or The Ridiculous Seduction Of Lieutenant Worthington
by Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦)
In all the years to come, whatever else Thomas Worthington did or did not blame for his predicament, in the end it was always the chains he came back to, always the chains he laid the blame on, often with a resigned little smile on his face.
They were the first thing to catch his attention, after all, because they were so out of place on such a harmless-looking prisoner. The cell itself was well-built, a double layer of stone and deep-set iron bars–he’d tested all three cells for himself on the very first day he arrived, shaking all the bars and prodding at the mortar, squinting at the heavy black locks with a critical eye. Finally he had pronounced himself satisfied and gently chastised the jailer for not replacing the thin, filthy layer of straw on the cell’s stone floor.
In short, there was absolutely no reason for the prisoner to be chained in this manner. The chains were only to be used on two occasions: occasion the first, when a prisoner was enraged or otherwise violent to the point where he might do himself some harm, and occasion the second, on those rare occasions when the cells were full to capacity and still more prisoners remained to be restrained. And yet the prisoner in the middle cell wore not only the ankle bracelets and the heavy staple about his waist but the ‘begging dog’ collar: a pair of shackles connected to an iron collar by a pair of short and ugly chains that drew the prisoner’s hands up to dangle uselessly like dog’s paws against his chest. Beastly device, really. A step or two short of torture, in Thomas’ opinion.
He turned to the jailer. “Oh, now, Mister Janks, are those really necessary? The chains…!”
Janks shrugged, unimpressed, and spat on the floor. “Captain’s orders,” he said. “Devious little river-folk bastard–he’ll wear them chains t’ the gibbet and they’ll come off once he’s dead and not before.”
“Barbaric,” Thomas said under his breath, turning to study the prisoner again and discovering that he was being studied in his turn. The man was small, slender, and barefoot, tanned to a leathery nut-brown the exact color of his hair (thick, coarse tufts of which exploded outwards in all directions from under his colorful bandanna, making him look like nothing so much as a dead thistle). The eyes on Thomas were brown, bright, and curious. How like a little monkey he is, Thomas thought, wrapping one hand about the bars. “That will be all,” he told the jailer, waving his free hand towards the stairs. “I’ll call if I need you.”
The jailer waited an insolent moment or two, then grunted and stumped up the stairs, leaving the two of them more or less alone on this brilliant summer afternoon. The prisoner shifted with a great clanking of iron, trying and failing to pull his bare feet up underneath himself, still studying Thomas with fascination. Then, improbably, his face split into an enormous and positively infectious grin, the white of his teeth startling against the brown of his face and the gray of the stones. “Aft’noon, Cap’n,” he said with great cheer, wiggling his trapped fingers under his chin in an arrested parody of a wave. “‘Fraid I can’t stand up and greet yeh all proper-like.”
Thomas paused, mentally translating this into the King’s English, and then arranged his face into stern lines. “Lieutenant,” he said firmly. “And this levity ill becomes your situation. You’re to be hanged at dawn tomorrow, after all.”
“Oh, aye?” the prisoner said thoughtfully, rubbing one foot along the top of the other, like it itched. It probably did; he looked none too clean in the first place and the straw he was sitting on was doubtless full of vermin. “Thet’s bad news, then.”
He still didn’t seem properly upset. Perhaps he was simple… Thomas put his other hand on the bars and frowned. “You do understand that you’re to be executed, don’t you?”
“Aye, put t’ death,” the prisoner said, still incongruously cheerful. “Hanged by th’ neck until dead, killed in th’ name of some king or other–”
“Show some respect, man!” Thomas snapped, taken aback. “It’s by the King’s grace that they’ll not have you tortured for a confession first! A quick, clean end to pay for your crimes, that’s for you, and plenty of time for you to make your peace with God beforehand, to ensure that your soul goes clean to Heaven.” His hands tightened on the bars. “The King is merciful, and I’ll thank you to show some gratitude.”
But the prisoner was laughing–“Peace, peace, Lieut’nant,” he said, holding up his hands as if to ward off Thomas’ outburst. “Meant no harm by it.”
“Yes. Well. See that you don’t,” Thomas said, not quite mollified but willing to let it drop. He fell silent, studying the little man with the incongruous grin, in all his stained finery. He’d surely be more somber in the morning…! “Mister Janks tells me you sent the priest away,” he finally said.
“Oh, aye,” said the prisoner. “I don’t much truck with such as them.”
“Shameful.” Thomas frowned. “You ought to give more thought to your immortal soul… er… what is your name?”
The prisoner blinked, then burst out laughing again. “Oh, aye, and where are my manners, then? Hereabouts they as know me call me Robin, Lieut’nant, and they as have heard of me call me Barefoot Robin–” he lifted one dirty-soled foot an inch or so from the straw and waggled his toes at Thomas, making him wrinkle his nose “–and either suits me well enough, thank yeh kindly. And yeh? Who are yeh when yeh’re at home?”
Thomas tugged at his uniform coat, resettling it more firmly onto his shoulders. “I fail to see how it’s any business of yours, but you may call me Lieutenant Worthington, if you must.”
Robin’s cheerful face split into that huge beaming grin again. “Well, now, Lieut’nant, it’s good t’ meet yeh proper-like. Seen yeh about town a time or two, but I en’t found it quite proper t’ come an’ introduce meself, seein’ as how I was gen’rally busy stealin’ things at th’ time.” Thomas sputtered. Robin, unrepentant, went right on. “I hear tell yeh’re new ’bout these parts, Lieut’nant! Here t’protect the port from them narsty pirates, are yeh?”
“Yes,” Thomas said coolly. The man’s levity was beyond disrespectful, both to his position and to the Navy itself. “And from common thieves like yourself, as well.”
“Here!” Robin thumped his narrow chest with one shackled hand, playing at offense. “Nothin’ common about me, Lieut’nant! Barefoot Robin’s th’ best thief what ever slipped in a window, and thet en’t no lie!”
Briefly, Thomas closed his eyes and prayed for strength. “Yes. Well. That’s of no moment now, er, Robin. Here you are, and here you’ll stay until tomorrow, when you’ll be hanged. Will you not change your mind and let the priest hear your confession?”
“Well, now, it’s kind of yeh t’ take an interest, but I fear my mind’s made up.” Robin ducked his head, scratching ineffectually at the back of his neck.
Thomas sighed. “Very well, then. It pains me, but I suppose that in the end, it’s your choice. If you change your mind, let the jailer know.”
“Aye, well, I’ll be keepin’ thet in mind.” Robin looked back up and offered Thomas that sunny grin again, just as if nothing at all was wrong.
And in truth, that should have been all. Thomas had duties enough to keep him busy, and he’d already done the Christian thing… but still he found himself lingering at the bars. “Is there anything you require?” he finally asked. It was those damned chains; they held him there as firmly as they held Robin himself. That brave little fellow immured in those horrible chains, doomed to die in the morning–surely any good man would find it in his heart to be charitable to such a pitiable figure.
Robin peeped at him slyly from under the shaggy explosion of his hair. “Don’t suppose yeh could see yer way clear t’ unlocking these and lettin’ me be on my way?” He rattled a wrist cuff, for emphasis.
“What? No!” Thomas clutched at the bars so hard that his knuckles whitened. “That isn’t what I meant, and you know that very well!”
“Eh, figured it couldn’t hurt t’ask,” Robin said, completely unrepentant. “In thet case, Lieut’nant, could yeh mebbe get me a bit o’ water? It’s tolerable dry in here!”
“Water–” Thomas broke off there, startled and ashamed. A bucket (doubtless filthy) stood in the corner, three-quarters full of water, but of course the collar and the staple would prevent Robin from reaching so far. He’d certainly have to speak to Mister Janks later. Letting the poor man go dry and parched while a few tantalizing inches away from water…! “Of course,” he said. “Locking you up away from water–beastly.” And before Robin could respond with any more of his cheeky talk Thomas strode off down the hallway, fetching the heavy iron key from the cabinet where it hung, and as an afterthought, the dipper from the jailer’s own water bucket.
“I’ll have no nonsense from you,” he said sharply, once he returned. “I haven’t the keys to your chains in any case, and if you have any foolish ideas, well, I think you’ll find me a most recalcitrant hostage.”
“Aye, I’ll behave,” Robin said eagerly, his eyes fastened on the dipper in Thomas’ hand. “Good as gold, thet’s me.” Thomas was stabbed by another pang of guilt. The poor man. Surely the King’s men could afford to be more civilized than this, even in this backwater!
Still, guilty he might be but foolish he was not, so he kept a careful eye on Robin as he unlocked the heavy cell door and wrestled it open. It swung with a screech of rusting hinges–no amount of oiling could save the iron from the salt air for long–and as an afterthought Thomas closed it behind himself again, relocking it and hanging the key from his swordbelt. Robin watched him with unreserved impish fascination, those monkey-bright brown eyes jumping from the keys to Thomas’ sword to the dipper in his hand to his face. Thomas ignored it as best he could, plunging the dipper into the bucket and pulling it out dripping with reasonably clean water. “No nonsense,” he reminded Robin.
“Aye, Lieut’nant,” Robin rasped, his tongue flicking out to wet his lips.
Thomas nodded once, sharply, and went gingerly to his knees on the dirty straw, for the moment unconcerned about the state this would leave his uniform trousers in. The tip of his saber’s scabbard skittered across the stones behind him. Wrapping an arm around Robin’s shoulders he helped the little man sit up against the staple–God above, he weighed so little–and held the dipper to his mouth as best he could.
The chains clinked as Robin’s hands came up, splaying out on the bottom of the dipper and nudging it towards his mouth. He drank deeply, thirstily, gulping like an animal, gasping for breath before sucking up another greedy mouthful; Thomas’ shame grew stifling. The poor man. “Another, please, Lieut’nant,” Robin begged when the dipper was empty. Thomas nodded and reached across the cell, dipping up another cupful of water.
Robin gulped the second as he had gulped the first. In the end he grew too greedy, shoving at the bottom of the dipper like he feared Thomas would yank it away; he choked on the last mouthful, water pouring from his mouth to wet his chin as he fell into a coughing fit. Thomas dropped the dipper to the straw and thumped Robin’s back until the wracking coughs subsided, the little man huddling against him with his head resting weakly on Thomas’ shoulder. “Are you all right?” he inquired once Robin was quiet.
“Aye, fine,” Robin said rustily, spitting once. “Thank yeh for yer kindness, Lieut’nant. Not many o’ yeh bluebottles would show such t’a creature such as me.”
“Nonsense,” Thomas said, letting Robin slump back against the wall. His hand dropped to the ring of keys at his waist, confirming that they were still there, unstolen. “It’s our Christian duty to show charity to those less fortunate than we, and I’ll thank you not to insult the Navy so. Will you have more water?”
Robin waved his fingers weakly. “Nah, nah, suspect that’ll do.”
Thomas nodded, plucked the dipper from the straw, and stood up. Robin’s eyes fell to the dipper again, his gaze sharpening to something fox-like in its cunning. “Here, don’t suppose yeh could leave thet with me, Lieut’nant? Case I get thirsty again?”
“No,” Thomas said, almost gently, amused despite himself by Robin’s wholly transparent attempt to gain himself a tool. Such a little monkey. “If you need more water, ask the jailer. I shall instruct him to bring you more if you ask.”
Robin sagged back against the wall, clearly disappointed. “Eh, well, s’kind of yeh, Lieut’nant. ‘Preciate it.”
“You’re welcome.” Thomas let himself out of the cell again, locking it behind himself before slapping the straw off his knees. When he was done, before he left, he turned around again to put a hand on the bars and catch Robin’s eye once more. “Make peace with your heathen gods if you can,” he said sternly. “But I hope you’ll find it in your heart to call for the priest and cleanse your soul properly, Robin.”
For a moment Robin was silent, studying him; then he burst out into that lunatic grin again. “Aye, well, I’ll think on it, Lieut’nant, since it means so much t’ yeh an’ all.”
Thomas very firmly refused to be either nettled or baited. “Good,” he said, nodding. And Thomas strode back up the hallway to put away the keys and have a stern word with Mister Janks.
The memory of that grin, bright and incautious, stayed with him for the rest of the day, Robin silently accompanying him on his rounds and distracting him from his duties. And Thomas could ill afford to be distracted: as one of only two lieutenants serving under Captain Tyre (a doughty man, to be certain, but also the highest-ranking man the Navy could spare for these parts) fully half the town fell under his watch, and there was always the thought of home and ambition to spur him onwards. A backwater, certainly, and of no great moment, but if he acquitted himself well here…!
And still the ghost of Robin padded silently at his heels, so at the end of the day when Thomas’ time was his own, he took himself down to the tavern where the Navy men drank and presumed to buy a mug for Mister Beckwith, the captain’s own secretary. In Thomas’ private opinion, an odious little man, a collection of foul habits and fouler opinions, sparkling clean on the outside and filthy within… but no one knew the town or its inhabitants (and parasites) better than he.
It took little enough prompting to move the conversation to Robin, at which point Thomas discovered, to his dismay, that Mister Beckwith had quite a lot to say on the subject of river-folk in general and Robin in particular, and none of it good nor fair. “Every one of them’s a thief,” he proclaimed, pursing his lips in distaste. “Him most of all. The others, they’ll just steal whatever falls in their laps–their filthy kind is far too lazy to exert themselves–but that one! He joys in it, I’m certain. A pox on him, may he rot in Hell.”
“I fear that that may be the case,” Thomas said as evenly as he could, taking a small sip of his own ale. Foul stuff. “He sent away the priest, I’m told.”
“Good riddance,” Beckwith said. “I’ve come to doubt that river-folk have souls at all, and that one and the devil deserve each other in any case.” As if to punctuate this ghastly proclamation, he turned aside and spat on the floor.
Thomas concentrated on his drink for a moment (and an unpleasant task it was) before daring to allow himself to continue. “I don’t know much about the river-folk, I’m afraid,” he ventured.
“Yes, well, you wouldn’t, would you, a daisy fresh from the Academy, barely two months in the man’s world,” said Beckwith, and for a moment it was all Thomas could do not to dash his mug of swill in the man’s insulting face and thereby mortally insult Captain Tyre (who was, after all, the foul man’s brother-in-law). Beckwith’s sneer said that he knew it all too well, used as he was to sheltering behind the skirts of the captain’s coat. “Sluts and roundheels, the lot of them, men as well as women, and not a one of them prone to discriminate,” he went on, finally sipping at the ale which Thomas had so kindly provided. “And not for coin, neither, and none of those furtive little gropings that plague such as the Naval Academy–” Thomas very firmly refused to rise to this bait, although he feared that his ears reddened from anger “–but for the sheer deviltry of it! Harlots and Sodomites, devil futter them all–they’ll enjoy it.”
“Mister Beckwith!” Thomas said, well and truly shocked.
“Oh, what?” Beckwith gestured at Thomas with his mug, a knowing little smirk on his face. “You stay in these parts for long and I guarantee that you’ll come to agree with me–oh, but you won’t be staying, will you? An Academy graduate like you, you’re just here long enough to muddle along until a better posting comes through, aren’t you?”
“That, sir, is for the Navy to decide,” Thomas said. He was choking on his anger, little good that it would do him.
Beckwith stared at him, narrow-eyed, before nodding. “That it is, Lieutenant. That it is. I don’t doubt that coming here just in time to see Barefoot Robin hanged will count as a feather in your cap, despite you not having suffered through his constant depredations along with the rest of us. That is, if he’s hanged.”
Thomas frowned, but in the end, he couldn’t resist. “Why should he not be hanged? The governor has already said there’ll be no clemency for him.”
“Because he’s been in those cells four times before now,” Beckwith said, with the air of a man delivering a telling blow. Thomas sat back, stunned and unable to prevent showing it. “Four times in the cells, four times condemned to death, and four times he’s contrived to escape, in four unlikely ways. That’s why the chains, you see. I don’t doubt they’ll gag him before he’s led from the jail as well, or just cut out his tongue, although he’ll need it where he’s going. Lick the devil’s arse and beg for mercy, see how far it gets him.”
Thomas, unsettled, hid his wince behind his mug. “Four times,” he said, disbelieving. “That’s…”
“Oh, he’s a clever one, right enough,” said Beckwith. “Scattered a purse of the governor’s own gold coins to the mob and escaped in the confusion, that was one, and knocked a jailer over the head with a water dipper, that was the second–” Thomas smiled despite himself “–took the bars out of the left-hand cell window for the third, and no one–no one–knows how he escaped on the fourth, although if you ask me he took some perverted sergeant’s knob in his arse right through the bars in exchange for the keys to his cell, right enough. If we checked the men for some foul venereal disease, I don’t doubt we’d find our culprit, Lieutenant.”
“Half the men here have some sort of pox or another,” Thomas said, struggling for calm. “Are we to assume that every man who’s ever paid a whore is the same man who let Barefoot Robin out of his cell? We’d not have enough chains to restrain them all.”
“Ha! True enough.” Beckwith looked almost entertained; Thomas felt grimy just for having impressed the little toad. “Still,” Beckwith said, “perhaps the fifth time will be the charm, what? Was there anything else you cared to know, Lieutenant Worthington?”
“No. No, thank you, I believe that will be all,” Thomas said, standing up. A stab of unseemly pride made him drop a silver coin onto the table at Beckwith’s hand. “For your next,” he said. “I’d hate to underpay you for such valuable information.”
Beckwith didn’t look insulted, more’s the pity. “Kind of you, Lieutenant. And as one kindness deserves another: did you know you’ve lost your rank-brooch again?”
Thomas’ hand flew guiltily to his cravat and, sure enough, found nothing there but fabric. “Oh, drat the thing,” he said, letting his hand drop. “I must see to having that catch repaired. If only there were a decent jeweler in this town, I’d have had it seen to long ago.”
“I’m sure someone will find it,” Beckwith said, waving his hand negligently. “Still, I’m a kind man, I shan’t tell the Captain you were out of uniform.”
Thomas bowed stiffly. “You have my gratitude,” he informed Beckwith. “And now, if you’ll pardon me…” Without waiting for the man’s permission he strode out into the night, disconcerted and disgusted, the barefoot spectre of Robin drifting silently behind him.
It was not Thomas’ turn to oversee the executions on the day that Robin was to be hanged, so he could lay abed a while, if he liked; still, he found himself awake as the sky outside began to lighten, his mind springing about too much to permit him to sleep. Perhaps he’d go down to the square anyway. As infamous a rogue as this Barefoot Robin seemed to be, Thomas thought that he’d hardly believe the man properly deceased unless he saw his death for himself.
And so he was already out of bed and stepping into his trousers when the alarm went up, out on the streets below. Thomas’ head jerked up; he stared at the window in disbelief. Surely not… Thomas grabbed for his boots and his swordbelt, hurrying into both, and by the time his landlady pounded on his door he was sliding into his coat. “Yes, thank you, I’ve already heard,” he assured her as he slipped past, tying his hair back on his way down the stairs. He dashed out onto the streets, catching the first man in uniform to race by. “What? What’s the alarm?”
“Barefoot Robin’s escaped, Lieutenant!” the man gasped, pausing to hurriedly salute. “They went to his cell to get him ready and he was gone, flown right out of his locked chains like smoke!” Startled, Thomas let him go, and the man dashed off. Thomas raced after him, hatless, one hand hovering by the grip of his saber.
Small as this town was, it was less than a minute’s run to the Navy’s headquarters, even when Thomas had to dodge running soldiers left and right. “He’ll be fifty miles from here, mark my words!” Captain Tyre was roaring even as Thomas pushed the door open. Beckwith was huddled over his desk in the corner, scribbling frantically, looking much the worse for wear for drink, which Thomas noted with an unseemly little pang of amusement. “Him and that damned sloop of his–Worthington! Take five–no, ten–men and search the boats at the dock! Tear them apart! No one ships out until you’re satisfied that he’s not there!”
“Aye, Captain!” Thomas saluted, then spun on his heel and began shouting out names.
In the end, it was fruitless, as indeed everyone seemed to know it would be. A day wasted searching every ship in the harbor while their captains grumbled and the seamen glowered, and while Thomas did turn up a few interesting items that had been conveniently left off cargo manifests on account of being wholly illegal, he turned up not a single little nut-brown man with a cheeky grin.
By early afternoon the last ship had been vetted and turned out to sea and Thomas wearily dismissed his men. Succumbing to his curiosity he turned his feet towards the jail, plodding along the planking, deaf to the calls of the market-women and the noise of the town.
The cell was indeed empty when he arrived, the chains still piled in the center. Thomas swung the complaining door open and knelt to inspect them for himself: still locked in every case, cuffs and anklets and collar alike, staple still padlocked to the wall. The thin straw held a dent in it, in the shape of Robin’s narrow backside, but that was the only trace of the man. Truly, it was like he’d drifted out of his bonds like smoke.
Begging-dog collar in hand, Thomas straightened up, his mouth set in a grim line. He was a rational and God-fearing man and he did not believe in gypsy magic or other such superstitious nonsense, and so he was convinced that there must be another explanation. The man must have had help. That’s all there was to it. All that remained was to find the rogue who’d helped him, now that Robin himself had flown.
Half the puzzle was solved the instant that Thomas yanked open the drawers of the jailer’s desk. Rum, the bottle half-empty but what little remained still potent enough to singe his eyebrows; thrusting the bottle into Mister Janks’ face and commenting pointedly on his telltale stench made the man sag and admit that he’d been drunk to unconsciousness the night before. “But he was locked away and chained to the wall!” the man sniveled, worrying at a bit of tattered handkerchief that was just as filthy as the rest of him. “I thought for sure it’d hold him fast enough!”
“What you thought is none of my concern,” Thomas said coldly. “If you had been sober and awake neither he nor this confederate of his would have gotten past you.” The jailer shrank into a miserable huddle; Thomas glared at him for a moment longer, then turned and thrust the begging-dog collar into the hands of the soldier by the door. “Put Mister Janks in Robin’s abandoned chains,” he instructed, “and lock him in the middle cell. A night in Robin’s place will teach him more respect for his position on the other side of the bars, I’ll wager.”
“Aye, Lieutenant!” the soldier said, saluting. “Any further orders, sir?”
“None,” said Thomas, his anger fading. “I’m going home. Send someone to fetch me if there’s news.”
The soldier saluted again. Thomas pushed past him and out into the evening, where even the gaudy sunset failed to cheer him overmuch.
It was fully dark by the time he finished his report and let himself into his rooms, exhausted. He stumbled twice in the space between the door and the lamp, and nearly fumbled and broke the glass chimney while trying to set it back over the flame. Still, just the act of lighting the lamp served to wake him slightly, and he was able to struggle out of both his boots and his coat without too much trouble.
A small glass of port, that was the ticket. Thomas paused in the middle of fetching the bottle and glanced over at the window, his nerves prickling with some vague premonition. It was closed, however, and there was nothing untoward to be seen out of it. Thomas snorted at himself, turned about, and froze.
Something small and dark lay in the center of his pillow, just where his head dented the ticking. Thomas dropped the bottle to the desk with a crash and seized the lamp, striding over to the bed and raising the flame high. The dark thing resolved itself as his rank-brooch, or what was left of it, the sturdy pin-back broken in two, the ends of both broken halves dented and scratched–
–his treacherous mind threw up the image of Robin coughing up his water with his face smashed against Thomas’ shoulder. Had he perhaps felt a slight tug as the man’s teeth pulled his broken rank-brooch from his cravat? Had he?
His hands shaking, Thomas put the lamp down on the table by the side of the bed and scooped up his rank-brooch. He touched the broken end of the pin, helpless now to avoid seeing his brooch and the broken-off piece of pin as two halves of as perfect a set of improvised lockpicks as a man chained to the wall of a cell was ever likely to find.
Thomas closed his hand convulsively tight around the pin, piercing the flesh of his palm and, in a way, grateful for the sharp pain of it. It seemed like a small enough price to pay for his arrogance, his idiocy, his cow-like credulity. Damn that man and his seeming harmlessness! If he’d only known–
–he’d have done the same thing, damn him. Escape artist or not, no man deserved to parch in the harsh salt air.
His eye fell back onto his pillow, drawn by the faintest flicker of a shadow that should not have been there. Dropping the broken brooch onto the bedside table by the lamp, Thomas reached down and plucked the flower from his pillow, holding it up in trembling fingers. It was nothing but a common dandelion, only slightly wilted, its ragged petals an explosion of yellow in the lamplight… a fine signature for a scruffy-haired man of the river-folk, common as muck and nothing much to look at, but prone to steal his way into most anywhere and almost impossible to stamp out.
For all that it smarted on Thomas’ pride, the whole Robin business quickly faded from the public eye, recalled only by a handful of tavern stories and one particularly bad ballad that acquired two new verses and an ill-fitting bridge overnight. Small and of no real account the town might be, but it was a busy little microcosm, and its inhabitants had newer things to gossip about within the week. Three days after Robin’s miraculous escape Thomas wasn’t so much as being jeered at any more, and even Captain Tyre seemed to have resigned himself to the inevitability of the little man’s escape. Life, in short, went on as it had. Robins may come and Robins may go, but toil was eternal.
So when Thomas came home at the stroke of midnight two weeks later to find a certain barefooted fellow sitting crosslegged on his bed waiting for him, it came entirely as a shock. Indeed, he nearly dropped the dinner that his landlady had so kindly left covered for him on the kitchen counter.
The window was open, letting in the night breezes and ruffling the curtains. How Robin had opened it, Thomas couldn’t be certain. The lock had been sound, he knew that much. “Evenin’,” Robin said, beaming.
“You,” Thomas said evenly, his fingers tightening on the rim of the plate. He was quite angry at himself at the moment. He’d been caught completely flat-footed, his sword hand occupied–by a rather nice china plate he dared not drop, lest his landlady have Words with him–and the hilt of some sort of sword jutting up from behind Robin’s left shoulder told Thomas quite clearly that if he planned to draw, he’d best do it quickly. “Scoundrel. What do you want?”
“Eh,” Robin said, leaning back against the headboard and stretching his legs out in front of him. “Well, t’ be honest, I’d come by t’ say thank yeh, but yeh don’ seem t’ be in any mood t’ be thanked, Lieut’nant.”
“Indeed not!” Thomas glanced left at his desk. Too far away. “It was a filthy thing you did, taking advantage of my good nature in that fashion. Have you no honor?”
Robin sucked on his lower lip, considering this. “Aye,” he finally said. “Still an’ all, I expect it en’t th’ sort of honor thet yeh mean.”
“Then you have no honor at all,” Thomas declared. “And I ought to call for the guards right now. Half a dozen guardsmen live on the floors below–we’d have you in irons before you could say Jack Robinson.” That was, assuming they weren’t dead drunk or out on patrol.
“Eh? Jack Robinson? Dunno the fella,” Robin said, now beaming again. He sat back up. “An’ call for th’ guards if yeh like, Lieut’nant, but I think it’d make yeh look a right fool, yeh fixin’ t’ hold me at chicken-point.”
Thomas ground his teeth. “Well, then, I suppose we’ll just have to–” Without warning he slung the plate sidearm at Robin’s head. “–do something about that situation!”
Robin squawked and threw up a hand, catching the dinner plate neatly by its rim an instant before it could crash into his face, but by that time Thomas had put himself between the bed and the window, snatching his saber from its scabbard. “Now, rogue, we’ll see about you once and for all–”
Plate still in hand Robin flung himself off the far side of the bed. Tossing the plate neatly into his left hand he reached up and hauled his own sword free: three feet of wide-bladed pirate cutlass with a battered basket hilt that had seen better days. “Oh, aye, Lieut’nant? Then let’s have at yeh!” And before Thomas could call for the guards, or respond, or anything, Robin leaped onto the bed and sprang off it, flying straight at Thomas.
Thomas flung up his saber and took the cutlass’ strike hard on the flat, the muscles in his shoulders bunching as he fought not to be overborne by the airborne thief. Robin rebounded and skittered three rapid steps straight back, his left hand swooping crazily through the air as he somehow managed not to spill a single bit of food from the plate. Lamplight glittered from the blade of his cutlass as it lifted to hover in front of his chest. Lamplight glittered from his grin, too. “So yeh fancy yerself a dab hand with a blade, aye?”
“First in my class at the Academy,” Thomas gritted out, rolling one shoulder as he brought the saber’s wickedly sharp point up to bear on the gleaming point of Robin’s eye. If he could just break through the man’s guard–“And that’s my landlady’s best china you’re trifling with,” he added, his left foot sliding into place.
“Eh?” Robin glanced away from Thomas, at the plate in his hand. “Mine now–” and broke off there as Thomas lunged for him.
The tip of the saber skittered crazily off the flat of the cutlass blade before slicing in underneath it, stabbing through the air not three inches from Robin’s side. Thomas twisted his wrist and slewed his body sideways, the blade slashing in towards Robin’s hip; Robin yelped and flung himself away from the saber, landing in a cat-like crouch on the seat of Thomas’ desk chair and leaping off again. Thomas whirled about to face him again… but Robin balanced on his toes in front of the open window now. Surely he’d flee. Surely.
Robin glanced over his shoulder, not quite taking his eyes off Thomas, then whipped his left hand up and over his shoulder. Thomas’ dinner, sans plate, went flying out into the night to patter, eventually, off the cobblestones three stories below. Thomas jerked back, startled despite himself. “That was my dinner!”
“Still is, yeh wanna go an’ get it!” Robin waggled the empty plate at him, grinning. “This here’s mine, though. Yeh gave it t’ me right an’ proper.”
“Like hell–” and Thomas lunged for him again.
The cutlass whipped up at the very last second and knocked his saber aside, the point slicing nothing but air a hair’s breadth from Robin’s cheek. Robin laughed in crazy delight and hooked the flying cutlass blade down and in, forcing Thomas to retreat hastily lest he be disemboweled, and then jump back again as Robin reversed the blade and slashed it across where his knees had just been. He nearly backed straight into the footboard of the bed, only barely recalling it in time and twisting his body aside. Robin’s cutlass, thundering in in a deadly overhead arc, buried itself halfway into the wood with a meaty chunking sound and stuck there. Reflexively Thomas thrust forward over the trapped blade, the point of his saber lancing unerringly towards Robin’s eye–
–only to pull up abruptly not a quivering finger’s width from his landlady’s best china plate. Robin’s grin shone from behind his impromptu shield. “Tsk, tsk,” he said, and with a ferocious yank he hauled his cutlass clear.
Thinking fast, Thomas fell back another step, towards the sitting room. “Dog,” he spat, warding off a whistling blow and then another. Sloppy, Robin’s swordwork was sloppy, but the little scoundrel was fast and inventive, he’d give him that–still, with a slashing blade like a cutlass, he needed room to use it, and there was one place in Thomas’ lodgings where there wasn’t room to do much. Thomas took another step back, jerking up his chin. Robin grinned and darted forward, following, his cutlass flying about him at ludicrous speeds. It was all Thomas could do to defend against it. The clamor seemed deafening, although Thomas doubted it would draw much attention, not in this town.
The edge of Robin’s cutlass screeched along the edge of Thomas’ saber and then Thomas’ bootheel hit the slight rise of the sitting-room rug. His lips thinned. Between one heartbeat and the next he shifted from his defensive stance into a full-out ringing offense, driving Robin backwards in a flurry of clashing blows; lunging to his left Thomas cut off Robin’s retreat into the bedroom, driving the little man backwards into the narrow hallway leading to the water closet. His lips peeled back in a humorless grin. This was what it was all about, this moment–
The cutlass bounced off one of the walls, sending up a great spray of plaster and rebounding hard, dragging the thief halfway around with it. The look of surprise on Robin’s face was almost comical. “Oh, clever!” he cried, jerking the cutlass diagonally up in front of himself–there was barely even room for that, in this hallway that was so narrow that even Thomas’ not-particularly-broad shoulders almost filled it–and just barely warding off Thomas’ next blow.
Now the man with the saber held the upper hand, and there was nowhere for Robin to retreat to. Thomas, still baring his teeth, stabbed for anything that Robin left unguarded, and the cutlass was hard-pressed to ward it off. A rent appeared in the leg of Robin’s baggy breeches and another in the full sleeve of his shirt, and Robin yelped in dismay. “Here, thet’s my best shirt!”
“Shouldn’t have worn it, then,” Thomas told him, quite nearly removing the man’s gaudy earring for him, along with half his ear.
“Aye, well, an’ it’s also my only shirt–” and Robin flung the china plate straight at his face.
Thomas jerked back and reflexively caught it with his left hand (and just barely, at that) before he had time to think, and before he could do anything else Robin yanked a flintlock pistol from the motley collection of sashes at his waist and caught Thomas dead to rights with it. Thomas froze, narrowing his eyes in disgust, still breathing hard. “No honor at all,” he spat.
“Aye, well, no sense in not usin’ all th’ tools at yer disposal,” Robin wheezed.
“Oh? Then indeed, let us!” Thomas whipped the plate back at him, dodging to the side at the same moment.
Robin yelped and tried to jerk the cutlass up to ward it off, but the basket hilt hit the wall and the plate hit Robin full in the face, with Thomas raging right behind. The plate bounced up into the air, following its own lunatic arc. Robin stumbled back a step, arms flailing, and abruptly fell onto his backside, already scrambling to get up, but Thomas’ sword sang in to sink an inch deep into the meat of Robin’s shoulder and encourage him not to continue to rise–Thomas stomped on the wrist of Robin’s pistol hand before he could bring it up, and the world fell still. Somewhere behind them the plate hit the floor and shattered. “Yield,” Thomas suggested, flicking the point of his saber free and touching it to the underside of Robin’s chin. It left a little red smear.
Robin swallowed, his throat bobbing. “Aye,” he said rustily, his fingers relaxing, the pistol falling to the floor. “I yield. An’ in case yeh were wonderin’: ouch.”
Thomas eyed him narrowly for a moment. A red poppy was blooming on Robin’s shoulder, the blood slowly spreading outwards. “Push the pistol away,” he finally said. “Use your fingertips. No nonsense.”
“Never any time for nonsense wi’ such as yeh,” Robin complained, but he flicked his fingers outwards and the pistol skittered a few inches away. Thomas lifted his foot gingerly (not failing to keep the saber’s tip pressed to Robin’s windpipe) and kicked it away, the pistol clattering over the boards until it came to rest somewhere in the sitting room.
Thomas eyed him. “Stand up,” he said. “Slowly. You’ve enough holes in you as it is and I’d hate to be forced to make another.”
Robin’s hand drifted up, clamping over the wound on his shoulder. “Aye, thet we can agree on,” he said, bracing his other hand against the floor. Slowly, like two men in a dream, they rolled back the way they came, Robin rising to his feet and Thomas sliding back to give him room, the saber stretched between them like a line.
Once Robin was standing, clutching at his shoulder and looking woebegone, Thomas nodded. “You’re under arrest in the name of the King,” he said. “And you’ve yielded. If you swear to submit to me and try no nonsense, I’ll bandage your shoulder before I take you to the cells.”
“My best shirt,” Robin mourned, but he nodded a moment later and closed his eyes. “Aye. Aye, I submit, Lieut’nant, and I’ll thank yeh f’r the bandagin’. I’m leakin’ fit to capsize.”
Thomas flicked his saber back, giving it a cursory cleaning on the cuff of his own shirt before slamming it back into its scabbard. “Believe me when I say that I can draw that sword faster than you can run away from it,” he said. “Come on.” He took Robin’s elbow. Robin, unresisting, followed him back into the bedroom, where Thomas sat him firmly on the bed. “Take off your shirt.”
Robin fumbled at his waist for a moment, untying the strings that held his shirt closed. Thomas took two steps backwards and swung the window shut, cutting off that avenue of escape, then went to the desk and fumbled about in the drawer, looking for the box of bandages and other assorted useful items that he kept there. He let his fingers do most of the looking; he didn’t plan to take his eyes off Robin for a second.
Robin gingerly tugged off his bloody and torn shirt, hissing, some kind of pendant falling free of the shirt’s deep front opening to thump against his bare chest. His arm was smeared with blood from collarbone to elbow, the little lipless smile of the wound gaping and closing as he moved. Robin held up the tattered remains of his shirt in front of him, scowling, and then without any warning at all that grin of his bloomed again. “Be damned if yeh en’t a fair hand with thet pigsticker!”
“Yes, well, I’ve had practice,” Thomas said evenly, fumbling the little box free. Grudgingly he added, “I suppose you’re not bad yourself.”
“Oh, aye,” Robin said, nodding emphatically. Wadding up his ruined shirt he started scrubbing the blood from his arm. “I’da had yeh if yeh hadn’t got me all boxed in! Clever, clever.”
“Nonsense,” Thomas said, although now that he’d had a moment to think, he was uncertain if it actually was. He carried the box across to the bed, sitting beside Robin and flicking open the lid. “Your swordplay is sloppy at best, you take too many risks, and you fight with a ridiculous weapon that requires far too much room to use. You’re lucky that you’ve managed to make such tactics work for you at all. Put your arm down.”
Obligingly Robin let Thomas have his arm, craning his neck to watch Thomas work. His skin was hot and slick with sweat under Thomas’ fingers. “Eh, well, as yeh will, then,” Robin said cheerily. “Still an’ all, I’m tolerably fond o’ the cutlass.”
Thomas pressed a thick pad of cotton wadding down over the wound. “Well, since it’s your stubborn adherence to the weapon that allowed me to defeat you, then by all means, remain fond of the cutlass. Here, put your fingers here, hold this.”
Robin’s hand came down over his, his fingers leaving little stripes of blood on the back of Thomas’ hand. Thomas twitched, startled. “Aye, thet’s got it, Lieut’nant,” he said, his voice all innocence even as he pressed his hand to Thomas’.
Thomas scowled and tugged his hand free. For the next few moments he worked in silence, winding a roll of bandage snakelike up Robin’s wiry bicep and across the curve of his shoulder under Robin’s fascinated gaze. In hindsight, it was a mistake. Without the talk to distract him Thomas’ treacherous mind jumped first to Beckwith’s foul and titillating slanders and then to the sheer proximity of Robin; for all that he seemed harmless enough he was certainly present, smelling as he did of sweat and blood and not-quite-clean skin, leaning in towards Thomas like he planned to fall on him at any second, staring, beaming, existing. If even half of what Beckwith had insinuated was true…!
“There,” Thomas said, a little too loudly, tying off the bandage with a neat knot. “That ought to hold you until the morrow.”
“Aye,” Robin agreed, oddly subdued now. He was so close by this point that the coarse tufts of his hair brushed against Thomas’ forehead. “Thank yeh, Lieut’nant. Yeh’re a good man. Been good t’ me twice now, when yeh en’t had to, either time.”
“I try,” Thomas said, standing up. “It’s only the Christian thing to do, after all–” and he broke off there as Robin rose up beside him and pressed in. Thomas twitched back, or tried to, automatically grabbing for his sword; Robin’s hand closed hard over his, forcing the saber back into the scabbard. And then Robin rose onto his toes and pressed his mouth to Thomas’, and Thomas froze, his thoughts scattering in shock.
For a moment it was all he could do to keep his feet. Robin’s mouth was clever and smirking and wet on his, oh God, and the man’s bare chest was pressed up against his, oh God, and deft little fingers were plucking at his belt, and why was he not putting a stop to this? “What in God’s name are you doing?” he croaked against Robin’s lips, trying to sound outraged and, as far as he could tell in his current state, completely failing.
“Submittin’,” Robin said cheerfully, darting in to steal another kiss. “Like yeh said.”
Thomas squeezed his eyes shut. “In the first… first place that’s not what I meant and you know that very well,” he said. Robin kissed him again and Thomas jerked his head aside, breaking the kiss with a little wet pop. “And in the second place, stop that.” He meant it to be an order; it came out an uncertain plea.
Robin paused, thumping back down onto his bare heels. “Yeh want me t’ stop?”
“Yes!” Thomas said, blinking furiously. “It’s not… you shouldn’t… yes! Stop! That’s an order!”
“Awright, if yeh insist, but yeh’re a powerful indecisive fella, Lieut’nant,” Robin said. Before Thomas could ask him just what he meant by that Robin snapped his left hand shut and lunged backwards. Thomas’ sword sang under his hand, cutting a thin line on his palm, and then Robin was five feet away and Thomas’ own saber was pointed unerringly at his nose.
The shock was so great that it barely registered, at first. “I thought you preferred the cutlass,” Thomas said in a small and idiotic voice.
“Oh, aye,” Robin said, flexing his fingers on the hilt, “but there’s some as say: any point in a storm!”
“That’s ‘port’–” The spell of stasis on Thomas abruptly snapped, along with his temper. “You…!” Thomas squeezed both hands into fists, his vision filling with a red and killing rage. “You honorless cur! You yielded! You submitted!”
“An’ yeh tol’ me t’ stop,” Robin said cheerfully.
“That is not what I meant!” Thomas shouted, flinging his hands up in frustrated defeat.
“Oh, aye?” And the hell of it was, Robin actually looked sheepish, not that it made the saber waver. Threatened with his own blade! It was humiliating. “Ah, well, y’ought t’ be more specific, Lieut’nant! Man like yeh who speaks s’ pretty, yeh’d think yeh could say what yeh meant–”
“–I’ll see you hanged,” Thomas snarled. “Before this month is out. You’ll pay for your crimes and go to your judgment, and next time I shall let your soul look to itself.”
“Aye, it’s always a possibility,” Robin said, backing towards the window, the saber level and steady in his left hand. “But for now I’ll be takin’ my leave–”
Thomas sucked in a deep and outraged breath. “GUARDS!” he bellowed, no longer giving a damn about any potential embarrassment. “TO ME!”
Robin yelped and took the last two backwards steps at a fast and ridiculous trot, flinging the window open blindly behind him. “Thank yeh for yer hospitality, Lieut’nant!” he cried, grabbing the windowsill in one hand and vaulting out of it backwards. Even as he somersaulted out into the night, bare feet flying, he threw the saber into the room, the naked blade clattering to the boards nearly at Thomas’ feet.
Thomas dashed for the window, but Robin was gone, neither splattered on the cobblestones below nor dangling from the window on a rope. Gripping the windowsill so tightly that his knuckles turned white, Thomas fruitlessly searched the street below, then spat out a most un-Christian word and turned away. Finally, far too late, guardsmen pounded up the stairs; he slammed the window shut and went to let them in, as an afterthought kicking Robin’s bloodied shirt and the bandage box under the bed.
The aftermath was nothing short of embarrassing, although not half so embarrassing as it would have been had Thomas told the whole story. In the end, despite his misgivings, he kept the latter half of the story to himself, telling Captain Tyre only that Barefoot Robin had broken into his rooms to taunt him and managed to escape in the ensuing confusion, despite Thomas having wounded him in the shoulder. Beckwith had smirked at him evilly enough as it was; having the man find out the rest would have been insupportable.
Besides, Thomas had his career to think of, and so he begged God’s forgiveness for his weaknesses, all of them, and kept his mouth shut. Robin’s bloodied shirt he threw out; his cutlass and pistol (fine specimens both, Thomas had to admit, doubtless stolen) went into the sea-chest by Thomas’ bed, where Thomas endeavored to ignore them until such time as their rightful owners could be found.
And that should have been that. Thomas would have dearly loved for that to have been that. But for all that he attempted to wash his hands of the cheeky little imp, his hands refused to stay washed; his memory turned traitor, causing him to think of Robin’s devilish advances and blush at the most inopportune of times, and his dreams! They were embarrassingly suggestive at best and downright filthy at worst. More than once he jerked awake in a nest of fouled and sweat-soaked sheets. Thomas’ prayers doubled in their importunity and yet it did him no good whatsoever.
The summer dragged on, hot and sodden like a barber’s towel. Thomas’ heavy uniform coat dragged him down, and more than once he found himself slumped in the shade upon a convenient barrel, fanning himself with his hat and yearning after the faintest hint of a breeze. At night he checked the new, sturdy lock on his bedroom window just before retiring, silently cursing the fate that had led Robin to take such an interest in him just when an open window to let in the breeze would be most welcome. He spent his nights in a miasma of wet heat, passing out in damp sheets only to claw his way back to fetid consciousness a few hours later.
And his dreams continued to plague him. Tossing in his bed he groaned and suffered as the devil filled his mind with dark and confusing images of Robin, Robin doing… things to him that were wholly unclear in the details (Thomas had never indulged in the various sins of Sodom, not even at the Academy, thank you, Mister Beckwith) but that nevertheless stiffened and tormented his body in wholly unsalubrious ways. He took to sleeping in trousers instead of his nightshirt. It was… cleaner.
The worst dream of all came deep in the heart of the summer, on a night when the very air seemed to have weight. Worst of all, for in it Robin did not lay unwelcome hands on him in the dark but lazed by the window of this very room, barechested and grinning and insolent, and Thomas found his dream-self wishing to go over there and put his hands (and mouth, oh God) on Robin while the cool air of evening blew in through the open window, caressing them both–
–he jerked out of sleep into a gray dawn, muzzily aware only that the cool breeze had followed him from his dream. “Heh, looked like a right nice dream yeh were havin’,” Robin said from the bed beside him, and Thomas shrieked like a woman and flung himself out of the bed to land in an ungainly heap on the floor.
“You!” he said, horribly aware of his naked chest and the buttons of his trousers pressing into a ready erection. “How dare–give me one good reason why I shouldn’t call for the guards right this instant!”
“‘Cause then I’d leave?” Robin said, rolling over onto his back and wriggling his shoulders into the damp eiderdown. “‘S a nice bed yeh’ve got here, Lieut’nant! It’s a wonder yeh can bring yerself t’ get out of it at all.”
Thomas rose warily to his feet. “Yes, well, it’s easy enough when I find myself sharing it with–” he dove for the hook upon which he was accustomed to hanging his saber “–a filthy Sodomite where is my sword?”
“Tossed it out o’ the window afore yeh woke.” Robin didn’t move, although he tilted his head back and grinned at Thomas upside-down. “If yeh’re sweet t’ me I’ll fetch it back for yeh afore I go.”
Thomas hissed in exasperation and hunched over, trying to hide his nakedness as best he could. Tackling and restraining the little madman would require touching him–“What do you want?”
Robin sucked on his lower lip in thought, an expression which did nothing for Thomas’ equilibrium. “Well, yeh said thet yeh’d see me hanged within the month, an’ the month’s almost up, so I came back t’ give yeh another chance an’ also t’ fetch back what’s mine.”
“What’s y–it’s not here,” Thomas said, going very still and firmly not allowing himself to look towards the sea-chest. “Your sword and pistol are in the armory down at headquarters, where they’ll remain until such time as their rightful owners come forward.”
Robin beamed at him. “Yeh’re lyin’.”
Thomas blinked. “I am not!”
“Yeh are so, an’ I can tell. Yeh went all stiff an’ yer ears went pink.” Robin rolled out of Thomas’ bed and looked around, still sucking on his lower lip. Thomas willed himself to continue to hold still so as not to give the scoundrel a single hint, but it was all for nothing: once Robin’s eyes lit on the sea-chest he broke into that beaming grin of his. Two seconds later it was open, Thomas’ shirts spilling onto the floor, and Thomas barely had a moment to protest before Robin rose with cutlass and pistol in his hands. “Aye, thet’s th’ stuff,” Robin said, shoving his pistol into his sash and shrugging into his sword hanger.
“If you have what you came looking for,” Thomas said, keeping his voice even with an effort, “then go. You have until the count of five and then I shall call for the guards.”
“Yeh know,” Robin said, ambling towards the open window, “yeh’d think yeh din’t want me ’bout, Lieut’nant.”
“Then your powers of observation are keen indeed,” Thomas snapped. “Bring me back my saber and get out.”
Robin laughed, perching on the windowsill like an oversized and heavily armed pigeon. “Aye, aye, awright. But here, afore I go–”
“–for God’s sake, what?”
“What’s a S.. a So… a Sodomthingie, anyhow?”
Thomas spluttered. His ears burned. “It’s a… a man who keeps company with other men,” he finally said, stuttering. “A grievous sin.” He could tell by Robin’s expression that he didn’t understand; finally, in a faltering voice, Thomas clarified, “A man who… enjoys the pleasure of another man’s body.”
“Oh!” Robin’s eyes cleared. “Well, thet’s awright, then. Here I thought it was somethin’ bad.” And then, like a nightmare (a horribly familiar nightmare) Robin’s eyes flicked to the distended front of Thomas’ pants and his grin grew wider. “Aye, well,” he said, his eyes rising to flick impudently across Thomas’ bare chest, “I’ll fetch yer big pointy thing now–” and he flung himself backwards out the window without a second thought.
Thomas dashed to the window and leaned out, momentarily unmindful of his nakedness. Of Robin there was no sign at all, just as before, and Thomas was just about to curse and turn away when something tapped the top of his head. He jerked in startlement and twisted around, looking up… his saber dangled over him, tied to a bit of rope, and Robin’s round face beamed down at him from the roof of the boardinghouse. “Mornin’, Lieut’nant,” Robin said, waggling his fingers, and then his face vanished. Thomas just barely heard him scurry away, like a rat.
Swearing under his breath Thomas snatched at his sword, dragging it free of the rope.
And really, truly, that should have been all, except Thomas was becoming dreadfully certain that as far as Robin was concerned there might never be an ‘all’ at, well, all.
The summer waned, and so, inevitably, did Robin’s foul hold on his thoughts. Robin remained his own occasional personal incubus at night, but he slowly lost his ability to stop Thomas in his tracks during the day. In a bravura effort of defiance Thomas took to sleeping with the window open again (the new lock had been proven equally useless, after all) but if Robin ever came through it, Thomas remained unaware. For which he was grateful, of course.
And if Thomas awoke shouting the imp’s name on the night that the town was ripped apart by cannonshot and screams, well, no one need ever know.
He leaped out of bed, suddenly and violently awake. Pirates! Throwing on the nearest shirt to hand and seizing his saber from the wall Thomas bolted down the stairs, bothering neither with coat nor boots nor hat, for there was no time—
–he burst from the boardinghouse, and entered Hell.
Out in the harbor three fierce ships of foreign mark and unknown colors floated, their cannon barking constantly, the cannonshot digging monstrous craters in the small town. And devils darted here and there amongst the flames, chattering and howling, waving strange swords and plundering whatever they could lay their hands on.
With an oath Thomas ripped his saber from its scabbard and lunged for the nearest, yelling an old and primal cry of defiance instead of a civilized declaration of his intent. The devil spun, his face marked by flame and tattoos–
–something crashed down upon the back of Thomas’ head, and that was the last he knew for a while.
The first hint Thomas had that he was not dead was, in fact, the headache. His head ached abominably, throbbing hard enough to make the world rock about him, and for a while it was all he could do to lie there and avoid vomiting. Dimly he was aware of the softness underneath him, and the blankets upon him, and for a blessed moment he thought that some good Samaritan had carried him up to his bed or to the Navy’s tiny infirmary. But there was still the scent to be explained away, heavy and strange like smoke and spices, and the fact that even though his head had stopped spinning the world was still rocking about him–consciousness crashed in upon him like an avenging angel and Thomas Worthington shot bolt upright in a stranger’s lavish bed, nearly falling out of it a moment later in a fit of dizziness.
The ship’s cabin (for so it was) was large, filled with the haze of incense and dripping with the gaudy trappings of the Orient. Thomas clutched at the bedrail and squinted into the smoke, reaching up to touch the back of his head and finding it tacky with drying blood. What new horror–“So, it’s kidnapping, is it,” he said, willing his voice to be firm. “And of an officer of the Royal Navy, which, I assure you, will take a dim view of such things.”
No one spoke to answer his charge, but a moment later the haze of smoke writhed and a horrific apparition of a man burst forth. Despite himself Thomas shrank back in apprehension; he’d known a Chinaman or two during his days at the Academy, but he’d never seen one so… so close. Nor so devilish in appearance: from the waist up the man wore nothing but a writhing coat of tattoos, dragons and tigers and snakes swarming up over his chest and back to limn the powerful lines of his arms and encircle his broad neck. His head was shaved save for the long braid that swung from the crown of his head; his face was hard and square. His eyes were mere slits.
Belatedly a number of memories and rumors came together in Thomas’ mind, and much to his horror he was able to put a name (and a thousand hair-raising deeds) to the face. “Captain Shanghai, I presume,” he said, desperate to keep his voice from quavering. The last Navy man who had been taken by him had been–God! Better Thomas had never woken at all!
The devil himself smiled thinly. “Aha. I’m afraid that it’s technically pronounced ‘Shiang Hai’,” the pirate said, in the perfect and vaguely condescending English of an Oxford don. Thomas blinked, befuddled. “However, it was quite a good try, for an Englishman. Would you care for some tea?”
“Er.” Mind racing, Thomas plucked at the blankets around his waist, trying to buy time. They were silk, he noticed now, more silk than he’d ever seen in one place in his life, stiff with brocade. Well, that at least answered the question of whose bed it was, which did absolutely nothing for Thomas’ peace of mind. “Your… your English is quite good,” he finally said, because he had to say something.
“Yes, quite. Aha.” The little coughing sound was a laugh, Thomas realized. “I found it beneficial to acquire myself an elimination, when I was younger.” Thomas’ face went blank with confusion; Shiang Hai tilted his head to the side. “Elimination… ah, no. Education. My apologies, Lieutenant Worthington. I’m afraid that my English is implausible. …no? Imperfect?”
“…I have heard worse, in my time,” Thomas said faintly. “How do you know who I am?”
Shiang Hai waved a negligent hand, still smiling. “I inquired of one of the other prisoners.”
“You have other prisoners?” Thomas stiffened.
For a moment, Shiang Hai was still, his eyes heavy on Thomas’ face. Then he coughed out that strange laugh again and reached down, smoothing the brocade over one of Thomas’ outstretched legs. Thomas jerked his leg away from the touch. “Aha. Not any more,” Shiang Hai said. “You have been unconcerned for quite some time.”
“Not–” Thomas’ stomach dropped. “You monster!”
“I find prisoners to be an unnecessary burden,” Shiang Hai said; even admitting to these horrors seemed only to amuse him. “You, however, present me with something of a diarrhea.” Upon seeing Thomas’ expression, he frowned. “Er. Aha. A… a problem?”
“Oh,” said Thomas weakly. “A dilemma.”
“Yes! A dilemma! Exactly!” Shiang Hai clapped his hands, pleased. “Had I known you were a Navy man before you were brought on board, well! Let us say no more of that. However, by the time I discovered who you were, we were five miles at sea and I, therefore, had this dilemma.”
“I should say so,” Thomas said, trying to sound confident. “I am a lieutenant with the Royal Navy and a man of good family! When my absence is discovered they shall ship out after you with all hands–you’ll pay for this!”
Shiang Hai coughed out that laugh again, dropping to sit by Thomas’ side. Thomas edged back until he was almost pressed against the cabin wall; Shiang Hai, affecting not to notice this, picked up one of Thomas’ unresisting hands and flipped it over, studying it. “Aha. That is, assuming they do not think you periwinkled in the fire. Or are simply elsewhere in the chaos. I assure you that by the time they eliminate the last of the fires, my fleet and I will be miles away, in waters known only to us.” Shiang Hai’s long thumbnail flicked lightly at one of Thomas’ sword calluses, and he sighed, like it disappointed him. “Still, I do wish to apologize, Lieutenant. The fools respectable for your kidnapping have been sacked.”
“Er, sacked?” Thomas gritted his teeth and tried not to let his fingers twitch at the touch. “You fired them?”
Shiang Hai blinked. “Oh, now, Lieutenant, you mustn’t think we’re that barbaric. I only set men on fire for crimes related to theft. I had them sewn up into sacks and dropped overboard.”
“Dropped–beastly!” Thomas said, jerking his hand free. “And what horrible fate do you have in store for me?”
“That remains to be seen,” Shiang Hai said pleasantly. His hand flicked out and caught Thomas’ chin, nudging it up; Shiang Hai studied him as if he were a horse available for purchase. “Still, you may give thanks to your god that you are not dead, if you like, and as long as you remain reasonably accommodating, you shall have my protection. There are some on board this ship who are not nearly so discalculating as I.”
Thomas’ ears roared. “I’d rather die,” he spat, jerking his chin out of Shiang Hai’s grip. God above, how did he get himself into these situations?
Shiang Hai frowned, rubbing his scorned fingertips together. “Have I used the wrong word again?”
“While I suspect you mean to say that you are discriminating,” Thomas spat, “your meaning is quite clear, and I refuse to lower myself to your filthy level.”
Shiang Hai shrugged, clearly unimpressed. “Consider my offer, in any case, Thomas,” he said.
“I would never accommodate you in any way,” Thomas said. “And I don’t recall giving you permission to use my given name.”
“How amusing,” said Shiang Hai. “After all, I don’t recall giving you persimmon to be in my bed, and yet, here you are.”
Thomas’ face went vibrantly scarlet. “I hardly had a choice in the matter at the time!”
“And you do now?” Shiang Hai paused and glanced over his shoulder. “You never did answer my question, Thomas. Would you care for tea? I do have some fine oolong–”
“No,” Thomas said. Out of sheer propriety, by rote, he added, “Thank you.”
“Ah, well,” Shiang Hai said. “That is a pity.” He bent down and seized Thomas by the belt and collar, jerking him from the bed and slinging him over one shoulder. “For now I believe your convulsions must come to an end!”
The world swam about Thomas, and for a moment he thought that he might be sick all down Shiang Hai’s back, taking petty revenge where he might. Alas, he could not manage even that. Incense and dimness gave way to sunlight as sharp as an icepick and the jabbering of the crew, and Thomas hovered on just this side of consciousness, barely aware of anything until warm wood pressed into his back and the first turn of rope dropped over his chest.
He did not know how long he hung there in his swoon. Half an hour, perhaps. Eventually his stomach settled and his head cleared, although he found himself devoutly wishing that it had not. For he found himself bound to the mainmast in full view of the scorching August sun, with only his half-buttoned shirt and his trousers to shield him; he would be red as a lobster within an hour, fair as he was, and parched halfway to madness within three. Shiang Hai would need do nothing else to torment him. Already Thomas regretted refusing the tea, although his current thirst was only a shadow of what was, inevitably, to come; firming his jaw he vowed to remain strong and acquit himself well, as befitted a lieutenant of the Royal Navy.
“I can’t say I think much of your hospitality,” he said from between gritted teeth.
Shiang Hai laughed, no longer a little coughing sound but a full performance meant to impress his crewmen. “It’s merely a matter of expulsion, my dear Thomas,” he said. “…ah. No. Exp… expediency! Yes! Had I left you in my quarters any man among them might have risked my displeasure and crept in to, ah, harass you–here I can keep one eye on you at all times! From them, you are perfectly safe!”
Thomas did not deign to respond to this statement, transparently, willfully ingenuous as it was. Shiang Hai waited for several moments, smiling a smile that had grown both flat and cruel, then turned his head and called over his shoulder in his melodic native tongue. A crewman dropped the rope he had been tarring and trotted over, bottle in hand. Shiang Hai took the bottle and waved it under Thomas’ nose, still smiling. “Water, Lieutenant?”
Already it smelled wonderful–Thomas had not known until this very minute that water could have a smell of its own, but there it was, clear in his nostrils, like Heaven. Despite his resolve he yearned towards the bottle with a vehemence that was almost physical. “No, thank you,” he forced himself to say, leaning his head back against the sun-heated wood of the mast.
Shiang Hai studied him, then laughed again. “Ahh, Thomas, is it the ‘mysterious opiates of the Orient’ that you fear? Aha.” He gave the phrase a mocking twist, as if making light of Thomas’ fears (although in truth the dizzied Thomas had not thought to be afraid of such a thing until just now). “I would be a poor host if I did not put your fears to rest!” And he pulled the cork from the bottle with his teeth, upending it and drinking deeply.
Thomas watched him do it with a gaze that bordered on obsession. The man’s tattooed throat worked and a single drop of water broke away from the corner of his mouth, tracking down his cheek; inside the bottle the water slipped away–Thomas tore his eyes away. “If I were you,” Shiang Hai said, pulling the bottle away and wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, “I should have some. Surely you’ve seen just how bad a man can get, without water.”
“I have,” Thomas said, gritting his teeth, “but I am not so desperate as to put my mouth where yours has just been, just yet.”
Shiang Hai’s smile widened. “Just yet,” he breathed. Thomas cursed himself for the slip. “You will let me know when you change your mind, yes?” Shiang Hai asked, running his finger around the mouth of the bottle. His fingertip came away wet–Thomas could not help but notice–and he reached up and touched that wetness to the center of Thomas’ lower lip, like a caress. Thomas glared at him in purest hate… and sucked his lower lip into his mouth, furious with himself for his weakness.
The pirate watched him do it, the slits of his eyes intent. He started to say something else, doubtless something offensive to every particle of Thomas’ being–and then a strange gabbling arose from the crow’s nest. Shiang Hai jerked around, his smile slipping. Thomas hung from his bonds in confusion and faintest, dimmest hope.
Shiang Hai snapped his fingers. Another crewman dashed forward, spyglass in hand. Seizing the spyglass Shiang Hai stepped to the rail and snapped it out to its fullest length, staring behind them for a time… then he collapsed it again, a thoughtful expression on his face. “We seem to have company, Thomas,” he said. “But, aha, not the company for which you were so eager, I believe.”
Thomas sagged against the ropes. Dear God. Not a merchant vessel. A Navy ship at least held out the hope of parlay, negotiation, ransom–a merchant vessel meant a pitched battle, and a pitched battle meant that Thomas stood a high chance of becoming a helpless casualty. For just a moment his treacherous mind argued that ‘casualty’ was a far better fate than ‘Shiang Hai’s plaything’, and then Thomas banished the thought as one unbefitting an officer.
Around him Shiang Hai’s ship exploded into activity as its captain bellowed and gestured. Thomas craned his head over his shoulder, searching for any sign of this mysterious company to which Shiang Hai had alluded, but in the end no merchant vessel hove into sight. All Thomas could see was a bravely fluttering white pennant of truce, just barely visible over the railings of Shiang Hai’s ship. What in God’s name–“Ahoy th’ ship!” cried a horribly familiar voice. Thomas jerked against his bonds, certain now that the sun had driven him insane. “If yeh be th’ ones what done sacked th’ port, I done come for what be mine!”
For a moment, all was silence. Then Shiang Hai rejoined Thomas at the mast, busily buckling on his swordbelt. “I beg your pardon, Lieutenant,” he said pleasantly, “but do you happen to speak the language that our friend below is shouting in?”
Thomas blinked. Already his eyelids felt swollen. “Er. He’s… hailing the ship–he wants to know if you’re the ones that sacked the port, because he’s… come for something that you took?”
“Ah! So it was English!” Shiang Hai hissed out his little private laugh. “I was uncertain. Very well! Let us see what he wants.” He prodded Thomas’ shoulder. “Well? Go on, Lieutenant. Ask him what he wants.”
Thomas licked his lips and briefly shut his eyes. “Robin?” he called, unable to keep the incredulity out of his voice.
“Aye! Aft’noon, Lieut’nant!” It was Robin. God above. Had the little scoundrel come to make mock of him in his shame? “Permission t’come aboard, Cap’n?”
Thomas looked back at Shiang Hai. “…he wishes to board.”
“Well, then, by all means, let him!” Shiang Hai clapped his hands. “Persimmon granted!” he roared, waving his crewmen away from the railing.
There was a pause, and then something silvery flashed through the air and caught on the ship’s railing: a grappling hook. The rope attached to the hook began to busily whipsaw back and forth, and within moments the little man himself leaped lightly over the rail. Thomas stared, unable to stop himself. A hallucination brought on by the sun? “Aft’noon,” Robin said cheerily, reaching up to tug at his forelock in lieu of tipping the hat he wasn’t wearing. “Fine fleet o’ ships yeh got here, Chinaman. Done took me over an hour t’ catch up wi’ yeh.”
Shiang Hai’s eyes narrowed. Despite the fierce look that this gave him, Thomas suspected that it was a frown of concentration rather than threat. Robin took a bit of translation at the best of times. “Ah, thank you,” Shiang Hai finally said, the frown clearing. “Well! It seems oblivious to me that no introductions are necessary! For you are Barefoot Robin, are you not, and I am well enough known in these parts…” He reached over and put a hand on Thomas’ shoulder, making Thomas bare his teeth. “…and we both seem to be fantastic with the Lieutenant here, do we not?”
“Well, now, yeh’ve heard o’ me, that’s downright prideful,” Robin said, puffing up. “Man could get a swelled-up head, he could, an’ thet’s a fact.”
“Yes,” Shiang Hai said after a moment, but he didn’t sound certain, and Thomas realized (with slight pleasure) that Robin’s execrable English had confounded the man. Shiang Hai let his hand drop. “Now, then, you came to recall something?”
“Oh, aye,” Robin said, leaning against the ship’s railing and scratching the back of his head, looking for all the world like he was perfectly comfortable. “If it’s all the same t’ yeh, I’d like t’ be takin’ the Lieut’nant back with me.”
Shiang Hai and Thomas both gaped at Robin, uncertain of what they’d heard. Shiang Hai was the first to recover, gliding forward to put himself between Robin and his captive. “Him?” he said, jerking his head back at where Thomas was bound. “I’m uncertain as to what claim you have on him! I assure you he was searched quite thoroughly when we took him–” Thomas’ face flamed scarlet again “–and he bears absolutely no trace of your brand, or indeed of anyone else’s.”
“Aye, well, I en’t gotten around t’ it yet, is all,” Robin said, snickering a little. “Still an’ all, I’d be much obliged if yeh’d let me have ‘im back.” And just like that, his grin turned sheepish and he scuffed one bare foot against the boards of the deck. “Although I en’t precisely got enough money t’ buy him off yeh, yeh understand.”
“Pardon me?” Thomas said incredulously. “Buy me off him?” Hadn’t gotten around to it yet?
“In that case I do not know what you think you can offer me for him,” Shiang Hai interrupted, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m certainly not interested in giving him up if it’s not going to be to my benediction. I rather like him, you see.”
Robin glanced at Thomas for a split second, long enough to wink. “Aye, I’m tolerable fond of him meself,” he said. “Truth be told, if I’d known yeh were gonna take ‘im, I’da been savin’ my pennies all ‘long t’ buy him back.” Straightening up Robin stretched his arms straight up above his head, rising up onto his toes. “So since yeh en’t done me th’ favor o’ lettin’ me know ‘head o’ time, I got a prop’sition for yeh instead.”
Shiang Hai paused, then swung about to look at Thomas. “What did he just say, Lieutenant? It sounded important.”
Thomas swallowed. By this point his situation was nothing short of surreal; he was exhausted, wounded, sunburnt, parched, half-naked and wholly humbled, and yet somewhere in the back of his mind he was aware of the faintest mad glow of hope. Depending on one criminal to rescue him from the clutches of another: it was madness, and a madness that the Royal Navy would certainly not approve of. And yet… hang the Navy! If it was a way off this ship that Robin was offering, Thomas would take it and deal with the consequences later. “He wishes to make you some kind of offer,” Thomas said rustily.
Shiang Hai inclined his head. Turning back to Robin, Shiang Hai said, “I see! Very well. Let us hear your preposition. …er. Predisposition?”
Robin’s grin didn’t falter. “I’ll fight yeh for ‘im,” he said, his hand leaping up to pull the battered cutlass free of its sheath with a rasp of steel on leather. The heavy blade described a slow diagonal arc through the air until the tip pointed to the deck between Robin’s bare feet.
All over the ship, men paused. Probably not another man among them spoke the King’s English–it was debatable whether Robin did, at that–but the language of the bared blade was universal. In the end, it was Thomas who broke the silence. “What?” he said, and although he’d meant to scoff at this absurdity he ended up sounding no less than upset. “No!”
“Ahhhha,” Shiang Hai said, nearly purring the low, breathy sound. “I see. Well. That is an interesting… proposition.” His hands flickered to his waist and suddenly he was armed, a strange sword with an elaborate crosspiece and a wicked-looking dagger sprouting from his taloned hands; he drew himself up onto one foot, tucking the other neatly against his thigh in a strange foreign stance. “Mad, certainly, but… interesting.”
“Oh, aye, we’ll see,” Robin said. In direct contrast he was still lazing against the ship’s rail, his sword dangling negligently from his hand like he’d forgotten it. The tip wavered back and forth. “Have at yeh, then.”
“Indeed,” said Shiang Hai, and his left hand blurred as he threw the dagger at Robin’s nearer foot.
Robin yelped and threw himself to one side, the dagger burying itself in the planks just where his right foot had been. For a heartstopping moment it seemed as if he would fall face-first onto the deck, but at the very last second he flung his hands out in front of him; hand and basket hilt hit the deck as one (the basket hilt picking up yet another sorry dent) and Robin turned his dive into a somersault, landing five feet away.
No sooner had he landed than he twisted, pivoting at the waist and whickering the cutlass out behind him in a low and deadly arc. Shiang Hai leaped over it, his stance momentarily changing from ‘waterbird’ to ‘frog’, and landed on one foot inches from his dagger; he reclaimed it with a swoop and paused to smile that hard smile before charging forward, arms whipping out as he ran.
“Oh, aye!” Robin shouted (for no real reason that the horrified Thomas could discern) and ran to meet him, his cutlass weaving a rapid arc back and forth in front of him. Shiang Hai struck with both blades at once and Robin squawked, barely managing to deflect the larger; the smaller one he was forced to bend away from, folding almost in half to let it pass inches from his belly.
“Very foolish!” Shiang Hai said, his teeth bared in a predatory grin. “Not simply because of your oblivious lack of skill, but because we are on my ship! If you kill me, you will soon discover that my crew is very loyal!” Shiang Hai let the weight of the longer blade drag him around into a deadly, killing spin, steel arcing about his body.
“Aye?” Robin said, bounding another step backwards, eyes bright, grin brighter. “S’pose I shoulda thought o’ thet, aye?” One bare heel thumped to the deck behind him and Robin slammed his cutlass forward with both hands, Shiang Hai’s spinning blade crashing into it. Shiang Hai jerked to a stop; Robin grunted with the effort.
“I suppose you should,” Shiang Hai said. For the moment they were both still, pressing forward, blades grinding against each other with an ear-biting sound that carried clearly to where Thomas was bound. “But, then, I’ve always heard that you were a half-wit, whatever paltry intellect you may have once had baked out by the sun. Perhaps it’s true?” Before Thomas could shout a warning (was he allowed?) Shiang Hai whipped one leg about Robin’s and jerked it forward.
Robin went over backwards with a yelp. Thomas strained against his bonds, his heart in his throat–but Robin caught himself neatly on his hands again, turning what had been a fall into a flip. One foot pistoned straight up into Shiang Hai’s jaw and then Robin was a comfortable distance away again, flipping back to his feet with a crazy light in his eyes. “Oh, aye, thet’s what they say,” he said cheerfully. “‘Course, they also call yeh th’ ‘Yellow Peril’, and by my lights thet’s just plain rude.”
The pirate reeled back, nearly bumping into Thomas, who cringed to avoid him. “Y–” he started to say, and then stopped, hissing something under his breath; placing one hand under his chin he shoved his jaw back into place with an audible crack. “Your pardon, Lieutenant,” he said, and turned back to Robin, his smile hardened and cracking like mud drying in the sun, his blades leaping into a silvery blur about him. “Yes, I’ve always found that rude,” he said, slashing at Robin with a new and concentrated fury that the little man was hard-pressed to counter. Robin’s shirt sprang loose and tore, pulled free by a flick of the smaller blade; the larger blade screeched off the cutlass and sliced across the top of Robin’s shoulder. Robin yelped. Blood began to soak into the fabric around the rent. “‘Yellow’. Aha. As if I were jaundiced,” Shiang Hai went on, his voice silken with triumph now. “Still, I suspect that neither of us can argue with the ‘peril’ part!”
“Aye, tolerable peril,” Robin said, still sounding madly cheery. His cutlass crashed against Shiang Hai’s blades, high, low, and high again. “Tolerable.” By the next time they broke Robin’s shirt was torn and sodden with blood at the waist, as well.
“Aha,” said Shiang Hai. “And how much more peril can you tolerate?” Again he flung his smaller blade, and although Robin skipped aside at the last moment a long rent opened in the side of his breeches.
“Dunno,” Robin said. He shifted in a way that was familiar to Thomas and the cutlass roared out in a vicious overhead strike, forcing Shiang Hai back and away from the thrown blade. “Pretty tolerable meself, I am–” and Robin broke off there to block another vicious slash, stubbornly trying to hold the ground between Shiang Hai and his dagger.
Shiang Hai paused, breathing hard. “Do you know,” he said conversationally, “I don’t think either of us is using that word correctly in this instance?”
“Could be,” Robin said happily. He was bleeding from the shoulder and the ribs now, his breeches cut and the ragged end of one shirt-tail fluttering in the breeze like a pennant, and still he had not lost that cheeky little grin. It was insane. He was insane. He was also losing, as far as Thomas could tell, and the thought plunged Thomas into despair. The mad little beggar–throwing away his life, and for what? For his own filthy designs?
“I do hope that wasn’t–” Shiang Hai struck like a snake, forcing Robin to fling up his cutlass. Robin blocked the strike, barely, but Shiang Hai’s larger blade screamed off the edge and gashed a long thin line across Robin’s cheek, which started to bleed with unseemly enthusiasm. “–your favorite shirt.”
“‘Fraid yeh’re a bit late,” Robin said, falling back half a step and scrubbing his cuff over his cheek. He twitched his head at Thomas. “He done ruined my favorite shirt already, couple months back. Messed it up somethin’ fierce! Had t’ leave without it, I did!”
“Aha,” Shiang Hai said knowingly, glancing over his shoulder at Thomas and still managing to drive Robin back four quick paces. Without pausing he ripped the dagger free and flowed back into that strange single-footed stance. “I see, I see! So that is why you are so eager to reclaim him! If I’d known it was a matter of that sort… well, I still would not have relacquered him without a fight. Carry on.”
Thomas’ jaw dropped, his face falling in shock. “I… what… there was nothing between–I cut him in a swordfight!”
“Aye, a fight, he’s got th’ right of it,” Robin said cheerfully, and was he laughing? “Sorry, Lieut’nant! Didn’t mean t’ make him take it that way–woop!” Robin dropped hastily into a crouch, letting Shiang Hai’s sword lick harmlessly out over his head and kicking out at the pirate’s ankles.
“Take it what way?” Shiang Hai said curiously, drifting back a pace or two like leaves swirling in the breeze. “I don’t see… oh. Oh. Aha!” And a moment later Shiang Hai burst out laughing, his eyes squeezing shut.
Robin darted forward, the quick, soft slap of his feet lost under the roar of the Chinaman’s laughter. With surprising delicacy Robin hooked the curved tip of the cutlass up under the crosspiece of Shiang Hai’s larger sword and yanked it straight forward out of the man’s hand, the sword sailing over Robin’s shoulder to clatter to the deck. At the same moment Robin seized Shiang Hai’s dagger hand by the wrist and the cutlass curved in to settle gently at the pirate’s throat. “Yield,” Robin suggested, oddly intent.
Still laughing, Shiang Hai held up his free hand. “I yield!” he said. “Please, the Lieutenant is yours to do with as you will–aha, oh dear, how odd that you should both jump directly to that consideration…”
“Can’t explain it,” Robin said happily, skittering back a few paces. “He’s always been tolerable strange, he has.”
Shaking his head, Shiang Hai crossed to the mainmast and vanished from Thomas’ view. A moment later the ropes fell away and Thomas staggered forward, not yet ready to bear his own weight; Shiang Hai reappeared around the other side of the mast and caught him by collar and belt again, stroking Thomas’ rump lovingly before he shoved him towards Robin.
Unable to do anything else Thomas caught himself on Robin’s shoulder, leaning heavily on the smaller man and firmly refusing to entertain the embarrassment that this should have caused him. Instead he straightened up as best he might and rearranged his face into its sternest lines. “If we should meet again, Captain, I intend to see that the hangman earns his wages from you,” he said.
By his shoulder, Robin snickered. “Charming, en’t he, yeh c’n see why I like him so,” he said. The brilliant grin stayed firmly in place but his voice dropped to a sibilant whisper, hissing out from between his teeth and barely carrying to Thomas. “En’t meanin’ t’ rush yeh, but I en’t trustin’ these fellas any further ‘n I can throw ’em, aye? Think yeh can climb down t’ Jenny snappish-like?”
Caught by surprise Thomas glanced down at Robin. His gaze traveled to the grappling hook and he nodded, even though it made him a bit dizzy to do so.
“When yeh can, then,” Robin breathed, and then raised his voice back to its normal manic pitch. He still held the cutlass loose but ready, and his eyes flicked unceasingly from one crewman to the next. “En’t no call t’ be holdin’ a grudge now, is there? Just a bit o’ business, thet’s all.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Shiang Hai said, looking up from his reclaimed blades. “Merely business. Still, should our paths cross again, perchance we shall… renegotiate.”
“Eh, well, yeh drive a hard enough bargain as ’tis, Cap’n,” Robin said, and then Thomas grabbed the rope and swung overboard, and the rest of the conversation was lost to his ears.
The climb down the rope was one of the longest minutes of Thomas’ life. His ears roared and his head spun, and if there had not been convenient knots to use as a makeshift ladder he’d doubtless simply have fallen down onto the deck of Robin’s tiny sloop (Jenny?) or into the sea by the ship’s side. Add to that his recent ordeal and his ongoing apprehension about what might be going on above his head: it was no wonder that he was shaking by the time his heels hit the sloop’s deck.
Barely a second later the grappling hook fell to clatter on the boards beside him. “Evenin’, Cap’n!” he heard Robin cry, and then the little madman swung out on one of the pirate ship’s own ropes, rappelling down the side of the ship so quickly that it seemed to Thomas to be a fever-dream. Robin’s bare feet barely touched deck before he grabbed for the lines that would raise the sloop’s fat-bellied sail. “Yeh get down where they can’t shoot at yeh,” he suggested, hauling on the rope as fast as he could. “And sing out if yeh see ’em gettin’ up t’ anything improper, aye?”
“All right,” Thomas said faintly, clinging to the second, smaller mast for a moment. His head swam. Was he safe…? No. Safer? Yes. A hardened criminal and a pervert Robin might be, but relatively harmless, and the simple and sudden lack of terror over his future made him positively light-headed. Dreamily he raised two fingers to touch the sunburned skin around his neck. “Do you need any help?”
“Wi’ Jenny? Nah, she’s a sweetheart, en’t yeh, girl?” The sail thumped out to full and the sloop leaped away from the side of Shiang Hai’s flagship like a market girl who’d just been goosed. Thomas nearly fell over. Robin grabbed the wheel, hauling it about; the sloop–Jenny–heeled about obediently and threw up a spray of seawater, rapidly leaving the Chinese fleet in her wake. “Ha!” Robin crowed, patting the wheel. “En’t no one can catch me an’ my Jenny, aye?”
Thomas nodded vaguely, not so much agreeing as acknowledging that Robin had said something. “And you?” he thought to ask, eventually. “Are you hurt badly?”
Robin glanced down at the gash on his shoulder like he’d completely forgotten it was there. “Eh,” he said, shrugging. “I had worse. Bit o’ bandaging and I en’t gonna be none the worse for wear. Now yeh, yeh look kinda peaky. I got clean water in th’ barrel in th’ cabin, yeh oughta go an’ have some, mebbe lay down–”
“No, no,” Thomas said, clutching at the mast. Even in this extremity, he was English. “A moment and I’ll be… right as… rain…”
The world abruptly went bright, then dark, and Thomas slumped to the tiny deck of Robin’s sloop, Robin’s startled yelp echoing in his ears.
All in all it seemed to be Thomas Worthington’s day for waking up in the beds of strange men. For a while he lay there only dimly aware of his surroundings, listening with an apathetic ear to the hiss and splash of the sloop cutting through the water, lulled by the rocking of the boat and the comfort of the nest of blankets around him into a state that was nearly mindless.
Eventually it was thirst that brought him back to awareness. Thomas lifted his head, looking muzzily about. In direct contrast to the cluttered Oriental splendor of Shiang Hai’s massive quarters, the cabin of the sloop was tiny, spare, and ship-shape, the bare boards glowing golden through a fading coat of whitewash. Against the far wall (inasmuch as there could be a ‘far’ wall inside a boat this tiny) stood a sea-chest and a large, squat barrel–Thomas dragged himself painfully from the bunk and over to the barrel, hunching to avoid barking his head on the low ceiling.
Disdaining the dipper that hung on the barrel’s side Thomas plunged both hands into the water and brought them up dripping. He spilled nearly as much water as he drank, the cool freshness of it an unmitigated blessing against his burnt, tender skin; by the time he stopped, gasping for breath, the front of his shirt was sodden and his hair hung in wet strings about his face. He plunged his hands into the barrel again.
When his belly was tight as a drum with water he crawled back into the gaudily-colored blankets and curled up again, dozing off a moment later.
By the time he woke again it was getting on towards evening, judging by the color of the sky outside the tiny porthole. Physically, he felt better. Burnt, battered, and sore, certainly, but rested, and he was no longer plagued by that terrible thirst.
Mentally, however, he was adrift. Disconnected. Things that had mattered very much to him not twenty-four hours ago seemed faraway and ridiculous now. Time was he’d have been mortified at the very idea of curling up disheveled and half-naked in a stranger’s bed, but now he was perfectly content to do just that, limp with relief that he’d escaped Hell intact. What else could possibly concern him? His career ambitions? Petty. His rank? What rank? His pride, his dignity, his position? Ultimately disposable. He was alive, largely unharmed, and unviolated: for the moment it was more than enough.
Raising one hand he stared at the thin lines of callus on his palm. God above, he even still had all his fingers–he let his hand drop and closed his eyes. Somewhere outside rope creaked and canvas snapped, and the sloop heeled smartly to port, and Thomas rolled bonelessly back against the curve of the boat’s hull and remained dimly amazed that he was alive and well enough to notice.
It took him a few moments to realize that the sloop had wallowed to a stop. He struggled up on one elbow. Were they already back at port? He didn’t want–he wasn’t ready–he couldn’t face…! The little door at the front of the cabin clicked open and Robin ducked in. He’d changed at some point (which meant that he owned at least one change of clothes now, for which Thomas supposed he could take credit) and neat turns of bandage winked from beneath his loose shirt. The gash on his cheek was a thin scabbed line that wrinkled when Robin beamed at him. “Yeh’re awake, then, thet’s good,” he said, closing the door behind him.
“I suppose so,” Thomas said faintly. He ran a hand through his hair, pushing it away from his face and reclaiming the bit of ribbon that had managed to cling there throughout the entire ordeal. “Are we… have we returned, then?”
“T’ port? Nah,” said Robin. He ducked his head–the ceiling in here was so low that even Robin couldn’t quite stand upright–and crossed to the sea-chest, plunking down on it. “There’s a mess o’ Navy ships out there all lookin’ for Shiang Hai an’ for yeh, yeh ken, an’ I en’t so keen on gettin’ run down by ’em. Jenny’s all hid in this li’l cove I use on th’ occasional. We’ll be stayin’ here until they pass an’ then I’ll run yeh back t’ port, let yeh off on this li’l spit o’ beach I know.”
“The Navy…?” Thomas pushed himself upright and automatically fumbled his hair back into its ponytail. “But that’s… you can take me to them! Once they know I’m all right they can call off the search…”
He trailed off there. Robin was already shaking his head, laughing. “Oh, aye, take yeh t’ the Navy ships and get meself bunged in th’ brig in th’ bargain, aye? Nah, thank yeh all th’ same!”
Thomas frowned. “I wouldn’t let them,” he said. “After what you’ve done, you ought to receive a hero’s welcome.”
“Oh, aye, ought.” Robin looked away, smiling at one of the tiny portholes. “Yeh’re a good man an’ no mistake, Lieut’nant, but there’s some in th’ Navy en’t as good as yeh. Lots, even. I en’t inclined t’ take my chances. ‘Sides, yeh do thet an’ what are yeh gonna tell ’em? The truth? Yeh’d never live it down.”
Thomas looked down at his hands, lacing them together in his lap. “I suppose not,” he said faintly.
“I’ll be takin’ yeh t’ within half a mile o’ home,” Robin said. “Yeh can walk yerself back an’ tell ’em anything yeh like. Tell ’em yeh fought yer way free an’ jumped overboard, washed up on th’ beach an’ passed out for a spell. They’ll like that plenty, aye?”
“I suppose they would,” Thomas said, still staring down at his hands. Indeed, it was perfect. He’d come out of this looking brave and resourceful, if not precisely like a hero, and no one would have to know what really happened… “But it’s not true,” he said. His voice sounded weak.
“Heh. ‘True’.” Robin ducked his head and pawed at his bandanna. “En’t no nevermind t’ me what yeh tell ’em. Truth be told, I’d rather yeh kept me out of it. And Shiang Hai, well, en’t no one gonna believe what a filthy pirate tells ’em, aye? But tell ’em th’ truth if yeh gotta. It’s up t’ yeh.”
Thomas shut his eyes. “I’ll think about it,” he said.
“Me, I’m thinkin’ that th’ truth en’t for them busybodies anyway,” Robin said matter-of-factly. A match scraped and flared and Thomas looked up just as Robin touched it to the wick of the lantern in the corner. The lamp caught; Robin shook out the match and tossed it out the porthole. “Yeh only gotta tell important truths, and tellin’ them bluebottles just how yeh got off th’ ship en’t important. All’s thet’s important is thet yeh did.”
“I suppose that attitude suits you very well,” Thomas said, with a vague flare of his old self, which died away almost as fast as it showed. “…I’m sorry.”
“Eh? For what?” Robin grinned at him, undaunted. “All’s I’m seein’ is yeh startin’ t’ sound like normal again.”
Thomas flushed pink. Hopefully the dimness and his sunburn would be enough to hide it… “Why did you come after me?” he asked hopelessly, his voice low and ashamed. He sounded pathetic, but he had to know. “Why did you… risk yourself like that? I don’t understand.”
“‘Cause yeh’re a good man, like I done said,” Robin said, shrugging. “And yeh been good t’ me twice already, so I owed yeh a good turn or two, and I figured yeh probably wasn’t too happy wi’ things as they stood, aye?”
Weak as it was, Thomas’ pained laugh still had the power to startle him. “No, not too happy,” he agreed. “So… now what?”
Robin slid off the sea-chest. “Well, first we oughta see t’ yer burn, aye? Looks painful, it do.”
Thomas gingerly patted one of his cheeks. The fiery soreness made him wince. “It is painful,” he admitted. “I splashed some water on it earlier…”
“Got just th’ thing!” Robin said, crouching in front of the sea-chest and flinging it open. Inside things were not nearly so ship-shape as they were outside–clothes, jewelry, assorted items, and magpie debris all tangled together–and it took him a few moments of searching to produce a fat clay jar, rooting it out from beneath what Thomas could have sworn was a fiddle case. “Here, this stuff’ll cure what ails yeh,” Robin said cheerfully, kicking the sea-chest shut again and dropping back onto it.
“What is it?” Thomas asked suspiciously, holding out a hand for the jar.
Robin ignored Thomas’ outstretched hand, popping the cork out of the jar’s wide mouth and jamming two fingers into it. His fingers pulled back out smeared with… something; beaming, Robin waggled them in Thomas’ direction. Thomas eyed the mess on Robin’s fingers askance. The stuff was clear but of a disturbing pale green tint, flecked with bits of greener stuff. “What is it?” Thomas asked again, and a momentary lapse of manners and taste led him to add, “It looks like frog snot.”
Robin blinked and looked down at his gooey fingers, then burst out laughing. “Oh, aye, so it do!” he cried. “Never woulda thought of it like thet, but it do! Feels good, though–” and he leaned forward and stroked his fingers along Thomas’ cheekbone.
Thomas sucked in a breath like he’d been poked in the stomach. Frog snot or not, it went on cool and wet and thick enough to cling, and after a moment felt almost cold, like fog on his face. Thomas shut his eyes and reveled in the chill. “It does,” he agreed in a low voice, and then rallied briefly. “I can put it on myself, you realize.”
“Eh, I en’t got a mirror or nothin’, might as well let me be yer eyes for this, aye?” Robin’s fingers stroked along Thomas’ other cheekbone and then down the bridge of his nose, blessed cool following in their wake. “‘Course, yeh’re gonna look right silly all covered in frog snot, but en’t no one here t’ see yeh but me.”
“At the moment, I don’t believe I care how odd I look,” Thomas said. Robin’s fingers drew fat arcs over his eyebrows. “What is this? You never said.”
“Some kinda plant sap,” Robin said. “Don’t ask me th’ name, I dunno. Hol’ still, I gotta do yer eyelids.”
Obligingly, Thomas fell still, his eyelids fluttering in anticipation of the touch. There was a pause and then Robin’s fingertips ran feather-light over his right eye and away; the fluid left behind was sticky and heavy, mildly unpleasant but a world better than the swelling of the sunburn. Thomas shivered, then fell quiveringly still when Robin’s fingers brushed over his left eye.
Robin’s hands moved on, quick and deft, leaving relief in their wake. Thomas left his eyes shut. It was easier than forcing them open against the weight of the salve. Robin was quiet for once, quiet enough that Thomas could hear both the faint shifting exertion of his breathing as he moved and the little wet sounds that his fingers made each time they dipped into the jar. Lulled by the peace of it Thomas’ mind drifted untethered, barely reacting to the little cool touches of Robin’s fingers along the backs of his ears, or over his collarbones, or even when they moved down to the V of sunburn on his chest.
He only reacted when the bed next to him dented under the weight of Robin’s knee, catching his breath, his eyes flickering open for a heartbeat. “Gotta do yer back,” Robin said apologetically, leaning over Thomas to flick his ponytail out of the way and stroke his wet hand over the half-circle of burnt skin where Thomas’ shirt had pulled away from the back of his neck. Thomas shut his eyes again and nodded, his sticky forehead bumping lightly against Robin’s chest.
This close, the smell of the little thief was notable mostly by its absence. He smelled like salt water and sun-warmed flesh and not much else (Robin’s fingers traced along the part of Thomas’ hair, cooling his scalp, and he shivered again) where Thomas had expected the reek of unwashed flesh or the tang of sweat. The green scent of the salve was a pleasant, sharp background note.
And Robin’s chest was a scant inch from his nose–it was certainly only because of the unrelenting heat, Thomas thought dizzily, or because he was still not recovered from his profound shock, because of the pain of the burns and the relief as they cooled, because he was still suffering from the foul vapors of Shiang Hai’s quarters, because he had been struck on the head, because he was unable to think of a reason not to, because no one would ever believe Robin if he spoke of it, in gratitude, in curiosity, in trade, in madness, in need of comfort, to repay a debt, to ensure his safety, to banish the incubus of his dreams, because no one need ever know, because God was not here, because perhaps now was finally the time for nonsense, because here they were suspended in time and space and nothing existed outside of this low and narrow little room, even, possibly, simply because he wanted to–all these things and more ran through his mind at speed, and then Thomas leaned forward and pressed his mouth to the deep tanned V of Robin’s chest left bare by his buccaneer’s shirt, his hands falling to the little man’s hips.
Robin didn’t taste of dirt, either. Profoundly salty and tough as leather, warm almost to the point of fever, but clean. Robin wheezed out a startled laugh and grabbed at Thomas’ head, hugging it just where it was. “Well, Lieut’nant, yeh shoulda said somethin’,” he said, breathless and vibrating with excitement. His damp hand curled over the back of Thomas’ head and Thomas squeezed his eyes shut and dared to touch his tongue to Robin’s skin, overwhelming himself with the saltiness.
Robin made a little noise and plunked down astride Thomas’ lap with a minimum of fuss. He was just small enough to fit–his mouth sought out Thomas’, as eager and mischievous as ever, nearly knocking the Englishman over in his enthusiasm. They would both have gone over backwards, had Thomas not caught himself on the curving wall behind them–on second thought, Thomas lifted his hand away from the wall, and over backwards they both went, down into the waiting nest of blankets.
Robin wound up on hands and knees atop him, his pendant slipping from his shirt to thump against Thomas’ sunburnt chest. Thomas winced. “Oop, sorry, Lieut’nant,” Robin said, and the pendant vanished from Thomas’ ken.
Absently Thomas patted at one of Robin’s hips, leaving his eyes squeezed tightly shut. “I suppose that there’s no need to stand on ceremony any longer, is there,” he said, his voice wavering. “You may as well just call me by my name.”
“Oh, aye, awright,” Robin said agreeably. “What is it?”
“You don’t–” Thomas blinked his eyes open, sticky as they were, and stared in shock at a point vaguely over Robin’s shoulder. His initial reaction was dismay (intending to sin like this with a man who didn’t even know his name) but it was quickly swamped by shame (the thief had risked life and limb to save a man whose name he didn’t even know) and so he shut his eyes again. “It’s Thomas,” he said, swallowing.
“Is it, now,” said Robin, dropping a kiss on an unburned part of Thomas’ cheek. “Thomas, then.”
It wasn’t that Thomas was entirely untutored in the arts of couching. When he had completed his first year at the Academy his mentor had bought him a whore (it was unofficial Academy tradition, after all, and at eighteen Thomas had not been particularly eager to decline). In Thomas’ opinion the little ripple of pleasure that came at the end hadn’t made the whole undignified, embarrassing, messy endeavor worthwhile, and when he’d pulled himself off the bored woman at the end, his thoughts had run mostly along the lines of ‘well, that’s over with, then’. And it was, too, aside from waiting to see if he’d caught the pox.
In any case, the few scraps of knowledge he’d managed to carry away from that encounter seemed wholly unsuitable for this one. Robin seemed like nothing so much as an overexcitable puppy, swarming all over Thomas in his eagerness to show off the tricks he knew, and Thomas found himself both unable to keep up and uncertain of what to do in any case. Somehow they’d wound up side by side in the nest of blankets with their shirts off and Robin pressing Thomas back against the wall, his hands roaming greedily over Thomas’ bared chest while Thomas’ own hand hovered in midair, uncertain what it was supposed to touch–
“–yeh’re thinkin’, en’t yeh,” Robin said in accusation, dragging Thomas back from the little world of worry that he’d been occupying.
Thomas blinked. Robin was up on one elbow, playing at being offended despite the mad little grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “…yes?” Thomas said, frowning. “I mean, I’m not certain about you, but it’s the mark of a rational human being that he takes no action without consideration.”
“See, thet’s yer problem, bein’ all rational,” Robin said, reaching up to catch Thomas’ wrist and drag that hesitating hand up between them. “Yeh can’t think ’bout it while it’s goin’ on. Yeh just gotta do. Where d’ yeh wanna put this? Right now?”
Thomas glanced down at his hand, hovering a few inches away from Robin’s chest. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
Robin let go of his wrist. “Then put it somewhere. Any ol’ where. Don’t matter much when it’s jus’ hands, yeh can put it anywhere yeh like, I en’t gonna complain or poke fun a’ yeh. There’s stuff we can do later on thet’s tolerable complicated, needs a bit o’ preparation, like, but jus’ yer hand… anywhere what catches yer fancy.”
Swallowing (and trying not to think too hard about the second half of that little speech, lest it intimidate him into catatonia), Thomas reached out and laid his hand gingerly on Robin’s shoulder, just past the turn of bandages there. Of course, now that it was there Thomas had no idea what to do with it, so he left it there, his thumb ticking nervously back and forth over Robin’s bicep. His face flooded with color. This had been a mad enough idea to begin with, and it was only getting worse; if he were not so adamantly a man of his word and determined to live up to even his unspoken promises he’d put a stop to this embarrassing nonsense–
“Aye, well, I can see it’s gonna take a bit more t’ get yeh t’ stop thinkin’ again,” Robin said cheerfully. “Here, roll over ont’ yer belly.”
Thomas jerked his hand back, immediately suspicious. Robin took one look at the expression on his face and burst out laughing, patting Thomas’ chest. “Nah, nah, I en’t gonna do nothin’ like thet, swear. Jus’ roll over.”
Still suspicious but unwilling to be mulish, Thomas pushed himself over onto his stomach, craning his head to the side to keep an eye on Robin. Just in case. No sooner had he settled belly-first into the blankets than Robin swung astride his hips, kneeling over him and reaching up to splay his hands out on Thomas’ back. “What?” Thomas said, trying to twist around and see just what Robin thought he was doing.
“Jus’ relax,” Robin wheedled. He leaned into his spread hands, pressing Thomas down into the blankets.
“Shush, now.” Robin’s fingers flexed. “An’ close yer eyes.”
Thomas settled uncertainly and shut his eyes. What else could he really do? While he still didn’t quite trust the mad little imp, he had to admit that today Robin had earned at least the pretense of trust, and it wasn’t like he couldn’t put a stop to the proceedings if they got out of hand–Robin’s palms dug deep into the knotted muscles just below his shoulder blades, and despite himself Thomas groaned aloud.
Somewhere above him Robin sniggered in amusement. Thomas attempted to gather himself enough to protest being laughed at but found it oddly difficult, more so the longer that he put it off; and put it off he did as Robin’s fingers dug into the unburned parts of his shoulders and then walked stiff knuckles down along the knobs of his spine.
God above, it felt good. Robin massaged his back with admirable–indeed, astonishing–patience and none of his usual monkey-chatter, and without words to focus on Thomas’ mind did indeed first drift and then slowly shut down. He lost track of his embarrassment first, and of time second, and finally of his thoughts entire. Before long Thomas was half-melted into the blankets, nearly somnolent as Robin’s hands worked over the planes of his back and pressed out the knots in his muscles, aware of very little beyond Robin’s hands and the faint, constant slapping sound of wavelets against the underside of the boat.
Robin’s hands smoothed their way up along Thomas’ back to his shoulders and closed there, fingers rippling as Robin leaned in. His breath was warm on the burnt back of Thomas’ ear. “Lieut’nant?”
“Mm,” said Thomas.
“There yeh go,” Robin said softly. “Thet’s more like it, aye.” He leaned in and kissed Thomas’ back just between his shoulder blades, and Thomas’ eyes flickered half-open at the soft little touch; Robin’s tongue followed his lips, drawing a wide, cool, wet stripe up along Thomas’ spine, and without really thinking about it–or about anything–Thomas groped back behind himself and blindly found Robin’s thigh, giving it a squeeze.
Robin laughed, softly. “Here,” he breathed, tugging gently at Thomas’ shoulder, “roll back over,” and Thomas did, prompted more by the tug than the words, sprawling out on his back with Robin still kneeling astride his hips. This time when his half-lidded eyes fell on Robin they found not a confusing enigma but an embarrassment of riches, so to speak, a multitude of places that Thomas rather wouldn’t mind touching. There was no need to think about the choice any more, or to pick a place to start, because he was muzzily certain that he’d get to them all; he put his hands on Robin’s hips without hesitation and ran them all the way up, marveling at the warmth of Robin’s skin and the contrasting cool crackle of the bandages about his waist. Robin leaned forward into his hands and kissed him, and suddenly, it was easy.
Time slowed to a crawl. Thomas closed his eyes and left them shut. He didn’t need them, not with Robin wriggling about atop him within easy reach of his hands; he learned any number of things about kissing in very short order, with his hands buried deep in the coarse wilds of Robin’s hair. Robin’s bandanna vanished. They were both damp with sweat and sticking together wherever their bare chests touched, glued together in just a few places at first and soon via great swathes of skin, and then they were no longer damp with sweat but wet with it and Robin was slippery as a fish in his arms, the taste of salt ever richer on his skin.
Dazed, uncomprehending, Thomas pressed up against the negligible weight of the little body on top of him. It felt good and so he did it again, not stopping to think about why it felt good, just accepting that it did–a fist closed in his vitals, almost painful in its sudden urgency. Thomas dimly heard himself make a noise (one which he felt certain he’d be embarrassed by, later) and he grabbed at Robin’s hips, dragging them down. Robin laughed and bit his shoulder and still Thomas could not quite rouse himself to think and Robin was so light that Thomas could move him just exactly how he chose, simply putting the little man’s body wherever it was wanted most right this very moment—
–the fist in his vitals sprang open and Thomas gasped out a thick, tearing sound, achieving a crisis that ripped through his entire body and, incidentally, utterly fouled the only pair of trousers currently available to him.
For the moment he was blind to the consequences. The sheer shock of it had stopped him in his tracks but Robin knew better than to stop now; the little man was still rocking atop him, and every time they rolled together Thomas shuddered again with an echo of the original shock and pawed blindly at Robin’s back. Finally, abruptly, he went limp, his newly-reawakened mind spinning and clawing for information, and so when Robin jerked hard against him and yelped out a high, breathless sound Thomas was utterly, exquisitely aware of it, as well as of the frantic squirming that followed.
Finally Robin flopped down atop Thomas and kissed the side of his throat, laughing madly. Thomas dizzily put his arms around Robin, listening to the laughter echo off the walls. “There!” Robin said, once he’d halfway caught his breath. “Yeh see? En’t nothin’ for it like not thinkin’!”
“Yes, I see,” Thomas said, not really listening to himself. Carefully he shifted underneath Robin, resettling himself; now the consequences of his actions were abruptly brought home to him and Thomas made a face and a little disgusted sound.
“Aye, well, we’ll wash ’em out in th’ sea afore yeh go home,” Robin said, correctly guessing the source of Thomas’ distress. “Yeh gotta take a swim in any case.” He sat up and patted Thomas’ chest; Thomas finally opened his eyes. Robin was grinning, just as Thomas had known he would be. It was the first thing he saw. It was familiar; almost reassuring.
The second thing he saw was Robin pawing at the drawstring of his own fouled breeches, which was neither familiar nor reassuring at all. Caught as he was Thomas couldn’t find somewhere else to look in time; Robin’s pants fell to barely skim his hips and Thomas helplessly watched them go. Robin was still mostly hard (and glisteningly sticky in the lamplight) and, apparently, tanned to that leathery color all over. The realization made Thomas’ mind go in several directions at once (his eyes unfocusing from the sheer primal force of some of those directions) and unthinkingly he ran the backs of his fingers up along the wilting shaft.
Robin jerked and hissed in startlement atop him. Thomas’ curious fingers eked out a single, weary twitch, Robin rallying for a heartbeat before fading again, and then Robin was laughing and grabbing at his hand, wrapping it around–! “Oh, aye, yeh en’t had enough, is thet what yeh’re saying?” Robin said, squeezing Thomas’ hand and making it bear down on–!
“Yes,” Thomas said, every iota of his attention currently focused (in awe, fascination, and not just a little terror) on what his hand was doing–being forced to do! “Yes, that’s… wait, what?”
But it was too late. Robin’s laugh went manic and his eyes went mad; his slight stomach muscles rippled and his prick jumped inside the circle of Thomas’ hand like a live thing. Which it was, Thomas hastily reminded himself. “Jus’ yeh give me a moment,” Robin said, grinning.
“But I…!” Thomas’ voice trailed off. What was the use of it?
Robin, still laughing, swung off Thomas and plunked down beside him, kicking his feet up long enough to extricate himself from his breeches and toss them onto the floor. After some hesitation Thomas followed his example; his own trousers were growing more clammy and uncomfortable by the moment. As quickly as he could he tugged the corner of a blanket out from underneath himself and draped it over his hips so that he might maintain a modicum of modesty, not that there seemed to be much point any more–
“Yeh’re thinkin’ again, en’t yeh,” Robin said, patting his covered hip, and Thomas blushed, because it was true.
Eventually Robin sighed happily and swung his legs out of the little box-bunk. Thomas pillowed his head in the crook of his arm and watched Robin go, blearily studying the rear view (or the view of his rear) while Robin fetched himself some water. The same tan all over, it was certain, which meant that either it was his natural color or he spent a lot of time naked in the sun–
Robin turned around, offering Thomas both an unparalleled view of the front of him and the water dipper, full to the brim. Thomas went quite pink and sat up, pulling the corner of the blanket across his lap before accepting the water. He drank with his eyes shut. “I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was,” he said when he was done, holding the empty dipper out.
Robin took it. “Will yeh have another, then?” he asked, dipping it back into the barrel with a little plunking sound. “Hate for yeh t’ parch now after survivin’ everythin’ else…”
“Yes, please,” Thomas said, deliberately ignoring the second sentence. He took the dipper and drank, again, still marveling at how good plain, clean water could taste. After today he doubted he’d ever take it for granted again. When he was done he passed it back to Robin and fell back down into the bed, closing his eyes.
Robin joined him again a moment later, plucking at the fold of blanket that still hid Thomas’ hips. Thomas flushed and pressed his hand down on it, pinning the blanket down; Robin snickered and desisted, leaning up instead to kiss him.
Thomas leaned into the little kiss without demur. Rather to his surprise, it was easy to accept; such a simple thing, really. Hard to believe it had flustered him so, all those months ago. Underneath its sheltering fold of blanket his prick stirred again; his mind dashed like a startled animal to his blurry memories of fifteen minutes ago (God, had it only been that long?) and then obediently dimmed, preparing to drift again.
Robin’s mouth traveled from Thomas’ mouth to his chin and then down the side of his throat. Thomas shivered and let the last of his thoughts drift away. “Yeh’ve gone all quiet,” Robin noted, murmuring the words against Thomas’ collarbone.
“Mm,” Thomas said, half-opening his eyes. Robin was propped up on one elbow beside him again, his eyes bright and intent on Thomas’ face, his expression cunning like a fox’s. It should have made Thomas nervous; indeed, it did, but his nervousness lodged in his lower belly and quivered there, indistinguishable from excitement. A single thought broke from his memory and spilled from his mouth: “Complicated?” he asked, curious.
“S’what I’d been thinkin’, aye,” Robin said cheerfully, plucking at Thomas’ fold of blanket again. This time Thomas let him have it. Robin’s fingers wriggled under the blanket and took hold of him, making Thomas turn his face into the pillow and breathe unsteadily. Clever, clever fingers… and yet he was still only half-hard when Robin let him go, and the disappointment of it made him groan before he could bite the little noise back. “Steady,” Robin said, tugging at Thomas’ thigh. “Here, bring this up a touch, aye?”
Unthinking, biddable, Thomas closed his eyes and let Robin’s fingers guide his leg up, hooking it over Robin’s hips as directed. His reward was another deft squeeze from those fingers and gladly he pushed forward into them, making Robin laugh. Thomas found that, astonishingly, he didn’t mind. Let Robin laugh at him. He always did. Let him laugh, as long as he didn’t stop…
As if Robin could read his mind (and felt quite contrary), he stopped. This time Thomas managed to stop himself from groaning, although it was a near thing; hiding his face in the pillow, he bit his lower lip. Surely Robin wouldn’t make him wait too long.
There was a pause, and then a little wet sound, oddly familiar, and Thomas’ drifting mind chased after it, trying to identify it. Wet sound… wet sound? What…
The palm of Robin’s hand pressed up against his balls and a single slippery finger wriggled snake-like back and into him, and Thomas’ mind came screaming back from wherever it had gone, just a moment too late.
He jerked forward against Robin, eyes and mouth both flying open wide, managing only to croak out a little disbelieving sound. He clamped his thighs down hard around Robin’s wrist in a desperate attempt to stop what had already happened; Robin just grinned that madman’s grin at him and cocked that finger forward, and Thomas’ prick leaped to full attention so fast that it left him dizzy. “Wee bit more complicated, aye,” Robin said matter-of-factly. “It’s engineerin’.”
Thomas whimpered (as much as he’d dearly have loved to deny that that was the sound he made) and tried to both hold absolutely still and move in all directions at once, ‘away’ being paramount. Robin wiggled his finger a second time and Thomas jerked to a halt, gasping. He couldn’t–this was foul–this was a violation on par with anything that Shiang Hai would have done–Robin’s finger twitched a third time and Thomas crushed his mouth to Robin’s shoulder, trying to rub himself against Robin’s forearm and mostly failing. His balls plumped lightly against Robin’s wrist. Thomas muffled his little choked moan with a mouthful of Robin’s skin.
“Aye, yeh jus’ relax an’ let me,” Robin breathed into Thomas’ ear, and his finger drew back and pressed in again, and Thomas simply lost his mind. Gasping against Robin’s shoulder he tried to pull away–and failed–and tried to press down–and failed–and tried to push Robin away–and failed. Every little movement made Robin’s finger shift inside him–by the time the second finger wriggled in alongside the first Thomas was shuddering and wide-eyed like a spooked horse.
Some unbearable eternity later, when Thomas was hard enough to throb and taut enough to quiver, Robin’s hand wriggled itself free. Thomas collapsed into a little huddle, groaning at the mortifying loss–“Steady,” Robin said again, and before Thomas could react Robin clambered over him, hitting the bed behind him and slinging an arm about his waist. Thomas froze. Robin dashed a quick kiss off between Thomas’ shoulderblades and shifted to fold around him and something prodded at Thomas’ ass and Thomas’ mind went white with shock.
When he came to not a moment later he was making the most alarming noises, trying to rub himself against the blankets and press himself back against Robin all at once. Mindlessly, blindly, he shoved his hand down between his chest and his upraised knee and took himself in hand and that was better, God, anything, please… Robin’s prick was a fire in his vitals and Thomas burned red with shame and embarrassment and pulled his leg up higher all at the same time.
It was awkward and then it wasn’t–Robin’s mouth pressed wet and frantic against his spine and he writhed up and forward and Thomas’ mind exploded–he saw stars–pushing up into his own hand and then back onto Robin’s prick, back and forth, mindless and mortified and… and…!
When it was over–when a gasping Robin had withdrawn and fallen still with an arm about his waist, when Thomas had closed his eyes and wiped his hand clean on the blankets, when there was nothing left but the throb and the slickness–Thomas curled up again, naked and mazed with exhaustion. He felt temporarily empty, as if he’d purged his demons but not yet replaced them with angels.
After a long moment Robin slid back over him and kissed him, light, sweet and lingering, before standing up and pulling on his breeches again. The wet spot on the front had dried to a faint white shadow. “Yeh get some rest, aye,” Robin said kindly, brushing Thomas’ hair away from his forehead. “Time I got us headin’ back t’ port.”
Thomas nodded, cracking an eye open and closing it again. Robin picked up a blanket from the floor where it had fallen and flicked it out, letting it flutter down onto Thomas; Thomas pulled it tight about his shoulders and snuggled down into the nest of fouled blankets with a sigh.
Dozing, he was only vaguely aware of the the fat-bellied sail billowing out with a thump, the sloop starting to move again. For a few minutes longer Thomas lay there, half-awake and possessed of a great, humbled calm; then he sighed again and let the motion of the boat rock him to sleep.
Three hours later they stood together on the little open deck of the sloop, looking out over the moonlit water at the little white-sand beach, thirty yards away. Robin still wore only his breeches and, oddly, his pendant, which Thomas had not seen him put on; Thomas wore his own shirt and trousers again, unpleasantly crusty as the latter were.
“Once yeh hit th’ beach, yeh follow it t’ the south,” Robin said, pointing. “Half a mile or so ‘long the shore and yeh’ll come t’ the port.”
Thomas nodded. Robin fell silent. Water lapped quietly at the sides of the sloop. “I hope someone picked up my saber,” Thomas finally said. “I’ve had it since I was fifteen. I’d hate to lose it.”
“Eh, if they din’t I’ll steal yeh another one,” Robin said, his grin flashing in the moonlight. “How else are yeh gonna arrest me, Lieut’nant?”
Thomas ducked his head to hide a smile. “I’m certain I’d think of something,” he said. “I’ll see you brought to justice yet.”
“Oh, aye, possibly, possibly.” The breeze shifted and Robin’s hand leaped to the wheel, making a minute adjustment before falling away again. “Yeh’d best get goin’. Longer yeh wait, more people are gonna be awake t’ stare when yeh stagger in, aye?”
“Aye. …yes.” Thomas turned to look thoughtfully at Robin, whose answering grin was as wide and guileless as ever. Quickly, before he could think better of it, Thomas bent and kissed him, which had the pleasant side effect of wiping that grin away as neatly as a rag cleans a slate; before it could come back in full and sunny force Thomas threw a leg over Jenny’s low side and plunged into the ocean.
Even this late at night the ocean was warm against his skin, and his clothes were not heavy enough to markedly slow his progress. Good, clean salt water washed the last of the salve from his skin and the remainder of the mess from his trousers, and if it stung on his burns and abrasions, well, it only meant he was alive. Behind him he heard the popping noise of Jenny’s sail, and by the time he waded out onto the land again the sloop was gone, not even its wake remaining.
Sodden with salt water and crusted with sand, his hair once again slipping from its ponytail, Thomas stood on the beach and stared thoughtfully out to sea. His fingers slid into his pocket and touched metal: as clever a device as he’d even seen, this folding grappling hook, far too clever a device for so daring a thief as Robin to have. Thomas had considered it no less than his duty to separate Robin from it, lest it be used against him, or against the town for which he was responsible.
Despite everything he’d managed to leave home without, Thomas had still had a handkerchief in the pocket of his trousers. He’d left it in trade, dropping it into the sea-chest when he took the grappling hook. Robin might have to have someone else read him the initials on the monogram, but surely, one way or another, he’d realize just what had happened to the clever little device that was so inexplicably missing. And then, of course, he’d come after it. Robin had a way of coming after what was his, after all.
Thomas turned his face to the moon and smiled, then swung away and headed south, leaving behind a trail of bare footprints in the white sand. An hour later they were gone, swept clean away by the rising tide.