George Harding lay in his hammock and closed his eyes. He knew that the gloomy room he found himself in was a delusion of the malaria that chilled his blood, but it felt so real he could smell the bodies pressed against his.
Boots echoed on stone and stopped beside him. Rough hands pulled manacles off his ankles and hauled him to his feet. His legs quivered as though unused to carrying him, which was a familiar sensation because George Harding
He wrenched an arm free and drove his elbow into a face, his fist into another, and the hands holding him slackened just enough. Shouts chased him into the gloom, but he was already at a wall at the end of the rows of bodies. A ladder gave him the choice of up or down. He climbed up for no reason that he could name.
Another wall in front of him. He turned and ran between more rows of chained men. A man in trousers swung a staff at him. It was aimed at his face and the joy of ducking under it and hurling the man to the floor was as real as the terror that flung him at the next ladder. There was light shining above it. The light of the sun. The light of hope that caressed his shoulders as he climbed and dazzled his eyes so that he did not see what hit his head and dashed him back to the floor below.
He had no doubt that the boots thudding around him were real, and so was the burning pain they crunched into him. He wrapped his arms around his head, not to protect himself so much as to hide from the nightmare that consumed him. The kicks stopped and it took him a moment to recall the shout that had stopped them. His arms were wrenched away from his head, and he found himself looking upon the most blessed sight he could have dreamed.
A white man.
A white man, who had the authority to give orders. An angelic sight from his tattered shoes to his yellow teeth. The appraising look in the man
No rescue would come from this man. Manacles clamped George Harding
* * * *
George Harding heard his own voice with relief. There were no manacles, no ships, and his hand was still white and plump when he managed to focus his eyes on it. He was still George Harding, His Britannic Majesty
He swung himself out of his hammock and yelped at a stab of protest from his ankles. It was only gout, not manacles. Stupid thought. He pulled off his clammy shirt and flung it on the floor for the houseboy to pick up. He opened the drinks cabinet and found a bottle of brandy and a glass. The malaria surprised him with a last tremor, splashing the brandy over the papers strewn across his desk. "Bugger."
He opened another bottle and measured out fifty drops of laudanum. His head stopped spinning, and he could even read the label on the bottle. He could also see how little was left in it, and he formed an almost coherent prayer that the mail packet would arrive soon. The replenishment of laudanum would more than make up for the lack of mail.
He drank brandy from the bottle and grimaced when it was so hot it almost burned his tongue, but it was worth it for the calm that it brought. He
"Boat? What boat? Packet
"Typical bloody Navy," he muttered to himself, as he waddled to the edge of the river.
The boy was wrong. There was not a boat coming in, but two ships. The first was a three-master with the narrow sails of a merchantman. He saw the name Cassandra embossed on her stern as she hove to. The second was coming round Banjul Point, and the rake of her two masts identified her as a man-of-war long before Harding made out the White Ensign. The merchantman was wearing the same ensign, which Harding could not understand until he realized that the smell assailing his nostrils was far more acrid than the usual stink of the swamp. There was only one sort of ship that smelled like that and only one reason why it would be coming into a British port with a Royal Navy flag at her mast. Some busybody had caught a slaver, which would mean that the smell was only the first sighting of a fleet of vexations bearing down on him.
A third vessel appeared from behind the merchantman, under every sail that her single mast could carry. She flew the Fleur-de-Lys of France, which told Harding that his papers would be waiting a little longer. "Bugger."
He trudged back to the residence to throw some water over himself and find a shirt. Wouldn
Armand de Valois
Harding was pleased with his own appearance as he pushed himself to his feet against his desk. He hoped that his uncombed hair and bloodshot eyes would pierce the dapper Frenchman
"Your servant," grunted Harding. He was not a governor because
Harding waved a hand at a chair. De Valois settled into the sagging wickerwork as though it was an emperor
Diplomatic etiquette dictated that Harding, as the host, should open the conversation. Bugger diplomatic etiquette. He glowered at de Valois, who smiled politely back. Harding allowed his eyelids to droop, as though he were falling asleep. De Valois raised his chin with an expression of sudden interest. "Forgive me, Governor
Last time Harding had seen de Valois, he had still had the rotten remains of the teeth nature gave him, which had not been very pleasant for either him or anyone facing him. Now he had a set that would be as fine as any in London society, if only they had not cost so much that he had been forced to accept a posting nobody else would take to pay them off.
"Not ivory," he said. "Genuine
"I needed new teeth but I didn
De Valois nodded again. The man was impervious to insult. Whatever he wanted, he wanted it badly.
"I fear there has been a grave misunderstanding, and I came here aboard my own yacht to rectify it. I am afraid that it may even threaten the peace that your nation and the
Harding raised his eyebrows. "The
A crash shook the bungalow and Harding nearly fell out of his chair. His skull had barely stopped ringing when it echoed with a second crash, and he recognized it as the man-of-war announcing her arrival with a salute. Couldn
The two men regarded each other as the cannonade rolled over
"As I was saying," said de Valois after the last sledge-hammer blow to Harding
"You mean that slaver?"
"It is true that the ship was carrying a cargo that your government would not approve of…"
"But as I said, there has been a terrible misunderstanding. Governor
De Valois was talking fast and no wonder, thought Harding. The salute announced that the man-of-war had dropped her anchor and her captain was probably stepping into a boat at this very moment. "I presume we
De Valois gave a look of such mortification that Harding would have had to stifle a laugh if his teeth had not hurt so much. "No, of course not. My ships are registered in
Harding could not resist the opportunity to rub salt into a wound that must still be fresh.
De Valois showed no sign of bleeding. "Indeed. I was pursuing my entirely legitimate trading interests when I became aware of your countryman
Harding hid his satisfaction. He must have nettled the frog if he felt the need to mention the poor performance of the Royal Navy against the Americans. De Valois could not know how much Harding detested the Royal Navy. "Your point, Monsieur?"
"I have no doubt that your good sense will prevail when the captain presents his log book, which will presumably say that the ship was wearing a French flag when she was sighted. I assure you that he will be mistaken, which I will prove in time. It is easy to make a mistake when it is dawn and you are looking through a telescope..." de Valois spread his hands in a disgustingly Gallic expression of helplessness.
Tongue enough for two sets of teeth, thought Harding. He scratched his crotch. "What
"Your word?" Harding didn
"The word of a Frenchman. Naturally, I appreciate that there are certain expenses involved. There are five hundred gold guineas aboard my yacht, and I will gladly place them at your disposal to avert the crisis."
Harding assumed a contemplative frown. Who really cared where the slaver was registered? Ten years ago, Harding
He stood up to end the interview, and de Valois stood with him and extended his hand. Etiquette demanded that Harding should offer de Valois a room in the residence, but de Valois said that he would be aboard his cutter before Harding got the chance to pointedly withhold an invitation. He saw de Valois to the door and watched him stroll back to the wharf, as though he were ambling down the Champs Elysée instead of through the ankle-deep mud of
A flock of brown birds burred over his head and landed in a tree. Ha-ha-ha-ha, they babbled. A bomb of fury exploded in Harding
He dashed back to his desk and pulled a pistol out of a drawer. Tears of rage blurred his sight and his shaking hands scattered more powder over his desk than he got into the pan, but eventually he got it loaded and dashed outside. He pointed it at the tree, but the birds had gone.
The pistol sank back to his side, and he waited for his breathing to slow down and his jaw to stop quivering. A chill marched up his spine. Surely he couldn
* * * *
The question stirred a dispassionate part of his mind. Fever had brought strange visions before, especially since he had discovered how quickly laudanum helped him to recover from them, but they had never been more than disconnected impressions. Now he knew that he was in
His legs plunged into warm mud, and he got a mouthful of foul water from a creek he had not seen. He could not see the other side, so he had no chance of swimming to it before the dogs led their handlers to the bank.
There was a light on the water. He blinked mud out of his eyes. It was a fishing lantern in a boat, no more than a stone
Where had that idea come from? The dispassionate part of George Harding
"I no see
Harding had never been to the
The boatman said "I no see
The rowing stopped. The change of motion reminded him of the thanks he owed the boatman. He opened his eyes just in time to see an oar slashing toward him. A flash of light, then darkness.
Darkness was an improvement on dogs. Hopefully, it meant that he was coming out of the fever. He could not endure many more dreams like this. He would have to increase the dose of laudanum.
A sensation of cold seized him as though in a claw, and he writhed in a pool of water on a dirt floor. His head felt as if there was an axe in it, and a scythe-fingered demon wrung out his guts until he vomited.
He looked up to see a man wearing the red coat of the men who carried long guns, and the three stripes on the sleeve belonged to someone who shouted a lot rather than someone who was usually shouted at. The empty bucket in the man
"Now get up off that floor, Lord Sambo! You ain
He could not find a grain of strength in his body, but he still got to his feet when the red man started toward him. Somehow, he had learned what happened when he did not do what men who spoke English told him to.
"See that, Lord Sambo?" barked the red man into his ear. "Now I don
* * * *
* * * *
Harding was unsure whether his teeth or his ankles hurt more when he lurched out of the hammock. A hundred drops of laudanum helped, and so did what was left of the brandy. He fingered another bottle, thinking that he should delay opening it in case he ran out before the mail packet arrived, but he knew it would be empty by dawn tomorrow.
"Blue-blue man come,
"Blue-blue man? What the devil d
"Come in." Harding sank into the chair behind his desk without offering to shake hands.
The officer stepped into the room and removed his hat. "Matthew Cooper, Master and Commander of His Britannic Majesty
Not only was he bloody navy, he was a bloody Yorkshireman. Harding raised an eyebrow. "George Harding at yours."
The houseboy scurried in to retrieve the latest shirt that Harding had thrown on the floor. If a succession of dandies insisted on inflicting themselves on him, he could at least make them feel overdressed.
Harding made no move to invite Cooper to sit down, hoping to force him into the gaffe of sitting uninvited. Cooper seemed happy for his broad shoulders to loom over Harding. Harding wanted to pretend to fall asleep, but he could not stop himself looking up at eyes that should have belonged to a leopard deciding whether a mouse was worth the effort of pouncing on.
"Been waiting long?" Harding could play the game no longer.
"About half an hour." Cooper
"Touch of fever." Harding heard the conciliation in his own voice and disliked Cooper even more.
Cooper glanced at the brandy-stained papers and spilt powder on Harding
"I prefer to stand, sir. May I come straight to the point?"
Harding waved a hand expansively.
"Five days ago, we found that abomination slipping out of the
Harding hid a smile. Cooper had handed him the perfect excuse to refuse. Best not to say so straight away, especially when he could irritate the man. "You
Cooper looked satisfyingly uncomfortable. "Well no, of course not..."
Harding raised his eyebrows. "Why on earth not? What the devil do you mean by keeping your poor souls in chains?"
"How can I explain to them that you rescued them by keeping them in chains?" Now would be a good time to get up and stroll to the window, but Harding was afraid he would pass out if he tried. Not that it really mattered because the anguish in Cooper
Cooper looked as though he
Harding sighed and folded his hands across his stomach, trying to assume the image of the wisdom of age faced with impetuous youth. He hoped Cooper did not notice the empty bottle rolling on the floor. He stared at the epaulette on Cooper
"Prize money be damned!"
Harding cringed back.
"You may throw my share of the prize money into the sea for all I care," barked Cooper, "but I
Harding found his voice. "You an abolitionist, Commander?"
Cooper stepped back, pitifully easy to confuse. "Proud to be. What
"You may see it as your duty to chase slavers, but I
Cooper turned a delightful shade of red. He looked ready to tear his hat in half. Harding pushed on relentlessly. "Whatever your politics, Commander, no man can serve two masters. Good day to you."
Harding fidgeted with some papers on his desk, trying to get rid of Cooper before he calmed down enough to form an argument. Cooper turned on his heel and walked out. Pity the next defaulter on his ship.
Harding leaned back. Five hundred gold guineas, and a cottage in...
Chained to the floor, rolling in excrement, nothing to look forward to but the lash.
Five hundred gold guineas, he told himself firmly. Perhaps his teeth wouldn
* * * *
Running again. Running faster than his ruined body ever could. Faster than this dream self had run before, because he was on an open field. Nothing to bar his way but a haze of powder smoke that stung his throat. Not looking back because he did not need to see Napoleon
The redcoats were in a line two deep, the front row on one knee. Their muskets pointed straight at him. He knew that the muskets were aimed at the cavalry behind him, just as the cavalry
Close now. So close he could see the grime on the coats and the gritted teeth behind the muskets. Hear the fear in a sergeant
Close enough to meet the eyes of a mounted officer behind the muskets of hope, see the decision in them when the officer saw the color of his face, see his sword drop. See hope vanish behind stabbing flames and more smoke.
George Harding told himself, yet again, that he had not left his hammock, but damn it he felt lead slam into him. He saw iron-shod hooves hammer into the grass around his fragile head. He heard the screams of men and horses and musket balls blend into a diabolic crescendo. He even found himself retreating into memories that weren
He had laughed with the rest of his platoon at the twin absurdities of a Major Sambo, and any officer handling a musket. He drifted away into those memories while mosquitoes whined around his ears, and the future of a foreign continent was decided by in death piling up around him.
Fingers glided across his body. The shooting had stopped, leaving only groans that sounded as though they came from the ground itself. The weight of the purse of coins around his neck was missing. Hands were under his coat now, tugging at the juju belt he wore around his waist. A woman
* * * *
George Harding rolled away from her and fell out of the hammock. He sat up cautiously. His head was clear and he felt no sign of fever. He had not felt this healthy since he arrived in
A man was sitting behind his desk. He blinked and shook his head, but there was still a black man wearing a red coat in his chair. Harding was furious. Whatever reason he might have for being there, he had absolutely no business in Harding
The man replied with a tight-lipped frown.
"Boy!" The soldier was wearing an infantryman
Harding made a great effort to speak slowly. "What. Is. This.
The boy looked at the chair, then back at Harding. His perplexity faded to an understanding that belied the only name that Harding had ever used for him. "I get Massa
The boy disappeared, leaving Harding
"Your boy. He can
Harding was as startled by the accent as the words. He
"What things? I don
"Not exactly, but we
The soldier smiled and nodded. Harding sat down heavily. "It
Harding reached for his brandy. The soldier smiled again. "If you could see the state of your liver, you
Harding gave up trying to push himself upright. "Is that why you
The soldier stopped smiling. "Dunno why I
"Maybe. I know I weren
Harding felt a chasm open up inside him. He was used to thinking of death as an end to be delayed for as long as possible, but now the end had come and this man was saying that it wasn
The soldier stood and took Harding
Vicars liked to preach about conscience. Perhaps that was what Harding needed now. He rifled through the broken bottles and lost paperwork of his soul, knowing he had hidden from his life
Nothing? He looked up. The soldier helped Harding to stand. Harding took his seat behind his desk, and managed to keep his hand steady enough to write an order to land the Cassandra
The soldier took his hand. "Come on. There
Harding stood unaided, and let the soldier lead him outside. They stood, side by side, with their backs to the setting sun. The soldier knelt and touched his head to the ground. Harding knelt beside him, and he knew he would not be getting up.
* * * *
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