George won't stop talking; he's always like this, but the long walk has made him all the more interminable. His sister, his cousin, his aunt - in Texas, in Australia, in Italy - Edward couldn't care less. Or - he could, but he seems to have gone entirely numb to George's desperate need to validate whatever happened between him and the Esquis and John - Terror has been lucky enough to keep her lieutenants until today, and despite Jopson's promotion, John's specific place in the team is unfilled. If John were here, he'd manage to get George to calm down. If John were here, George wouldn't be in such a state.
Out of the corner of his eye, Edward sees movement - frantic movement, of men with weapons, and George is still blathering about the Comanches, and he doesn't know why those men are armed.
'Stop! Has Commander Fitzjames made the order?'
Nothing. One of the men, running away from them to the perimeter, says they've heard something, that an attack is imminent, and Edward begins to run at full pelt except -
'Where is Commander Fitzjames?'
'I -' Edward is next in command behind Fitzjames, then - Le Vesconte, perhaps, or is it George himself? He needs to get someone to the armoury, but he hesitates, and then - well, George has enough command to stop anyone but Henry, '- George, get to the armoury. Stop whoever's handing out guns from handing out more -'
'Lieutenant Hodgson! The armoury! I am going to find Commander Fitzjames.'
'I - I - I - Right away, Lieutenant Little!'
Ready, Edward thinks, as he sprints through the little township of tents they've built up, but calm - he's not calm, not at all, as he barges into the same four tents three times, their desolate little home a multiplying, identical ballroom of high yellowed canvas - like a mirror maze at the fairground, he runs himself into the same dead end over and over again, comes out just as disoriented as before. Distantly, he can, at least, hear George's plummy, imperious tones at the armoury, and then Henry's lower Plymouth drawl; they're not arguing, so Edward has time. Calm. He slows his pace, just a little, but enough to take a deep breath and kick a trough into the gravel before the tent flap as he enters, to mark which he has or hasn't checked.
The first tent since he starts his system is empty - the second is full of men who had been on nighttime watch, dozing, and in the third, there is a wraith.
No, not a wraith; his Commander.
And the Commander isn't dressed, his nude torso blooming from the ruffled waist of his trousers like a terrible sun-starved weed. He's nothing to defend himself with, and all he can do is clap a self-conscious hand over the wound on his arm, but Edward's already seen it.
'Sir,' says Edward, thrown off of his stride, and Commander Fitzjames recoils, has to unclasp his hand from his arm, and grimaces at whatever it's oozed onto his palm.
'Francis can't know,' he says, his voice a whisper, and wipes his fingers on his trousers, 'he can't. You mustn't tell him.'
Edward doesn't affirm that - 'Have you seen - Doctor Goodsir? Mister Bridgens? That's -' suppurating, he thinks, and is proud of himself for managing, aloud, the slightly more tactful '- infected.'
'Yes, I know,' rasps the Commander, 'there's no sense to bothering them. We both know what this is, and how to treat it -' he starts to shrug his shirts back on, though shrug is too lazy a description for a movement that seems to cause him agony, Edward can't think of another.
'You're not going to bandage that?' Edward asks as Fitzjames worms his left arm into his long sleeve, immediately leaving a blood-spotted streak of plasma on the fabric -
'So I may also acquire a bandage rash?' Fitzjames tries for one of the wry, coquettish smiles that would have charmed even a year ago, but now looks repulsive on his sweat-shiny face, 'Edward, I thought you liked me.'
'Commander,' says Edward, 'it is my - my duty, as First Lieutenant to ensure the crew is fit -'
'Like Francis was, in January?'
The memory of those long, awful months before Captain Crozier dried out - and the painful weeks in which he was drying - are a shared trauma for the pair of them. Indeed, until those weeks Edward had never known how utterly incapable he would be with full command. He says nothing.
'You allowed that. You allowed him to fester -'
'And I was wrong to have done so! But since he's recovered -'
'- and I shan't recover, not unless we find game, so what possible use -'
'The use is that you're seriously injured! You can rest that -'
'Was seriously injured, Lieutenant Little, six bloody years ago. If we put every man who's ever gotten hurt in the boats we'd be hauled by one of the boys, alone. Don't be stupid.'
'Sir, I must protest -'
Fitzjames puts on his waistcoat, 'You broke your arm in '36, didn't you? How's that holding up?'
''35,' says Edward, tightly, 'and it's beside the point -'
'Is it?' asks Commander Fitzjames as he pulls his jumper over his head, 'Don't make me have to make this an order.'
Edward says nothing, again. No matter what he does this is a - a great betrayal of one of his Captains, but he owes Fitzjames a betrayal, and Fitzjames knows it, and cocks his head.
'When Francis was ill, we kept it quiet. For morale. I'm simply asking that you do the same now. Francis is not allowed to know, Lieutenant Little, and that is an order. Now leave me in peace.'
'Sir,' says Edward again, 'I came because the men are arming themselves -'
Fitzjames stops dead, 'The men are what?' but doesn't even wait for an answer before slinging his coat and cap on and charging out of the tent with surprising speed -
'I thought you might have given the order, Sir, I sent George to the armoury to see what's happening, and Henry's there with him too -'
'How many men are armed?'
'I saw three, I didn't catch who -'
They come to a stop just ahead of the armoury, where George's incessant talking seems to have stalled them somewhat.
'I really think your minds must be playing tricks on you,' he's saying, 'I haven't heard a thing the whole time we've been standing here.'
Inside the armoury tent, a low voice argues - 'That's because we're at the centre of the camp, Lieutenants. The Commander isn't here to give the order, but I daresay two second lieutenants add up to at least a first -'
'That's Sergeant Tozer -' says Edward, just as George says,
'Now listen here, Sergeant Tozer! That's not how things are done! Even if it were - the Captains would be well within their rights to call for your court martial -'
'Men!' roars Commander Fitzjames, pushing forward through the crowd, his voice a hoarse imitation of its usual attention-grabbing boom, 'Did I somehow manage to give an order whilst attending to my toilet?'
A nervous titter runs through the assembled men - a few of them try to slink off; one steps backward onto Edward's foot.
'Sergeant Tozer,' says Fitzjames, 'who gave you the authority to issue weapons? Mister Armitage, you allowed this?'
Armitage stammers, and looks to Tozer, who raises his chin defiantly, 'The fog did, Commander. There's an ambush waiting out there - begging your pardon, Sir, but there are a hundred Esqui braves just out of our sight and I for one refuse to go down without a fight.'
'Esqui braves,' says Commander Fitzjames, and the only sound that follows his words is Armitage's shoe scraping back and forth in the gravel, 'one hundred of them.'
'Yessir, and us now without Neptune to sound the alarm -'
'What's happened to Neptune?' says Edward -
'Lieutenant Le Vesconte, arrest Sergeant Tozer -'
'Sir!' Tozer protests, but makes no other movement.
'- and take him to the command tent. Mister Armitage, you have best have kept that log correct or so help me,' says the Commander, increasingly agitated, 'the rest of you men, disperse! If these fabled Esqui braves appear I would like at least one man on the perimeter to scream.'
There are a lot of Ayes, and a lot of Sirs, and the men disperse, leaving Edward with the Commander, Mister Armitage, and George, taking a painstaking inventory against Armitage's log book; it seems correct - all of the guns missing have been checked out, at least, but the Commander scoffs in disgust -
'Hodgson, you can arrest Mister Armitage, take him to my tent -'
'Sir,' says George, looking very earnest, 'I forgot to tell you, earlier, about Neptune -'
'What about him?'
'I - Caulker's Mate Hickey cornered me this morning, he'd found Neptune -'
'- found him?'
'- Dead, I think, or dying, I meant to tell someone, I really did, but I was sent off to scout and then the business with John and -'
'Oh Christ,' says Commander Fitzjames, 'you saw him? Neptune?'
'I - well - part of him, Sir.'
'Christ!' says Commander Fitzjames again, slamming his hand against the armoury chest, 'Part of him? Jesus -'
'Get Armitage out of here, George,' says Edward, giving the Commander a sidelong glance as he folds himself onto a chair, putting his face into his hands - George and Armitage get out of there as fast as they can.
'Christ alive,' says the Commander, and he looks very green, 'they can't leave me in charge for five minutes!'
'Sir, it's -'
'It makes me look incompetent! It makes me feel incompetent! I kept a very tidy ship on board the Clio, you don't have to believe me, but for my pride say that you do. Christ. What is this? A mutiny?' he looks back to Armitage's log, running his finger over the lines, then pausing - 'Tozer wasn't armed, was he? He's passed on his gun to someone. I could kill him,' he says, and drags his hands over his face, stretching and distorting his features - and opening a tiny shaving nick on his cheek - 'I could kill him with my bare hands.'
Edward's unsure of the protocol here, and he's never been especially close to Commander Fitzjames, but he does put a hand on his shoulder and say, 'You've done all you can, now. We'll have to wait for the Captain to return.'
'We'll have to watch the perimeter ourselves,' says Fitzjames, 'I have to be the first to tell him what's happened. Eleven guns issued, and another I know not where - Jesus, he'd be right to call for my court martial.'
'No,' says Edward, 'there's nothing -'
'I should have been patrolling - it's no mystery that they waited until Francis was gone to pull this stunt... Francis would have been patrolling.'
'Perhaps,' Edward concedes, because he doesn't know what else to say, standing uselessly with one hand still on the Commander's shoulder, who makes no move to push him off. The moment becomes increasingly awkward, until Fitzjames buries his face in his hands again, giving Edward an opening to let go.
'Shall we... go, Sir?'
Fitzjames props his eyelid up with an index finger, 'Yes, yes, lead the way,' pulls himself upright, and groans aloud, puts an arm out to steady himself against Edward, 'Stood up too fast, that's all, give me a moment...'
'Are you sure?'
'Yes, I'm fine,' says Fitzjames, who looks anything but. They make their way to the perimeter, poking their heads into first the sickbay, where Fitzjames picks up a few items, then the command tent on the way, where Le Vesconte and Tozer are sitting in a stormy silence.
'He asked the Captain for more arms, earlier, and me too,' says Edward, to fill the silence as they step beyond the perimeter, 'I didn't imagine he'd take matters into his own hands - I haven't a clue what's gotten into him.'
'It's something, though,' says the Commander, readjusting the weight of the hairy bag he'd collected from the sick bay, 'and he knew about Neptune, which puts him in Hickey's circle... I'd not trust him as far as I could throw him.'
'Mister Hickey, or Sergeant Tozer?'
'Either. Both. I care not for if Neptune were dead or dying when Hickey found him - that George would see a part -' he takes off his cap and adjusts his filthy hair, and Edward can't understand how he didn't notice quite how unwell Commander Fitzjames was before - or, he does, because he's failed to notice it in himself; you tighten your belt until it keeps your trousers up, and one day you discover that it hasn't enough holes to do its job, and you need to bother Mr Honey for his bradawl, who lent it to Mister Farr, who gave it to Lieutenant Hodgson, who passed it on to Sergeant Tozer, who saw Mister Blanky take it, who's using it to clear tar from his pipe stem, and the holes you poke are black-rimmed and stinking. From the state of him, Edward expects that Fitzjames was at the front of Mister Honey's bradawl queue. He might have moved to handmade belt-holes before they even left the ships.
'I was quite sincere when I asked after your arm,' Fitzjames says, 'I'm just sorry I got the year wrong. How did you manage that?'
Edward smiles at him - just briefly; the air is biting and his teeth have become more sensitive than ever before, 'I ran afoul of pirates.'
'Pirates! I sense a story here, Edward -' but they are interrupted by a shotgun blast, and Edward notices the darker shapes in the fog; the Captain's party returned, and Fitzjames takes off at a jog without him.
Hickey gives him a grin as he charges back into the camp, ducking a salute - 'Lieutenant,' - and Edward suddenly feels so uncomfortable alone that he near-sprints toward where the Captains, Goodsir, and Lady Silence have stopped, passing Blanky and Jopson on the way.
'Edward,' Captain Crozier greets him, 'that was fast thinking -'
'It was George that stopped them -'
'Fast thinking to send George to them, then,' Crozier claps his shoulders, and turns back to Silence, speaking her language haltingly.
'The men who got so wound up - they'd crucify her,' Fitzjames tells Edward from the side of his mouth as Silence begins to walk away, is stopped by Goodsir, and the two of them dance around each other - she looks terribly small, fading into the fog, and when Goodsir returns he looks washed-out and curiously empty, and the four of them make their way back into the camp in a silence so intense it hurts his ears.
'Edward,' Captain Crozier says again, 'bring George to the sick tent, yes? You look over his prisoner.'
'Yes, Captain,' says Edward, and with what he hopes is a significant glance to Fitzjames, he goes to find George, who is talking.
'Ruddy stupid thing to do, really. I know you're not the armourer, and you must feel a great deal of kinship with Tozer after all those years as gunroom steward - heaven knows I'd be hard-pressed to deny Gibson a serious request... but he has no authority. Tozer, I mean. Even on board the ship the Marines are crew - albeit weapon-trained, but crew! We can hardly afford to muck about making one another unhappy out here -'
'George,' says Edward to George's bald patch, and Armitage looks relieved at the interruption, 'Captain Crozier and Commander Fitzjames want to speak with you.'
'Ah!' says George, 'back already? Well, come along, Armitage,'
'No, Lieutenant Hodgson, they want to speak to you. In the sick tent.'
'Oh?' says George, 'and you're going to watch Armitage for me then?'
'Huh,' says George, 'well, Armitage - you think on what I told you. I shall try to ask the Captains for leniency.'
After George leaves, it is awfully quiet. Edward understands why George speaks so much... but he's never been able to find the subject to carry on about like George does. Armitage doesn't seem to be a fellow for conversation, either way. When George returns, faster than expected, he's flushed, and keeps swallowing reflexively -
'Edward, I must speak with you.'
'- Hang Armitage,' says George with uncharacteristic sharpness '- Armitage; you stay there -' and he pulls Edward out of the tent flap.
'Hickey murdered John. He murdered him, Edward, and got me to do his dirty business killing those Esquis - one of them was a child, Edward. Civilians - I'm going to be sick -'
Edward starts to say, 'How on earth -' but then George actually is sick - which really is unlike George, who's managed ordinarily to keep some of the most loathsome stuff down.
'Guh, Edward -' he says between gags, '- Captain Crozier's ordered Hickey hanged, and Tozer too, on account of the mutiny, eugh -' he doubles over on his last retch, and the bile he spits onto the stone is blood-flecked, '- oh, eugh. What a damned mess -'
'How on earth did this happen, George?'
George doesn't answer that. He says, 'Armitage'll get it in the neck too, so to speak but - I don't think he'll get more than a lashing for his part, but this is... this is serious, Edward. I'm really very worried.'
'George... we can fix this. It's - the Captains are on it, aren't they?'
'It's already happened, Edward!' George's voice cracks, 'It's all already happened! I'm - it's all terrible, Edward. What's gone wrong - I -'
'The Captains - and us, too, we'll put it right.'
George clasps both of his shoulders, the speed of his speech increasing with every word - 'In China I stuck a man with my saber, you know, I couldn't have not stuck him and lived to tell you so -'
'- I saw what had been done to John and I thought only a savage could have done that... something so... but the only men I know who've stuck a man like he were a beast are Mister Hickey and myself -'
'You were lied to. It's not a fault to -'
'I believed something improbable, and ordered a whole family dead. They could've - I could've - now when we all die it'll be my fault. I can't stand it, Edward, I can't -'
If Edward were a bolder man, he'd pull George into an embrace, despite the impropriety of it - but he's not. He pats George's arm.
'We'll figure it out,' he says.
In the end, it goes horribly, horribly wrong. Edward is standing over a body he thinks might be Mister Genge, mauled beyond recognition, when Henry finds him.
'Have you seen - I've lost George,' says Henry.
'You've lost George,' Edward repeats, hoping desperately that he's misheard - he did take a blow -
'I was trying to spot Tozer, when that Thing attacked, and -'
'Fantastic job you made of that,' says Edward, rubbing the back of his head -
'Well, I lost sight of him. Both of them. It - he may have run off,' Henry says, not sounding hopeful, 'he might return to us.'
'You think that George - George, who hit it with a cannon not four months ago - George ran from it?'
Henry looks rueful, 'Is it wrong of me,' he says, 'that I'd rather he were a coward than dead, Edward?'
Edward says nothing.
'Is it?' Henry pushes -
'No. You know that.'
Henry nods, and bends down to adjust the mauled man's arms over his body. 'I liked him,' he says once he's straightened up, and they fall into step on patrol, 'George, I mean. I met him, briefly, in China, and again off of... off of Birdshit Island. Do you know what we used to call him, back on Erebus? Graham and James… Fairholme and I, I mean?'
Edward is too tired to answer aloud, but raises his eyebrows -
'We called him -' Henry chuckles and shakes his head before he can even get it out - 'we called him George Fitzgeorge... You know, because he -'
'- talks so much.' Edward finishes, and he finds himself smiling despite himself.
'We used to say - that George was posted to Terror because if he'd been with James none of the rest of us would have gotten a word in edgeways. Ah,' he says, his laughter dying as the situation returns to him, 'well, quite - that's not... We all liked him, Edward. We liked - like - all of you. Even when - when things were fraught... we never held it against you Terrors.'
Edward nods, holding Henry's twitchy gaze, and presses his lips together as hard as he can so not to cry.
'I still miss them,' Henry continues, and his mouth is pinched in just the same way. He lets his hair fall over his eyes, bending to attend another body, 'it was... suddenly so quiet. The wardroom -' he sighs, and doesn't finish that thought. Edward allows him his silence, is pleased for it, in truth - he doesn't want to imagine having to weather 12th June onwards with only Captain Crozier for company - he's barely been company of any sort until the past few months. You allowed him to fester, Edward thinks, and he knows it to be true. The Captain, now forced to purge that rotten, whiskey-fueled part of himself, is unlike anyone Edward's ever known, and a thousand times more admirable. He wishes he could have known, or brought it on sooner. But he is not a bold man.
Henry and Edward find the Captains still in the sick tent, watching Bridgens wipe blood from the face of some poor boy, an Erebite Edward doesn't recognise. Captain Crozier has a hastily-copied muster roll in his hand; when Blanky comes up behind them saying that he's found Mister Honey, the Captain checks him off with a grim 'X' and a tally against the top of the sheet.
'Who do we know to be one of them?' Fitzjames asks, 'How many are against us? Hickey, Tozer, Armitage, Des Voeux - four of them won't get far.'
'I saw Gibson in their party -'
'Billy Gibson?' says Jopson, aghast, 'Are you -'
'I'm certain,' says Captain Crozier, 'he'll have taken Magnus Manson too - and the poor boy probably thought it was his own idea.'
'Six,' says Fitzjames, 'plus Goodsir and Diggle as prisoners -'
'- George,' Henry says, and everyone turns to look at him, 'George is missing, too.'
'George Hodgson? He's a friend of Des Voeux, but I'd never -'
'George would never go with Hickey,' says Edward, and Crozier catches his eye with a tiny, proud smile, 'he'd never -'
'So the count is six, still,' Fitzjames presses -
Blanky shakes his head, 'Hoar and Aylmore are with them too, and at least three Marines.'
'Eleven,' says Fitzjames, and then he barks a sudden laugh - 'Gibson, Hoar, Aylmore, Armitage - every fucking steward on the expedition's had enough of us.'
Bridgens gives a polite cough behind them, but Crozier raises his voice, 'Mister Bridgens, you're the expedition surgeon - and the less said about Lieutenant Jopson, the better, I find.'
'Sir,' says Jopson, cheekily. Crozier checks his list again, nodding.
'Almost everyone is accounted for,' he says, 'I'll roll-call again in an hour; hopefully that'll give time for stragglers. Eleven in Hickey's party for certain, but another twelve not yet spotted. Let's gather our dead. Thirty-two of them.'
'Francis,' says Blanky -
'We'll... we'll make a pyre. All hands on deck. I'll not rush it, but the sooner we get away from this place -'
Edward knows he means no disrespect to their dead - he nods his agreement as Captain Crozier goes out to make the announcement, following Commander Fitzjames, who heads toward the other side of the camp.
'You're intent on keeping quiet now?' says Edward, once they've put enough distance between themselves and the rest of the men, 'Even after this?'
'Especially after this, Lieutenant Little.'
Fitzjames stops as a man passes, carrying a bundle of tent sheet, and starts again as soon as he's out of earshot.
'- I don't think I'd be amiss to say that we two know Francis better than anyone else, bar Tom Blanky and Mister Jopson. You tell me, Edward, with your knowledge of Francis, would this information make him a better Captain?
'Would it make him more measured, or calm?'
'The Captain has changed -'
'Or would it make him unfocussed, and more likely to take risks?'
'Or too slow, too cautious to push? Has it helped you to know of it?' Fitzjames gives him a sad little smile, 'It's not a fire, Edward. Let's not trouble him as I have troubled you. Let's not add to his worries.'
'Hm,' says Edward, unconvinced, but Fitzjames grasps his shoulder.
'Take heart,' he says, 'we have to,' then turns and vanishes into the throng.
'Take heart,' Edward mutters, disbelieving, and goes to move his belongings.