The wind was brisk and awash with familiar smells of sweat and sea. The Indie sliced through smaller waves and bounced over larger ones, driving onwards towards the coast of Africa. Dolphins played in her wake, streamlined figures darting like fat arrows underneath the thick ripples. The ship itself creaked and popped, but never enough to stir worry amongst the crew, only enough to inform King Triton of her massive presence as she claimed her right to the open seas. For now, at least, Triton was tolerant, even lenient, allowing safe passage as he had done for the past five days. The intense storms saddled by them, providing electrical shows of biblical proportions yet not landing so much as a drop on the Indie's matted deck. The ship pressed on determinedly, flanked by the dolphins and, according to the stories told to the young deck boys below, beautiful mermaids whose songs would lure sailors to the seas, and down to their deaths. These stories were passed on with amusement, for it pleased the old hands to see young eyes widen as the cast a wary look over the side. With stories below and light chatter atop, the crew set about their daily chores with an ease that hadn't been granted them for quite some time.
Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower stood at the rail, with one hand clenched tightly in the rigging, should the ship's movements suddenly change. He was peering intently down at the dolphins, mere shadows set in turquoise. His dark, unruly curls danced and flapped into his eyes. His cheeks reddened with the setting sun, and he winced into the light spray as it hung in the air before wisping away. He was leaning further and further over the rail when a firm grip on his ankles caused him to cry out, grab the rail for dear life and try to force his torso around. The ship gave a playful tilt in appreciation, then settled. Hornblower felt the grip release and heard a sparkle of laughter. His startled gaze met amused eyes, blue as the waters below. "Damn it all, Archie!"
Archie Kennedy chuckled, leaning his elbow comfortably against the rail. "Getting a bit lax then, Horatio? I'd have thought someone of your instinct and skill would take note of possible danger without so much as flinching!" His light voice carried to two sailors nearby who had observed the ruse. They hid their grins.
Horatio accepted the humor with candor. "Danger, yes. Not you, my friend."
"Then it is just as well I'm not the enemy," Archie replied cheekily, and turned to the view with a blissful sigh. "It is wonderful weather, is it not? See those clouds? They'll join the sun just there," he pointed to a spot on the horizon, "it should make for a spectacular sunset."
"You'll sketch it of course. You've your pencils below."
"It would be a grey sight indeed."
"What? Ah, of course. We must find some colored ones, if and when we reach land."
Archie grinned. "Besides, you take me for a quick study. That sun would have to still in it's tracks and roast the earth before I sketch it."
"Now I'll have none of that. You've improved greatly, especially in past weeks. Do not take it so lightly."
"I dare not. For all I know, my life as a seafaring man would be best served as a man viewing the seas fairly. Still, it is a new skill, and new skills must be honed. I'm finding I have neither the time nor patience."
"Still, you should try and find the time for it." Horatio leaned back against the rail, studying his friend. "As usual, you underestimate yourself."
And as Horatio expected, the faint blush rose and colored Archie's cheeks as pink as the setting sun. "Folly," he muttered, pegging Horatio with an annoyed glance. "And there really is no time for it. That is what I came to tell you, we rendezvous with the Clementine tonight. The Captain's invited us for drinks. The whole crew, in fact. Ship's captain's called Rapier."
"Like his wit," Horatio said, automatically, with a straight face. He allowed his expression to fall. "Archie, please tell me he's not the same."
"Indeed! He is the very man we rescued from the sword and gallows five months since. And he hasn't changed, Horatio, from what I can gather. And unfortunately, neither has his tongue."
"But his debt was repaid!"
"Aye, several times over! Yet he remains grateful." Archie's eyes sparkled with humor.
Horatio sighed. "I don't suppose I could suddenly take ill," he paused at Archie's quiet chuckle in response to the desperation in his friend's voice, "or maybe fall into the sea?"
"I gave you the opportunity, and you failed miserably. Flailed like a fish on a hook."
"Archie, with this man I am a fish on a hook!"
There was no mistaking the apprehension in his friend's voice. For someone who tried to hard to keep his emotions in check, his face betrayed him every time. "Come now, Horatio. . ."
"I mean it! The man will not leave me alone! It is nothing but, 'My lieutenant' this and 'you're so young' that. . ." Horatio's eyes rolled, ". . .'when will ye get ye a lass then?'"
Archie laughed out loud at Hornblower's imitation, complete with scrunched nose and pointed finger. "Take pity if need be, but tolerate him all the same. He's taken a liking to you, Horatio, and he has pull. You would do well to keep that in mind."
"I'd rather leave my future to the devices of my own merits, thank you, and not pull." Horatio winced. "God, I just remember his foul breath after drink, and that was only slightly better than his humor."
Archie clapped his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Well then, Lieutenant Hornblower, we shall endeavor to out-drink him, lest we suffer. Eh?"
The Clementine was a smaller ship that held itself proudly, a flower amongst the mighty timbered trees of the tall ships. Still, she seemed too delicate for the expansive ego of her Captain, whose presence eclipsed the good souls of all men aboard. He would be a rat if not so entertaining, a scoundrel if not so generous. It was rumored that Captain Jonathan Rapier was once called the Serpent of the Seas, and abandoned the life of a pirate to serve his country when duty called. "I stole from the Spanish," he once insisted, "I can now do the same without fear of retaliation from my own men." This odd statement was never detailed, and the unlikely story was fueled by the fact that the man had seemingly come from nowhere, and never discussed his private past.
Horatio knew of his exploits. Everyone to the South Seas knew of Rapier's travels, which he embellished with the help of attentive ears and drowning spirits. He claimed that his nickname of 'Serpent of the Seas' was not due to piracy, but because he actually battled one. Nearly the ship's full length. Tried to pull the Clementine into the murky depths below before being harpooned and the anchor dropped on its head. Rapier's crew didn't dare deny it.
It was this same story that was being retold for Horatio's benefit. His eyes blurred with drink, the young Lieutenant merely smiled and nodded and showed his astonishment in all the appropriate places during the interminable speech. Dinner was long since over, with the Indie's crew resuming their duties aboard their own ship. The officers stayed with Captain Rapier, and by this late hour even Captain Pellew was looking rather long-faced and sluggish. His dark eyebrows jerked upwards in a semblance of alertness, forcing his eyes open. Archie had given up the battle and sat half asleep, his disheveled hair pulling from the black ribbon as though wanting to escape the verbal onslaught itself. He and Horatio had actively kept the bargain of accepting any and all offers of drink by way of getting through the evening.
"It's too bad we lost the damn thing," Jonathan Rapier growled thickly, "but the sea swallowed her right up. We've got the toothmark down the belly to show for it!"
"Are you certain it is not from a reef?" Pellew asked, his eyes still wide and fighting their own battle.
"Upon my word it is not. A sea serpent's poisoned tooth made that mark. Lost my best anchor," he clenched a fist in the air, "bit the chain right in half."
"Indeed!" Pellew cast an artificially impressed look at Hornblower, who stifled his smile. "Such exploits, and yet when it comes to requiring saving from the gallows, it was up to the thinking of this young man here," Pellew nodded at Hornblower, "and not your own considerable skill?"
"Aye," Rapier jabbed an important finger towards Hornblower, "and that young man is a whelp destined for great days. Reminds me of myself when I was a lad. Wouldn't sneeze at a chance of him aboard my ship." Squinted eyes turned to Horatio.
"Yes," Horatio cleared his throat uncomfortably, "well, with regret, sir, my commission is with Captain Pellew, aboard the Indie." His tone carried every sign of civility, but Pellew sensed the panic that nearly twisted a different meaning into words meant to soothe.
"Tell me, Pellew," Rapier turned to face him, "is this young man really as reliable as he seems?"
"He has his faults, like any man," Pellew replied, "But I am proud to have him with me."
"But a Lieutenant! And so young!"
Horatio rolled his eyes and disappeared into his cup.
"Not so, sir." Pellew leaned onto the table. "Many a young man stood test for that commission."
"Yet few have the experience and knowledge to pass!"
"Mr. Hornblower does."
Rapier snorted. "I mean look at the lad! Large curls, and even larger eyes that slice right through you like a sword. You do not hide your emotions well, do you boy?"
"No, sir," Horatio responded meekly, and kicked Archie's shin beneath the table. The blond head jerked up immediately.
"And those cheekbones! Too pretty for a fleet, put a gown on him and he'd make the fairest lass this side of the. . ."
"Really, sir!" Horatio flushed.
"I only mean to say that you are a nice looking lad, and nice looking laddies should have nice looking lasses at their sides. Have you designs on a woman, Lieutenant?"
"I should think that business my own, sir," Horatio responded, his normally deep timbre plummeting to warning depths.
"I see." Rapier sat back, dissatisfied. Horatio opened his mouth, wishing to amend his statement, but shut it again as he felt the sharp prod in his side.
"We have been very busy at sea, sir," Archie said, trying not to sound as sluggish as he felt, "no time to visit the shores to satisfy our. . ."
"Curiosity, sir." Archie set his jaw.
"Even I know better than to pry." Rapier dabbed at his mouth and flapped his napkin into obedience, then tossed it onto the rough-edged table. "It would appear as well that you lads take heed of your duty to the navy and King rather than long-haired lasses in those heels of theirs. Have you not seen them lately? Some are allowing their hair to trail down their backs in daylight. Scandalous."
"The young often wear their hair in such a way," Pellew commented. He sent a pointed look to the other Captain.
"Well, they all look the same to me. Too many years at sea, mind that doesn't happen to you, lad." Rapier smacked Horatio's knee under the table. "You get yourself a lady."
"So he can promptly abandon her, when he returns to sea?" Archie asked.
"Have a care, laddie," Rapier's voice was stern, "or should I say Acting Lieutenant?"
The one punctuated word sent Archie to silence.
Horatio glared as Pellew stood. "We should take our leave, sir, it is late and Mr. Kennedy here has watch duties."
"Does he now? In his condition?" Rapier sighed. "Very well, then." He stood and pulled his stout shoulders back. "It has been a pleasure, gentlemen, a right pleasure. We must meet more often." He gestured to the door as the others stood and shakily bowed their thanks.
Aboard the Indefatigable, Pellew relaxed, his breath releasing in a long-suffering sigh. He noticed Kennedy turn to him with a puzzled expression, and raised his thick brows in anticipation. "Watch duties, sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Kennedy. I had to clear the room of you before your fool head went off, and unfortunately that was all I could think to say." Pellew was unusually candid, due to the drink. He winced and put a hand to his head. "I can say I don't care for his wine."
"And I less for his company," Horatio muttered.
"Still your tongue, man! He is your superior officer!"
"My apologies, sir." Horatio lowered his gaze, though his face still reflected resentment at Rapier's inquiry.
"Still," Pellew shook his head slowly, "he is unfair in his questioning, even with the defense of drink. No, I could see where it was headed, and I wasn't in the mood." A wince followed. "Now I suggest we retire and try to sleep off this devil's brew."
"All in a day's work, Captain." Archie quipped, only to lower his head at Pellew's stern glance.
"Aye sir. Thank you."
"Sleep well, sir." Both young men saluted and headed to their own bunks, but not before backlash.
"Acting Lieutenant," Archie muttered, bracing himself against the hold, "Rapier lowers me to a peasant with his tone."
"He meant nothing, Archie."
"Then what of his comment about you? You think he meant nothing by that?"
"He is an old man full of talk, and he was drunk." Horatio allowed a chuckle to escape his lips, and he caught Archie's arm as his friend swayed. "As are you."
"I am not old!"
"But well past drunk. Now as the Captain suggests, you should sleep it off. I believe you have watch in eight hours time, just enough."
"Truth comes from a drunk man's mouth, Horatio."
"And regrets follow on the morrow. There is such a thing as protocol, Archie, and we must follow it." He sighed and leaned against his door. "Though I'll admit his comments stung."
Archie reached out and squeezed his friend's arm. "Good night, Horatio."
"Fare well, Archie. And no more thoughts of it." Horatio returned the gesture. But his own mind remained unsettled, and he lay awake for most of the night.