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The Circle

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“It’s all in good fun,” William said airily as he mopped at his sweaty brow with his kerchief. James watched him with carefully concealed distaste as he shoved it, crumpled and damp, into his pocket and replaced his hat.

His brother looked especially bright-eyed and febrile under the pale straw, but then—it was a very hot August day and the air had a sticky, unwashed quality to it. It was a bad season for flies, too.

Neither the heat nor the insects had deterred them from fleeing the stuffy confines of Rose Hill into the dense copse behind the carriage house. They were seated together now, on the mossy ground, their shoes and stockings tossed aside, their bare feet digging into the cold dirt. A canteen of lemonade sat between them, accompanied by a basket of too-warm cheese sandwiches. William picked a piece of spare grass off his short pants and gave James an expectant look. He was waiting for some kind of response. 

James, for his part, wished they had flavored ices. That would have been capital.

Coming home had made him feel inexplicably young, unshakably so, and it had made William seem younger still. He looked delicate to James, crepe-paper pale when the sun hadn’t worked the points of his cheeks into an angry flush. James couldn’t imagine him holystoning the lower deck or climbing rigging or handling a gun. William was meant for softer things; things far, far afield of the story he’d just relayed to James like it was idle gossip.

Was this how it would be now? he caught himself wondering each languid, unchanging day. Sunshine and garden parties and Aunt Louisa’s petticoated friends fawning over them until they could run away into the woods? He’d traded in his woolen trousers for summer linen, his canvas hammock for freshly stuffed hay and feathers, and he couldn’t stop longing for the scent of brine.

“Or—it’s meant to be a good jape at least,” William went on, more thoughtfully now, perhaps because James had only raised his eyebrows in reply. “But I imagine similar things must happen on your ships, too.”

“Oh,” said James, taken aback. He frowned, not wanting William to feel out of sorts or shamed, and said, “I’m certain they must.”

“I figured as much. We hear things, cloistered though we are. I’m not the only fellow with a sailor for a brother.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” James offered a tremulous and, he hoped, reassuring half smile. Clapped William on the shoulder and shook him a little.

Except: similar things did not happen under Captain Gambier, and whether they happened to other volunteers James did not know.

There were rumors, of course. There were always rumors about the less than savory treatment that could befall a young boy at sea, but the three years he’d spent on His Majesty’s Ship Pyramus had been free from such harassment.

It seemed William had fared less pleasantly at Eton.

James knew two things at once with starbright clarity: there were no Articles of War at boarding school, and there were no lashings when you broke them. A great many things could appear to be all in good fun only to result in infractions and their sometimes many consequences. It was very easy to grasp once you lived it. It was very easy to write the cheerful letters home, enjoy the small allowance, take the lessons, and befriend the other volunteers.

Never mind corporal punishment; he could think of nothing more mortifying than being disrated, of how his peers might see him if that were to ever happen.

For three years he’d straddled the world between man and boy, but now he was once again cosseted by Rose Hill’s sloping expanse of lawn, its wild faerie garden, and abundance of little luxuries, and James felt firmly if uneasily rooted in the latter category.

A boy again, for the time being.

He was five and ten and he wasn’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. But—listening to William, to the details of his life at school, made James feel unexpectedly naive. Had he been just as coddled by the sea as he would have been by a nanny’s continued oversight? Was William, despite his still tender, sickly-limbed appearance, somehow beyond his ken now?

“Have I shocked you?” William asked, his mouth pulled into a worried moue.

“No, no.” James tried to laugh. “I suppose I just—well, to be very plain, it sounds awful. That’s all. And I don’t like the idea of awful things happening to you.”

William did laugh, actually laugh. His laugh was always bigger than James remembered: it filled every bit of him, it made his frail shoulders shake.

“Well I’ve never had to do it!” William exclaimed, still snickering, his manner turned conspiratorial. “And, with enough practice, you can be very quick. No one wants to be last, you see, for obvious reasons, but one doesn’t want to be first either. There’s a strategy to the thing. Plus, no one aims well at all, so I imagine the last boy doesn’t suffer too terribly.”

“I see,” said James, thinking about practice and quick and most decidedly, suffering.

“We could try it some time. Same as at school,” William offered, in the same tone he’d used to get a rise out of James with great success from their nursery days.

“I’ll thank you to keep this particular fancy to yourself,” James said, refusing to blush. “I prefer my biscuits unadorned.”

“Suit yourself.” William nudged him with his elbow. “Don’t know what I was thinking. I suppose I just assumed.”

“Assumed?”

“That it was much the same everywhere—at least, everywhere boys of our set are sent away to.”

“Not to worry,” James said, thinking it very much wasn’t. “I’m sure I’ll have sordid tales enough to shock you someday.”

“I expect nothing less,” William said, smiling, painfully and obviously relieved.

They stared at each other for a queer, creeping moment until James blew a lock of errant fringe out his eye, and said, in his most carefree drawl, “it’s dastardly hot, isn’t it? What are the odds of Cook having ices hidden away?”

William tilted his head, considering this, the funny tension between them breaking apart and scattering away into the wind when he nodded. “Shall we go and see?”