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December, 1791


 

“Lord, Laurence,” says Lieutenant Stuart. “You must be more careful. You know the captain - “ and the man hesitates.

“Yes, thank you,” says Laurence wearily. He accepts a cup of water from the First-Lieutenant and drains it gratefully; it is the first thing that has touched his lips in two days.

There is a queer, shaky lightness to his legs – like he weighs nothing and might fall from the lack of need, his body simply forgetting its duty at any instant. He sits abruptly in a small chair in the officer's cabin. Stuart follows suit more slowly.

“You should sleep,” says Stuart flatly. At the beginning of their voyage Laurence had marked him as a jovial man; now he only looks anxious. “You will have a new watch soon.”

Laurence is not due on watch for sixteen hours. That is soon enough, after seventy-two hours of the same and yet another enforced fast. He knows what else Stuart is avoiding, too; he should rest while Captain Barstowe still lets him rest.

Laurence has never been an officer to understand the impulses – base, weak impulses, he has always believed – which might compel a man to abandon his post and flee to shore. But it seems sheer lunacy to serve a man that seems to be actively trying to kill him.

“We will land soon enough,” Laurence says, an unspoken answer. Barstowe cannot afford to waste even a middling fourth-lieutenant by starving him before active duty. “I should like to write a few letters first. But thank you.” For many things.

Stuart sighs at him. “ - Very well, Mr. Laurence. I will be aft if you require anything – and please remember the captain will come to deck by the next dog watch.”

Laurence nods, and Stuart takes this as his cue to depart. Laurence sits for awhile clinging to his cup. He tries to release it and finds his fingers are still shaking.

It's a few minutes before he can muster the strength to rise.


 

The HMS Shorewise reaches Corsica on the 11th of December.

They are met not by any naval men – though, Laurence must imagine that an island has some ships, even one so small as Corsica – but representatives of the national guard. It is in these ranks that resistance flourishes, and the Shorewise has brought in her girth more than two hundred army-specialists, officers, and two diplomats to begin making entreaties with the Corsican guard. Upon having a quiet word with Stuart the First Lieutenant says, “A navy? Yes, they have one – but it is only made recently by their man Paoli. A good effort, but not likely to do much good against the French. Why do you think they want our help so desperately?”

Laurence, Stuart, and Lieutenant Piper accompany Captain Barstowe to the shore. Barstowe meets with the military commander there who, fortunately, speaks some English; naturally most of the men do not.

“We will need a liason,” Barstowe says finally. “Those diplomat people will go ahead to speak to Paoli and do for themselves, but our officers need a translator. Which of you fools speak French?”

French is a required section of the lieutenant's exam; passing a test is quite different than speaking it, however. Piper and Stuart eye each other dubiously. Barstowe waits with increasing impatience, clearly not willing to take accept ignorance as an answer. At last Laurence says, “I do, Sir.”

“Yes, I s'pose I should have assumed,” Barstowe says with some derision. “Very well; pack up, Lieutenant, the corporal here will show you the way.”


 

Laurence's counterpart among the Corsican guard is Lieutenant-Colonel Napoléon Bonaparte, who unfortunately speaks no English. The colonel is a young man with deep-set eyes, his bearing imperious. He looks Laurence up and down upon arrival at the Trastavere base, and then he says, “Well, it only took your country twenty years to move, I suppose. Let us hope the rest of your ships are a little faster.”

Without further ado the man waves him forward, taking him on a tour around the base and giving directions with quick, brusque instructions. Laurence does not quite judge this resentment – revolutionaries must, he feels, have some resentment deep in their skin – but he rather despairs of the man's timing. He finds himself lagging after the man's unrelenting pace. His neck and lips feel oddly numb, and his shoulders shudder a little, but his feet still work. So that, at least, is no trouble.

Or perhaps it is; suddenly Bonaparte has stopped and is glaring at him. “Are you drunk, then?” He demands. “I had heard that about sailors, that you always drink. I had not thought it true of officers.”

Laurence tries to muster some outrage. Fails. “If you would accuse me, Sir, I would know your reasoning.”

“You cannot walk a straight line – that seems a good reason.”

“It will not happen again.”

The man watches him. “...How old are you?” asks Colonel Bonaparte.

“Seventeen, Sir.”

“Seventeen,” echoes Bonaparte. “ - See that it does not. We have no use for seaman who cannot walk on land, Mr. Laurence.”


 

Laurence spends a good deal of the 12th of December ferrying messages between the British and Corsicans, as well as assuring the Corsicans firmly that, no, he can by no means make any promises on behalf of the crown.

He meets Bonaparte at the last meal on this day, and the first thing the man does is criticize this fact.

“One ship – one ship, and officers who will promise us nothing,” Bonaparte says. “What have you to offer us, lieutenant?”

“All that we may, Sir,” Laurence says. “The diplomats may do more, but we must all be content with our positions and content to wait.”

“If I were content to wait, I would not be a member of this guard; if I were content with my position I would not fight for Corsica's rights.”

“Duty can only be demanded when it has been earned, Sir. I will grant that. In my case, I will say I trust the wisdom of His Majesty's Government in their decisions.”

“Even if they decide not to help Corsica? - But of course you do not really care about us; this is a duty, too, and nothing more.”

It is; but the bitterness in Bonaparte's words makes him say, “Sir, I am impressed by any cause that would muster the loyalty of so many men. Your guardsmen seem determined to fight France, and I can say that is no small thing.”

“I will never bow to a Frenchman. I would stab the king through the heart myself, if I could.”

“I have heard rumors today that you served in the French military.”

“Oh, yes. I am on leave.” When Laurence stares Bonaparte laughs at him.

“...I would rather call that treason,” Laurence says at last.

“Treason implies that there was a law of France I respected or ever tried to follow. French rule is cruel – callous. I would save that whole nation from the yoke if I could. But as matters stand, I must content myself with fighting for Corsica.” Bonaparte pauses. “Would you not fight for England – for the heart of England, always, if she found herself under such a rule? If she was under the hand of France?”

“Always,” Laurence says; the words fly from his throat before he can hear them, and he blinks. Bonaparte looks at him intently.

“Yes,” says the corporal, “I do believe you would.”


 

Christmas preparations are underway in the civilian towns. Even in the barracks a festive spirit lingers, and in some places a solemn one; the island is largely Roman-Catholic.

Bonaparte claims this is another reason to hate the French.

Here the towns build bonfires on Christmas eve to burn until mass. The surrounding square is layered in gold and silver ribbons, with tables laid out illuminated by small, soft red candles. In the glow of the fire Bonaparte for once looks reflective, but his fingers tap out a restless rhythm against his leg.

Laurence can admire that – the need to move, to change, to influence events. Bonaparte has the drive of a great man in the making. But there must be time for rest, too. He dares to put out a hand to cover the man's wrist. Bonaparte stills and looks at him, sharp and assessing.

Then he leans back and gazes into the fire.


 

The roads of Corsica are small and rock-covered. There are few horses - there is no need for horses on such a small island – and Bonaparte scoffs when Laurence makes the inquiry.

“Horses, no; we will have a poor cavalry if ever the French land. But, come, I will show you our covert.”

It is a small place, too, but holds more dragons than expected. “Three mid-weights, six light, and some dozen couriers,” Bonaparte says. “We never have slow mail; even the couriers may fight if we use them against men.”

“Men?” asks Laurence, alarmed. He has never heard of such a tactic. “Would you...?”

“If it came to such a need, would you sacrifice a very real advantage for the courtesies of war?” As an aside, Bonaparte says, “We have taught them mathematics, too,” and Laurence does not have a chance to ask what this means.

At dusk they stand on an outcropping overlooking the sea. Many places overlook the sea here. In the far, far distance Laurence can see the topsail of the Shorewise, but he does not care to watch it. Bonaparte is far more interesting.

“For years I was forced away from this place,” Bonaparte says. “But now – can you understand that? What it means to love something so fiercely, that you will sacrifice everything?”

“Yes,” Laurence says, and he does not doubt: “Yes.”

Bonaparte looks at him. He reaches out to touch Laurence's shoulder, to run a hand over his neck almost thoughtlessly; Laurence lets him, and he stands closer.

Bonaparte's kiss contains every ounce of the hunger and yearning that has haunted his footsteps for the past week. He does not ask but demands recognition; Laurence gives it, and experiences the focus of a hundred suns sink into his skin and linger. Between them is the weight and space for unheard possibilities lingering somewhere through the shift of Laurence's coat, the fall of the corporal's belt.

For just a moment Laurence forgets the sea, the world, and even his duty.


 

Laurence reports to the Shorewise the next day with an impeccable uniform. There are no signs of any indiscretion visible in the straight edges of his cuffs, the smooth twist of his stay. This, of course, is all the worse to Barstowe, who stalks the bridge and accuses him of collusion.

Collusion with whom, Laurence is unsure.

“The Corsicans are our allies, Sir,” Laurence reminds the man carefully, emphasizing his rank. “You yourself ordered me to work with our friend Corporal Bonaparte - “

“Likely a traitor,” Barstowe says. He paces up and down the deck while seamen who are doing their actual duties walk nearby and carefully avoid watching the scene, pretending not to hear. “No; no, Lieutenant, I will not allow impertinence. First you mock me - “ Laurence keeps his face carefully blank of confusion - “Now you talk back to your captain - you are fortunate I do not accuse you of treason! You will stay aboard awhile now – you cannot be that needed by these Corsicans. You are on watch, and I expect you to have no rations, no water until I say otherwise unless you wish to be whipped like a simple crewman.”

“Aye, Sir,” is of course the only response available.

Wind and rain lashes down for the two days he stays on the Shorewise. Stuart circles the deck occasionally and eyes him with pity, once standing by in solidarity and telling quiet stories to keep him alert; it is little aid. Some of the crew notice nothing, others everything, and both reactions gall him.

He is released at last and does not dare rest or eat aboard for weariness of incurring Barstowe's prejudiced wrath again. He stumbles ashore and right into Trastavere – right, in fact, into Corporal Bonaparte.

He does not see the man immediately. He is only cognizant of a dark shadow, vaguely familiar, and then he blinks and Napoléon Bonaparte is there. The man's face is pinched.

“You are not drunk now,” Bonaparte says quietly.

Laurence stumbles; a hand around his arm helps steady him, and together the two make a more steady trip toward the officer's quarters. Instead of heading to Laurence's assigned rooms, however, Laurence finds himself led to an unfamiliar section, soon deposited with care inside a small and unfamiliar place.

It looks well-lived in, and Laurence looks around. “I should not impose,” he manages; his tongue is like wool. He could indeed easily be mistaken for drunk. Bonaparte looks displeased.

“I believe you should talk first,” he says.

He does not offer water; Laurence wonders why he would have expected otherwise. There is a pitcher in the corner of the room that seems like a deliberate taunt. Bonaparte toys with the handle while he watches Laurence, so perhaps it is.

“There is nothing to say.”

“I suppose you are one of those men who enjoys suffering, then – that is good to know.” Bonaparte eyes him sharply. “I will not quibble, and I do not enjoy word games – tell me what has happened.”

Laurence leans back. “It is only Captain Barstowe,” he sighs. “ - I have come to disfavor with him, though I know not why. He takes great pleasure in depriving me of food and drink aboard deck.”

“That is not practical,” Bonaparte says. “Not for a soldier, not for any good period of time - “

“The crew sometimes slip me items,” he says dubiously.

This information does not seem to be of aid. “You will stay here tonight, I think,” Bonaparte says, and finally rewards him by handing over the pitcher of water. “Drink, and sleep. I have business elsewhere.”

This is abrupt – startlingly abrupt. Laurence frowns, but he can hardly resist the temptation of sleep. He watches as Bonaparte pulls out his sword and a pistol, then heads to the door.

He is very glad to be off the Shorewise.


 

There is a great anxiety in the base the next day. Laurence finds it difficult to speak with anyone at all, and even the quartermasters who have been helping him discuss issues of supply only turn away and mutter vague excuses to be elsewhere. At last someone seems to notice his frustration and says, with faint shock, “Why, have you not heard?”

Laurence barely makes the training-ground by noon. A considerable crowd has already formed. Hundreds of Corsican nationals and dozens of men from the Shorewise are gathered in opposition, the prior trying to be formal and failing, the latter grim. Facing off on the grounds, Bonaparte and Captain Barstowe face each other with pistols in hand – pistols, not swords – and Laurence turns to the nearest man and demands, “What the devil is this about?”

“The captain made a comment about the colonel's command,” is the distracted answer. “In front of witnesses... Some are saying Bonaparte egged him on. But who would do that?”

“Paoli will be furious,” says someone else.

“Only if Bonaparte wins this.”

Lieutenant Stuart, with an air of faint resignation, stands by the sand; so does a Corsican commander. Barstowe and Bonaparte look toward them; the talking is not discernible from this distance, but everyone watching hushes as though hoping to catch some stray phrase.

On an unheard word, both men raise their guns and shoot.

At first it seems that there has been a misfire – that honor has been satisfied with no loss of life. Two guns are raise, two guns have sounded, two men still stand. Then, slowly, Captain Barstowe teeters. The gun slides from his grip and he crumples like a cut puppet. Bonaparte looks down at him without moving.

The Corsican side of the grounds burst into cheers. The British contingent stands stiff and sober; several men take off their hats.

Many don't.

And, on the grounds, Bonaparte looks up and seems to meet Laurence's gaze at last. His face shows no hint of expression, but he grips the pistol in his hand and raises it into the sky as cheers sound ever louder like a validation.


 

“You killed him for me.”

Bonaparte sets down his sword, sheds his boots, his coat. They are in his quarters again; Laurence knows where to find him now, and the room is too comfortable. He thinks of the slow creak of a ship, achingly loud, where he can be sure of no privacy; that would do quite well at the moment. “Were you displeased?” Bonaparte questions.

“He was an officer in His Majesty's Navy - “

“A poor officer,” Bonaparte says.

“That is not yours to decide.”

“And yet I did. Who should decide such things, Laurence? Should you have died in his place, then? It would have happened. I regret nothing.”

Laurence closes his eyes. “You entirely miss the point.”

“Then you frame your arguments poorly as ever.” Bonaparte touches his neck. Laurence jerks his head away.

“ - Captain Stuart has ordered us to leave the island. Our position is uncertain now; he will retrieve new orders.”

Bonaparte's face reveals nothing. “So the English will abandon us again.”

“No. No, the diplomats remain, and in time - “

“Time, yes, always time. Go, then.”

Laurence wavers by the door. Bonaparte turns away from him to examine his sword, back stiff and unyielding as a fortress wall. His silhouette is as strong as any king's. Laurence wonders if he will die here, on this miserable island, fighting against a nation that cannot be defeated. He thinks of Bonaparte with his pistol and winning shot – the precise, cold clarity of it – and wonders what the man would think of this thought.

He goes.