Jack paced up and down the weather side of the quarterdeck, watching the fog drift and crawl.
As it thickened, chill and wet and smelling of stale fish, it muffled every nighttime sound. His shoes, rasping on a ringbolt at every turn. The tap and clank of tools as a little group of men worked on repairing the boat-davits. The ship's bell, its voice as faint as if wrapped in a blanket, marking the remorseless passage of time as the first watch wore on toward midnight and the middle watch.
And still, Stephen had not returned.
Jack knew well that no one spoke freely in his presence. (No one but Stephen, of course, who spoke as freely as he wished—too freely, some might say. Not that Stephen would agree there was such a thing.) But ever since the hour after sunset, when the last boats had returned crowded with dispirited search parties and no doctor, he'd caught the edges and corners of words among the crew—whispers, mutters, hisses.
"Maybe he's just 'ad it. Off at last, out from under the Navy's old thumb."
"Speaks good enough French, don't he? Maybe—"
"Nah, he'd never serve them Frenchies. But if—"
"You know as well as I, he don't believe in this martial law."
They did know it. As Jack knew it. He and Stephen had discussed it often enough, sometimes quiet and hypothetical over glasses of wine, sometimes contentious, their voices loud enough to be heard through the skylight. Stephen was for liberty and the rights of man, and Jack was for realistic cooperation and the smooth running of a ship in time of war. Uneasy yokefellows, those ideas, but up to now they had always managed it.
"Do officers desert? Just like people?" piped a small voice.
"You shut yer 'ead, Lofty, and bring me that bolt."
Jack swiveled on his heel to pace aft and nearly collided with Killick, who clutched a hooded griego in both hands.
"I thought I sent you to bed," Jack said, more sharply than was usual.
"Right, your honour. But which there was this 'ere jacket."
Before that, there'd been this 'ere pair of winter stockings, and before that, a thick knitted comforter to go round his neck. If Killick had his way, Jack would be wobbling back and forth on his own quarterdeck wrapped up like a bale of wool with feet.
But he'd sent the previous offerings away, and he did this one too, stepping around Killick with a shake of his head. As he paced toward the taffrail, a faint growl receded in the air: "Oh, no jacket neither. And then get chilled to the bone and catch his death, and see who has to—"
Jack flexed the muscles in his legs, clasped his hands together in the small of his back. He didn't feel chilled to the bone—or, in fact, chilled at all. Heat burned in his thighs and the pit of his stomach, he breathed out clouds of hot vapor to join the fog, even his eyes and clenched teeth crackled with it. He was as stiflingly warm as if he'd been climbing hills in the tropics...one of Stephen's hills, perhaps, sweat dripping from Jack's nose and sheeting down his back as Stephen strode easily ahead, pointing toward some huge, glossy, bright-eyed bird.
He turned on his heel again and saw that Killick was at last retreating, though only slowly and sullenly.
"Killick there!" he called. But before Killick could look too triumphant, let alone unfurl the griego, Jack continued: "Fetch me my night-glass. On the double."
With his glass around his neck, Jack swung himself into the ratlines and ran up the mainmast rigging. He felt he took an envelope of heat with him, practically riding on it up the familiar path, lifted to the main topgallant yard like one of Stephen's model hot air balloons.
He settled himself on the yard, above the mist now, and peered through the glass at the clutter of reefs and the rocky, unwelcoming shore. But of course Stephen wasn't there. Jack had known he wouldn't be, before ever he'd begun his climb.
Nevertheless, he scanned the rocks and crags with infinite care, as his heart and his conscience tore one another to pieces in his breast.
"Jack," Stephen had said at breakfast, toying with a piece of bacon but not eating it.
Jack looked up, swallowing a big bite of egg, striving for innocence. "Well I had to eat your first helping of bacon, Stephen—it was going cold."
Stephen gave a grave little smile. "No, no, certainly. My own fault for being late. The wages of sin."
"Sin? You?" Jack smiled into his toast. Unless the Almighty suddenly started counting overindulgence in coffee as a mortal offence, he felt Stephen was safe.
"Jack...I need to go ashore."
"There couldn't possibly be some rare bird hiding away on the island, could there?" Jack poured himself another cup, reached to pour for Stephen, but noticed his cup was still almost full. "Muddy little rock don't even have a proper name...at least not one that everyone agrees on."
"So I understand." Stephen dipped toast in his coffee, eyed it, and set it aside.
"We're only in the neighbourhood because there's an excellent spring partway up the cliffs," Jack went on. "Absolutely everyone stops this side of the rock to fill up before the dry passage. But with the reefs we can't get in very close, d'you see, so it's a long pull for the boats."
"Yes," said Stephen. He folded his hands together. "I'd like to be in one of those boats."
"Of course you can accompany the watering party." Jack picked up his last piece of bacon and eyed both the empty dish and Stephen's full plate wistfully. "Remember, though, we sail on the evening tide. Evening tide tonight, Stephen."
"Thank you." Stephen rose. "I have some preparations to make."
He stooped under the beams and was on his way out by the time Jack managed to swallow and call out, "Watch yourself around those casks! I won't have us miss our music tonight because you caught a finger between the barrels."
Stephen stopped in the shadows at the door and looked back for a silent moment. His pale eyes shone in the dark, like a cat's. "Would you do me a kindness?" he said at last. "I wouldn't want Killick to think I didn't appreciate this good breakfast, so..."
"Oh certainly," said Jack, and helped himself to Stephen's plate. When he looked up again, Stephen had gone.
And now Stephen truly was gone. No one had thought anything of it at first, of course. The shore parties were busy with the water casks, and Stephen was well known for wandering off after a single lizard and reappearing hours later with an armful of specimens and incomprehensible explanations of mating rituals that sometimes made Jack feel quite warm. But despite giving him plenty of extra time to return, with the Blue Peter flying to prick his conscience, he never appeared.
After the hands' dinner, a boatload of volunteers had been dispatched to find the doctor and gently remind him about the evening tide. Padeen went with them, a pack of bandages and splints on his back—after all, if there were cliffs, there were ways to fall off cliffs. And besides, Jack couldn't bear to see him draped over the rail and staring shoreward, like a giant and dispiriting statue.
The search party had taken their time. They'd chased each other over the sand, poked idly into the weedy cave mouths, followed some disappearing tracks, threw stones at birds, and generally stretched the work out as long as they could. Hardly any of them were serious, let alone worried, and the newer men were frankly enjoying themselves.
The fog had set in as the sun sank, and the boats crept back through the rank, curling mists full of silent men. Silent, that is, but for Padeen, who wept into a handkerchief. One of the younger men, newly brought aboard, had a blackening eye, and sat as far from Padeen as the crowded boat would allow.
At the evening tide, the Surprise had stayed right where she was.
The cabin's suppertime had arrived, and Jack sat alone at his table where he'd thought to sup with Stephen, a bite and a drink before their music. Killick eventually took his toasted cheese away untouched, but left the wine.
Finally, Jack had opened his fiddle case—he couldn't bring himself to play, but he opened it with an almost desperate sense of ritual, as if touching the violin would summon Stephen back again where he belonged.
And there, folded inside the case, was the letter.
Jack looked through his glass, concentrating, the starlight just barely limning the edges of rocks and scrub along the shore. The yard swayed with the rise and fall of the ship; he unthinkingly corrected for the slightest movement. Stephen's letter, folded inside his jacket, pressed against his heart like a hot poker.
To Captain Jno. Aubrey, R.N., HMS Surprise:
I ask you to sail on as scheduled. Do not come looking for me.
Padeen has been instructed on the care and dosing of the current sick-list. I recommend you appoint Gabriel to assist him; he is a gentle fellow, but not afraid, and good with mixing draughts.
Please request Acting-Lieutenant Blakeney to continue to look after the few living specimens in my cabin that I have not set free. He knows which leaf is native to each. When you reach port, he should bequeath them to whomever on shore he thinks good, unless he would care to write them up himself.
It was unsigned. And that was all, except in smaller, smudged writing down at the very bottom of the page:
I'm sorry, Jack
He re-slung the night glass and climbed heavily back down the rigging.
"Pass the word for Mr. Mowett," he said, and went into his cabin.
When Mowett arrived, pink and tousled from sleep but with his uniform meticulous, Jack was already changed into nankeen trousers and his third-best coat, the one with patching. He tugged on his left boot and stamped to settle the heel comfortably.
"William," he said. "Sit down."
Mowett did so, looking alarmed.
"I might not be available for the next few hours," Jack said. "What with one thing and another. This means that you will be in command of the Surprise."
Mowett's alarm grew, but all he said was, "Yes, sir." The reply almost rose at the end like a question, but he pressed it back down.
"I do not expect the French to come creeping over the horizon—they have enough trouble elsewhere. But should they be so unwise—" he fixed Mowett's gaze firmly with his own— "you will take such action as you deem prudent."
Mowett blinked, and a spark began to kindle in his eyes.
"Not glorious, Mr. Mowett," Jack said. "But prudent. This means that should the ship be at undue risk, you will not hesitate to retreat. Do you understand?"
Mowett nodded at once and replied crisply, "Yes, sir." Though of course there was no way he could fully understand, and no way that Jack could explain. He blessed rank and custom, and more, he blessed Mowett for his cheerful capability.
Jack stamped into his other boot and stood, and Mowett rose hastily.
"That will be all," said Jack, his mind already elsewhere. "Send Bonden in to me when you go."
"Aye aye, sir." Mowett did not turn to go, however. "And...may I say good luck, sir."
Jack shot him a look, but Mowett, though nervous, was equal to it. Then he turned smartly, tucked his hat under his arm, and left Jack alone in the cabin.
Bonden discreetly readied and provisioned the jolly boat, and just as the eight bells that ended the first watch tinged quietly through the fog, the boat pulled away, four men rowing with a sure and steady stroke. It was midnight, and the moon was rising, glowing off the curling fog and the humps and juts of rocks under the water.
It was foolish, not to depart on the evening tide as ordered. That was true. It was similarly foolish to take it all upon himself. After all, Stephen had asked him to go about his business. Should it lead to disaster when he missed his rendezvous, the Admiralty would be eager to bind the consequences to Jack's shoulders and throw him to the sharks. But Jack cared as much about the Admiralty at this moment as he cared about keeping his own name lily-white, which was to say, be damned to it.
"Handsomely," he said to the men, who adjusted their stroke. The reefs were growing thicker, and he studied the moonlit water with a stern eye.
It was an easy pull in this calm sea, and eventually some of the men murmured to each other, one sharing out a quid of tobacco. Jack, concentrating on the tiller, paid no attention. Until he heard Triggs, the young man with the black eye, say to his neighbor:
"But I mean if he did desert. Just if he did. He'd surely duck round back through them bigger reefs where the smugglers meet?"
"Mebbe so," said his companion, another new man: Mirza, a Lascar with a deft touch at carpentry.
"Me cousin Seph told me about this here rock. Reefs keep the big ships away, right? Worse on the far side, right? So if you can get through 'em, they know you're not on the hunt and you're in for a good trade."
"If you don't get knocked on the head," said Mirza.
"Even a jolly boat has too much draught to get through. Seph says—"
But some change in Jack's posture must have given him away, for Mirza's voice abruptly dropped: "'Nuff, mate, and pipe it down. Himself will hear you."
Then nothing but the sound of oars rotating smoothly in the locks, the dip and splash of the water.
Jack put the tiller hard over and brought out his compass. It would be a longer journey to the far side of the island, but the boat's crew could thank Triggs if they'd a mind to. Of course, if it bore fruit, Jack would owe the boy some thanks himself.
Jack navigated with painstaking care, bringing the boat around and in through the reefs as best he could. The jolly boat, while small, did have a bit of a keel; the hull scraped alarmingly now and then as they made their way deeper into the maze of reefs and bits of splinters and flotsam from old wreckage. He saw at last the only landing site possible for them on this side: a slim spit of land with its tip just barely past the worst of the reefs.
The jolly boat nosed up onshore, and the men leapt out, drawing it from the water.
"Wait here," said Jack. "I should be back within the hour." He spoke forbiddingly, not inviting comment. They aye-ayed him, touching forelocks or caps, and Jack took up the dark lantern and his cutlass from the boat and headed along the shore.
Had he brought one of the long-time Surprises like Bonden or Plaice, he expected they'd have asked to come with him. But this he could not allow. For if Stephen did have a rendezvous with smugglers, Jack would in the end have to turn a blind eye and let them go, and to show such laxness before his crew was something Jack must not do. Even the most reliable man should not be shown that his own discipline meant nothing in the face of his captain's worry for a particular friend.
Jack stalked down the shore, the dark lantern still closed; his eyes were well adjusted to the moonlight by now. The narrow path, such as it was, was strewn with rock and weeds, leading him along the base of the cliffs and around the curve of the island until he lost sight of the boat. No sign of Stephen, no sign of sailors or vessels, lawful or otherwise. Nothing. And now even the faintest excuse for a path dwindled and disappeared in heaps of stone and shingle.
He wiped his brow and swore under his breath.
Except—wait. Where the path vanished, the bright moon showed Jack a narrow crack right into the sheer side of the cliffs. Men could surely get through there, if barely, and one at a time.
Were Jack the doctor, and were he off to meet someone—to throw up his entire duty and all his cherished specimens and leave without a word—he knew where he would go.
It took Jack more effort to get through the crack than he had hoped. Carrying the open lantern in one hand and the cutlass in the other, he edged along sideways, ducking his head. But there was a breeze moving in the passage, and he knew it went somewhere.
He slipped through at last into damp, heavy darkness, his breathing and heartbeat loud in his ears from the exertion. The moonlight could not make it this far; the lantern's wick needed pricking up. He took another step and his boots came down with a sucking plash into the edge of a tidepool.
"Stephen," he called. The name hung flat in the air, somehow—not the sharp cacophony of echoes he'd been expecting.
"Stephen?" He leaned the cutlass against a rock and fiddled with the lantern to coax more light from it. He'd been so certain that Stephen was here—he had to be here. Though Stephen's note had been so matter-of-fact, so final, for some reason Jack had still had hope. Until now.
"Are you—" Jack began, lifting the lantern high.
But in the beam of light there was a blur, and something struck his head and knocked him down. He fell hard, splashing into the tidepool; strong hands found him and pushed his face hard into the water, driving mud up his nose. The rush and roar in his ears mingled with urgent voices.
Jack was a creature of the water, however, and unlike so many of his shipmates through the years, a strong swimmer. So he didn't panic, even when his chest started to feel tight. Had there not been so many voices, he might have seized the hands drowning him and broken a wrist. But as it was, he blew bubbles against the mud and flailed his arms about, and he let the hands keep him down for just long enough before going limp.
He'd thought they might leave him there in the water. But instead, he was seized roughly by the arms—drawing his face out of the mud at last, thank God—hoisted bodily up, pinioned, and dragged by the shoulders. Something muffling was pulled over his head. He was tugged along rough cave walls and into the night air, shoved and hurried until he tripped and fell full-length onto wet sand. Hands lifted him and dumped him into the bottom of a boat.
"Give way," said a voice, and he heard the splash of oars.
By the time Jack had been hauled aboard—from the height he could tell it wasn't a terribly large vessel, at least—the energy of the fight had worn off, and his head and ribs were aching. He didn't pretend to be unconscious, but he didn't struggle against his bonds, either. Not yet.
"You were supposed to come alone," said one of the voices over him. Other voices chorused in agreement.
"Well, it ent like thissun showed up with a bunch of marines," said someone else, reasonably.
"Should've left him there with his own blade up his arse," said a third.
"That's not right," insisted the reasonable voice.
"Oh aye," said someone with a laugh, "we might need him later."
A burst of angry laughter and talk, until the first voice authoritatively rose above all: "Nevertheless. What have you to say for yourself?"
"For myself, I would say that I did come alone." It was Stephen's voice, with that weary, absent tone he got when he felt he was being oppressed by fools. "And I would further say that this was inevitable, since you wasted time in that ridiculous cave rather than sailing away as we agreed."
"Not while an armed ship of war is in the offing. And although you promised she would, she obviously still hasn't left."
"Nor will she," said Stephen, "while you capture members of her crew instead of learning to keep quiet."
Inside the bag or shirt or whatever it was that covered his head, Jack smiled, despite everything. He imagined Stephen in the middle of a den of lions, scolding them for their inconvenient roars.
"Well he's here now," someone grumbled.
"Maybe he's worth summat. Open him up, Con, and let's see."
Jack was rolled over—more roughly than necessary, of course, including a few helpful boots to the ribs—and the cloth pulled from his head. A group of men stood around him, some with lanterns, staring down as if he were a fresh-caught tunny. They had the look of experienced sailors, though scruffed and untidy by Naval standards.
"Well?" said the authoritative voice, coming from a tall greying man in a blue coat. "Does anyone know this fellow?"
The crowd looked at each other and muttered. "Been long and long since I got away," said one. "Ask Desmond, he only slipped out in the spring," said another, and it became clear to Jack that these were no ordinary smugglers—they were deserters run from the Royal Navy, and his danger was severe.
"Wait," said a stunted little man with a stubbly scalp. He bent over Jack and reached out to grab his wet hair, yanking Jack's head painfully forward. "Look at this 'ere queue."
"And a Captain's coat," lisped a thin man with no front teeth. "Though patched up like me working trousers."
"That'd never be Goldilocks," said someone in the back of the crowd Jack couldn't see.
"Goldi-who?" asked another.
"That's that Lucky Jack Aubrey is who."
"Bugger me," said a man in the front row as broad as a bear, and with thick whiskers to boot. "Oh—Par'n me, sir." He touched his forehead by rote.
"Parmee sor," snickered someone, "oh if you please, sor."
The bear stared into the group. "Come closer and say it again, Roddy."
"Enough," said the tall man in the blue coat, presumably the commander. He strode forward and looked down at Jack, his hands clasped behind him. "I beg your pardon for the inconvenience, Captain Aubrey. It is Captain Aubrey?"
Jack made to roll onto his side. "And you are?"
The commander just gestured to his crew. "Sit him up."
There were no kicks this time, though the hands were no gentler. Jack was propped against a gun carriage, and for the first time he got a look around. It was a cutter with six guns, and the crowd of men he could see numbered perhaps twenty or so. If that were the bulk of the crew, they'd have quite a time with the sails, let alone the gunnery. Of course, who knew how many else were below or otherwise out of sight.
"Maturin," said the commander peremptorily. And the crowd of men parted for Stephen.
He looked worn and tired, with smudges on his face. His neck and back were stiff and his eyes chilly as he gazed down at Jack with his lips thinly set.
"Is this your captain?"
Jack felt all of a sudden every inch the cold, aching, soggy object he was, dripping muddy water on the deck. He had never seen Stephen so remote, regarding him not like one of his specimens—for those, Stephen had warmth and interest—but like some random sack from the bilge that Stephen had to step over on his way to somewhere else.
"I would not say my captain," Stephen answered at last. His voice was still just as absent.
"You know what I mean," said the commander irritably.
"And you know my position on servitude. If I would never agree to abrogate my rights as a man and a human being, then I would never agree that any randomly appointed sea dog is my master."
The commander was growing perceptibly redder in the face. Jack could almost have felt sorry for him, being on the pointed end of Stephen's lance. "But do you confirm that this is indeed Captain Aubrey?"
Stephen waved a hand toward the crowd of avidly-listening men. "Sarner recognized him, did he not? Tell us, Sarner, did you serve on one of Aubrey's ships?"
A man edged to the front of the crowd, his seaman's pigtail down to his waist and one eye nearly closed in a puffy mass of scars. "Not a ship, sir, if you please. Sophie were a brig-rigged sloop."
Stephen rolled his eyes heavenward, and for just that moment he looked more familiar.
"I know 'im, Mr. Connacht," Sarner said to the commander. "Not one of those captains off alone all the time like Jove Almighty. He'd be climbing on the bows or up in the rigging—'Well, men,' he'd say, 'fancy a prize'?, and oh how we'd—"
"Thank you," said the commander—Connacht—breasting the tide with difficulty. "As you were."
"If you are finished," Stephen said, "then I shall return to the sick berth. I have a great deal of medicine to compound, and a great many of your people to dose with it. As we agreed."
"Contingent on you coming alone."
"My medical services are contingent upon nothing," said Stephen, drawing himself up. Jack wondered if Connacht truly understood the dangerous light in his eye. "Your men are ill, and I am a physician. However, if your word—your freely-given word—to take me to the rest of your compatriots is not after all something I can count on..."
He let the insult dangle in the air, and now Connacht's face truly was red. "My word is my bond, sir. And I will not have—"
"Very well, very well," Stephen said, turning away. "Then our position stands. Once you have taken Mr. Aubrey to the hindmost part of the vessel and set him free in your little boat, we can be on our way." The crew parted yet again, deferential and even friendly, to let him pass.
Connacht took a deep breath. "Afterguard," he ordered. "He must tell us the position of his ship. The rest of you, prepare to make sail." Then he followed Stephen, clenching his hands behind his back.
The crew muttered to each other, only very slowly drifting to their positions. The two who had seemed most sympathetic, Sarner and the big bearlike man, cast back glances as they went. The afterguard, such as it was, remained by Jack—a few men who looked much the worse for wear, one missing an arm, all of them scarred and scabbed.
"Well then," said one to his mates. "What d'you reckon?"
"Let us see," said another, a smiling, round-faced man with a sparse head of brittle hair. He stepped up to loom over Jack. "Captain, sir, would you perhaps be after telling us the position of your old tub, now."
Jack craned his neck up and said, "What's your name?"
The man never stopped smiling as he drove one foot hard into Jack's stomach. Jack retched, and when he could, gasped.
"That is my name," the man said cheerfully. "And would you like to hear it again."
His mates laughed, a low and comfortable sound that told Jack they'd done this sort of thing before and thought nothing of it.
"I thought not." He bent to look at Jack more closely. "All we're needing from you, Lord high-and-mighty, is the position of your god-damned ship. So as we don't bump into it, you understand, and smudge its pretty paint."
Jack settled himself and waited for the next blow. There were many answers he could try, attempting to shepherd the cutter in the Surprise's direction, but anything he said too soon would be wasted—he doubted they'd believe even the most sheltered officer would break from a few kicks.
The cheerful man thumped his foot into Jack's ribs this time, on an existing bruise, and savored Jack's wince. "Oh, you don't like that much. So sorry—would you prefer a rope's end, then? Or would it be a rattan cane, a proper starter?"
"There is no starting aboard my ship," Jack said, meeting the man's eyes, subtly testing the strength of the rope at his wrists. "Neither rope's end nor cane."
"And he wants some mercy for it!" cried the man, grinning at his friends. "O pity him, he never hurt a fly!" He planted a foot on Jack's shoulder and shoved hard, knocking him over sideways so his head struck the deck.
Jack struggled upright again, the gun carriage digging into his back. The rope around his wrists was wet, the knot sodden and tight; he had to be careful not to tighten it further.
"I've hurt a few flies in my time," said Jack calmly, "but they were Spanish and French flies, as it should be." He looked at the other men of the afterguard. "I'd rather be running down a fat prize right now, wouldn't you? Their sails tattering in our fire. Sending red-hot shot right—down—their—deck." He spoke with a gleeful, savage emphasis, and he saw the picture coming to life in their eyes. One of them actually answered him with a nod.
"That's what we do with our time, men," Jack continued. "Not wasting our days chasing down little cutters. Try getting your hands on a proper gun, and you'd see how—"
"Quiet!" cried the cheerful man, not so cheerful now. He swung his fist across Jack's face, and when Jack's watering eyes could focus again, he saw the man nursing his hand. Knuckles on bone was never a very good idea.
"Don't know if he'll tell her position, Roddy," said one of the others. "But you hear how he says about the prizes and all—maybe if we—"
"And you can button your lip too," snarled Roddy, entirely gone from smiles to rage. "He wants you to come back so he can hang you, understand, hang you good and high!"
He grabbed Jack by the coat and this time Jack honestly did struggle, for he knew this man very well might kill him in his temper, even if Connacht made him sorry for it later.
But someone else in the afterguard was pulling at him, a third was shouting in Roddy's face, and Jack was flung in a heap against the gun carriage. The afterguard argued back and forth, then some of the others came running from their stations to have their say, and before long the air was thunderous with barely-suppressed violence.
Jack worked at the wet rope as subtly as he could, hoping he might at least get his hands free before someone stopped the argument with a marlinspike in his skull.
"What is all this?" demanded Connacht, pushing with some difficulty through the angry crowd. They all explained at once in a great cacophony; Jack sat curled against the gun as still as a mouse, but for the fingertip he had barely managed to work into the knot, just beginning to ease it.
"Stand back," said Connacht at last. He must have thought his tone a commanding one, but Jack could see that the crew was at a height of frustration and confusion and distrust, entirely unwilling to be commanded. They jostled Connacht, arguing and pointing.
"I said back!" Connacht was wedged against the gun carriage himself now, and Jack allowed himself a moment of blackguardly pleasure at that. But he knew he had no time to waste—once the mob turned on Connacht, which they were just about to do, he had to get to his feet and fling himself over the side, hands tied behind him or no. For this situation had nowhere to go but death. He thought of Stephen, and his heart ached in his battered chest.
"—thank you, Quinn, and how is your foot? Excellent, excellent. Excuse me, Hunt. And Hunt minor, too, if you would just allow me through—
As if Jack's final desperate thought of Stephen had summoned him, the man himself stepped through the seething crowd as untouched as if he were a spirit. "Roderick Mac Branain," he said sternly, stopping before a mill of men. "If you are struck on the jaw many more times, those teeth I saved will fall right out, and then where will you be."
Then he turned his back on the scrum as it died away into a group of embarrassed individuals all looking around at one another, and said to Connacht, "Is there some problem?"
Connacht stared at him wildly, then slowly straightened his coat. "There is some— some disagreement over what is to be done with an uncooperative prisoner."
"Oh is there," said Stephen. And Jack felt such a glow of affection for him that he could almost have laughed aloud.
"The men— Or, rather, I have passed sentence on your— on Mr. Aubrey."
"Have you," said Stephen.
"As his execution would not be in the best interests of this ship—" Connacht paused only a moment at a grumble in the ranks, but persevered— "He will be released. Eventually." The grumble built, rising almost to dangerous levels, until he finished loudly, "But the men have their rights, and Aubrey will be sent back carrying their message."
"I see. Help him up, then, could you Sarner. And Oswald too, very good."
Jack was lifted more carefully now, Sarner on one arm and the big bear of a man on the other. They put him on his feet and steadied him.
Jack at last could look at Stephen on his own level. But Stephen was still entirely remote from him, all glass and ice, his eyes barely flickering over Jack's before he turned. "And where is this message?"
In the silence before anyone answered, Jack suddenly knew what was to come.
"Oh we will give it to him," said Roddy softly, a hungry shine in his face. "Will we not, my lads."
Jack expected to be flung face-down over a gun like a ship's boy, but instead Sarner and Oswald led him to the single mast.
"'Ere, sir," said Sarner, stepping behind Jack. "Be needing both your hands, won't we." It took him a few jerks to slice the rope.
"Thank you," said Jack courteously.
Sarner and Oswald were gentle as they stripped Jack of his coat and shirt, then stretched his arms out and tied him up spread-eagle to a crossed set of spars lashed to the mast. It wasn't a proper rigged grating, but it would surely do.
The noise of the crowd swelled and fell, a mixture of anger, approval, and an almost hysterical amusement. Jack could well imagine; a Post Captain being whipped on the bare back would be a sight that none of them had ever seen. Even those who might have mutinied and killed an officer before deserting wouldn't have had this privilege. He could hear that some of them didn't like it—a minority, but some. Not that they were so very tender-hearted, but seamen liked what they were used to, and a captain at the grating overthrew all their normal ways.
"Ordinarily," Jack said, turning his head to the side, "the condemned is allowed to speak for himself first. And any of his officers, in mitigation."
"Mitigation!" said Roddy as he stepped into Jack's view. He was grinning again, cheerful and high-coloured, almost vibrating with energy. "I'm sure you have no officers who'd speak for you, you bloody tyrant."
"—truly necessary," came Stephen's voice, rising in a pained note above the crowd. "This carnival serves no one, the crew least of all, and if you don't—"
Connacht and Stephen's voices wrangled further, though often lost in the larger noise, until finally Connacht's voice rose in a bellow, shouting Stephen down with enormous effort: "Enough, Maturin! Enough, by God!" Then he confirmed Jack's understanding of his command ability by adding in a despairing tone, "It's too late for that."
Connacht was right. And the worse thing for him was that he clearly knew he was right. He knew he didn't have authority among his own men, and he felt the lack and the shame of it. Jack pitied him, though Connacht stood there in his blue coat and Jack hung half-naked on the spars like a felon.
"And where's the cat, now?" Roddy said, looking around. A man handed him an old baize bag, and Roddy dug into it with delight like a child after a birthday ha'penny. The instrument he drew forth was old, dirty, black with grease, several of the lashes knotted. Age and grime had stiffened the rope. The back of Jack's neck crept, and he almost called out to demand a new clean bosun's cane, though he knew it would do no good.
Instead he looked at Roddy and said, as if he were the one giving the orders: "Proceed." Then he turned his head and rested his brow against the damp spars, waiting.
He heard Roddy trying to laugh at the captor giving orders like a captain, but ignored him. He listened to the creak of the mast, the lap and ripple of the sea, and heard in it a voice like his own dear Surprise.
The first lash struck like a hot iron, sizzling across the chilly flesh of his back. And before the pain could even begin to subside, Roddy crossed that stripe with a second, a third, and on and on, surely as hard as his arm could manage. It mounted, a searing agony, tiger's claws digging and raking.
Jack did not count the strokes. He concentrated on keeping his body arched slightly away from the spars, so that he had room to surge forward with each blow.
Perhaps it was helping. Jack could hardly tell.
After a time, when the needles of fire had spread across his entire back, he heard the sounds of an argument. The next lash was irregular, catching him on the buttock and hip, dulled by his trousers; then the lashes stopped for a time, and the voices rose.
Jack simply waited, his eyes closed, gripping the spars in his hands to ease the pull of the ropes at his wrists. He breathed carefully, slowly, so as not to let his back and shoulders move with the rise and fall of his chest. And as he settled further into the pain, like sinking his body into an ice-cold sea, the voices began to shape into meaning.
Roddy had taken on his role of executioner and didn't intend to give it up. Others disagreed and wanted their turn; after all, how often would they have this chance? And one or two voices, mostly submerged, one very familiar, said Jack had had enough.
Finally there were the thumps and crashes of a scuffle, some shouting from Connacht—late as usual—and Roddy reduced to a sullen background noise.
Then another stroke, clearly from a fresh arm if not perhaps so driven. It landed right across the worst of the wounds, waking them up afresh, and Jack ground his teeth together.
Jack had wondered for a moment if Roddy losing rights to the cat might have saved his life—men after all had been whipped to death before, and Roddy was just the man to do it. But now the spectre of all the available volunteers brought a chill into Jack's belly he hadn't felt before. Connacht had said he wasn't to be executed, but he'd seen what Connacht's orders were worth—and even without meaning to, the crew might well keep lashing Jack until a bone broke or he was flayed entirely open. Jack had seen men wounded in powder explosions with too much of their skin lost, and they had all died, to a man, no matter how Stephen had labored over them.
The sudden thought of Stephen brought a pang that had nothing to do with the lash. Stephen, forced to watch all this, as Jack failed him by spectacular degrees.
Jack opened his eyes at the next stroke, and there Stephen was.
He was edging around forward of the mast in Jack's field of view, the crew again letting him move through them without resistance. In the warm overlapping glow of the lanterns, he stood out from the crowd: he was so pale, almost as white as his neckcloth, sweat glistening all along his hairline and streaking down from his temples. His face bore no expression, frozen in a flat blankness.
But now, at last, Jack could see him. Jack saw his eyes. Those light, clear eyes, that Jack had seen so many times—distant, or quiet, or furious, or bright with irony and suppressed mirth, or, especially of late, flickering and mysterious in the shadows of the great cabin.
Now they were lost. Hopeless. Stephen himself seemed far away behind his own face, wearing it like a grey and pallid mask. He fixed his gaze on Jack's, and Jack could almost feel the connection like Stephen's hand slipping into his. And as he would have done with his hand, Jack held on to him tightly.
The lashes fell upon Jack again and again, and the sweat ran down his body and burned his eyes, for all that the air was so damp and cold. He tried to smile at Stephen.
"Time!" someone cried, and the whipping stopped again. Some muttering, and a laugh.
"Doctor?" called Roddy.
"Yes," said Stephen through his dry lips. He did not move.
"You went to such trouble to run from him and his ship—come along and take your turn!"
Stephen blinked. Jack lifted himself up and strained against the spars, looking at him—looking for him—as the faint raw glimmers of Stephen's distant inner self seemed somehow to disappear entirely and leave only the mask. Stephen turned his head, his fine white neck arching, and Jack would not have liked to be the man in the way of his searching eyes now.
"Is that you, Mac Branain," Stephen said.
"It is," said Roddy.
"Come here to me."
The crowd shifted, and Roddy entered Jack's line of sight. He had more trouble making his way through the crew than Stephen had, bulling men aside with his shoulders.
"Here you are, Doctor dear," said Roddy, holding out the cat. The tails glistened with damp in the mixed light of lantern and moon, blood or sweat or both, and Jack's belly turned unexpectedly. "We would never have you go unserved."
Stephen spat an oath that Jack didn't understand, but Roddy seemed to, from his startled face.
"Won't you give the man a little of his own medicine?" Roddy asked, sounding for the first time uncertain. "The man who says he is your master, which makes you his dog?"
Stephen silently held out his palm, and Roddy laid the handle of the cat in it. Then with a short, savage turn, Stephen flung the whip over the side. There came the faintest splash.
"I will tell you what medicine I'll give him," Stephen said. His voice was tight and dangerous. "I will cut him down and see to the stripes on his back. As I would do for you, Mac Branain, or you, Connacht, or any and all of you. I am a physician. I would not whip a single man aboard, the way you tell me your old ships used to, the floating gaols you say you want to rise above. The tyranny that left you as bloody as this man here. I can see your faces. How does it feel?"
The crew stirred wordlessly, glancing round at one another. Roddy looked puzzled and sulky, but when Stephen stepped around the mast and close to Jack, he did not object.
"Here then," said Stephen. "Oswald, Sarner, see to these knots at once."
They untied Jack and carried him aft, laying him on his side with his head on a folded pile of sacks. The sacks were none too clean and Jack's nose itched at the dust, but he did need to rest for just a moment—his head swam, and his legs shook. The pain across his back crackled like live tinder, while every other part of his body felt clammy and cold.
"Mac Branain," said Stephen, "Fetch me the— No. I will go myself." And he was gone, leaving Jack shivering on the deck.
Sarner squatted next to him, holding a lantern. "Your honour."
Jack managed a nod.
"They took a right crack at you," Sarner said, peering at Jack's back. Then he glanced around; the crew were being chivvied to their tasks, which seemed to comfort him. He leaned down into Jack's face, bringing an air of plug tobacco and lamp oil. "The doctor. D'you want him hanged? As he deserted and all?"
"No," said Jack, having trouble keeping the tremble in his legs from sounding in his voice.
"Then," Sarner said, very low, "if I was you I'd jump quick in the skiff and take him along. He ent safe here."
Jack looked across at Connacht, urging the men back to their stations after their little holiday. He had fastened up his coat with the buttons one hole askew.
"Aye," breathed Sarner. "First he agreed he'd take the doctor to meet our friends in Ireland. But just a bit ago I heard him changing his mind...there's a bounty on the doctor's head. Good French gold. Means more'n his sworn word in the end, I reckon."
Jack nodded slowly. He kept his eye on Connacht, but said to Sarner, "Come with us."
"Oh no, sir," Sarner said, settling back a bit.
"You'll be in no danger from the Admiralty. I'll see to it."
"'Course you would, sir, and thank you kindly. But no all the same."
Jack looked at Sarner again, at his rugged profile. The scarred eye was new, but the rest was familiar.
"I remember you now, from the Sophie...you were a good hand on the yard."
"I did love that little sloop, Lord knows. All her funny ways. And you laughing away with this doctor nobody'd ever heard of, so crowded up in her little cabin an' all. Shame he ever tired of it."
"Yes," said Jack, and suddenly felt near to tears.
Stephen returned, carrying a bag. He knelt by Jack.
"Must get back to my station," said Sarner, clambering to his feet. He bent low over Jack as he moved the lantern closer. "But sir...during the flogging...I might've climbed down to see to the skiff off astern, and forgot to lash it right. If we was to tack of a sudden..."
"Thank you," said Jack hoarsely. Sarner touched his brow and left.
As was his way, Stephen took hold of Jack's head and tipped it forward without a by-your-leave. His fingers lightly moved along the back of Jack's neck, where the end of a lash stung all the way up into his hairline.
"Their aim leaves something to be desired," he said.
Jack mastered his voice and said quietly, "Stephen. Don't put any of your concoctions on just yet."
"I suppose this has to do with Sarner, and his lashing and skiffing." Stephen's hand was still on Jack's neck, the fingertips cool.
"Once they pick up speed, they'll make ready to go about," said Jack. "Then we'll jump aft and get overboard into the skiff."
Stephen parted Jack's hair to trace the whiplash. "And 'aft' would be..."
"Just follow me," said Jack, surprised to feel the beginnings of a smile. But it vanished as he thought again, and he said tentatively, "You, ah...you will come with me, Stephen?"
Stephen hummed a vague assent and continued to examine Jack's back, his fingers touching lightly and then lifting away again. Jack subtly eased his arms around in circles, rolled his shoulders, stretching against the pain of the wounds and making himself ready.
It took the crew a while to spread themselves out afore and aloft; there weren't enough of them to man the cutter efficiently. But eventually they stood ready, and Connacht's eye was on the wind and the wheel, not at all on his human cargo by the taffrail.
"Ready about!" Connacht shouted. And without fuss or flurry, Jack rose and nipped over the rail, grasped it in both hands, and lowered himself toward the little boat tied up below.
As soon as he had dropped and steadied himself in the boat, he looked up for Stephen. Stephen's shoes dangled overhead, bumping and scraping against the ship's hull, and he peered irritably over his shoulder down at Jack. Wordlessly, Jack held up his arms, and Stephen fell down upon him like a judgment from God.
They tangled together for a few moments in the bottom of the skiff, until Jack was able to extricate himself and leap hastily forward to seize the line at the bow. As Sarner had promised, the little craft was not lashed in with any care, especially not the care suitable for towing behind a ship under sail. All that kept her was a line tied in a simple mooring hitch, and Jack laid his hand on the tail of the hitch and cocked his head.
The moment he heard Connacht's voice give the final irrevocable commands, Jack pulled the tail, the knot fell gracefully apart, and the cutter surged away from them as it turned into the wind. If the crew were to notice the skiff gone adrift, it would take some swift, decisive seamanship to return and lay hold of her before she'd made off into the fog—and neither swiftness nor decisiveness were among Connacht's demonstrated skills.
Jack scrambled to the oars and began rowing, looking back over his shoulder to aim for the closest patch of fog. Once they were hidden, then they could concern themselves with such niceties as position, direction, and current. Not to mention the question of Surprise, who might even now have been warned by the jolly boat's crew and be prowling for them—but slowly, agonizingly slowly with fog and reefs combining to thwart her, creeping along with two leadsmen in the chains and every man on lookout.
He leaned against the tension of the oars and pulled hard, feeling his muscles wake. A Captain seldom if ever got to do the rowing, and he gladly threw himself into the old skill. The excitement of action still flowed through him, arms and legs and back, chasing off or at least muffling the pain and the chill.
He knew he'd pay for it, though, and that quite soon.
The cutter's skiff was a peevish boat, Jack decided. Not at all like the sweet little skiff aboard Surprise, kept fresh-painted and in fine repair and called the Doctor's skiff. The Doctor's skiff was a companionable, mannerly craft, and it made Jack think of comfortable things: Stephen pottering about in it with his nets, or Jack rowing out with him for a swim, long and idle talk on calm seas, the wood sun-warm and holystoned smooth and white. This one, on the other hand, bumped down hard over every swell, jarring his teeth together, and fought the splintery oars like a poorly-trained horse fought the bit.
With effort and determination and silent cursing, however, Jack at last managed to put her deep in the fog and keep her there. The sounds of the cutter had died away quickly; with luck, they could catch the island's shoreward current and wait in some safety for dawn.
As the urgency of flight dwindled, so rose the pain, Jack's body predictably reminding him of one thing after another: the bruises on his ribs and stomach and jaw and head, the lashes crossed over his back, all waking up and worsened by the climb down and the violent exercise. The whip marks felt as if he hadn't one stripe of whole skin left, and pain shot up and down his spine in jagged lightning-flashes, bringing shivering cold reaction in its wake.
He managed to ship the oars, his hands trembling, and his vision went white at the edges.
"Here," said Stephen. Jack felt a careful pressure on the back of his head, bending him forward. He gulped air with his head at his knees.
There was some rustling and a little splash. "Hold still." Cloth dabbed over his back, cold salt water running down, pain spiking and spiking and spiking again, though he'd scarcely thought it could rise any higher. "Loath as I am to add to your chill," Stephen said as he worked, "and to delay the formation of a good scab, I find I must. That...object...was filthy."
"Yes," Jack chattered from between his knees.
"I would not have thought it customary to use such a disgusting thing."
"No," managed Jack.
"Although why I should be any happier to see a grown man whipped with clean ropes is far beyond me," Stephen said. He pressed the cold cloth just to the right of Jack's spine, and the pain roared up so fiercely that Jack sagged into half-consciousness for a moment.
When his eyes fluttered open again, he was still bent forward, but now his brow was resting supported in one of Stephen's hands. The palm was warm.
"That is the worst of it," Stephen said. "The relevant men being right-handed, and using a side-arm delivery rather than the back-hand, too many lashes fell across the same spot."
"Oh," said Jack.
"I have seen worse, however." Stephen eased Jack upright again, and the dark world of fog and water came back into focus. "No exposure of the thoracic periosteum, which is a relief."
"Ah," said Jack. "Indeed."
"No sight of your rib bones," Stephen explained, dipping the cloth over the side and wringing it out.
"Of course," said Jack.
"Of course," Stephen echoed, and for a passing moment it almost sounded as if he would smile. But he didn't, neither with lips nor eyes. "No significant tearing to the muscles, if you will believe we were so fortunate. Primarily lacerations to varying layers of skin."
Jack blinked over this for a moment. "Lacerations," he said at last.
"It means you are much cut about," said Stephen. "But the French have given you worse, and you were running to and fro the day after. Against all medical advice, if you remember."
He dug through his bag and brought out roll of cotton wool and a jar. "Greased and bandaged, you will do very well. Although I can't recommend exercise that makes you bend and flex. As for example rowing."
He turned up his sleeves and set to work on Jack's back with the ointment, slathering it thickly with his bare hands. It was cold when first it went on, giving a shock each time; but gradually the pain began to dull in a way Jack would not have believed possible.
"Well," said Jack after a while, his body moving back and forth under the alternating pressures of Stephen's touch. "You've become quite the hand at a skiff. Perhaps you'll row for a change. What a fall, demoted from physician to—" He bit down on a gasp as Stephen spread ointment over the bad patch to the right of his spine— "to bargeman."
Stephen moved up to his shoulders, and Jack could steady his voice again. "Of course I've been demoted too," he said. "No epaulettes, no coat, no shirt. Or only what the men call a striped shirt." He laughed a little, but didn't hear any laugh from Stephen. "A back-full of lashes, you see. Wearing them like a shirt with stripes."
"Stretch forward," said Stephen, and Jack obeyed.
"I'm not at all sure why they didn't just go on with the kicking," Jack mused, "rather than waste their time stringing me up for the cat."
"Aren't you?" said Stephen, his hands working lower.
"Well...I suppose I am, now that you ask. I expect they thought a captain would find the grating worse than any kicking. I know captains who would sooner die before a rope ever touched their backs."
Stephen's hands slipped inside the trousers, finding that errant low strike. "As do I," he said.
The wound on Jack's buttock twinged as Stephen anointed it. "Now that one wasn't fair play," Jack said indignantly. "Below the equator, if you see what I mean."
"Your southern hemisphere took the least of it," Stephen said.
"And a good thing, too." Jack sighed; the gradual easing of pain under the touch and the medicine was making him feel warmer and a little muzzy. "I thought at first perhaps they were men of honour and could be reasoned with, but I learned my lesson there."
Stephen moved to the back of Jack's neck, spreading the ointment with his thumbs.
"As you did, I daresay," Jack continued darkly. "That Connacht ready to sell you to the French, after all you did for his crew."
"Was he?" said Stephen. He dabbed at a few remaining spots.
"He most certainly was," Jack said. "Did you know the French have a bounty on you, Stephen? All kinds of gold—well, I don't know how much, but apparently enough for Connacht to bite your heel like a snake. And I thought all the snakes had been driven out of Ireland."
He'd meant the last as a gentle gibe, just to distract Stephen from everything, but somehow it didn't come out right.
Stephen said, "You mis-heard the story. They were only driven out till they could take shape again as men." He sounded so weary, his voice fading beneath the lapping of the water.
Jack sat up straight again, at first cautious and then with more confidence. "Now that's grand! You've worked a miracle."
Stephen wiped his hands clean on a scrap of cotton wool and dropped it into the bottom of the skiff. "If there were a chance you would follow medical advice this time," he said, his voice more normal, "I would instruct you to rest. A low diet, watered wine."
"Well, a diet don't get much lower than a mouthful of fog!" said Jack, laughing. "And here's plenty of water to my wine." Still no smile from Stephen, but maybe next time.
Stephen retrieved some bandaging from his bag, and Jack well knew how that worked by now. He held still under the swaddling, lifting one arm or the other when required, and Stephen mummified him across his shoulders and from armpits to waist, tying off down by Jack's hip with a knot as neat as a topman's.
"A bit much, ain't it though?", asked Jack, feeling cozy in his wrappings.
"If you would prefer the cold night air and the sea-foam to have free rein with your person, then perhaps," said Stephen, repacking his bag. "But you would have to find yourself another physician."
"God forbid," said Jack. "What's the saying? Better the devil you know, ha ha." He watched Stephen unfasten his coat and slip free of it. "What are you doing, Stephen, you'll catch your death."
Stephen eyed him and held out the coat in both hands.
"You never think that will fit me," Jack said. "Killick will have to sew up all the seams."
"We won't put your arms in the sleeves," said Stephen firmly, draping the coat around Jack's shoulders and over his back. Ill-fitting as it was, it brought the warmth of Stephen's body with it, and between that and the bandages, Jack began to feel much more like himself. He still ached and stung, but there was no longer that same sickly emptiness throughout his body like a burn and ice at once.
"May I row now, Stephen?" he asked meekly.
Stephen sighed. "One day I will give you medical advice not to rest, not by any means, and will see you quiet in your cot all day."
"If only we had a cot here," Jack said, unshipping the oars a little gingerly so as not to disturb the coat.
He paused for a moment to drop a piece of Stephen's cotton wool overboard and watch how it went. Then he began to row—gingerly, which should have pleased Stephen, in order to follow what he hoped was the shoreward current.
The wounds complained at the exercise, having stiffened up already. But with ointment and Stephen's familiar bandaging, and the warmth of the coat on top, they were better than Jack could have hoped.
After the first time or two that the coat slid off Jack's laboring shoulders, Stephen fussed over his bag like a seaman over his hussif, and produced a knotted strap of bandaging that he used to loop the top buttons together like the frogging on a boat-cloak. But mostly he sat in unreadable silence, his shirtsleeved arms resting on his knees.
Jack gradually picked up speed, more confident in the current and the shape of the swell. He didn't like seeing Stephen sitting there exposed to the fog and the night wind. If it hadn't been for Jack blundering into the cave, thinking only of smugglers he could negotiate with like the tradesmen they were, Stephen might have been in the cutter's warm sickberth now, and certainly wearing his coat. And there was no saying whether Connacht would in fact have betrayed him if Jack had not interrupted them, forcing Stephen to argue in Jack's defense.
Nonsense, Jack thought, and rowed harder. He felt more twinges and stabs from places here and there on his back, especially on his right side, and was glad Stephen couldn't see it. He would not be best pleased.
The shabby little boat creaked its way through the fog, the oars grinding faster and faster in the locks.
The first time the skiff scraped up onto a reef, Jack was unprepared. He took the jolt in his arms and shoulders, nearly toppling off the bench; Stephen slid into the bottom of the boat.
"Capital," said Jack, picking Stephen up and ignoring the rising pain in his wounds. "We didn't drift out to sea. Once I find my way through, we'll be onshore and ready to signal Surprise come daylight."
The second time the skiff hit a reef, it was gentler all around, although Stephen still slid into a heap.
Jack said, "That's a step in the right direction. The more reefs, the closer we are to shore, and the closer we are, the less fog there'll be."
He spoke cheerfully and took to the oars with all the gusto he could manage—but the energy that had come from being tended to and wrapped up was unfortunately flagging. He could feel the pain and weakness creeping up on him again. And this with the maze of reefs still before him, calling for hard work and careful judgment.
He didn't have the breath to talk much, though he tried to comment or jest now and then to keep Stephen distracted. From the way Stephen was watching him, for all the world like peering through a lens at his little animalcules, Jack suspected he was not succeeding, damn it all.
The reefs got thicker, and higher, and harder to navigate between. Jack bumped the balky little skiff through them as best he could, sometimes reversing and trying a more likely passage. For all the fog and chill, he was sweating freely.
At last, however, there was a reef that Jack simply could not find his way through, despite all his reversing. Everywhere the skiff turned, it thumped or grated or hung up on a jagged corner, even with its flat bottom giving it the shallowest possible draught. To retreat much further in search of a fresh gap would run the risk of going too far back out to sea. And he found he couldn't bear giving up too much of his hard-won progress. Not with his back once again on fire, and his determination not to make Stephen pay further for Jack's weaknesses.
He hung his head, gasping for breath. With each faint swell of the water, the skiff scraped.
"Enough," he heard Stephen say through the pounding in his head. "Enough now."
"The tide...it's too low," Jack managed. "But it will turn."
"So I have heard." There were sounds as Stephen moved about. Jack felt him settle by his side on the bench, taking one oar from his hand.
"I don't think you could make any progress rowing, Stephen," Jack said.
Stephen did not reply. Jack looked up to see him shipping the oar on that side, and Jack echoed him, clumsily bringing the other oar inboard. His hands felt like they belonged to someone else. But he still forced them through their paces, casting a line around a particularly tall outcrop of reef, securing the little boat as best he could.
"Now we can wait out the tide," Jack said at last, as cheerfully as possible. Even that effort exhausted him.
Stephen, still close beside him, put his arm around Jack—curved so as not to press on the wounds, Jack noticed gratefully. He obediently followed Stephen's guiding pressure, and was surprised to find his upper body lying sideways across Stephen's lap.
"Oh, now, this can't be comfortable," Jack objected.
"Draw your lower limbs up upon the bench," said Stephen, "and it will improve."
"No," Jack said, curling his legs up as instructed nevertheless. "I meant for you."
"Captain Aubrey," Stephen said in one of his best battle-surgeon tones, "we have jested about your ability to disobey my medical instructions. But this is no jest. A man treated as you have been treated, then thoroughly chilled and forced into overexertion, may very well find himself overcome by shock and infection. And a night in an open boat with a corpse? That I would surely find uncomfortable."
Jack subsided; he would not argue with that particular voice, whippy and fierce as sprung steel. He obediently let himself relax against Stephen, who draped his arms around Jack and held him close. Simply being able to lie still was glorious, despite the throbbing of his back. His haunches were cold on the hard wooden bench, but where he touched Stephen he was soaked in warmth: the thighs beneath him, the arms over him. He sighed and shivered.
"Stephen," he said after a while.
"Did you not know that Connacht had decided to sell you to the French?"
"I did not."
Jack blinked muzzily against Stephen's leg. "Yet you ran with me anyway."
Stephen didn't answer. Time passed; the sea murmured and purled as it filtered through the reef.
Jack drew in a long breath; the words came hard. "I do beg your pardon. For interfering."
"No matter," Stephen said. "I should have remembered the likelihood of you following my instructions of any kind, medical or otherwise."
It stung a little, and Jack replied without thinking. "Perhaps you should," he said sharply. "Perhaps you should have considered letting me in on your plans, as your captain at least if not as your friend. Rather than leave me with a letter like that—and such a letter, Stephen!"
He heard the feeling rising unbidden in his voice and shut his mouth tight.
"Jack, I had no choice."
"I understand," Jack said, marshaling himself. "I understand orders."
Stephen sighed. "No," he said slowly. "There were no orders."
Jack's brow furrowed. "I can certainly see them not wanting to issue anything in writing..."
"No orders at all, Jack. No orders from the Admiralty of any kind. No orders from a certain department in Whitehall."
"Then what the devil were you doing?" Jack asked, feeling a fool to be arguing in this position, Stephen's arms still around him.
"Something that could never be acknowledged by the government even by implication," Stephen said, his voice hardening. "And therefore something you had no business knowing."
"But if you had only said—"
"What would you have me do?" Stephen demanded. "If I had come to you and confessed I was meeting a ship full of deserters—officially unsanctioned for obvious reasons—what would you have done?"
"Well, I..." Jack was glad not to see Stephen's eyes on him as the words suddenly stuck in his throat.
"Yes," said Stephen, his voice despairing. "Either you would have demanded to participate, putting your entire career at risk, as well as your very life. Or you would have felt duty-bound to bring the deserters back for punishment and execution. Tell me you would not."
"I would have tried to...to do what was best."
"And how could I force that choice upon you?"
"Better that than to leave without a word," Jack insisted, though for the first time he felt uncertain.
"I disagree. I saw no good end to either path, for either of us. So I cut the Gordian knot." He made a sad, ironic noise that might in other circumstances have been a laugh. "Or at least I tried."
Jack lay upon Stephen's lap, his head in a whirl, feeling as sore inside as out. Stephen's body thrummed with the tension of an overtuned string near to snapping.
Jack wanted to shout at him. It would have felt better, lifting his voice to meet Stephen's, their wills clashing like broadswords. It would have felt safer. Here, wrapped in Stephen's coat, surrounded by his scent and warmth, all he could feel was the starkness of how frightened he was to lose him. And that was no safety at all.
"Well," he said, seeking a retreat to lightness, "as I learned my very first day aboard ship: to cut a knot is good for naught. Do you smoke it, Stephen? For naught?"
Stephen let out a breath. "I should have remembered how you are with knots."
"This Alexander, he was obviously no seaman."
"Obviously," said Stephen.
Jack closed his eyes, trying to let himself drink in Stephen's touch and presence without imagining the moment when he would have to give it up. He found this blessed place every night that he and Stephen were able to play their music together, balanced perfectly on the rising harmony and forgetting all else; Stephen was there with him and for him, tossing the lead and catching it, their eyes meeting in sidelong joyful glance.
One would think, then, that Jack could find that same bliss here. Forgetting the exhaustion and injury—he always forgot his wounds under Stephen's hands, anyway—one would think he could fundamentally rejoice in the strange new feeling of Stephen's body twining around his, much as the sound of Stephen's 'cello twined round his fiddle in the air of the great cabin.
But he could not. He had seen how suddenly he could lose him, without warning—and worse, at Stephen's own instigation. He wondered bleakly if he would also feel this way in future when they sat to their music, losing the pace and the tone and the perfect mesh between them, only because he could no longer believe that it was his, and that he would have it always.
"Stephen," he said into the still, cold air.
"Jack," said Stephen, wearing his aura of patience like an ill-fitting garment.
"Something else about poor old Alexander," Jack said, knowing he was being unfair. "They say he didn't live long after he lost his Patroclus."
A silence that felt endless. Then Stephen said, mildly: "You are thinking of Achilles."
"Oh, him too, of course. But I can never remember the other chap, Alexander's friend; my tutor tried to make me learn to spell him, but with so many vowels in the middle I'm afraid I got lost."
Stephen didn't answer at first. But after a time he said in a new voice, thick and very gentle: "Try to sleep."
Jack knew he wouldn't sleep, but he did relax almost despite himself. Stephen's words made it so. And after a time, following a sudden surge of feeling, he nestled in close against Stephen and let out a long, broken sigh. Stephen's arms stayed warm around him, not fidgeting or pulling away, which was a comfort. Perhaps he could tell what Jack was trying so clumsily to say without embarrassing either of them.
But who could read old Stephen if Stephen did not care to be read? Jack knew he certainly wasn't the subtle cove to do it. Except of course during their music, when it seemed both of them were free of constraint and speaking in another language altogether, a language all their own.
He could almost hear it, the last piece they'd attempted. Looking at it on paper, the 'cello and violin parts seemed almost to have come from entirely different works accidentally transcribed upon the same staves. But in their first tentative foray, he and Stephen had begun to discover the truth of it, the way the instruments called and answered, weaving together into something new and strange and much more than the mere sum of the notes. They had not managed much of it yet, for it was hard work, but oh how beautiful. How worth the effort.
As he drifted, letting Stephen's closeness soothe the aches of his body and heart, he could have sworn now that he did hear it, and not just inside his head. He heard snatches of the first eight bars—but only very faint, as if it rose from the water and curled in the fog.
Then, also very faint at first, he felt a touch to his hair—pulled loose by all the rough handling, it lay scattered and tangled. Stephen's fingers slid slowly into the tousle, combing through, coaxing apart knots of mud or sweat or dried blood with a deft touch. He stroked Jack's hair over and over with those nimble, damaged hands and hummed almost beneath hearing.
Jack's chest warmed as if it held a glowing coal, and he closed his eyes against the blur and burn of salt.
The tide rose; the moon sank; the dawning sun burned away the fog to reveal all manner of new paths through the rocks.
There was much talk aboard Surprise when they retrieved their captain and doctor from the shore, the captain wrapped up like a pudding and the doctor quieter even than usual. The moment his foot touched the deck, the captain sang out strong and Surprise answered, turning to leap into the wind like a fine mare. He nodded at Mr. Mowett, who glowed, and then he disappeared below.
Triggs tried making a few jokes to his mates about deserters being dragged back by the scruff, and would they hang him by his own roll of bandage, before giving up. Seemed like hardly anyone had a sense of humour anymore.
Back on deck shaved and combed and properly dressed, hat firmly athwartships upon his head, Jack lost himself in the sheer joy of cracking on. The Surprise raced over the waves toward their rendezvous to the snap of sail and the healthy creak of timbers.
The people were busy all day, but cheerful with it, catching the spirit of the race. It kept their minds, as well as Jack's, off of other things. Until finally at night, the ship rippling along with the wind on her quarter and Mr. Blakeney at the con nearly bursting with quiet pride, Jack tucked his hat beneath his arm and made his way to the great cabin.
Even before he reached it, he heard rustling and muttering and plunking, as someone in the cabin grew discontented over his tuning and the roundness of his pizzicato. Jack stopped in the shadows just inside the entryway and savored the sounds; they flooded through him as a draught of fresh water after the spectre of nothing but brack.
"There you are, Stephen," he said at last, stepping into the light. He cast his hat and coat upon the stern locker and settled to his chair.
"Preserved Killick desires me to tell you that he believes he can manage toasted cheese," said Stephen, tightening a peg. "Despite the fact that someone wasted his last efforts, carried away all congealed."
"Excellent!" said Jack. "I'm hungry as a bear. Healing must be hard work, mustn't it, makes one ravenous."
"If injury were required for appetite," Stephen said, "I would expect you to be one great walking wound at all times."
Jack, laughing, tucked the fiddle beneath his chin. "Killick can be comforted: nothing will go to waste tonight."
He ran through a scale, limbering fingers chilled from a long day on deck. "Where shall we begin?"
"Jack," Stephen said, and then paused to fuss with the music, spreading the manuscript pages out more neatly before them.
"Perhaps the beginning, then," Jack suggested.
"Jack." His eyes were still on the score. "I do apologize for my absence from our music yesterday."
"Not in the least, my dear fellow," Jack said at once, but Stephen's posture did not change.
"I am aware that you...missed the appointment very much." He reached out to trace one fingertip along the corner of a page. "And I wish you to know that I did as well. More than you know."
What Jack knew, or at least let himself guess, he kept to himself. He watched Stephen's half-averted face.
"It...cost me, to do so," Stephen continued. "And only for the highest good would I pay such a cost."
"I know about paying a price, Stephen," Jack said gently. "Never concern yourself."
Stephen took a breath and gripped his 'cello as if it were the only thing keeping him afloat. His eyes at last flicked up to meet Jack's, and he was fully there, no distance and no mask.
"I must tell you this. I will never give up our music willingly." One of his hands opened to Jack, grasping at the air between them. "Not to my life's end."
There was a part of Jack deep inside that unwound for the first time at these words, and he felt a little dizzy. He reached for Stephen's hand and took it in his own, warming it.
"Of course not," said Jack, since he really should have known all along.
Their gazes held for a moment longer, and Jack remembered that feeling from aboard the cutter. Stephen did not look so deathly now, but there was still something in his face that seemed afraid. Stephen, who faced plagues and battle and shipwreck with the same fierce and single mind. Stephen should never have to be afraid.
"Of course not," he said again, soft and emphatic. "We will take it as understood. Both of us."
Stephen managed a nod.
"There," said Jack, smiling at him, pressing his hand once more and letting it go. "We have a clear night and good sailing, we have a dashed fine piece of music to get our teeth into. We even have fresh horsehair to my bow. What else is there?"
Stephen's own smile, a mysterious lightening of his eyes and the corner of his lips, met Jack's.
"Well, whatever else there is," Jack went on heartily, his stomach alive with butterflies, "we shall find it."
Stephen let their gazes part, looking as flushed as Jack felt. "If only we could find my rosin as easily," he said.
Jack eventually found the piece of rosin in a storehole crammed next to the inkwell, and Stephen tutted him for a wicked rosin thief, before they set to the music in earnest. The melody and harmony, each for the other, rose into the night air, filling it with warmth, and vitality, and a bright and steadfast promise.