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Sir Joseph Blaine's residence, London

"We have been longing for your return. You must help, Maturin. We are in dire need of you."

Stephen suppressed an uncharacteristically caustic retort that the intelligence service always needed him, not least because as a wholly voluntary agent he had never yet accepted a brass farthing's worth of recompense for pains incurred, both literal and figurative. But to voice that comment out loud would be unjust and uncalled for as Sir Joseph's unusually sombre expression made it clear that this was no ordinary situation.

"Are you familiar with the Baltic?"

"Not at all", said Stephen, "though I have long wished to know it."

Sir Joseph sighed, but not in disappointment: he had suspected as much. Catalonia and the Mediterranean were Stephen's areas of expertise. Rather, it was the sigh of a man burdened with responsibilities, with the lives of those serving under him; it was the sigh of a man who recently had a respected Catalonian patriot and ally perish in an attempt to take Grinsholm, a heavily fortified island in the Baltic, from a Catalan brigade in the service of the French who had been led to believe that their alliance with the French would ensure Catalan independence. And now, Blaine reflected unhappily, he was now sending Maturin, a half-Catalan by birth, one of his most valuable agents and one of the few he felt a genuine affinity for, on the same deadly mission.

He cleared his throat."We have a brilliant young Lithuanian, a calvary officer seconded to us from the Swedish service, and he has provided us with a great deal of fresh intelligence that will I trust enable us to have another go. He speaks all the Baltic languages, and although he admits that his Esthonian and Finnish leave something to be desired, his English is well-nigh perfect, and so as far as I can judge is his French. He is an engaging creature and I am sure you would find him useful: that is to say, if you will consent to go, after this inauspicious beginning."

Sir Joseph's eyes slid away for a brief second, a look that passed uncommented on, though not unnoticed, by Stephen, who merely inclined his head slightly to one side.

"Your request was not totally unexpected, at least not since I heard about Ponsich. Indeed, I have already taken the liberty of mentioning this possibility to my friend Aubrey."

Releasing the breath that he had not known he was holding, Sir Joseph met the doctor's pale observant gaze, relieved at the acquiescence he found there.

"Then pray study this map, for I have a cunning plan..."

Steeped in increasingly animated conversation, the pair bent their heads over Sir Joseph's cluttered desk.

 

The Grapes, London

Ensconced in his small but clean lodgings at the Grapes, Maturin was engrossed in studying the papers that Sir Joseph Blaine had passed him the day before when Lucy, the inn's young serving girl, knocked on the door and upon being bidden to enter, launched into an exuberant landslide of words, punctuated by intermittent giggles, that a sweet young foreign-looking gentleman with blond hair and in a uniform was here to see him - he was so awfully polite sir - it was such an honour sir to have such distinguished visitors to the Grapes - oh not meaning anything untoward about yourself sir - heavens sir there is ink on your freshly laundered shirt and what's that on your breeches - Mrs Broad will have my head... At this point, a mixture of amusement and annoyance surfaced as a tolerant smile on the doctor's sallow features. The thirteen-year-old flushed a bright red, roughly the same shade of carrotty red as her inexpertly braided tresses, and apologized for being unduly talkative sir, for being uncommonly nosy, me ma said it would be the death of me... She gulped again and bobbed a crooked curtsey before turning tail and scurrying out of the room.

"Lucy?" Stephen called after her departing figure, now thoroughly amused.

From the hallway, an embarrassed, "Sir?"

"Be so kind as to show the gentleman to my room, if you please."

Maturin's smile widened indulgently as privately he calculated if he had time to change into a clean set of clothes. He did not. Stephen had not devoted much thought to the polyglot Lithuanian after quitting Sir Joseph's residence, sadly divested as it were of its unique bronze sculptures. To be sure, he had considered him in terms of intelligence in the narrower definition of the word, as regards to his tentative plans for the Baltic mission - How could a Lithuanian officer in the Swedish service be of optimal use in this delicate operation? Would he be able to learn Stephen the Baltic languages in such a short period of time? - but not as a real individual with a face and voice and body. Thus it was mostly surprise that manifested itself on the doctor's face when looked up from his desk and realised that the unaffectedly cheerful voice - a tenor: no, a pitch-perfect countertenor, Stephen was tempted to bet his 'cello on it - introducing itself as Jagiello, in the Swedish service and at your service, sir, belonged to an absurdly beautiful young man suffused with the rosy glow of youthful vitality. Ganymede, beloved of the deathless gods, thought Stephen illogically, his eyes widening slightly at the heat of an unexpected spark of mingled envy and anger and some other deeper unknown, unanalysed sentiment - a reaction immediately stamped out without conscious thought, much as one instinctively stamps out a fire-spark, landed on a bed of straw, before it has a chance to flare up irrevocably.

Glad that he had at least had the time to powder and put on his prized wig, the doctor stood and bowed formally. "Stephen Maturin, surgeon of the Royal Navy, at your service, sir. Most honoured, delighted to make your acquaintance, Monsieur Jagiello."

***

A little later in the day, Jack Aubrey paid a call on Stephen Maturin. On entering the Grapes he cried out, "Mrs Broad, Mrs Broad, there. Please to put dinner in hand directly. I faint, ma'am, I faint. Where is the Doctor?"

"It is all laid in the snug, Captain, and only waits on the Doctor's pleasure. He is upstairs with a foreign young gentleman, talking foreign twenty to the dozen."

"Such a sweet young gentleman", observed Lucy through the hatch.

Suppressing a sudden queasiness in his belly, due, no doubt, to a hopefully-soon-to-be-addressed complaints of an unvictualled stomach, he paid the serving girl's crass tittering no attention. Jack walked into the snug, seized a piece of bread and ate it. A few moments later Stephen came in, followed by the sweet young gentleman, a slim officer in a mauve coat with silver lace; he had surprisingly golden hair, bright blue eyes, large and set wide-apart, and a complexion that any girl might have envied. His air was modest, but by no means unmanly: Lucy gazed steadily at him with her mouth open, standing ready to pull out his chair, while Stephen said, "Allow me to present Monsieur Jagiello, of the Swedish service: Captain Aubrey, of the Royal Navy."
Jagiello bowed, blushed, and said that he was deeply honoured, most sensible of the occasion.

Already uncomfortably hungry (he had been uncharacteristically unable to take more than four generous bites of his breakfast on account of worrying about Kimber's alchemic schemes) Jack bluffed a hearty welcome that he did not entirely feel. The doctor turned a knowing regard upon Jack who, ignoring Stephen's supercilious regard, pulled out the wooden chair closest to him, its legs scraping dissonantly on the floor, not entirely unlike the sound of Maturin's 'cello near the humid Equator, thought Jack uncharitably, as he planted his large frame carelessly on the worn wood. Stephen and Jagiello followed suit and the meal began.

 

Ariel, on the Thames and at sea

"The tide! The tide!"

Standing upon the deck of a freshly-scrubbed and freshly upgraded Ariel, Stephen turned to Jagiello. "Time and tide wait for no man", the doctor sighed resignedly to the Lithuanian officer and the King's messenger as they stood out of the way while the crew busied themselves with preparations to depart - actions all vaguely noticed but uncomprehended by the two men. "How I wish I had had more time to attend the lecture at the College this afternoon but I fear Captain Aubrey has explained to me innumerable times that a ship is not quite the same as a chaise, being dependent on the majestic swell of the tide, the forceful gusts of wind-" His soliloquy was cut off in mid-flow by Jack's booming voice resounding across the deck. "Away aloft. Trice up and lay out." The umbilical cord was cut: the Ariel, surging ahead, plucked her anchor from the ground.

After a pause, Jagiello mumured softly, "Indeed, Doctor."

His work done, Jack made his way over to where they were standing and led his charges below. Long experience had taught him to bend between decks, and without taking thought he ducked as he entered the cabin. Jagiello was not so fortunate: he struck his head against a beam with such shocking force that although he protested that it was nothing - he felt nothing - his face turned deathly white, so that the blood running down it showed even more distinctly. They sat him down on a locker - even the Messenger displayed a glimmering of humanity - and while Stephen mopped him, Jack called for grog, told him that it might happen to anyone, and that he should always watch out for low beams in unrated ships, particularly French unrated ships. Captain Aubrey did not sit with them long, however: as soon as it became apparent that Jagiello would survive he went on deck again.

Stephen continued to mop Jagiello's forehead with a rag: though the bleeding had slowed, the young man's face was still china-white. "Mr Hyde, where is Monsieur Jagiello's cabin? He needs to lie down to recover his strength-" Stephen ignored the officer in question who was vigorously shaking his head in denial of the necessity for such an action. The ship's lieutenant shrugged and motioned for the mugs of grog and strips of blood-stained cloth to be carried into Jagiello's cabin.

"Can you walk?" asked Stephen. "You may feel a trifle unbalanced after such a knock, I have seen it often."

"To be sure, Doctor Maturin", replied the Lithuanian cheerily, "it was but a bump, nothing more, and it was my head, not my feet-" Jagiello winced as he stood up, swaying slightly and with teeth clenched in pain, noted Stephen with a touch of satisfaction at being proven professionally correct.

The efficient Mr Hyde had already arranged for the case containing Stephen's medical equipment and supplies on the bed in Jagiello's cabin. "Please to lie down and take off your coat and shirt", Stephen directed Jagiello. "We wouldn't want them to be stained", he added at the blank look he received.

Jagiello nodded mutely, his head throbbed too much to argue. He clumsily pulled off his coat and fumbled with the buttons on his shirt while Stephen measured out a dose of laudanum - he suspected that he might have to stitch up that nasty-looking gash. Though perhaps Jack would be a better hand at this, he thought absently to himself, remembering the tiny, tidy stitches that Jack's pair of large, calloused hands were able to turn out. He turned around; Jagiello, already divested of his clothes save for an expensive-looking pair of breeches in the latest Parisian fashion, was lying on the neatly-made bed, an expectant, trusting look on his pale face. A most patient patient, thought Stephen, and immediately winced mentally: he must be spending too much time with Jack if his wit were degenerating to this level. Still, an amused smile ghosted across his face as he sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. "Tell me, do you feel any pain?"

"Flashes, especially if I move suddenly."

"Pray drink this."

Jagiello accepted the proffered cup and sniffed it, catlike, before dipping his tongue into the liquid for a tentative lick. Stephen's brow furrowed at Jagiello's childish actions. "It is laudanum and will deaden the pain. Let me look at you."

He placed his left hand under Jagiello's chin and tilted the young man's head upwards while his other hand gently parted blood-matted hair away from the wound. It looked vicious, running at a steep angle along Jagiello's forehead before veering upwards, ending in the young man's blond hair, but Stephen was relieved to find it was a shallow surface wound that would heal swiftly. He relaxed his hold on Jagiello's head, it could have been much worse, and finally noticed that Jagiello had gone still and silent, his large sky-blue eyes regarded Stephen a touch hazily. The laudanum taking effect, Stephen noted to himself.

Sliding his body closer to Stephen's, Jagiello tentatively placed a hand over Stephen's right hand, which had been restly gently against the younger man's cheek. Stephen jerked away, burnt with shock, but the other man held fast, his other hand coming up to grasp Stephen's left hand. Jagiello's drugged heavy-lidded gaze roiled Stephen's insides uncomfortably as the young man turned his golden head and gently pressed the doctor's maimed right hand to his poppy-red lips thrice, once for each missing fingernail that the French had torn out during a brutal interrogation years earlier.

"Monsieur Jagiello!" Stephen croaked, perfectly aware and despising that he sounded uncommonly like the common European toad (bufo bufo in the Linnaeus). How long had it been since he had touched another person outside of healing, doctoring them? He could not remember. Not even Diana...though he had dreamed about it often enough.

The slumberous, uncomprehending look on the other man's face did not change but Jagiello's arm dropped by his side, relaxed as the laudanum worked its way through his body. The Lithuanian struggled against the call of mindless sleep but it was a futile fight. Jagiello whispered, his eyes drifting shut, "Thank you, Stephen."

Already unsettled, Stephen whipped his head around guiltily as he heard footsteps approaching the cabin. He stood up, frantic, smoothing his shirt in rapid, automatic flurries as Jack poked an unsuspecting, smiling face around the door.

"How is our patient, Doctor?"

"I dosed him and once he sleeps it off, he should be as beautiful as ever", replied Stephen quietly, his voice thankfully steady and with, dare he even say it himself, a touch of his usual sardonism. "The fair ladies of the Baltic need not fear. But come, Jack, let us not disturb our Delian Apollo's slumber; I have thought of a witticism that I trust you will find entertaining..."

As the friends left the cabin, the door closing behind them, Jagiello's eyes snapped open, surprisingly lucid and pensive. At the audible click of the door, he exhaled quietly, tiredly, stretching luxuriously before he snuggled comfortably under the blankets, finally relinquishing the struggle against the effects of Stephen's potent poppy-juice.