Who’s That Earl – Susanna Craig

In spite of the eerie, not-quite quiet that settled over the island in the hours between dusk and dawn, Lieutenant Thomas Sutherland nearly missed the telltale rhythm of oars slicing through water. Damn and blast. If he weren’t careful, he’d find himself in enemy hands after all this time. Or at the mercy of his general, once he’d explained how he’d been distracted from his duties by the scent of flowers. Seven years stationed in Dominica, eyes and ears trained on the most likely landing spot for the French fleet, had honed his focus. He’d even learned to ignore the whine and sting of the damned mosquitoes, though they seemed to have a particular affinity for his blood—or perhaps for the whisky that ran in equal measure through his veins. But in all that time, he’d never figured out how to ignore the sweetly sensual aroma that hung heavy on the still, dark air. Night-blooming jasmine, whose perfume should conjure no memories for him. Particularly not memories of an English lass from Sussex. With a scowl—three parts for Napoleon and one part for himself—he dragged his attention to the business at hand and scanned the sheltered cove for the source of the sound. Though the waning moon was no more substantial than the paring of a fingernail, it was enough to silver the thin, rippling line of water at the shore’s edge. A thicker stripe of light ruffled and foamed where the surf broke farther out. At last, his eyes caught the movement they sought. A skiff moved jerkily against the tide, riding low in the water beneath the weight of a passenger and an oarsman. Tracking their point of arrival, Thomas moved swiftly and noiselessly along the beach, clinging to the protection of the dense foliage as long as he could, pausing every now and then to scan the blackness behind the little boat.

Somewhere out there lurked the ship from which the two men had been sent, their mission yet to be determined. When nothing stood between him and the water but a stretch of gleaming white sand, he sank to his haunches behind an outcropping of rock and waited. The oarsman paused too, letting the incoming tide do a share of his work. Even at this distance, he looked too young for his task. The small craft scudded sideways through the shallows before the lad hopped out with a splash and dragged it onto the beach. All this time, the passenger had sat without moving, without even turning his head to left or right. But the moment the skiff was securely lodged in the sand, he vaulted from it and stood, scanning first the beach, then the scrub, and finally the more distant trees. He made no effort to hide either himself or his actions, as if the risks of being seen were worth the reward of catching sight of whatever he’d come to find. He too was young, though older by far than the seaman who’d rowed him here. Perhaps twenty or twenty-two.

And wearing a pristine British naval officer’s uniform, which made Thomas not one whit less wary of the man or his intentions. The arrivals spoke to one another, too low for him to make out their words. English? Or French? The distant rumble of the tide disguised the cadence of their speech. After a brief exchange, the seaman clambered back into the skiff. When he was hunkered low in the bow, invisible to all but the best-trained eye, the supposed officer turned and began to make his way up the beach toward the woods, a trajectory that took him no more than five yards from the place where Thomas crouched. Without taking his eyes from the man, Thomas slipped his knife from the sheath inside the shaft of his boot and followed. They moved as one, any noise Thomas made masked by the other’s fumbling progress through unfamiliar territory, the scuffle of steps slipping on loose sand, the careless crunch of seashells beneath his feet, the rustle of dried grasses against his legs. Bit by bit, Thomas closed the distance between them. Eventually, they reached a clearing where a small cabin stood, elevated on stilts to withstand the strong tropical storms. It formed the base for Thomas’s lookout operations, though he also kept rooms in Roseau, where he went whenever it became necessary to gather other sorts of information or sometimes to send communiqués.

The stranger nosed about, first examining the structure, then peering into the dark woods that surrounded it. When he set one foot on the lowest rung of the ladder that led to the door, preparing to ascend, Thomas spoke. “Where I come from, it’s customary to wait for an invitation.” The unexpected sound of a human voice produced exactly the response he expected. The man turned suddenly, lost his footing, and tumbled to the ground before locating Thomas as he emerged from the shadows just a few feet away. “Bloody hell,” the man rasped, the air having been driven from his lungs by a combination of shock and the fall. “What are you doing?” His uncertain gaze shifted from Thomas’s simple linen clothes to his primitive little cottage to the curved blade of his knife. “When they said you’d been here too long, Sutherland, they weren’t wrong.” He had the voice of a public-school prefect, almost too flawless an English accent to be believed. Thomas took another step forward.

“Aye? And what else did they tell you? The password, you’d best hope.” “P-password? I’m Captain Bancroft of the Colchester.” Desperation now sharpened his drawling speech, and he scrambled backward as he spoke, scooting across the dirt like a frightened crab. “I come bearing a dispatch from General Zebadiah Scott.” A string of specifics primed to win a man’s confidence. Thomas, however, held his in reserve. Had it always been in his nature to expect a lie, to suspect a trap? Perhaps he had been here too long. After a brief pause, the other man spoke again. “General Scott says, ‘Homeward, Magnus.’” Despite his vulnerable position, Bancroft—if that was indeed his name—enunciated the message like a man with no intention of repeating himself.

Not even at knifepoint. But repetition would serve little purpose. Thomas had heard him perfectly. He held himself rigid, determined not to betray the internal disturbance caused by two simple words. With them, any doubt about the genuineness of either Bancroft’s identity or his mission had evaporated. Apparently interpreting Thomas’s stillness as confusion, Bancroft dared a slight clearing of his throat. “You have the necessary cipher, I assume.” A long, deliberate pause. “Nay.” Because for once, there was no code to be broken.

Magnus was too obscure, and too personal, to require encryption. Though Thomas had not heard it for many years, the name was perfectly familiar. How it should come to be addressed to him, here, was the real enigma. But no mere cipher could provide the necessary clarification. Only General Scott could do that, and he evidently preferred to explain in person rather than relay the whys and wherefores through an intermediary. Out of habit, Thomas cocked his head in a listening posture, though his thoughts were too jumbled for him to hear anything beyond the roar of his blood in his ears. Fortunately, all of his senses had not deserted him. A sudden gust of perfume filled his nostrils. Night-blooming jasmine, again. And with it came the familiar memory.

A woman’s upturned face. Nut-brown hair, plump cheeks, blue eyes. He tried to shake her picture from his mind. Good God, what had—? What had stirred the branches of that infernal shrub? There was no wind to speak of, and they’d come too far from the beach to blame the ocean breeze for driving the scent. Something, or someone, was on the move nearby. With a swift, silent lunge, he closed the distance between him and Bancroft. Before the captain could react, Thomas had dragged him half-upright and pinned him to one of the stilts that supported the cabin, using both the man’s body and the stout wooden post as a shield against the intruder. With one hand, he twisted Bancroft’s arms behind his back, while with the other he held the knife to the man’s neck. “Christ,” Bancroft whimpered, almost a prayer. The movement of the man’s throat made the blade twitch.

Reluctantly, Thomas shifted the position of his hand. He had no desire to spill blood— yet. In another moment, the almost-forgotten seaman crashed into the little clearing. His eyes darted nervously from one pool of shadow to another. Though the boy could not have been more than twelve, he could not be safely ignored, for in one sinewy arm he held an oar over his head. Thomas spoke low, before he could be picked out from the darkness. “Drop it, lad.” His voice drew the boy’s eye to the perilous situation of his commanding officer. The same faint streak of moonlight that had silvered the waves now gleamed along the blade of Thomas’s knife. The boy froze with the oar still upraised, swaying slightly beneath its weight and momentum.

With a flick of his wrist, Thomas motioned for him to lay it on the ground. “Do it, Perkins” Bancroft rasped. “I don’t fancy having a mad Scotsman fillet me with a rusty cane knife.” Bewildered, the lad looked first to one and then the other before shaking his head and letting the oar drop. It landed with a dull thud, bounced off the hard ground, and struck Bancroft’s shin. The string of profanity that flew from Bancroft’s lips marked him clearly as an Englishman—men almost always resorted to their native tongue when sick or in pain. Thomas was similarly convinced that no bones had been broken, else the man would have been neither so creative nor so coherent. “Cheer up, Captain.” He thrust the knife once more into its sheath, then favored the man with a lazy smile. “The lad might’ve been carrying a pistol.

” “I had hopes that the oar would be persuasion enough,” Bancroft ground from between clenched teeth, still clutching at his injury. Despite the warm, humid air, a chill settled over Thomas. The captain had ordered the seaman to follow him—and to come armed. As if they’d expected trouble. Or resistance. “Persuasion?” Bancroft winced as he struggled to keep his feet, leaning heavily on Perkins and gesturing for the oar, which he pressed into service as a makeshift crutch. Dust streaked his once-spotless uniform, one sleeve was torn, and sweat slid down his face in rivulets, making tracks in the smear of dirt across one cheek. Still, he had not lost his haughty demeanor. “General Scott made it clear that you have never shown any particular fondness for following orders.” Thomas shrugged gamely.

Why else would he have been sent to this godforsaken spot to begin with? “He asked me to make sure you understood that it’s imperative you follow this one.” With the oar, Bancroft gestured toward the rough path their feet had carved between the spot where they stood and the beach, indicating that Thomas was to lead the way back to the boat. Such a simple directive: Homeward. But where, after all this time, was home? * * * * London in early January was still a bustling, hustling place. Though the great and wealthy overwintered on their country estates, the rest of the city went on about its business, oblivious to the gray skies and the cold, damp wind that cut right through a man’s coat. Even a red one. Thomas tugged uneasily at the collar of his uniform and fancied he caught a whiff of camphor. No surprise there. He’d had no use for the flash of scarlet and brass while working undercover, and no use for wool’s sturdy warmth under a West Indian sun. In Whitehall, however, and for a meeting with General Scott, even he could muster a show of respect for authority.

Once across the almost-deserted parade grounds and inside the vast warren of offices and stables that made up the Horse Guards, he paused to shake the rain from his hat and tuck it under his arm. Directed down a northern corridor, he found himself counting his steps out of habit. It would not do for a man of his experience to get lost. At last, he paused before an unmarked oak door. Before he could raise his knuckles to rap, it swung open, as if he had been expected. As if someone had been watching. But, of course, someone had been watching. Behind that sturdy panel—or rather, behind what he assumed would turn out to be a series of doors, each one more strenuously guarded than the last—sat the architect of Britain’s military-intelligence operation. “Lieutenant Sutherland.” The officer who had opened the door wore a uniform that had never been sweat-stained, nor bloodied, nor stuffed in the bottom of a trunk, and he spoke as if there could be no question of the visitor’s identity.

“He’s expecting you. Right this way.” Thomas had less than a moment to get his bearings. The small room contained a cabinet, a desk, and a chair for the one who worked at it, none for visitors. Before he could decide whether the two neat stacks of paper on the desktop contained information vital to the nation’s security or were merely for show, the man had opened another door—just one, though it was the sort that was built into the wall in such a way as to make it easy to overlook—and ushered him through it. The latch clicked softly into place the moment he had crossed the threshold. This office was larger than the anteroom, though not considerably so, and similarly furnished, though the desk was somewhat larger, and a pair of chairs sat before it in addition to the one behind it. Yet the dissimilarities were equally striking. In a word, the space was… cozy. A worn but gailypatterned Turkey carpet covered most of the austere tile floor.

Dark blue drapes had been looped haphazardly behind polished bronze hooks, inviting in what daylight could be coaxed through a single tall window. The desk, like the carpet, had seen its share of use, and its surface was positively littered with sloping and sliding piles of papers. Here and there, Thomas could see the corner of a map peeping out from the chaos, or the red-wax circle of some important seal. A cloud of smoke hung on the air, wreathing the white-haired figure who stood with his back to the door, looking out into the gray morning. “Ah, come in. Come in.” General Zebadiah Scott spoke around the stem of his pipe as he turned from the window and extended a hand of welcome. “I’ve been expecting you. Thought you would arrive sooner, but my sources tell me you were delayed in Portsmouth by some, ah, personal business.” At the twinkle in Scott’s eye, Thomas busied himself with settling into the chair the general had indicated.

All things considered, it was not shocking to discover that the man knew how he’d spent the days after his arrival. Hell, Scott could probably name every pub he’d visited, which was more than Thomas himself could do. But Thomas’s gaze had been driven to the floor by the unsettling sensation that Scott knew even more. Knew that for an hour, or even two, Thomas had been quietly weighing whether or not to return to London via a certain village in Sussex, just to prove to himself that the woman he’d met seven years ago had not been a figment of his imagination. Just to see if Miss Quayle was Miss Quayle still. By morning, common sense had returned, along with a dry mouth and an aching head. Sternly, he had faced his reflection in the glass above the washstand and told himself that any such detour would be a foolish waste of time. Miss Quayle was no doubt Mrs. Somebody-or-other now, with children trailing from her apron strings. Better to remember her as sweet and seventeen and smelling of nightblooming jasmine.

He had not mentioned either his ill-considered plan or his far more sensible rejection of it to anyone. Had not so much as muttered her name beneath his breath. Yet, as Thomas discovered when he raised his head, Scott was still looking at him, with knowing eyes and a quirk about his mouth that could only be described as amusement. Some underling’s dutiful report of Thomas’s days of debauchery in Portsmouth would not have produced such a look. “Ah, well. Welcome home, Mr. Sutherland.” The general set his pipe on a crystal ashtray, so near a stack of papers that Thomas feared they might catch fire. With his wispy white hair, slight build, and wizened features, Scott strongly favored a mischievous elf. No one would suspect him for a creative genius, a military mastermind.

Unless, perhaps, he owed some part of his uncanny abilities to sorcery? “But I forget myself,” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together and laughing. “I must say, ‘my lord’ now. Lord Magnus.” He sketched a bow and was still chortling when he took up the chair behind the desk. Thomas had spent almost every moment of seven weeks at sea—seven weeks with very little else to distract him, not even a storm or a sighting of a French ship—trying to make sense of the message Bancroft had delivered. He’d tested every possible meaning in his mind, including the one Scott had just given: that he, Thomas, now bore a title. Time and again, he’d dismissed it as impossible.

.

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