last him a lifetime.

 

Horatio was his best self the next morning – happy and equable and optimistic. He fetched them jugs of hot and cold water, and insisted on bathing Pellew himself. Sometimes Pellew wondered if Archie Kennedy hadn’t taught his friend how to smile, partly because Pellew had long ago decided that Horatio must have been a most serious and solitary child, and partly because there was something about Horatio’s occasional moments of exuberance that recalled Kennedy exactly. This morning, though, Pellew did not let jealousy sour his mood. Or grief, or fear. This morning, he would take to heart that other lesson of Kennedy’s, and he would enjoy this last hour for what it was. This morning, he would attempt to forget that this must all soon end.

For all that they had done together, Pellew hadn’t tasted Horatio yet. After carefully sponging the fellow all over, washing off the traces of their lovemaking, and then drying him, Pellew sat Horatio down on the side of the bed. Knelt between his legs. Horatio smiled at him, utterly trusting, though it seemed he wasn’t thinking ahead at all to what Pellew was intending. Had Pellew ever really deserved that kind of trust? He thought not. Nevertheless, he bent his head and claimed what he wanted.

Horatio drew in a startled breath at the sensation. It was so flattering to have a lover this responsive – though Pellew reminded himself not to take it too personally. Horatio was making up for a world of lost opportunities. The older man drew on all his knowledge and experience, though it seemed meagre when compared to what Horatio deserved, and used his hands as well as his mouth to knead and suckle. At first, Horatio leaned back, stretching out under the assault, murmuring incoherent encouragement. But then he began curling up around where Pellew worked, and his fingers ran through Pellew’s hair. Curling up further, with his arms around Pellew’s back, until Pellew was enclosed in his lover’s embrace. Until at last Horatio completed, groaning, pulsing into Pellew’s mouth, and of course he tasted divine, like the finest English roast beef with gravy on a Sunday with nothing more to do but sit before the fire for the afternoon…

When he could, Pellew shifted up onto the bed, took Horatio into his arms, rocked him gently back and forth. The young man was still curled up, still moaning a little. Eventually Pellew whispered, ‘Are you all right?’

‘Oh God…’

‘Horatio?’

He groaned, and uncurled just enough that he could look at Pellew. ‘Whatever you just did to me. I want you to teach me how to do it to you.’

Pellew smiled a little, sadly. ‘I can’t, my dear. Soon we must return to our lives.’

Horatio’s eyes drifted closed in grief ‘No…’

‘Our stolen day is almost over.’

‘Then you had better – I know you have been holding yourself back,’ Horatio said roughly, pressing his face against Pellew’s throat. ‘You had better take what you want.’

‘No, my dear,’ Pellew murmured, even though his manhood had stirred at the offer. ‘There will be enough pain. Don’t ask me to add that as well.’

‘Please!’ Horatio was gazing up at him now, hands clutching Pellew, as if the young man was as desperate for the act as Pellew himself. ‘Please, sir…’

‘No.’ And Pellew drew away. Got up off the bed. Horatio was no longer touching him. But that was the only way it could work. Wasn’t it? Horatio would never touch him again. That beautiful body lay adrift there on the bed, lay adrift where he left it, thoroughly debauched and yet wanting more. ‘No.’ Pellew knew he had to leave now while he was strong enough. ‘No.’

One last look at that yearning face, both of them bereft as if neither had really believed it could end. And then Pellew tore himself away, and he pulled on enough clothes to be decent though he honestly couldn’t say what he was wearing, and then he walked out of their rooms. Because he could think of no other way.

 

The altar piece in the church nearby. An enormous canvas, painted dark. The subject was lit within the painting by a beam from on high. And yet the light was cold, when it should have been God’s healing light, full of life–giving warmth. For the subject was the resurrection of Christ. It should have been transcendent. But Christ was tentatively stepping out of his tomb, looking around him at the emptiness. And he was bewildered. Frightened. Jesus Christ was afraid and alone.

Pellew sat there at the back of the church, unsure whether the painting repelled him or fascinated him or both. And he wept. He felt tears running down his cheeks, and he let them fall. For he felt just as bewildered and just as frightened. His years–long love had been returned in full measure. At last he could say there was a day on which his love had been an honourable thing. He himself had been resurrected, and he should feel transcendent. He was scared, though. Nothing more than a pitifully scared old man. And even telling himself off for the shocking blasphemy of identifying with Christ didn’t shake him out of it.

He was lost, and he knew it.

 

Horatio felt he was making a pretty decent attempt at pretending all was normal. They were sitting through yet another meeting with the Grand Master, who seemed to be circling the issue of British ships protecting Malta’s supply convoys, which was confusing when Horatio knew very well that Malta had plenty of fighting ships of her own. Nevertheless, he sat there paying attention, and smiling politely, and not expressing his confusion, and barely even noticing that he was drinking chocolate and coffee worth more than gold. Pellew was doing much the same, though he let his coffee sit untouched, and he appeared worryingly pale. He hadn’t once met Horatio’s gaze. Not since that last desperate stare this morning, as he walked out of the room they’d shared. As he walked out forever.

‘I trust you are also feeling quite well today, Mr Hornblower?’

He could have sworn he was paying attention, but it took Horatio a moment to realise that he had been addressed by their host, and he must answer. ‘Ah, yes, sir. Thank you.’ He smiled, though he knew the expression must look weak. ‘I, uh, I must thank you for all the fresh food you sent yesterday. It was… exactly what we required.’

‘Please – I was glad to be of some service, no matter how small.’

‘It was much appreciated,’ Horatio firmly repeated.

Pellew belatedly nodded. ‘Yes, a very thoughtful gesture.’

The two of them had each faltered into silence, as if even their voices were avoiding each other. Pellew still wouldn’t look at Horatio. Tapling was observing them both, with a brow slightly raised – however, he smoothly took up the slack of the conversation, and perhaps the Grand Master hadn’t noticed anything amiss, or perhaps he ascribed it to whatever illness one was assumed to have when one was indisposed for a day…

At last they were released from the Grand Master’s presence. Tapling and Pellew walked off with their heads bent together, conferring about something or other. Horatio followed, maintaining a discreet distance. As they reached the corridor leading to Tapling’s rooms, they all halted.

When the conversation seemed to be winding to a halt as well, Horatio stepped forward. ‘Please, sir,’ he said quietly. Pellew flinched, and turned away. Horatio tried not to notice. ‘Can you explain to me why they would need our protection for their supply ships? They have the capability to protect their own ships, don’t they?’

Tapling nodded. ‘But they don’t have the capability to go privateering as well as protect their own supply convoys.’

Horatio blinked. The Knights were monks and soldiers and privateers…?

‘Yes, Mr Hornblower. How do you think they acquired all that coffee and chocolate with which to impress us? My educated guess is that they recently captured a few Turkish merchant ships.’

‘Oh. I see.’

‘Well, you two had better go take care of yourselves,’ Tapling said. ‘Whatever it was, it doesn’t appear as if either of you is over it yet. These hot climates can be very draining.’

Horatio stared at the man, unsure whether Tapling knew the truth or had guessed, or whether it was his own guilty conscience reading more into the words than intended.

Pellew was unfazed, though. He just muttered, ‘Yes, yes,’ and wandered off back down the corridor, hands clasped behind his back.

‘Good afternoon, sir.’ Horatio offered Tapling a respectful nod, and followed his captain.

When Horatio caught up with him, Pellew said in a rather distant tone, ‘I think I’ll go down to the harbour, given that I’m not needed here, Mr Hornblower, and ensure that all is well on the Indefatigable.’

‘Yes, sir. If you would, sir –’ He fumbled for a moment, unsure whether he would ever again be permitted to use the informal language they’d all become used to. ‘My compliments to Mr Kennedy, if you would be so kind, sir.’

‘Of course.’ And Pellew nodded, eyes still avoiding him, and walked away.

Horatio sighed, and returned to their rooms. Their lonely, empty rooms.

 

Horatio waited that night, waited with no hope in his room with the door closed tight. He knew that he could not, in all honour, approach Pellew again. He had insisted on raising the matter, he had suggested that they only take one day for themselves, and he had no right to ask for more. But Horatio waited, unable to settle or even contemplate sleeping. He hadn’t been able to touch the bed that he’d lately shared with his captain, he hadn’t been able to sit there; of course he could not lie there. Not alone. Not any more.

The night was hot, as every night on the island had been. It seemed that Malta soaked up all the sun’s warmth during the day, and then radiated it back throughout the night. Horatio wore nothing but his shirt and britches, and he leaned against the internal wall where it was coolest, resting his head against the stone.

Why on earth had he thought they could go back to how it had been? Perhaps, when they returned to the Indy and their ordinary lives, it would be possible. Perhaps this despair would fade to manageable proportions. In the meantime… In the meantime…

He ached.

He hadn’t realised, that was his only excuse. He hadn’t realised what it could be, to have Captain Sir Edward Pellew focussed only on him, loving him. He’d been a fool. A naive fool, and he should have known better than to push Pellew that far, because Pellew had known all along – even while they were making love, Pellew knew that they should not have abandoned their restraint, no matter how precarious that restraint had come to feel. While Horatio had been mindlessly happy, Pellew had been stricken with grief, with anger, with doubt.

Horatio would have to get beyond this, that was all. He would have to find some way of making it true that having shared one day of love was better than never having even touched. Even though he could now begin to see the enormity of all that was missing in his life. He had to get beyond this. It had to be all right for him to be nothing more and nothing less than his captain’s lieutenant. It had to be all right.

He ached.

But in time that would pass. In time the despair would become regret, and the regret would dwindle into sadness, and the sadness would grow bittersweet. Bittersweet, and more precious than gold, because he loved and was loved. It would be all right, he knew it would. They would survive. Maybe in time, though it seemed like betrayal to even think of it – maybe in time they would each thrive again. Once Pellew had forgiven him for insisting. Once he had forgiven himself.

There were footsteps in the main room. Pellew’s purposeful, even tread. Horatio held his breath. Pellew was just going to his own room, of course, to sleep the night through. Alone.

No. The footsteps were approaching Horatio’s room. He dragged in a ragged breath, telling himself not to hope. Not to dare. The door opened, and Pellew was there, staring at him. Horatio managed to hold himself back. There might be some requirement of duty. For Pellew, everything was about duty.

But Pellew strode right up to him – and Horatio fell into his arms murmuring, ‘Oh thank God, sir, thank God…’

They were kissing, those hot damp kisses they had already shared, those delirious kisses Horatio could never ever tire of.

Pellew lifted his head, considered Horatio. Ran a hand back over his hair. ‘What you offered me this morning,’ he said, quite formally though his voice was fraught. ‘If I may…?’

‘Of course. Yes. Of course.’ And Horatio insisted on kissing him again. Already his lips felt delightfully sore.

‘Perhaps, while we are in Malta… Perhaps, for this stolen season…’

‘Yes, sir. Please, yes…’

And Pellew guided him to the bed, and they sank down to lie together.

 

He ached. Horatio couldn’t quit grinning. He ached because he’d been used, and used again – and it was the most divine thing he’d ever felt.

‘Whatever are you looking so smug about?’ Pellew complained. But the contentment in his voice betrayed the truth of what he himself was feeling.

‘I love you.’

Pellew kissed him for that.

Belatedly aware of the hoarseness of his own throat, Horatio said, ‘I fear that I told half the castle what we were about.’

‘Indeed.’ Pellew didn’t seem very perturbed about the matter. ‘It is a wonder that the Knights haven’t come running to rescue you from me.’

‘Rescue me? No, they would come running to have you do to them what you were doing to me…’

‘I fear that you are incorrigible, Mr Hornblower.’

Horatio laughed, too happy to be quiet. ‘If ever I have the honour to name a ship, I will christen her the Incorrigible, and then every time you hear of her you will think of this time we have spent together.’

‘I will not need to be reminded.’ And then Pellew’s sadness – which perhaps had never been far away – returned. ‘I had thought that my responsibilities aboard the Indefatigable would distract me this afternoon. They did not.’ A sigh. ‘Parting will be just as difficult once we return to our duties.’

‘Don’t think of it,’ Horatio murmured, loosening the ribbon that tied Pellew’s hair back, so that the dark locks were freed to tumble about the man’s shoulders. ‘Think of today. Think of what we have today.’

‘Yes.’

Seeking to change the topic, Horatio asked, ‘Was all well on the Indy?’

‘Yes, indeed. Mr Kennedy returns your compliments – with a rather suggestive smile, I may add.’

Horatio laughed at his captain’s suddenly severe tone, but also grimaced apologetically. ‘Archie is the only person in the world in whom I have confided, I promise.’

‘No doubt I appeared somewhat troubled, and all the officers were aware of it – but if Mr Kennedy has guessed the reason for my unease, then he is more perspicacious than he himself believes.’

‘We can trust him, sir. He would never do or say anything to harm either one of us.’

Pellew sighed again. ‘Yes. Yes, I know you are right. He is a good man, and loyal.’

A silence lingered as Pellew contemplated weighty matters. Eventually Horatio asked, ‘Has there been any trouble aboard?’

‘No, not so far.’ Pellew smiled a little. ‘Mr Kennedy has promised the men shore leave by the end of our stay in Malta, but he has also been working them so hard that they will not have the energy left to get into much trouble. The few who managed to make shore without permission were put to work cleaning out the ballast – particularly filthy work in this heat, as you would know.’

Horatio laughed. ‘Oh dear! Will he not have a mutiny on his hands?’

‘He is making up for the hard work with fresh rations and extra grog, and your man Matthews assures me that he is considered to be fair.’

‘Then you have reassured yourself of what you already knew,’ Horatio murmured, snuggling closer to his lover. ‘The ship is in good hands, and you can turn your mind to other matters.’

‘Such as…?’ But Pellew was teasing him.

Horatio captured a kiss. ‘You have much to teach me, do you not? So we should begin.’ And so they did.

 

Their days in Malta had stretched interminably before they became lovers – but, of course, afterwards the days sped by. Tapling’s approach seemed to change overnight from a measured, patient caution to a frantic, pushy haste. Their meetings with the Grand Master abruptly appeared to achieve actual agreements useful to both the island and the Empire.

All too soon, Horatio found himself standing beside his friend Archie, aft on the Indy’s poop deck. They watched as Captain Sir Edward Pellew politely conferred with the midshipmen – who all seemed in excellent spirits. ‘You have managed well enough, Archie,’ Horatio observed. ‘Morale is high.’

Archie grinned, and turned away to hide it from witnesses. ‘It is just as well that you didn’t arrive until this morning, Horatio. I had to send Matthews and Styles through the taverns last night, to collect the last of the men, and I suspect that Styles took the opportunity to bolster his courage along the way… But the crew were all present and accounted for by sun–up today. Perhaps the morale you see is really just relief!’

‘I knew you’d be fine.’

‘I was lucky.’ But when Horatio cast him a severe look, Archie’s grin widened, and he dropped his gaze for a moment. ‘All right – I managed well enough, I admit it.’

‘Good.’

‘And what of you?’ Archie asked. ‘I think diplomacy must suit you, after all.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘It seems to me that you have accomplished a mission that you once feared impossible.’ And Archie winked at him – an amused, salacious kind of wink.

Gaping in shock, Horatio also turned his back to the poop deck and any witnesses. ‘Oh God… Is it so obvious?’

‘Only to someone who knows you well.’ Archie laughed. ‘And none but me would guess exactly who put that swagger in your hips…’

‘Archie!’

‘I am pleased for you, Horatio. Anyway, I was forewarned. The captain gave the game away when he came to visit – for he could not say your name without blushing.’

This was terrible. ‘He will… He will not be glad of that.’ An understatement, if ever there was one. ‘You know this must remain a secret!’

‘It’s all right, Horatio – he and I were alone at the time, and he seemed aware that I was aware…’ Archie shrugged. ‘I honestly doubt that anyone else noticed anything different about him.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘As sure as I can be.’ Archie’s high–spirited, congratulatory air had almost gone by now. ‘I don’t think you have much to fear, Horatio,’ he quietly said. ‘No one on this ship is going to report Captain Pellew for breaking an Article of War. There isn’t a man aboard who’s served under a captain of even half his worth. They all love him. Just not in quite the same way that you do…’

Horatio refused to be humoured. ‘Well, the further we are from Malta, the less it will matter.’

‘How so?’

‘Because we – Because we parted.’ Tears threatened to unman him, but Horatio forced them not to spill. ‘I do not want to talk of it. But we agreed that – that it was only to last for while we were in Malta.’ Silence. When Horatio looked up, Archie was blessing him with the most compassionate of expressions. It almost undid him entirely. ‘This morning was difficult. The most difficult thing I have ever done. I gave my word that nothing more would ever be said or done between us. And so it is finished.’

‘I cannot – I do not believe that.’

‘Please, Archie…’

‘No, let me say one thing. If he thought he could finish it that easily once he’d begun, then he never would have resisted for so long.’

Horatio closed his eyes, praying that he would not weep. ‘I thank you for the compliment, Archie, but –’

‘Did he give you his word?’

‘No. No, he only required mine.’

It seemed that Archie was happy to have made his point. ‘Do you see? He could not give you his word that nothing more would ever happen.’

Mercy… ‘Please let’s not discuss it.’

Archie nodded. The two of them stared silently out across the harbour, while Horatio regathered himself.

‘Mr Kennedy!’ Pellew boomed at them. ‘To obey an order, you must first listen to it!’

‘Sorry, sir!’ Archie promptly made his way back across the poop deck.

‘Let us not waste this fair wind, Mr Kennedy. Take her out of the harbour, if you please.’

Archie glanced back at Horatio, who as the senior lieutenant would normally expect to be given such privileges.

Now, Mr Kennedy.’

‘Yes, sir!’ And Archie stepped forward to pass on the order to man the capstan and weigh anchor.

Pellew stood there watching the process for a while, hands clasped behind his back. His manner seemed complacent. Despite the strain of their parting that morning, Horatio thought that his captain’s former weariness had all but disappeared, and the man stood more at ease than he had for a long while. It was good to see. It was good to trust that he himself had something to do with Captain Sir Edward Pellew standing taller.

And Horatio had to admit that at some level – despite the threat of tears, and despite the grief at his loss – at some very deep and profound level, Horatio himself felt… contentment. It wasn’t happiness, but in some ways perhaps it was better – deeper, and more likely to last. Yes, he was content, and that would do. That would do well.

 

Tapling dined every evening he could in the captain’s cabin, partly for the sake of the truly excellent port, and partly for the companionship. Pellew and his two young lieutenants were all in fine moods, as if the time in Malta had done them each a world of good. There had been a tension between Pellew and Hornblower at first, as if they’d argued, but that soon blew over, and the three now made delightful supper companions.

With Kennedy, the reason why was easy enough to fathom. His taste of command had enabled him to prove himself – to himself as much as to anyone else. With Pellew, Tapling thought the reason must have something to do with spending a significant amount of time away from his responsibilities, even though the man seemed happy to live only for the sake of his ship and his duty. But there was obviously more to it than that, and Tapling wasn’t entirely sure what. As for Hornblower, Tapling was at a complete loss. The man was more relaxed and satisfied with his lot than Tapling had ever seen him, though he’d never before thought of Hornblower as dissatisfied… In fact, it was only now, seeing him like this, that Tapling realised Hornblower used to seem rather… well, ungrounded, if that wasn’t too contradictory a word for a seaman. As if he had found somewhere he dearly wanted to belong, but didn’t yet feel at home despite years of being there. Strange.

‘It was like… liquid velvet,’ Horatio was declaring, hands trying to pull better words from the air. ‘It was like… the richest, smoothest pudding you’ve ever eaten – except that it was as different to pudding as a fine carriage is to a dung cart.’

Kennedy, for whose benefit this performance was playing, had raised his brows in disbelief, though he was laughing happily. Even Pellew was chuckling. Tapling was simply pleased to watch them all.

‘No, you are quite hopeless at this, Horatio!’ Kennedy declared. ‘Mr Tapling, you are the wordsmith. Can you not give us a better description?’

‘It was like…’ Tapling mused for a moment… ‘the essence of silk. Only thicker.’

Kennedy shook his head in despair, and Hornblower almost collapsed in laughter at this sortie.

‘It was indeed indescribable,’ Pellew concluded. ‘But Mr Kennedy will have his chance. I am sure that the next time we are in London, Mr Hornblower will take his friend to a chocolate house – by force, if he has to – and he will spend his year’s wages on a cup or two.’

‘They have it in London?’ Horatio asked, abruptly sobering up. ‘A chocolate house, you say?’

‘Exactly so,’ Tapling agreed. ‘I will give you the address of the best. Though you will have to wear your full dress uniforms, simply in order to be allowed in the door.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Horatio murmured – overawed, so that Tapling was reminded once more that Hornblower was the son of a provincial doctor. Despite which, there was so very much to be impressed by in this young man.

A notion with which Pellew obviously agreed, judging by the fondness of his expression. ‘Well,’ the captain said, standing and absentmindedly wandering over to his desk where he began sorting through a number of charts. ‘Speaking of London…’

Tapling swallowed the last of his port, and rose. It didn’t take a diplomat to recognise a dismissal. The two lieutenants also rose, and wished their captain goodnight.

At the very last moment, though – just as the three guests had reached the cabin door and opened it – Pellew said, ‘Mr Hornblower, if you would stay for a moment?’

Hornblower hesitated briefly, as if surprised – shocked, even. A few fleeting emotions crossed his face. And then he smiled. Smiled broadly. ‘Yes, sir.’ He turned back towards Pellew, and stood at ease, waiting for further orders.

Meanwhile, Kennedy was hurrying Tapling out the door. And Kennedy was smiling broadly, too.

‘What’s going on?’ Tapling was fazed enough to ask.

‘Nothing, sir.’

‘Oh, I’m sure there’s something…’

‘Horatio has a gift for mathematics,’ Kennedy offered, walking Tapling back to his cabin. Escorting him, more like. ‘The captain probably wants him to assist with our navigation. Which is all based on geometry, you know.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘You should believe me,’ Kennedy concluded with a great air of satisfaction, ‘for I’m never wrong about these things. Not ever!’

‘I see,’ Tapling mused. He found himself in his cabin. ‘Well, goodnight, Mr Kennedy.’

‘Goodnight, sir.’ And the man had the cheek to close the door for Tapling – who almost expected to hear himself being locked in. Well, well. A mystery. And he only had until England to get to the bottom of it…

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