Hornblower leaned against the railing of the balcony, looking down at the gardens. Behind him, the sounds of people mingling mixed into a low humming noise, easily ignored. There was a bit of a chill in the air, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. He’d been out on deck in the middle of driving rainstorms, with no chance to put on a cloak. This was a summer breeze compared to that.
As his eyes swept over the gardens, he noted a glint of light out of the corner of his eye. Even without focusing his gaze, he knew it was the medal on his coat, the signifier that he was a knight of the Order of the Bath. He shook his head and looked up at the sky instead. Sir Hornblower. No, better than that, Lord Hornblower. And, if those promises made inside by slightly drunken men were true, there would come a point in the near future when he would be referred to as Admiral Hornblower. How on earth…
His line of thought was interrupted by a prickle in his nose, accompanied by the sweet scent of the flowers below. He tugged out his handkerchief and cupped it over his face. “K-shh!” He was unable to stop a grin from flickering on his face. It seemed appropriate that a sailor would have hayfever; one more excuse to spend your life at sea.
Hornblower tucked the handkerchief into his coat sleeve for easy access and returned to his musing. How had he managed to get this lucky? He’d joined the service almost twenty years ago, gangly, seasick, and utterly useless as a sailor. Had a few mathematical calculations and several cases of being in the right place been enough to gain him so much esteem? It seemed preposterous. Other men might have accepted the good fortune and reveled in their newfound status—it just made Hornblower feel smaller.
“Hishh!” The sneeze surprised him, but fortunately it was directed over the balcony. Raising his head, he became more aware of the cold air. But it wasn’t unbearable yet, and so he remained outside.
If he was truly honest with himself, he would admit that some of his success was due to his quick thinking. But his biggest successes—escaping death in France, recapturing the Witch of Endor, defeating the Natividad—had been a matter of luck. And most of the time, his luck seemed to be bad more than good. He’d lost good men over the years, and while they weren’t directly his fault, they had been as a result of his orders, and thus he still felt guilt for them. He’d been captured a fair few times in his career and thought dead at least once. Then there was that truly wretched period on half-pay, when he’d had just enough money to his name to keep from starving or freezing to death. No, luck preferred to toy with him than side with him. Really, it was a miracle he was still alive.
His nose prickled again, at least giving him time to draw out his handkerchief again. “Esshh!” He shuddered a little as he put the cloth away. It seemed that nightfall was bringing a cold spell with it. Hornblower was still hesitant of returning to the ball, knowing that he’d feel overheated and uncomfortable within minutes. Besides, out here he could avoid the music.
As he geared up for another sneeze, a memory floated back to him of a leaking boat and the subsequent head cold from hell. He actually smiled as the sneeze overpowered him. “Hitchh! Chh!” That whole incident was actually amusing when you looked back on it, even if it was positively miserable to experience. He tried to remember the extent of the damage done. One handkerchief ripped from overuse, another dropped overboard during a particularly forceful coughing fit, and the remaining three soaked through and rendered useless. Compared to that, anything was just a minor inconvenience; hell, this handkerchief was barely even damp.
“There you are!” Hornblower turned his head at the sound of his wife’s voice. She looked lovely in a pale yellow gown, hair swept up in an elegant twist, only a few hairs out of place from her dancing. The pink flush on her cheek confirmed that it was indeed quite warm in the ballroom. She came up to him and lay a hand on his wrist. “Goodness, how long have you been out here? You’re freezing!”
“Just a few minutes,” he said truthfully, wiping at his nose to clear away the wetness that suddenly seemed to have materialized there, “I just needed a breath of fresh air.”
“You’ll catch a chill if you get much more of it,” she said, her tone playful instead of scolding, “Let’s get you inside and warm you up.”
Hornblower shrugged and let her take his arm to pull him back to the crowds. Perhaps she was right. Musing over ones career should be reserved for ones memoirs, and should be done in the comfort of a study over a warm fire. Public appearances were for discussion of naval matters and games of whist. Perhaps he could find three people interested in a game…