The Weather Eye
Part 16: Wine, Sweet Wine
by Loz

From the previous chapter:

The Spaniard with the sword drawn looked to his officer who nodded.
The sword was raised high above Oldroyd's head and then...

TO BE CONTINUED... (da-da-da-dum!)

---
'Wine, Sweet Wine'

With a flourish, the Spaniard began to swallow it. Oldroyd was at
first too relieved at finding himself still in possession of all his
limbs to notice the strangeness of his captor's behaviour. When
he did, he began to wish he could curl up and return to the sanctuary
of his barrel. Life was becoming stranger and stranger.

There was also a distinct lack of clarity about events on the
Kalikara. Somewhat reluctantly, Archie had attempted to strike up a
conversation with the morose Sterling, but even his sterling
bantering abilities had proved unsuccessful. In fact, his connection
to the aristocracy had pushed the man even further into his shell.
Annoyed, he made his way back to his cabin and waited for Horatio to
return. The entire exercise had been a failure, and the sailor
remained a dangerous enigma.

Except...

He had been fiddling with a locket. Accustomed to the somewhat
bedraggled and disguised appearance of Captain Robert's crew,
Kennedy had been slow to notice the adornment around Sterling's
neck. Replaying events in his mind, he recalled the delicate silver
chasing on the necklace, starkly at odds with the gaudiness that
tended to characterise pirate jewellery. (He remembered Guido's
ear-ring with a shudder.) How had the man managed to get hold of such
an object? It was costly enough that nine out of ten members of his
Majesty's Navy would have turned it into ready cash at once, and
distinctive enough that a conscientious spy would have been wary of
being caught with it in his possession. For Sterling to have kept it,
its sentimental value must have been astonishing.

Pleased with these deductions, Archie leaned back and wondered what
it all meant. Hopefully Horatio would have some idea. It may not have
been part of the Acts of War, but it was almost a given that, as the
hero, he would be able to transform his loyal but dimwitted
companion's random musings into a neat, linear explanation for
everything from the meaning of life to the situation at hand.

For his part, Hornblower was having a surprisingly pleasant
discussion with Captain Roberts in the wardroom. Unfortunately, the
civil chat left him none the wiser as to Roberts' true motives.
Reeling from the unusually strong wine of which the man had
insisted he partake, he went back to his cabin in disgust.

To find Archie already there, smirking.

`Mr Hornblower, are you drunk?'

He flopped awkwardly onto his berth, face down.

`I believe that is a distinct possibility, Mr Kennedy. Captain
Roberts is a most...convivial host.'

His friend raised an eyebrow, a gesture that fortunately went
unremarked. Tipsy, and more than slightly seasick, the senior officer
was in no mood for a joke. `Obviously. But I don't suppose it
loosened his tongue?'

Horatio shook his head gingerly and winced at the movement. `No.
He now knows the exact dates for the fall of the Roman Empire, both
east and west, but I don't even know his first name. Not that his
name really matters, I suppose.'

`A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'

`Absolutely Mr Kennedy, which is why I've decided to call you
Algernon from now on.'

Archie couldn't help laughing. `A joke? Good grief, Horatio,
you really must be drunk!'

Horatio hiccuped. `So it seems. But I've never tasted
anything quite like that before! It was very sweet, full-bodied, dark
in colour and the scent was so strong...it was heavenly!'

The other man chuckled, and stretched out against his
pillows. `Beware, Mr Hornblower, of the lure of strong liquor.
After all, Falstaff was accused of exchanging his soul for a leg of
chicken and a goblet of Madeira!'

Suddenly, the implications of the quote struck Horatio, and he sat
bolt upright, all queasiness gone.

`Madeira!'

Something in his tone alerted Archie, who raised himself more
gingerly. `Horatio? What is it?'

`Madeira. I was drinking aged Madeira.' He stood up and began
pacing, cursing the confined space.

The other lieutenant looked puzzled. `So? I've drunk a good
Portuguese vintage many a time at my father's house. Although I
must say, since we've been at war with Spain the wine's been
scarcer than a beautiful woman at sea...' His eyes widened as the
pieces began to fall into place.

Horatio nodded. `Exactly. The Spanish have had the island under
blockade for several years. The only way an export quantity of
Madeira could have reached the outside world is...'

`With the cooperation of the Spaniards.'

`Exactly. And since Guido and Hal both vouched for Captain
Roberts...'

`Someone else is involved.'

`Yes. And my guess is Sterling. The one man we didn't ask
about.'

Archie frowned, unconvinced. `Are you sure? He's the obvious
suspect, I know. He can't be as stupid as he seems. No-one could.
Not even Oldroyd...'

Horatio shook his head. `Let Oldroyd be, Archie. Surely he's
earned it.'

The other man looked slightly abashed at the thought of their
vanished comrade. `Agreed. Still, what makes you so sure of
Sterling? Being taciturn isn't a crime, else you'd have been hanged
long ago.'

Horatio smiled. `Two things. Firstly, Roberts told me the wine
was a gift from a crewman, and Sterling's the only man on board
who drinks wine. All the others stick to rum. Helps the camouflage, I
suppose.'

`And secondly?'

`A barrel went missing during the battle. Sterling seemed so
furious, it was really rather odd. At first I thought it must have
been the rum ration, but Matthews checked with the purser, and
nothing appears to be missing. Yet something significant is gone.'

Mr Kennedy opened his mouth to protest, until a long-buried memory
surfaced, from a period he preferred to forget. From his years in
captivity. In a Spanish prison. A man had come to inspect him after
one of his failed escapes. Not Don Massaredo. This had been a more
senior officer, on assignment from Madrid. Archie had recalled little
of his visit, being almost comatose after another stretch in the
oubliette. Yet one thing had struck him at the time, and he
remembered it now with perfect clarity. The Spanish officer had
offered him brandy from a silver flask. Engraved with an eerily
familiar pattern.

The same one etched onto Max Sterling's locket.

---

While the lieutenants were pondering their situation, Oldroyd was
doing the same on the Spanish ship, albeit in a far more urgent
manner.

The sword-swallowing Spaniard (let us call him Carlos, for he
evidently lacked that particular means of locomotion) proceeded to
remove the sword from his gullet and replace it in his scabbard. With
a glance at his officer, he dragged the petrified Englishman to his
feet.

When he finally spoke, his voice was very casual. His English was
less deft than his swordplay, but the meaning was uncomfortably
clear. If Oldroyd misbehaved, he would be asked to repeat the trick.
Carlos may have been able to insert several feet of steel into his
mouth with no ill-effect, but for Oldroyd it was a guaranteed
precursor to leaving his innards piled on the deck.

With the appropriate caution having been delivered, the officer
stepped forward, with a single question on his lips. It was not,
however, the one that Oldroyd had been expecting.

`So, inglese, where is the wine?'