Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

Colors seen by candlelight
Will not look the same by day.

--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "The Lady's Yes"

 

PART TWENTY-TWO: "Morning Light"

 

"Medora," Archie murmured, smiling to himself in drowsy contentment.

Stretching luxuriously, he rolled onto his side and reached out for her, coming slightly more awake when his questing fingers encountered only a handful of sheet. His hand, closing instinctively over it, gave a sudden twinge, and he started completely out of sleep,the last tendrils of fog clearing away.

What a night.

Medora was not here, of course, but they had shared a bed last night and the night before. His body, his very skin, remembered the warmth and feel of her.

It was no dream. I lay broad waking.

Smiling at the memory, he rubbed at his bristly chin, felt the twinge of discomfort in his right hand again.

What had -- oh. Oh.

Blinking, he discovered the slightly swollen, discolored knuckles, experienced once more the lingering stiffness as he flexed the hand, then folded it into a fist. No, that hadn't been a dream either.

Ah. The surge of satisfaction at the memory was immediate and primitive; it was also speedily replaced by apprehension. There was more to be discussed between Kilcarron and himself, which would doubtless call for different tactics: the earl would hardly be so obliging as to present himself as a target for a second time.

Frowning, Archie maneuvered himself into a sitting position and pushed aside the bedclothes. Swinging his feet to the floor, he padded over to the door, opened it and looked out. The passage was empty, but hot water and a breakfast tray had been left for him.

Almost absently, Archie washed, shaved, dressed, and then sat down to eat, his mind absorbed in planning his campaign. And there must be a plan: he had only once directly confronted Kilcarron without one, but he could remember that time all too well . . . .

The partially-healed wound was still a fiery ache in his chest. His blood alternated between fever-hot and searingly cold as it ran through his veins; worst of all was the raw, bleeding pain of bereavement. But the physical and even emotional pain faded into nothingness in the face of this new onslaught.

"I know what happened that night in the hold."

*That* was a blow Archie had not expected; he felt his heart and breathing quicken, tried to suppress any sign of fear.

"You can't know! Now, tell me you had a man of yours on the Renown!"

"But I did, Lazarus. You."

Archie froze.

"You had--quite a lot to say, under the opiates. Shall I give you the details?"

While he had been unconscious, or drugged into deep slumber . . . oh God. Oh my God . . .

"You met there, all of you, because it was becoming clear that Captain Sawyer was dangerously unstable. And later, when he fell down the hatchway . . . you weren't alone."

Archie's mouth was dry again, his stomach trying to tie itself in cold, hard knots. He could not tell what his face was showing--only that Kilcarron was undoubtedly reading it. And that suddenly he didn't trust his own voice to respond. But he didn't have to--Kilcarron was speaking again.

"Let me make myself understood. I have the power to get that trial re-opened. In England. I can have questions asked that you went to considerable lengths to prevent being asked. . . . . And I shall do it--unless you give me your word: that you are in my employ, and that you will cease trying to end your life. Because I promise you--if you do succeed in putting a period to your existence, I shall regard it as theft. And there are penalties for theft. He is, after all, of no particular use to me. His life is the price for yours."

Archie felt the trembling start, deep in his bones, felt the blood draining from his face as it had drained from his wounds in the courtroom. Reason faded, leaving only two thoughts chasing themselves in frenzied circles inside his head. Horatio--still in danger? The trial re-opened--and Horatio convicted on evidence taken from Archie's own mouth? A monstrous, screaming void yawned before him--he was going to fall into it just as Sawyer had fallen . . .

His mind whirled, but could not find a way out of the trap; he could no longer control his breathing, now coming hard and fast . . .

Kilcarron was pressing his advantage. "Give me your word--on all conditions--or his life is forfeit."

He licked dry lips, his tongue felt large and awkward in his mouth . . . against the roaring in his ears he felt more than heard the ghost of his own voice.

"You have my word."

And the void had taken him.

 

No more! Archie wrenched himself back to the present, breathing shakily. It came as an unwelcome revelation that the memory still had the power to make him shiver. Kilcarron had won that bout unconditionally; it had taken Latour and Carmichael months to remedy the consequences.

Last night--had been entirely a different matter. The element of surprise had worked to Archie's advantage. He had emerged victorious over the earl--but that would not happen again without careful forethought and preparation.

A tap on the door roused him from his thoughts. By the time he reached and opened the door, the person--whoever it had been--was gone, but there was another tray set out for him, this one bearing a folded note.

When Archie opened it, he saw a familiar, slanting hand:

"Agent Stewart:

I request your presence this morning in the small library, at your earliest convenience.

K."

Archie licked his lips, trying not to feel like a guilty schoolboy summoned for punishment. He had not been able to devise a comprehensive plan for the impending encounter, but there was one strategy to which he knew he must adhere at all costs. Control. Complete, calculating, total control. It was how Kilcarron inevitably won his engagements; Archie must do no less.

"You must keep your head or you will lose it!"

By then the sporadic enemy fire had been the lesser danger; it was the knowledge of the enemy's presence and the wait for an attack that had frayed the nerves of so many. Why was it, even now, so much easier to give advice to others than to remember it for oneself?

Kilcarron would be waiting.

Only this time, Archie thought grimly, feeling his mouth pulling taut, the spymaster had unquestionably gone beyond the limit. And he would answer for it--as long as Archie maintained his own control.

******

The small library. A judicious choice under the circumstances, Archie thought as he entered the appointed room. Unlike the study, it had not witnessed last night's confrontation. Neutral territory, of a sort.

The earl was already present, seated behind his desk, his hands folded before him in an all too characteristic posture. Equally characteristic was his lack of any visible anger or apprehension as the younger man approached.

"Agent Stewart." Kilcarron, sounding cool and formal, used the name under which Archie had worked for him for the last two years.

"My lord." Archie took refuge in that same formality, seating himself on the chair directly opposite the desk. He felt again that surge of triumph when he saw that the earl's lip was still slightly swollen, but he concealed his satisfaction. Gloating would not lend him any advantage in this contest.

"As was determined last night," Kilcarron began, in bland tones momentarily devoid of irony," there are some personal matters of yours which require discussion."

"My promised wife," Archie said, his own voice brittle. "And my child. Of whom I knew nothing for two years."

"Indeed. Nevertheless, they were safe and well cared-for by your family."

"Who all believed I was dead!" Archie's thin layer of control was cracking; damn, would he never learn? Surreptitiously, he slipped one hand from the desk into his lap, clenching the fingers until the nails dug into his palm. He inhaled carefully, licked his lips, before resuming.

"You knew." The words echoed those of the night before, but they were uttered as a statement this time, not a cry of outrage. "Yet you did not . . . choose . . . to inform me of it."

"I did not know immediately," Kilcarron corrected. "But once I reached London I was able to make certain inquiries." He steepled his fingers. "Perhaps you were not aware of the peculiar -- delicacy of the situation. I have frequent dealings with the Admiralty--it is possible that they would take exception should they discover I had retrieved something of value which they had cast away, albeit through their own poor judgement and desire for expediency."

Archie sat motionless for a moment, feeling very slightly cold. "You mean . . . there was a danger?" he asked, sounding deliberately skeptical.

"A risk, certainly. It would diminish in time, of course. But there was unease among certain parties at the Admiralty--it was not inconceivable that your family was being watched."

Archie blinked. Kilcarron was actually admitting a limitation--namely, that he could not have protected confessed mutineer Kennedy had Archie's identity been discovered.

"It is still," he managed to say after a moment, "a risk I would have been willing to take."

"Then perhaps it is fortunate you were in no position to be consulted." There was a slight snap now in the cool voice. "Your personal affairs were not the only matters urgently requiring my attention in London. A direct confrontation between my associates and the Admiralty would have served no one at that time. To err on the side of caution may be preferable to the alternative.""

"Two years," Archie repeated, inwardly relieved to have recovered control over his voice. "When I knew nothing of my family and they all believed me dead. That seems an excess of caution."

Kilcarron's own voice was still cold, but a note of challenge had entered it. "Have you recalled how that time was spent? Or have you forgotten the necessity of the work in which we are engaged? Your services to your country were needed then -- as they are now. The winning of this war is more vital than the personal concerns of any individual. In this game we play with Bonaparte, all of Europe is at stake."

Damn the man. Despite his smoldering anger, Archie could not deny that the earl's argument held some validity. Quickly, he issued his own counter-challenge. "And it is not given to any game-piece to deny its place on your board?"

"Deny that your skills are needed, and I will answer."

A successful parry. Archie bit back a growl. Damn him, damn him . . .

Kilcarron was continuing. "I assigned you to the London detachment, you may recall, despite the involvement of the Admiralty. The hazard was, by this time, much decreased. And you may also remember I had considered the possible presence of your family here. I was, in fact, of two minds. Rather than risk a chance encounter, if I had heard the Langfords were remaining in London, I had weighed the possibility of effecting a reunion. As it was, after I had ordered inquiries made, I heard they would not be in town, and that only a young relative of Lady Langford's would be in residence. My sources did not provide me with any further names: an oversight on my part, I must confess."

Archie exhaled carefully, still maintaining his rigid control. "And so . . .that brings us to the present, my lord. If I had not learned of this for myself . . . would you ever have told me?"

He had thought this question unanswerable, but he had underestimated his adversary. The earl's demeanor did not change as he responded. "And if I had told you . . .what would you have done?"

Damn. Archie kept his silence, but bit his lip, held himself back from pounding the desk in sheer frustration. A long-ago comment from Carmichael floated through his head again: "Every time I think I've outplayed that bastard he gets a new game." The earl had matched one unanswerable question with another--what would Archie have done? Eaten his heart out because he could not be with them? Risen from his sickbed to try and reach London--or Cornwall? Courted discovery, disgrace, and execution? Bloody hell, he was not going to somehow admit that there was any merit in Kilcarron's reasoning!

The silence stretched out. Archie clenched one fist again, in his lap, and wished that planting the earl another facer was still an option.

Kilcarron broke the silence at last, his own calm demeanor restored but his words unexpected.

"You have, in fact, already done most commendable work in this investigation, Agent Stewart. I do not release you from your duty, for the reasons I have stated. But after this entire business is concluded, it would be possible to assign you to a London post, if you chose. There would always be the necessity for a degree of caution; however, I am sure you can see the advantages for yourself."

Archie found himself speechless: he had never expected such a proposal. Assigned to London. Close to his family. To live under one roof, as he had all but promised Medora. With his wife and his daughter, at last.

Living together but still . . . not wholly in the open. Not with the name that should belong to his wife and child, never under the name with which he was born. "The necessity for caution." Looking over his shoulder to see he was not recognized. His head was spinning as he tried to weigh all the possibilities.

"Well?" Kilcarron prompted.

Archie recovered his voice. "I . . . I should have to consider such a decision very carefully, sir."

"No doubt. You may give me your answer in good time."

*****

Archie did not even remember leaving the library. Indeed, it seemed that the earl had hardly uttered his startling proposal than the younger man found himself in the passage again, closing the door behind him.

He was not to be left alone with his thoughts, however. Someone else was in the passage--someone dark, slender, and female, with startling blue-green eyes. Caillean, who must have been keeping watch over the hallway.

Archie swallowed, not knowing what to say to her. Any doubts as to what she knew were immediately dispelled when she came up and kissed him demurely on the cheek.

"This is for the bridegroom."

"I wondered if--I should beg your pardon?" Archie ventured. Some time after Carmichael's revelation, he'd remembered a two-week sequence of charmingly becoming frocks, with successively descending necklines, and occasionally light perfumes. Despite the jests of Medora and his sisters about his obtuseness in such matters, he had recognized the signs of a feminine campaign. He had simply never realized that those flags were being flown for him.

She looked openly amused. "I don't think so--you always ignored me like a perfect gentleman!"

"Then I do beg your pardon most sincerely . . Miss Dunbar!" He tried to match her bantering tone, but was not sure he had succeeded.

"Not at all--Mr. Stewart." Caillean laughed softly. "Actually, I thought it was rather sweet." She kissed him on the other cheek in a sisterly fashion. "You may tell your wife I think she's a very lucky woman."

As she drew away, her eyes narrowed suddenly and her smile widened into dangerous mischief.

"And this is from me so you can guess at what you missed!"

Her lips parted warmly against his; her hands twined around his waist . . .

.. . . dropped down and smacked him quickly across the backside.

She twisted away and darted down the hall before Archie could react with more than a small, startled gasp. He stared after her, feeling his face redden and thinking that the fury of a woman scorned might be quite negligible compared to the caprice of a woman who had been (in her own words) most politely ignored.

"Stewart!"

Archie turned with some relief at the hail, though that sensation faded as he saw Carmichael's grin. He tried not to wonder what--or how much--the other had seen.

If he had observed the exchange the commander made no mention of it. "Your hand?" he inquired, still grinning.

Archie flexed his fingers under the alert, tawny gaze. "Re -- recovering, I think."

Carmichael jerked his head toward the library door. "And Old Nick?"

"Also, quite . . . recovered." Some emotion must have leaked out, despite Archie's effort to keep his voice level; his superior's grin only grew wider.

"Aye, he was in rare form this morning."

"Are there orders for me, sir?" Archie pulled together the last vestiges of his patience.

Carmichael appeared unperturbed. "You're off to find the wee wife?"

"How did you--"The words started out before Archie could stop them; he glared at his commander, now laughing openly.

"What I'd do, if I had two years' time to make up with my woman! But no duties for you today. You've permission to go and see a bit more to your affairs--call it a furlough. Just be back here by dark."

"And he knows?" Archie gestured towards the library door.

"He proposed it." Carmichael chuckled again, seeing Archie bite his lip in vexation. "Away with you before he thinks better of it."

Torn between gratitude for the favor and a renewed desire to knock the earl down, Archie obeyed with dispatch.

*****

INTERLUDE

London, 1802

"Nicholas!" Julian Harrow, Earl of Langford, exclaimed at the sight of the man now entering his library. "Welcome back! I had not heard you had returned to town."

"Hardly surprising, as I arrived only yesterday," his guest responded, handing his cloak to the waiting servant and accepting the glass Langford offered.

"I don't think I've seen you for months," Langford said. "You've been abroad all that time?"

"There has been a great deal of rather . . . pressing . . .business," Kilcarron admitted. "I fear I am no longer au courant with affairs in town." The cool blue eyes appraised his host's sober clothes and the black band around his arm with visible concern. "I trust your family is in good health?"

"Oh!" Julian shook himself a trifle, as if recalling himself to the present. "Yes, indeed--you need have no worries on that score; Alice is quite well, as are our children. Her father, though--" he paused. "He suffered a stroke just after the new year. He lingered a short while, and then . . ." Langford's pause made more detailed explanation unnecessary. "A sad business. And there were sadder tidings later, I fear."

"Indeed?" Kilcarron's brows rose inquiringly. Julian sighed.

"My wife's youngest brother, Archibald--Archie. He was a lieutenant in the navy. Apparently there was some sort of battle with escaped prisoners aboard his ship . . . they wrote us from Kingston that he had died of his wounds. A tragic business, truly, especially since this last winter."

"Please accept my sympathies."

Langford sighed again. "He was engaged, you see," he explained. "A connection of Margaret's--my sister-in-law, in Cornwall. Medora Tresilian, she actually came here to live with us in London for some years, to study music. Alice brought her out, when she was older--a very lovely girl, she became family to us. When her brother proposed, Alice was delighted. We all were, of course, but then her guardians wouldn't consent to their marrying before she was of age. Though it seems . . ." Julian paused. "You never heard?" he inquired.

"Remember how long I've been abroad," his guest prompted.

"Ah. " Julian stared down into the fire. "Well, they were very much in love--no one who saw them together could doubt that--and felt that her family had withheld their consent for too long, and so . . . they took matters into their own hands during his last visit to her. One couldn't really be surprised."

"There was--?" the earl prompted delicately. Julian squared his shoulders.

"There was--is--a daughter, born last December. Not long before Alice's father--well," Langford broke off, shaking his head again. "Remembering the baby has been a great comfort for Alice, and for Margaret too, I believe. Mother and daughter will always be welcome here." He summoned up a smile and quickly changed the subject. "And yourself, Nicholas? Away so long--I trust your traveling was not on account of your health?"

"You know me better than that, I believe. But I have indeed missed a great deal of news--what can you tell me of affairs in Parliament?"

*****

Kilcarron did not leave Langford House for some time. After returning to his own residence, he retreated to the library for further private thought. Lost in a brown study, the earl sat alone, his chin resting on one closed hand, staring into the crackling fire. He had taken only a sip or two from the glass of brandy at his elbow; the focus of his concentration was the carefully decoded missive lying on the desk by his right hand. The most pertinent information came at the very end.

The new man is recovering well, though with some lingering signs of nervous agitation; nevertheless, C. is pleased with his progress.

Latour

Indeed. Kilcarron took one last thoughtful sip of the brandy, then pushed it away. The wisest course of action was not always easily discernible; what he needed were more facts. He reached for quill and paper, then folded the completed message carefully and rang for a servant.

"Have this conveyed to Mr. Trelawney's lodgings, if you please."

In less than an hour there was a familiar rap on the library door; Kilcarron raised his brows in silent appreciation before responding.

"Enter." As the door closed behind the new arrival, the earl added, "You show commendable promptness."

A grin showed white against his visitor's dark complexion. Neither overly tall nor brawny, with hair and eyes that rivalled his skin for darkness, he might have come from any one of the more remote places in England, until one heard him speak or discovered his extensive knowledge of smuggling.

"I'd been expecting your summons any hour now, m'lord," Agent Simon Trelawney admitted. "Is it to be France, again?"

"In good time," Kilcarron admonished. "There is another minor, but pressing, matter, that must be attended to first. Before you go abroad again I require you to make a side-trip--into Cornwall."

END PART TWENTY-TWO