Pellew's Perspectives
by Meanjean

Muzillac

A letter from Sir Edward Pellew to Katherine Cobham:

April 20th...

Kitty, it appears I shall shortly be returning to London, and hope to be able to see you, however briefly. I received a dispatch from Hood; he shall be meeting me in London on the 23rd, at Admiralty. I fumed again about his continued cavalier attitude towards me. But Bracegirdle pointed out that if the man hadn't taken his sweet time during my last trip to London, Mr. Kennedy should not have had time to rescue Mr. Brandon, so everything has happened for a purpose. I shall endeavor to take that attitude, if only to preserve my sanity.

I gave Mr. Brandon your regards as you requested. He is physically recovered from his trauma, but still bears emotional scars, I fear. He is easily startled; I have learned to make sure he hears my approach before speaking to him; I caught him unawares one day and he just about jumped out of his skin. And I spoke with Mr. Cousins during his watch yesterday; Mr. Brandon is having nightmares again, but each night they are less violent. Still, all the men are aware of his situation, and I am most pleased by their consideration of him.

A new development...Acting Lieutenant Kennedy (and he still does get rather pink when he is called that) is in love. With Mr. Brandon's sister, no less! He has received no fewer than three letters from her this past week. Mr. Brandon is quite pleased with it, it would seem.

Horotio is concerning me, however. He received a letter the day after our return (an unusual occurrence for him) and has been...well, I know not what else to call it but dejected. And somehow Mr. Kennedy's prevailing happiness seems to make him withdraw even further. I must attempt to get him to let it go, whatever "it" is.

I will be in London (with Hornblower) on the evening of the 22nd, and hope to have the pleasure of your company for dinner that evening.

With Love and Affection,

Edward

April 20th, afternoon.

I strolled down to Mr. Brandon in sick bay, curious to see how he was doing back in his work. I watched him from the shadows for a moment, his head bent over his studies, chewing his lip. As he turned a page he looked up momentarily, around the berth, and sighed contentedly before returning to his thoughts. I cleared my throat and knocked; he looked up quickly but smiled when he saw me.

"Good afternoon, Sir. Can I assist you with anything?"

"No, Mr. Brandon, at ease. I had a few free moments and thought I would pay you a visit."

"Thank you, Sir." He motioned to a seat across from him. "Would you care for some tea? I can prepare you some."

"No, no; I am fine." I sat and took a glance around the spotless room with a smile, then frowned as earlier thoughts returned to my mind.

Brandon had lost none of his perception during his time away, and quietly he asked me, "Does something bother you, Sir?"

I looked him in the eye. "Have you spoken with Mr. Hornblower today, Mr. Brandon?"

He nodded. "Yes, Sir; we had lessons this morning."

"Mmhm. And what do you make of his mood?"

Brandon raised his eyebrow. "Not good, Sir. Uncharacteristically so, if I might add. He was very...terse in his responses."

I inhaled deeply. "So, I am not the only one to remark on his behavior?"

"No, Sir."

"And he has not seen you for any ailment?"

Brandon gave me an understanding smile. "Sir, I did speak with him about some remedies for seasickness once. Other than that, I think Mr. Hornblower would rather bleed to death than admit the need for medical help."

I cringed. "Too true."

I noticed a letter beside Mr. Brandon's stack of books. Changing the subject, I asked, "From your sister?"

"Yes, Sir. The convenience of having her correspond with Mr. Kennedy includes her ability to send me letters without my father's knowledge."

"Your brother has brought your father to Scotland, I understand."

For a moment I wished I had not brought it up, because he tensed up immediately. "Yes, Sir. For some time, he hopes."

"And your sister has remained home?"

He shook his head. "No, Sir; she and my mother have gone to London to spend time with my Aunt. It will be good for her, I think; she does not get out in society enough."

"It is not easy, you know, for a young woman to be tied to a man at sea."

He smiled warmly again. "I would not imagine it to be any easier for her than it is for Mr. Kennedy. But they are both of them happier together than they were apart, and that is what matters."

I smiled back in total agreement, thinking of my own personal situation, as I rose. "Well then, I wish them all the best. And it is good to see Mr. Kennedy happy." I patted him gently on the shoulder. "Carry on, Mr. Brandon. Carry on."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." And I saw the beginning of the return of that self-confidence, and was pleased.
***
Unable to bear the mystery, I requested Horatio to report in my quarters.

"Yes, Sir. You sent for me?"

I turned back from the window and sat down, and motioned for him to do the same. And for a few moments I studied him.

He was pale, but then he always is, a most unusual characteristic for one at sea for so many years. But there were dark circles under his eyes, and the eyes themselves were cold and stony, his lips set in a thin grim line. He looked like he had never smiled in his entire life.

Under my scrutiny, his color did rise a bit, in the form of two red splotches on his face.

"Mr. Hornblower, you are aware that we shall return to London in two days?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Are you sure you are feeling up to the trip?"

His eyes widened. "Of course, Sir."

"You have not been feeling ill lately? Having headaches? Anything like that?"

He was fully surprised. "No, Sir. Physically I am quite well."

I caught the wording of his statement. "Physically, you are well? Are you unwell in other ways, Mr. Hornblower?"

He bit his lip. "No, Sir, that was NOT my meaning! I can assure you I am quite up to returning to London with you and assisting you in any way that I can."

I wondered at the changes that had occurred in the past days since our return, and tried a few questions.

"You are pleased with Mr. Kennedy's promotion, I assume?"

For the first time he showed some signs of animation. "Yes, Sir. Very pleased. He is most deserving."

His reaction had been frank and unaffected. But I pressed on. "I am glad to hear it. Mr. Kennedy has indeed had a fortunate return from prison. Rumor has it that he and Mr. Brandon's sister have formed an alliance, as well."

The stone-cold face returned. "I don't listen to rumor, Sir."

I looked at him in astonishment. "You are his best friend, Mr. Hornblower. Surely he would have confided his heart to you?"

He closed his eyes in pain. "I am afraid I have not been very good at listening to him lately."

I stared at him for a moment, agape. He lowered his head in his hands, then slowly looked up at me, his fingers still over his mouth. Swallowing with difficulty, he finally pulled himself together. "You are right, Sir, when you say that I am not myself. But I can assure you, I am entirely capable of performing my duties."

I looked at him sternly. "Mr. Hornblower, I am sorry, but I am not the only person to notice the change in your personality. I am going to have to ask you to explain it to me, because I cannot simply take your word that it shall not affect your duties."

His face became more taut, and he nodded. "Yes, Sir. I dare say it will all sound silly to you. Do you remember, coming back from London, you asked me whether or not I had a girl waiting for me? And I told you I had never been in love?"

I felt my heart breaking for him as I suspected where this was going, but I managed to keep it from showing. "Yes."

"I lied to you, Sir. About having been in love. For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with a girl named Jane Smyth. Not that she ever knew that. Her father, you see, was pretty much the local squire where I grew up, and though we were friends as children, I understood too well that I was not an acceptable suitor. I thought, Sir...that my time away at sea would change my feelings towards her."

He paused, looking down at his hands. "Instead, it changed my feelings about myself. I began to believe, Sir, that given my career and my...prospects, if you will, that I might be able to present myself to her as a suitor. But before I could, I received this letter from my Aunt..."

I took a guess. "Miss Smyth married another?"

"She did...nearly a year ago. Apparently since I was in prison at the time, she did not see fit to notify me of THAT. This letter informed me that she had...died." He closed his eyes again, and I could see the fight to keep his composure.

With my own history, I felt a hand clutching at my heart. "In childbirth?" I whispered.

He met my eyes. "Worse. She took her own life, Sir." He fought back tears. "Her marriage was forced on her by her father. Her husband was, apparently, not a good man."

Oh, God. The hardest thing of course, is I know too well what his reaction would be. "And you ask yourself what you could have done to prevent this?"

He recomposed himself. "Yes, Sir. I do. If I had been there, if I had been more forthright with her about my own feelings..."

"Mr. Hornblower." I stopped him. "If anything, the experiences with Mr. Brandon of the past month have taught me that fighting the upper classes without the proper artillery is a losing battle. If this young woman's father was such a man as to force her into a bad marriage, there is nothing you could have done to stop it."

For a moment his eyes flashed fire. "Sir, with all do respect, telling me that because of my station in life, I cannot fight injustice, is unacceptable to me."

I smiled. "Good. It's unacceptable to me too. But I have still not found a way around it. Perhaps you shall."

He calmed down. "I'm sorry, Sir. I know it is inexcusable to have this affect my performance on board."

"It hasn't, Mr. Hornblower; only your mood, which is understandable."

His shoulders slumped. "The worst thing is, Sir, I am genuinely happy for Archie. But at the same time...I am envious. What sort of a terrible person am I?"

"Hard as it is to believe, Hornblower, you are human. I know this comes as quite a shock to you, but nevertheless it is true."

He blushed slightly as we both rose, Horatio going to towards the door.

"My advice to you, Mr. Hornblower, is to trust Mr. Kennedy with your feelings. You would expect him to do the same."

Horatio looked doubtful. "How can I burden him with my problems?"

I shook my head. "He is your friend. Do him the credit of believing he would welcome your confidence."

He nodded. "I shall...try, Sir."

"Good. That is all, Mr. Hornblower."

Only after he left could I let my feelings show, with a heavy sigh. How right was Kitty when she gave him that copy of Don Quixote! How much shall he suffer until he learns that he cannot save everything and everyone, that injustice does exist in this world that a FLEET of Hornblower could not correct.

There is a part of me, of course, that does not want him to change, a part of me that would keep him forever twenty. But the blow will come one day, and I only fear what it shall do to his psyche when it does.

For me, the downward emotional spiral I took started with my friend Grey's death. Still mourning deeply, I was so emotional when I met Anne that it is hardly a wonder that I fell in love with her and married her so quickly. To loose her after little more than a year of marriage, and my infant son with her, almost killed me. It was a long time before I permitted myself to FEEL again. My career was never brighter, my success assured, my men loyal, but I was as carved of stone. It is no way to live. It took HORNBLOWER, his arrival on my ship, to start me on the path of humanity again. Twenty years.

He is so much like me; I can read him so well. I do not wish him to suffer as I did, and would do anything to prevent it. But oh, lord, how?

April 22nd, 1797

A Tavern in London:

"So, Edward, whatever have you done to Horatio this evening?"

"Is it so unbelievable that I would wish to spend some time with you by myself?"

Kitty smiled at me sweetly and leaned across the table. "Edward, if it was time by ourselves you wanted, we could have arranged to skip dinner entirely."

I felt the room get a bit hotter, but enjoyed the sensation. "Mr. Hornblower is paying a call to Mr. Brandon's sister, at the request of Mr. Kennedy. Personally delivering letters, and a gift as well, I believe."

"You were worried about Horatio when last you wrote, so I assumed you would want to drag him out before me for inspection."

"Inspection, my Lady?"

"Why yes, Captain Pellew, sometimes it needs a woman's touch."

"In this instance, Kitty, I think I did you proud." And I outlined Horatio's story of love and loss.

Kitty's concern was immediately evident. "He cannot get a break, can he, Edward?"

"I fear for his personal life, Kitty. Though I know that is not supposed to be one of my concerns..."

"Rubbish. That would only be true if it were possible to totally separate your personal life from your public one. Which men have erroneously believed themselves capable of since the days of the Roman Empire."

I wanted to defend my sex, but I was far too distracted by the way the light hit her hair, the glow of her complexion as she argued with me. Which, I suppose, was an affirmation of her beliefs in its own right!

She continued on. "Edward, I hope he does find happiness someday."

I looked surprised. "You sound as though you do not believe it possible?"

She got a far away look in her eye. "You compared him to yourself, Edward. But you forget his past. He lost his mother when he was eleven, and that is a terrible blow to a boy. His father he loved but had a strained relationship with because of his mother's death, and they never really found each other in life. I fear, Edward, that Horatio will never truly believe himself worthy of love."

I shivered suddenly. To not be worthy of love...could anything be worse for a man?

Kitty looked at me again with that saucy smile, and grasped my hand. "And as you are well aware, my dear Sir Edward, you have no problems with love yourself. Giving, or receiving."

Returning her smile, I murmured. "Shall we pay the bill, then?"
***
April 23rd

I saw Horatio briefly the next morning prior to my departure for the Admiralty. He did seem a bit less morose after his heartache.

"How is Miss Cobham, Sir?"

"She is quite well, Mr. Hornblower, and bade me to give you her regards. I can assume that your mission of delivery to Miss Brandon was completed?"

His smile was genuinely warm. "Yes, Sir, she was quite delighted, and most eager to make my acquaintance. A charming woman."

I smiled myself, remembering my one encounter of her back in Gibraltar. "Yes, she certainly is."

I studied him carefully as he helped himself to coffee. No, the blue mood did not seem to have as much of a hold on him. Miss Brandon, apparently, has the same gift of healing as her brother does, and I'm certain Mr. Kennedy predicted that. "And what, pray tell, did Mr. Kennedy send her?"

He raised an eyebrow. "She did not open the package before me, Sir, and I would not pry. We spoke instead of the Indefatigable. She was most anxious to here as much of the ship as possible, since apparently Mr. Kennedy was forced to paint her in a less than favorable light during his stay with their family."

"Mm, so he told me. Well, Mr. Hornblower, I take it then that you approve of Mr. Kennedy's alliance with her?"

He reddened. "Mr. Kennedy did not ask for my approval, Sir."

"No, but I have no doubt he would value it anyway."

He wiped his mouth. "Well, then, I do approve. I am glad to see him so happy."

Wounded heart or not, he is a generous man. "I shall be attending Admiral Hood this day...assuming we do not have a repeat of the follies of our last visit to London."

Horatio blanched. "I hope not, Sir. For everyone's sake."

"Yes, well, I do not think you need to attend him with me. If he actually is there this morning, his letter indicates that we will likely be making a fast turnaround to the Indefatigable. So I would suggest that you rescue your new uniforms from Mr. Collins...else he might start charging you rent to keep them!"

Horatio grimaced. "Lord knows I cannot afford both rent and the uniforms, Sir. So if you are certain you will not be needing me...shall I meet you back here, then?"

"No, meet me at the Admiralty, on the steps, if you would. I should like to fill you in on the details of whatever Hood has going on as soon as possible."

"Yes, Sir."

***
Horatio left shortly after breakfast; I remained until it was close on the time to meet with Hood, at 11:00. Normally I would have walked from the Inn, but sensing Hood's rather exaggerated sense of importance, I opted to hire a carriage, and soon found myself in front of the imposing building.

The marble hall was cold for the season, and damp with our usual wet weather we'd been having. I refused to shiver, merely stood in the center of the receiving area attempting to look stately and self-important.

Much to my (concealed) surprise, Hood's minion saw me immediately and bade me follow him to Hood's offices, where I was ushered inside in an almost furtive way.

Hood was all condescension in manner, offering me his apologies for summoning me at such short notice.

Oh, no problem at all, Admiral Hood, I have always desired to have my ship of well trained men lolling about Portsmouth while a war was on, just so I might dance attendance on you... "Not at all, my Lord." I murmured with what I hopped was the proper deference.

He proceeded to introduce me to his guest, one General Charette...make that French Royalist General Charette, lately in exile. I studied the man even as I made my acknowledgment. Bedraggled, yes, but stately in spite of it; I felt somehow that he was everything Hood was not. An honorable man.

Hood, of course, was an idiotic one, for he continued after our introduction, "The General is going to invade France..." He looked at me with meaning. "And we're going to help him."

Excuse me?

Charette smiled at me and acknowledged the truth of the plan. "Permit me, if you will, Captain Pellew, to explain to you my method of action. Surely it must be successful."

I followed docilely to the table, and Charette set out a map of France. As he did so, I tried to catch Hood's eye, but the man steadfastly refused to look at me. Whatever was he THINKING? Or was he THINKING at all? Charette, of course, I could understand his desire for an invasion, but England is not prepared for such manpower, even Army and Navy combined. Had Hood gone mad?

Charette, exuding calm assurance, explained his plan of attack on Northern France. It would seem he expected the French people to fall in line with his return. Although I do not doubt his popularity, as he made mention of various towns and old friends, I could not but wonder. In England, for every worthy member of the Nobility, such as Kennedy and his father, Lord Bridgeleigh, there seemed to be at least one Lord Exton in that mix. Could the odds be different on the continent? And if so, just how happy would the people be to see the return of THEIR Lord Extons?

As he paused, I clarified something, for I was certain I misunderstood his meaning, "May I ask, Sir, how many men you expect to raise for this army?"

No, I had understood his proclaimed manpower perfectly. He really believed he would have 20,000 men or more as he marched east. Perhaps sensing my feelings, he met my eye. "Never doubt the loyalty of the people, Monsieur."

If I had any sense I would have kept my mouth shut, but I could not. "I understand, Sir, that arms have been raised against the republic before?"

His eye grew flinty, and Hood stared at me as if I were mad.

"Certainly, many times..."

Well, I never really believed I was cut out to be an admiral anyway. "Without any success." I stressed.

Hood's already pasty face grew a color to match his gray wig, the brown spots standing out starkly against the wan background. Charette remained more composed, and answered me with equal stress.

"Captain Pellew, for five years I have lived in exile while traitors have laid waste to my country. Now, the Nobility of France are going home, and when my countrymen fight , we, their rightful leaders, will lead them into battle." He drew himself up to his full height, and tried to look imposing. "Can I take it, Sir, that we do not have your support in this great venture?"

As if I had a prayer of NOT supporting it! Before I could even move my lips, Hood made my answer: "Oh yes, Baron, you can depend on Captain Pellew for his full support...you have his Britannic Majesties word on it!"

I seethed even as I nodded in acknowledgement. I am the King's man, and nobody would ever question my loyalty to the crown...I do not need HOOD to remind me of my duty.

But again, I wondered that he, or even the King, should follow along in such a futile plan? Do they desire to link our names to disaster? For if General Charette finds five thousand loyal troops remaining in France, added to his already worn down army, I shall be surprised. Though we may not stand to have many losses ourselves, what benefit is there?

I bade Charette adieu, but remained behind at Hood's request, to go over my specific orders in more detail.

"First you are to Plymouth..."

I frowned as he continued on. It would seem that Indefatigable, along with three other ships, would be ferrying not only Charette's men, but a squadron of lobsters as well, under the command of a Major Edrington. They were awaiting us in Plymouth; it was the wait for their arrival that delayed Hood's relaying this information to me sooner.

"Secrecy is imperative, as no doubt you would understand. The Republicans fear Charette greatly, and without question have spies watching his movements here."

This was sounding more and more futile by the second. Trying to hold my temper, I asked a question that seemed harmless. "The army battalion, Sir, our army, what reason do they have on this voyage?"

"Ah, I was getting to that..."

Uh, oh...here it comes.

"Major Edrington has some experience in explosives, and his men are among the best we have to offer. He's going to take a group of your men and blow up a bridge for the general. No difficulty, I assure you."

Oh, is that all? "My Men?" Somehow I kept the shock out of my voice.

"Well, naturally, Pellew. Edrington is an Earl himself, I could only have him travelling with my most senior Captain, and that would be you."

Blast and curse it, where the HELL is Hammond when I need him? He made Captain an easy three months before I did, and would have therefore been the senior. If only he were here.

"The major will be requiring cannon from Indefatigable, and of course, you must provide the men to transport it, and perhaps an officer to maintain it. Who is your best man with artillery?"

Reluctantly I answered, "Acting Lieutenant Kennedy, Sir."

"Very well, send him along. You will be dropping off Edrington and company at a place called Muzillac, before proceeding to Quiberon bay for the main invasion."

I looked up sharply. "How do Major Edrington and my men return, Admiral?"

"Optimally, Charette shall liberate Muzillac and they will be able to march to you at Quiberon. If not..." He shrugged. "I suppose you can pick them up if you wish."

If I wished? IF I WISHED? "I do wish, Sir."

He looked at me with a bemused expression. "You shall never make Admiral, Sir, if you continue to obsess so much over a few crew men."

I set my shoulders resolutely. "So be it, then, my Lord." Then I thought of Kennedy and his handling of Exton, and I tried, I really did. "Besides, did you not yourself say that Major Edrington was a valued officer and a member of the nobility. Would it not be impolitic for me to abandon him?"

Hood nodded. "That, of course is true." He handed me a packet. "Your orders, Sir. Permit me to walk you out."

I followed him, wondering how on earth this could ever hope to have a good end?

Hood continued as we walked away. "I assure you Charette is still a figurehead among those still loyal to King Louis. His name WILL provide spark that sets all northern France afire."

Unable to ignore the obvious, I continued flirting with career suicide. "But the royalist force, my lord, they're nothing more than the remnants of a defeated army?"

Hood shrugged. "A final cast of the dice, I grant you."

Good lord, was he admitting this was futile? "Indeed, Sir, And a desperate one!" I looked at him imploringly, hoping to see some of the assurance he had worn on his face when Charette was present.

I did not. He sighed. "You forget what is at stake, Sir Edward. For the cost of ferrying Charette and his men across the channel, we may put an end to the war with France." But he did not believe it, no; I could see doubt all over his face.

"Yes, but if the expedition should fail, Sir...what of the cost in lives?"

Looking at me like I were a particularly stubborn child, he emphasized, "Men die every day this war continues. When it is over, we may count costs at our leisure."

It was at that moment I realized that Hood was neither stupid nor insane; he was indifferent. Indifferent to success, indifferent to the men, indifferent to the war itself. He watched what happened with as much personal investment as a man would have to the pawns he moved around on a chessboard. If he should lose this match, well, there would always be another, and if he grew tired of the game, well, he would just sweep all the pieces onto the floor and start again.

A sudden commotion occurred as we headed to the lobby, and I stood aside as Hood attended it, lost in my own thoughts. A pour soul on Hood's staff would seem to have been set upon by brigands.

It was only as he moved away cursing that I questioned his reaction: "My Lord?"

Hood looked at me in agitation. "He was carrying a copy of General Charette's plan to the First Lord."

I felt my skin tingle as the realization dawned. "Oh, my God?" I looked around desperately. "What if they fall into enemy hands?"

Hood, who earlier had emphasized the presence of spies around Charette in defending the need for secrecy, now seemed to deny any such spies existed. "We do not know that...they may very well be at the bottom of the Thames...the thieves drunk in a tavern..."

I looked at him, the pain physical, a beat tattooing itself in my brain. "Sir...what if they're not?"

Hood declined to admit the worst possibility, or entertain a change in plan, explaining that the government had decided to support this endeavor, and would not change its mind.

But Charette...surely he would proceed with caution, if at all, in this event? "Shall General Charette know of this?"

The horror mounted. "No, I don't believe there's any need to trouble him." He looked at me to make certain that I took his meaning. "What has passed here will remain between ourselves...is that UNDERSTOOD."

I met his eyes, wondering at the depths of his apathy. But there was only one answer I could give. "Yes, Sir."

My disgust must have been obvious. For I now felt we were leading not only Major Edrington and my men into disaster, we were leading the General that way as well. If he cared about his men as I suspected he would, I did not enjoy being a party to his destruction.

Hood must have sensed how I rankled at his orders, for he proceeded to punish me by giving me a new one.

For, as he said, since it would not look right if we abandoned Charette to the enemy for slaughter, I must remain on site, in case he should have to retreat.

The Indefatigable, and only the Indefatigable, would remain at Quiberon, to save a General from a battle he does not know he cannot win.

"You Have your orders. Carry on."

He walked away without a second glance, and I stood to the side and watched a young man die. The first man to die in the mission of Quiberon bay.

But not, I fear, the last.
***
Part 3

The gag that Hood effectively imposed on me positively choked. Even as I watched his poor unfortunate messenger pass away, the weight of this event blanketed me. I would be leading not just my ship, but three others into a potentially devastating situation, and must do it without admitting that I do not believe in the plan myself. Worst of all, I am going next to meet a young Lieutenant who naively believes in me implicitly, who would trust me not to risk his life, or the lives of my men, needlessly. Which is exactly what I am about to do. How would I ever explain any of this to Horatio?

I met him on the steps, looking positively resplendent in his new Lieutenant's Uniform. In a better mood, I would have teased him mercilessly about it-he would become flustered, incoherent; and I would continue on in apparent oblivion, until I left him defenseless. I believe it breaks down the barriers around himself he otherwise tries to hard to build. But it was not to be today.

"Mr. Hornblower!"

He turned quickly, "Sir!"

His face was flushed with both pride and anticipation, no doubt both fearing and hoping for my comments. I quickly dashed those thoughts to pieces.

"Well don't stand there dawdling, Sir. We must get to Plymouth immediately!"

His face changed, his eyes wide as I flew past him on the stairs, trying to run as far away from Hood's presence as I could get. He followed silently, but I could feel his eyes boring into the back of my neck. I made my way towards the Inn without a look backwards, we must quickly get our things and head to Indefatigable, I must meet with the other Captains, and then pick up our new friends.

"Sir..." He finally ventured.

"Yes, Mr. Hornblower?" I snapped.

"Sir...you said we are to get to Plymouth."

"Yes, Mr. Hornblower, that is what I said. Have you any objection to that?"

"No, Sir, of course not." He paused for a moment, negotiating the crowds just behind me, his eyes never leaving my profile. Seeing more explanation was not forthcoming, he ventured once more into my stormy seas. "You mean, of course, that we are to sail there?"

"I plan on sailing there. If you choose to walk, please feel free to do so. I would suggest for timings sake that you start now." I wheeled around and glared at him. "Now, have you any further inane questions about my orders, Mr. Hornblower?"

He swallowed once, and turned his head in surprise, but only gulped out, "No, Sir."

"Good. Then I expect to continue this journey without your relentless PRATTLE!"

"Aye, Aye, Sir." He nodded sharply.

And he was as good as his word, remaining warily silent as we removed our items from the Inn...I hastily scribbled a note out to Kitty, promising to send off a letter at my earliest change...god knows when that will be. Hopefully prior to setting sail from Plymouth.

Horatio, meanwhile, continued observing me without seeming to, which I might smile about some day. It is a good ability for a Captain to have, one I believe I have perfected myself. But I maintained my angry silence throughout our return to Portsmouth, where our longboat awaited us. Part of me wished he WOULD disobey his order and speak, for the sounds of my thoughts were most unpleasant indeed.

The men, as they rowed, lacked Horatio's finesse, and stared at me baldly. They too were searching my mood. Like their Lieutenant, they found nothing to cheer them in my countenance. Nor were they likely to for some time, I fear.

And so I stormed past Bracegirdle, answering his easy queries without thought and in as non-committed a way as possible. I asked to have the Captains of Dunbarton, Sophia and Catherine to assemble aboard Indefatigable in an hour, and for Horatio to have all Senior officers report in my cabin in half an hour.

And that is where I have sat, for the past twenty minutes, my head in my hands, my forehead pounding. I have attempted three times to write to Kitty, but cannot find the words, with the monumental task pending before me.

For shortly, Horatio and the other officers will be arriving in my cabin, for me to explain to them the bare bones of a mission that I must present to them as if it will be successful. An acting job that even Kitty would find tasking, I am afraid!

***
The brief meeting with the officers went about as badly as I expected. I had Kennedy, Hornblower, Bracegirdle, Bowles, McAnn, Cousins and McGill present. The younger Midshipman I discounted as too junior, and Mr. Brandon will not be departing Indefatigable on this mission, he is far too valuable here.

Cousins, with the return of the leadership of Hornblower and Kennedy, was content to place himself along the back wall, observing rather than commenting. The first comment came from Kennedy, in fact, who had the misfortune of calling the plan an invasion...I nipped that pretty quickly. Invasion? With four ships? No, England would not be invading France loyalist, only providing the French with transport to retake their own country.

I looked at them all, so perplexed, so used to my being forthcoming with my own thoughts and opinions. Expecting my honesty. I gave them what little I could. "I understand this plan may seem Cavalier, Gentlemen...but it is the General's plan once landed to raise and army to restore the King to the throne."

"That would mean the end of the war?" Bracegirdle said, stating the obvious when I did not.

"That would be the PLAN." I replied evenly.

Horatio asked if we might know our destination, and I informed him that no such information would be revealed until we were underweigh. To preserve secrecy! Secrecy!

My confused men filtered out, with Horatio giving me one searching look. "Perhaps by this time next week we will be toasting the end of the war."

"That is the plan."

He scanned my face and I knew he was not happy with what he saw there. How seldom I have held my mission-related feelings with my men. If not spoken, they were usually easily read. He closed the door behind him this time, no more understanding of my mood than before.

"Secrecy. Bah!" I spat out. So my men, and the men of the Dunbarton, Sophia and Catherine, would be the last to know our destination. For there is no doubt in my mind that the enemy knows it already.

***
Part 4
Captains Clark (of the Sophia), Strong (of the Dunbarton), and Gregory (of the Catherine) were assembled in my office, staring at me with the same disbelief I must have shown to Hood.

Clark is quite a young man for a Captain, not quite thirty years of age. In fact, although he is the Captain of the sloop Sophia, he is in truth of the rank of Commander, not a so-called "real" captain yet. He was intelligent while at the same time jovial and good natured; a perfect morph of Bracegirdle and Hornblower. But now his usually smiling face was perplexed, his fair features frozen in a frown.

Gregory is older than I am, though he has been a full captain only since the start of the war. His gray hair was queued neatly, his uniform was neat, it looked as though he had not touched action himself in twenty years. He observed me blankly, only wishing to do as little as he needed in order to survive the war with his ship and his reputation in tact, so he might retire peacefully.

Strong was a disciple of Foster; headstrong, proud and sure of himself. He, naturally, was the most outspoken and the first to attack me on the situation. His ruddy face was suffused with blood by the time I finished speaking.

"Surely the Admiral cannot trust the French?"

I met his outraged glance coldly. "Not only the Admiral, Sir, but the King."

Strong's eyes mocked me, his mouth in a smirk. "King or no King, I still maintain Captain Pellew, that trusting the French is a dangerous thing! Apparently you do not have such difficulties." He stood up and faced me across the desk, his manner very insulting indeed. "Perhaps, Captain Pellew, you do not mind being associated with defeat. However, it is unacceptable to me to have my good name so tarnished."

I had enough of this.

"Captain Strong, whether or not I trust the French race in general is entirely IMMATERIAL to this mission. We are in the service of the King, we follow where the King orders us to go. This is his mission, these are his orders, and WE ALL WILL FOLLOW THEM. I do not give a fig for your reputation. Perhaps its...augmentation...is the reason why YOU entered the Navy; my reasoning was to serve my country. But if it is only reputation that concerns you, Sir, then let me say this: do not think I would hesitate to inform Admiral Hood of your insubordination if you choose to follow this path of resistance!"

I was leaning against the desk, Strong's face just inches from mine. Gregory, who perhaps might have been better fitted for the clergy than the sea, tried to pacify us both.

"Now, now, Gentlemen, I have no doubt that our feelings towards the French are similar. But surely we must put our trust in the admiralty...they would not put four of their ships in harm's way."

Strong made a noise of disgust, but I could only turn away, towards the windows. Our trust in admiralty? After this adventure, I would never trust admiralty again.

Clark spoke up at last. "While I cannot be so...sanguine about our orders as you are, Captain Gregory, never the less, they ARE our orders, and we must each of us fulfill them to our best capabilities. Although the mission might seem futile to us, the truth is even if it is a failure, we have risked very little of our own. I can see how this would be appealing to Admiralty."

I looked at Clark in some surprise. For his years, he had demonstrated a remarkable grasp of our situation. And I was grateful for it.

I cleared my throat. "Very well, Gentlemen...we shall set sail tomorrow for Plymouth, to pick up our infantries. Dunbarton and Sophia shall be carrying French troops only; Catherine shall have a combination of French and English Infantry. Indefatigable will likewise carry a combination of allies, along with the Senior officers of both infantries...Major Edrington, Colonel de Moncoutant, and of course, General Charette. After loading, we shall set sail due west from Plymouth until you are signaled with a course."

Strong sputtered again. "You mean we are not even to know our own destination, Captain Pellew?"

I met his eyes forcefully. "There is a need for secrecy, Sir." Inwardly I winced again at that dastardly word. "Very well, Gentlemen, you have your orders." As they began to filter out, I made motion to Captain...er, Commander Clark, to stay behind.

He looked surprised, but not worried. As the door shut behind him, he asked deferentially, "Can I be of further assistance, Sir?"

I looked at him closely. "You show a good grasp of our situation, Captain Clark."

He looked pleased at the compliment, but blushed with a hint of shame, for I had not used his correct title. "Sir, I am in fact only a Commander."

I raised my eyebrows at him. "So I noted from your Uniform. Regardless, you Captain the Sophia, and therefore as far as I am concerned, when at sea, you are a Captain."

He chewed that over for a moment, then bowed his head courteously to me. "Thank you for the distinction, Sir. It is most generous, and means all the more coming from YOU." He cleared his throat, and met my eye curiously. "Is there anything else of the mission you would wish to discuss with me?"

I gave him a wry smile. "There is much I would WISH to discuss with you, Captain Clark, unfortunately, there is nothing that I CAN."

"I understand, Sir." He shrugged. "The frequent insistence on security even from our brother officers has always frustrated me, but there is nothing to be done about it, I suppose."

I sighed. "The frustration is mutual." I looked out into the Harbor. "Your ship seems to be in very good shape, Sir."

His face lit up. "Thank you, Sir. I do my best to keep it so. I have good men on board her. The best in the Navy..." I looked at him with a smile as he realized that what he said could be construed as an insult to the Indefatigable, and therefore to me. "Sir, I didn't mean...I except the Indefatigable, of course..."

I raised a hand. "At ease, Clark; I have not yet seen a Captain...a GOOD Captain, who did not believe that his ship and his men were superior to any other. Myself included!" I cleared my throat. "I should very much like to invite you as a guest for dinner on board Indefatigable. There are several of my officers I would have you meet. Unfortunately, the timing is poor; but should your orders find you back in Portsmouth after this mission, I would be honored with your attendance, Sir."

Clark rose to his full height, set his shoulders straight, and met my look securely. "The honor would be mine, Captain Pellew."

I nodded. "Very well, then, we'd best get you back to your ship."

He turned to make his leave, then hesitated at the door. "Sir...earlier I said that there was little risk to our own, but in fact you will have men accompanying Major Edrington, will you not?"

"Yes, I shall." I said simply, meeting his gaze without emotion.

No emotion was needed. Cut from the same cloth, Clark looked at me with sadness. "I am...sorry, then, Sir."

I tried to follow the official line. "Perhaps the mission will be a success."

He set his lips, knowing there was nothing else I could say. "Perhaps it shall, Sir. Perhaps it shall." And with a salute, he was gone.

****

One hour later I informed Mr. Bowles that we should be prepared to make for Plymouth tomorrow morning, and let him know the particulars of boarding our guests. I spoke with Horatio and Mr. Kennedy, to be certain that they understood; Mr. Cousins and Mr. McGill I requested remain on board Indefatigable and be in charge of handling our guests as they embarked.

Finally I made my way down to Mr. Brandon in sick berth, where he was playing acey-deucey with Johnson.

"Good evening, Sir" Mr. Brandon said on seeing me, and they both rose.

"At ease, Gentlemen. I have come down to provide you with what information I can of our upcoming mission."

I sat across from the two of them as they exchanged a glance. Medical personnel were not often included in such discussion, though, of course, Brandon is an officer as well.

"Gentlemen, tomorrow we make for Portsmouth. We will be taking on a large quantity of infantry for passage to France. That is as much of our mission as I can reveal to you, so do not ask me to reveal more. However, the infantry is a mix of English troops...and French Royalist."

I sat back with a tired sigh as they both processed this. Brandon's mouth formed a silent "oh" as he understood the logistic...and linguistic...problems we were about to encounter.

But Johnson had an even more startling realization. "Sir...from what I know of what remains of the French Royalists, they're, well, Sir, they're hardly going to be fit for fighting!"

I nodded. "It is probable that some of them may be requiring medical attention, which is why I am here. I would hope that you would extend professional courtesy to them. Remember, though they are French, they are our allies."

Brandon nodded. "Naturally, Sir. I can speak a little French. But Sir, after so much time in exile, will they not be too ill to fight? Their living conditions as refuges cannot have been good."

I shrugged. "Probably not. But as to their will to fight, they are fighting to END their exile and return home. And one's HOME, the protection of it or the return to it, is a powerful incentive for any man, even one on his deathbed, Mr. Brandon."

He was perhaps thinking of his recent past when he quietly responded, "I know, Sir."

I rubbed my forehead. "I know it is popular to portray the French as cowardly and weak; indeed, in the heat of battle no doubt I have done so myself. But when they are well-led and have such a tangible goal, I believe they show much courage."

Johnson picked up my meaning. "Are they well led, Sir?"

I nodded. "Their General, Baron de Charette, is legendary for his leadership capabilities, and from all accounts, beloved by his men and his people. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the reason the Royalist Army still exists at all. The other officer, Moncoutant, I know little of, but if he is anything like Charette, I can understand why they believe this plan will succeed."

Brandon was far too quick to pick up on my words. "Sir...what you just said...do YOU believe this plan will succeed."

Curse him for his unending perspicacity! I stared at him coldly, and rose. "Gentlemen, this briefing is over. As you were!"

I was out into the passage way on my way above decks when Brandon pursued me.

"Sir! Sir!"


I turned to him with harsh words on my lips, should he continue his questioning of me. But he merely extended his hand; a packet of powders. I took them in surprise, as he nodded to me.

"You'd best take care of that headache before we are away, Sir."

And saluting me quickly, he returned to the sick berth.

Well, bless the boy's perspicacity after all. For my head WAS pounding, as if there were a blacksmith hammering an anvil inside of my skull. Yes, a cup of tea this evening, and I shall take these powders, and then renew my worries tomorrow.

For tomorrow I must tell Mr. Kennedy that as an expert in artillery, he shall accompany our cannon to this village of Muzillac!


April 24th, Evening...

We have boarded all troops while in Plymouth and have just now departed, or course due west for two days, until we shall change for the appointed destination only I know. I had hoped to have all the visiting senior officers dine with me this evening, in an attempt to gage their capabilities, but both French leaders have come down with debilitating "mal de mer"-seasickness that makes Hornblower seem to have a cast iron stomach. So instead I dine alone with Major Edrington.

I wish now I had asked the Lieutenants, especially Kennedy, to dine also, as I had forgotten that Edrington was an Earl in addition to being a Major. Whatever would I have to talk with him about?

It turns out that I needn't have worried-Edrington was not at a loss for words.

"You keep a find table, Sir Edward, and your man servant seems to be a wonder. I have never had such a fine meal in a ship before."

"Powers is indispensable to me, my Lord. In more ways than one."

"Isn't a good man servant always?" He dabbed at his lips with his napkin.
"And please, Sir Edward, you must call me Major Edrington. Or Alexander, if you wish, though perhaps that is too informal for the circumstances. Anything but my Lord...I do so hate that."

I wrinkled my brow. "I understood you had asked my men to address you as my Lord?"

He smiled. "Ah, that was just to tweak young Kennedy a bit. He didn't know that I recognized him, I am certain, but he is the spitting image of his father. My father, god rest his soul, was a good friend of Lord Bridgeleigh's. No offense, Sir, but I am surprised that his father did not stand him for the Army; they could certainly have purchased a commission for him, and it would have been an easier life than being a Midshipman..."

"Acting Lieutenant..." I murmured, sipping my wine slowly

"...Acting Lieutenant, then. Still not an easy path. He must have had a very strong desire to go to sea."

There was, of course, no good answer to that, at least not one I was at liberty to give to Major Edrington; for that matter, without knowing more of his character, I am not certain that I would want to. So I changed the subject.

"You compared your meal to others at sea, Major. Have you had the opportunity to sail often?"

"Many times, Sir. At least ten. On many different sorts of vessels. I have come to believe that you can judge a ship by its Captain's Cabin."

I remembered DeVergess' snarling remarks about my living quarters, and felt my hair bristle. "How so, Major Edrington?" I asked in that quiet way that would have had one of my men shaking in his boots.

Edrington looked at me with more than a slight twinkle in his eye. "You have spent more money fitting up your ship than your cabin. The comfort of your men, therefore, is more important to you than your own." He smiled even wider. "Have you ever met a Captain Hammond, Sir?"

I held back on what I would have liked to say. "I have an acquaintance with him of some years."

He shrugged. "Perhaps I ought to be prudent, then, and not insult a friend, but really! The overwhelming opulence of his cabin was insulting. Polished woods, silk cushions on the chairs, damask curtains, a service of silver! And then I went below to his sick berth, for I had to inquire about a man of mine who'd been injured. The stink! The filth! His men living in squalor!" Edrington's disgust was visible, and my opinion of him went up exponentially. He shrugged once more. "Again, I am sorry if I insult a friend."

I permitted myself a small chuckle. "I said acquaintance, not friend, Sir, and what you've just said is nothing more than what I've often thought myself."

He smiled back at me, a bit sadly. "Perhaps the vehemence of my feelings towards Hammond are partially a result of having LOST that man. His ships...doctor...if you can call him that...was forced to amputate his arm" Edrington shivered, and I hastened to refill his glass. "He survived the procedure, but died of a putrid fever five days later. I have always believed that in cleaner surroundings...he was a good friend; and I feel his loss greatly."

"Thankfully I have a fine medical staff myself, and one of my young men would no doubt agree with you about cleanliness of surroundings affecting recovery. He himself is almost fanatical about it."

Edrington leaned back. "Medical STAFF, you say? You are indeed a fortunate Captain! I've never before sailed on a ship that had more than a half-drunk or laudanum addled surgeon before. However did you manage such a coup?"

I felt nausea rising. Fool that I am. If Edrington knew Kennedy's father, was it not also likely that he knew Brandon's? Or at least moved in the same circles? For even as we ate, I knew Brandon was bellow, working furiously with Johnson to assist the ailing Frenchmen...and a few of Edrington's men, as well. Even if I could keep Edrington himself away from the boy, surely one of his men would repeat the boy's name to him. And from the sound of it, Edrington would be requesting a full tour of the Indefatigable any moment now.

Edrington had noticed my face change. Puzzled and not understanding my mood, he frowned. "I meant that as a compliment, Sir Edward. I certainly hope you did not think I was implying any wrong doing?"

I came to with a start. And decided that I had only once choice: throw myself on his mercy.

"I understand your meaning, Major." I cleared my throat. "Major, from your comments I believe you place a high value on the care of your men?"

He folded his arms across his chest. "It's a poor leader that doesn't."

I nodded. "Well, I place a high value on the lives of my men. Enough value that when the Doctor we had on board here became...problematic, I was of strong desire to replace him. Of course. As you have noticed, good doctors do not jump at the chance of joining the Navy. So, as I have always done throughout my career, I made due with the best of what I had."

I rose suddenly and paced behind the table. "I had two finds. One was a Marine with prior training as a medic. As a skilled battle surgeon, he is second to none. But my first find was nothing short of a miracle, Major. A young man...little more than a boy, really, who had practically apprenticed with a doctor. A young man whose father was so outraged at his career choice that he had the boy sent of to the Navy against his will."

I looked back at Edrington. "That boy is smart, Major. A visionary, even. He creates medicines, he prevents infections, he cures fevers. He is truly gifted, and I owe him my life because of it."

Edrington raised his eyebrows. "I am exceptionally pleased for you, Sir. But I am afraid I do not understand..."

"Why I am telling you this?" I sighed. "Not long ago, the boy was written up for commendation for saving my life. His father read about it in the Gazette, and pulled the boy off of my ship in a fit of anger. It took a coup of major éclat to rescue him from his situation, performed by Mr. Kennedy, in fact. The boy's father only relinquished him back to the Indefatigable believing, among other things, that his son never was and never would be, a ship's Doctor."

Edrington was so confused his face was more wrinkled than a currant. "Captain Pellew, I still do not understand. What has this boy to fear from me?"

"Because, as you recognized Kennedy as the son of Lord Bridgeleigh, so you might recognize Brandon, as the son of Lord Exton."

And I sank into the chair, my head in my hands.

But when I looked up, Edrington's face was suffused with blood, almost purple in his anger.

"Lord Exton! Is that drunken bastard still alive!"

"Unfortunately, yes..." I said, it being my turn to be puzzled now.

"Captain, I can assure you, your secret is safe from me. I would not trust myself to ever even greet the man, for I would need to challenge him to a duel, and it would be my luck I'd miss the old sot!"

I finished of my wine. "I see you've met him!"

"Bah!" Edrington spat out. "My poor Father's death is due to him!" Edrington's color began to ebb. "Which is too long and painful a story to relate to you, Sir Edward." He sighed. "You are certain that his son is trustworthy?"

"Major...if ever there were a son more UNLIKE his father, I would be surprised. He is a fine young man." I added gently, for I could see that his emotions were much affected. "How long, may I ask, is it since you ascended into your title?"

He closed his eyes. "My father passed on just six months ago, Sir."

I nodded. "Well, then, Major, you might wish to check out Mr. Brandon for yourself. He has a wonderful cure for headaches that it looks like you could use."

Edrington smiled. "If I could just get a good night's sleep, Sir Edward, it might be just as beneficial."

I cleared my throat. "He might be able to help you there, as well."

Edrington rose. "I have trespassed on your time long enough, Sir. Perhaps tomorrow evening we might have a game of cards?"

My eyes lit up. "Do you play Whist, Major?"

He smiled back. "Play it? It is a passion!"

Ha! "Excellent, then, we shall invite Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Brandon, both quite excellent players in their own rights. Mr. Kennedy shall be glad to be excused from our torment, for once!"

"Hornblower? He is the dark haired young man who saw to my embarkation, is he not?"

"Yes, that would be Lieutenant Hornblower."

"He's rather young for a second Lieutenant, isn't he?"

"Circumstances, Sir. And his immense talent. He is a bright light."

"Well, I shall be happy to make better acquaintance with him. Thank you for your hospitality, Captain. And I believe I shall make my way down to sick berth and check out this young man."

"You do that, Major. Take care, Sir."
***


April 25th, Afternoon

After an afternoon of agony and torture that only I was aware of, I went to seek out Mr. Brandon in sick berth. I found him there alone.

"Mr. Brandon..." I said, sinking down into a chair. "I have come to invite you to dinner this evening. Mr. Bracegirdle, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hornblower will be there as well; however, after dinner I hope you will stay for a hand of whist."

He came over to me slowly. "You know I'd be happy to, Sir." He had a pot of tea he had been drinking, and poured me out a cup, mixing within it some of his willow bark. "Sir, if I may say so, this business is killing you."

I ought to have argued with him, but after the incidents of this afternoon I could not. I accepted the tea gratefully. He sat across from me, looking at me with frank concern. "Is it as bad as that, then?" He whispered.

I sipped deeply. "Yes, Mr. Brandon. It is." I set the cup down. "Did you speak with Major Edrington last night?"

He blushed slightly. "Yes, Sir. I am ashamed to say that he knows of my family."

I spoke quickly. "He can be trusted, Mr. Brandon; I spoke with him about not speaking of your duties to your father or anyone who might cross his path."

He gave me half a smile. "I have no doubt of his silence, Sir. He is an honorable man. That is unfortunately the reason for MY shame." He stretched his legs out before him. "Did he tell you, Sir, that my father is responsible for the death of the Late Earl of Edrington?"

"He did, but he declined to mention the circumstances."

"It's a sorry tale, Sir. About a month before I was sent here, my brother Wills, who is as like my father as I am different, decided he should marry Edrington's sister, Eliza. That Eliza did not care for him did not enter in to it. But I dare say, even if she had, her father would never have accepted the proposition. His proposal refused, Wills returned home fully indignant and reported the-from his view-insulting refusal to father."

"I did not know the rest until my recent return to my father's house, where Alicia told me what had happened. About six months ago, Father ran into the late Earl in London. He outright accosted the man in the street, accusing him of impeaching his honor, and then proceeding to smear the reputation of his daughter with most vile accusations, including that she had already given herself to Wills. A violent and heated argument in the middle of a London street occurred, and only ended when the Earl suddenly had some sort of fit-probably his heart from the sound of it; and fell down dead where he stood."

I sighed. "A vile story indeed, Mr. Brandon, but you should not bear the shame of it."

"It is hard not to, Sir. It is still my family name, and I wish I could speak it with such pride as the Major speaks his."

"I hope the Major did not throw it up at you."

"Not at all, though he put me under some pretty heavy scrutiny, Sir. I think, in the end, he decided I was more worth his pity than his scorn. But I still felt pretty uncomfortable." He looked at me with a fair amount of scrutiny himself.

"Beg your pardon, Sir, but WHAT did happen to you today?"

I snorted. "Anarchy, Mr. Brandon. Or, to quote my Shakespeare, "The Devil Takes Order Now." With a sigh, I continued. "This morning I opened my orders. Which were as I was lead to believe, but horrifying nonetheless. Tell me, despite your somewhat different duties, you still study navigation with Mr. Hornblower, do you not."

"Yes, Sir. Since I have been pressed into regular duties in emergencies, we thought it prudent."

I smiled at the thought of my too prudent Lieutenant. "Then I will ask you the same question I asked him. If I told you we were heading for the coast of Brittany, where do you think we would be landing? Take all the time you need, Mr. Brandon, or at least until the tea runs out."

His answer was not so automatic as Horatio's. Compared to Mr. Hornblower's ten seconds, it took him a full minute.

"Quiberon Bay, I suppose, is the best landing site, from what I remember of the map."

I grimaced. "Indeed it is, Mr. Brandon. That was about a minute. It took Hornblower even less time. And even if I were fool enough to believe that there is nobody in the French Republic as smart as the two of you, I have to believe that with four days lead time, somebody will come to the logical conclusion."

He frowned. "That would presuppose they knew we were coming."

I thought of a messenger dying in the halls of Admiralty, and sighed. "Yes, well, there is that."

He met my eyes again. "That's not all that has you so ill, is it, Sir? Something else happened today?"

I looked at him. "Other than the fact that Major Edrington and the Colonel de Montcoutant almost came to blows over who would have the honor of defending a bridge, you mean?"

He nodded. "I had anticipated problems there, Sir. Montcoutant was seeking remedy for seasickness when the Major came in last night, and I could tell immediately they did not like each other." He shivered. "I don't like Montcoutant much myself, not after seeing that guillotine."

I sat bolt upright. "The WHAT?"

"His personal luggage, Sir. It's stowed down bellow."

"Good God, that's what that great bulky thing was he had brought on board? I had thought it was some form of weaponry!" I whistled.

"Well I guess it is, in a way. Nasty, horrible thing!"

A sudden thought hit me. "Good lord, Mr. Brandon, did Mr. Kennedy see this?"

"He did." He nodded at me. "It did not sit well with him either for reasons you well know. I was almost afraid it would bring on a fit, Sir; so I had Horatio bring them to their cabin and made sure he stayed there in the quiet for a bit. He recovered alright, though, once he got over the shock of it." He hesitated. "I understand that Mr. Kennedy will be accompanying the landing party with Edrington?"

"Yes, he is our gunnery officer, you can't escape that."

"No, Sir, I don't suppose you can." He looked sharply at me. "Don't get me wrong, Sir. Mr. Kennedy is far stronger and far braver than anyone ever realized; nobody knows that more than I do. But I fear the situation in Muzillac will get ugly, and he will be there without friends, though I understand it is Mr. Hornblower's men who go with him, and they are the best. Still, I am...concerned, Sir."

My shoulders sagged as I remembered how that conversation between Edrington and Montcoutant ended. With my oh so prudent Horatio calmly restoring order and seeing sense where egos might have gotten in the way. Horatio, who is the only senior officer who speaks fluent French. Horatio, who is the best hope that I have for getting my men back alive. What choice did I have?

"As a matter of fact, Mr. Brandon, he does not go without friends. Mr. Hornblower goes with him, as a liaison between Montcoutant and Edrington."

Brandon looked at me with wide eyes. "Oh." He stared at the cup and then reached for another packet of powders, this time for himself; he drank down the concoction in a gulp. "I see, Sir."

"It seems you do."

Brandon shook his head. "I had been going to volunteer myself, Sir..."

I started laughing then, at the image of Mr. Brandon charging into France with a surgical saw and a pot of tea. Soon, I was actually laughing hard, and after looking a bit affronted, Mr. Brandon joined in with me.

"I know, Sir...I'm hardly what you would call battle tested. Still, I do speak French, and I felt I owed it to my sister..."

"What? To have her brother killed along with the man she loves? For either you would both come back, or neither of you shall. Have a little more faith in Mr. Kennedy than that, Sir."

"It is not Kennedy I am worried about, it is that bloody frog."

"Please Mr. Brandon, they are our guests, even Montcoutant!" I stood up.

"Thank you for the tea, Mr. Brandon. I will see you at dinner. Oh, and one more thing; after everything Mr. Kennedy went through to get you back on board this ship, what did you really think the chances were of his letting you get off it?"

He smiled back at me. "Not very high, I'm afraid!"

"Well whatever you think he would have said to you goes double for me. You're far too valuable on board here. Good day, Mr. Brandon.

"Good day, Sir."


***
Letter from Sir Edward Pellew to Kitty Cobham, April 26th

My Dearest Kitty...

I was unable to send you missive from Plymouth, as you are no doubt well aware, and know not what circumstances shall find you reading this. Victory? The end of the war? Or tragedy, and the end of the Indefatigable? Regardless of the outcome, I find it soothing to write this, almost as if I am talking to you through what is the most trying campaign of my naval career.

There is much I cannot tell you, though I would wish to. Even though you will not be seeing this until all danger of imprudence is past. Instead, I shall content myself with writing down the feelings that possess me at this time, in the hopes that you shall some day help me in making sense of them.

Last evening I spent some time playing a hand of whist with three most promising men. Two of them you know-Mr. Brandon and Mr. Hornblower. The other is a Major Edrington, a young man of title who poses as an uptight aristocrat, when he is anything but.

In all likelihood, two of the three men will be dead by the end of the week, and I am powerless to stop it. My ship is dismasted, and I head for the cliffs without a rudder, seeing the inevitable. And though the men are still alive at this moment, I can too clearly see the result of the disaster we can not steer clear of.

The men in question are Edrington and Hornblower. Not present for whist, but also among the foreseeable dead is Mr. Kennedy; oh, and add to that most of the division of good men with whom you shared prison quarters in Spain. The young Major has bravely volunteered his division to participate in the invasion of France by a group of French Royalists. He thinks all he must do is guard a bridge. Mr. Kennedy is my best gunnery officer, and he goes with Edrington and the men, and two of our cannon. He thinks all he must do is blow up the bridge should the republicans show up.

With them is a French Colonel name of Montcoutant, short of temper, long on revenge. He brings with him a guillotine. Edrington and he have already been at odds, so it was imperative that a calm, steadying, prudent mind travel with them. So all Horatio thinks he must do is keep the peace.

Only I know the truth, Kitty. This mission is doomed. I cannot tell you why, only that I am certain that the Republicans not only expect us, but have been planning for our arrival for some days. Tomorrow, the twenty-seventh of April, I will abandon (for I cannot but think of it otherwise) these fine men in one location, and then sail on to deposit Charette in another location some miles away. And while these fine men shall die, I will be waiting for Charette to retreat from a battle he cannot win. He will not retreat, I do not think, because he does not realize he cannot secure victory.

These were my thoughts last night, as I sat with these men, in what might be the last gay night of their lives. Mr. Brandon knows a little of my thoughts, but does not understand the undercurrent driving them, only that I FEAR the mission is doomed, not realizing that I KNOW it to be so. But Major Edrington was droll, gradually unbending after a liberal amount of fine port, telling rather amusing stories about Kennedy's father. Mr. Hornblower, in turn, began to question Edrington about stories of army life, and matching him anecdote for anecdote. Mr. Brandon was more silent, and most watchful of me, but did finally engage the other two on debates on methods of playing whist, and their varying success.

Success in whist was not *my* lot this evening, I can tell you. With distractions such as I have, how could I concentrate on cards. I do not think I won more than one trick throughout the evening. Major Edrington must have assumed I was a dolt; Mr. Hornblower was surprised, and Mr. Brandon was aghast. Though he has been concerned with my health, to know that my ability to play cards was compromised no doubt concerned him greatly.

I have let these men down, Kitty. Yes, I have. Do not try to convince me otherwise. They trust me with their lives. They do not understand that my ability to be trustworthy has been ordered away from me. By a man who cannot understand the stakes, does not wish to know the greater losses possible in what he sees as a harmless campaign represented by marks on a map that he sees while sipping brandy in his office.

I looked at Horatio at one point long and hard. What would he have seen in his life? Professionally? I can see nothing more than an Admiral being his end, and yet the end is the least interesting part of it. What might he have accomplished on his way to that end? What victories fought? Would we ever have served together again?

Personally? Would he ever find love? Have children? I believe he has it within himself to be a wonderful father, Kitty. For I see what others do not, that he has a heart, that he has feelings which he proudly subjugates to his professional demeanor. But they are there in any case, feelings which he desperately needs someone whom he can show them to. Not a Captain, not a friend, but a wife or a child, whom he can be a real man to, and not the heroic creature he feels others believe him to be.

On the other hand, I look at Mr. Brandon and my thoughts go to his sister, and her budding love for Mr. Kennedy. A young woman who, like her brother, has suffered much at the hands of her father, all the more so because her suffering was emotional and not physical in nature. A young woman who found a young man who was fine and honorable; a young man of intelligence and humility, of more skill than he could ever admit. A young man just beginning to come out of the shadows and find the light. Should he be lost, what becomes of her?

No, my dear, I cannot see the future. Perhaps because I do not want to; perhaps because I fear that future leads to good men dying in the muddy fields of France. Perhaps because there is not much future to see.

I close this evening, your weary, sad, and helpless lover...

Edward


April 27th

A Letter from Sir Edward Pellew to Kitty Cobham...

Kitty,

We shall begin disembarking General Charette's men from Indefatigable this afternoon. Hornblower and his men are already making camp in their landing site. I am resigned to the belief that I will not see him again.

Charette was most kind to me, sensing how I feared to lose Horatio, but then Charette does not understand that I do not believe I shall ever see him again, either. He agreed to take Mr. Bowles along with him...I hope Bowles shall send back reports to let me know on his progress, so that if I can be certain disaster has not struck, I can leave my post and pick up my men in Muzillac.

Charette, of course, does not understand my need. He does not realize that I know...God, I cannot write it down, even in a letter to you! He is a good man, and he deserves better than what England is giving him.

I only hope that I do not end up counting Bowles in my losses as well.

Worst of all, Kitty, I never told Hornblower anything! Oh, over my time with him I talked to him of Command, and Leadership, and Duty. But there was so much more I might have told him...and after nearly losing him to Spain, I cannot believe that I have again failed to do so.

How you shall hate me when he is dead, I am certain!

I leave you for what shall no doubt be a dreamless sleep...

Edward

***
From the POV of Midshipman Brandon

Swaying easily in his hammock, his friend Cousin's breath a steady background to his thoughts, Mr. Brandon was too troubled to sleep even in this familiar and welcome environment. The Captain had unburdened his worries to him...some of them, anyway, and he didn't mind that. Lord knew he was more than willing to do anything for the Captain, who had been so kind to him.

But the after-affects were that he saw things differently than others on this ship.

This night, though, more troubled him than the fates of Hornblower and Kennedy. No something had puzzled in his mind, his MEDICAL mind, since his return to Indefatigable. He remembered the grueling merciless climb that had strained his battered body to his limits, remembered Reg's hands giving him that final assistance above decks. He saw the Captain, and ashamed of how he must have appeared to him, struggled to present himself better.

And the Captain had reached out and hugged him, held him tightly. Brandon remembered the warmth, and most of all, the relief it caused him. He had broken down and cried, letting loose the tears he had fought to hold in all day. He remembered the captain whispering his welcome into the top of his head. Truthfully, he didn't remember much else after that.

But the next day in sickberth, he had mulled over the events, and decided they did not really surprise him. The Captain was a kind man, and a good one, and though he could be caustic and had unrelenting expectations there was never a doubt that he cared about his men. And Drew had, since that night when the Captain had told him how little he liked seeing him leave, that the Captain might have care about him a bit more because of his circumstances.

So it was not unexpected that the Captain, seeing his pain, had taken care of him; had seen what he needed and reacted appropriately. When the Captain came down to visit him that day, there was no need to bring the incident up. Nor had he expected more contact beyond the gentle pat on the head the Captain had given him. The need was gone; it was understood, it was over.

But he had been forced to rethink that. A few nights afterwards, once he had returned to the midshipman's berth, a sleepless Mr. Hornblower had made his way to him. Drew wryly remembered the moment of terror he felt when he sensed someone in the berth...reliving the fear he felt at home when his father would suddenly enter his room, just before the beating would begin. Fortunately, he quickly recognized the profile of his commanding officer, and Drew had gone to the sick berth with him. He'd prepared a pot of chamomile tea and hoped to sooth the normally steady young man; to put to rest whatever anxieties Mr. Hornblower had.

Drew had tried, he really had, to ease Mr. Hornblower's worries. But with patience he discovered that Mr. Hornblower had been envious that the Captain had felt free enough to comfort Drew, to hug him, when the Captain could never permit such contact with his second Lieutenant. He tried to cover his admission, but Drew knew it rang true.

He understood Horatio's sadness, but only from an outsiders point of view. Although he had suffered all his life at the hands of his father, Drew had not been without affection. His mother, before her addiction to laudanum, had cared for him; his sister and his oldest brother, his whole life, had been sources of comfort, and of course there was Dr. Stewart, his former mentor.

Horatio was different. His mother, Brandon presumed, had been free with affection, for he still spoke of her tenderly; but she had died when he was, what, eleven? And from what he understood, Horatio's father had been so much affected by her death that he unwittingly distanced himself from his only child. Then, they had different ideas about Horatio's future, and that had been a rend in their relationship. One which they might have repaired by now, if only his father had not passed away.

It had nearly broken his heart when realized that it would have been twelve years since someone had last offered comfort to Horatio. So almost without thinking, HE had hugged him. He knew it wasn't the same as Captain Pellew, or his father, but it was genuinely offered, and he knew Horatio had been touched.

But the thing is, Horatio still questioned in his heart where he stood in Captain Pellew's life. The same way he had probably questioned where he stood with his father.

He ought, Brandon thought, to have seen the Captain this afternoon. For it was plain enough to Drew. Captain Pellew was distraught, pained even, as he had watched Horatio depart. Drew understood why. Pellew, for whatever reason, believed this mission would fail. Pellew was a father sending his son to certain death.

That relationship, really, was the crux of it, wasn't it? Horatio WAS a son to Pellew, though Horatio did not see it and Pellew could not articulate it. Drew knew that he himself was also a son to the man; Drew DID see it, and Pellew had come pretty close to articulating it.

It was not that Pellew didn't care about the other men. He cared about them all. And it wasn't even that he cared MORE for Brandon and Hornblower; he just cared differently.

Drew chewed that idea over. Take Mr. Kennedy...Pellew certainly cared for him, guarded him, hoped to see him succeed. But Kennedy did not need a father...he had one. And though his relationship with Lord Bridgeleigh was evidently strained, Drew knew that that man's approval was the most important to his friend's life. Not even Captain Pellew could hold a candle to it.

His best friend Cousins lived for the Captain's praise professionally, delighted in pleasing him, in performing a task well. But that was as Captain and mentor, not as a father. Cousins had talked little of his own family, but there were frequent letters, letters which his friend delighted in, though he would give a guilty start at Drew's gaze and hastily put them away, not wanting to rub his own good family life in the face of his friend's abusive one.

"Mr. Hornblower and I," thought Drew with a smile, "Are the two fatherless boys here. And Captain Pellew, without children of his own, must have subconsciously sensed the mutual need."

But none of this answered the material question. Why had it been acceptable, if somewhat startling, for Pellew to hug HIM? Yet he could not, as he sent Horatio off to probable death, do the same on the ship today? Was it the number of men present? Surely, if so, the Captain could have arranged a private conference with Horatio. Why had Horatio been so startled when Drew had hugged him that evening in sick berth, though it had been obvious that he so desperately needed to be hugged?

Yes, there was a medical issue here...Drew tried to pull out the cold facts from the personal realities. Human beings needed affection, touch, caring. Most got that from their families. Some did not. For men at sea, away from their families for so long, compassion would seem to be a shortage worse than water or food.

And yet...Drew had scanned the decks. The truth was, it was a shortage only for the officers. The men had their friendships; were open, smiling, happy. Part of that, of course, was that this ship was so well run that troublemakers were almost non-existent. But it was more than that. Styles could clap Oldroyd about the shoulders, give him a little hug to buck him up. Matthews could offer comfort to a homesick powder monkey. They laughed more, they touched more, they did not have to maintain the stiff pretense of decorum that their superiors did.

And it kills us, thought Brandon. He could feel the despair eating at Pellew, behind the stiff, professional demeanor. And he knew that however perfectly calm and stoic Horatio appeared, it would have meant the world to him to know how Pellew really felt.

Tossing in his hammock, Drew sighed. It was all so stupid, senseless, and inevitable. An officer must not show emotion. He must be as made of stone. He did not weep, he did not display untoward joy. In a down moment between watches he might permit himself a smile or a slight laugh during a game of whist, but no more. But the truth was the best officers were in fact the ones most human.

There had to be a better way.
***
Captain's Cabin, Late night...

I sighed, wondering in my mind what I might have done differently.

Horatio is gone. I might never see him again. And under what circumstances did I leave him? Is it possible he does not understand how very much he has come to mean to me? Like his father before me, might I lose him without the chance of expressing this? And why, even though I have been gifted with an understanding into his life, did I still persist in sending him off without explaining my feelings? For God's sake, I said more to Charette than I did to him!

I picked up my claret and stared into its ruby-red depths. The simple truth is Horatio is a son to me. As is Drew. I have denied it for some time, but the anxiety caused to me first by Horatio's disappearance in a fog and then Brandon's tribulations have forced me to realize it.

Is it a bad thing, I ask myself? I did not mean for it to happen. But after years of being used to men who both feared me and admired me, it was strangely refreshing to find two men who, well, NEEDED me.

Horatio. Who, according to a letter penned by his father, was a solitary boy. A boy whose mother had died and who had subsequently had a strained relationship with his father, not because there was no love, but because of reserve that held their love in check. They had not been able to articulate their feelings for each other prior to it being too late. And here I have gone and done the same thing.

Drew, on the other hand, is a bit different. He was by nature more open, more vocal about his feelings. He fought less to hide them. I remember his first days on ship, before Horatio had brought his talents to my attention. He often seemed to shrink away from me at first, tried to blend into the walls, hide from my eyes. In futility, of course; there is not much that I don't see. But gradually he changed, seemed to fight for attention...good attention, that is, doing his best. I had not missed the sometimes wistful glance he gave me in seeking out my approval, though I had not understood it at the time. And sensing how very much trust he would give me, I trusted him in return, sharing my feelings with him the way I have shared my visions of command with Horatio.

The memories of Christmas 1795 intrude. I remember my evening with Horatio with great fondness. It was as close as I had ever felt to him, talking of our lives, our pasts, our hopes and fears. But I had been frightened by that closeness, I was not ready for it. I remember in the ensuing days becoming irritated with him, afraid I had committed some unpardonable sin with my lax behavior. I tried to shut him out, but could not do it. He is too much a part of me.

I swear...if the almighty sees fit to send him back to me, I will find some way of making sure he understands his place in my life.

Oh, if I could only be certain to have the chance!

***
April 28th, Indefatigable...

I was awake early, on decks, looking out over the peaceful landscape of Quiberon Bay. It was a testament to the ineptitude of the French Navy that we were allowed to rest there unimpeded. Mr. Cousins, on watch, dared to say as much himself.

"Sir, Not a sight of a French sail all morning. Rather surprising, isn't it?"

"Yes and No, Mr. Cousins. That is, if their Navy were better it would be surprising, but given what their current state is reputed to be, and the fact that what forces they do have are concentrated in the Med, it is not unlikely we might remain here for days without sighting an unfriendly ship."

It was a rather long speech for me, given my moroseness since this mission was first forced on me, and Mr. Cousins was relieved at the opening. "It is inconceivable, Sir, that England should ever let an enemy ship rest in a harbor like this."

I almost managed a smile. "Mr. Cousins, were an enemy ship to be in the same position in England as we are here, it would take but a few hours to see that ship blown to pieces!" My lips froze in a grimace as I muttered under my breath, "And wouldn't I rather be the ship blowing up the enemy than to be in the position I am in now!"

Cousins, wisely, did not acknowledge my comment. "When might we hope to see some sort of message from Mr. Bowles?"

"We had a preliminary message last night. If nothing of event happens, we shall no doubt hear from him at the same time this day."

He nodded, his eyes scanning the horizon and then turning his attention to the men milling about deck, performing various duties. "Since we seem to be stuck here, Sir, shall we have any exercises for the men."

I sighed. "I do not know how long we are to be stuck here, as you so eloquently put it. Hopefully not for so long as that!"

He nodded, and then frowned deeply. "Sir, may I ask..." He paused as he thought the question through and evidently decided not to risk my ire. "Never mind, Sir."

"Out with it, Mr. Cousins. There is no question I hate being asked so much as half a one."

He blushed. "Yes, Sir, well, I just wondered, Sir, how are our men at Muzillac going to return to us?"

I could almost feel him tensing up for the verbal tirade I might well have thrown at him. But after so many sleepless nights worrying about the same thing I was more tired than irritable. "The plan, Mr. Cousins, is that once General Charette has liberated the area, they will be able to march on to Quiberon themselves and join us here."

"Yes, Sir." He chewed that over; he was a bright boy, and it didn't take him long, I could see, to formulate the objections I would have had even if I hadn't been certain that this mission would fail. But I stopped him before he risked waking the lion; I was too exhausted to wish to be angry.

"Do not go any further with that question, Mr. Cousins. I am well aware of the problems with such a plan and have already worn myself out thinking of them."

"Yes, Sir. Of course, Sir."

He sighed deeply, still frowning, still looking over the men. He is a good enough young officer to feel for the situation, to see the loss of personnel as he watched duties being performed by the men they left behind. He didn't like it at all, I could see that. Which pleased me. He shouldn't like it. Lord knows I didn't.

Perhaps it was a side effect of my exhaustion. Or maybe it was beating myself up over Horatio's possible loss. But the words slipped out before I could stop them. "You'll make a fine Captain one day, Mr. Cousins."

His eyes grew wide and his face flushed at the praise. He looked at me, standing even taller. "Thank you, Sir." And uncertain of what else he ought to say in such a remarkable circumstance, he turned his eyes back to the Horizon, in the same posture as earlier, but his pleasure unmistakable.

I nodded sharply, and suppressed a chuckle. He certainly took praise better than Hornblower did; no protests, no feeble arguments. Neither did he preen. He was simply happy.

Somewhat surprising myself, I decided to persevere. "I hope, Mr. Cousins, you were not...offended when I promoted Mr. Kennedy. I would not wish you to believe it was in any way a slight on your talents."

"Of course not, Sir. I had not expected to be promoted at seventeen, Sir." And he gave me a rather timid smile. "Besides, the Midshipman's berth suits me just fine."

I smiled at the thought of it. To be sure, there was something to that...though it has been a while since I myself slept in a hammock, there is something comforting from having like-aged mates about you, sharing your miseries and your triumphs from a position of perfect understanding. No doubt this is the reason Mr. Brandon has not questioned me on moving in to Hepplewhite's quarters. They remained empty, in use only whenever Johnson or Brandon found need to stay close to a patient.

How much more at ease was Horatio with Mr. Kennedy now sharing his quarters! How different his nature in the officers' mess with Archie there to tease him and make him laugh at himself.

And from a pleasant, happy even, conversation with Mr. Cousins, I had mentally walked myself back into pain. For I could only wonder whether Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hornblower were now comforting each in misery while in Muzillac. What horrors did they face? Would they be able to bring their men back? Would they end as prisoners, yet again, stranded far from their native land? Or would they die together, never again to see their home?

It must have shown in my face, for Mr. Cousins started. "Sir, Are you...are you alright?"

And, in my usual insanity of late, I lashed out at him. "I am fine, Mr. Cousins!" I snapped. "One boy doctor questioning my health is enough, Thank You.!"

"Yes, Sir."

And before I could say another word to undo the good I'd done earlier, I turned on my heel, and headed back towards my cabin, to stare at my log books and wonder what the devil I should write in them?

***

Half an hour later I was still in my cabin, not a word written into my log, when I heard Mr. Brandon's voice above decks.

"Hallo, Mr. Cousins! Fine morning."

"Indeed it is, Mr. Brandon. Most truly."

I smiled at the gentle mockery of formality I could hear in their voices.

"I am glad to see the Captain is not above decks. Perhaps he has finally been able to get some sleep."

"An unfortunately erroneous conclusion, Mr. Brandon. For he was above decks not half an hour ago."

I could just *see* in my mind what the expression on Mr. Brandon's face must have been. Mr. Cousins continued. "And before you ask, I do not think he slept any better last night than any other since this mission began. Although I would advise you against inquiring of his health to his face."

Drew demurred. "I have learned, Mr. Cousins, that the Captain is a good patient..." he paused. "When unconscious."

And despite myself, I laughed. Oh, I ought not to have...no doubt Foster would have had one or both of them flayed alive. But it was after all a private conversation between the two of them above decks, they were evidently concerned for my well being, and besides, if I went off on this, they would learn my great secret of the skylight.

Besides, the conversation continued, with Mr. Cousins adding, "He's taking this badly, Drew. He deserves better."

"Yes, he does, Reg. I have never before understood how lonely a command must be until this week."

"Still and all, Drew, the Captain is a strong man. He will survive."

"Yes, he will. But if all you have left is survival...it doesn't give you much to go on."

No, I thought ruefully, picking up my old Shakespeare and stroking its leather in my hands. It does not.

***
At that moment Mr. Hornblower was in fact in a rather uncomfortable chair, wondering what in the hell he was doing here and how did he get out of this situation alive?

He had left Indefatigable a young man thoroughly in command of his future. Though there were questions, and lately he had been plagued by unusual sentimentality ... so much had happened to him emotionally this year. The time of imprisonment, the crisis he faced in the hole, the rescue and return, through the recent crisis with Mr. Brandon and the letter from his aunt. But professionally, he had been secure. Granted the Captain obviously thought of him as an excellent soldier and no more (at least, it did not seem so), but the man had sent him on this expedition for a reason.

There was irony perhaps that he could not read so much of the Captain that was so obvious to others, but understood the man's reasoning for sending him to Muzillac perfectly. Edrington and Montcoutant had not made a good match. Captain Pellew was known to spend every best effort to assure the welfare of his men, and a volatile situation between the two officers would not help. Hornblower knew that the Captain felt he was the best man to ease the situation.

And yet again, he had failed the man.

It was not entirely his fault this time. First impressions being deceiving, he had learned that Edrington, far from being a stuffed shirt, was an able soldier who happened to have a title. Montcoutant, on the other hand...Horatio shivered. Evil, pure evil. The glint the man had in his eye...his merciless shooting of the Mayor...and then the attack on...Mariette.

Mariette. He looked over at her wistfully. Another mistake on his part, another failure. But...

He had seen her there, a glimpse as they rode into town, and she looked out a doorway. And his heart had almost stopped. Jane! He thought. Oh, god, Jane!

Jane Smythe. The woman he had loved and been unable to save, who had died at the hands of a cruel man. As a boy he had lived for her laugh and her smile, especially after he lost his mother. He remembered her linking her arm in his as they would stroll in the fields, he pretending to be oh so serious and grown up, until she would coax the boy out of him, make him laugh again. The letter he'd just had from his aunt, informing him of her death...it was like losing his mother all over again.

And then today, a young woman with Jane's face had looked out of a doorway, and he had gone mad!

He sighed and closed his eyes. He hadn't given much thought to his actions-He! Who thought everything through until its final moment, and then thought some more! He had defended one of her school children from Montcoutant, and then last night defended her, herself, from the man, who treated her so badly! The argument...about the classes of privilege versus the so called "animals" who worked for Montcoutant...no better than slaves were they treated. Edrington, who Horatio was supposed to buffer with Montcoutant, instead ended up buffering him!

Well, Horatio knew his place. The son of a Doctor. His first Captain, Keene, had more than pointed out how that should hamper him in life. He had been spoiled, he supposed, by spending so long with a man who judged men on their own merit instead of their name at birth. And yet, something in him snapped...he was not an animal; he was a man, as Edrington was a man, no better, no worse; in the Navy he might equal or exceed any Lord.

He had walked Mariette back to her small cottage that had also served as the school house. They had talked, for her English was quite good, her father in fact having been English. But though she spoke, it was Jane's voice he heard. And when in private, she had reached her hand up to his face, it was Jane's hand that touched him.

His emotions, his needs...so long subjugated to his duties...it seemed they could not be denied as he kissed her, promised to protect her; indeed, he might have promised her anything if only she would agree to hold him forever. He had not realized until he held her how much he had been craving such contact, and he almost let himself get lost in it.

Almost. Oh, it had been close and oh, so very tempting. Another five minutes and he might have given in to his baser needs and desires. But Captain Pellew would intrude. Horatio had done enough to disappoint him already. So instead of making love to Mariette all evening, as his body practically begged him to do, he had held her, eased her to sleep, and gently placed her in bed. Hence his rather uncomfortable position in this chair.

And now, in the daylight, he was seeing so much clearer. This woman, excellent though she no doubt was, was NOT Jane Smythe. He still longed for her touch, but perhaps that was not to be unexpected, he thought with a smile, for a man who had been to sea for so long. But he knew nothing of her heart, her mind, her hopes and dreams, all of those things that had made Jane JANE. But he would help her, nevertheless; for despite Montcoutant's assertions he WAS a gentleman, and she would need assistance.

He felt himself drifting off again, when the roar of cannons made him abruptly sit up. God! The bridge! Archie!

And as he raced from the school house, his jacket in hand, barely a word spoken to Mariette as he left, one thought went through his mind: Please, God...not another failure!

***

April 28th, morning

Exhaustion came over me as I listened to the soft conversation above decks, and I nodded off in my chair.

I don't know that I ever achieved full loss of consciousness; I was always vaguely aware of the sounds of the ship around me. I remember a far off rumbling of thunder, and hoping that the rain would be brief.

Only a sharp knock at the door just after the changing of the watch startled me, and I was instantly alert. "Enter."

Mr. Cousins' worried face peeked in. "Mr. Bracegirdle's compliments, Sir, and he requests your opinion above decks."

As he spoke and I took in his countenance, I heard the rumble of thunder again, noting the harsh sunlight streaming through the windows. Thunder? No, not thunder. A more frequent rumble, not growing closer but at a fixed distance. A rumble I have heard too many times in my career.

It was the rumble of artillery fire.

Artillery. In the supposedly unoccupied area of north western France. Now, I know full well General Charette had no cannon, and we were too far from Muzillac for it to be our own guns.

I hastily followed Mr. Cousins above decks, knowing in my heart that the doom was at hand.

***
The shore party that I ordered Bracegirdle to send out when first the French artillery made its appearance has returned. They failed to make contact with General Charette's camp.

The words, and the inflection of Bracegirdle's voice as he reported them, echo through my head though he has now left me alone in my cabin.

All parties believed lost. All...parties.

Bowles.

Oh, God.

I told Bracegirdle, finally, what I have been forced to withhold from him all this time. I am certain he must hate me for it, for nobody was as close to Bowles as he was.

A man accused by my own conscience, I called myself. And though Bracegirdle, would, even in his grief, try to be generous, I could not accept his absolution. I told him that I was ordered to keep silent, and he tried to persuade me that in that instance the fault was not mine.

But is it not? Redemption for the failure, for the loss of so many good men, would no doubt be offered on my return. For all Hood would note was that I followed his orders, performed to the best of my capabilities, and the war would go on as before.

Not for me, no never for me. If I remain here, following orders like a good little boy, I will lose fifteen men on the beaches of Muzillac, plus an entire squadron of English infantry, and our allies. And all of them not just lost, but ABANDONED! Can I do this? Can I sit by and wait for men who are dead, while but a short journey away, men still living will wait to die, waiting for their Captain, waiting without hope?

Edrington, who had gone through so much pain of late, would he think of the family he was leaving behind? Of having had his title for a short three months? Young Kennedy, only now getting his life together. Leaving behind a love. Unable to fully realize his future potential. The men, leaving widows, leaving children, what right had Hood to order me to abandon them to death?

And then, Horatio. Horatio. The pain stabs at my heart like a sword. Not only am I abandoning him to death on a lonely beach, I leave him with his insecurities and doubts untouched. Never, now, would I be able to explain to him just how important Horatio had become to my life. For however much he would claim to be influenced by me, I must acknowledge that influence to be mutual. Something that everyone on this ship knows, save Horatio himself.

Whatever do I do?
***
I returned above decks, pacing furiously, on the brink of a life-altering decision.

I have not, in all of my years at sea, disobeyed an order. Not even accidentally. And this would be most definitely a deliberate disobeying of an order. I could be court marshaled. I could lose my ship...lose the Indefatigable. I would never get another post. Of course, at the court marshal I might be acquitted, it might be found that I had extenuating circumstances brought about by the base futility of the plan. However, since it was *admiralty's* plan, it was doubtful they would wish to share even the slightest portion of blame for its failure. No, far better to let the most senior captain in charge take the blame.

I looked around at the decks, most of the men avoiding my eyes. How much any of them knew about my turmoil I could only guess. Bracegirdle avoided my eyes for other reasons...he was very close to losing grip of his emotions for Mr. Bowles' loss, and if I permitted myself to dwell on it, so might I.

Just behind me, however, I could feel two pairs of eyes boring into my back. Two men who did not shrink from my presence, though they were not on duty. Two men who only waited for word from me to carry out whatever action I might require. I could feel their support for any decision I might make. Brandon and Cousins, like Hornblower and Kennedy before them, would follow me wherever I might lead.

And in the end, really, the decision was easy enough to make. My conscience, MY SOUL, was more important to me than my career or whatever reputation I might leave to posterity. I have already lost one valued man in this fiasco. I cannot sit and wait for an army already dead while I lose more men, abandoned on a beach. I must get to Muzillac, court-marshal be damned.

"Prepare to set sail, Mr. Bracegirdle, before we lose the wind."

"For Muzillac, Sir?" He paused, and I could not meet his eye. "Aye, Aye, Sir."

Then he finally articulated the question I knew to be on his mind.

"What of Mr. Bowles, Sir?"

Again, I could not look at him, lest I break down myself. "We must assume him lost with the others."

I turned away before I could change my mind, before I could see his grief. I heard him beginning to issue orders as I went on my way.

As I began my way back towards my cabin, I met Mr. Brandon's eyes briefly. He has, perhaps, a slightly better understanding of my current feelings than any other man on the ship, save Bracegirdle. He nodded at me sharply. Mr. Cousins, by my side, also gave me a quick nod, and then hurried forward to assist his division in any way he could.

Good young men, both of them. I only hope which ever Captain they end up serving for after my dismissal appreciates them as much as I do!
***

"Sir, is there anything I can do to assist?"

I looked up to find Drew's eyes on me.

"I do not think we are expecting any casualties in the coming hours, Mr. Brandon."

"I know, Sir...it's just...I feel a bit useless bellow decks, Sir, and rather in the way above."

I looked up at the frustration written over his face, and gave him the slightest smile, all I was capable of at the moment. "I understand how you feel too well Mr. Brandon."

He looked stunned. "You do? But Sir, you are so busy..."

"Yes, mentally. A thousand thoughts to be dealt with, a thousand considerations to make, and at moments like this I long to thrust them all aside and take my hand at the gun ports and climb up the riggings and handle the sails myself. Instead I find myself on the quarterdeck standing with my hands almost literally tied behind my back, calling out orders for others to execute." I looked down at my open log book. "Especially at moments like this, when I am most anxious to be on our way, I find the inactivity frustrating. So I retreat to my cabin, to fill out my log books."

"I see, Sir." He chewed that over. "I suppose I might prepare for any casualties we might see in the men picked up from Muzillac. Though I am pretty well prepared already..."

I smiled a bit wider. "I would have expected nothing less, Mr. Brandon." Then I sighed. "I hope we still have men left for you to work on by the time we get there."

He inhaled sharply. "You fear the worst then?"

I met his eye. "I think, given the Republic's head start on us, it is probable ...many...men will be lost in Muzillac."

He stared for a moment, realizing to the full what I was implying. He went pale but held his composure. "I see, Sir." He turned to go, but I called him back.

"One further word, Mr. Brandon."

He turned back to me. "I have a particular concern...which under normal circumstances I would not burden a midshipman with...but because of your circumstances, I feel I ought to forewarn you. I will probably face a court-marshal on our return to Portsmouth."

His jaw dropped, his eyes were a mirror of shock, and before he could speak I hurried on. "There is a possibility that if I am court-marshaled, I might lose command of this ship."

"Sir!" His face grew red with anger on my behalf.

I held my hand up to forestall his outrage. "At ease, Mr. Brandon. I simply want you to know that should the worst happen, I would do my utmost to see you advantageously reassigned to a ship with a trustworthy Captain, in the event that the new Captain here is not so." I looked down at my log books, hoping he would say no more. "That is all, Mr. Brandon." I cast a quick look at him sideways.

His face was a parade of emotions, he was angry, he was touched, he was frightened, he was worried. He swallowed once. "Sir, I do not pretend to understand this. But I thank you for your consideration. I...hope...it does not come to that, Sir."

I tried to give him a stern look, but I think I failed miserably. "Your gratitude is noted, Mr. Brandon. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

He saluted quickly and left, his face still flush with worry. And I sighed, and began penning a letter to Commander Clark, the fine young Captain from the Sophia, explaining my circumstances asking him to please accept the transfer of a young doctor into his command.
***
I felt my anger boil over, my frustration come to a head.

We are becalmed.

Why, God? Is this my punishment for not taking action sooner? For permitting Charette to march his men...and one of my own...to their deaths, instead of disobeying orders? If it is not a punishment for me, I do not know what else to think it.

I have ordered the boats run out. Mr. Brandon volunteered to take a division; but I sent out Mr. Cousins instead, and now Mr. Brandon assists with matters on board, manning the tow ropes and helping to make sure we don't overtake our boats and make this tragedy any worse than it already is.

Towing a frigate is hard work. The ropes strain; the ship crawls forward slowly. If not careful, the Indefatigable might run over some of the very boats causing her motion. Her sails hang slack and the day has grown unseasonably hot. The men, who never have enough fresh water in their diets anyway, will be in agony, sweating, dehydrating, all the while straining to save their shipmates.

All because Hood did not have the nerve to call off a mission doomed before it had started.

And slowly, so slowly I could feel the change coursing through my veins, my despair turned to anger. I will not believe myself helpless. I will not believe my men hopeless. As I swore just a few hours earlier, we WILL get to Muzillac, if I have to row there myself!

In fact...

"Lieutenant Bracegirdle!"

"Sir!"

"I will be manning a boat."

Bracegirdle opened his mouth to protest, took one look at my face, and shut it again. "Yes, Sir."

Brandon looked at me from the side, no hint of surprise on his face. He came forward to assist as I made my preparations to go down to a boat.

"Good luck to you, Sir."

"Thank you, Mr. Brandon. Stay close to Mr. Bracegirdle in case he should need assistance."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."
***

April 28th, Late Evening...

I penned the letter slowly, thinking out each word...

"Kitty...

I must explain to you the events of this day, if I can. I feel that by the time I have the privilege of seeing you I shall be too tired to speak the words. I feel beaten down and helpless, even though I was able to save most of my men from death.

The previous stack of letters I shall hand you will no doubt leave you with an understanding of my mind up to the point when I found myself becalmed in Quiberon Bay. We believed all of Charette's army to be lost, including Mr. Bowles, and unable to get to Muzillac to save Horatio, Kennedy, and the rest of our men.

We brought out the boats, Kitty, and began towing her. Soon, frustrated by inaction and growing angrier by the second, I decided to take a turn rowing myself. You can imagine the surprise on the faces of the men in the boat I joined. Nothing else could have underscored the desperation of our mission more than my presence there. Perhaps it WAS my presence that inspired the men to redouble their efforts, but it did happen that after I was in the boat for about two hours, and we were approaching three in the afternoon, that the breeze freshened.

All the boats were pulled in and as many of my exhausted men as possible were relieved from duty as the sails filled gloriously. Mr. Bracegirdle, still stung from the loss of Bowles, nevertheless performed admirably, acting as both first Lieutenant and Master in his absence. Mr. Cousins, barely fazed despite having spent close to four hours towing, took the younger officers under his wing and relieved Mr. Bracegirdle's duties as much as possible. Mr. Brandon was kept busy tending to those men hurt in the boats, suffering blisters and muscle strains, and dehydration.

But soon he, too, was by my side on the quarterdeck, as we each of us would take a surreptitious look at the wind puffing our sails, urging it to move along a bit faster. How long would it have taken the Republicans, with their artillery, to move from Charette's camp to Muzillac? How much resistance would the men in Muzillac be able to put up before blowing that bridge, to at least stop the artillery? How long would it take for the infantry to work their way around the damage, ford the river, and start picking my men off on the beach?

God was with me this day, Kitty, for I arrived at the landing beach at Muzillac at the same time the Republicans did. I felt a lump in my throat even as I issued the order to prepare to fire.

Mr. Brandon, Kitty, took charge of the guns most admirably; for Mr. Cousins and Mr. McGill and young Anderson and Holloway were well in the process of launching boats to rescue our men. Drew, smartly relying on the assistance of our very capable seaman, kept his head and fired at intervals enough to keep the Republicans at a distance without wasting powder. Dare I say it, even his father would have been proud!

I watched our boats come back so slowly, seeming to take forever. I thought over what the future might hold for me; Kitty, I might be spending more time with you than perhaps you bargained for when we entered into our journey together. For I am not at all certain that my career will survive this blow. But it is worth whatever sacrifice I have made. Even should I live out my life in Portsmouth running a ferry up to London, at least I can sleep at night.

Major Edrington's boat was the first to arrive. Then! Bowles! How he ever got to Muzillac is a story he must tell you in person, over a few glasses of Port, my dear! But my heart stood still as I saw Mr. Kennedy and...Horatio. Alive and well. I called out to Horatio to report to me in my cabin, but the Major intercepted me first..."

I closed my eyes and put the pen down, reliving the moment. Edrington's words were ones of concern and anxiety, emotions he passed on to me swiftly.

"Sir Edward, I feel I must have a word with you about Mr. Hornblower...I fear for him. Muzillac...was a bad situation, Sir. One I'm certain he has never encountered in his life. Montcoutant was insane. Barbaric. He began the mass destruction of his own villagers, Sir; men wantonly shot or put to death in the Guillotine." Edrington's lips pursed into a thin line. "Over these past days, Sir, I have come to understand how a Republic came into existence."

"Mr. Hornblower was most affected by the brutality of it all- - I do not have to tell you of his keen sense of justice. Of course, it was easy to forget while we are on Indefatigable that Montcoutant would not consider him an equal. But Montcoutant made certain he felt his contempt on land. And then...Sir, there was a girl. What she actually was to him I do not know. I do know that she provided us with information about the artillery and that Horatio felt duty bound to help her, whatever else he might have felt. He tried to escape with her from Muzillac. She was shot and killed as they approached the bridge."

I closed my eyes remembering the look on Edrington's face. What I knew, that he did not, was that this was not the first loss Horatio had suffered recently. How much could his heart take?

Edrington looked down to where Horatio and Archie were receiving well wishes from Brandon and Cousins, Horatio looking as though he might want to crawl into the sea, and Kennedy taking gentle care of him. How the roles have reversed!

He continued. "In fact, Sir, it was Mr. Kennedy who saved him. He was in such a state of shock, Sir, that he almost let the bridge blow up before he could cross it. Mr. Kennedy raced across at the last moment and pulled him over to safety, risking his own life.

I had nodded. That was exactly what I would have expected Mr. Kennedy to do.

I returned my pen to the letter to Kitty:

"Major Edrington's final words still echo in my mind. 'He really believed he could save the world, Sir Edward.' Yes, that is exactly what Horatio would believe. And now he feels the weight of the failure combined with the shock of knowing that some things cannot be salvaged. His innocence is gone, Kitty.

I saw it myself when he came into my cabin to report. No doubt you are awaiting for me to tell you of our emotional reunion. I am embarrassed to say it did not happen. I was instead, harsh when he arrived, for I knew if I gave him too much pity, too much kindness, he would have scorned himself all the more. And completely lost all his composure, which might very well have set him resigning from the Navy in shame. You will think I am procrastinating, and perhaps I am.

He did cry a little anyway, though he would try to fight it. But only after I admitted to him that this whole plan was doomed from the start...more my failure than his. I actually coaxed him into a bit of laughter, teasing him about the state of his uniform. I finished up with a rather rousing inspirational speech about how that uniform is part of a life of 'Duty, Duty to be an Inspiration to the men!' I don't know what I was thinking, but strangely he seemed to believe it, perhaps the way an otherwise bright seven-year old would still wish to believe in Santa Claus.

For I have to admit, Kitty, though I wake every morning with a duty towards my men, and though I believe Mr. Hornblower does also, I know too well that others ...most others ... do not. Hood. Hale. Foster. Hammond. The same uniform, but Oh! Very different duties indeed."

I laid the pen down again and sighed. Perhaps it is not only Horatio whose innocence has been lost. Perhaps he is not the only one who no longer believes in Santa Claus. No, that is not quite right either. In my own case, I had long ago grew accustomed to other's seeming indifference to the things I held most important. It was only in this campaign, aboard this ship, that I began to believe again. Is it worse to be disillusioned twice in a lifetime, or to never hold the illusion to begin with?

I had finished up my meeting with Horatio needing in some way to let him know what his return meant to me. "I am glad to see you safe, Mr. Hornblower." He had met my eye, then, and perhaps he understood me.

But I had made a promise to God. And soon we would be back in England, and who knew how much time we would have left working together.

So I wait, until finally the change of the watch was struck. Mr. Kennedy's watch. Leaving Mr. Hornblower alone in the meager cabin they shared. I picked up my parcel and left to seek him out, hoping for once he would not be seeing solace in the stars. For it is time for me to try and articulate words that I could not say this afternoon, fearing they would only drive him right over the edge.

***

Horatio was, indeed, resting in his bunk and called out a quiet "Enter" at my knock.

He was flung across it carelessly, one arm across his face, shielding it from the world, his hair unkempt, his shirt untidy and his shoes where he had left them, in a heap at the foot of his bed.

"For the last time, Mr. Brandon, I am fine, and I do not require any willow bark tea or other remedy. There is no medicine that can help me."

I smiled at the picture that presented, even as I sat on the bunk opposite him. "I am glad to know I am not the only man on board Drew harasses when he feels he knows what ails them..."

He threw his arm abruptly off of his face and sat upright. "Oh, my God, Sir! I...did not mean...oh!" His face was wan, his eyes red, his lips trembled.

I reached out and touched his shoulder firmly. "At ease, Mr. Hornblower. This is a social call, nothing more. And I did not announce myself. Please, do not take on so!"

He bent his head into his hands, inhaling sharply, struggling so hard to hold everything together, his hair falling out of its queue. I sighed. He was too young for this burden and too old for me to treat him as I did Brandon.

"Horatio..." I said softly. "Listen to me for a few moments. You do not understand everything that has gone on these past days. In truth, neither do I. I do know that I never believed this mission would succeed, yet I had to do everything I could to give it a chance. That included sending you to Muzillac. You will never understand, Horatio, what sending you off to probable death did to me. At least, I pray to God that you never do. I told General Charette that I would regret your loss. It may be the biggest understatement I ever made."

Slowly he looked up at me, his eyes wet with the tears he was not quite succeeding in fighting. He swallowed and cleared his throat. "Thank you, Sir." He whispered. But I could still see doubt in his eyes.

I sat back and looked at him, studied him. "Horatio, little more than twenty years ago I saw my best friend sent of into a similar situation. A case of bad planning from Admiralty. He never returned. I loved him like a brother. Like you have with Mr. Kennedy, it was the sort of friendship where things never needed explaining, where we accepted each other for what we were. The Christmas before he was killed, he gave me a gift...something we did not often do. But he had found a volume of Shakespeare, and though he had no ear for the verse himself, he knew I should appreciate it. I have cherished that book ever since. It is a poor substitution for a friend, but a valued reminder of what it means to have one."

This time I cleared my throat. "Some months later, just before he was killed, I found in a shop an exquisitely bound Atlas of the world. It was exactly what he would have wished for most, for he was always wanting to find more, to learn more, to see more. I bought it with the plan of giving it to him the following Christmas. That was never to be. Then, when my wife was expecting a child, I thought...my son...might perhaps like it some day. That, too, was a futile wish."

"So for twenty years it has rested in my sea chest, a reminder of everything I have lost. Until this evening, Horatio. I give this to you, as a thanks for everything I have found."

With a slightly shaking hand, I presented the bound volume to him. He lifted his head from his hands in amazement and grasped it gently, his fingers winding their way over the embossed letters on the cover and the rough-patterned leather that covered it.

He spoke finally. "I...do not know what to say. I am not worthy, of this..." He looked down.

I reached out and placed my hand firmly under his chin, forcing his eyes to meet mine. "Yes, you are. Horatio, if my son had lived, I would wish him to be just the man that you are. And where ever our paths may take us in the years to come, know that wherever you are, you will always be in my thoughts. And in my heart."

Something of the old Horatio came back, then. No, it was not even that; this was a glimpse of a Horatio I had never seen before. Perhaps it was one his mother might have known well. He looked at me with a gentle calm, a new equilibrium, and he placed his hand over mine. "Thank you, Sir. With the exception of my father, nobody's opinion has ever meant more to me. Perhaps I will never understand why I should be blessed with two such fathers in a lifetime. But neither shall I question it. I am grateful."

I squeezed his hand gently, and then rose, stroking his head gently. "To sleep with you, Mr. Hornblower. Or Mr. Brandon will be by with more potions, and I will see that you take them."

He smiled at me. "Aye, aye, Sir."

And I headed slowly back to my own cabin, and all was at peace with the world.


April 29, 1797

From the POV of Midshipman Brandon:

Drew walked the decks of Indefatigable, uncertain of how to proceed. He looked skyward, and saw that Archie had brought Mr. Hornblower up to the main mast. He smiled at that; just a few days after his own return, as soon as his injuries had healed enough to permit it, Archie had done the same with him. It had seemed unlikely, but somehow one drew strength from the view and the air, from the feeling of flying. It soothed the soul. Perhaps it made one feel closer to God.

He was glad to see that Archie was trying the same for Mr. Hornblower. He understood enough to know that things had been bad, very bad, in Muzillac. But he was one of the few men who understood that things might get even worse. He needed to talk to someone, preferably a superior, and was uncertain as to who that should be. Mr. Hornblower had enough on his mind, and Archie was occupied with keeping Mr. Hornblower sane. Reg could sympathize, he knew, but do little more. Lieutenant Bracegirdle and Mr. Bowles were options, but somehow he felt shy of approaching them. He had worked little with Bowles, and Bracegirdle was just one step behind the Captain in terms of sheer power of intimidation.

"Well, young Brandon, you seem to have much on your mind this morning."

Drew turned to find Major Edrington next to him.

He felt his face on fire as he replied quietly, "Aye, My Lord." He was reminded again of the inadequacies of his own family, and the dishonor they had performed towards the Major's. It discomfited him, though he knew he bore no responsibility for it.

Major Edrington, seemingly unaware of the impact of his presence, also looked skyward, and smiled. "Good for Kennedy, though I have to say I'm not certain it would be my cup of tea to be up that high."

Brandon nodded. "Yes, it does take a bit of getting used to. But once you're up there, Sir, it's like flying." And he lapsed in to silence once more, besieged by the shame brought on by his family and the problem of his Captain.

Edrington continued on. "I understand that there is an agreement between Mr. Kennedy and your sister?"

Drew turned quickly, the sardonic note in Edrington's voice piercing him. "Yes, there is, my Lord." He said firmly, tersely.

"I have not had the pleasure of meeting Miss Alicia, but she is reputed to be quite a beauty."

Drew squared his shoulders. "She is the best woman I know." He met Edrington's eyes unwavering, a gaze that his Captain would have recognized.

Edrington matched his stare. "I suppose any man might think that about his sister."

They were on dangerous ground here. Drew knew of his brother's violation of Edrington's sister's honor, and knew that must still rankle. He also knew that, fair or not, he was being implicated by his ties of blood. He could understand Edrington's anger, but would not accept the guilt. "Any GENTLEMAN, certainly, would hold his sister in esteem, and ought to treat any woman he should encounter in the same manner he would have her treated." He replied evenly.

It was almost a force of wills, the two of them matching glares on the deck, when suddenly Edrington smiled and it was as if he became a different man. "Well put, Mr. Brandon. Well put indeed."

Drew relaxed, feeling that he had been acquitted of being of the same ilk as his brother. Suddenly, the Captain appeared above decks; Drew saw him approach Mr. Cousins for a report. His face was pale and stony. The man glanced up once at the main mast...Drew noted the momentary shock at seeing two of his best officers skylarking up there! Then, for a brief second there was a smile, soon replaced by the return of the WALL, as Reg often referred to Pellew's poker face. Drew frowned as he saw Pellew take the report and with little more than a nod, the man returned to his cabin.

"Something is bothering you, I fancy, Mr. Brandon."

Drew studied Edrington. What sort of man was he? He had spoken kindly of Horatio and Mr. Kennedy; he seemed to be an efficient officer. Though he often appeared to be stiff and unyielding, there were moments when the man reminded him of his oldest brother, his GOOD brother, Stanton.

"What do you think of Captain Pellew, my Lord?"

Edrington blinked. "First of all, please do start addressing me as Major, not my Lord, and secondly, I was under the impression that you were quite close to Captain Pellew?"

Drew nodded. "Yes, Major, I would like to believe that I AM close to him. And that is why I am asking you your opinion of him."

Edrington turned his head. "Very well, Mr. Brandon. I have sailed on many ships, and I do not think I have ever seen his equal. No ship has been better run than this one, and no man better respected by his crew."

Drew inhaled and then plunged ahead. "Good. Knowing your opinion, then, I feel I can ask you, do you have any idea how I might go about preventing his removal as Captain?"

"I beg your pardon?" Edrington's eyes were wide, for once his stiff demeanor interrupted by something other than a slight hint of sarcasm.

"The Captain led me to believe that he will be subject to a court-marshal as a result of the failure of our mission. And although he said otherwise, I believe he THINKS he will be removed from his post. Because if he didn't believe there were a good chance of it he would never have mentioned it to me."

Edrington cast a quick glance towards the quarter-deck. "Frankly, I am surprised he mentioned it anyway, even to a respected man..."

Drew hesitated. "You are aware, I believe, of my situation with my father?"

Edrington nodded.

"Well, I think he wished for me to understand that, should I be unable to continue in his service, he had plans for me to be removed safely to a Captain he trusted. I do not know who that would be, but in any event, my wish would be to not have it needed at all."

"I see." Edrington shook his head. "Well, if the Admirals are anything like the Generals I know, they would be stupid enough to blame an officer for a plan doomed to failure from the start." He looked back down at Drew. "How is it you wish my help?"

"I am not certain. I do not know what the procedure would be on this. Can I testify? Can you? I am not even certain what the specific charges would be."

Edrington looked out to sea. "Neither am I, Mr. Brandon. When one thinks about it, if a Captain were court-marshaled every time a mission were unsuccessful, few would ever keep their post beyond a year. There must be more to it than that."

A sudden voice over his shoulder startled them both. "I know what the charges are."

Mr. Hornblower, just returned down from the mast, looking grave and worn, but peaceful.

Drew felt his stomach twist, not certain if he might be reprimanded for speaking of his Captain in such a familiar manner, but Mr. Hornblower laid a hand on his shoulder. "At ease, Mr. Brandon. Certainly we must do our best to defend the Captain. He would do no less for any one of us."

Edrington, studying Hornblower cautiously, queried, "What charges, then, Mr. Hornblower?"

"Disobeying an order. I have heard from Mr. Bracegirdle, Sir, that the Captain had been ordered to remain in Quiberon Bay for Charette indefinitely. Instead, when it seemed the cause was loss, he returned to Muzillac...to save us all. I do not think Bracegirdle has realized, however, that it would lead to court-marshal."

The Major turned back to the horizon in bitter disgust. "So the reward a Captain has for saving the lives of a hundred stranded Englishmen is to lose his post? That, Gentlemen, is unacceptable."

Horatio nodded. "Yes, we must DO something."

Drew felt a sense of relief at the lifting of the burden from his shoulders, but was still uncertain that any of them could do a darned thing. And Mr. Hornblower...should he be so involved in this? He cast him a quick glance, and decided that the involvement could only help his mental state.

Unless the Captain were to be lost to them anyway. Then it just might put Horatio over the edge.

April 29th, Evening

From the Diary of Sir Edward Pellew:

The wind is fair for England. We shall be in Plymouth by tomorrow afternoon, where Major Edrington and his men shall disembark, and on the morning of the 1st I shall guide the boat into Portsmouth. It may very well be the last sail of my Naval career.

I shall report to Admiral Hood in London and await my fate. No doubt he shall see me immediately, unlike my previous foray into town, where he left me hanging for weeks. He will see me either on the afternoon of the first or the next morning at the latest; a court-marshal will convene no doubt, as soon as he can find enough officers to try me. If we were returning to Gibraltar, it might take longer, but in London? No, there would be no shortage of available men.

I have letters prepared for Kitty, the whole parcel of posts I've written her over the past few days, some of them not more than scrawled notes. I have bound them with ribbon and enclosed them in one packet. I have also enclosed a note saying I would understand if she no longer wished to be associated with me.

In honesty, I am not sure that I would wish to be associated with me if I can no longer sail, no longer be a Captain. I am not sure who Edward Pellew is. I have enough saved in prize money that I could purchase a nice little cottage and retire to a garden. And probably put a pistol in my mouth within six months time.

If I have any consolation at all it is in knowing that I am leaving good men, good officers, behind. Kennedy, if only he will stick it out, shall be an able Lieutenant and Captain someday, as will young Mr. Cousins. Brandon may be the finest surgeon the Navy has ever seen, if only he can be kept from his father (and pray God that my letter shall find Captain Clark and he has room for the boy on the Sophia). I would sail with Bracegirdle and Bowles anywhere, in any weather. And of course, Horatio, for whom I see no end to a brilliant career, if only he will be kept from his worst self-doubts. I am glad, at least, that Horatio finally understands me.

This evening I have dined alone, leaving the Major to the officer's mess. He too, studies me closely. A good man, I believe. I guess the Army shall be permitted one or two!

I have noticed throughout the day, small groups of officers gathering and disbursing quickly on my approach. Undoubtedly, they know this business of Muzillac preys on my mind as much as it does Hornblower's. If I were a suspicious man, I might think they were planning mutiny! But they are good men, I know, and I fear not that.

Well, I must take one last turn above decks. I do not know for how much longer the sea air shall be mine.

***
May 1...

Portsmouth...

The mid-morning sun streams through my windows. I am dressed in my best uniform and have already sent a pile of dispatches off, sent them almost as soon as we dropped anchor early this morning, though I knew I would not be able to leave much before noon. Still, this way Hood shall have the most warning of my upcoming report. The Sophia, thankfully, is also in Port, and Commander Clark's missive has gone to him. Of course, I sent off my letters to Kitty, as well. I do not know if I more desire her reading them, or fear it.

I have been restless since we deposited Major Edrington in Plymouth yesterday. It would seem that he is aware that my report might not go well. There could be several reasons for that; Mr. Brandon I told outright that I expected problems; Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Bracegirdle could (and probably should) easily deduce it from various conversations I have had with them. Also, there is the almighty Powers, who I am so bad at keeping secrets from. No, by now the ship will be well aware of the precariousness of my situation.

Still, it had startled me out of my ebbing mood when Edrington came to me offering that he should be called as a witness if I needed him. It would seem I have impressed the man mightily, which is nothing short of amazing when one considers the disastrous nature of our time together. Still, I was warmly appreciative of his offer, but told him it was highly unlikely that I should have time to pull him away from his duties.

What it did succeed in doing was forcing me to recognize that I still had time to do something about it. I could, after all, defend myself. And if I AM to be removed from the service, it will not be with a whimper, but a bang, by GOD! So I spent yesterday between preparing my logs, checking my notes, jotting down recollections, and taking brief strolls about Indefatigable. During those strolls I have mentally asked myself the questions Hood might ask, and prepared the answers I shall give him. They will not be answers he likes, but he can go hang for all I care. They are the answers he forced upon me.

I was in much the same mood this morning, after I ignored Powers' breakfast and he dressed me. Even as I stand before the windows I go over every bit, every detail in my mind. And I feel my blood boiling, my nerve steadying, the steely resolve settling into my body. I am going to battle, and whether Frenchman, Spaniard, or Admiral, I am a dangerous adversary when cornered...

The knock at the door startled me out of my mental preparations.

"Enter!" I said, evenly, curious but not having the emotions to spare for the sensations.

But I had to spare the emotions for the surprise which greeted me.

Bracegirdle. Bowles. Hornblower. Kennedy. Brandon. All five of them, each one resplendent in their best uniforms. The buckles shining. Their swords gleaming. Their faces, each one of them, every bit as stony and resolved as my own.

"Gentlemen..." I paused. "May I inquire as to the meaning of your rather... remarkable appearance here? Have we a distinguished visitor I am unaware of?"

Bracegirdle spoke first. "No, Sir."

"Then for what reason are you so attired?"

Hornblower squared his shoulders. "We accompany you to Admiral Hood, Sir."

My shock was palpable. "You do? And by whose orders, may I ask?"

Brandon lifted his chin. "By the dictates of our consciences, Sir."

My chin almost dropped. "Your consciences, Mr. Brandon?"

Bracegirdle nodded. "Aye, Sir. Our consciences will not allow us to remain here while Admiral Hood holds you responsible for a mission we could not win."

Bowles spoke before I could interject. "Not when we were there, Sir, and have the evidence."

"Evidence?" I whispered, shocked almost to insensibility.

"Aye, Sir." Mr. Kennedy continued. "The evidence of the Muzillac campaign..."

"And the evidence of your own behavior on Indefatigable." Brandon finished.

Bracegirdle turned to me. "Nobody is more aware than I am, Sir, of what your debates were during the time we were in Quiberon. You did everything in your power NOT to disobey an order, Sir. You sent Mr. Bowles on that invasion, you expected his reports, and when they failed to materialize, you send a land party to intercept them. When they failed, you had ample evidence that there was no purpose to our waiting for his return."

Bowles took it up from there. "I can add, Sir, that there was no hope for the invasion party. Though General Charette was honorable and well liked, he was massively overwhelmed in numbers and he himself told me he would never retreat, preferring to die in France. He himself told me to try to make my way back to the ship, but knowing that our path to Indefatigable would be cut off, he urged me to make way for Muzillac."

Kennedy piped up. "And I can testify, Sir, that in defending the bridge we met with minimal resistance, a token party only. We defeated them easily but were attacked from the north, and pinned on the beach." He turned to look at Horatio, more than a little concern there, but Horatio did not hesitate.

"And I can testify, better than anyone else, that our allies in Muzillac... were not so well prepared as General Charette's troops. That they were lead with a man so obsessed with revenge that he was unable to realize the truth...that the Republicans had been through days earlier. Information that might have averted the disasters that followed."

Brandon softly finalized their case. "I was on board Indefatigable as we approached the beach. I had the firing of the guns. It was necessary, as the Republicans were attacking in full force and would have made short work of our men. If we had not been present, Sir, they would all have been killed."

I tried, oh, I tried, to take back the situation, to be fierce and stern. "Gentlemen, while your concern is duly noted, it is not your place to defend me!" I snapped.

Hornblower perhaps remembered another time, oh, so long ago, when I had used similar words. He almost smiled, as he answered, "No, Sir. But someone once told me that with this uniform, comes a duty to the men. And the men are best served by having the best leaders guiding them. The best officers, but most importantly, the best Captain."

Feebly I stuttered. "I could order you to stay behind."

Horatio nodded. "Yes, Sir, you could. But I must do as my honor dictates."

Brandon looked at me. "You told me once that there would always be a place for me on any ship of yours. It is therefore imperative that you keep one."

Bracegirdle finished me off. "This, after all, is a matter of conscience, Sir. We could no more live with ourselves in remaining silent than you could have lived with yourself waiting idly in Quiberon bay."

I swallowed, more touched than I could ever, ever show them. I turned away towards the window, the bright light blinding me. "If all of us go to Hood, who shall have the command of the Indefatigable."

Bracegirdle answered me immediately. "Mr. Cousins has volunteered to keep the watch, and with Mr. McGill's assistance and two young officers, he is more than capable of keeping the Indefatigable running for twenty-four hours, Sir. And the men will not be a problem. They...can be loyal too, Sir."

I felt my hand trembling, and blinked, hoping that the men would believe my eyes dazzled by the sun.

"Very well, then. We depart at noon. Be prompt. Now, leave me to my notes if you will." I said crisply.

"Aye, Aye, Sir." Lieutenant Bracegirdle added. And my men shuffled out, perhaps relieved to have won the point.

And as soon as the door closed behind them, I sank into my chair and let the tears flow down my cheeks. I am, indeed, the luckiest man in the world.



May 1, London

We arrived in London late that afternoon and made arrangements for an evening at The Spotted Duck. As I expected, word awaited me from Admiral Hood that I was to see him IMMEDIATELY upon my arrival.

I set my shoulders and turned to Bracegirdle. "No rest for the wicked, it would seem. You may soon regret your offer, Mr. Bracegirdle."

He gave me a secure smile. "I doubt that, Sir."

"Very well, gather the men, if you will. Make certain they understand that I will report to Hood first on my own. I do not wish him to feel that he is under attack!" I said, as I fussed with my buttons.

"A surprise ambush, then? Much more effective!"

I withered Bracegirdle with a glance, and then wondered if in fact Hood would regard this as such? Frustrated, I shook my head, and tried to keep my mind on my principle objective...defending myself...instead of trying to get into Hood's mind. An unpleasant place in any circumstances.

***
ADMIRALTY

The men waited for me in the main hall, as the same minion I saw last time pulled me in to Hood's offices.

I stood to attention and waited, an argument on my lips. But he did not rise, or even acknowledge me for a good five minutes; he simply remained at his desk writing, without looking up. Finally he gave me a glance. "Captain Pellew! Please do have a seat!" He motioned with his head to the seat across from him.

I was puzzled...a formal report to be made seated? But when I hesitated he glared at me in the same manner I had just glared at Bracegirdle, only without the general understanding that existed between myself and my first Lieutenant. So I sat, but never letting go, never relaxing. For the minute I did, I knew he would be upon me!

Another three minutes went by. Finally he looked up. "Did you have to leave the cannon?"

An argument to a question not asked stalled in my throat. Finally finding my voice, I repeated, "Cannon, My lord?"

"Good God, Edward, we are at war, and your men left two valuable guns stranded on foreign soil, now capable of being fired at us! They'll be deuced expensive to replace!"

I had a sudden image of this situation being equivalent to the Indefatigable preparing for attack from an enemy ship, only to have the enemy fire dead pigeons instead of shot. It took me a few seconds to change tack. "Sir, if I may, I believe our men destroyed them prior to having to retreat, so there will be no chance of their being used against us."

"Bah!" He spat out, looking back down to his writing. "I cannot believe we have lost two cannon in this affair. Unacceptable! Do not expect me to do you any favors in having them replaced. You shall have to continue fighting without them for the time being."

I frowned, not understanding at all the nature of this conversation. "Am I to understand, Sir, that you are not..." Damn! I cannot ask him if he is angry with me like a frightened child! "That you are not...concerned...over the mission failure?"

He looked up at me in genuine surprise. "Failure? I see no failure here! We brought Charette to France, we blew up a bridge at his request. If the mission did not turn out as Charette hoped, that is on his head, not on mine."

That tears it! Just when I think Hood is not capable of shocking me any further, all he had to do was open his mouth again! Charette's death, which in my opinion is very much on Hood's head, is not even as important to him as the loss of a couple of guns!

Hood would continue flabbergasting me. "Honestly, Edward, if you found it so necessary to run back to Muzillac instead of very sensibly heading to England, I do not understand how you could leave the artillery behind." He sneered up at me. "I suppose your primary objective was recovering the MEN! Always, with you, it's your MEN!"

I could barely answer that civilly without reaching out and killing him. "And Major Edrington's men as well, my Lord." I murmered, grasping tightly at the arms of the chair.

He was nonplussed for the first time. Looking up, he placed the tip of the quill by the corner of his mouth. "Ah, yes, of course. It would have been very bad to leave a peer of his level stranded, I suppose. I had forgotten. Yes, certainly...it was necessary to bring him back."

I brought back nearly 100 men alive from the beach at Muzillac. Hood cares about one. And that man, I think I can say, would have been every bit as disgusted with Hood's attitude as I was.

He continued under his breath. "Yes, Edrington was worth more than the guns...the rest, I suppose..." He shrugged. "Well, the other men would have been easy enough to replace if lost, but no reason not to take them as well."

I lost it, then, completely lost my head. I stood immediately, pushing my chair back with a screech on the floor. Somehow I kept my voice low and controlled, but my fury would have been evident to the youngest powder boy. "My Lord...you are my superior officer. I owe you that much respect. But I cannot condone your cavalier attitude towards the men who serve in the Navy. I know too well not to expect a change of heart. But I will say this: A hundred times over, if this mission started in the same manner, I would react in the same manner, Major Edrington or not. And although you may not feel this is a failure, I can assure you I DO! We failed General Charette, we failed the people of Muzillac, and we failed the six men lost in battle. And I will never, never be sanguine about failure, Sir!"

Hood looked up at me, his eyes flinty cold. "Do not say 'We', Pellew. Any failure you choose to see here rests on your head alone. I DO NOT LIKE YOU, SIR! I have considered you impertinent ever since the day I met you in Hale's offices, stating that you did not serve in the Navy for the enhancement of your own reputation. I was not certain whether you were stupid or dangerous; I now am certain you are both." He sat back and picked up a sealed envelope, staring me down before he continued.

"It is unfortunate for me that I am the only man who realizes this." He handed me the envelope. "This arrived this morning. From Admiral Parker. You, Sir, are as of this moment named Commodore of what he naively terms the Elite Fleet...a group of specially chosen frigates who will fall under the Indefatigable's command, in missions he himself will chose. The ships, I believe, include those you recently worked with, the Dunbarton and Catherine, and the Sophia. You hold there your first orders. Open them when you return to your ship tomorrow."

I held the orders dumbly, standing there with my mouth agape. "I am...promoted ...because of this?"

"Idiotic, I know, but at least you are no longer my problem. Now, if you please, I have my own duties to attend to."

And he returned to his own letters, his rouged face fully red, his powdered wig askew on his head.

Slowly, I turned away, aiming for the door, a man in a dream world.

I am ... a Commodore? I retain Indefatigable?

The door shut behind me, and I found myself looking into the very worried faces of five loyal men, ready to defend me to the detriment of their own futures, if not exactly to the death.

"Sir..." Drew spoke first.

Horatio interrupted. "Why did you not call us, Sir? Will he not hear our testimony?!"

Kennedy was straining, pale. "Surely he will listen..."

I held up a hand before the five of them might raise any further ire from Hood. "Gentlemen," I whispered. "I suggest we leave now, before Hood overhears anything that might enrage him more than I already have!"

And before they could query me further, I moved towards the door in fast strides, five sets of capes flapping behind me in mass confusion.

Only after we were well away from Admiralty did Mr. Bracegirdle take the opportunity of speaking for the group.

"May I ask Sir...what has happened?"

"Mr. Bracegirdle, I no longer report to Admiral Hood."

The five of them came to abrupt stops on the pavement, forcing me to turn around. "Sir..." Drew whispered plaintively. "What do we do now?"

The looks on their faces...stunned, hurt disbelief. Shock from Kennedy. Fear from Brandon. And anger, pure, pure anger from Horatio. I grinned at them in return! "We head to the tavern where Mr. Hornblower had the pleasure of dining with me once, for I am buying all of you gentlemen supper and several pints of ale...well, maybe not ale in your case, Mr. Brandon. But in any event, we must celebrate."

Kennedy now clearly thought I had lost my mind. "Celebrate, Sir?"

"Aye, celebrate. I now report to Admiral Parker, I remain aboard the Indefatigable, and, Gentlemen, as Commodore of a fleet of frigates, no doubt we have several better planned missions in our future."

I turned away, only to note the men were not following. They remained behind me, every bit as shocked as I was just a few minutes earlier. I looked at them with affectionate exasperation. "Really, I know you are disappointed at not being able to give your carefully prepared speeches, but believe me, you are best off spared Hood's presence. Now are you joining me or not?"

Five men reacted together, coming forward in a rush. The congratulations were warming, and a stronger commendation in my heart than even my promotion was. If I thought we could get safe passage back to Indefatigable this evening, to celebrate there, I would do so, so happy was I to be returning to my ship.

But Horatio had another very valid point to make, coming up to my side as my now chattering officers followed me. "Sir," He whispered. "Ought you send for Miss Cobham?"

I blushed. Kitty! In my excitement she was forgotten, and no doubt she was beside herself with worry, after the bevy of letters I sent off to her this morning. "Of course, Mr. Hornblower, I shall send off a note as soon as we return, to have her join us after her performance this evening!"

And I smiled again, at the news I would be giving her and the prospect of spending an evening in her arms.

***
The note was short and simple...

"My Dearest Kitty...

I write to you now as Commodore of a frigate fleet, serving under Admiral Parker. I shall endeavor not to let it go to my head.

I cringe to think what I might have put you through in the earlier letters where I found myself pouring my bitter heart out to you. I only ask that you permit me to make it up to you, and that you join me (and many of my officers) in a celebratory dinner this evening.

Hoping to see you shortly...."

I sighed, and sent off another note, this one at Bracegirdle's request back to the Indefatigable.

"Mr. Cousins...

I am pleased to inform you that all went well today in London. I cannot speak further but rest assured I will fill you in on the developments when I return to the Indefatigable on the morrow. Please do let Powers know that he can expect his Captain's return. I can assure you, he will take care of the rest!

Captain Sir Edward Pellew."

There! That should ease any worry the lad, and my men, might be feeling on my behalf. We shall all have an extra spirit ration on my return.

In the meantime, dinner...and Kitty...awaits.
***
TAVERN IN LONDON

The owner provided us with a private room and promised us the best hospitality he could offer.

I watched my men, with great joy, as they were digging in to the fine steak and kidney pie prepared by our host. There was also a saddle of lamb and fresh potatoes! Heavenly! I could not help but notice that Bracegirdle and Bowles kept piling more on Horatio's plate.

"I believe they are telling you you're looking a bit peaked, Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio said with a laugh, "I have not eaten so much at one sitting since I was ten years old, I believe, Sir."

Bracegirdle looked him at the eye. "It's the only way I have of keeping you out of the oakum, lad!"

Horatio turned beet red, while Bowles let out a loud guffaw, choking on his beer.

"Barkeep, another round for my men, if you please." I called out.

"Not for me, Sir."

I looked down at Drew. Naturally, the premises did NOT have a supply of cider, so the boy was drinking half-beer, very slowly. He was probably as close to tipsy (excluding his attack by Hepplewhite) as he had ever been in his life, and I knew him well enough to understand he meant what he said. The woman waiting on us shrugged disdainfully, but Horatio reached over and slapped him gently on the shoulder. "Please, Mr. Brandon, take some of this food off my hands, if you will!"

He grinned. "That I will do willingly!"

"Well, gentlemen, have you drained the place or is there still a spot of beer at the table for me?" A shrill accent called out from the doorway.

Kitty.

"Miss Cobham!" Horatio called out.

At the same moment Mr. Bracegirdle said, "Your Grace."

And there were a few moments of confusion. I took the lead, getting up and extending my hand. "Miss Cobham, I am glad you could dine with us!" My eyes spoke volumes that my tongue dared not.

I turned to my officers. "Gentlemen, for those of you unaware, I would like to present you to Miss Katherine Cobham, an extraordinary actress and patriot, lately known to you as the Duchess of Wharfedale. She is also my wife."

Kitty's eyes widened at the introduction; legally she was no such thing, but morally I knew what I believed. The congratulations flowed even more quickly, Horatio looked at me in shocked silence, and I sat her next to me in great delight.

"Ma'am, I hardly know how to address you now..." Bowles said, with a courtly bow

Kitty looked at me, and then decided just to go with my rather extraordinary declaration. "Our marriage, Sir, is an unusual one, for many reasons. Therefore, Miss Cobham will do." And she looked up at me with a soft smile, and I wrapped my arm around here discreetly. She knew well enough she would always be Lady Pellew in my heart.

She had carried a wrapped parcel with her, and pulled it out to reveal a jug. Swapping her new clean glass for Mr. Brandon's remainder of beer, she explained. "Mr. Brandon, I am afraid there is no Cider this time of year; it is instead a lemonade."

His face brightened at her kindness. "I thank you, ma'am."

Shortly, the conversation flowed brightly again, but I had eyes for only her, for her kindness to one of my young men, for her prompt attendance on me here, for her patience in waiting for a man destined to spend at least two thirds of his life away from her. I saw her now, looking at Horatio, laughing and joyful, and then casting a quick glance at me.

She leaned in to me and whispered. "I see you have found peace with Horatio, Edward!"

"Indeed I have, Kitty. I believe he understands me well, now."

She looked from him to Mr. Brandon. Mr. Bracegirdle was taking the opportunity to again regale the rest of the men with his tale of the boy's manning the guns as we approached Muzillac. He attempted to look embarrassed and modest, and failed utterly, to my delight. And Kitty's lips, close on my ear, murmured, "What fine sons you have chosen!"

It was now my turn to blush, but I squeezed her a bit tighter. "They are not mine by blood, but I do thank God that he sent them into my care. As I thank him that he sent me you."

She smiled beautifully, her eyes crinkling lightly at the corners. "Edward, darling, you are the most exasperating, wonderful, challenging, sentimental and sometimes foolish man I have ever known. Never change!"

I chuckled then, and resumed looking around the table at my men. What fun we shall have in the coming months! What adventures might we find ourselves on? What dangers (for there would be dangers) might we face? Whatever fate sends me, I embrace. I can ask for no better crew, and no finer woman to return home to at journey's end.

I looked up, a sudden movement catching my eye. Two men stood in the doorway, but I did not jump. Two shadowy figures yet well known to me. A robust Lieutenant in a uniform twenty years old, and an old doctor who still noticed everything. Both smiling down at our table, smiling at me. As the two figures caught my eye, I saw their joy, felt their pleasure. And as I raised my glass in a silent toast, they faded away.

Horatio had caught my gesture, and turned abruptly to the door, then, seeing nothing, turned back to me.

"Sir, whatever are you toasting?"

"The future. The past. Our lives together. Those we love, those we lost. I am toasting life, Hornblower."

He looked at me with that rare grin on his face. "Then here is to life, Sir."

Here, Here.