Hiram Kalloway joined the Royal Navy at the late age of thirteen, his mother having insisted on his remaining home until that age in order to gain some additional polish. His father, Samuel Kalloway, had gone to sea at the age of nine, moving up in the captain’s list year by year and running roughshod underfoot on his uncle’s ships until he was old enough to be more than a cabin boy.
“I love your father dearly,” Hiram’s mother had said more than once, and occasionally even in polite company. “And Lord knows he’s a good man, Hiley, but you can’t deny he stands out in a crowd.”
As a child Hiram had loved this about his father, but as he moved longer in his mother’s orbit he began to see the complex social mores she navigated as a rich merchant’s daughter rather than a member of a landed family. And the more he saw, the more he saw the value of discretion.
“Remember that by nature you have two ears, and one mouth,” she told him more than once as she oversaw his lessons. “Who said that?”
“Meminime a natura duas habuisse aures, os unum,” Hiram parroted back. “Aristotle.”
“And the meaning?”
Hiram frowned. “Be quiet and listen,” he said. “At least more than you talk.”
This seemed quite boring at first, but the more he moved among his peers, the more he found it to be good advice. Some of the other young men, especially those landed heirs or rich merchants’ sons who had no plans of going to sea, seemed inclined to shoot off their mouths in boasting and in jest. Hiram found himself witness to more than one fight before his thirteenth birthday. Hiram stood aside: the last thing he wanted was a reputation as a troublemaker before he was taken aboard ship. It rankled, at times, to let things go, but Hiram was by nature a thoughtful boy with a slow temper.
Finally, though, he was thirteen, and his mother allowed his father to take him to sea for more than a short trip, more than a mere test run. Hiram had always been happiest on the ocean, or at least in sight of the waves, and his sea legs came to him more quickly than anyone had expected. The movement of the boat under his feet felt like home, more natural than anything else he had experienced in his life to date.
Hiram studied with the other ships’ boys and kept to himself when he was not on watch or running errands, and did not play on seniority or his father’s rank. He had enough sense, even at his angriest, to know that standing on his own two legs would gain him more respect in the long term, and enough caution not to start a fight he wasn’t sure of winning. A reputation as a hanger-on might get him ahead on his father’s ship, but his mother had drilled it into him that it would hinder him elsewhere.
Hiram’s standing was more reliably advanced by the fact that navigational calculations came to him as natural as breathing, and the winds seemed to be visible to him in a way no one else could really visualize or even imagine. Standing on board the ship, Hiram could read the sky and the sea with an ease that felt natural and made absolutely no sense to anyone else.
“The pennants are stirring,” Hiram pointed out to the first mate one morning during a lesson, when the sails were being set too tight. “And the water to port is choppy, you see, at the horizon. It will blow soon, and the men will only have to go up again to loosen the lines.”
The first mate scowled and ignored him. The man scowled more when, a bare quarter-hour later, the men were sent up the Jacobs ladders in the rigging for gusts and gales that Hiram had known would be coming by signs that had seemed as clear as dawn.
“You’ve an eye for the sea,” Samuel said, at one of their rare lunches together. He made a habit of eating with all of the ships’ boys in a cycle, so as not to show preference, but Hiram thought that perhaps his own lunches were a little longer, a little less formal.
“It’s all there to be read,” Hiram protested. “You only need the eyes for it.” He had told the first mate what he saw, after all: it hadn’t been any kind of magic, only observation.
In response Samuel only ruffled his hair, which Hiram pretended to hate. In fact, contact from his father was nearly the only kind of touch Hiram did not despise, and he found himself hoping for some such gesture at each of these lunches. Hiram’s mother had been free with her affection and Hiram had found that he missed it, though he would never admit to having been so coddled to anyone else: bad enough to be on ship for the first time at thirteen; worse still to be labeled soft. Samuel patted him on the shoulder, then, and had Hiram read out his lessons in proof of what he had learned the last week.
“And your mother?” Samuel enquired, because she wrote to Hiram more honestly, perhaps, than to her husband.
“Mother does well enough,” Hiram said. “Mrs. Holloway down the street is putting on airs about her gardens, but she has not the patience to wait mother out, so it will come out in mother’s favor in the end.” Hiram knew Mrs. Holloway as a rather shallow woman, determined to show up her neighbors: kind enough to children, but vicious behind other women’s backs. He had no doubt of his mother’s eventual social victory.
Samuel smiled, as if Hiram were speaking a foreign language.
“I see now why she wanted to keep you back,” Samuel said. “You’ve an eye for politics as well as the sea, which I surely never did.”
Hiram didn’t think that people were all that different from the sea, if you watched carefully, but Hiram was coming to see that the things he observed in the waves were not always as obvious to others as he thought they were. He had already tired of explaining himself, though, and argument always meant explanation, so he merely nodded. It was perhaps disappointing to find that his father was not omnipotent, but Hiram had always been a philosophical boy.
When he was fifteen, Hiram was transferred to another ship, where he began to rise through the ranks and to make a name for himself on his own merits. By twenty two he was a ship’s first lieutenant, and looking for promotion to captain within a few years only if the war continued as it had. Talk of peace was alarming, but Hiram had found that, so long as his assigned captain wasn’t too objectionable, he was in no rush to advance to captaining a ship himself.
Other men in Hiram’s situation spoke often of looking forward to promotion as a prerequisite to marriage, but Hiram had found that, his mother and sisters aside, he had little desire for female company. He could navigate the social norms of the Admiralty without the aid of a helpmeet, which many of his peers seemed unable to do. When asked, Hiram merely said that did not feel financially secure enough to undertake the protection of another person just yet. Given the common perception of captaincy as a prerequisite for marriage, this was a simple enough redirection.
If he had also found, gradually, and dawning like the sunrise through mist in the north sea, that his preferences ran rather away from powdered bosoms, carefully coiffed hair and artificially reddened lips, well, that was something that none in polite society were willing to speak of, and Hiram kept his peace. He was strictly polite and proper on board ship, and made sure to be seen around houses of ill repute often enough to fulfil expectations. There were some kinds of gossip that were more damaging to a man’s reputation than others, and Hiram had decided early on that if his preferences ran astray from society’s demands, then his career would have to be his focus.
And if he was sometimes lonely, well, he had the ocean, and the seas, and the prospect of making captain early in combat. That wasn’t, perhaps, quite enough, but Hiram took this disappointment in stride as he had the discovery that his father was merely human, and in time, his mother as well. So Hiram gained a reputation for being an odd, bookish sort, a loner, but a fair enough officer who fought like a devil and read the sea like a lover.
And that was all fine, until he served on a ship with Isaac Upton, a ship’s master with a sharp tongue and a sharper temper, a man whose reputation said he was willing to castigate any and all members of the Admiralty who were inclined to cheat his captain, regardless of their power or influence.
Upton was previously known to Hiram through gossip, of course: hardly any who moved in the service had missed news of the so-called quadroon who had made a name for himself despite his heritage. Upton’s father, it seemed, was a merchant sailor from the Midlands, of not particularly distinguished service, though he had managed to retire without overt scandal other than his unconventional marriage.
Upton’s mother was another matter entirely. Heiress to a massive shipping fortune, she was a half-blooded Indian by way of her own mother, and had been raised in India entirely, in the Anglophone world of her father. She was known to complain incessantly of the cold and wet in England, to have taken up residence in Cornwall largely for the warmer climate, and to winter in the south of Spain despite all the political obstacles of international treaties, seeming not to care a whit for the norms that governed other families’ travel in these troubled times. Upton was her only son, and she moved in society with all the ease and assurance that her not-inconsiderable wealth might provide. Why her only child had decided on the Navy was a topic of much speculation. Hiram listened to the gossip and reserved judgment for the time being. It was a curious choice, but Hiram himself had made the same one.
From the man’s reputation, Hiram had expected Upton to be a firebrand and a troublemaker, and perhaps he was at times: when men stepped out of line, the master was merciless indeed. But he was also kind to the boys and looked after those who were ill or homesick with a kind of care that Hiram had rarely seen so openly displayed. Where most men in the service would shame a boy for softness, Upton appeared to listen, and even offer reassurance, seemingly uncaring that such an approach was unheard of.
Indeed, at first glance, Upton seemed unaware of the social norms his mere existence broke. While the enlisted and impressed men of the ship’s crew might be from any part of the empire, and were of all shades from fish-belly pale to the near-black of deepest Africa, the officers were a different matter. Further observation, however, showed that Upton was not so sheltered. He stiffened at slights and casual comments that Hiram had not previously noticed, was kind to the sailors from the colonies. He was also, it appeared, less likely to scapegoat them for minor offenses committed by the white men than were some of the other officers. Enforcing the ship’s code fairly meant more work for Upton, but Hiram found himself backing the man up over the officer’s table on more than one occasion. A ship’s discipline needed to be consistent, after all, and favoritism was a good way to sow dissent.
Despite that, the two of them interacted at first only as much as they had to until Hiram’s great-aunt’s second husband’s grandson, Nathan, came to the ship. Nathan was widely known to be a holy terror who had been raised on ships from the age of seven. He had no manners worth speaking of and no visible sense of propriety or of restraint. Hiram had hoped that the boy would suffer the Captain and First Lieutenant’s silence as so many of the other boys had, and settle, but Nathan seemed only to escalate his pranks in face of Hiram’s icy disapproval.
It took Upton’s hand, in fact, to rein the boy in. The doing so was what brought Upton more fully to Hiram’s notice in the process. Hiram was roused to deck one morning by a commotion, where he found that Nathan was hanging from the crow’s nest, and Upton was standing on the deck. The master was really only half-dressed, shirt unbuttoned down his chest, and he was bellowing obscenity with the kind of lungs that were rare even in the Royal Navy.
Hiram saw with a shocked kind of feeling that the man’s loose dark hair was thicker than he had thought, and longer out of its plait than he had anticipated. He felt a not-unpleasant shiver, and allowed his eyes to track down the man’s broad chest and long legs before catching himself up short. A first lieutenant couldn’t allow himself such weaknesses, not when he needed the respect of his men and the trust of his officers.
“Nathan Underhill,” Hiram heard Upton bellow. “If you don’t get down here this instant, so help me, I will come up after you and throw you to the waves.”
Nathan paused a moment only and then, apparently taking Upton to be all bark and no bite, continued to smear paint on the outside of the crow’s nest.
And then, god help them all, Upton swarmed the mast like a boy on a dare, ignoring the pitching of the high seas and easier paths of the Jacobs ladders in favor of a decidedly unsafe progress up to the crow’s nest that was, certainly, much faster than Nathan had ever had cause to anticipate. Upton took the paint and brush, deposited them neatly in the crow’s nest, and managed to tuck a struggling Nathan under his arm for an only slightly more sedate trip back down to the deck.
When they got back to the quarterdeck, Upton ducked Nathan over the side into the waves, as promised. Then Upton pulled the boy back up and wrapped him in a blanket. Hiram absented himself at that point, reminding himself that the boy didn’t need even more of an audience for his embarrassment. If Hiram was also finding that he had more eyes for Upton than was really proper, especially given the man’s state of half-dress, well, all the more reason to leave. He had been aware, in the abstract, that Upton was striking, with slightly upturned eyes and a darker tan than any English sailor. This new awareness, however, was visceral and stirring in a way that Hiram found almost distressingly strong in its pull
A knock a few hours later brought Upton into Hiram’s cabin.
“I’ve set Nathan to the task of cleaning the paint off the crow’s nest,” Upton told him. “He’ll also be swabbing the decks until the hands have forgiven him for the spilled drops on the freshly cleaned deck, which I imagine will take some time.”
It was not an unmerciful punishment, though not an easy one either. Hiram nodded. “Was that all?” Hiram asked. His tone was perhaps too sharp, but he knew himself: he needed to break any attachment on his part before it could set its hooks in him.
Upton seemed about to leave, but then seemed to make his mind up about something. “It’s harder on him than he lets on,” Upton said, and his words were carefully chosen. “His father dying young and his grandfather so well known. He’s a bit clumsy, and the other boys poke fun at him for it all.”
“I am not unsympathetic,” Hiram allowed. “But discipline need be maintained. I won’t have him running wild on the ship, regardless of what he has been allowed in the past.”
Upton gave him a distinctly unimpressed look. “I don’t mean to imply that he be allowed to deface the crow’s nest,” Upton said, tone dry. “I simply suggest that he might be more than the hellion he’s been painted. I imagine he’s quite homesick, though he would never admit it.”
Hiram wasn’t sure what the boy had to be homesick for, as his mother had died in childbirth, and his father died when he was a mere five or six years old: the boy had been raised on his grandfather’s ships, as far as Hiram could tell, and it had not gone well for his manners.
“He misses his grandfather,” Upton said. His expression was studiedly blank, but he had less control over his tone of voice. The edge of exasperation, most often overheard in lessons with the duller boys, ought to have set Hiram’s teeth on edge. Instead it made him want to do better. “Much as he appears to resent the man and the connection, it is all he has in the world.”
Hiram found himself wanting to impress Upton. “I have been thinking of taking lunch with the cabin boys, one at a turn,” he said. It had helped him well enough, and perhaps it was time to institute a similar practice now that he was the senior lieutenant. The captain would not mind. Hiram bid farewell to his solitary lunches, the brief oasis of time to himself in the midst of a ship full of men. “It will have to be all of them in circuit, mind you, and I will be quizzing them on their lessons.”
Upton seemed to consider that a more than reasonable compromise. His smile, when he turned it on Hiram, was dazzling. “I’ll do my best to see they don’t disappoint you,” he said, and departed before Hiram could find a response.
If Hiram allowed that smile to flash past his eyes that night, in the temporary privacy of his shared cabin, well, he was only human.
* * *
The first boys to meet with Hiram were those who had been on the ship longest, and under Upton’s tutelage for the most time. Hiram found he was pleasantly surprised by the balance of their education, particularly the non-European geography and maritime calculations.
Nathan was the second-to-last boy. He came in rather grumpily with a mess of papers that looked distinctly less organized than the other boys’ notebooks.
“Good day,” Hiram said, and Nathan executed a passable bow, though he seemed to resent it even as he made the correct motions.
“Come, then,” Hiram continued, when Nathan didn’t walk farther into the room, nor take a seat. “Show me what you’ve been working on.”
“You needn’t pretend you care,” Nathan burst out. “I know I’m only here on sufferance.” Hiram raised his eyebrows, but Nathan didn’t seem inclined to go on.
“And who told you that?” Hiram asked, having decided that a waiting game was likely to do neither of them much good.
“Everyone knows that,” Nathan told him.
“Well,” Hiram said. “It seems everyone has been speaking about things they know very little about.” He gestured at the seat beside his own. “Now,” he said. “Have you known everyone to characterize me as inclined to do things I dislike?”
Hiram knew he had a good reputation, as these things went, but also rather a peculiar one. He swam, because he liked it, which was considered very odd, and he did not eat jellied desserts, because he did not like them. He detested any number of naval practices that were standard on other ships, such as entering boys onto the books to advance in seniority when they were not present. He turned a blind eye to others, including connections among the men that most captains would repay with the lash. As a result Hiram had been called an odd duck more than once. He got away with it all by walking a fine line of brilliance and strict fairness, of social observation and untapped political connections, but he knew his reputation was that of a rather strange man, on the whole.
Nathan appeared to consider this for a moment, then stepped farther into the room. “I haven’t all my lessons here,” he said, defiant. “Someone–” he bit his tongue, but Hiram could guess what might have happened between the boys.
“Well,” Hiram said. “I’ll see what you do have, then. I trust you’ll have the rest next time.”
Nathan stared at him, visibly shocked. He looked rather like a dog that had expected to be kicked, Hiram thought, and wondered why that hadn’t occurred to him before. Hiram himself had met his share of disapproval for being his famous father’s son, but he had been a child prodigy. He had been secure in his mother’s love and aware of his father’s esteem. Nathan, for all his bluster, had no such bulwark, and did seem to be a clumsy child at his best.
His handwriting was entirely horrible. Hiram set him extra lessons in penmanship, and attempted to frown Nathan into submission.
“I’m sure Mr. Upton would appreciate not having to ruin his eyesight over your lessons,” Hiram added, when that seemed not to be working. Nathan immediately subsided.
The invocation of Mr. Upton seemed to have been the magic part of that sentence: Hiram made a note to see how, exactly, Upton had managed to bring the boy to heel. If it worked on unruly men as well as unruly boys, it might well be a tool in Hiram’s arsenal, which was, he had started to think, rather underequipped when it came to troublemakers who were undaunted by icy authority.
“It’s boring,” Nathan groused, but he did seem to make more of an effort after that. Finally Hiram brought out the covered trays that the ship’s cook had sent up earlier.
Nathan fell on the food like a wild animal. Hiram sighed and made a note to introduce etiquette lessons to the boys as a group, because he would prefer to have a ship that did not acquit itself badly in company. For the time being, he simply allowed Nathan both servings of the jellied custard the cook would insist on sending up for all of Hiram’s meals no matter how often Hiram sent them back untouched. It was the least he could do for a relation, no matter how distant the connection.
* * *
Mr. Upton seemed decidedly in a better humor after the next few weeks, and the level of chaos on the ship did seem to decrease slightly once Nathan knew that he had, if not Hiram’s full attention, at least a chance to speak with him without accusations of undue favor.
If Hiram found himself seeking out Upton’s company more often, he was able to rationalize it to himself well enough to not force himself to stop. He knew it was foolish, but the shiver of warmth up his spine when Upton smiled at him was rather a stronger incentive than any of the caution Hiram had instilled so carefully in himself since his teenage years.
Then one afternoon Hiram overheard the third lieutenant, Mr James, say something quite shocking in the corridor outside Hiram’s shared cabin.
“It’s half-caste or Eurasian, not quadroon, in point of fact,” Mr. Upton said. He hardly sounded angry, just tired. “You might at least be accurate.”
James spluttered, seemingly discomfited at his barb having missed its mark, and Hiram stayed in his cabin until the footsteps in the corridor had died away.
It all came to a head that night over the officer’s table, when Hiram cut James in conversation very slightly more than he deserved. James had been attempting to maneuver himself into Hiram’s favor, and Hiram found he hadn’t the patience to allow such obvious attempts to fail in their own time, as he usually would. After the meal, Upton stayed until they were the only two left, shoulders stiff with anger.
“I’d thank you not to do that again,” he said, and his features were flushed, entirely beautiful in his rage. A lock of hair had begun to escape his thick plait, and Hiram wanted desperately to push it back behind Upton’s ear.
“What?” Hiram asked, distracted, but trying to focus on the point at hand. He had thought to set the third lieutenant down a peg, to demonstrate that jockeying for favor was not best done quite so obviously and under his nose.
“I know you overheard James,” Upton spat. “And I don’t know what kind of noblesse-oblige instincts are driving you, but I’m perfectly able to take care of myself. I needn’t have you cutting him on my behalf. It puts me in an impossible situation, and I shouldn’t like to be seen to be in your debt, if it’s all the same to you.”
Hiram blinked. “I assure you,” he began, and Upton scowled.
“You had no such intention,” Upton said. “Well, you can do me a great favor, and restrain any such impulses in the future. I’ve enough difficulty without James telling the other men I’m kneeling for your approval.”
The implications were clear, and Hiram flushed, hot with shame. It had not occurred to him, though surely it ought to have done, that there might be such an interpretation of his actions. The image of Upton willingly subjugating himself was one that Hiram had entertained more than once, if he was honest with himself, but the idea of such intercourse being forced on the other man was abhorrent.
“I apologize,” he said. He held his body rigid with the force of habit. “I had no such intent. I saw a man in my service behaving out of line, and acted as I would in any such case.”
It was true enough, though Hiram was usually able to be more discreet about his social maneuvering. Upton stared at him, and seemed to relax slightly.
“I accept your apology,” he said, finally. His voice was still stiff, but his color was receding. It was astonishing, Hiram thought, how deeply Upton could flush, for a man with such dark skin. “But I will thank you to leave well enough alone. I prefer not having to navigate rumors about whether or not I will oblige my superiors for advantage in ways that polite company would really rather not acknowledge.”
Hiram found he himself was capable of flushing yet darker, and nodded, unable to find words.
“I see that was not your intent,” Upton allowed, and saw himself out before Hiram could wrangle his tongue to form any words that made a jot of sense.
Hiram woke on edge that night as he had not since he was a boy, and the image of Upton – Isaac, he told himself, feeling shame at that un-granted familiarity – swam behind his eyelids as he brought himself to completion.
* * *
It was perhaps a good thing for Hiram’s peace of mind that they went back to port soon after, and the captain granted them all an extended leave while the ship was re-outfitted. Then it transpired that Nathan would be coming to Hiram’s family home with him, at the insistence of Hiram’s mother. Hiram had resigned himself to a rather less relaxing leave than anticipated when Nathan arrived with Mr. Upton in tow.
“Mr. Upton has no family either,” Nathan announced. “Or near enough, as his mother is in Spain. I told him he could come with us, and continue teaching me so I make less of a mess of things once we’re back aboard ship.” He turned a pleading gaze on Hiram. “You know the other boys will have tutors,” he said. “It isn’t fair, but isn’t against the rules. Please say yes?”
And when he put it like that, Hiram could hardly deny the boy. Upton looked put-upon, and embarrassed, and Hiram offered him a slight grin, hoping he might smile back.
“My apologies,” Upton said. “I know you must have been looking forward to something of a break from the same old faces.”
Hiram had been looking forward to a quiet leave at home, but he would be lying if he tried to claim, even to himself, that the prospect of spending more time with Upton was anything but appealing.
“Call me Hiram,” he offered, feeling greatly daring. “If we’re to be traveling off-ship for a time, you might as well call me by my Christian name.”
Upton looked surprised, and then held out his hand. “Isaac, then,” he said.
Nathan looked between them and made a kind of disbelieving noise. “This is nonsense,” he said. “You already know each other’s names, don’t you? Come on. The carriage is waiting, and I’m going to feed the horses.” He ran off, bag tucked over his shoulder, and Hiram and Upton – no, Isaac – exchanged weary glances.
“I expect this will be rather a trial,” Isaac offered, and Hiram smiled wider.
“Perhaps easier with two of us to wrangle his moods,” he offered, and they set off behind Nathan, who was swarming the coach as if he had never seen one before. Given that he had spent much of his life since the age of six aboard ship, perhaps horses were as foreign to him as they seemed.
“Nathan,” Isaac said, voice cutting through the street’s din without being shockingly loud. “Do not frighten the horses. Move slowly and treat them with respect. They’re much larger and more skittish than they seem, and you do not want to be kicked.”
“Like the boom on a small boat,” Nathan said absently, but he slowed down, and held out his palm for the horses to sniff. The incisiveness of the comparison surprised Hiram for a moment, but it seemed that Nathan occasionally had the same knack for surprising revelations that Hiram had demonstrated as a child.
The carriage was large enough for four passengers, but Nathan announced that he was tired and immediately stretched out with his head on some of their bags along one bench, leaving only room for Hiram and Isaac to sit next to each other. It left them in closer proximity than Hiram had been to another man off-ship in quite some time.
“Will your mother be quite put-out to have another guest?” Isaac asked, when the silence stretched. “I can easily find accommodation elsewhere. I don’t wish to be a burden.”
“My mother and sisters will be delighted,” Hiram said, absently, watching Nathan so he didn’t stare awkwardly at Isaac. The boy seemed to have all the natural grace of a cat in sleep, and the balance as well, to have stayed on the narrow wooden seat despite the bumpy roads.
“Your sisters will be home?” Isaac asked. “I had thought –” He paused. “Well, I shouldn’t like to be thought to be seeking advantage.”
Hiram thought about that for a moment. It was not an unwise concern, and something he ought to have considered, would ordinarily have thought of, were he not distracted.
“My elder sister, Rachel, is already happily married,” he said, after a time. “She lives in the neighborhood, and will be over often. The younger, Hannah, is not yet out in society, but has declared that she has no intention to marry. I doubt anyone will think you have aims for her hand in any case, as she is considerably too young yet for such concerns.”
Hannah was but twelve, and had declared that she would be an Anglican nun, or perhaps a traveling nurse, or a lady scientist, when she had resigned herself to not being permitted to go to sea like Hiram. Hiram, for his part, had little doubt of her determination, and Rachel had married well enough for both of them. Her son would likely inherit the estate, if Hiram himself proved unable to carry on the family name.
Isaac nodded. He was still looking out the window, and his posture was stiff. “I shouldn’t like to impose,” he said. “I assure you that I can easily occupy myself when I am not tutoring Nathan.”
There were certainly enough things to do and more space than on board ship. It would be entirely possible to avoid each other except at meals. If Hiram demanded it, Isaac would play the hired tutor with discretion and perhaps not even distaste. The idea of putting the man in such a position turned Hiram’s stomach.
“If your presence as my guest were an imposition against which I were set,” Hiram said, finding that this did, in fact, need to be put into words. “I should have disallowed it. You shall not be in my way any more than I in yours. I hope only that my family is not too trying, as they are rather meddlesome.”
Hiram had no doubt that his mother would discern his attachment the moment they arrived, if he had not already given himself away in his letters home. Speak less, Hiram told himself, a constant reminder, born of his early reading of Aristotle. But it was too late for that. Hiram would have to trust in his mother’s discretion.
Isaac nodded, and they passed the time in pleasant conversation until Nathan woke and insisted on having all the various farm animals they passed named for him. He seemed particularly intrigued by the knowledge that there were different colors of cows, which Hiram had a hard time finding anything other than entirely hilarious. Isaac, for his part, managed rather better at keeping a straight face, though there was a moment where they made the mistake of catching each other’s eyes and it appeared that they were both at risk of losing their composure. It was, Hiram thought, an auspicious beginning.
* * *
Hiram’s family home, when they arrived, was nothing too remarkable: a two-story stone house set back from the road with sparse outbuildings and an attached glassed-in sunroom. Isaac seemed to take it all in stride, while Nathan looked a bit disappointed.
“Grandfather’s house is larger,” he said as they stepped down from the carriage. Isaac swatted him without a word. “Well, it is,” Nathan protested, rubbing at the back of his head. “I don’t see why I can’t say so.”
“It’s considered rude,” Hiram said absently, wondering now whether he ought to have sent more of a message ahead, for Cook if no one else. It wasn’t like him to act so rashly, without consideration, but Isaac seemed to bring it out in him in ways no one else ever had. “House size is related to income, and most will consider it an insult of their financial well-being.” Hiram paused, knowing he needed to find terms that made sense to Nathan. Finally he said: “It’s rather like commenting on someone’s seniority on the captain’s list, if they weren’t entered at a young enough age, or haven’t distinguished themselves. It’s impolite because it makes people feel awkward about their position.”
Nathan looked at him. “Oh,” he said. “Well, that makes sense then.” He looked at Hiram a moment longer, then grinned. “Grandfather’s house is still much larger,” he said.
Isaac swatted him again, without a word. He appeared, to Hiram’s eye, to be holding back a grin.
“Ow!” Nathan protested. “I know Kalloway won’t take offense. Grandfather is his great-uncle now anyway, he’s seen the house!”
The house in question was a sprawling four-story manor with multiple wings and a newly constructed approach that enhanced the view dramatically.
Hiram bit back a smile of his own, aiming not to encourage the boy. “Admirals do generally have rather more means than first lieutenants,” he pointed out. “But you’re right, I don’t take offense. You should still restrain such comments when in company. Some feel obligated to take offense in public to things that might be said freely in private.”
Nathan nodded, and they stepped into the gate. Hannah, who was in the garden waiting for Hiram’s arrival, pulled Nathan away to meet the barn cats after giving Hiram a fierce hug. Hiram hoped that wasn’t too improper, but was distracted by the whirlwind that was his mother and older sister approaching in a swish of skirts.
“Hiley, darling,” Sylvia said. “You didn’t tell us you were bringing a friend!”
“Mother,” Hiram said, and she pulled him into a tight embrace. “This is Mr. Upton, about whom I am sure I have spoken in my letters. Nathan requested that he join us.” He pulled back and looked at Isaac, who was looking rather frozen in place. “Isaac, this is my mother, Sylvia Kalloway. She will insist on your calling her Sylvia,” he warned. “You needn’t put up a fight unless you mean to offend her.”
Sylvia and Rachel’s expressions both went sharp when Hiram called Isaac by his Christian name, and he sighed internally at the slip, which had already felt so natural. He would have to watch himself more carefully, to be certain of not giving too much away. Hiram was determined to keep Isaac in the dark for as long as possible: for ever, if he had his way. Finding the man more and more appealing was no guarantee that Isaac himself was drawn to the company of men.
“Mr. Upton,” Hiram’s mother said, holding out a hand for him to take and press to his lips. “Charmed, I’m sure. Hiram has been most complimentary in his letters,” she added. Only someone who knew her very well would see the wickedness glittering in her eyes. “And let me assure you,” she said. “That is a rare quality in his letters, because Hiram can be quite cutting when he feels someone deserves it.”
Isaac smiled, and delivered a more than creditable bow. Hiram looked away to prevent himself staring. “I’m pleased to hear it,” he said. “What little he has said of you has put me rather in awe, I must admit.”
Hiram nodded at Rachel. “Isaac, this is my older sister, Rachel Knight.”
Isaac bowed again, and Hiram watched Rachel, who looked pleased enough. Unless Hiram missed his guess, she was pregnant again, though not conspicuously so.
“Now,” Sylvia said. “You’re just in time for tea.”
She and Isaac walked back to the house arm in arm. Rachel took Hiram’s arm with a sharp grin that let him know Sylvia had been sharing news from his letters.
“Isaac,” she said. “Really, Hiley?”
Hiram sighed and resigned himself to a leave during which his mother and sister meddled relentlessly in his life, and perhaps even made themselves enough of a nuisance that Isaac would seek reassignment to another ship, once he was made aware of Hiram’s less-than-proper regard.
* * *
The weather during their leave was generally fair, if characteristically grey for the English winter. Nathan complained fiercely about the cold and bundled up in some of Hiram’s old sweaters when the staff found them in trunks in the attic. Isaac made no such complaints, but was inclined to sit closer to the fireplace than not, when given the chance.
As a first lieutenant, Hiram had more space aboard ship than most officers, but one was never truly out of sight. The knowledge of constant observation kept Hiram careful, kept his formality in place as much as defense against the temptation of impropriety as any real desire to enforce hierarchy.
Now, however, things were significantly more challenging. For one thing, Sylvia kept finding excuses to leave Hiram and Isaac alone together, to bundle the children off with Hannah’s governess for shared lessons, or to Rachel’s house to spend time with Hiram’s nephew, who was nearly seven and adored Hannah. That frequently left the two men free of their rather time-consuming charge.
Hiram knew better than to think the servants weren’t omnipresent: Sylvia didn’t keep a large staff, but they might always walk by, come into a room to stoke the fire, or set out tea. It was still so very different from being on ship, crammed into a wooden hull like sardines in a multi-layered tin. One could go for a walk, or better yet, for a ride, and have no one else in sight or hearing for as long as hours at a time.
If Hiram had hoped that his regard might fade with increased proximity, as it had done before once or twice in his lifetime, he was sadly disappointed. Rather the reverse happened. Isaac was wry and funny once he lost his awe of the surroundings, kept Nathan in line almost effortlessly, and looked almost unfairly becoming out of uniform. His suits were better cut than Hiram had expected: Isaac’s mother appeared to have set certain standards for Isaac’s dress when he was out of uniform. The cut of his trousers was almost unfairly flattering.
Several of Sylvia’s neighbors, hearing that Hiram was in residence with another naval officer, began to drop in for visits. Some of the most hopeful brought their daughters with them, in a transparent attempt to make social connections with eligible bachelors of good family.
Not a few of the first round of visitors had done visible double-takes at the sight of so dark-skinned a man as Isaac in Hiram’s mother’s drawing room. Hiram had found himself hard pressed to be more than icily polite to anyone who reacted in such a way, even those who looked ashamed of themselves, or who eventually extended to Isaac the courtesy that was certainly his due.
“And him so well-dressed,” Mrs. Halloway had said to her eldest unmarried daughter as they were leaving. Her hearing was going, Hiram thought, or else she meant to be overheard. “Almost like a gentleman, and no mistake.”
Thankfully Isaac had already left the room: Hiram wasn’t certain he could have borne the sight of Isaac’s obviously pained patience at such words. The man seemed to assume that everyone would behave in such a way, and while Hiram was not given to fits of temper, he found that anger simmered long and low at the thought of what treatment had brought about such expectations.
Hiram dedicated rather a long time the next day to helping his mother construct a scheme for undermining Mrs. Halloway’s plans to win the local gardening award. Her heart was set on it, and Hiram felt a kind of vicious satisfaction at the idea of depriving her of that prize.
“You do care for him,” Sylvia said, when Hiram paused, looking out the windows to see if Isaac might still be out there.
Hiram sighed. “It’s of no consequence,” he said. “He’s a good man, and a good officer.”
Sylvia came up beside him, and pulled him into a tight embrace.
“My poor boy,” she said. “As are you.”
That evening the had been invited by Rachel to dinner. The children had walked over earlier, as there was no need for them to dress for the meal. If the sight of Isaac in his finely tailored pale trousers and grey coat made Hiram’s breath catch in his throat, well, no one need know.
Rachel’s husband’s family home was considerably larger than the one in which she and Hiram had grown up. When first married she had confessed to him, on one of his rare shore leaves, that she had worried about managing the staff, which was so much larger than she had been accustomed to.
“I suppose it’s not so different from managing a ship,” he had said. “Be fair and be clear. There’s nothing the men resent more than favoritism. And,” he paused. “For god’s sake, talk to Mother, she’ll have much better advice.”
Hiram had never managed a household of his own, and in all likelihood never would. When he was on shore, he was either in his mother’s home or in rented rooms for a week or so at a time. Rachel had smiled, and turned the conversation aside, and that had been that. Now, though, Rachel seemed comfortable in her home in a way she had not been the last time Hiram had been to see her.
“Hiram,” her husband, Henry Knight, greeted him. “Always a pleasure to see you. And Mr. Upton, was it? Rachel tells me you are also in the Navy.”
He didn’t seem surprised, which Hiram supposed meant Rachel had warned him in advance about Isaac’s appearance, or the neighborhood’s gossip had reached him. Hiram found he was painfully grateful for small mercies: he liked Henry, and did not want to have to resent his only brother-in-law on Isaac’s behalf.
Dinner was pleasant enough. Hiram was accustomed to navigating conversations with non-sailors as if steering through shoal-filled water, plotting a course in advance, and adjusting to inclement conditions. Isaac appeared to simply genuinely enjoy hearing other people talk about themselves, and to want to know more. It made him an appealing conversationalist and enjoyable company, plainly interested without being over-invested in detail.
Eventually the conversation turned to children, and then to personal connections.
“But you don’t plan to marry?” Rachel asked over dessert. She sounded only pleasantly curious, but shot Hiram a glance that told him this was for his benefit.
Isaac shrugged, and took a sip of the dessert wine.
“A ship’s master isn’t the most attractive of prospects,” he said, as if he weren’t also the heir to what Hiram knew to be a not-inconsiderable fortune. “And besides, I spend so little time ashore.” He shook his head, and poked at his slice of pudding. “I have no intention of marrying only for advantage, or convenience,” he said. “I suppose it’s unfashionable to insist on a love match, but I see no reason to form a connection without a deeper foundation.”
“A laudable sentiment,” Sylvia said, and steered conversation to safer ground until it was time to depart.
* * *
The next day Sylvia sent the two of them out to ride, brooking no protest.
“I do owe you and your mother my thanks for your hospitality,” Isaac said, as they let the horses walk at a their own pace.
Hiram made a noise somewhere between inquiry and protest.
“It’s a welcome change to be somewhere other than the westernmost tip of Cornwall,” Isaac admitted, and shot a look at Hiram, paired with a wry smile like an invitation to a shared joke. “My mother does insist on planting palm trees when she can get them. It drives the neighbors quite mad, especially when they don’t immediately die, and the reception in the neighborhood is not nearly so warm when I visit.”
Isaac’s mother sounded like a forceful personality indeed and Hiram found himself wondering from time to time if she would get along with his own mother.
Hiram nodded absently as Isaac warmed to his topic and described the better features of the Cornish coast. He was watching the sky over the cypress trees out of the corner of his eye. They had been riding for nearly an hour, out onto a neighbor’s property, and it looked like they ought to turn back soon. He had initially objected to a ride this afternoon, seeing how flat the sky was, but Sylvia had insisted they get out from underfoot while she had the churchwarden’s wife over for tea.
“Is something wrong?” Isaac asked. He didn’t ever appear to take offense at Hiram’s occasional distraction, which had made it all the harder to spend time with him without falling deeper into infatuation.
“It seems likely to snow,” Hiram said, still trying to figure it out. The sky looked flatter and somehow less easy to read than he was accustomed to. “I am beginning to think we ought to head back early.”
Sylvia had given strict instructions that they be gone for several hours, but Hiram hoped poor weather would be sufficient excuse. Besides, there would be no need to interrupt Sylvia’s tea if they used the back door.
As it happened, they should have turned back much earlier: when the weather changed, it was in an instant, like walking into a wall of snow that had not been there a moment earlier.
Hiram was not much of a rider, better on a ship than on a mount. But he remembered the grounds around his mother’s home well enough from childhood exploration: there was an abandoned shepherd’s cabin close by. Uncertain how long the snow would last, he steered them both toward shelter. By the time they got to the cabin, the snow was very nearly thick enough to lose Isaac in it.
Isaac dismounted without a word and led his horse into the front room of the ramshackle cottage with only a raised eyebrow when Hiram led the way.
“I shouldn’t like to leave them out in the snow,” Hiram said. There wasn’t much surviving furniture in the main room to be stepped on: the cottage had been abandoned for years. The horses stood and shivered, and Hiram unsaddled them and brushed snow awkwardly out of his gelding’s mane. Then he led Isaac back into a smaller room that smelled less powerfully of wet horse. It appeared to have been a bedroom at one point, and to have a mattress on a sturdy frame that had not yet succumbed to the power of time.
“I’m afraid there’s not much to be done but to wait it out,” Hiram said. Isaac looked decidedly uncomfortable at the prospect, and Hiram felt entirely to blame. “I should have seen the storm coming,” he offered. It seemed a paltry apology.
“It’s not as if the weather inland is different than that on the sea,” Isaac pointed out, echoing a lesson they had collaboratively offered to Nathan not two days ago. If his wry wit was intact, Hiram thought, perhaps they could get through this as well. Then Isaac shook with a full-body shiver. The cottage was keeping the snow out, but the masonry chinking was shoddy at best, and it was no warmer indoors than the outdoors, simply less immediately wet. Hiram might be accustomed to the cold, but Isaac was nearly as sensitive to the cold as Nathan, if less likely to complain.
“I supposed we could use the saddle blankets,” Hiram offered. Hypothermia would best be treated by removal of their wet clothing, which was as tempting as it was unwise. He decided not to mention that.
Isaac took one gratefully, despite the strong smell of horse, and wrapped it around his shoulders. They sat on the small bed side by side, as there was no other remaining furniture. Hiram tried not to wish too many ills on his mother for sending them out into the cold.
“I don’t suppose,” Isaac said after a time, when he had started shivering rather visibly. “I know it’s–”
Hiram nodded. “Sharing body heat would be wise,” he offered, and Isaac nodded, looking relieved more than anything else. “If you don’t mind the impropriety,” he added. “I know my mother may have–” He paused. There was no polite way to imply that his mother was aware of his preference for the company of men. The words hung between them for a moment, and Hiram swallowed hard.
“She has represented you as a most honorable man,” Isaac said, finally. He appeared to be choosing his words carefully. “No matter her implications, I am not inclined to take offense.” He paused. “Even were I, the prospect of regaining feeling in my fingers and toes might be sufficient temptation.”
Hiram smiled very slightly, and moved to lay his blanket out along the cot. He shucked off his wet coat, and then stretched out, beckoning to Isaac to do the same. Isaac followed suit, folding his coat carefully before he laid himself down next to Hiram. Finally he lifted his blanket to wrap it around the two of them. The feeling of Isaac so close to being in his arms, even trembling from cold, was more than Hiram had ever expected. He resisted the urge to bury his nose in the other man’s hair, and simply wrapped the blanket more securely around Isaac, holding himself still and slightly apart.
Isaac exhaled, and then, after a moment, tucked his head against Hiram’s shoulder. “I trust you’ll tell me if I’m overstepping,” he said, breath hot against Hiram’s bare throat. Then he all but melted against Hiram’s front, the heat of him almost shocking. “You should know,” Isaac said, and his voice was muffled, his breath hot against Hiram’s skin. “I hold you in the highest regard.”
Hiram took a steadying breath, unwilling to believe what he was hearing. “The feeling is mutual,” he admitted. “And I should never want to impose on you, Isaac, but–”
Isaac tipped his head up and caught Hiram’ lips in a kiss, cutting him off. Hiram lost all words in the feel of their mouths moving together. After a moment, Isaac opened his lips, and darted his tongue out, and Hiram groaned, and clutched him closer. They were both equally affected, Hiram discovered, and he groaned again, and ran a hand up the solid breadth of Isaac’s back, feeling the planes of muscle under the smooth linen of his shirt.
“The things I have wanted to do with you,” Hiram admitted, and he sounded shameful even to his own ears. “My god, Isaac, you have no idea.”
Isaac grinned, teeth flashing bright in the darkness of the room, and pressed a kiss to Hiram’s pulse-point, making Hiram’s breath catch in his throat at the intimacy of the gesture.
“And I you,” Isaac agreed, and his grin was wicked, and not at all ashamed. “I think we are agreed?”
Hiram nodded, and Isaac’s hand slid down his chest, slow and teasing. His lips were slightly chapped as the kissed, and he was unafraid to use his teeth. Hiram arched into his touch, begging without words until Isaac slipped a hand into his flies and pulled out his erection.
It was not the first time Hiram had been so touched. It was the first time he had been so affected. Sex in the past had been a mechanical act. Now it was a flame that consumed him, and he found himself gripping Isaac’s arms and gasping in time with careful, teasing strokes.
“Damn you,” Hiram gasped. “Please.”
Please, what, he couldn’t have said, but Isaac kissed him again and stroked him faster, grip not quite right, but too good to stop in the moment. Hiram came with a long, low moan that sounded nearly as desperate as he felt. He fell back, forcing himself to let go of Isaac’s broad shoulders, to try to pay attention to the task at hand.
Isaac had spared their clothing, somehow, by judicious use of a handkerchief, but he raised his hand to his lips with another wicked smile, visibly licking his palm clean. Hiram groaned, and rolled him over, straddling Isaac’s hips easily and pressing him down against the creaking cot. Isaac continued to lave his fingers, pink tongue slipping out in a teasing gesture belied by the hard ridge of his cock against Hiram’s backside. Hiram rocked down against him, testing, and Isaac groaned long and loud.
Hiram stared at him, at his hair coming out of its plait and his kiss-reddened lips, and set about making Isaac make even more delicious noises. It wasn’t as if anyone could hear them, remote as they were, loud as the winds were. If he was to have this only once, Hiram told himself, he would make it memorable.
Isaac’s cock fit warm in Hiram’s hand, bizarrely un-strange in its difference from and similarity to his own.
“Like that,” Isaac said, and then put his own hand over Hiram’s to set the pace. “Hi–, oh, yes,” he cried, and it was Hiram, this time, who had the presence of mind to provide a cloth into which Isaac could spill.
It was no less cold in the hut when they were done, perhaps, but Hiram pulled Isaac into his arms and the blanket over them and dozed, feeling a warm contentment that he held onto as long as he could, until the weather calmed in the wee hours.
They rode back to the house the next morning looking rather the worse for wear, if not visibly and obviously debauched. Still, Hiram’s mother took one look at them and grinned, bright as the dawn, and Hiram found he was not the only one to flush at her knowing expression.
Nathan, at least, seemed not to notice anything different, which was a relief: Hiram had little doubt of his good intentions, and no faith at all in his ability to dissemble.
“I thought you were good at telling the weather?” Nathan said over lunch, and then winced. Hiram suspected Hannah had kicked him under the table. She seemed to be picking up some of Nathan’s bad manners.
“We did tell you the sky looks different this far inland,” Isaac observed.
The remaining few days of leave seemed all too few before they had to go back to the ship. Servants were a paltry obstacle compared to a ship full of men who might ruin Hiram’s career and reputation with a mere word.
Hiram meant to be restrained: he really did. But Isaac let his hair down when they were sitting in the library after dinner that very same night, and Hiram really didn’t see how he was supposed to resist following such a temptation back to his room.
This time was different: warm, and well-lit by a candelabra, for one thing, but also less uncertain. It inspired an idea, and Hiram whispered something in Isaac’s ear.
“Hy,” Isaac gasped. “You can’t possibly mean–”
Hiram paused, then pressed another kiss to Isaac’s throat, temptingly bare above his shirt collar. He pushed the shirt aside and continued laying kisses down Isaac’s chest, enjoying the contrast between his own pale hand and Isaac’s darker skin.
“And if I do?” He asked. His voice came out rather lower than he had intended, and Isaac swallowed visibly when Hiram licked his lips.
“I shouldn’t dare to stop you,” Isaac breathed, and Hiram pressed a kiss to the jut of his hip before helping him out of his trousers, until there was nothing between them but skin.
Isaac gasped gratifyingly when Hiram took his length into his mouth, and was panting against a palm soon enough.
“Hiram,” Isaac gasped. “Hy, you must stop.”
His hand was twined in Hiram’s hair, and when he tugged it sent a frisson down Hiram’s spine that made him moan around Isaac’s cock. And that was all it took: Isaac muffled a cry against his palm and spasmed under him, and Hiram swallowed him down as best he could.
“Oh,” Isaac said, and he looked quite undone, all the long lean lines of him against white, white sheets.
Hiram licked his lips again, and wondered if he were, in fact, the first to do this to Isaac.
“I’ve never,” Isaac said, after a moment or two. “But,” he paused. “I think I should be happy to try, if it would please you.”
It seemed to surprise Isaac even as he said it, and Hiram knew he would be considering what it all meant later: for now, he was too caught up in the moment. Isaac was a fast learner once he was told to hide his teeth and Hiram thanked the heavens for the dockside whore who had taught him this particular form of pleasure.
* * *
The return to the ship was a disappointment, as it had never been before. Hiram found he had gotten accustomed to sleeping with Isaac in his arms, and to the discretion of his mother’s servants. The ship would not be nearly so kind if they were discovered, even had they been able to steal time away from their many duties and conflicting shifts on watch, which they had not.
It was almost a relief to have such separate schedules, for Hiram had no doubt that they would be indiscreet at some point, or that he himself would be. Isaac seemed perfectly able to hide his affections, but Hiram feared he had become an open book, and that little short of a full Venetian plague-doctor’s mask would conceal the direction of his feelings. The lessened contact was a challenge, but Hiram told himself the longing would pass, and for his part, Isaac made no move to renew the connection.
Some weeks into their voyage Hiram was on duty just after dawn when a flicker on the horizon caught his attention. He called for a spyglass immediately: it had looked too white to be surf, too large to be a bird. They were too far out in the North Atlantic for it to be a flock of seabirds, and that left only a mirage, or another ship. There were no other British ships in the area, Hiram knew, but there were rumors of a new French route, and spying was a large part of their mission out here.
Lieutenant Young, the ship’s fourth lieutenant, ran up with a spyglass, and took a turn when Hiram had located the ship. It was flying French colors.
“Tell the Captain,” Hiram said. “They’ll have seen us, and they have the wind.”
It was a smaller ship – a sixth-rate ship of the line, at Hiram’s guess, to their own much better armed and larger gunship. Smaller, fleeter, and already at the horizon-line, all the French captain needed to do was harness the wind and he would be able to report on the presence of the British Navy in these waters.
But the French ship tacked into the wind, and began to approach. It was damned foolish, or so it seemed until it became clear that the ship was sailing in convoy. Alone, the first ship would have stood no chance. Together with a fourth-rate ship, one with guns large enough to take down a mast, Hiram began to be glad that Captain Sanderson had been pushing for gunnery practice as regularly as he had.
The morning wound on, and Hiram stayed on deck until the end of his watch, directing minute changes in the set of the sails and the course of the ship: they would be evenly matched for weight of cannon, if he made his guess. He was hoping, however, to avoid having the French ships one on either side of them, and they might manage it if Hiram did not take control of the wind. The men did not seem overly worried about the French ships yet, but Hiram knew his father had not survived so long by being complacent about combat. Smaller ships could cripple a larger, and an eight-pounder could do enough damage below the water line to make a 42-pounder look ineffective, if the gunners were skilled enough. And of course any cannon at all could take out a man, or a host of men, if it were loaded with shrapnel.
Captain Sanderson came on deck when Hiram’s shift ended. Hiram ceded the quarterdeck, as was done, but the captain nodded at the ships, still small on the horizon, but larger with every passing hour.
“If you would brief me, Kalloway,” he said. “And if you’re not tired, I’d appreciate your assistance. You’ve a better eye for the wind.”
Hiram nodded and stayed on deck, pointing out the adjustments he would make. Captain Sanderson nodded, and conveyed the orders. Never a man for standing on ceremony, he didn’t seem to resent Hiram’s skill the way some previous superior officers had done.
Some time later, Isaac came up on deck with the ship’s boys and had them calculate rates of sail from their observations. Then, to Hiram’s relief, he took them back down to review the order of operations in gunnery. Mistakes with the guns could kill a boy, or the men firing the cannon, and Hiram had found that he was starting to feel rather responsible for all of them, and Nathan most of all. The boy had been all but adopted by his family, and to have blossomed under the positive attention.
The wind died down in the late afternoon, slowing their progress enough that they did not join battle until just after sunrise the next morning. This far north, and in the winter, it was nearly nine of the morning before the sun peeked over the horizon, and Hiram was on the quarterdeck again when the first shots sounded. They fell short, as warning shots often did, but it was all a blur after that.
The British gunners acquitted themselves well, crippling the smaller of the French ships almost immediately. Its captain surrendered once it was clear the holes below the water line were fatal damage, and then the fight was joined with the larger of the two French ships, when it pulled up alongside, too close for gunnery. The marines in the rigging shot down into the mass of men on the French ship’s deck. When the ships were joined, Hiram unsheathed his sword and strode into the fray.
Moments like this were impossible for Hiram to describe, flashes of insight that were almost fore-knowledge. He dodged several sword-thrusts that ought to have caught him, knowing only that they would be coming, but not how. Hiram disabled several opponents with thrusts to the arm or shoulder, and killed more than one who would not yield. The men of his crew who followed behind him yelled, but Hiram himself cut his way toward the captain of the French ship with a kind of singular focus, scything men out of his way in silence even as they screamed.
Soon enough it became clear that this captain had no intention of surrendering, and that most of his men were similarly possessed of either bravery or fatal determination. In Hiram’s peripheral vision, Isaac stood out from the crowd, and fought like a man possessed, with a sword and a dagger, eschewing gunfire entirely in favor of the kind of close-quarters-combat that Hiram himself preferred. Gunpowder was unreliable aboard ships, too often wet, and pistols were slow to load.
Of all the ship’s officers, it was Hiram who reached the French captain first. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with jet-black hair, and a competent swordsman. He lay a slice along Hiram’s ribs before Hiram disarmed him and demanded his parole.
At that, the battle subsided, French officers throwing down their weapons and offering their parole in turn. Hiram instructed Young to clean up the decks, and headed down below decks to the captain’s quarters, where no one had thought to destroy the logbooks. The cargo, it turned out, included a significant quantity of bullion captured from a Spanish galleon. That explained the captain’s bravery: losing a ship was bad enough, but losing this much gold would scuttle his career, and might change the course of the war in Britain’s favor.
Hiram swayed when he came back up on deck, and only a hand at his shoulder prevented his falling. He blinked, and Isaac’s face swam into focus.
“Logbooks,” Hiram said. “And we must secure the cargo.”
“Yes, good,” Isaac said, but he didn’t seem to be as focused on this as Hiram had anticipated. “Hiram,” he said. “You’re bleeding.”
Hiram looked down at himself. He appeared to have lost rather more blood than he had thought. It did look quite alarming, now that he was paying attention, and explained why his footsteps had been tacky.
“Sit down,” Isaac said. His voice was tight in a way Hiram had never heard before.
“The cargo,” Hiram insisted. He couldn’t say what it was above decks, but it had to be secured.
“Yes, you’ve already sent Lieutenant Young,” Isaac said. “Now sit down before you fall down, or so help me, I’ll make you.”
Hiram nodded, and then Isaac was hollering for the ship’s doctor. He really did sound alarmed. The doctor, when he came over, was unimpressed.
“It’s superficial,” he said, and shoved a clean cloth at Hiram. “Hold that in place,” he instructed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, there are amputations waiting.”
And he left Isaac staring at Hiram, his face unusually pale. His hair was coming loose from its plait as it had on the day when he swarmed the crows’ nest and first caught Hiram’s attention. Hiram bit his lip and stared over Isaac’s shoulder, determined not to betray himself by reaching out the way he so desperately wanted to.
“Well,” Isaac said. “I confess I’m glad it’s not serious, though Doctor Thompson’s bedside manner could be improved.”
Hiram blinked at him, confused at the obvious relief in Isaac’s voice. Thankfully, Lieutenant Young came up from below decks before Hiram could say anything truly indiscreet and Hiram was able to convince him to row the two of them back over to the main ship, leaving Captain Sanderson to handle the French captain’s parlay while Hiram bandaged his side and waited to hear the official outcome of the battle.
The first ship had sunk; the second, whose captain Hiram had defeated, had been captured with its books and its cargo intact. As first lieutenant, and the man who had effected the capture, Hiram was appointed captain of the prize vessel. They would be running the ships on skeleton crews, but Captain Sanderson allowed Hiram the courtesy of requesting his choice of men, within reason.
It was perhaps overly optimistic, given how little he had seen of the other man, but the list Hiram drew up included none of those men who would make his and Isaac’s life particularly difficult were they to be indiscreet. Besides, he told himself, there were different kinds of troublemakers, and he was sure to take enough drunks and insubordinates that his list did might not draw undue attention.
For all Hiram’s worries about giving them away, it was Isaac who slipped up first. It appeared that the second lieutenant, James, was bitterly disappointed that Hiram had been promoted to the prize vessel’s captainship. When Lieutenant Young proposed a toast before dinner the next evening, James said something under his breath. Hiram was willing to let it pass: the man had had a sore disappointment. When the second French ship sank, it took with it James’ best hope of a speedy promotion, after all.
“What was that?” Isaac demanded, walking in. His face was flushed and hair still slightly ruffled from the breezes on deck. He had just come in from being on watch, and Hiram wanted to run fingers through Isaac’s hair so badly he ached with it. Hiram knew he ought to intervene. He had no idea how to do so without giving himself away.
James said something almost indistinguishable. Hiram had heard enough to freeze in place. Isaac had hated Hiram acting on his behalf, but surely he could not let such a comment go.
Isaac gave James an unimpressed look. “If you have something to say,” he said. “I would thank you to be direct. Not all of us have the advantage of your forked tongue.”
It was a well-landed insult, for the man was known to gossip meanly, and James flushed in return. “Very well,” he agreed, and stood from his seat. “I said that some of us have too much pride to gain our position by self-abuse. You should be ashamed to be trying such low tricks on a man of such honor as our new captain.”
Hiram froze in place. The room was uncommonly quiet, only the sounds of the waves lapping against the hull. Isaac looked as if he had been slapped.
“I have never taken a place or position that was not well earned and mine by right,” Isaac bit out. “Unlike you, I have worked for every advance and advantage I have gained.” He looked mad enough to spit. “You may assume that others will curry favor with their bodies, but know that some of us would prefer a match made not for advantage, but for compatibility of mind and temperament.” He moved into the cabin, and James took a step back. “I do not care to fight,” Isaac said. “I will accept your apology to our captain, and I will take my leave.” He paused. “Or I will see you on the decks,” he continued. “I will tolerate many insults to my own person, but none to the honor of my companions.”
There was a momentary pause while everyone understood the implications of what Isaac had just said, and then James moved away. Hiram thought the man would have the sense to stand down, but James tipped his chin up and spoke.
“The decks, then,” he said, and Hiram stood, slamming a fist on the table before him. Several of the officers who had been sitting quietly quailed in their seats, and Hiram knew his expression must be beyond his control, might well be terrible.
“You will both sit down,” he commanded. “I will not have fighting among the officers on this ship. If you find you still have a quarrel with each other tomorrow, on your own behalf rather than on my part, or anyone else’s, you may take it out when next we have shore leave. Until then I expect you to act as gentlemen, not as brawling deckhands or porters.”
Isaac glared, but sat. James hesitated, and Hiram raised an eyebrow.
“I am perfectly willing to take offense,” Hiram said. He had gained control of his tone again, and imbued it with all of the ice he could muster. “I am quite certain everyone here heard you impugn my honor, and I am equally certain that I could levy a complaint against you with persons who would be willing to listen.” It was well known that Hiram had access to the ears of the Admiralty, though he had never yet had cause to use it. He took a deep breath. “On the other hand,” he offered. “I might have been inattentive to the direction of your comments. I leave the choice to you.”
James flushed in what might equally have been anger or shame, but he sat. The evening meal passed in light chatter about the quality of the food, to which Hiram contributed very little, and James nothing at all. The other officers fled as soon as it was proper to do so, looking relieved to have been released from what had been a very proper kind of hell.
Isaac stayed behind, and waited only for the cabin door to be latched behind the cook’s boy before he launched himself into Hiram’s arms. “I am sorry,” he said, and he was shaking. “I can bear so much more on my own part than on yours, my dear. And now I have ruined things.”
Hiram smoothed a hand over his hair, and pressed a kiss to the crown of Isaac’s head. “It was bound to out eventually,” he said, keeping his voice soothing. “They cannot very well court-martial me for something no one will talk about, and I suspect you have more friends than James imagines, and in higher places.”
Isaac looked up at him, obviously baffled.
“Have you not heard the news from Nathan?” Hiram asked. “His grandfather is quite pleased with reports of his progress, and it seems Nathan himself attributes it all to you. Not to mention that my mother is quite well-inclined towards you as well.”
Isaac shook his head.
“In any case,” Hiram said. “I am the captain of my own ship, now, and I am quite sure I can trade James for Teddy if I ask nicely. It will be a blow to his pride and a nice cut to anyone who thinks to comment on the two of us in the bargain.”
Isaac stared at him. “You don’t mean to drop me?” He asked. “I thought you would resent the association, or at least my exposure of it.”
Hiram kissed him. “It would take a fair bit more than your temper to be free of me,” he assured Isaac. “Now, if I must prove it to you?”
It would be indiscreet to move to Hiram’s quarters: the bench would have to do. He pushed Isaac back to sit down and applied himself to the fastenings of the other man’s trousers. Isaac buried a hand in his hair and breathed through his nose as Hiram applied himself to his pleasure, and pulled Hiram down beside him after he was spent.
“Let me,” he insisted, and the touch of his hand was almost too much. Hiram bit back a groan, knowing how thin the cabin walls were, and kissed Isaac fiercely until he, too, reached his end.
They lay together for some time, until Isaac stirred, kissed his forehead, and pulled away. “I mustn’t stay,” he said. “You know that as well as I.”
Hiram sighed, but allowed him to get up. “Our quarters aboard ship will be rather tight,” Hiram suggested. “I don’t suppose I should mind sharing with someone if I had my choice of whom.”
“Hy,” Isaac laughed, and he sounded disbelieving. “You can’t be serious.”
Hiram sat up, and did up his trousers, preening internally at the heat of Isaac’s gaze on his bared skin. “I am all too serious,” he said. “It would show goodwill to allow the captured officers a bit more space, don’t you think? And while I would not share with someone whose shifts will directly oppose my own, yours ought not. It would all be very convenient, and passingly plausible.”
“Think it over,” Isaac said. Then he pressed a kiss to Hiram’s lips, and departed as soon as they were both dressed presentably.
* * *
The next day, Hiram managed, in one fell swoop, to undercut James’ career and secure the advancement of Fourth Lieutenant Theodore Young. Hiram had not been pleased at the thought of leaving Teddy behind: as much as his occasional hero-worship was awkward, the man was quietly skilled and competent, and had a slow burning temper that promised to compliment Isaac’s own faster one nicely in managing the men.
For his next endeavor, Hiram arranged the berths on the smaller, captured ship. It was easy enough, in fact, to set things up such that he might share with Isaac in a berth with two bunks. Finally Hiram procured a number of the master’s mates for his own ship. Nathan he took, of course, because the boy looked nearly on the verge of tears. To his credit, the boy said not a word for his own case, only stared, beseeching, as the list was read out. His improvement under Isaac’s tutelage had been striking, and Hiram had hopes for his continued education, if he were able to remain interested in his work. Given what Hiram had learned over their leave, he rather suspected that Isaac was the only tutor who had yet managed that task.
They sailed in convoy with their old ship until they landed at Plymouth. From there, Nathan was sent back to Hiram’s family, while Hiram himself made the short trip to London, where his commission was officially confirmed. The captured ship was in good repair, which acted in his favor nearly as much as the cargo had, and Hiram was rewarded with a captainship in the convoy to Terra Australiana.
“Sirs,” Hiram said in the chamber of the Admiralty, and decided on an approach after taking the lay of the room much as he would read the wind. “For such a long voyage, the morale of men aboard ship will be crucial.”
Nathan’s grandfather, Admiral Underhill, who was newly appointed to the chamber, nodded. “Quite so,” he agreed. “I take it you have a request, Kalloway.”
“I should like a bit more say in the choice of officers and men than is usual, sir, if it’s at all possible,” Hiram said. “Perhaps a veto power, for men I have served with before.” He paused. “I don’t mean to malign anyone, or cast aspersions,” he said, knowing he must tread carefully. “But I’m sure you all know that two men who are both good sailors may, at times, not be the best of friends, or even develop ill will due to incompatible sentiments. I should hate to begin a voyage with any such festering feelings,” he concluded, hoping he had done his case justice.
Nathan’s grandfather quirked a grin. “Well said,” he agreed. “I believe that can be arranged. There will be some limit on how many men we can allow you to strike from the list, but it should be managed well enough.”
Hiram nodded, feeling rather as if he had just fought a battle, adrenaline-drained and almost shaky with the knowledge of what he had achieved.
From there he returned to Plymouth, from which port the fleet would depart. It seemed like they would be departing in what seemed like a very long time: they were in fact, Hiram knew, cutting it dangerously close. Isaac was waiting for him in the sitting room of Hiram’s boarding house.
“The town’s full up,” he apologized. “Your landlady was kind enough to allow me to wait, but she hasn’t any more rooms to let.”
Hiram knew for a certainty that she had at least one room kept empty, but there was no sense making a fuss. He pressed Isaac’s hand just as long as propriety would allow. “I’m quite certain she can make up a pallet for you in my room,” Hiram said. “It will be much more efficient than you staying anywhere else in Devon. We’re headed to Terra Australiana and I’ll need to be checking in with you on the progress of the ship’s outfitting.”
It wasn’t quite proper: it might be seen to show favoritism, which Hiram usually avoided strenuously. But there was nothing outright wrong to it, and Isaac’s grin at the prospect was contagious.
It ended up being for the best that Hiram had Isaac close at hand, though it was more to moderate the man’s temper than anything else. The ship’s outfitting was a near nightmare, and Hiram was treated to more than one lecture from Isaac on the topic of dockmasters trying to cheat him, to leave him with sub-standard spars, or adulterated gunpowder.
“You can’t fight them all, Zac,” Hiram told him one night, when Isaac had climbed back out of Hiram’s bed to sit and stare at the outfitting lists he’d gotten from the naval yard. “You’ll fly at them, guns blazing, and that works well enough for short voyages, I know. But this is different.”
Isaac frowned at him, hair tumbled down around his shoulders. He had ink on his chin from where he had been absent-mindedly tapping the quill on his cheek.
“I’ve told you about my mother’s mantra?” Hiram asked. “The Aristotle, I mean.”
It had come up in conversation, Hiram knew, but perhaps only in passing. Hiram had expected Isaac to understand, given his patience with men like James, but it had not seemed to make an impression. Isaac frowned, but he nodded.
“Well,” Hiram said, pushing back the covers and patting the mattress next to himself. “Put that down, come back here, and I’ll tell you what I’ve heard.”
Isaac joined him, and Hiram rewarded him with the details he had been able to glean about the shipyards’ masters’ affairs and other less than savory conduct. Between Hiram’s carefully gathered gossip, Isaac’s willingness to leverage it without any apparent shame at all, and the usual substantial infusion of personal funds to supplement naval rations, munitions and the Navy’s rather spartan ideas of personal comfort, the ship was outfitted to Isaac’s satisfaction.
At nearly the same time, the officers’ list was finalized. To Hiram’s satisfaction, Nathan and Lieutenant Young would be joining his ship. Several rather objectionable persons would not be on the convoy at all. If he had leaned on his family’s connections rather harder than he had intended, well, Hiram was having a hard time feeling ashamed of it. He rather suspected Nathan’s grandfather of having a hand in some of the more notable absences, and wasn’t certain exactly what to feel about that, other than relief.
Finally, they were upon the eve of departure. Hiram had already had his things moved to the ship’s cabin, to spend the last night on board, getting his sea legs back. It was a quirk of his by now, one that the other members of his crew rather expected. The other officers were presumably busy wooing young ladies of good character or engaging in less savory pastimes on shore, and the crew would be all but press-ganged aboard at dawn, the tides being favorable for a departure in the late morning.
Thus it was a pleasant surprise to arrive onboard the Queen Mathilde and find Isaac already in Hiram’s cabin.
“It’s probably unwise,” Isaac said, looking a bit shy, uncharacteristically abashed from his seat on Hiram’s bunk. “But I wanted one last night with you, and I knew you wouldn’t leave the ship tonight.”
Hiram smiled, shut the cabin door behind him, and moved into the compact space with a will. “Christening the ship?” He asked, and Isaac flushed enough that it was visible even on his dark skin.
“If you will,” he said, but he looked a little happier, a little less hesitant.
“We will have dignitaries on some legs of the voyage,” Hiram said, bending down to whisper in Isaac’s ear. “I shall of course offer them my cabin, and bunk with one of my officers. I imagine I will have to cycle through, for fairness, but I might be persuaded to consider volunteers for such an imposition.”
Isaac shivered, but whether it was at the implications of Hiram’s words or the effect of his breath against the skin of his neck it was hard to say.
They fell together then, and it was some time before either of them had the breath to speak. Finally Isaac stirred to pull a sheet over them, the air becoming chill in the dead of night.
“I think I might be convinced to share from time to time,” Isaac said. His head was pillowed on Hiram’s chest, hand spread possessively over Hiram’s heart. “You’ve made quite a convincing argument.”
Hiram wound a hand in his hair and pulled him in for a kiss, relieved and delighted at the prospect of having this, no matter how sparingly, in his life. It was more than he had ever dared imagine.
“I should hope so,” he said. “You do bring out the best in me, Isaac.”
Isaac took in a breath, evidently hearing in that the declaration Hiram could not yet put into more explicit words.
“You must know that,” Hiram said, suddenly uncertain. Isaac nodded against his shoulder, and they lay in silence for a time.
“You listened to me,” Isaac said finally, and it sounded important. Hiram made a small, curious noise. “When you cut James,” Isaac explained, and his hand pressed against Hiram’s chest now, as if to hold him in place, keep him from leaving. “I was so angry.” He paused. “But you were so embarrassed,” he said. “And you didn’t do it again.”
Hiram heard him swallow, and wove his fingers into the hair at the nape of Isaac’s neck, unable to find words.
“That’s more rare than you know,” Isaac said, and Hiram felt the now-familiar anger rise in him again. He took a breath.
“I won’t fight your battles,” Hiram said. “But,” he admitted, because the truth seemed important. “Sometimes I dearly wish I could.”
Isaac sat up to look at him, and his smile was brilliant in the dim light of the ship’s cabin.
“Good,” he said, and bent down to kiss Hiram again.
By the time morning came they had not slept much at all, but the ship had been very thoroughly christened.