Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
--Robert Browning, "Meeting at Night"
PART TWENTY-ONE: "Nocturne"
"Boswell," Archie said to the tavernkeeper, a stocky, balding man perhaps in his forties.
For a moment, he was not certain the man understood, then he nodded and jerked his chin towards the stairs. "Third room, on the right."
The Shakespeare Tavern was busy that evening, Archie noticed, crowded with workmen, tradespeople, and the slightly disreputable. However, the overall atmosphere seemed lively and convivial rather than boisterous or quarrelsome. Occasional bursts of laughter, masculine and feminine, could be heard in the tap room and the dining room, and the smells of roasting meat and brewing punch were distinctly appetizing. The Shakespeare had an excellent kitchen, despite its raffish air.
Nonetheless, Archie reflected as he ascended the stairs, he was relieved that Medora had already taken herself off to their room. He hoped that she had not been too alarmed by what she had seen below; he did not doubt her intrepidity or her aplomb, but she was gently bred all the same and such places as these were outside her experience.
Still, she had said she would take the necessary precautions. Dowdy clothes, a subservient posture, an unassuming demeanor--he knew just how effective those could be when attempting to escape notice. If she were still as capable as he remembered, she would surely have found herself an effective disguise.
As for Archie himself . . . well, he had the sense that he had been somewhat distracted all day, though he hoped none of his colleagues had noticed. Just as well that he'd been entrusted with only the report on Parillaud to read, and it had taken all of his concentration to absorb that. To his relief, the colonel's movements--and those of the DeGuise family--were already under observation for the evening, so his participation was not required. And so, when the appointed hour of his tryst with Medora had neared, he had strolled into the study where Barrington--who had not witnessed Archie's arrival that morning--had been working and casually mentioned that he was of a mind to take a walk and perhaps have a drink in some public house. Barrington, reading through a thick stack of documents, had only nodded absently and advised him to be discreet in his activities.
Discreet. Archie's lips quirked at the memory. He was not entirely sure that an assignation at the Shakespeare qualified as "discreet," but at least he had kept his own counsel about it and he trusted Medora had done likewise. Reaching the designated room, he knocked lightly upon the door.
"Come." Or that was what he thought he heard through the heavy wood. But the speaker was clearly female, so he pushed the door open and slipped inside, letting the door close behind him.
The room itself was in semi-darkness, though he could see candles and a fire burning. In the center of the chamber stood a large bed, its covers turned back invitingly.
Beset by sudden uncertainties, Archie cleared his throat. "My rose?" he ventured.
A low, honey-heavy voice drawled from a far corner of the room, "Lud, sir--I 'ave been waiting for you this age."
He spun around, eyes widening. "M-Medora?"
A soft laugh, accompanied by the rustle of heavy fabric and a wave of scent, redolent of clove and gillyflower. Then she drifted from the shadows to let the firelight glimmer upon the rich rose-and-gold brocade she wore, cut low enough to expose the top of her breasts, gleaming like tawny ivory. A glittering waterfall of diamonds wreathed her neck, filled in some of the expanse of bare skin . . . but far too little was left to the imagination.
Archie's incredulous gaze traveled upward to the artfully painted face, the elaborate coiffure that could only be a wig, the circle of brilliants nestled among the jet-black curls. "Good God," he breathed, with entirely the wrong sort of reverence.
"Not God," Medora replied, still in her lower-class accent. "It were 'er Grace, the Duchess of Wharfedale. Better known to you an' me, as Kitty Cobham, though I says it as shouldn't."
"Dear heaven." Archie rubbed a hand over his face. "Miss Cobham knows . . . about us? And please," he added quickly, "would you reply as yourself, Medora Rose? I don't know if my poor wits can handle any more of your 'cheap strumpet' impersonation."
"Cheap strumpet?" Medora's voice, still laced with amusement, climbed back up to its natural register. "I'll have you know I'm a very expensive strumpet--else, I wouldn't have been able to persuade the innkeeper to let me have this private room . . . to entertain my gentleman friend!"
"Good thinking," Archie decided, after a moment's reflection. "We won't be disturbed, then?"
"I should hope not--I paid him enough in all conscience to allow us a night's privacy." Her grey eyes glinted at him beneath painted lids. "And a first-rate supper, if you like. Danger does seem to whet the appetite."
Unfortunately for his peace of mind, Archie discovered ruefully, Medora's disguise was whetting another appetite entirely. Shocking though her costume might be, it had a certain . . . flair, as well as displaying an abundance of feminine charms. And to think that when we first met, she was only fifteen, and flat as a board fore and aft. A friendly, uncomplicated child--or so he had first thought. It had been a long road that had taken them to where they stood tonight.
"Archie?" She was serious now, more like her usual self. "What you asked, earlier--Kitty doesn't know, at least not yet. I did tell her I was meeting someone and I needed her help for a disguise, possibly more than one. She unearthed some of her old costumes--we did some quick alterations. She was the one who suggested that I dress as . . . as," she flushed slightly under her paint, "well, as a bird of paradise!"
To his own astonishment, Archie began to chuckle.
"Well, it made perfect sense on further consideration," Medora defended herself. "No one thinks twice about one of those women going abroad at night. And if one walks with enough confidence, it's possible to arrive at one's destination unmolested--though I am glad Kitty lent me a knife as well. And that the jewels are only paste. Oh, do stop laughing, you wretch--it was the best we could come up with on such short notice!"
"My apologies, Medora Rose. Truly, I commend your initiative and I cannot quarrel with your success." Archie smiled crookedly as he studied her gown. "I only wish so many other men hadn't had to see you in that before I did!"
She flushed again. "Kitty said she wore it to play Hermia. Or maybe it was Bianca. One of Shakespeare's ingenues, at any rate."
"Medora, my love, there is nothing the least bit ingenuous about that gown now!"
"No, I suppose not." She glanced down at the low-cut bodice. "I cannot believe I once wished I had more of a bosom--it has turned out to be a very great nuisance!"
Archie smiled. "I happen to think it's perfect as it is!"
She stared at him for a moment, then smiled back and stretched out her hand. Taking it in both his own, he brushed a kiss across the palm, ran his thumb along the inside of her forearm. She shivered pleasurably, half-closing her eyes, as he began to lead her towards the bed . . .
It was some time before they had the inclination for the supper she'd mentioned. Passions had run high and hot the night before, their lovemaking fueled by years of deprivation and a desperate need to reclaim what had been too long in abeyance . . . and Medora had been every bit as urgent, as intemperate, as he. They'd known they didn't have long, that he would have to be well away by morning, before the servants came to wake their mistress.
Tonight, however, they made love with exquisite slowness--relearning each other, finding the old gestures and caresses that still satisfied, discovering new ones that excited and aroused. The old and the new surged together at last in a tidal wave of pleasure that threatened to drown them both. Locked together like mating eagles, they soared and fell, her cry half-stifled against his lips.
Afterwards, they lay entwined, not wanting even a hand's span of distance between them. Smiling lazily, Archie lifted a strand of long dark hair--all hers this time--to his lips, breathed in the fragrance of the rosewater she usually affected. Roses, gillyflowers, and warm woman . . . an intoxicating combination if ever there was one.
She stirred in his arms, smiled back when she saw what he was doing.
"Much nicer than the wig," he remarked.
"Even if it still won't hold a curl?"
"Ringlets are overrated, I assure you." Archie cast a jaundiced eye at the unkempt hairpiece, thankfully discarded on the night table, that had formed part of her disguise. "You looked like you were wearing a lapdog on your head--one of those little yappy ones with more hair than wit!"
Her laughter rippled up. "Archie, I assure you--one of those pampered creatures would never stand for such treatment!"
"Well, once we're living under the same roof, I'll buy you a proper dog--a pointer, a setter, or even a spaniel, if you prefer--rather than one of those spoilt little brutes. Unless you think . . . Rosemary would rather have a kitten?" Rosemary . . . even now it felt extraordinary to utter his daughter's name. Moreover, the truth of what he had just said before suddenly struck him, then. They could live together, they could be together--in a way they could not have been, when he was in the Navy. And by the radiance of Medora's smile, he suspected she had arrived at the same conclusion.
"I think she would adore either," his betrothed declared, "as long as she had a new Papa as well."
"I am -- half surprised that she does not already have one," Archie confessed, somewhat tentatively.
Medora wound her arms about him, again understanding all the implications of his remark. "She has had the benefit of several doting uncles these last two years."
Archie digested this. "Ah. I imagine your brother Henry has more than fulfilled his duty in that regard," he said at last. Some instinct that he had learned not to ignore kept him from mentioning Medora's other brother, Edward.
"Uncle Henry, Uncle Langford, and Uncle Douglas--"
"Douglas?" Archie stared at her, astonished.
"Douglas MacLeod," Medora explained.
Against his better nature, Archie found himself bristling. "Indeed? And what business has *he* had in Cornwall?"
Medora raised her brows. "Quite unexceptionable business, since he's married to your -- oh!" She broke off as light dawned, then gave a sudden giggle. "Did you think--? Oh, my dear, Douglas was never your rival--he wanted to be your brother-in-law instead!"
"My brother-in-law?" Archie echoed, feeling like a parrot. "Margaret?"
"Who else? He came courting in April of '02, they married the following January. And now they've a daughter of their own--Lauren."
Archie shook his head. "I can scarce believe any of this. Margaret married again and with another child! Is she happy? And following the drum?"
"Yes to the first, no to the second," Medora replied. "Although that might change once the baby is older and Robin goes off to Eton."
"What about everyone else?" he asked eagerly. "Alice and Langford? My father? You'll tell me everything, won't you, my rose?"
"Of course," she assured him warmly. "Only . . . " She hesitated. "It will not all be good news, I'm afraid--"
Archie shook his head again. "I have been starved for any news these last two years. Tell me, love, and quickly."
Nestling within the circle of his arms, she obeyed.
Telling Archie about his father was the hardest part. Heart aching for him, Medora related as gently as she could the news of Lord Kennedy's crippling stroke in January of '02, then his quiet end several weeks later. The only comfort she could offer there was that the earl had never known about Kingston or his youngest son's supposed disgrace and death.
Archie grew very quiet after that. Medora saw him swallow several times, then he closed his eyes quickly but not before she glimpsed the betraying glitter of tears. Taking matters firmly in hand, she cajoled him out of bed, where they donned some of their discarded clothes, and then over to the table, where their supper still waited. A glass of wine seemed to restore some of his composure; she uncovered the dishes, heaped a generous serving of everything onto his plate, then watched almost jealously until he picked up his fork and began to eat. After which, she helped herself to food and drink, and resumed her tale.
Fortunately, there was happier news to share: she gave him a fuller account of Margaret's marriage, then told him of the birth of Alice's third son, Marcus Archibald, a dark-eyed, golden-haired charmer whom everyone indulged shamefully but whose inherent good nature had so far prevented him from becoming shockingly spoilt. It did Archie no end of good, Medora suspected, to hear that his sisters still held him in the deepest affection, despite what they might have been told by the Admiralty brass. He did not ask many questions about his brothers, but he smiled ironically when she mentioned that Malcolm was soon to wed a Scottish heiress with a plain face but at least eighty thousand pounds.
Not surprisingly, it was their child of whom he most wished to hear. Rosemary had been a living, breathing reality for Medora for almost three years; to Archie, she was still only a face in a miniature. So she told him all she knew about their daughter: her favorite games and pastimes; her sunny disposition; her liking for pretty things, especially flowers; her healthy appetite, which did not extend to mushy peas or beetroot in any form; and her robust constitution that had successfully weathered most of the usual childhood ailments.
Archie drank it all in like a thirsty plant, sometimes laughing aloud, sometimes listening in silence with bright, almost feverish eyes. Finally, when the most imperative details had been related and Medora's voice had grown slightly husky from overuse, he held up a hand with a sigh.
"That'll do for now, my rose. You mustn't talk yourself hoarse even for me--and there are other matters to which we must attend."
Medora swallowed and forced herself to ask the question whose answer she dreaded. "How much longer--?"
"A little while yet," he assured her after a glance at the mantel clock. "A while yet." Pushing the now-depleted dishes to one side, he reached across the table to cup her face, threading his fingers through her hair. Medora leaned into his hands, closed her eyes to savor the drift of his warm lips across her brow, her lids, her mouth. Beneath the thin lawn of her shift, the secret, most sensitive parts of her body all seemed to rouse and tingle at his touch.
"Mmm," she sighed, languorously returning his kisses. "What now, dearest heart?"
Archie gave a soft laugh, pulling slightly back from her. "Need you ask?" And in the depths of his eyes, she saw twin fires kindle and blaze just before he kissed her again, his lips murmuring against her own. "'O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!'"
Slowly, slowly run, O horses of the night!
Rising as one, they made their way back to the bed . . .
An hour or so later, he handed her into a sedan chair that would carry her to Kitty Cobham's lodgings, where she could discard her shocking disguise and resume her usual clothes and persona.
Once rational thought had reasserted itself, they had planned their next meeting. By day, this time--at Gunter's, one of the few places where an unmarried lady could be seen without arousing comment, even if she were in the company of a gentleman. For greater privacy, they would take a table inside the shop itself, rather than sit in the Square like most of the beau monde. They could also discuss more places to meet at night, perhaps more discreet than the Shakespeare, Archie had suggested delicately.
"I shall ask Kitty if she has any recommendations," Medora had promised. "We probably should come up with another location in any case," she had added, her grey eyes somber, "if we wish to avoid establishing a pattern."
He had been hard put to conceal his surprise at that. There were times when her quick perceptions were downright unnerving.
Once Medora was safely away from the Shakespeare, he had made his own escape. Fortunately, he was not so far from Bedford Square. He had the chairmen set him down a few streets away and walked the short distance remaining.
While he could see some lighted windows from the outside, the house appeared mostly dark and silent at this hour. Nor, Archie discovered with relief, was anyone waiting by the side entrance when he let himself in.
Silently congratulating himself on his luck, he made his way upstairs to his room, likewise unobserved. Just as well since he suspected he looked--and smelled--even more disreputable than he had that morning. Medora's scent, he realized, was still clinging to him: a very flagrant odor, of clove and gillyflower, to match the outrageous dress. Smiling reminiscently, he slipped into his chamber, closed the door behind him, and turned the nearest lamp up slightly.
"Well, you've had a night of it!" Carmichael's voice, unmistakably amused.
Archie nearly jumped out of his skin. Turning slowly around, he found the commander sitting in the chair by his bed. Even in the dim light, the amusement was visible on his face--along with a slight trace of anxiety. Narrowed tawny eyes scanned Archie from head to toe; the younger man became acutely aware of his disheveled garments, the lingering traces of scent. His face began to burn, betraying him further.
"No need to ask what you've been doing," Carmichael remarked. "Or when." He frowned faintly. "For the second night in a row? It doesn't seem quite like you, though. You didn't even go after Caillean, and she was more than willing."
Archie blinked at the unexpected tangent and found his powers of speech restored. "Caillean? I never even realized she was . . . serious."
"Not that serious." Carmichael grinned. "But for a bit of fun--and she liked your looks." He grinned more broadly as Archie's flush deepened. "I suppose I could ask where and with whom, but that doesn't matter particularly. You had something on your mind all day, though. So the only important question is--how much of a problem is this going to become?"
"It won't." Archie closed his eyes, swallowed before opening them again. "I'll--tell you. I'll tell all of you. Where's Kilcarron?"
Seated in the study, with a chessboard poised between them, Kilcarron and Latour--the latter with his foot propped up on a stool--glanced up from their game as Archie and Carmichael entered the room.
"Ah, Carmichael and--Stewart," the earl greeted his visitors coolly. "This is most unexpected, gentlemen. Have you learned something of interest since we last spoke?"
Archie squared his shoulders, gathered up his courage. "To the mission itself, perhaps not. But I have recently learned something of personal significance that I feel I should share with you . . . in the off chance that it might affect what we are doing in London."
"Indeed?" Kilcarron pushed back his chair, stood up to face the younger man. "Then, by all means, Mr. Stewart--continue."
"It--it started several years ago. I was engaged . . . to a girl. From Cornwall." The words emerged in short staccato phrases. "I loved her. But I left her behind. The way I left everything behind--after Kingston." He swallowed, licked dry lips. "She's in London. She told me . . . she's had my child."
Behind him, he felt rather than saw Carmichael draw himself up in surprise for a moment before relaxing, clearly relieved by the explanation. Latour's brows shot up and he leaned forward in his chair as he in turn registered this news. And Kilcarron . . .
Kilcarron, curiously enough, wore no expression at all. The fair, fine-boned face was composed, the blue eyes half-lidded. Struck dumb? Archie wondered. Surely that wasn't like him! Then the lids lifted, the sapphire stare becoming mildly inquiring. "And?"
The single word dropped into the silence like a stone into a well . . .and Archie felt the ripples spreading through his entire being. Light dawned, bright enough to burn his soul to ashes.
"You . . . you knew." It was not a question. "You knew!" Dazed, he rubbed his brow as the pieces began to fall into place. "You p-probably had someone . . . in Cornwall, already. You knew. Before I did . . . " He was starting to shiver, long tremors racking him from head to toe, but not from cold. "You bastard," he breathed, staring into the earl's eyes. "You cold-blooded, conniving bastard!"
Kilcarron leaned forward, lips parting slightly, but what he was about to say Archie never knew and would not have heeded because his fist was already moving--faster than conscious thought and with the driving force of long-buried frustrations behind it. The earl reeled as Archie's knuckles caught him squarely on the jaw, sent him stumbling backwards and against Latour's footstool, standing directly in his path. Man and stool both went over with a most satisfying crash.
"Bloody hell!" Carmichael exclaimed.
"Two years!" The harsh, ragged voice was barely recognizable as Archie's own. "Two years, with your collar round my neck and your foot on my throat! Two years, and you knew, all that time . . . " He choked, the rage too thick in his throat for him to continue.
Carmichael reached out, subjected Archie's right hand to a quick but careful exploration. "Nothing broken," he reported. "Bloody hell," he repeated, in that same tone of mingled astonishment and appreciation.
"Your gift for the pithy, well-turned phrase never ceases to amaze me, Carmichael." Kilcarron, his voice unruffled if slightly distorted by a bleeding underlip, began to rise, with Latour's assistance. The physician, who had prudently moved his foot just before Kilcarron's rapid descent, was uninjured and regarding the spymaster with a distinctly jaundiced eye.
"And I told you you'd push too hard one day." Carmichael stared stonily at his commander. "You knew Stewart was a father--all this time--and you never told him? If it were my woman and my child, you wouldn't get up!"
"Badly done, my lord." Latour's tone was coolly deferential and implacable, his expression totally lacking in sympathy.
Kilcarron, dabbing at his lip with a handkerchief, raised his brows. "In your black books too, am I? Very well, I concede your point." He turned his attention once more to Archie, whom Carmichael was holding, lightly but firmly, by the shoulder. "I will give you that one, Lazarus. And I submit that there are indeed matters we must discuss. But not, I think, tonight." He slid out from Latour's grasp without apparent effort. "Now, if you gentlemen would care to retire . . . ?"
Latour and Carmichael exchanged a glance; then the latter tightened his grasp on Stewart's shoulder, began towing the young man towards the door. For a moment, it seemed Stewart might resist, then, suddenly, the set of his shoulders eased and he allowed himself to be escorted from the study. Smiling grimly to himself, Latour turned once more to Kilcarron . . .
Outside the door, Carmichael released Archie's shoulder but picked up his hand again to study the knuckles--and the rest of his subordinate as well. Stewart had lapsed into taut, angry silence; there was a strained look still about his eyes and mouth, and a brittle edginess to his movements that were trouble signs as clear as Rory's scowl or Caillean's narrowed eyes. Carmichael considered all the evidence, while ostensibly examining the grazed and swelling knuckles.
"You'd best come back with me and we'll take care of that," he advised, and guided Archie through the wing of the house to Carmichael's own room, where he pushed him into a chair before retrieving glasses and the decanter.
Archie blinked as a glass of whiskey materialized beside him on the table.
"That's for the good hand," Carmichael informed him. He poured water into the washbasin and dropped a cloth into it, rummaged through a drawer until he found a small brown bottle, wrung out the wet cloth, folded it into a compress, and applied the contents of the bottle to it before handing the compress to Archie.
"And that's for the bad one. Arnica--Latour gave it to me." Carmichael poured out a whiskey for himself before dropping into the opposite chair. "I always knew someone would hit Old Nick one day--I just never reckoned it would be you."
Still not quite capable of speech, Archie shook his head and drank, feeling the comforting burn of the liquor all the way down. Carmichael, studying his face again, decided further distraction was in order.
"Of course, I hadn't reckoned on you being a married man either--or the next thing to it. That should settle a few wild stories going about."
Blue eyes glanced at him with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. Carmichael shrugged, inwardly pleased by the response.
"If it was only a woman you wanted, there was Edinburgh. If you wanted a woman you knew, there was Caillean."
Archie flushed. "I didn't even realize that--well, that she meant anything by it."
Carmichael grinned. "She takes a fancy once in a while. Usually she gets what she wants, but not always."
"Will she be . . . offended?"
"More likely she'll say she guessed all along. Or she'll be relieved she's not losing her touch. And it wasn't as if you went any other way--Rory was always safe enough."
Pink flush deepened to scarlet in a way that had nothing to do with the whiskey as Archie stared at the older agent.
"And then," Carmichael concluded with a slight verbal flourish, "there was a question or two about where you were wounded."
Archie choked on his drink and set the glass down hastily before he could spill it. With a faint, strangled moan, he dropped his scalding face into the shelter of his hands, not knowing if he wanted to laugh, swear, sink through the floor, or drink three more whiskeys in rapid succession. Finding his voice at last, behind the concealment of his interlaced fingers, he asked, "Might I inquire as to the source of that . . . extraordinary speculation?"
Carmichael chuckled mildly. "A houseful of spies in peacetime . . . with obviously not enough to think about?"
Very disconcerting, to have been the unknowing focus of so much curiosity. Reluctantly, but unable to resist . . . "What did you think?" Archie ventured, still behind his hands.
"I thought it was none of my bloody business."
"One person with sense, anyway," Archie muttered, half to himself.
Carmichael shrugged and continued, "I wasn't worried about Rory, Caillean wouldn't thank me for getting into her business, and I knew where you were wounded."
A questioning look over interwoven fingers.
"Latour thought I should know."
"Oh. Of course." Archie dropped his hands finally, reached for his glass and drank half the contents. Carmichael scrutinized him again, judged him far more settled than he had been earlier, and ventured a question of his own.
"How long were you engaged?"
"I met her, when she was fifteen, at my sister's house." God, it felt . . . good to be able to speak of it. "She was only a child, and I didn't expect--then I met her again in London, two years later. Her family agreed to our betrothal but wouldn't let us marry until she was one-and-twenty. We were trying to wait. Then the last time I had leave to visit Cornwall . . . we were tired of asking and tired of waiting."
No need to ask for details, after the revelations of the night.
"We talked about it," Archie went on. "I suppose, in a way, we married by Scottish custom--only we weren't in Scotland at the time."
"A slight problem," Carmichael agreed. "And now you're a father."
A faint smile. "To a girl. We have a daughter." Archie savored the word.
Carmichael regarded him with satisfaction. "Only one thing I'd have done differently if I'd known but I can change that now." He tilted the decanter, added a finger's width to each glass. "Here's to your wee wife." With an exaggerated start, he tilted the decanter again, added three more drops. "And to the little lass."
The smile widened slightly. Archie saluted with his glass, and drank.
"Ah. " Carmichael studied him thoughtfully. "Now, that's what you should look like." He put down his empty glass. "You get back to your room and sleep. From the look of you, it's the only thing you haven't been getting all night!"
Some minutes later, Archie made his way back to his own room. Discarding his clothes, he tossed them onto a chair and sank down upon his bed, which received him in a lover's embrace. When he had parted from Carmichael, he had not been sure he would be able to sleep, but the softening influences of love and whiskey soon did their work and he found his eyelids growing heavy. As he drifted off, however, his last conscious thoughts were not of his commander's good wishes, nor of Medora's caresses, nor even of his daughter's sweet smile and laughing eyes--but of just how satisfying it had felt, finally, to hit Crawford of Kilcarron.
"I still don't like it, sir." Carmichael was frowning but his superior remained impervious. "They've been out there for six--no, nigh on seven months, now."
"And there's been no great danger during that time. They should be secure enough."
"But that could change any day," the commander argued.
"Peace was declared--have you forgotten? You were just in London, after all. Napoleon will break it off, of course, but not before it serves his purpose--and that will not be for some time yet. Remember, they are together," Kilcarron emphasized the word, noting the impatience in the other's face. "Their identities are long-established, and they both speak Portuguese."
"It wouldn't hurt to bring them some word, though," Carmichael persisted.
"Regular communications have been sent to Lisbon for them." Kilcarron eyed the division commander keenly. "If you intended to go to Portugal yourself, I am sure there is no need for it. In the meantime, you have a considerable number of written records to complete. And there is the matter of training your new man."
"Still early days, there," Carmichael said casually. "Doctor said it'd do him no harm to rest up a bit more."
"I see." Kilcarron studied the other as he rose.
"Then I'll be about my duties, sir . . .."
"A word before you disappear." The earl's blue eyes were suddenly cold and measuring. "This business in London should take quite a few weeks. Until such time as I return, commander, you are not to go to Lisbon; in fact, I give you my direct order to remain here."
The infirmary door burst open with such force that it slammed into the wall. Latour looked up from his notes as his colleague stalked in.
"What is it now?" the doctor inquired.
Lips drew back in a snarl. "Grant and Ferguson. Old Nick says there's no need to have them back in yet. After more than half a year!" Carmichael opened the drawer where Latour kept the flask of medicinal brandy.
"They may not be in immediate peril," Latour admitted. "What more?"
Carmichael put down the flask with another snarl. "A direct order. I'm not to go to Lisbon and see to them myself."
"Oh dear." Latour observed mildly. He knew exactly why that particular phrase would spark his colleague's rage. "Perhaps you should have another drink," he advised.
Carmichael was still furious, the north-country burr in his voice broadening all its vowels as it did when he was unusually moved. "Someday," he predicted darkly, "someone is going to knock him arse-over-tit. And if it's not me, I want to watch!"
END PART TWENTY-ONE