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April/May 1802
by Rio, dancing on the sand (hotspur18)
at July 23rd, 2006 (03:20 pm)




They got rid of Edrington's still un-introduced second and the doctor somewhere on Birdcage Walk, Guido riding his somewhat skittish horse beside the carriage. Still hatless, his jacket left somewhere on the Common, and soaked through, he was drawing interested looks from those few denizens of London unwise enough to be out in the rain, and completely oblivious to all of them.

Edrington was reading the thin sheet of paper that Guido had pulled out from his saddlebag before they left the Common, his head bent over the painful scrawl in concentration. Finally, he put it down on the seat beside him, nodding.

"I suspect there is very little you can add to that," he said quietly through the open window, and Guido choked off a laugh.

"Oh - a surprising amount. Not useful -" he stopped himself, recognising the vague traces of hysteria in his voice, and shook his head. "No, there is more. But I do not feel comfortable discussing it on the street. And I have - I have to go back to the house now, although you are most welcome to join me."

"I would be delighted." Edrington was subdued, thoughtful, his mind evidently half on the letter, and Guido leant down a little, reaching through the window to place a quick hand on his shoulder.

"Thank you," he said quietly. "You did not have to read that."

"Oh, call it penance." Edrington looked up with a quick half-smile, and Guido snorted.

"I usually call Trevelyan that," he said, and then groaned.

"What is it?"

"I drugged him," said Guido. "Before I left. And he's going to be awake when we get back. And he's going to kill me."

Edrington stared up at him. "Are the pair of you insane?"

Guido sighed. "Only on Thursdays," he said rather tiredly. "But we do our best to make sure we act like it the rest of the time."

*

"Who's he?" Elizabeth showed no signs of pleasure at Guido's unscathed return, glancing him up and down dismissively before turning her attention to Edrington.

"Try politeness, would you?" asked Guido irritably. "This is the Earl of Edrington. Edrington, let me present Lady Elizabeth Buchanan, a miracle of breeding, grace and professionalism under the most trying of circumstances, and possessed of a stunning right cross. Elizabeth, get the earl some tea."

"I'm not here to -"

Guido smiled briefly and apologetically at Edrington, took Elizabeth by the arm, and propelled her none too gently into the corridor. "You are here," he said rather grimly, "to follow my orders. And if that is too difficult for you, there is always the option of leaving."

Elizabeth flushed unbecomingly, pushing her hair out of her eyes. "You don't follow them - why should I?"

"When I am given orders by a /superior/," Guido said in the same flat voice, "I follow them. When someone who works for me tells me not to do something because it doesn't happen to agree with their world view, I see absolutely no reason to acquiesce. Now get in there, put on your best manners, and ring for tea. And where's Hal?"

"He went upstairs, and by the way how could you /do/ -" She cut herself off, realising that Guido was reaching the end of whatever reserves of patience he still had.

Guido took a very deep breath, and ran his hands through his short wet hair with an expression of complete exasperation. "Let's try this again, shall we?" he asked. "I'm going upstairs to deal with a justifiably irate Hal. You're going to keep Edrington entertained while I get this over with. Do you understand what I'm asking, or shall I draw you a little picture?"

Elizabeth looked for a moment as if she would like to hit him again, before raising her head with an expression of disdain. "Very well, /Conte/," she spat. "Was there anything else?"

Guido nodded. "Don't /ever/ hit me again," he said, and there was no humour at all in his face. "Everything I do is for a reason, and whether you agree with it or not, I do not see why I should be the only person around here practising restraint. The next time you raise your hand to me, I promise you, there /will/ be repercussions."

"And the next time you kiss me?" blurted Elizabeth, and could have kicked herself as the little dancing sparks of dangerous amusement returned to the Conte's dark eyes.

He did not, however, make any sort of jest at her expense, the wry humour seeming, as always, to be turned inward.

"In that case," he said wryly, "feel free to assume that I am once again in mortal peril, and you should summon assistance with all speed. Please accept my apologies. My actions are not always - quite what they should be."

"Then you're not - you weren't - you don't -"

"Lisbet." Guido jammed one hand into his hair with a rather desperate expression. "You are a dear friend and an excellent associate. But I do not - I /cannot/ - think of you, nor anyone, as more."

Elizabeth blew out a sigh of pure relief. "Oh /good/," she said with more honesty than tact, and Guido snorted with laughter. "Because I don't think I want you as anything else."

Guido stared for a moment, before his long legs folded up as he slid down the wall and howled with laughter, as he had years before on the 'Indefatigable'. "Oh, God preserve me!" he gasped. "Does no-one appreciate my virtues any more?"

"No," said Elizabeth cheerfully, and sat down beside him. "But we love you anyway, you know."

Guido's laughter stopped as though it were water that had stopped pouring. "Thank you," he said in a rather strangled voice. "I - am not so ignorant of that as I may seem. And I do not have so many friends that I would care to lose one over - my own stupidity. Now please go and pour tea down Edrington, would you? He's wet through and I think he'll be even more stuffy and unpleasant if we let him get a cold."

"/Oh/!" Elizabeth blinked, startled. "You wanted me to get him tea because of the /rain/!"

Guido looked at her as though she had irretrievably lost her mind. "Yeeeees...." he said slowly. "You know, cold wet person, hot drink - where I come from that tends to be traditional - oh bugger it, Lisbet, /duck/!"

Elizabeth only had time to register the word before Guido had flung himself sideways, knocking her to the floor and providing her with an excellent view of the marble tiling. There was the sound of a crash from just above her, proving that whatever had just hit the wall would probably have hit them both in the head.

"What was that?" she asked rather breathlessly.

"Hal," said Guido, and rolled to the side, drawing his legs under him. "Get out of the way -" The rest of the sentence was cut off by some hundred and sixty pounds of Trevelyan vaulting over the banister and onto his back.

"/Bastard!" roared Hal at the top of his lungs, and the sound would have done him credit on the battlefield. He began landing indiscriminate blows on Guido's head and bent back, said Conte having sensibly curled himself into a ball to protect his face and stomach. From what was visible of Guido's expression from the side Elizabeth could see, he looked rather resigned.

"You drugged me!" Hal was /definitely/ not pulling his punches, Elizabeth noticed with a faint wince, as one particularly hard blow caught Guido in the ribs, evoking a slight grunt. "You unspeakable bastard, you /drugged/ me!"

"Not - sorry..." Guido gritted out, finally managing to get his legs under him and dislodge Hal. "Off, damn you, off! Enough!"

"You. Drugged. Me." Hal sat on the floor, glaring, and Guido sighed.

"You would have preferred to be tied up?"

"I would have /preferred/ to be there!"

"Well /that/ was not an option!" Guido spat straight back in the same tone of voice. "Jesus, Hal, he might have shot me - the chances of this working were over a hundred to one, even /you/ couldn't take those odds!"

"And if he /had shot you, shouldn't I have been there? Or did you want me to wake to your corpse?"

"God /damn/ you, I didn't want you to have to watch me /become/ a corpse!"

"That is /my/ right to choose!"

"Actually, no, that's mine," Guido pointed out, and Hal growled in fury, before launching himself across the floor once again. This time, however, Guido was ready for him, blocking fists and feet with surprising dexterity. "Hal, I don't want to hit you, so -" A particularly hard blow slipped under his guard and caught him in the solar plexus, driving the breath from him, and he wheezed - "Fine! Fine! You want a fight, you shall have one!"

Elizabeth noticed that Edrington, looking damp, confused and more than a little concerned, was standing in the doorway to the drawing-room, and she went over to him.

"Are they /always/ like this?" he murmured, and Elizabeth shrugged.

"Like what, exactly?" she asked. "You wanted tea, didn't you?"

"No, the Conte, who is currently rolling around his front hall like a deranged schoolboy, wanted me to have tea. I would prefer a large brandy, thank you."

"God help us all, another one," muttered Elizabeth, and pulled on the bell-rope.

Behind her, Guido and Hal had got to their feet, and were trading blows like a pair of prize-fighters. Eventually, Guido stepped back, took a deep breath, and swung his foot upwards with a precise viciousness that left Edrington's eyes watering.

"Stop it, please," he said quite calmly to a white-faced and whimpering Hal, who appeared to have folded up onto the staircase in a manner resembling a concertina. "I /can/ do more damage than this, and I /will/, if you persist."

"You - you -" Hal seemed to have lost the power of speech. Guido looked down at him with irritation and more than a little affection.

"I did," he agreed. "Now do you want to come and join in the discussion, or shall I do it again?"

"Discussion," Hal said in a croaky voice. Then he looked up, saw Edrington, and smiled painfully. "H'lo, Edrington. You should have shot him."

Edrington shrugged. "What can I say? He apologises so well..."

"He -" Hal swung his gaze back to Guido. "You - oh, to hell with the lot of you!" He pulled himself to his feet with the aid of the banister, and began to hobble painfully up the stairs.

Guido was staring at Edrington.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" he demanded, and he sounded more tired than anything else. "Can't you say anything like a normal person?"

Edrington smirked. "You mean it wasn't an apology?" he asked lightly, and Guido sighed.

"Take it for what you will," he said. "I can't stop you. Listen, just - go in there, please? You have the astounding knack of making everything worse with Hal, and - Lisbet, did those papers go off to Hislop?"

Edrington blinked at the apparent non sequitur, but Elizabeth just nodded.

"Well," said the Conte wearily, beginning his own trek up the stairs, "at least something's gone right. Oh, and give Edrington the transcript copies, would you? And has anyone found Evans yet?"

"In the last two hours?" Elizabeth asked sweetly, going over to one of the cabinets, unlocking a drawer, and handing Edrington a sheaf of papers from within. "No. Happy reading, my lord."

*

Flavian Hislop (as he was telling anyone who asked, and those who hadn't, as well) was having an immortally dreadful day.

"/Immortally/!" he almost shouted at an oblivious Carr, who turned over, snorted, and continued sleeping. Hislop snorted back, although his was born of irritation rather than of sleep, and continued going through the reports that Lady Elizabeth had delivered to him that morning. The reports were, rather than being from when Deveraux had taken over as spy commander, from when Pitt had first taken over as Prime Minister.

The /other/ Pitt. Because someone in the Admiralty, o quel surprise et nom de Dieu and that was pretty much Hislop's French exhausted, couldn't read dates. At all.

"Th'gorrantchury," Carr mumbled from the window seat, which could have been relevant, or a bad dream resulting from - well, any meal they'd had over the last three days, or just a request for a blanket, little though it had sounded like one. Hislop ignored him.

"'M serious." Carr yawned, and sat up, hair sticking out in all directions and rubbing at his eyes like a fretful child. "They did."

"They did what?"

"Get the right century. Got it. Eh, I am a grammatician's nightmare..."

"No, that would be Trevelyan. /What/ are you talking about?"

"Well, at least Chatham-Pitt is in the same century that Deveraux took over in," said Carr rather more lucidly, and rolled himself off the window-seat.

"If ye canna be of more help than that -!" Hislop began in a temper, but was interrupted by a knock on the door before he could finish his suggestion as to what Carr could do instead.
"Come!" he yelled, not even bothering to moderate his tones from the irritation with which he had been favouring his partner. Then he blinked at the man looking uncertainly around the door. "Who the bloody hell are you?"

"I - docks."

"You're Docks?" Carr was scratching at his head, looking as vacant as he usually sounded, though in this particular instance it probably meant that he was assessing trajectory in case he had to throw the man out of the nearest window.

"I come from 'em," the man said rather more coherently, and Carr relaxed.

"Proceed," he said invitingly. Hislop growled, and returned to his paperwork.

"Got word from Plymouth. Says to bring it to you. Flynn says. Important-like. Says you'll pay."

"I'll pay if it's worth it," Carr explained, ignoring Hislop's mutter of "I'll pay him to go away and take you with him", and assuming an expression of mild boredom.

"Renown's in harbour," said the grubby little man, and Hislop's chair tipped over backwards, sending him to the floor in a cascade of no-longer-organised paperwork.

"Give him his money, Carr," he said, lying on the floor with no signs of trying to get up. "And send the Conte word."

*

"What'd you find?"

Stephen shrugged. The rather apathetic gesture seemed to sum up the previous night, which had been a series of half-remembered war-stories told by drunken men in taverns over watery and revolting mugs of beer. "He's a Major, what else -"

"- would you find? Right."

"You -"

"Not a thing." James sighed, and kicked off his shoes, looking around the front room of their rather ramshackle house. "We have too much stuff at the moment. We should -"

"Sell things again. But -"

"Oh, they might be useful, but we need space, and -"

" - too crowded, I know."

"But you don't want to get rid of them."

"Not the books, perhaps?"

"Hm. You and your damned books. Swear to God we might have stayed -"

"Yes, yes, if it hadn't been for my taking the book out of the Bod, we'd still be there..." It was an old argument, one that had lost any heat or emphasis it might have once possessed, and Stephen yawned, dropping into the chair by the spluttering fire and beginning to poke some life into it.

"What do we do 'bout him?" asked James eventually, sitting down on the hearthrug and removing the poker from Stephen before it put his eye out.

Stephen sighed, and leant back into the depths of the chair. "Could hit him on the head. Make him forget this lieutenant like he forgot Hal."

"Wouldn't work."

"No..." Stephen yawned, curling his legs beneath him. "Let it go. See what happens. Wait him out."

"Sure?"

"Mm-hm." Stephen was drifting towards sleep, the growing warmth of the fire as good as a blanket.

James, unconvinced, remained awake, turning the poker thoughtfully between ink-stained fingers, and staring into the fire.

"I hate waiting," he said softly to the overflowing room, filled with other people's lost treasures. "You know that."

Unhearing, Stephen slept on.

*

"Carr, /move/!"

Hislop was looking more like a deranged mediaeval jester than usual, his sandy hair sticking straight up from his head and his stockings sagging hopelessly around his ankles. His partner maintained his air of faintly sleepy bewilderment, leaping up helpfully onto a chair as Hislop rushed around the office as productively - that is to say, not at all - as a whirlwind. Papers flew in his wake as he tried to reassert order with an astounding lack of success, and Carr wondered briefly whether he should get down from the chair and help, before sanity and the concept of his own safety reasserted themselves.

"Flavian, /what/ are you looking for?" he demanded.

Hislop spared him a glare at the hated name, before returning to his frantic burrowing amidst the piles of paper, muttering to himself.

Carr hopped down from the chair, and took his friend by the shoulders, forcing him to turn around.

"Oi," he said with a firmness that sat rather oddly on his pleasant, nondescript features. "What are you looking for?"

"I'm an idiot," Hislop muttered, and sagged in Carr's grip. "Conte's goin' t'kill me, and he'd be right to do so."

"I won't let him, then, will I?" said Carr cheerfully. "C'mon, g'boy, 'fess up. What'd you do?"

"I forgot to tell him the name of Fouché's spankin' new agent," said Hislop with terrible clarity. "The real one. And I've losted the piece of paper I writ it down on. And I canna' remember it."

Carr released him abruptly and sat down in the midst of the papery devastation, his mouth slightly open.

"That's -" he began, and shook his head quickly, as though to dislodge something. "Well. That's - that's a new one."

Hislop sighed, and sat down next to him. "I know."

"I mean even I -"

"I know."

"Even /Trevelyan/ -"

"I know."

"You're dead."

"Aye," said Hislop with monumental patience. "An' I know that, an' all."

"I think we'd better find that piece of paper," said Carr after a short pause, and got to his feet, looking around him in despair.

"Aye," said Hislop, staying exactly where he was. "Y'know, I worked that out mesel'. Some time ago. But I'm thanking you anyway."

*

Edrington fell asleep by the fire, the report sliding off his lap as he dozed, and cascading gently onto the floor in a hopeless waterfall of displaced pages.

Guido and Hal, who had somehow managed to come to an understanding without wrecking the top floors of the house, looked down at him in bewilderment.

Hal opened his mouth to say something, and Guido put his hand out, covering Hal's mouth and effectively stopping him.

"You'll wake him up," he whispered.

Hal nodded enthusiastically from behind thin fingers, and Guido stifled laughter. "Let me rephrase that," he said. "You will /not/ wake him up."

Hal pouted, and then, realising he could not be seen, stuck his tongue out, and Guido withdrew his hand with an exclamation of distaste. "Ugh," he said with more fervour than any powers of description he possessed could ever hope to match. "Revolting man, must you?"

Hal just grinned. "He looks cold," he said, and gained a suspicious look for his efforts. "What? I'm being nice!"

"It's Edrington. I fail to believe you."

"Well, no, I mean he might have a cold." Hal gingerly touched Edrington's face, hastily withdrawing his hand after the merest brush of fingertips. "No, he /is/ cold. Wouldn't he have a fever if he had a cold? Do you think it's a fever or a cold?" he asked, frowning at an increasingly bewildered-looking Guido. "He's cold, so he probably has a fever. What is it - feed a fever, starve a cold? No - starve a fever, feed a cold. Ha. And he's not eating, is he? No. Fever. Got to be."

"Hal..." Guido was obviously trying not to laugh. "He is not eating because he is /asleep/."

"Was," came a mutter from the chair. "/Was/ asleep."

"Do you have a cold?" Guido enquired, and he really /was/ laughing now, his mouth stretched in an uncontrollable grin and his shoulders shaking.

"No," said Edrington crossly. He turned his head to the side and went back to sleep.

Then the snoring started, and Guido bolted for the hallway, from where Hal could hear the ecstatic whoops of laughter from a spy commander who had suffered through an extraordinarily long morning.

"Well, at least you're good for something," he muttered at Edrington, and then an especially loud snort sent him fleeing after Guido, feeling that while it was incredibly unmanly to giggle, it was also the only way he was going get rid of the desire to lie down on the floor and howl.

Guido was sitting on the stairs, wiping at his eyes.

"Oh, God," he said weakly. "That - heh. He /snores/!"

Hal sniggered, and was about to say something to the effect of using Edrington for stage sound effects, when Elizabeth came through from the downstairs study.

"Guido?" she asked tentatively. "Er - message from Hislop. The 'Renown's' at Plymouth. And St Vincent has asked Lieutenant Bush to report to him at the Admiralty."

*

The Admiralty was not somewhere that William Bush had ever expected to go as anything more than a glorified messenger boy. Its façade looked almost pink in the light of the setting spring sun, the floors, slightly chipped by metal-tipped canes and buckled shoes stamping out emphatic points, were softened into perfection by the fading glow.

He was late. Possibly more forgivably than under any other circumstances, since no-one had explained to him how difficult it would be to get from Portsmouth to London at all, let alone within time constraints. But still, to be late for a meeting with the First Lord was surely enough to at the very least add to the increasing number of black marks on his record.

He had absolutely no idea of where to go next, now that he had reached his destination, and he was most unwilling to ask any of the men in immaculate uniforms, all of whom seemed to have some clear purpose, where he should be heading for.

A small, wiry man in civilian clothes, carrying a large pile of papers, came around the corner, and Bush was just about to ask him where St Vincent's rooms were when the papers shifted, wavered back and forth for a moment, and then began a slow and inevitable descent to the floor, accompanied by some surprising curses in a strong Scottish brogue. The man dropped to his knees and began gathering them together, looking completely fed up and rather as if this was the last straw in a very long day filled with small and irritating events of this kind. Automatically, Bush knelt down and began helping him.

"Should these go into any kind of order?" he asked. The man snorted.

"If y'can find an order, I'd be bloody delighted," he said ruefully. "That's what I've got 'em for. Ordering. But thanks." He sounded much less Scottish when he wasn't swearing, and the irritable look had been replaced by a reasonably friendly expression. "I'm Hislop, by the way. Are y'lost?"

"Why would you think..."

"'Cos y'were going to ask me something before these godblastit things took a liking for the floor. So I'm guessing it was probably where someone is."

"I'm supposed to see St Vincent." Bush gave up on trying to put all the papers the same way round, since it was apparent that they hadn't been that way even /before/ they hit the ground, and shoved them all together into a reasonably manageable pile. "There."

"Ah. You'd be Lieutenant Bush, then. He's been shouting about someone being sent to find you and coaches and stupidity for the last hour."

"Hell. How bad is it going to be?"

"Oh, he's not angry with you." Hislop levered the pile back into his arms and got to his feet very carefully, balancing the papers with a sort of resigned caution, as though he were waiting for them to fall again, rather than trying to prevent it with any degree of enthusiasm. "He's just angry in general. Got a temper like a bloody rabid dog, he has."

"Why does that not sound reassuring? Oh, well, best get it over with. There can't be much he needs to know from me, anyway. I don't - well, I don't even know why he's asked for me, to be honest."

Hislop grinned. "And if you did, you'd not be wanting to tell me - and what you know'd not be of the kind of thing that you'll be wanting to tell him. Let me give you a friendly bit of advice, lieutenant. Be honest. Answer everything he asks. I'll be waiting for you outside when he's done." He turned back the way he had come, and indicated to Bush with a jerk of his head to follow. "Come on. I'll show you where to go. St Vincent's not the only one who's waiting to see you today, so you'll be wanting to get this over with as soon as possible."

"Who else could possibly want to talk to me?"

Hislop slanted an odd smile over his shoulder, balancing his pile of wobbling papers with casual ease.

"Still got a little gold seal, have you, Mr Bush? 'Cos its owner's a mite anxious to be talking to you about the man who gave it you."

*

St Vincent was old. St Vincent had gout. St Vincent had a face like a spectacularly irritated pug-dog.

St Vincent was the most terrifying man William Bush had met in his life.

He stood in front of the desk, awkward and so very aware that his uniform had seen better days even before he got to Kingston, let alone when he left it for the long voyage home and a strange and not-quite-believable peace, and answered the man's questions through numb lips. No, he hadn't been there the night Sawyer fell. Yes, they had already been planning mutiny - why deny that now, when Archie had so gallantly and foolishly taken all blame onto his dead shoulders? - but they had been discussing what to do about Sawyer's mental state, not whether or not to remove him altogether. Yes. Yes. Sawyer had been mad before the fall.

"How do you know that?"

"Because a sane man does not ask his third lieutenant to shoot him," said Bush bluntly, and waited for the reaction of disbelief, of accusations of lying, for the end of his career. Instead, St Vincent responded,

"You are quite right. He does not."

He looked uglier than ever as he let his face relax into thought, finally getting to his feet with a grimace of pain, leaning heavily on his stick. "God damn di Cesare," he muttered. "It looks like he's going to be proved right."

Bush kept his expression carefully impassive. St Vincent sighed.

"Do you know who I'm talking about?" he asked.

"He - is a friend - was a friend - of Lieutenant Kennedy," Bush hazarded, and saw the wrinkles rearrange themselves into an expression of amusement.

"Yes, he most certainly wouldn't argue with that definition." St Vincent paused, sighed a little, and continued, "If he wants you to know more, I'd imagine he'll tell you. Suffice it to say he is doing his best to convince the Admiralty of Kennedy's innocence and have the court-martial findings overturned."

"Impossible." Bush could at least be definite about this. "He confessed. That cannot be overturned."

St Vincent snorted. "Good luck convincing di Cesare of that," he said. "No-one else has managed it, and blast it all, but that damned young crusader has us all running around trying to prove him wrong - so effectively, mark you, that we're practically building his case for him!" He hobbled round the desk, and to the fire, staring into it for a while. "I am trying to root out corruption in the Admiralty - in the Navy - and di Cesare is a means to that end," he said, apparently to the flames. "I am not concerned with individual reputations, I am not concerned with preserving legends, and I am not concerned with destroying those who have survived." He swung his head round to pin Bush with rheumy eyes that nonetheless contained a power that none of his previous commanders had ever shown. "I trust I have made myself absolutely clear, sir?"

Bush nodded, not daring to agree out loud, lest he be asked to elaborate.

"Good." St Vincent turned back to the fire. "In that case, you can go. Enjoy the peace, Mr Bush, while it lasts."

Thankful to the marrow of his bones for the reprieve, Bush saluted, and escaped.

*

"Didn't hang you, then?" Hislop had got rid of his papers, but was otherwise exactly the same - small, scruffy, and disconcertingly friendly.

"No," said Bush curtly.

"Must've liked you, then," the other man proffered. "I usually come out of there wanting to hang /myself/ - I'm thinking he can't be bothered to spend the effort on me, so he's hoping I'll save him the trouble and do it for him. Conte always comes out looking like he wants to scream, mind you - tough as old boots that one is, dealing with the old bastard day in day out, you'd have to -" He paused as Bush held up a hand. "Hm?"

"Please shut up," said Bush as pleasantly as possible. "You talk too much."

"People keep telling me that." Hislop grinned, sudden and disarming. "Can't think why. C'mon. Conte wants to see you."

"Conte?"

Hislop's eyes suddenly narrowed. "Conte," he repeated. "The Conte di Cesare. Your mate'll've called him Guido." He shook his head slowly. "Man, ye've no clue who ye're dealin' wi', have ye?" He was incredulous, the Scottish burr to the fore. "Ah God, save me from the innocents. Come on. He'll explain wi' less words."

"There is a God," muttered Bush, and followed him through the maze of corridors, knowing that he would need a guide to get back out again, and would never, ever remember where he had been. He wondered if the man who was waiting for him had deliberately engineered it this way, and decided not to ask, in case the response was as lengthy as everything else Hislop had chosen to communicate to him.

*

Hislop knocked perfunctorily on the door, and went in first, leaving Bush, unannounced, to follow.

The reason for the somewhat unorthodox behaviour was immediately clear, as the voices of the two men by the window carried across to where Hislop had come to a halt, effectively preventing Bush from going any further.

"Oh, God, not Addington /again/," groaned one of them. "He's a pain in the rear and boring to boot."

"He is also waiting," returned the other, voice tinged with amusement. "Try not to connect your boot to his rear, and be on your way, Mr Flanagan."

The shorter of the two heaved an exaggerated sigh, and made for the door. "Hislop," he said in weary acknowledgement as he reached them. "You'll never guess. I pulled Addington duty. Again."

"Oh the joy," said Hislop, and went out with him, shutting the door.

"Mr Bush." The man left by the window came across the room to greet him, and was a complete contrast to St Vincent's corpulent authority. Tall, with dark hair and a narrow face, his thin, strong frame was more suited to a battlefield than a room with a desk. He hesitated for a moment, then extended his hand. "I am the Conte di - I am Guido. Please. Sit." He gestured towards some armchairs by the fire, and Bush saw with some surprise that the man was actually uncertain of what to do. "Forgive me, you must have had a most miserable day. Can I offer you anything?"

"I -"

"I am sorry, of course, you will now be too busy being polite to tell me if you do. Mr Hislop, please stop eavesdropping outside the door and bring us something to eat and drink, would you?" There was a pointed silence. "Thank you," the man said calmly, and smiled. It was a small, private expression that went a long way towards softening the thin face, and Bush felt himself beginning to respond before he remembered that it probably wasn't meant for him. He carefully schooled himself back into immobility.

"You wanted to see me," he said neutrally, managing to avoid making it a question.

"I rather thought you would have wanted to see me." Parrying statement with statement, and a hint of steel behind the urbanity. A swordsman, then, not a soldier.

"I was going to send it back," Bush said instantly, caught out into defending himself from an unvoiced accusation that he was nonetheless expecting.

"Really. With a note?" Something flashed in the dark eyes. "He was worth more than that."

Bush tried not to let his surprise show, and was afraid he failed quite miserably. "I fail to see -"

"Do you know, there's an awful lot of that doing the rounds?" The urbanity was right back where it should be, but that - something - was there too, flickering beneath hooded eyelids. "Failing to see. I sometimes wonder what would happen if /I/ failed to see. I sometimes think it might be the best idea I ever came up with. I could fail to see how difficult this is for everyone, I could fail to see that the only person who seems to give a damn is myself, I could fail to see why anything is wrong and go blithely on my merry way. Unfortunately, I do /not/ fail to see, which is becoming a severe handicap when it comes to keeping my temper - and I apologise." He laughed, sudden and rueful. "You have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, do you."

Bush found himself stifling the urge to laugh. "No. I gather you are annoyed."

A small smile, not as private as the first, was his reward for that. "I am /always/ annoyed. Today I am more so than usual. Possibly because I have not yet had any sleep, which severely curtails my ability to be patient."

"St Vincent..."

"How bad was it?"

"It was a very thorough mental revisit of the 'Renown'," said Bush dryly, and the Conte laughed sharply.

"I can imagine that it was. Did he tell you who I am? /What/ I am?"

"No."

The long mouth winced itself into a not-quite smile. "Of course not. He wouldn't. Well. And Ar - Lieutenant Kennedy did not -?"

"He told me to bring you the seal. He said that I could find you if I sent you -"

"A note sealed with it, yes, yes, the whole damn world knows that. He left no - message? No task for you?"

Bush pressed his lips together and shook his head, and, too late, saw comprehension flash into the Conte's eyes.

"Nothing entrusted?" asked the swordsman softly, and there was kindness there, strange and velvet-pawed, like a tentative cat.

"It was private," Bush said stiffly, and all the tension he had not even realised was present went out of the room.

"Well, thank Christ for that," said the Conte on an explosive breath, and lent back in his chair. "I was beginning to think everything that happened was on public records that have, by the way, mysteriously vanished in their original form. Good. If it's private, don't tell me. Just make damn sure you keep whatever that promise was. And keep the blasted seal, too, maybe you'll have more sense than those idiots did."

"Who /are/ you?"

The Conte smiled, not particularly nicely, and it didn't touch his eyes at all. "Stay for a bit," he said dryly. "You'll work it out."

*

Bush did. He sat in his comfortable chair, and drank wine, and coffee, and ate whatever they put in front of him, and watched Guido, Conte di Cesare, run the intelligence service of Great Britain without moving from his desk. And when the fourth man had left, and Guido was cursing softly over more paperwork, he asked the one question that he knew someone at the Admiralty should have asked long before now, and seemed to him to be perfectly obvious,

"Why didn't you have a man on the 'Renown?"

and watched as the colour drained slowly out of the dark face, leaving it an unpleasant grey, and the hard dark eyes closed in mute rejection of the words that hung in the air.

"Well?"

Guido swallowed, the sound audible even across the room, and opened his eyes.

"I promised Archie," he said through white lips. "No contact. No interference. So I did what I should never, ever have done, and I compromised my entire network for it. Happy?"

"Don't play the martyr!" snapped Bush. He was tired, he was angry at everything, and he felt that Kingston had well and truly used up what the world could expect of him in terms of dealing with self-flagellating men who ought to have more sense. "/Why/?"

"That /is/ why," Guido replied, but the colour had come back into his face, and his hands were steady as he reached for his glass of wine. "I thought - Hornblower thought, rather - that my friendship with them would make Sawyer suspicious. Like most of the captains, he knew who I was. So I didn't dare put a man on board. Even an official one would have made Sawyer worried, and I couldn't afford to have one of my agents compromised because I had stupidly allowed myself to be in contact with a man not on the inside of all this. So when I promised Archie I'd cut off contact with them - I had to do it completely."

"Jesus God. You - they /knew/ he was a liability? /You/ knew?"

"I had no /bloody/ idea!" Guido half-shouted, coming to his feet. "My God, if I'd known, the 'Renown' would never even have left port - what the hell do you think I am? Christ, I do have /that/ much power - and yes, before you ask, I damn well would have used it no matter /what/ Archie and Horatio wanted. Friendship is one thing, Mr Bush, but a danger to the service is a completely different matter. I would have used every bit of my authority at the port, and got Renown docked for another week while I went to St. Vincent - and you've /met/ St. Vincent. He would have agreed. You /know/ he would have agreed to a reassessment." He stopped, red burning across his cheekbones, and Bush, a surprisingly observant man, became one of the very few people in life who could read the Conte di Cesare.

"You weren't joking about being angry, then," he said dryly, and Guido snorted with sudden laughter, the noise sounding as though it had hurt the back of his nose, and his expression confirming that it had. Then it was as though his whole /person/ changed, sloughing off something like a snake shedding a skin, and a different man stood in his place.

"No," he agreed. "Come on. Let's get out of this hell hole. I want dinner, and /you/ are going to have the pleasure of meeting spies, drunks, and Earls. And by the way -" he grinned suddenly, and Bush, for the first time, saw the dangerous, maverick humour that must have drawn Kennedy's friendship to the man - "remember that none of us are what we seem."

"Even the Earl?" Bush kept his voice as flat as possible, wondering if his own strange brand of humour would be accepted, and saw answering delight flash in the Conte's eyes.

"Oh, /especially/ the Earl," said Guido, and laughed. "You'd never believe the truth about him!"

Bush shook his head, and Guido raised his eyebrows interrogatively.

"Oh - I was just indulging in a little morbid humour."

"Aha. Share?" Guido held the door open with a mock-politeness, and Bush tried his best quarterdeck glare on him. Unsurprisingly, it had no effect.

"I was thinking," he said as he stepped out into the corridor, "that if Archie had left a will, it would have been a damn strange one. To start with, he seems to have bequeathed me with a captain and an intelligence commander. And all he's left you is paperwork and a headache and a really foul temper."

Guido blinked. Then he shrugged. "Bloody thoughtful of him, really, to do it that way around," he acknowledged, and began to lead the way through the maze of corridors back into the London streets.

*

The first surprising thing of the day turned out to be the house. For some reason, Bush had expected neat and forbidding, or ancient and rather dilapidated. Instead it was a rambling old thing that had obviously been built as a very small farm sometime in the fifteenth century, and added onto whenever the price of pigs (or whatever they farmed) was exceptionally good. What was also surprising was the fact that it managed to be both incredibly spacious and quite amazingly cluttered all at once.

The drawing-room that the Conte led him into was cluttered with a very asleep young man on a chaise-longue, an older man limping around with an expression that suggested he was about to poke the sleeping man with his cane in about five minutes out of pure malice, and any number of books that were piled up on all available surfaces.

"Hello, Edrington," Guido said cheerfully. "Still here, then?"

"You took the carriage," the man thus addressed bit out, and glared at Bush. "Oh Lord. More waifs and strays? Haven't you anything better to do with your time, di Cesare?"

"Lieutenant Bush, meet the Earl of Edrington," said Guido, not sounding at all put out. "Edrington, Bush. Edrington, you've got all the social pleasantries of a rabid badger, and none of said crazed beast's good points, you do know that, don't you?"

"Pride myself on it," said Edrington. "Mr Bush, a pleasure. Guido, wake Hal up, or I will."

"And deny you one of your few pleasures in life?" Guido shook his head. "No, no, carry on. Where's Lisbet?"

"Christ knows. Christ, hopefully, cares. I don't." Edrington limped over to the chaise-longue, and prodded the man sleeping there in the ribs with the metal tip of his cane. "Trevelyan. Arise from the depths. You have a naval guest."

"Wha'...?" Hal, surfacing from sleep and trying to avoid the cane, rather predictably toppled sideways onto the floor. "Oh, Edrington, God damn you."

"I live for these moments," said Edrington cheerfully as Hal tried to organise himself into a sitting - if not standing - position. Bush stared at him. "Your new friend's not very communicative, is he?" he continued, turning to Guido, who smiled rather viciously.

"Oh, well, you know naval officers. Cut down anything that moves if it doesn't shut up. I'd imagine he's - Hal, what /are/ you doing?"

"Getting up," came a rather muffled voice from the cushions, where Hal was apparently trying to lever himself onto his feet. When he finally got to his feet, and smiled, the effect of sheer - /life/, Bush thought, was the only way to describe it - was overwhelming, transforming him from a sleepy man into a presence that was almost overpowering. "H'lo. I'm Hal. Bush, right?" He bowed rather awkwardly, trying to adjust his rumpled clothing as he did so, and Bush heard Guido sigh beside him.

"/Honestly/," was all he said, before another thought obviously took precedence. "Hoy, Edrington, why loose your venom on someone not even in the room? What's Lisbet done to you while I've been out?"

"She made me tea."

"I see," said Guido very slowly, in tones that suggested he didn't see at all. "And this provoked your doubtlessly justified wrath because...?"

"I asked for brandy."

Perhaps unwisely, Bush looked over at Hal, whose blue eyes had gone impossibly wide. "It's true. She did," he said, voice filled with awe. Then he spoilt the effect completely by collapsing back onto the chaise-longue and howling with laughter.

This time, Edrington /threw/ the cane at him, which was when Bush surprised /himself/ by joining in Hal's laughter.

Guido, predictably, just smirked at them, and went to find Elizabeth.

*