Authors: Laura Kinsale
New York, NY
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1989 by Laura Kinsale
First e-reads publication 2003
'Tis in my head: 'tis in my heart: 'tis everywhere: it rages like madness and I most wonder how my reason holds.
It was hell being a hero. With the guns crashing and the deck a blind chaos of powder smoke, Captain Sheridan Drake wiped his sleeve across his eyes to clear away a crust of Mediterranean sweat and battle-grime. He thought of his botched boyhood Latin lessons with profound regret.
Really, he ought to have listened to his schoolmaster, and gone into practicing law.
A barrister, now—there was a profession for an intelligent man. Sleep late, rise rested, hot coffee and fresh eggs for breakfast…but no—he'd best not think of fresh eggs; he'd start hallucinating after a hundred and thirty-seven days at sea without one. The guns roared and the deck beneath him trembled with the recoil. To starboard, a Turkish ship jibed, swinging bows around and peppering the deck with grapeshot and rifle-fire. Sheridan ducked behind the mizzenmast and squinted longingly at the closest hatch, calculating his chances of slipping below unnoticed. No sense getting himself killed in this sordid little squabble.
He shouldn't even have been aboard, but of course no one besides himself would give a thought to that—the British navy being more interested in gallantry than brains, and inclined to become maudlin over its heroes. For the past week, the legendary Captain Sheridan Drake had suffered through the stultifying honor of dining here in the flagship, gazing gloomily into his wine and listening to officers of the British, French and Russian navies work themselves into a frenzy of indignation over the way the Turks were enslaving the Greeks.
Or was it the way the Egyptians were devastating the Morea? Whatever—it was just another dubious variation on the old and unpleasant theme of poking one's nose into other people's wars. The only saving thing about it was the way they toasted his health every five minutes, a common official practice which Sheridan approved as a harmless pastime and a cheap drunk.
His moody silence had been taken for a deep and painful case of martial ardor. Deep, because everyone was certain old Sherry was a firebrand for King and Country and Duty and Honor and various other high-flown sentiments—which he wasn't—and painful, because he was known to be a hell of a fellow when it came to a fight—which he was. A hell of a coward, not that any of them would believe it if he said so.
But he was forced to turn himself onshore, unlucky chap; he was leaving the fleet to pay his respects to his beloved father's fresh grave and take up permanent care of his dear invalided sister. It was a sad case, a sad end to a glorious naval career; anybody could see how poor Sherry was torn to pieces over giving up his command, and not a bit comforted by his nabob father's boundless fortune and estate.
It made no difference that poor Sherry himself had never voiced any of these sentiments. It was also immaterial that he would rather have been any number of places than trapped aboard a warship with a bunch of antique admirals who were itching for a fight. Nor did Sheridan bother to mention that he intended the imaginary invalid sister to be a fine sloe-eyed courtesan with a good education in the passionate arts, or that he had despised his father, his father had despised him, and the nabob fortune most probably had been left to a Home for Fallen Women in Spitalfields. Sheridan Drake had the gift of smiling darkly and keeping his mouth shut. He never lied without sufficient provocation.
Just now it was becoming unpleasantly hot on the quarterdeck, even for heroes. Vice Admiral Codrington didn't seem to notice—too busy pretending he was back twenty-two years ago still bellowing broadsides at the Battle of Trafalgar. The old fool apparently hadn't even realized that a bomb ketch behind the enemy line had managed to draw a damned accurate mark on his flagship. Sheridan sucked in an anxious breath as he heard the unearthly whistle of another falling rocket. He closed his eyes with a brief, private groan.
Below him the guns boomed again, covering the blessed
of a miss as the bomb hit water near enough to send the splash fountaining over his cuff. With an ardent oath, he flung off the drops that glistened against his dark blue coat. If one of those shells hit the deck and exploded over the powder magazine, the fact that he'd been relieved of his command with honors just this morning would be a point of academic debate. It certainly wouldn't make any difference to the tiny pieces of Sheridan Drake scattered all over the Bay of Navarino.
He'd had enough of this hellish nonsense. Like any sensible hero who wanted to live long enough to lay eyes on his laurel wreath, he hit upon a plan. It wasn't a first-rate plan. In fact, it was a damned shaky plan, but things were tight. He drew his sword for dramatic effect and took a step toward Codrington and the knot of flag officers, fabricating a fierce look and an obscure but frantic need to dispatch a boat back out of the action—a boat which Sheridan had every intention of being aboard. As he closed the space between them, the eerie shrill of another incoming bomb climbed to a screaming pitch. He spared a glance up past the mizzenmast.
In that numbing instant he saw his plan and his life and his future go for naught. The shell howled along its trajectory with nightmare clarity. In his panic the thought that pushed every other from his mind was that it was a terrible rotten practical joke. He hated practical jokes; it had been a vicious prank that had launched him into this abominable career, and now it was going to be a stupid black twist of humor that would take him out. Of all the days for Codrington to start a fight; of all the ships for Sheridan to be on; of all the bombs that were plunging down on all sides, there had to be one with his name on it: Captain Sheridan Drake, Royal Navy—
In that endless moment beneath the bomb's rising shriek his life seemed to vanish before him—just evaporate, like steam in thin air: no time for evasion; too far to the rail; too late to do anything but complete the step he'd already started that took him among the officers next to the admiral. He was going to die—right now—with his guts dissolving in fright and fury. It was outrageous; it was monstrous, and it was all Codrington's fault.
Noise blasted his ears, cracking thunder, drowning every other sound. The ship shuddered. Something snapped inside him, an instant of strangeness, as if the air had thickened into molasses and wouldn't fill his lungs, as if a wall in his mind wavered, slipped…and then dissolved. Murder howled through his brain and body. Amid the confusion and screams and squeal of splintering wood, he swung his sword and threw all his weight into a wild, vicious blow to the admiral's neck.
The ship heaved beneath him in mid-swing. Something caught Sheridan hard in the back. His sword went flying; he brought both hands up to save himself, sending Codrington sprawling amid the cascade of rigging and deafening smash of plummeting timber. Sheridan scrambled as the tangle of rigging that had fallen around him began to rise. On his knees, he looked over his shoulder, shoving at the wreckage from the downed mast that lay across the quarterdeck. The smolder of burning powder stung his nose. Just beyond his trailing leg lay the splintered end of a three-foot-diameter tree trunk that had been the mizzenmast, still vibrating in deep bass from the fall.
It took three fumbling attempts to make it to his feet, his muscles having gone to pudding. Codrington hadn't even gotten past the process of turning over. Sheridan stepped forward. His brain refused to make sense of the scene, consumed with a flaming urge to kill the old fool while he was down. Crewmen shouted. The tangle of rigging was still moving, pulled in a groaning mass by the mizzen, which trailed precariously over the stern. As a shattered spar lifted, it revealed a dark oblong shape that rolled erratically across the deck toward Codrington's feet, curling a thin black pencil-line of smoke.
Sheridan's mouth opened. For an instant a warning trembled on his lips, and then with the weird single-minded logic of extremity it came to him that any man stupid enough to have started this fight was too stupid to do the obvious thing. While Codrington and the others lay there like sapskulls waiting for the bomb to smash them all to atoms, Sheridan muttered a string of imprecations and moved. He stepped gingerly over the menace of sliding rigging and picked up the live shell.
It was heavier than he'd expected. The weight of it brought his mind out of shock and back to reality, and he found himself with a bomb and a burning fuse in his arms. He'd had one of those vague hysteria-notions of tossing it overboard, but he should have known they never worked. The rail was miles too far away. As that appalling realization struck him, his mind ceased to function at all. At the same moment a taut stay finally parted with a throbbing twang and the mizzenmast lost its last connection with the hull. The whole bulk of mast and rigging and canvas moved with a vast jerk. Sheridan had the bizarre sensation that he was suddenly floating above the ship's deck, that it was sliding slowly past him when it had no right to do so. A sharp pain closed on his ankle and he fell backward with a grunt, holding onto the bomb as if it were a baby. The pull on his ankle increased to agony and things began to move toward him—the stern anchors, the wheel, the railing—all flashed past in a bruising tangle until suddenly there was nothing underneath him but air, and then water that came up to burst into his eyes and fill his nose in a burning intrusion of choking salt.
For an interminable, confused moment he could think of nothing but that he must not breathe. He felt himself going down and down as his lungs burst. His fingers weakened and lost their desperate hold. He dropped the bomb, bracing himself for the inevitable explosion and pain, but all that happened was that he was suddenly buoyant, and his body was singing an electric agonizing song for air.
His consciousness seemed to have telescoped to a tiny pinprick of life. He hung onto that, rising. Something pushed down on his head, and he twisted in panic, clawing upward. He was dying; his whole body spasmed with the knowledge of it, but he would not open his mouth. He would not answer the killing demand of his lungs. He wouldn't give that donkey's ass Codrington the pleasure of drowning him when he'd already left the navy—with honors, hang 'em all.
His fingers dug into a mass of wreckage, too feeble to answer his mandate to pull him upward. Carried by water, his body rolled. Coolness hit his face. The noise in his ears changed.
He opened his eyes and his mouth at the same time, taking a gulp: half air, half seawater. A cough convulsed him as the blunt end of a spar rammed into his neck. He clutched at it and lost it as a swell rolled past. Ahead of him, the flagship and Turkish man-of-war sailed serenely on, still thundering away at one another, already a quarter mile downwind.
"Bastards," Sheridan croaked. He floundered onto a mass of floating rope, but it sank under his weight, tangling in his boots. He fought it off, bobbing and gasping. The sound of the guns echoed around the bay and a white haze hid the land and horizon. A piece of taffrail floated by. He lunged and missed it, wasting strength in a useless splash.
As a wave lifted him, he caught sight of a dead Turk drifting in the next trough, spreading a dark stain in the clear blue. While Sheridan watched, the dark stain seemed to grow and elongate. The body made a sudden twist, as if it were alive, and then disappeared, popping up and shuddering in a grotesque mimic of struggle before it was dragged down again for good, leaving a trail of blood.
Sheridan closed his eyes. Hysteria fluttered in his throat. He wanted to shout and curse and babble fear. Instead he only managed one pathetic oath before a wave slapped his mouth and filled it with seawater. He spat it out and sobbed for air.
The cannon still filled the sky with the crashing, uneven sound of battle. He thought, with a kind of grief, of fresh eggs and hot coffee. Another wave hit him, washing furious tears off his face.
With sodden, sluggish strokes, he tried to swim. Something large and shadowy slid past beneath him in the water. His muscles went paralytic. He floated and prayed.