The signal had come from Erebus that morning as Francis was at breakfast with his officers.
"Sir John's pennant, sir," the ship's boy said in a rush, "request captains come aboard flagship tonight. Captain-only Letting. Time: last dog watch."
Francis had sat immobilised at the head of the table, his cup halfway to his mouth.
"Very good," he'd managed to say after only a short pause. He replaced his cup on its saucer and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Signal I will come."
"Aye, sir." The boy knuckled his forehead and withdrew.
The conversation for the remainder of the meal was stilted and Francis finally removed himself on the pretext of going above so that the officers could freely vent their astonishment.
There had been Lettings on the expedition so far, every other month for the lieutenants - but this was the first time Sir John had asked for his captains to serve him. They had by then been six months frozen in the ice, and almost two years engaged on the expedition. Francis had begun to think that Sir John would never summon them.
The news of the Captain's Letting was chewed over all day on Terror. Even though the men took pains to tiptoe around him, Francis was conscious of their excitement in the same way he would have been conscious of a toothache. Many were the poorly-concealed grins he saw on the faces of the seamen. With the superstition of sailors, they believed a Captain's Letting presaged a run of prodigious good luck.
"It was bound to happen eventually," Blanky said philosophically as they walked the quarterdeck.
"Damn his eyes," Francis ground out under his breath. "What does he mean by summoning me when we all know damn well he won't make use of me?"
"I'd have thought you'd be happy not to be buggered up the arse." Blanky leant against the rail and took out his pipe.
"Oh, you know there's no escaping that, in some form." Francis rested his hands on the rail. "No doubt he thinks he does me a great courtesy." He inclined his head towards Blanky. "It would never do if I were to feel slighted."
"Ah, but the men love a Captain's Letting." Blanky packed his pipe carefully with tobacco. "And you've hardly looked in on the officers - "
"I won't have them suppose I sit here indulging myself with my officers while they abstain like a couple of monks." Francis looked over his shoulder at Erebus, marooned behind them in the ice.
"What d'you suppose has happened that's made him pick tonight?" Blanky said.
Francis shook his head.
"Well. I think you're lucky he has a favourite." Blanky struck a match.
Francis managed a bitter laugh. "They'll be well pleased with each other, I have no doubt. Why my presence is required, God only knows."
"Maybe he wants you both," Blanky said without a hint of a smile around the stem of his pipe. "Make up for lost time."
"Would you not rather wear your good boots, sir? I can still polish them, there's plenty of time - "
"No, thank you, Jopson," Francis said, picking up his hat from the table. "Now kindly stop clucking over me and go and inform Sergeant Tozer that I aim to get underway presently."
He was shown below by Higgins, Sir John's manservant. Francis stepped over the threshold into the captain's cabin, Higgins knuckled his forehead, then quietly pulled the door shut.
There came a clatter from the inner cabin and Francis experienced a moment of dread as he imagined there had been some mistake - but it was James who appeared in the cabin doorway, his trousers held up with one hand, his face red.
"James," Francis greeted him. "Forgive me - "
"Sir John gave me leave to - "
They were speaking over one another. They both subsided with wry smiles.
"It's only that..." James began again, "I did not expect you quite so early."
"Am I early?" Francis laid his hand over the lump of his pocket watch, though he did not take it out.
"Then I've lost track of time," James said. "Please excuse me a moment."
He retreated back into the cabin to do up his trousers. Francis allowed himself a private smile at the other man's expense.
"I interrupted you," Francis said, taking his hat from under his arm and laying it on one of the chairs.
"I believe we are meant to ready ourselves together," Francis said with teasing reproach. He looked down at the Letting runes that had been chalked on the floor.
James emerged from the cabin, his trousers now fastened, his shirt tucked in, his waistcoat buttoned tidily.
"I had intended - I mean to say, I only - "
"You only wanted a little time on your own," Francis said plainly, in gentler tones, to show James that he had only been jesting with him. "I understand. You're quite welcome to use the cabin."
James smiled, almost a real smile. "No. My place is with you, of course."
The toe of Francis' boot was resting on one of the chalk runes. He carefully removed it.
Sir John had drawn the symbol neatly - or perhaps, Francis thought uncharitably, it had been his manservant who'd done it.
"Well then," Francis said. "I suppose we'd better make a start. You've checked the runes?"
"Yes." James was on the other side of the table. He gestured to the mahogany box that was there, striving to be easy. "I hope you don't mind. I - already selected -"
"Ah." Francis approached the table as well. He felt the ripple of the ship's magic through his body, up his legs, like he was wading through warm water as he stepped over the runes. He lifted the lid of the box. There were three phalluses inside, nestled in blue velvet. They were of varying sizes. There was an empty space where a fourth was missing. All were carved of a black wood and lay smooth and glossy in the lantern light.
"I know typically, as senior, you ought to have had first choice," James said hurriedly.
"You left the smallest, that's all that matters." Francis plucked the phallus from the case and shut the lid. He weighed it in his hand with an ironical smile. It was exceedingly smooth and cool, heavy. In spite of himself he felt a twinge of arousal.
"We're to send for him when we're ready?" Francis said.
James cleared his throat. "Yes."
"I don't suppose you know if..." Francis set the wooden phallus atop a folded cloth on the table. "Did Sir John happen to mention his preference?"
"I should say not," James said stiffly.
James thought he was asking whether Sir John had indicated a preference between the two of them, his junior captains. Of course Sir John did have a preference, that was plain, but for Francis to have posed such a question would have been unimaginably crude.
With great forbearance, Francis took off his coat and laid it over the back of a chair. "I meant, his preference as a captain. If he likes to follow through?"
"Oh. I see." James had the good grace to look abashed. "I - I confess, I don't know."
James was anxious. Francis could think of nothing to say to put him at ease. Had it been a different man, had the circumstances been different - he might have attempted to talk to him. As things stood, it would be better that they just got on with it.
Francis arranged the things in front of him - the phallus, the cloth, the pot of oil.
"Right then." He began unbuttoning his trousers.
James blinked up at him. "Just a moment. I'll join you - "
"Really, James, you can use the cabin."
"We're supposed to do this together."
"I see no need to stand on ceremony," Francis said mildly. He was trying to allow them both some privacy. The last time Francis had done this with another captain, they had taken advantage of the separate cabins, readying themselves for a commodore who in the end had taken no interest in them.
"I won't tell Sir John if you don't," Francis added with a small, mischievous smile.
"This ceremony may not mean a great deal to you, Francis, but I believe Sir John would like it done properly."
Francis huffed a quiet laugh at the slight.
James was desperate to impress Sir John, as if he needed to, as if there would be any other outcome tonight than Sir John selecting James and sending Francis away. Francis' presence here was a mere social nicety.
James ducked into the inner cabin to fetch his phallus.
Francis glanced longingly at Sir John's whiskey decanter.
James reemerged with his pot of oil in one hand and his own wooden phallus in the other. Francis skirted a glance over the phallus - it was one of the larger ones of the set.
James set his pot on the table.
There could be no possibility of talking - though Francis had been in enough captain's cabins over the course of his career, on friendlier voyages, where a great deal of talking went on. His first experience of a Letting had been aboard the Doterel, and those nights every man was permitted to get drunk, to be high-spirited as they went through the business of it, jostling for room in the crowded cabin. On that ship, if the captain took part at all, he did so as a sort of guest. When the officers were finished and cleaned up, they'd stagger out of the fug of the cabin and off to the wardroom for a late supper. More often than not, Commander Stanley did not intrude on his officers. He liked to have a Letting with one lieutenant on a separate night. When he'd gained his first command, Francis had replicated that model.
The grim mood here in this frigid cabin could not have been further removed from those scenes aboard the Doterel.
Francis leant a hand on the table. There was no avoiding it any longer. He stared blindly at the table's surface, concentrating on taking two fingers. He dipped into the oil again, mechanically. He lifted his eyes and found James staring at him, still dressed. James looked away.
"What?" Francis said.
Francis smiled sourly. "Use the cabin. I insist."
James undid his trousers. "I don't know how you do things abroad your ship, Francis, but we like to observe some standards - "
"Alright, alright," Francis said wearily, batting aside the man's attempt at an insult.
James took the lid off his pot and dipped his fingers, put his hand behind him. His jaw was clenched tight and his eyes for a moment fell closed.
Francis returned to his own business.
They greased themselves furtively in that way. By mutual unspoken agreement they seemed to be pretending to one another that nothing more unusual was going on than if they had been conferring over a map.
Francis was struck anew by the absurdity of it. He tucked his chin down to hide his smile. But it was absurd, how desperately James wanted to appease Sir John, even in this.
Was I so different? Francis' sour amusement quite died in his breast. If James' manner with Sir John was ingratiating, it was nothing to what his own had been, once. Hadn't he desperately sought Sir John's favour after that first proposal to Sophia, when he'd still believed he could win the man over to supporting the match?
Francis pushed with two fingers roughly, then drew them out. He was done with it. He slicked up the phallus brusquely.
"Are you - already?" James said breathlessly.
Francis glanced at the other man. He still had his fingers inside himself, by the look of him.
"We do not have to go in tandem," Francis said, his tone more irritable than he could help. He reached back and pushed the tip of the slicked phallus into his arse.
James pulled his fingers out and reached for his phallus.
"Wait for me," he said.
"You can go in your own time."
"Francis - "
"Be quick, then," Francis ground out.
James fumbled with slicking his phallus, then he reached behind him quickly.
"Are you certain you want that one?" Francis said breathlessly.
"What?" James was trying to get it in. He adjusted his stance, one hand braced on the table. The look of pained dignity on his face provoked contempt in Francis. Must everything be such a production with the man? He'd picked a larger phallus than he could handle to make a show of doing his duty to the utmost.
Francis was still looking at James as the man's expression shifted as he started to push it in. Francis could see the precise moment of change, the way his lips pursed and his eyes grew unfocused, his attention all on the feeling, lost in himself.
Francis shut his eyes. He guided his own phallus firmly, tried to imagine he was alone. He leant into the table and palmed himself.
"Wait - " came James' voice.
Francis flashed an angry look at the other man.
James' eyes flickered to Francis' hand.
"Isn't it - just with the baton?"
Francis panted, stroking himself. "Antiquated."
"But - "
"Do as you please," Francis said harshly. He hated the talking, the distraction. He wanted it over with. Sir John would be tossing him out as soon as this was over with and Francis would have his walk back to Terror, would be then quite at his liberty walking across the ice, to think back on the cheap climax he'd been required to achieve in Sir John's cabin.
"Damn you, wait," James said. He took his penis in his hand, his eyes on Francis' hand. He looked from Francis' hand to his face while he tugged himself. He was trying to follow Francis' lead, as Francis was the senior captain, trying to make sure he kept pace. He meant to follow the old etiquette.
"Francis - "
"Keep up, then," Francis said harshly. He looked at James' slit-open panting mouth, the discomfort evident in the knit of his brow. Angrily, distractedly, he found he could not concentrate if the other man was hurting himself. "Take a smaller one." With a jerk of his head he indicated the box.
"I can manage," James said breathlessly.
"He won't thank you for hurting yourself." Francis gave up on the argument. He shut his eyes and tried to close his mind to the other man. He concentrated on the phallus inside him, on his stroking hand.
There was no noise other than their huffing breaths, the wet frank noise of what they were doing, and the whistle of wind at the stern windows.
Francis found himself looking across the table again.
"I - " James choked out. "Francis - "
Francis saw with amazement that the man was close already.
"Forgive me, I - " James had pulled the phallus out. It was wet in his hand. He walked quickly into the other cabin without another word.
Presently there came a soft, wounded,
Francis could have laughed aloud. Ridiculous - that James had retreated into the cabin for privacy after insisting that the two of them do this together. Ridiculous that a captain should lose his composure as if he were a newly-promoted lieutenant at his first Letting.
Francis was no longer moving the phallus inside him, he only gripped on it and fisted his prick quickly, resenting having to keep the thing inside even as a flush of hot arousal made all the front of his body blush hot from his chest up his neck.
James enjoyed the penetration, that was obvious. Some men did.
An unwelcome thought intruded on Francis then - there was still Sir John's examination to endure after this. Details sprang into Francis' mind: the looming height of man, the jut of his belly under a shining row of gold buttons, his wet pitying looks, those large doleful eyes - Francis felt acutely aware of himself suddenly, of how ridiculous he must look, hunched over the table, tugging at himself, the mechanical and absurd jostling motion of his arm, the indignity of the phallus up the arse.
The thought of Sir John had the effect of cold water on him. He cursed himself. He cast about for a scene that would let him finish. Sophia. Her cunt. To have her - That was ugly of him. He tugged his cock more slowly, miserably, wincing inwardly at the paths his mind tried to take.
He thought of a woman he'd had at Gibraltar when he'd been a young man. She was the widow of a governor. Her red satin dress. She'd liked him for his Irishness, for that quality of the kicked-dog which he'd had about him more prominently in his youth. She'd taken him to her private chambers and told him to lift up her skirts. So long since he'd last had sex. Her mouth stretched open, the white lovely neck he'd buried his face in as he'd rutted between her spread thighs. She'd held the nape of his neck when he'd finished, stroked the nape of his neck soothingly, like he was a child.
He was breathing harder. His prick was swollen stiff. He'd not thought of that encounter in years.
He heard a creak from the cabin and lifted his head. The doorway was a dark rectangle.
James had run into the cabin to use the cot, no doubt. To lie down and use the phallus properly. That was what he'd been doing before Francis arrived. Francis could see it: James sprawled on his back, his pinched brows and thin tight mouth, his thighs spread and his hand working the phallus in and out, shamelessly seeking pleasure. Was that how he would be for Sir John? Would he make an exhibition of himself? The dashing Captain Fitzjames, who couldn't hold it together, who needed to fall down on a cot and moan as he worked himself with a phallus -
Francis reached his crisis. He spilled over his knuckles. Onto the table. He gripped the table with his free hand and stroked himself slowly until he was done.
He reached back and drew the phallus out with a grimace and laid it aside. He picked up the cloth and wiped his hand. He looked again at the doorway and saw James standing in it.
Francis wiped the spatter of seed off the table. He waited for James to make some frivolous remark, to undercut what had happened with a bit of that parlour repartee at which he so excelled - but James said nothing. He stood with his arm braced on the doorframe and his shirt hanging out of his trousers.
Francis dropped the cloth over the phallus. He pulled up his trousers.
"I'll call for Sir John," he said.
Francis went to the door and summoned the manservant, gave him the message.
As they waited, James attempted an apology, but Francis waved him off. He dearly wanted a drink.
"Of course not, Sir John," James said.
Francis dredged up the rote words that were usually said on these occasions, "We serve you gladly, sir."
Sir John nodded. He approached the table with a knowing, almost impish air. His captains stepped aside to let him see the table.
"I won't keep you long," Sir John said. "But custom demands..." He raised his eyebrows playfully.
"Sir, do you mean you will not be - " James broke off. "You...will not have use for us tonight, sir?"
Sir John smiled. "No. I will not impose on you. Do not be troubled, James." Sir John winked at Francis. "Perhaps he told you, Francis. James has not served at a Letting as a subordinate captain before."
Francis groped for something to say and managed only,
"Yes. Now. How did you find the batons? Suitable?" Sir John said.
There was a pause where Francis was expecting James to carry the conversation, but a sideways glance showed the other man was staring at the floor, apparently deaf.
"They served very well," Francis said. "Will you inspect them?"
"I suppose I'd better."
"There they are."
Francis indicated the phalluses that he and James had used, where they lay on the table underneath cloths.
"Very good, very good." Sir John cleared his throat. "It's been some years since I've had that obligation." He chuckled. "Quite an inconvenience."
"Not at all, Sir John."
"Well. I should look at you."
"Yes, sir." Francis began unbuttoning his trousers. He shot another look at James, wondering at the man's quietness. James belatedly saw the inspection was happening and opened his own trousers.
"Here, sir?" Francis nodded to the table.
Sir John was looking up at the beams politely.
"If you would."
Francis pushed his trousers down to his knees and turned. James did likewise. Francis pulled up his shirt to expose his buttocks and braced his hands on the table. James lent on the table slowly, as if under a spell. Francis felt a spark of irritation. James ought to be relieved there was only an inspection to endure and then it would be over.
"Would you mind awfully?" said Sir John.
"Of course," Francis muttered. Sir John did not even wish to touch them.
Francis reached his hands back and spread his cheeks. It was enough that they went through the ceremony of it - that the commander saw with his eyes that his captains were prepared should he have need of them.
"Very good," Sir John said lightly. He might have been reacting to the news that the lower studding sail had been taken in.
Sir John examined James briefly.
"Thank you, James."
He turned away. The two captains pulled up their trousers.
"You're very good to indulge me, gentlemen," Sir John said. "I am sorry you had to make the walk in the dark, Francis."
"I'm happy if it helps the ships, sir," Francis said. He meant it.
"Indeed. James - I hope you are not too shaken?" There was humour and fondness in Sir John's voice.
"No," James said. "No, sir." He forced a smile.
Francis looked at him again, wonderingly.
Francis pulled on his coat. Sir John went above with him to see him off.
Sergeant Tozer and the two marines came up from the gun deck where they'd been accommodated and given hot toddies.
It was only walking back across the ice with the two marines at his back and the sergeant walking ahead with the lantern that Francis thought about it.
Perhaps it should have occurred to him earlier that Captain Fitzjames was one of those naval men who enjoyed 'giving of himself'. It was generally considered unseemly for a captain to be that way - inclined to bend, gladly submissive to another man, tendencies that were very proper in a lieutenant but which the Admiralty disliked in a captain. This, in spite of the fact that a captain could still be called upon from time to time to bend and to submit, for the sake of still more senior officers.
A fine peacock of a man - so. James was that sort of officer who wanted to take care of a superior - certainly, Francis had seen that in the service. Francis had even found pleasure that way himself, under captains he'd esteemed. As a young officer, he'd got most of his experience as one of a group, with the captain among them like a sultan among his harem. As first lieutenant he'd learned how to serve his captain on his own.
To think James had not had shame enough to disguise his disappointment when it had become clear Sir John would not take what his rank entitled him to, his carnal release. More amusing still, that Sir John had been too pious to notice that he had disappointed James.
Francis trudged on. He looked up at the dark mass of his ship looming ahead, black against the brilliant banner of stars, the unreal splendour. His breath misted on the air. The lantern swung in the sergeant's hand. Soon would come the call from the quarterdeck of "Captain come aboard!"
James' dark hair loose about his face, his best white shirt - had he primped in readiness for that evening? Francis laughed inwardly, then felt a twinge of remorse, knowing himself to be base for laughing at a fellow captain, and at a man whose pride was easily wounded. He recalled how James had tried to go in tandem with him, do it properly - "Wait for me" - and the recollection came right on its heels of James' wounded soft exclamations from the cabin - "Ah...ah..." as he'd pleasured himself with the phallus. Francis' prick gave a twitch. He tucked his chin down into his muffler.
"Can you see alright there, sir?" Tozer asked as they approached the steps.
"Yes, thank you, Sergeant," Francis said gruffly.
"Will I bring you your cocoa, sir?"
"And I don't know what there is to smile about, Jopson."
"Sorry, sir." Jopson took his coat.
Francis sat down on his cot with a grunt and a small wince. He shook his head and bent to pull off his boots.