“William,” Diana cooed in tenderest tones. Captain William Frederick let out a low moan of animal agony. “William, my own dear brother, will you do me a particular kindness?”
They were in the sitting room, full from dinner and enjoying what they hoped would be the last needful fire of the spring. From his sprawl on the sofa, Captain Frederick pried an opened novel off of his face and stared at the pretty young lady sitting at her embroidery. Diana was dressed for a quiet evening in, her dark hair balanced on the back of her head like a caryatid’s.
“No, in heaven’s name,” Captain Frederick replied. “No particularity, no kindnesses, no demonstrations of fraternal affection of any kind. No, no, inscribed on the tablets of Moses: no.”
Diana dropped her embroidery in her lap. “Will you be like this the whole peace long, William? Do you intend to be the most disagreeable wretch the ocean has ever mercifully yielded back to the bosom of a loving family? Can there be no happiness in your heart if there is no war?”
Captain Frederick flipped over onto his belly and muffled his face in the cushion. His feet stuck up into the air and he waved his boots a little. He reserved the right to be in abject misery. He had no command, no orders, and no skill at horsemanship whatsoever; to be on land was the worst of all possible desolations. He had only that Tuesday managed to avoid the entanglements of the mother of an accomplished, amiable, and sensible young woman of two-and-twenty. Not even the young woman’s embarrassed apologies for her mother’s conduct could wipe the slate clean. Life itself was soured.
“At least listen to what I’m asking for,” Diana insisted. “It’s a favor you would enjoy granting.”
“Very well. What is this favor, Diana, that you are so eager to have?”
“I want you to stand by me as my second,” Diana said, shifting with ill-contained delight. “I have been challenged to a duel.”
Captain Frederick shot up from the sofa. “Good Christ!”
“William!” Diana replied in horror.
Captain Frederick slapped a hand over his mouth and stared. “Duelling? Can it be true? You were challenged? Did you challenge her?”
Diana reached down into the sewing box by her feet and drew out a thin, finely-turned lady’s glove. The embroidery was subdued maroon color on a fawn background, and Captain Frederick admired the delicacy of the stitching.
“Look inside,” Diana said, barely stifling her grin.
Captain Frederick looked inside. Stitched upon the gossamer lining was a single word, FIE.
Frederick’s mouth popped open, transfixed with the thought of this overwhelming boldness.
Diana turned her eyes to her own embroidery and smiled divinely at the sampler. “Miss Heppenthwaite was misinformed on a point of Euclid. I clarified it for her but she vehemently disagreed with my elucidation of the matter and told me I would have done well to attend my governess in matters of basic geometry.”
“That was forward,” Captain Frederick said. “Euclid? As a pretext? I understand she’s not the subtlest young lady, but that’s transparent in the extreme!”
Diana blushed. “Yes, well. And she was wrong, visibly, demonstrably, supra-utterably wrong, too. She does that, you know. She’ll pick a subject that you know she can discourse intelligently upon and proceed to feign total ignorance and flat stupidity. It’s not so unpleasant when she does it in the company of men, but when it’s an afternoon visit— and when she leaves monographs on the subject out for people to see what she read—”
Diana’s eyes were starting to flash fire and Captain Frederick cleared his throat.
“But we were at a ball, this time,” Diana went on more composedly. “I told her she was silly and that I should be very gratified to scratch out a demonstration in the garden dirt if she would only request it of me. She said I was ill-mannered. I said I valued clarity and truth. She inquired if I called her a liar. I inquired what possible objection she could have to my valuing truth that she would construe it in terms so unflattering to herself, whereupon she threw her glove in my face and demanded satisfaction for the insult. The whole ball was watching by that point and I think I heard Sir Bumphrey swoon.”
Captain Frederick passed her back the glove. Diana took it and squeezed it in a fist as if she somehow meant to pop it, then let it fall into her sewing basket.
“So I will duel her,” Diana said. “Foils, at dawn tomorrow. To first blood, I believe. Will you be my second?”
“Naturally!” Captain Frederick enthused. “But you, you detestable woman, what a way to bury the lede. If you had told me it pertained to Miss Heppenthwaite I would’ve been at your disposal from the first.”
Diana grinned a little and shook her head, wispy curls brushing over her shoulders. “And rob you of the pleasure of petty denial? I would be a cruel sibling to do so.”
Captain Frederick knotted up his lips and sighed. “I’ve been an ass lately; I own it. But o God, how long can a peace last? The Jurisprudence has been in dry dock for three months and I cannot get any traction with the Admiralty!”
“I’m sure that if you make yourself a sufficient nuisance, they will eventually yield and give you what you desire. Perhaps you could go down and bang together pots and pans.”
“I only hope to find it that easy! Who knows what it will really take? War was the better pretext, but I am prepared to go to town in sackcloth, tearing my hair and wailing like Rachel if it could by any means induce the cretins to order me to hunt pirates!”
Diana held up a slender hand to him and looked around the room, listening through the crackle of the fire. She rose and closed the door of the salon, settling at her brother’s side on the sofa.
“So he has not written?” she asked. “Not a word?”
Captain Frederick shuffled his knees around. “I… I will pour a glass of brandy. Will you take some?”
“We have sherry,” Diana said gently. “Will that do?”
Captain Frederick’s face fell in on itself. He turned his head to look at the fire but at last nodded his head.
Diana poured the drinks and brought one to him. Captain Frederick held it in his hands, sniffed it, and sat with it.
“There was one short missive,” he said quietly. “It was addressed to The Jurisprudence. There was an insulting caricature, and a few lines about how much he was enjoying my absence. He signed it in his blood.”
Diana looked green. “His blood?”
Captain Frederick nodded. He’d known. It smelled like Nathaniel’s blood. “But that was all. It has been nine weeks since.”
“Did you write him back?”
“Diana!” he said with a humorless laugh. “It’s no good writing to pirates, my dear sister. They won’t get it! No one delivers mail to pirates.”
“But… but surely someone would convey a message in a bottle! Or surely you could hire some Tortuga dock-dog to brand a crude message on the side of his boat--”
“Ship. Galleon, actually.”
“He likes antiques,” Captain Frederick shrugged. “The Hawkins works are still beautiful and the HMS Patroclus was a fine ship before she fell into depraved hands.”
“Bless me! Well, whichever. A little branding can’t be out of the question.”
“Too much is left to chance. How can I be sure that the message will reach him -- or even the dock hand -- privately? No. The most expedient thing is a new command. That will put me in a position to hunt him and fight him and have him hanged, if I can by any means accomplish it.”
Diana sighed. “Well. I rejoice to have you home but if you cannot be made happy… a command you must have.”
“I’m glad you’ve decided it,” Frederick said dryly. “I’ll send a letter indicating your view on the matter to the Admiralty. I’m very sure I shall be off within a week.”
Diana slapped his arm and rose to move across the room and resume her seat. “Insufferable. Determined to be miserable.”
“Please do not be so out of temper at the duel tomorrow,” Diana sighed. “If you moon around like a poet, my taste in seconds will be the laughingstock of our entire acquaintance.”
“Poet!” Frederick cried, stung. “Diana. Can you think me capable of it?”
Diana gave him a doubtful look and turned her eyes back to her embroidery.
Captain Frederick lay awake for hours that night. He had never had the merest trouble dropping into deep, dreamless sleeps on the sea, but on land his inner ear objected to the stillness and his body strained for the roll of the water. He got land-sick when he closed his eyes.
In the small hours he gave up and got out of bed to light a candle and contemplate his writing desk. On it was yet another earnest petition to the British Royal Admiralty, entreating them to put him to work defending whalers in the South Pacific. The missive was unfinished only because he’d yet to find the one felicitous turn of phrase to communicate the intensity of his desire to bring pirates to justice.
How could he make them understand the thrill it gave him just to contemplate capital punishment for one all-too-deserving brigand? He could just imagine the scrawny, loose-skinned neck scrubbed and set within the vicious embrace of the noose. Nathaniel, his dark eyes flashing wide with hatred and bulging from the pressure of his blood, his black-bearded cheeks livid or blue with the loss of air, and his powerful legs thrashing in the air, seeking to save himself or, if he must perish, to give his Fred a brutal boot in the gut as his dying act.
Captain Frederick heaved a heartfelt sigh and leaned on the bedpost. O, Nathaniel. O, the sea! His letters had exorcised nothing from the chambers of his aching, hateful heart. How often, exhausted from a dinner spent dodging debutantes and wishing he did not have to see all the little signs of his sister’s radiant happiness with her nemesis, had he come home and dashed off a brief insult before collapsing? How often, incensed to madness by his own devastating loneliness and the ignorant nautical pretensions of landed gentlemen, had he taken up his pen to pour out the anguished loathing of his landlocked soul? One of the desk drawers was stuffed with poisonous missives, from the merest little ‘fie’s written in capital letters to a sprawling thirty-page epic, chronicling in exacting detail Captain Frederick’s desperate desire to run his sword through Nathaniel’s pestiferous guts.
Pirates didn’t get mail. He might as well burn the lot.
Captain Frederick’s face fell, all his enchanting visions fading into the night. In the morning he could almost contain himself, but when it was dark…
He turned to the desk, intending to scratch out another draft of the Admiralty letter or at least unburden himself of a few recriminations of his nemesis’ dilatory letter-writing habits when he heard a sharp, bright noise clinking off the window pane. Captain Frederick jumped and frowned, peering out at the darkness. The house was as still as the grave.
Captain Frederick watched the window. Outside, the darkness concealed the sight of the family estate, but in the morning the sun would shine out on the park and the pond and remind Frederick how utterly, hopelessly beached he was. He hated to think of it.
Another sharp sound. Captain Frederick scowled, leaning close to the glass and squinting out, searching the starlit night for the cause. It was too warm for sleet or hail, surely, and anyway he couldn’t hear the soft hiss of precipitation. Unthinking, he reached for his belt, feeling for the saber he’d left in the umbrella stand.
Three sharp tacks rebounded nearly off of his nose and Frederick whirled around on his heel. He sprinted through his darkened bedroom and out into the silent hallway, springing like a gazelle to the stairs. He caught himself on the newel post and mounted it, sliding soundlessly to the first floor and seizing his saber from the umbrella stand by the front door with a serpentine screech. His slippered feet passed in silent haste over the floor towards the back door. He threw open the door and looked out on the lawn, heart in his mouth.
There was someone standing beneath Frederick’s window. In the gloom, Frederick could just discern the shape of a tricorn hat and the moonlight gleamed off of two shining eyes and a set of bared teeth.
Frederick wheezed, his spine gone loose. “Nathaniel?”
The shadow saluted him with a sardonic swish of a rapier. “Fred.”
“Oh, Nathaniel,” Frederick breathed, trying to regain his breath. “What in the name of God — you cannot be here!”
“Aye? Imagine my surprise then, to find meself so present.”
“I mean that I forbid it!” Frederick snapped. “How did you find my home, you sea-louse?”
Black Nate laughed softly. “Yer never so far from the shore as that I can’t hunt you down if I put me mind to it, but this time it came from one of the trash at the docks.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Long enough to fondle yer china some and help meself to a bit of the sterling,” Black Nate replied, opening his coat. The moonlight shined on a set of fish forks tucked into his bandolier. “I like the pattern with the wee irises on it, if I have any say. ‘Tis pastoral.”
“You dog,” Frederick snarled, brandishing his sword. Black Nate lunged forward to meet him, jabbing lethally forward with his blade. Frederick lurched to the side, closing to keep himself out of range and whipping his sword out around towards Black Nate’s head.
Black Nate let out a coarse bark of a laugh and dodged the arcing blade, coming up to slash gracelessly at Frederick’s midsection. Frederick caught the attacking sword on his own, heart hammering to hear the grind of steel-on-steel in the darkness between them. Black Nate’s living pressure pushed his blade still closer to Frederick, driving back the strength of Frederick’s arm. Panicked, Frederick disengaged, swinging a fist up into the side of Black Nate’s head and pushing himself away.
Black Nate let out an oath and wobbled as Frederick danced backward, trying to regain his footing. Damn the slick grass!
“Aha,” Black Nate snarled, cupping his ear. “Yer slippin’, Fred. The peace don't agree with ye. Too many good meals and not enough work.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Frederick snapped. His whole head was burning with embarrassment. “You, meanwhile, have still failed to realize that I have two arms.”
“The more to cut from yer chest!”
Black Nate closed on him, slashing madly in the moonlight. Frederick parried his blows, backing down the lawn until Black Nate lunged and Frederick could push the pirate’s hilt out to the side, swinging his own blade at his enemy’s neck. Black Nate ducked almost to the earth, turning it into a somersalt across the ground and coming up onto the other side, sword whizzing through the air inches from Frederick’s hip as he found his feet again.
Panting, Captain Frederick and Black Nate circled each other, their sword tips scenting the air for any hint of weakness.
“So ye did miss me, indeed,” Black Nate said with some satisfaction. “Hardly got me salutations out before you were a-hacking at me throat.”
“I’m defending my home, you scoundrel, of course I’m at your throat.”
“That ye are. And yet I begin to suspect --again -- that I’m the one doin’ all the chasing, Fred,” Black Nate mused. “I was sure I’d find ye married by the time I got here.”
“How am I to know the first thing about yer palsied conduct ashore? Ye never signal, ye never write…”
Frederick frowned and paced. Was there really more he could’ve done? Had he neglected Nathaniel so abominably? But he’d always thought... “Pirates don’t get mail.”
“We can send it, can’t we?” Black Nate snapped. “And if we can send it, we can receive it, ye damned fool!”
“It’s been nine weeks since word from you, you know!”
“Ye have not even an excuse t’give me,” Black Nate snarled. He snapped his blade at Frederick’s and drove him back again, swords clashing for three strong steps until Frederick slashed at his neck, nearly cutting open Black Nate’s windpipe and sending him lurching backwards in breathless surprise. Frederick pressed the advantage.
“I’m sorry if I have used you ill,” Captain Frederick said over the reverberation of their swords. “I did not realize that mail boats were on any terms with you. I have been lobbying the Admiralty—”
Black Nate swung at his head. Captain Frederick took his turn to duck and met him on the rebound, parrying frantically until an overzealous swipe exposed his right side. Black Nate swung his leg up and slammed the flat of his boot into Frederick’s side.
Frederick grunted hard, radiant pain igniting across his right ribs. Oh, that was a bruise, if not a full crack. He let out a breathless hack and got back on his guard.
“—to get them to send me back to sea,” Frederick wheezed. “I hadn’t meant to be on land so long.”
“Hadn't ye,” Black Nate said. He wasn’t impressed. He swung for Frederick’s belly and Frederick danced back towards the house, hunching down some to close the target.
Black Nate slashed at his head again, and this time Captain Frederick rose to meet him. Their blades intersected close to the hilt and they seized at each other, trying to pull the other off balance. This close, Frederick could smell his enemy’s hateful odor, fennel seeds and sweat-built grime and some kind of heathen perfume, stuck to him with accumulated salt spray. He smelled like the sea.
They swayed a moment, straining together, and then Frederick disengaged far enough to flick around Nathaniel’s blade and punch his own hilt into the pirate’s jaw. Black Nate went reeling to the side and Frederick rebounded to cut across his unprotected back; but the pirate spun himself out and charged again.
“Yes,” Frederick insisted. “Letters wouldn’t have been to any purpose, if I had gotten my commission when I should have done. We would be having this fight on our decks right now.”
“Fine words butter no parsnips, Fred,” Black Nate said.
Frederick inhaled deeply just to make a billowy sigh. “I’m sorry, Nathaniel. I didn’t know. I’ve been going mad on land. I’m thunderstruck to see you here.”
Black Nate looked at him in the moonlight and blinked. “... I did not mean to drive you to effusion, Fred.”
“Well, you have it.” Frederick went for his face; Black Nate had gotten wise to this peccadillo of his and rebuffed it with a kick to the thigh. “I miss you with a soul full of fire. At idle moments my hands twitch to bloody your nose. I care nothing for these people, except my sister, and whether I sit at dinner or at worship my only thought is of you, gutted like a fish or strangling slowly from a hook on my yardarm.”
“Fred,” Black Nate breathed. His dark face was darker. He blushed. Frederick almost grinned at the sight of it.
“Torture me no more,” Captain Frederick implored. “Say not that you hate more intensely or more enduringly than I. I longed for nothing more than to stretch out my hand and throttle your malformed neck, but I knew not how to reach you even with words.”
Their swords bounced, clattered, sensing openings and opportunities that their minds did not detect. The bodies went on while the minds occupied otherwise.
“I have been left to burn here,” Captain Frederick went on, “without even the release of pen and paper to console me. Have no mercy, Nathaniel. Can you not know my happiness to find you have hunted me down even to the earth of my ancestors?”
“Enough, Fred,” Black Nate gruffed. “Enough. I hear ye.”
“Do you believe me?”
“Fred!” The word was nearly a squawk. Captain Frederick smiled, helpless with sadistic pleasure at the thought that he had embarrassed his hated foe.
They were back at the side of the house now, slicing and spinning from each other in the longest fight either had had the pleasure of experiencing in months and months. Captain Frederick feinted and lunged; Black Nate charged him like a bull; their swords caught, held, ground slowly together mere inches from their faces; their eyes locked together in a furious glare; and Captain Frederick held his breath, gripped with the sudden delicious certainty that Nathaniel was about to spit in his face.
“Good evening?” came a sweet voice from above. “William, will you please introduce me?”
As one, their eyes broke the stare and flicked up to the second storey windows. In one of them, Diana was leaning out of the casement. She had a lit candle at her side and she giving them an exquisitely patient smile.
They scrambled to disengage and put themselves to right. Frederick fumbled to comb his hair with his fingers and Nathaniel coughed loudly as he straightened his hat and tugged on his waistcoat.
“Dear me,” she said. “Have I caught you at an awkward moment? I do beg your pardon. Only I heard such a racket that I thought the whole house must be up and on the lawn, and I wished to see what kind of ghastly scene awaited me.”
Frederick stared up at his sister, mortified. He worked his jaws a few times to try and squeak something out; but he was mute.
Black Nate cleared his throat and swept his hat off his head. He executed a remarkably courtly bow. “Miss Frederick, good evening. Beggin’ yer pardon for the noise and the trouble. I let me enthusiasm get ahead’o me.”
“You must be Black Nate o’Bedlam,” Diana smiled. “How charming to finally meet you! It is a perfect pleasure to have you in the neighborhood.”
“Yer park is a treat, Miss Frederick, and I much admire yer lovely home.”
“You’re too kind. You are entirely welcome! Can you be by any means entreated stay with us this evening? It would be unkind to wake Cook at this hour, if the noise has not brought her up yet, but I could offer you some crumpets and a cup of tea.”
“Diana,” Frederick said in rebuking tones. He was fresh out of a very intimate sword fight! He had no desire to sit still under her impertinent gaze while Nathaniel ate crumpets and tucked crumbs into all the furniture. How could she not see that this was private? Why would she not go to bed?
“God bless you, miss. Yer extraordinarily kind,” Black Nate said, and lo and behold he sounded abashed. “But I’ll not keep ye from yer rest a moment longer. Beg pardon again, and I wish ye a good night.”
“Oh, but won’t you stay? I have a duel in the morning, Mr. o’Bedlam, and I should be so pleased to have you as my particular guest.”
Black Nate shot his gaze over to Captain Frederick. Frederick waved a hand in the air — later, later — and the pirate bowed again.
“Forgive me, miss, but I have some business matters in town that will not wait even fer a social event so agreeable to me personal tastes and worthy to those of the larger community,” Black Nate said. “I regret to say that tonight was the only occasion on which I could be excused by any means. I’m back to sea in the morning.”
Frederick’s heart sank. “Are you?”
“Aye, Fred. I’ve no business bein’ on land, but to transpierce yer guts and bring back yer forelock as a trophy.”
Frederick self-consciously pushed his fingers through his hair. “I’d like to see you take it!”
Black Nate swung the sword at him. Frederick ducked.
“Gentlemen,” Diana sang from the window. Frederick flushed.
“We’ll stop, Diana.” Frederick strapped his sword to his side with the belt of his dressing gown and motioned for Black Nate to do something similar. After a pause, the pirate sheathed his weapon. “Go back to bed.”
“Good night, Mr. o’Bedlam,” Diana chirped. “Come to see us when you have more time and we will be happy to put you up. Frederick, I still expect to see you at dawn.”
“Aye,” Frederick said, then coughed. “Yes. Until then, Diana.”
“Adieu!” She closed the window and after a moment the light from her room flickered out.
Black Nate was looking up at Diana’s room. “One of them petticoat duels, eh?”
“It’s a point of mathematical disagreement,” Frederick replied quietly. “Her nemesis has been feigning ignorance of certain propositions in order to provoke Diana into picking a fight.”
Black Nate let out a low whistle. “Damn me. Ain’t a subtle matter, duelling for maths.”
“That’s what I said. Her nemesis is being unmistakably partial. Diana is delighted.”
“Oh, aye. Have they crossed blades before?”
“Never! And yer to second? ‘Tis an honor yer scarcely equal to, Fred, and a momentous occasion indeed. Would that I could attend it.”
“You cannot,” Frederick said. Black Nate grinned. “I forbid it. And anyway, if you did, I’d have you chained and dragged all the road to Newgate.”
“Ha! Almost worth the risk of hanging to see ye try.” They fell quiet then, standing there with their weapons sheathed. The night resumed its tranquility, the stillness of the breezeless trees letting the insects begin to sing once more.
Black Nate took a deep breath. “Don’t suppose ye care to try and cut me throat quietly before ye retire for the evening?”
Captain Frederick’s heart lurched in brutal longing. “It’s too good for you.”
“And I won’t kill ye on land,” Black Nate said. “I’ll have your heart’s blood smeared on my deck or nowhere. That being the case, I’d best be getting back to port.”
Frederick kicked at the grass a little. “So you had.”
Black Nate stared at him in the gloaming. Captain Frederick stared back. It was dark even with the moon, but all the same he could picture the scarred face, the gnarled beard, the eyes like coals atop Satan’s hookah.
Black Nate broke first, heaving a sigh from the depths of his bellows.
“Ghat damn ye, Fred,” he breathed. His voice was husky and raw. “I rode a horse for ye.”
Captain Frederick swallowed so hard his throat clicked. “I’m going to town after the duel. If they won’t give me the needful, I’ll offer my services to the Americans.”
“Ye wouldn’t!” Black Nate snapped. “God’s pubes, Fred, don’t be a fool.”
“I don’t care. I’ll do it.”
“I’ll not fight an American’s man,” Black Nate said. “No, I won’t have it. They don’t know how to do it right, Fred, they get their subtext wrong. It’s something in the eyes. I’d sooner confound the Canadian. Sooner stymie the Australian.”
Nathaniel would do it, too. Jealousy stretched like a contented cat across the pillow of Captain Frederick’s guts. “You’ll do nothing of the sort.”
The moonlight shined on Black Nate’s teeth. “Get it done, Fred. Come back to the sea.”
“I will,” Captain Frederick promised.
They looked at each other again. Captain Frederick’s heart quickened its pace, just to think of the man before him. Nathaniel had crossed one, perhaps two seas, risked his crew’s good regard, and dared all the dangers posed by the civilized world, all for one brief fight on a bowling green in the depths of a spring night. All for a fight with Captain William Frederick.
It was extravagant; belief-beggaring. How could he ever be worthy of it?
Frederick swallowed hard. He sniffed shortly against the night air and said, “I hate you, Nathaniel.”
“Aye,” Black Nate said sweetly. “I hate ye too, ye pox-addled bilge rat. I’ll spit on your mother’s grave on me way out.”
Captain Frederick shuddered. “I’ll beat you like a rented mule. I’ll pulp you like a felled tree. I’ll see you in the gibbet and come drink all the sherry in front of you.”
Black Nate’s face went dark again. “Enough! Fred, enough. My head won’t be turned with yer protestations.”
Captain Frederick shook a fist at him. Black Nate returned the gesture, grinning widely.
“Get to sea, Fred,” Black Nate said. “And send a bedamned letter, while yer a-dithering here.”
Captain Frederick jumped. “Oh! Wait!”
He turned and ran into the house, sprinting back across the first floor and stamping heedlessly up the steps. He burst into his room and yanked the drawer of letters out of his desk, scooping out an armful of unsent correspondence. He snatched up the biggest piece of paper he had, dumped the letters onto it, and rolled the whole thing into a tube as big around as a salad plate. After a moment’s thought, he whipped off the belt of his dressing gown, letting the sword clatter to the floor, and tied the belt around the tube to secure it.
Frederick threw open the window and tossed the tube out into the night. It landed with a dense thud.
Black Nate peered up at him.
“Letters,” Captain Frederick said.
Black Nate’s teeth gleamed. He lifted his hat from his head and made an obscene hand gesture at Captain Frederick. Captain Frederick returned it.
Black Nate picked up the tube and walked out towards the woods bordering the park. Frederick watched him until he could see him no more and stayed at his window still longer, listening for the night breeze to carry the distant sound of galloping hoofs to him.
It took a long time to fall back asleep. He kept his sword at the foot of the bed.
In the morning, Frederick held his yawns in check by repeatedly jamming his tongue against the roof of his mouth and making bug eyes at Miss Heppenthwaite’s bemused second, her cousin from Dorsetshire. The sun was only just tingeing the grass of the Heppenthwaite park when Diana and her opponent stripped to the waists and crossed their swords.
It was all over in a twinkling. Captain Frederick was himself a little surprised, considering his preferred method of a long and leisurely buckling of swashes; but his sister was different. He only had time to think how much better Diana’s fiancolonnade had gotten before a line of crimson blood was flying through the air and his sister was crying out in pained surprise.
“Hold!” he shouted, coming over to investigate. Diana stood up bravely, offering her chin and a full view of the spectacular slice across one flushed, pillowy cheek.
“That’s a hit,” Miss Heppenthwaite said, very satisfied.
“Will you apologize?” asked the Dorsetshire cousin. Captain Frederick stood aside.
“Under no circumstances,” Diana said. Blood dripped off her chin and she glowered at Miss Heppenthwaite.
“Very well,” Miss Heppenthwaite cooed. A supercilious little smile quirked her lips and Captain Frederick felt a flash of vicarious vexation — God bless his sister, she had indeed found herself a dungball among the rubies.
Miss Heppenthwaite took Diana’s foil and lay her own on her enemy’s shoulder. Glaring into Diana’s eyes, she pressed the tip of the foil to the ground and stamped on it, snapping the foil in two.
“I spare your life,” Miss Heppenthwaite announced. Although Captain Frederick averted his eyes with due modesty, he was not fast enough to miss the way Miss Heppenthwaite used the blade of her sword to caress a trickle of blood running down his sister’s neck.
Diana snarled. “Oh! You, you-- you…!”
“When you’re cleaned up,” Miss Heppenthwaite smiled, “you both must come for dinner. I believe Mama intends us to have a little pheasant on Tuesday. Shall we see you then?”
“Certainly you shall!” Diana snapped.
The ladies redressed themselves and made faces at each other until they parted to their various stations: Miss Heppenthwaite to crow in her nest, Diana to sit in the barouche beside her brother and give way to brilliant smiles, touching her bare fingertips into the opened skin on her face.
“Will it scar? Shall it scar, William? Should I rub a little dirt in it? Tell me how I can make it scar!”
The ride home was exceedingly pleasant, as the coach rolled over the uncertain roads almost like a ship and Diana bled all over them both, singing her happy intentions of starting a new quarrel at the next respectable moment on some obscure point of Apollonius, so she could have another shot at slicing off one of Miss Heppenthwaite’s perkier attributes.
Captain Frederick smiled with all his fraternal warmth over these high-minded and excellent intentions for the future with one hand in his coat. He kept prodding at his aching ribs.
The late morning was consumed in letter-writing.