Ides of March
by Victoria


Missing scene from "Retribution"

***

He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
"Julius Caesar" : William Shakespeare

***

The hinges of the cell door rasped a thin wail as the guard pulled it open,
admitting a figure who stood cloaked even in the exotic January heat of
Kingston. He whispered something to the guard, pressed a glinting chit of
metal into the man's palm. The guard looked at it a moment, then back to
the cloaked man, but the metal gleamed yellow. The pull of gold proved
stronger than that of duty, and without a word, the outline of the guard
disappeared from the cell door, leaving the cloaked man alone.

Almost alone. Two bodies warmed the rough cots of the cell, one snoring
rambunctiously beneath his light blanket, the other watching the cloaked man
with clear blue eyes that showed only a calm expectancy. He lay motionless
on the nearer cot, revealed only by the light of a single candle at his
bedside table, naked but for the sheet over his lower body and the bandages
that wrapped thick over the pistol ball in his guts. Even in the golden
glow of the candle, the exposed skin seemed as white as wax, but his fair
hair caught the flickering light, gilding a false halo around his face.

Halo or not, he was no paper saint. There was blood dried dark on the
bandages, the stink of mortification was thick, and flies buzzed fat in the
air, rubbing their greedy hands as they crawled over the bandages. Pain
was unmistakable in the lassitude of thick-hewn arms grown too weary to
clench or tremble, but the set of his square-cut jaw was unflinching, and
the thin lines that creased his eyes and the gloss of sweat upon his skin
seemed not to reveal the weakness of a suffering youth, but the desperate
resolve of a wounded animal.

The Lieutenant's bold summons had made him curious enough to chance this
meeting, even now on the eve of decision, but the sight of the man himself
set the final seal on his choice to come. He stepped forward into the
candlelight, pushing back the hood of the cloak, and an air of satisfaction
tinged Kennedy's expression as he nodded a faint greeting. "Captain
Hammond."

He answered the formality with a dip of his own head, but the acknowledgment
was perfunctory, and his voice brooked no warmth. "You sent for me, Mr.
Kennedy."

"Yes, sir. May I ask how the tribunal is proceeding?"

Hammond frowned. Certainly there was more to this than simple curiosity.
Gossip was, as always, readily available from a hundred sources, not the
least of which would be Kennedy's particular friend and fellow officer Mr.
Hornblower. Perhaps the stolid shell was an illusion and the putrefaction
had begun sending its hot tendrils into the young man's brain. "It
is - proceeding, Lieutenant. And your wound?"

A surprising smile appeared on the pale lips. "Doctor Clive is - obtuse."

"Obtuse?"

"He tells me that I am doing as expected, but he declines to say that ain't
well."

He'd expected as much. Even had he not been able to read between the lines
of the self-aggrandizing medical jargon Dr. Clive embroidered into his
reports, the smell spoke eloquently enough to any soldier or sailor. "Then
it is - "

"I would say mortal, sir." Kennedy's voice was steady with the
pronunciation of his own death, almost too steady. There was a sense that
he saw the wound as a black asset, and with that realization, Hammond felt
an uneasiness begin to creep across his flesh.

"Well -" He tried to return to the comfortable routines of dealing with a
dying man, the bland condolences and patriotic platitudes that had served
him at the sides of countless seamen over the years, but somehow the words
wouldn't come.

"I believe it may be for the best."

The expected pious resignation in those words was nowhere to be found, and
Hammond blinked. "Eh?"

"I believe we may be able to aid one another. You have a difficulty - we
are both aware that news of Sawyer's madness must not reach England, that
his good name and the morale of the fleet must be preserved at near any
cost. Yet to do this, his fall and subsequent reactions must be proved
unquestionably the result of a mutinous act." Kennedy paused half a moment,
then his blue gaze locked hard on Hammond, and his voice seemed to take on a
palpable chill, a frigid condemnation that broke the bonds of rank and
respect with stunning audacity. "For a mutinous act, you need a mutineer,
preferably someone cool, calculating, known for being ambitious, with a
weather eye to rising quick in the ranks. Someone such as Mr. Hornblower,
perhaps?"

Hammond's voice flinted equally cold, with an authority long-practiced and
razor-edged. "You are out of order, Lieutenant."

"If he were ambitious, it were a grievous fault, and grievous hath Horatio
answered it."

This was ridiculous. First Sir Edward, and now this impertinent pup. They
were caught in a fairy world, at arms over affronts that were simply a
matter of necessity for those operating within the sphere of the real world.
The real world was a world of perception, but that truth had been lost
somewhere in the burning stench of death for this lad, and there was no need
for Captain Charles Hammond to be subjected to such delirious accusations.

He raised the hood of his cloak. "You're ranting, boy."

Hammond turned to go, but he had barely taken a single step when the sound
of movement and a tight cry of pain stopped him. Slowly, he looked back.
Kennedy had managed to raise himself onto one elbow, his pale skin having
faded alarmingly still further as he panted for air, one hand clutched
against the bandages where the dark stain had bloomed again to scarlet
brilliance. "My apologies, sir. I mean - I mean not to insult you - but I
promise - I am fully within my wits. I mean only - only to extend to you
another - another option which may prove amenable - to us both."

"And that would be?"

Kennedy raised his head, his sharp eyes vague with pain, his voice weakened
but his resolve strong. "Another mutineer."

So there was more to it than a shipmate's accusations. Perhaps Kennedy was
more savvy than he had first imagined. Hammond allowed himself to turn
fully back, but he moved no closer to the bed as he watched Kennedy slowly
lower himself down again, his features drawn tight. "Is this a confession,
sir?"

"A theory." Kennedy's fingers fluttered, scattering the flies that had
swarmed hungrily to the fresh blood. "Supposing there was - another man what
came forward - perhaps not as noted for ambition - but clear influenced by
strong ties with Mr. Hornblower." Hammond's features remained motionless to
the youth's scrutiny, and he continued. "Not as calculating - rather
impulsive, that being equally called to vice - would this serve to atone the
Captain's madness?"

His back stiffened, his shoulders drawn back. "I am not seeking a
scapegoat, Lieutenant, nor a martyr. We are in pursuit of justice."

A noise escaped the Lieutenant, an odd cross between a gasp of pain and a
dry chuckle. "Politick justice. You did not answer me, sir."

"Perhaps." He paused, considering his next words carefully. There was
something here, perhaps, and he'd best not be too hasty to either take it or
pass it by. "But such a criminal would needless to say be hung."

Kennedy shrugged, but the simple, habitual movement seemed a dire mistake,
and Hammond watched as the muscles of the other man's throat corded hard
against the skin in a desperate fight to contain a cry. Finally, the pain
seemed to subside to a tolerable level, and Kennedy took a careful breath,
eyes closed. "Such a criminal might find the gallows blessed release."
There was a pause, then his eyes opened again, a shrewd glint to them. "And
then the better for the fleet's morale - honoured Captain well remembered - vile
mutineer hung - a gallant young officer clear to rise - from the ashes of the
whole bloody affair."

Insane. Ruthless. Suicidal. Plausible. Hammond's eyes narrowed as he took
in the ashen face, the reddened fingers. Uncertain. "You said yourself
that your wound is mortal. If you do not survive the night - "

"I shall live, sir, as long as I need."

The boy's resolve was admirable, but Hammond knew better than to trust will
alone against the cold lead of a pistol ball. "You cannot guarantee."

"Then would a written statement suffice, sir? A deathbed confession, as
twere, sealed for delivery should I pass on before morning?"

"And should you die after the trial, but before you are hung?"

"Do with my corpse as you will. I only ask that you not shame my family."

So the boy had a delusional streak in him after all. Hammond shook his
head. If this was to play out, he would have to make an example of Kennedy,
center the fury of Britannia on this fair young head so that Sawyer and the
rest might escape unscathed. Kennedy's life was already forfeit, but his
honour was the price he had yet to pay, and the price that this plot
demanded. "You cannot expect to confess a crime and escape the
consequences, Lieutenant."

"It is my condition, Captain, consider it a last request if you will." He
smiled faintly, as if in recognition of the impossibility of that proposal.
"You need not lie, nor render me a noble death in battle - tell my family that
I was merely lost to fever, if you will, but when the Naval Gazette marks
the trial, do not mark the name of the mutineer."

Hammond shook his head. An anonymous conspirator was as good as none at
all. "An unreasonable demand."

"My price."

His fingers fisted tight on the woolen folds of his cloak, and he felt the
heat rising in his face. Damn them all! Did no one understand? Sir Edward
would put up a bloody awful row before he would suffer his precious
Hornblower to hang, that he knew, and Wellard was gone beneath the waves
already, no more good to anyone in death than he had been in life. Kennedy
had seemed to present such a lovely answer, but now this. The Admiralty
needed names, needed blood, not simply some amorphous concept of faceless
guilt, but what were his options? Hornblower was a fight he was not certain
to win - but perhaps if he managed to placate Kennedy now, there would be ways
after he was dead - "I will consider it."

"Your word, Captain." Kennedy's voice dropped, hissing with the furious
earnest of a dying cobra. "Your word, or by God, I shall cry out to the
hills that the entire affair is foul, and my restless spirit will dog you
for eternity."

Hammond stepped back, fighting amused reproach into his reply. "There is no
need for dramatics, Mr. Kennedy."

"Your word."

"My word."

The anger seemed to fade as suddenly as it had come, leaving only exhaustion
in its wake as Kennedy melted into the thin mattress. Hammond was startled
to see that the demon of a moment ago was now merely a young man, no older
than his own sons, with a handsome face sheened in the sweat of pain and
fever but otherwise unremarkable. A gentle smile touched colourless lips as
his eyes drifted closed. "Then we have an understanding."

He had won. It had all happened so fast - Hammond fought the urge to shake
his head in disbelief. Not five minutes ago, he had entered into here out
of pure curiosity, and now he held in this man's honour the solution to the
entire Hornblower problem.

Hornblower. What would he do when he learned what Kennedy had done on his
behalf? Never mind. It didn't matter. Mr. Hornblower could be as
sentimental as he wished, but he and Kennedy knew the truth, and the truth
was that the world was a hard place, a place of politics and relentless
perception, where a dying man was sometimes worth more than a healthy one,
and motives didn't matter as long as the choices were made that needed to be
made. Kennedy had made his choice, and now it was for the likes of Pellew
and Hornblower to struggle with it. Hammond simply had to live with it.

He nodded to the prone form of the dying officer, allowing a note of respect
to slip into his voice. "I wish you health and comfort through the night,
Lieutenant."

Kennedy didn't answer, his eyes closed in an apparent surrender to pain and
fatigue, but as Hammond slipped out through the still-deserted door of the
cell, he heard the young man speak, his voice weak, but his words
unmistakable.

"The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be-"

The door of the prison closed behind him, and the words were lost to the
wind in the palm trees and the calling of birds in the dark Jamaican night.
Hammond took a deep breath of the humid air, salty and perfumed with
tropical blooms sweetly free of rotting flesh. He said nothing to the
guards at the gate, merely turned down the path and began the walk towards
home.

He simply had to live with it.

The End