“Absolutely not,” Horatio said, slinking back further into the shadows, “I’ve humiliated myself enough tonight.”
“We need to make a good impression, Horatio,” Archie said, his tone sympathetic but firm, “After all, we’ll be sharing a ship with these men for some time. The friendlier we can be towards each other, the better.”
“I think I’ve already botched that job,” Horatio groaned, “What they must think of me…”
“I’m guessing they think you’re a fine officer who just has the misfortune to be sensitive to the incense they burn. You’ve apologized and explained yourself numerous times; that has to count for something.”
Horatio sighed. “Fine. But the moment I believe they’re laughing at me or are offended by me, I’m seeking out the captain and asking to return to the ship.”
“That’s fair. Come on now.” Horatio drew his handkerchief out of his pocket, took one more regretful breath of fresh air, and followed Archie back inside.
It had seemed like a great honor a week ago when Captain Pellew had informed the officers that they had been invited to dinner at the home of the Arab diplomat they would be ferrying back to England. Horatio needed no prompting to know he needed to be on his best behavior. His nose, apparently, thought otherwise, because the moment he’d entered the ornate building, something sickly sweet flooded his sinuses, and instead of giving his name as “Horatio Hornblower, lieutenant”, he’d pitched forward with a “Hohratsheeeeeeeewwww!” The announcer had looked startled, and it had taken all of Horatio’s composure to apologize and give his name properly. Their interpreter quickly figured out, and explained, that it was the incense, but that didn’t make Horatio feel much better. Surely everyone thought he was rejecting their culture.
Archie led him inside again, and Horatio winced as the scent hit his nose again. He resolved to try to breathe through his mouth as much as possible, to keep the sneezing to an absolute minimum.
“There you are, Mr. Hornblower!” Mr. Bowles said, approaching the two lieutenants, “Come along, there’s someone you must meet.”
Horatio obligingly followed Bowles to where a gentleman, dressed in the European style, was watching over proceedings with shrewd interest. “Allow me to introduce Fahim Fahd," Bowles said, "He’s fascinated with our culture; even learned our language. What a relief to have a second interpreter, eh?”
Fahd bowed to them. “A pleasure,” he said in heavily accented but definitely understandable English, “And you are, gentlemen…?”
“Archie Kennedy.” Archie responded immediately, bowing back.
“Lieutenant…” Horatio started, but the incense was too much for him, and he barely managed to get the handkerchief to his face to cover the sneeze. “Hohh'raetshah!”
“Pardon me?” Fahd said, arching an eyebrow.
“Horatio Hornblower,” Horatio murmured, scarlet in the face, “I’m dreadfully sorry. It’s the incense.”
“Ah.” Fahd’s expression was sympathetic. “Yes, that can take some getting used to, especially if you haven’t grown up with it.”
Archie gracefully stepped in to save Horatio further embarrassment. “Will you be among the party travelling to England?”
“Of course!” Fahd said, “I look forward to seeing your country in person. I have heard such interesting things. Odd, isn’t it, how the mundane to some can seem exotic to others?”
Archie nodded. “I agree. To us, this is all so…different. To you, it’s commonplace.”
“Precisely. Although I believe your friend wishes incense was less commonplace.”
Horatio flushed again. Fahd inclined his head. “I meant no offense, Mr. Hornblower.”
“I understand.” Horatio answered, hoping someone would change the subject again. Fortunately, just such an opportunity arose.
"Ah, Hala!” Fahd beckoned over a young woman, cocooned in the most marvelously colored silks, “Hala is the daughter of Imtiyaz, the diplomat," He explained, "She will not be coming, unfortunately; she would have livened up the journey considerably.” He spoke to the young woman in Arabic, gesturing to the officers. She looked at them and smiled, giving a strange mixture of a bow and a curtsey, before speaking to Fahd. “She says she hopes you will take good care of her father.” Fahd translated.
“We’ll do our best.” Archie said with a smile.
When Fahd translated, Hala’s eyes shone with relief. One quick conversation later, Fahd said, “She thanks you for your kindness and wishes to know your names.”
Horatio opened his mouth to provide it, but once again, the incense overpowered him. “Hoh'ratshoo!”
He had barely looked up from the handkerchief before Fahd was speaking, no doubt explaining the situation. Hala looked at Horatio almost tenderly, murmuring something that had to be Arabic for “Bless you.” He nodded his thanks, feeling his free hand curling into a fist. Perhaps he should just find an excuse to leave now.
Archie gave his name, and Hala said something else (“Best wishes on your journey” Fahd said) before disappearing back into the crowd, Mr. Bowles on her heels. Fahd gestured at Horatio’s handkerchief. “Has this been going on all evening?”
“Unfortunately,” Horatio said, “It always seems to come on at the most inopportune times.”
“Such as introducing yourself,” Fahd said, eyes betraying a spark of amusement, “Perhaps there’s a trick to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Try to say your name again.”
Horatio opened his mouth, but had barely formed the first ‘H’ when… “Hoh'reshoo!”
“Very curious indeed,” Fahd said, “I cannot tell you what it is, but it appears that the act of saying your name causes you to inhale just enough incense to force you to sneeze.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Horatio protested, “There’s no trick to saying H… hohr'rachoo!”
“Your body begs to differ, Mr. Hornblower. I suspect it’s the forceful exhale on the ‘H’.”
“Then why don’t I react like when I say…my last name?"
“You’ve cleared out the incense for a few moments, allowing you to get your words out.”
Horatio was still sure this was nonsense, but given the circumstances, he was willing to go along with it for now. “What should I do?”
“Try to avoid words with ‘H’s’ in them, obviously.” Archie said, looking like he was doing his best not to laugh.
Fahd’s tone was more clinical. “He has a point. And I would suggest, if you must introduce yourself, continue to lead with your first name. It’s better that the diplomatic party forgets your first name and not your last.”
Horatio couldn’t repress a groan. “This is going to be a painfully long evening.”
“We shall see,” Fahd said, “But if you’ll excuse me, gentleman, I must mingle. I’m sure there are others out there who would appreciate an interpreter.”
He moved off, slipping easily into the crowd. Horatio turned to Archie. “I’m going outside again.”
“No you don’t!” Archie said, “Stick it out for as long as you can. I don’t think we’ll be here all that much longer.”
Horatio sighed. “Fine. But let’s try to keep our introductions to a minimum.”
For a time, they were able to move through the crowds, nodding if someone glanced at them and talking to each other. But then, inevitably, they found themselves near Captain Pellew, deep in conversation with the interpreter and Imtiyaz. Horatio tried to turn away, but Pellew had already spotted them. “Ah, good evening, gentlemen. Are you enjoying yourselves?”
“Yes, thank you.” Archie said, while Horatio made a non-committal noise.
Pellew smiled. “Good. I don’t believe you two have been formally introduced. Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy, permit me to introduce Mr. Imtiyaz, our diplomat. Mr. Imtiyaz, these are two of my finest rising Lieutenants.”
The translator did his work, and Imtiyaz stuck out a hand, saying something. When Horatio caught the word Imtiyaz, he realized the diplomat had just given his full name. He gulped.
Archie took his hand first. “Archibald Kennedy.” Imtiyaz nodded and turned to Horatio expectantly, holding out his hand once more.
Horatio took it and tried to focus all his effort on not sneezing. He breathed through his mouth shallowly, quickly, and tried to speak. But instead…“Hoh'rechoo!”
Imtiyaz said something, obviously puzzled. The interpreter was murmuring in Pellew’s ear, causing the captain to look at Horatio intently. Desperate, Horatio pulled himself up and tried again. The second attempt was, somehow, worse; “H'resheeeeeeeewwww!”
“Samehni,” said a familiar voice, and suddenly Fahd was part of the group. He spoke to Imtiyaz, gesturing to Horatio and Archie. Horatio thought he heard his name being spoken. Imtiyaz listened, nodded, shook Horatio’s hand distractedly, and waved at Fahd. “My apologies, Captain,” Fahd said, turning to Pellew, who was doing an excellent job at hiding his confusion, “But it seems that my trunks failed to be sent out to your ship with the others. With your permission, I would like to take two of your men and get this settled.”
“Granted,” Pellew said faintly, “I could fetch Mr. Bracegirdle…”
“These two will do nicely,” Fahd said, pointing to Archie and Horatio, “Besides, I’m already acquainted with them.”
Pellew turned to the lieutenants. “Would you be willing to help out Mr.…this gentleman?”
“Yes, sir!” Horatio said, hoping he didn’t sound too relieved.
Archie gave his assent as well. “Very well then,” Pellew said, “I’ll see you back at the ship. I expect to hear that all his effects have been properly stowed away when I return.”
“Aye, sir!” Horatio and Archie chorused, saluting. Fahd said his goodbyes to the group and led the way outside. The minute they were outside, Horatio took a welcome breath, though there was still a prickle in his nose that suggested he had a few more irritants to sneeze out. “I can’t thank you enough for this, Mr. Fahd.”
“Thank me for what? My things were left behind. And I won’t entrust them to just anyone, you know. This way, gentlemen.”
He led them to a cart that was full of trunks and parcels. “I shall accompany you,” he said, “But if you’ll permit me, I will return to the party and make my goodbyes first.”
As he moved off, Archie chuckled. “We’ll need to be on our toes around him. He’s a crafty one.”
“I don’t mind much at the moment,” Horatio answered, sighing as he rubbed his nose, “I’ll have to find some way to pay him back.”
“Just play whist with him. Even if he doesn’t know the game, I’m sure he’ll pick up on it quickly enough to cost you your month’s wages.”
“Oh, stop it, Ar…ehrchee!!”
Archie laughed again. “Well, at least you’ve moved on to another syllable.”
Horatio glared at him, but decided to respond in kind. “Perhaps I’ve been permanently affected. I’ll never be able to say your name again without sneezing.”
“Oh, I doubt that. You just need to sneeze out the last of the incense. Here, let me help.”
With that, Archie produced a snuffbox and held a pinch under Horatio’s nose. “Oh now, really, A…a'rshi!”
“What do you know? It worked!”
Horatio, busying himself with his handkerchief, decided not to give him the satisfaction of being right. Perhaps he’d fake a few sneezes all the way back to the Indefatigable…