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The Pillars of Hercules

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The Countess Romanova suited sea voyages well. She had placed herself on the starboard side of the deck of the Nuestro Hombre de Hierro, where she showed to maximum advantage against the clear blue of sea and sky. Her sombre black gown set off her creamy skin and red hair, which she had pinned low. She wore no ruff, only a thin line of lace at her neck; the high stiff collar of her black doublet more firmly resisted the sea winds that tugged impishly at her and set the black pearls that depended from her ears swinging.

Don Antonio Stark de Cerrara had to admire her judgment; had she taken to the port side, she would have been outlined by the great sandstone cliffs of Cape Trafalgar, less flattering to the striking figure she cut. He himself was not so sombre, but more magnificent in his crimson suit; a single ruby glinted in one ear, he wore his beard and moustache in the Spanish style, and a great ruby and gold collar of staggering ostentation was carefully arranged over his chest. He held his hat firmly on his head as he crossed the deck to her, its ostrich plume already succumbing meekly to the demands of the wind and scattering white fluff into the sea.

He made her a very elegant bow, despite the rocking of the boat, and she dipped him an equally graceful curtsey.

"Milady, it pleases me that you find the sea air so much to your taste."

"Did I not, Don Antonio, I would no doubt travel less." The lady spoke excellent Spanish, with the merest, most charming, hint of an accent. She favoured Don Antonio with a slow, intimate smile. "You are truly kind to allow me to accompany you on this voyage; I have longed to see the Mediterranean. From what I have heard, I will find it far more to my taste than the bold Pacific, or the chilly Baltic sea."

"You are indeed widely travelled," Don Antonio agreed. He turned, and paced away from her, finally settling himself against the mainmast of the ship, some fifteen steps away from her; he spoke more loudly, to overcome the distance between them. "Yet, milady, it occurs to me that you have not been entirely honest with me."

The Countess looked upon him tranquilly. Perhaps she noted, then, that the sailors present on the deck – and there were more than might expect to find busying themselves on-deck at this hour - had formed a loose half-circle centred upon her, with the ship's captain leaning against the same mast Don Antonio did. Perhaps she did not; or perhaps she had noticed it when it began to form. There was certainly no change to her expression.

"Why do you think that, Don Antonio? May not a lady have her own reasons for seeking out a gentleman's company?"

"Indeed she may, milady. Persuant to those reasons, I visited your cabin very late last night, and found that you were not within." Don Antonio, as a gentleman, had given up the great cabin to her; it was a charming little space, and mostly free of the smells and inconveniences that enlivened shipboard life.

"Because I did not answer a knocking upon my door in the middle of the night?" A little lilt of incredulity to her voice, and Don Antonio gave an apologetic smile.

"Because I entered, and found your bed empty."

"Sir!" Her hand flew to her throat; a maidenly blush mantled her cheek.

"And your maid slept so deep I could not awaken her."

"What of it? I hired her in Madrid; I do not know her habits."

"I took the liberty of examining your garments, milady."

"You insult me." Chin up, a glint of anger in her eyes, but still Don Antonio persisted, long inured to the disapproval of modest and proper ladies.

"I notived at the ball a few days ago; your farthingale is fuller than Spanish styles dictate. It is in the French style, is it not?" Don Antonio was, perhaps, a man more than usually familiar with the garments of ladies.

"And is there harm in that?"

"Not alone, but it sparked my curiosity; I notice that you have a partlet of charming embroidery; and it has sleeves embroidered to match, which is not the custom in Spain. And you have one delightful set of stays, which would be all the rage at court, no doubt, if you could display them, as they are embroidered in many colours, with flower petals each shaded - "

"You outrage my modesty, sir. What if my wardrobe is not entirely Spanish? I am Russian, sir, I am the niece of Ivan, Caesar of all the Russians, and he will not take kindly to hearing I have been treated so. I will go to your King - "

"All these things are, I have heard, in the English style."

The English, of course, were not welcome within Spain; since their Queen had renounced the true religion and denied the Pope, all devout Catholics had turned their faces against them – and the King of Spain was a very devout Catholic, so devout that an Englishwoman in Spain might, unless she renounced her heresy, find herself at the stake.

There was a short pause. The Countess curled her lip disdainfully.

"I have travelled within England," she said haughtily. "What of it?"

"Why, only that the Spanish ambassdor at the court of Elizabeth knows of no Countess Romanova."

"And yet I know Don Bernardino de Mendoza." She met his eyes squarely. "Write to him again."

"A time-consuming practice, milady. Fortunately, there is no need. It seems he has outrun the news. Elizabeth expelled him from her court, and he is returned home to make his excuses. He arrived only three days ago, the night before we embarked upon our journey to Cadiz; time enough for me to bring him to your lodgings, so he could see you enter your carriage."

Her dark lashes fluttered for a second; but she did not flinch, and her face lost none of its fetching colour.

"Indeed," she said lightly. "They do not call me Romanova in England, for they do not understand how ladies in Russia arrange their names upon marriage."

"Don Bernardino informed me that at Elizabeth's court, you were called Lady Barnes. Your husband is Sir James Barnes, is he not? You are an Englishwoman."

"I am a Russian," and she threw back her head and stood proudly. "No matter who I may have married in England."

"You repudiate him, then?"

She gave a wicked smile, at odds with her grand demeanour. "Why, I was married by one of Elizabeth's heretic priests – that is no marriage in Spain, is it?"

"Ah, a litigant! You make a fine point, milady. But why did you not sleep in your bed last night?"

"I wished for air, Don Antonio. The ship is oppressive, for a lady accustomed to the boundless horizon of Russia." She glanced out over the waves, something wistful in her face.

"But you did not walk openly upon the deck?"

"At night? With sailors and no protection from them?"

"So where did you go?"

"Why, I climbed out of the cabin window," and she opened her green eyes very wide and innocent.

There was a pause. Sir Antonio blinked, several times, and could only manage "Come now, milady."

"Why should I not? The ship is by no means smooth polished; I found as many holds as I needed. I climbed to the front of the ship, and enjoyed the breeze in my hair."

"I find this hard to believe."

"Why, if you do not believe me, only send a man to examine the prow; I have left my mark there, an area painted white with lime."

"Lime?"

"I acquired it from the ship's store before going forward, of course, I do not say I brought it with me." She waved a hand as if to dismiss the idea, and Don Antonio stared at her as if she were mad.

"Why would you do such a thing?"

"Why, so that when we approached the gateway to the Mediterrean, a man might stand upon Cape Spartel - " her slim arm rose, to indicate the promontory that stood out from Morocco on the southern side of the Straits– "And, did he have a powerful glass, might identify this ship, and give the signal to a ship moored on the western coast."

A fire was just visible upon the promontory, and Don Antonio turned on his heel and shouted up to the crow's nest. The ship's captain had already pulled out his spyglass and turned it south.

"How long has that fire been lit?" called Don Antonio.

"Long enough," said the lady, and sure enough, the captain of the ship turned back from his search.

"Three warships, Don Antonio. Two of Morocco – and one English."

Don Antonio swore, and she arched a fine dark brow.

"Before me, sir?"

"Milady, I trust you will concede my point when I say I do not judge you a lady capable of being shocked by my words." He nodded to the men. "Take her below; bind her wrists and ankles, and lay her on my bunk. Use all care; if we evade capture, she will be a prize to us. Forgive my discourtesy, milady, I do not trust you unbound."

The lady was borne off without protest, and Don Antonio turned to the captain, a caballero of beautiful garb and bored demeanour.

"Well?" he said coolly, and the captain pulled a face.

"We have no easy escape," he said. "We will not outrun them – we have no support – we depended on secrecy for this mission. Why did you not confront the lady before we embarked, Don Antonio?"

"I was not sure," Don Antonio said. "Tend to the ship; we will fight."

The Spanish ship fought bravely; its cannon were powerful, and it inflicted a great wound on one of the Moroccan ships, but the English ship grappled close enough to board, and the fighting went to close quarters, the gun crew swarming out of the depths to throw back the assailants. It was to no avail; the English were the victors, and the Spanish captain surrendered his sword and his ship.

The English captain was Sir Stephen Rogers, a man of common stock who had, through prize money and heroism, risen to command his own ship, gain the Queen's favour, and be knighted by her own hand. He was tall and golden and notorious among the Spanish for his depradations; the Spanish captain, indeed, could comfort himself that no one would judge him harshly for having been captured by such a man.

"You are defeated, sir," Sir Stephen said in adequate Spanish, and the Spanish captain nodded, assuming a grand and distant air.

"Indeed, sir."

"Do not have fear – when we have what we desire, we will set you aboard the smaller boats, and you may achieve the shore."

"Our cargo is open to you, sir – but I fear you will find your piracy of little reward. We carry only fleeces and grain."

"Is it so?" Sir Stephen looked thoughtfully about him, eyeing the ship's officers in turn. "I seek Don Antonio Stark de Cerrara."

"You seek a ransom, is it so?" the Spanish captain said disdainfully, for all the world knew the English were greedy for loot. "If it is so, take me as your prisoner – Don Antonio is in little favour at court now."

"You are very kind. But I will have Don Antonio, and no other."

The silence was broken by Sir James Barnes, who led the Countess Romanova tenderly above deck. She was only a little disarranged, her hair fetchingly dishevelled.

"My dear Countess," Sir Stephen spoke in English, and made her a deep bow, to which she made him a curtsey. "I am delighted to see you have suffered no hardship at the hands of your captors. I feared the worst when I did not see you in the melee; indeed, we felt the loss of your blades."

"You are all consideration, Sir Stephen. Indeed, I was undone by Mendoza; he is returned to the Spanish court, and gave his hand to Don Antonio's suspicions."

"Ah yes, Don Antonio. Oblige me, milady, and point out this Don Antonio; he seems unaccountably shy."

"How unusual," she surveyed the men before her. "I do not see Don Antonio, Sir Stephen. Is this all your catch?"

"Aye, milady. You trouble me; we have three dead, so if I may ask it of you - "

The lady peered, unmoved, upon three corpses.

"None of these are Don Antonio." She tapped her lower lip. "He was on the deck when I was taken below – he wore a fine red suit, with cape all edged in gold.

"Aye, I saw him," Sir James interrupted. "He was in the thick of the fight; but when it started to go ill, I saw him flee across the deck, away from the Silver Star."

"Where could he have gone, then?" Sir Stephen put his fists on his hips, and frowned. "Could they have built some priest-hole into the ship, to conceal him?"

"If so, we need only sail the ship home, and take it apart piece by piece," Sir James said, with a dark smile. "Or retreat aboard our own ship, and set this one alight – I'll wager he'd soon come out."

"Could he have tried to swim ashore?" Sir Stephen glanced towards the shore, whose bleak cliffs did not speak for the success of such a venture.

"He has climbed over the side!" the Countess cried suddenly. "I will wager you my pearls he is clinging there, awaiting his moment."

A scraping, scrabbling sound, and then Don Antonio appeared over the side of the boat, somewhat disarranged, hat clasped under his elbow.

"I emerge, then, and surrender" he announced in accented English. "I will not be dragged out like a dog from a rabbithole. What do you want with me, sirs?"

"This is the man?" Sir Stephen asked of the Countess, who laughed out loud at Don Antonio's impudence.

"Indeed it is. Don Antonio, you will be our guest to England; and we will seek to accommodate you in the style becoming your rank."

"I am a prisoner, then? If you seek to ransom me - "

"We do not," said Sir Stephen. "What we seek from you, sir, is the secret of longitude."

There was a silence aboard the ship; and then Don Antonio turned, and gave such a deep bow to the Countess that the battered plume of his hat swept the deck.

"Milady; I am in awe."

 

Sir James and his lady took command of the Spanish vessel, to sail back to England and their adorn her Majesty's navy; Don Antonio was marched aboard the Silver Star, to be taken back to England and, very likely, adorn the Tower.

"Where did you hire Moroccan ships?" he inquired of Sir Stephen, who gave him a smile as friendly as if they had met at Court – perhaps friendlier, for neither Elizabeth nor Phillip's Court were noted for their open and welcoming atmospheres.

"My good friend Captain Samir is pleased to aid me in this adventure. Ahmad al-Mansur has a little grievance against your king, you know."

"Elizabeth only shows her heresy in consulting with such with the heathen Sultan," Don Antonio said with a haughty tone.

"Indeed, I know that your views on heresy are passionate," said Sir Stephen an odd tone, and he looked pointedly at Don Antonio, who snorted, and watched with a jaundiced eye as trunks marked with his monogram were brought aboard.

"Do you loot my possessions, sir? I do not think my gloves will fit your hand."

"Indeed, I do not," he raised his hands in protest. "Your man Jarvis has packed your trunks – you see him there – I would not deny you your comforts on a sea voyage."

"Then I am not to be clapped in irons?"

"I cannot see the smallest use for it; you do not intend to poison the water and hole the hull, I presume? No? Then you are my honoured guest."

"A guest who may not leave," Don Antonio said, and Sir Stephen shrugged.

"Such is life aboard ship, sir; we are all trapped together, and have to make do as best we can. Indeed, after so many weeks hearing Sir James wonder what his wife is doing, I will be glad of a change in company. I hope you will join me for dinner tonight?"

"It is not enough I am captured; I must amuse my captors?" He arched his eyebrows, and Sir Stephen smiled at him again.

"I have heard you are a most amusing fellow, Don Antonio. Lady Barnes informs me I will find you an extremely congenial companion."

"Lady Barnes is the most skilled of liars," Don Antonio said, with a touch of acid. "I should know better than to be drawn in by a pair of pretty green eyes."

"I agree; forgo green eyes entirely, and you will be safer." Sir Stephen blinked his own blue eyes, and Don Antonio, rather reluctantly, felt the corner of his mouth turn up.

"If I am to join you for dinner, I must prepare myself," he said, refusing to take the matter of eyes and their prettiness any further. "Direct me to my cabin, sir."

"The ensign will escort you," Sir Stephen signalled to a young man, who leapt forward. "Until then, Don Antonio."

 

Don Antonio found his man, Jarvis, unpacking with his usual calm acceptance of disordered situations; long service to Don Antonio had accustomed him to such alarms and disturbances. He did not look best pleased to see his master, a fact Don Antonio instantly noted.

"What, Jarvis, did you hope you had been kidnapped to provide dressing to a better man than I?"

"I hoped you might consort with the enemy long enough I might put your cabin to order, sir." He stepped pointedly around Don Antonio, and then took his hat firmly from his hand. "A disgrace, sir; the sea wind has been very cruel to this hat."

"Lay out the gold suit," he ordered, and Jarvis turned astonished eyes on him. "I dine with the Captain tonight."

"Indeed, sir," and Jarvis packed the words full of disapproval. "May I suggest that something a little more sombre would be appropriate for a prisoner at sea?"

"But the red, as you say, has a ruined hat; and I have nothing else to match my chain." He tapped on finger on the heavy, sapphire-studded ornament that hung from the ruby and gold chain. "And I think I must wear my chain."

"As you command, Don Antonio," Jarvis said heavily, and turned back to the trunks.

A linen shirt with intricate black embroidery at collar and cuffs; even Jarvis could not be expected to have ruffles ready for him here. Linen stockings, and then the canions, as plain a pair of knee-breeches as cloth of gold could be. Jarvis knelt to lace canions to stockings, and Don Antonio secured them at the waist, for he was not a man who could stand to do nothing for long.

"Shoes as well," Don Antonio ordered, for Jarvis was not a young man, and Don Antonio would not send him to his knees more than necessary. Jarvis had placed the shoes and buckles within reach in expectation of this command, and soon Don Antonio was an inch taller and far more resplendent in square heels and diamond buckles.

Jarvis offered the doublet, next, another shining gold piece with narrow sleeves and a low waist. It was adorned chiefly through absence, slashed and punched with little puffs of white linen emerging. This was held shut by diamond clasps, and once the doublet was secured, the trunk-hose could be laced to it. These fell half-way down the thigh, and were paned; that is to say, they were strips of fabric perhaps as wide as a man's palm, that were joined at waist and hem, and lay over a solid base that was stuffed with linen to hold the fashionable shape. All was of cloth of gold, but the panes themselves were so richly adorned with golden embroidery that the cloth itself was barely visible.

The final part was the jerkin, which put all that came before to shame; as lavishly embroidered as the trunk-hose, it was trimmed with pearls and studded with diamonds. It lay open across the chest to reveal the doublet's diamond clasps, and the ruby and gold chain was settled over the top of all.

"I think it might be considered excess to put on my cape to walk ten paces; a pearl for my ear, Jarvis, and then I am done," Don Antonio ordered, and indeed, there was a nervous tap at the door that must be the ensign returned to escort him.

"Your hat, sir," Jarvis said disapprovingly, and Don Antonio accepted the hat, which had curled silver plumes pinned in its golden band. "And may I presume upon long service, sir, to ask that you do not twit our captors into hurling us into the ocean?"

"Don't be a fool, Jarvis; why twit the captain? In two weeks we will be in London, and I can tease the Queen herself." He whisked himself out of the cabin before Jarvis could reprove him, and the ensign goggled at the sight before him. "Well, come along, boy."

Sir Stephen goggled too, when Don Antonio entered his cabin; he was certainly a striking sight, glittering from the brooch in his hat to the buckles on his shoes, the candlelight finding sparks wherever it touched his golden form.

"Of course," Don Antonio remarked to the air, "I hear they do not dress well in England."

"Ah – pardon my discourtesy, Don Antonio, I am struck speechless by your magnificence." Sir Stephen rose from his seat. "I give you welcome; please, be seated." You could not have disproven Don Antonio's assertion from Sir Stephen's garb; he wore a plain blue doublet with full sleeves, and his breeches were the Venetian style popular among sailors. Still, he was well-formed enough that even such simple clothing could not detract from his charm, and Don Antonio found him quite well enough.

Their dinner was well enough, too, for a ship's dinner; roast capon, and some good cheese, and it would seem they had pillaged the kitchen of the Nuestro Hombre de Hierro of its store of bread. Good English apples and sticky Moroccan dates completed their dinner, and Sir Stephen dismissed the young ensign and offered his guest port.

"I think I recognise this vintage," Don Antonio said lightly, and Sir Stephen smiled at him.

"Better you should drink it than Sir James and his lady."

"That is quite true; but I think they will be cosy enough aboard my ship."

"Your ship?" Sir Stephen raised his eyebrows. "Was it not the captain who surrendered it to me?"

"I don't have time to captain all my ships, Sir Stephen. I own four, and the Nuestro Hombre de Hierro is my finest." He sighed. "And yet, she was not equal to three ships."

"Indeed, I knew I could not venture upon it alone; that is why I sought the Sultan's aid."

"Your Queen did not encourage this venture?"

"She had not the ships to spare; I promised her victory if she let me take myself and my ship. And your ship is certainly a fine prize; but it is, of course, the man I seek." And he raised his goblet as if in a toast to Don Antonio, who smiled.

"And the man is certainly flattered to be sought, Sir Stephen, especially by one as famed as yourself."

"I could offer you more flattery, if it pleased you," said Sir Stephen, and he looked at Don Antonio intently. "Or I could offer you more than flattery."

Don Antonio was imperturbable; he lifted his goblet to his lips, and considered Sir Stephen, his bright hair and broad shoulders.

"The reports of Lady Barnes, no doubt?"

"She has a keen eye," Sir Stephen said. "Even in Spain, where such things are deep secrets. You should be more careful still, Don Antonio; you are too good for the fire."

"I do not think there is anyone who is not too good for the fire," Don Antonio tossed back his port and set the goblet firmly down. "Come, then; I have never been to bed with an Englishman, and I hear they have tails like devils and walk upon cleft feet."

"Your boldness in the spirit of scientific enquiry dazzles me, Don Antonio," and Sir Stephen took his hand and tugged him to his feet.

Don Antonio was a passionate man, and Sir Stephen a patient one; hence they moved not like two horses in harness, but like a terrier baiting a bull, one urging the other along. In this case, however, brute strength overcame enthusiasm, and Sir Stephen pinned the other down on his back, and shook his head.

"Your eagerness is most encouraging, Don Antonio - "

"Tony," he interrupted. "Take your breeches off. Take my breeches off. Or leave them on if you must and come here."

"Tony," Sir Stephen continued. "I must ask for a little more care on your part, a little less urgency. I feel as if I am a fort under siege."

"You will be," Don Antonio promised, with a glint in his eye, and Sir Stephen laughed, helplessly, for he found it hard to resist this teasing. "I am famed for my skill with cannon."

"And the battering ram? Gently, I beg of you, I have been at sea for weeks and do not wish to disappoint you."

"Oh, you do not," Don Antonio wriggled one hand free, and combed his fingers through Sir Stephen's hair. "I do not think you could. Take your clothes off; I am most interested in inspecting your fortifications."

Sir Stephen did not need besieging; he threw open the gates gladly, and welcomed Don Antonio like a homecoming.

"No tail," Don Antonio mumbled into the hot skin of Sir Stephen's back. "Gossip has lied to me, Stephen."

"I, oh," he twisted under Don Antonio's weight, pushed back against him and forward into the bunk. "I regret that tails are out of fashion in England at present – ah, Tony, please - "

"No, no, I am being gentle," for Don Antonio, among his other qualities, was a tease. "You expressed distaste for the battering ram, remember?" And he touched Sir Stephen with a gentleness that failed to gratify that gentleman.

Don Antonio was as exquisite out of his clothes as he was in them; slimmer than Sir Stephen, lean through waist and hips, and all over, skin as smooth and golden as the sands of the Spanish beaches. He had refused to remove his jewels, and even now the ruby chain slid cool against Sir Stephen's spine.

"Harder, Tony, or I will - " he threw back his head, baring pale skin to Don Antonio's mouth, and then could only moan as he was taken as forcefully as he could desire, til he lost breath and sight and fell flat to the bed under Don Antonio's delicious weight.

 

"You will like England," Sir Stephen promised a little while later, and Don Antonio snorted inelegantly, and dug an elbow into his ribs.

"I hear the Tower has a fine river view."

"Hush, you will not go in the Tower." Sir Stephen curled closer, wrapping an arm around Don Antonio's narrow waist. "You will tell us your secrets, and give your parole, and then you will be my prisoner."

"Oh, I see. How nice." Don Antonio glowered at him.

"You seemed to find it nice enough just now. Don't frown."

"Why should I not frown? You are going to imprison me in England, land of rain and heresy."

"I do not think the heresy of England will trouble you much," Sir Stephen said mildly.

"But Elizabeth compels all to her churches, does she not?"

"Indeed; but the Queen has said that she desires to open a window into no man's soul. She demands only outward obedience to her will."

"And so? A good Catholic would refuse to enter such a church, or hear such a priest, for fear of his mortal soul."

"But a man who cares not a whit for such things might make obeisance once a week and continue on his way, might he not?" Don Antonio lowered his eyes, lashes silken fans against his cheek; in the dim light of the lamp, he glowed, and Sir Stephen's breath caught slightly in his throat before he continued. "A man might be held under house arrest, and have little to do but the work he loves, and be free to believe – or not believe – as he chooses. And he might, if he were discreet, take another man in his bed, and this go unchallenged; and he could go on very well and happily."

"A man might have a fortune in Spain, and a life there, and loved ones," Don Antonio said tartly, and then fell back on the sheets with a sigh and pressed his palms against his eyes. The ornament around his neck slid to the pillow with a little thud. "The Countess Romanova is a witch, I think, and should not go into Spain again."

"Very little escapes her notice, it is true; but she is not the only one to notice that you are not so devout a Papist as you seem. The Inquisition has, on occasion, exchanged letters upon the subject of you and your devoutness."

"So I have heard," and even in the soft light of the candle, Don Antonio's skin paled a little. "How does her Majesty feel about saucy men tampering with the correct order of the world, then?"

"If you only give lip service to her church, you may do as you please," Sir Stephen assured. "Dedicate all your inventions to the service of Queen, country and God, and you will have her favour."

"And be a traitor to my own country," Don Antonio said, and he sighed. "But where else may I go? Unless I may climb back to Greece in antiquity, I may go nowhere and be secure in my thoughts."

"Even then, Socrates was condemned to hemlock," Sir Stephen said, and laid his hand upon the smooth golden skin of Don Antonio's belly. "Come, England is in no position to pull down King Phillip, or drive the Spanish from Spain. It is Phillip who seeks to overcome England, and send our Queen to Rome in chains. Would you see all the world kissing the ring of the Bishop of Rome once more?"

"No," Don Antonio sighed again, more deeply. "No, you are right, I concede. I submit, and I will come to England and be kept as a pet and build ships for her Majesty."

"She will instantly approve you. There is nothing more to her taste than an adventurous, charming, witty man."

"Your flattery is unneccesary." Don Antonio spoke severely, but he smiled. "I have already agreed to your conditions."

"I think you meant nothing but," Sir Stephen said, and Don Antonio gave him a curious look. "Why did you only accuse Lady Barnes when you were at sea?"

"Oh, she doesn't know?"

"She could guess; I would like to hear it from your lips."

"Well, you will not," Don Antonio snapped. "I am captured, and will lie in captivity in England; I will not openly betray my country, or seek to flee it. My family will escape disgrace thereby, either of birthing a traitor, or a sodomite."

There was a pause, and Sir Stephen filled by kissing Don Antonio until the frown cleared from his brow.

"If you will not tell me that, will you tell me the secret of longitude?" Sir Stephen held his breath, and Don Antonio laughed at him.

"There is no secret, my dear." Sir Stephen's face dropped, and Don Antonio patted his cheek. "Don't look like that. I have solved the riddle, but there is no secret – the answer is simply time."

"I don't understand," Sir Stephen said, though his frown lightened at the assurance. Don Antonio ducked his head, and lifted the heavy jewelled chain he wore around his neck. He took Sir Stephen's hand, and piled the chain within, topping it with the heavy ornament that had lain over his chest, red and gold in Spanish colours, set with bright sapphires.

"There, you hold the answer." Don Antonio laughed again at Sir Stephen's evident puzzlement, and laid his fingers on the ornament. Two sapphires clicked into different positions, and then Don Antonio's slim fingers squeezed the circumference of the ornament, and it sprang into two halves. One half was padded with blue silk, no doubt to protect the glass that covered a clock-face smaller than Sir Stephen's palm; smaller even than the Countess Romanova's elegant hands. "The answer lies not in the great clock of the stars, but in the clock I made, precise to five seconds within a year; by this means, a ship may determine its exact position."

"Impossible," Sir Stephen breathed, and Don Antonio's eyes glittered.

"Not for me," he said. "And no other hand can make these, Stephen; in all the world this is the only answer to the riddle. Give it to your Queen, and tell her that if left in peace, and given the tools, I will make them by the dozen."

"You are a genius," Sir Stephen said fervently; and he bent to kiss Don Antonio's throat and shoulder.

"Hold, hold, give me back the clock," and he closed the case gently, and set it aside. "You do not want to tell the Queen you destroyed it in your thanks."

"You shall place it in her hands yourself," Sir Stephen promised, and bent his head to thank Don Antonio with greater thoroughness.