letter of marque ~ licence or commission granted by a state to a private citizen to capture and confiscate merchant ships of another nation.
"He has a what?"
I looked from the gold-glittered smirk to the resigned, drooping wig, and knew I'd heard right the first time.
Governor Swann cleared his throat uncomfortably, shooting an exasperated look across the desk, and then he held the document out to me. I took it with a sinking heart and a stomach-flutter - dread the likes of which I hadn't felt since I took my officers' examination. I didn't want to hold this in my hands. Good parchment, it took the ink well. I had to force myself to read the words, and even then I only got patches. 'Let it be known that... agent of the Crown... with Our blessing... Captain Jack Sparrow.'
"He has a Letter of Marque," I repeated, dully.
"He does." The well-documented Captain Jack Sparrow attended to the state of his cuticles with the sort of smug satisfaction I usually associated with well-fed cats and well-married young ladies. "And it's official, Commodore. So you'd want to stop picking at the seal, or you'll be destroying a Crown document. You know what you get for that."
I bared my teeth at him in response, but my fingers stilled. The seal was real anyway, the heavy wax intact and the imprint perfect. I consigned the man to my peripheral vision before I did something that wasn't quite a hanging offence, and addressed Swann. "How did the blackguard get this?"
The not-quite-slandered man protested, but we both ignored him. "The signature is real as well," Swann told me, regret lacing his voice. On the document, a slashed tangle of lines crawled over the top of 'Fitzwilliam Forth, His Majesty's Governor of Barbados'. "Forth's been out longer than I have. I hear he likes it here."
"So he's clearly mad," I muttered.
"But official," Sparrow interjected, playing his trump card again.
As if we'd missed it the first time.
I escorted Sparrow - not nearly as forcefully as I would have liked - to the door. "My men will be given orders not to molest you," I promised through a faked smile that I suspect wasn't fooling anyone.
Sparrow grinned, one cheek full of sharp delight, as he donned his hat. "And spoil all me fun, mate?" With a wink, he disappeared out the door.
I didn't bother not slamming it behind him.
"What a debacle," I announced as I returned to Swann's office.
The governor had his elbow on his desk and his forehead resting on his knuckles. He grunted against his palm.
I continued the conversation for both of us, since he seemed to be temporarily incapable. "Obviously we have to honour the document."
"Obviously," Swann repeated, pushing himself upright in his chair again. "Forth must be out of his mind."
"No doubt. It seems to be catching. But he's done it." I crossed to the window, and watched Sparrow swagger his way down the hill.
"Why has he come back to haunt us?" Behind me, Swann sounded plaintive, and mostly rhetorical. Just as well; there are no answers to questions like that with Sparrow. Although I had a theory about that one, involving some sin of my father's that required having a torment like Sparrow visited upon me.
"Well," I said, as the bloody pirate disappeared from view, "if we have to put up with him, let's at least keep our finger on him for a while."
Finding Sparrow the next morning was a long process, as we systematically checked every tavern and bawdy house in the port.
We found him in the church.
The light was burnt umber and sickly green, tinted by the sun sparkling through new stained glass and bolstered by candles melted down in their sconces. Sparrow was seated in the centre like a bubble caught in amber, his hands together and his head bowed.
My tread sounded very loud on the bare stone floor, but Sparrow didn't look up as I reached his pew.
Was he praying?
I waited, uncertain. Time passed, and Sparrow didn't look up. His lips were moving slightly, with the sibilant edge of words. Not that that necessarily meant he was talking to God, of course.
I sat at the end of the pew and contemplated the altar, the magnificent arch, the splendid depiction of the crucified Jesus. This pious behaviour from Sparrow certainly cast a pall on my personal-devil theory. Ah well, I wasn't particularly wedded to it in any case.
"Commodore." The voice slid from beside me, insinuated itself into the silence. I glanced sideways, and Sparrow was smirking back at me, leaning elbows on his knees. "Come to throw me out? No rest for the wicked?"
"I thought you were on our side now. The side of the good and righteous," I countered.
"Ah, but can I truly change my spots?" The question was offered with a considering finger.
Aggravating man. How was it possible that I was doing this? Surely it wasn't too late. I could still hang him. Apologise later. So sorry, terrible mistake. A blemish on my record, but could that compare to being free of Sparrow?
I said, "I am come to convey to you a mission from the Crown."
"The Crown!" That enthusiasm must be faked, at least in part. The naivety too.
"Through Governor Swann," I elucidated.
"And what task does the glorious and illuminated Governor have for his lowliest servant?"
I leaned back in the pew, and started an explanation more terse than the one Swann had given me. "The HMS Reward seems to have disappeared to the south. The Spanish report her destroyed in a storm, but we have reason to believe that is not the case. We are to find out the truth."
That finger lifted again, the tilt of the wrist, a face of inquiry so innocent that it made my teeth itch. "We?" Sparrow echoed.
I looked up into the face of the suffering Christ. "I'll be going with you."
The Black Pearl floating smug and unmolested in the port was an affront every time I saw it, and since the window of my office offered an unparalleled view of the harbour, I saw it often.
At sea level, it wasn't so bad. I could pretend not to see it behind the masts of the Dauntless. It was just another ship that wasn't my concern in the mass of a harbour that was. So it would have all been fine, except that Sparrow was standing on the foc'sle with Groves.
I hunt the man for six months and get nothing but tantalising glimpses. As soon as I can do nothing about it, he's constantly underfoot. The vicious cycle of life in action, or more evidence for my 'Jack Sparrow is my personal demon' theory?
I ignored him. "How long until we're ready to go?"
"Ah, now there's the problem," Sparrow cut in, and I had to acknowledge him. He had that apologetic look that meant he was about to be offensive, and I braced myself with one raised eyebrow before he said, "I'm not tagging along on this floating brick."
Refreshingly blunt. I passed over his pithy but wildly inaccurate description of the Dauntless to set everyone's mind at ease. "No, you're not."
"You're not." I folded my arms across my chest. "The purpose of this exercise, Captain Sparrow, is to assess whether you are suited to receive the endorsement of the Crown upon your ventures, a question which can hardly be answered if you aren't captaining your own ship and crew."
He almost looked relieved. Had he really thought I was going to have him aboard for the duration of this outing? His belief in my dedication to my duty was flattering, if somewhat over-generous.
"You could come aboard the Pearl." But his grin told me he knew precisely how likely that was.
"Thank you. But no, Sparrow, I will not impose upon your hospitality." I stepped aside. "You'd best see to your own refitting. We sail on the morning ebb."
Groves' grunt beside me told me that that may have been slightly earlier than was truly feasible. Oh well. He should have mentioned that earlier.
Sparrow paused at the head of the gangway, and looked back up to us.
"What?" I asked.
His grin widened, and he rapped his knuckles against the ship's railing. "She won't keep up with the Pearl, y'know."
"Oh, she'll keep up."
Two days out of Port Royal, bearing south-south-west towards Santa Catalina, the helmsman voiced a similar concern.
The Black Pearl had been trailing a respectful distance behind us since we left the harbour, but this morning she was starting to inch forward, creeping up on us to port.
"I don't like it," Gillette stated baldly. "With the wind westerly he could shadow us and stop us dead, and then make a run for it." Gillette, it's possible, is even less trusting than I am.
At this point, the helmsman offered his view. "Aye," he said, "and with the wind freshening she'll outrun us an' all."
Gillette and Groves, flanking me at the aft rail, both stilled, and I could feel their expectant eyes on me. "I hardly think," I said mildly, "that having gone to this much trouble to annoy me, Jack Sparrow means to cut and run with the job half done. Nevertheless, let's not give him the option." I turned, and addressed the helmsman. "You, sir. Are you really suggesting that the most modern warship in his Majesty's fleet may be incapable of matching speed in open water with a galleon a good forty years her senior?"
He touched his brow. "Beg pardon, sir, but, well, the Black Pearl's--"
"I know," I interrupted. "The fastest ship in the Caribbean." Beside me, they were grinning, I could see it from the corner of my eyes, and I didn't dare look directly, or I'd grin too; most improper demeanour. "Groves, take the helm. Gillette, full sails."
"Sir." They both came to attention and moved to their positions, Groves taking the wheel as the helmsman stepped aside, Gillette stepping up to the railing and bellowing fit to send the crew scurrying through the rigging like spiders.
I glanced over to the Pearl. "Floating brick, was it?" I muttered.
But as I braced my feet, I wondered if we could still do this. It had been the stupid trick of three devil-may-care midshipmen under the only captain in the Caribbean worth a damn, and that was more years ago than I cared to count. And now that I'd done this rash thing - forcibly taking direct control of my ship - I needed it to work.
I needed all the help I could get. Propriety be damned; I pried my shoes off, and flexed stockinged toes against the deck.
Then I closed my eyes and concentrated.
For the first time I envied Sparrow his ridiculous hair. Those beaded braids, the way they tugged at his scalp - he'd be able to read the wind like it was whispering straight in his ear. If he'd stay still long enough, that is.
Just as I was considering losing the hat and wig - a bit drastic, really - it started to coalesce. The hiss of the wind across my ears and through my spread fingers, the tilt of the deck against my soles...
"Tighten high to port," I said, and heard Gillette shouting at the crew - reef that topsail. "And helm a finger to starboard."
The Dauntless shifted into a new position, boards relaxing and contracting under my feet, and I read her, eased her faster and sleeker through Gillette and Groves. Felt her slide into alignment, past it, back towards it. Teased her ever closer.
The Captain always said: "What you want is for there to be no wind on deck, because you've harnessed every last skerrick into your sails. That's perfection."
"Of course," he'd continue, "you'll never manage perfect, but don't let that discourage you from trying."
The night before we were due to sight the island, Sparrow invited us to dine. Tempted as I was to take Gillette - who still called Sparrow "that bloody pirate" - in the end I left the Dauntless in his care, and Groves and I were rowed across to the Pearl.
'That bloody pirate' set a good table, and we were joined by his second mate, a dark beauty called Anamaria. "To balance the numbers," Sparrow declared, and intimated further that she was there because Gibbs was terrified of being at the same table as me.
"Well," I said, sampling Sparrow's surprisingly decent wine, "at least I frighten someone."
"But Commodore," Anamaria almost purred, "pirate children across the Caribbean are scared into bed with threats that Norrington will get them."
Groves laughed out loud. And witnessing the decidedly carnal glance her dark eyes cast across the table at him, I formed a few theories of my own as to why Miss Anamaria was present, at least as far as she was concerned.
"Tomorrow we should reach Santa Catalina," Sparrow said as the dishes were cleared away.
"Yes. We do seem to have made good time," I noted, and Groves made a sound into his wine that might have been a strangled laugh.
"Indeed," Sparrow drawled, and I had a feeling he was mocking me. Ridiculous. Of course he was mocking me. "What's the plan once we sight land?" he asked.
I swilled the last of my wine around the glass, contemplating the colour. "Do you have your charts here?"
"Of course." I'd thought he would. We stood as one and he led the way to his chart table, against one wall.
It was a beautiful piece of furniture, the surface at just the right height, though predictably one of the weights holding down the maps had gone missing and there was an apple - of all things - in its place. Charts filled slot after slot in the side of the table, the carved ends of the pins they were rolled around protruding. No perceptible differences to them, but their owner - Sparrow - would know by feel which was which. I trailed my fingers along the row, but just as I gripped one, Sparrow slapped my wrist.
"Naughty," he scolded absently, going back to sifting through the charts already on the table. "No peeking."
I stepped aside, unsurprised. A captain's charts were more precious than his ship. The ship was just a means of transportation, albeit a very dear one. Charts were life and death, the hard-won secrets of the ocean.
Sparrow found the one he was after and pulled it free of the pile to spread on top, weighting it. He placed his wine glass at the fourth corner, and picked up the apple. "I present to you," he said, flourishing it in the air before taking a bite, "Phanta Ca'alina." He swallowed. "I assume we aren't precisely going to sail into the harbour with colours flying and drums rat-tat-tatting."
"Probably not, no." I set my glass on the table, leaned over to examine the map closely. Much more detailed than the one I had. But the tiny island had never, before now, been worth the trouble of trying to acquire something beyond the official charts. Sparrow lounged against a corner of the table, eating his apple with loud, crisp bites. Low, mingled laughter from the dinner table distracted me, and I glanced over. "You know," I said quietly, "I'm going to need my Lieutenant in one piece."
Following my glance, Sparrow laughed. Just as quietly, he replied: "Anamaria never breaks her playthings. She'll give him back safe and sound."
I just raised an eyebrow, then stepped back from the map, reaching for my wine. "This is your mission. What do you recommend?"
Still smirking, Sparrow jabbed a finger at the chart. "Little bay, here. Not two hours walk from town." And I'd swear he hadn't even looked, but he was right. "We wait for sunset, creep in under cover of darkness - very piratical, but you'll get the hang of it - toddle on down into town," he walked his fingers over a spur on the map, "and get your ship back."
"We're not supposed to get it back, we're supposed to determine if it's there," I reminded him.
"Even easier! Home by tea, with time to do some shopping. I hear they have nice lace, the Spanish. And this," he took a final bite, "ish me lasht apple."
"You can't be serious," Gillette declared.
"Oh, give up," Groves shot back.
The two of them bracketed me like particularly argumentative bookends, metaphorically shoving the books back and forth between them.
"No, I won't, it's a stupid idea," Gillette insisted.
"It serves the purpose."
"It's a stupid purpose."
I was ignoring them - it seemed best, and they certainly didn't need my help to have a raging row - while I rummaged in my sea-chest.
"Yes, well, that's you all over - we shouldn't even be here, let's sulk in the corner," Groves ranted. "Do you want to suggest something useful?"
"Fine. If this has to happen, send one of us with that that bloody pirate."
"What, like you?" Groves laughed. "He'd sell you to slavers and I wouldn't blame him."
"You aggravate me beyond reason, and I consider you a brother."
I found what I was after - at the very bottom of the chest, of course - and stood up, shouldering into their conversation. "Enough."
Two jaws snapped shut, and both of them leant back. I shrugged my way into the coat I'd pulled from the chest, and turned to the glass to work on straightening the collar. "I'm going - ah!"
Two jaws snapped shut again.
"I'm going," I continued, "with Sparrow, because that's part of what I'm doing here, and that's just the way it is. Duty, gentlemen. Ugly brute that she sometimes is, we must still obey her dictates." I turned around to face them. "Will I pass?"
They pulled a simultaneous face. "The wig has to go, sir," Gillette said.
"He's right," Groves said. "It's too well-made to pass as anything other than a gentleman's."
I glanced back at the mirror. "Yes, I suppose you're right." Under the wig my inch of hair had been pushed flat by the weight, but I ignored that and hid it again under a plain tricorn before trying again to pass the Lieutenant test.
Better results this time. "Might work," Groves said doubtfully. "Helped by that coat, of course. Where did you get it, Norrington? It's the most boring coat I've ever seen."
"Thank you," I returned. "Gillette, you have the watch."
They saluted, and I left.
"That," Sparrow said consideringly, as we were rocked gently back and forth in the back of the cart, "is the most boring coat I've ever seen."
I honestly hadn't thought it was that bad. Ten years out of fashion and a little tight across the shoulders, and yes, admittedly, the brown was a little drab, but it was perfectly serviceable and hardly deserving of such censure, especially not twice in one day. I think I'd even been proud of it, when I'd bought it in London. I'd been young then. Hard to remember.
I looked over my shoulder to the driver of the cart, humming vaguely to himself and not paying a single bit of attention to his passengers. We'd found the cart trundling along on the road, and that road shortly after we'd crested the spur that hid our bay from the township. A man from some plantation or other, heading down to town for the day. He'd been more than happy to accede to Sparrow's florid request for a ride.
"Are you sure this was a good idea?" I asked.
"What, you wanted to walk?" he returned, from where he was lounging against the cart railing with no perceptible change in equanimity. With a grin, he added, "You're just jittery because you can't hide behind your wig. Are you sure that was a good idea?"
I brought my hand down from scratching at the short hair at the back of my exposed neck. "A gentleman would draw too much attention."
He just laughed. "Commodore," he said chidingly, and I shot a quick look to our driver, but Sparrow's voice was so low it barely reached me, and the driver didn't stop humming. I looked back to Sparrow, who was saying, "You could be two weeks unshaven and bundled up in a sack, and you'd still be unmistakably a gentleman. If you don't believe me, we could try it."
The idea seemed to appeal to him. I just gave him a level look.
"Well, perhaps another time," he demurred, blatantly undismayed. "In any case, when we get there, just keep your head down and don't say a thing."
"I can speak Spanish, you know."
"With a perfect accent and all the proper tenses and cases and those little wriggly things over the Ns, I'm sure."
I grimaced. "Yes, alright, you've made your point."
"And could you perhaps walk instead of marching everywhere? Oh, and--"
I cut him off with a menacing finger. "Don't push it, Sparrow."
He smirked, subsided back against the cart rail and tilted his hat forward over his face.
Santa Catalina was just another tuppenny Spanish town. They're scattered all up and down the Main, like fleas on a dog. A few flourished - Rio de la Hacha, Campeche, Maracaibo - but mostly they were the equivalent of those places on a coastline where the flotsam accrues. All driftwood and seaweed and the stink of fish.
This one at least had, amidst its refuse, a fort. It was an unimpressive thing, though. Couldn't have had more than a dozen guns, and almost certainly didn't have the men to defend it. Nor did those men seem to have the discipline required.
"Stop that," Sparrow muttered out of the corner of his mouth, as we meandered down a street. The pace wasn't really our choice, but was somewhat dictated by the number of impediments, human and otherwise, we had to negotiate to make any headway at all.
"Stop what?" I returned.
The look Sparrow shot me as we skirted a barrel was honestly amused. "Stop going over the place as if you were planning an offensive. Unless, of course, there's a hitherto unmentioned secondary purpose to your presence here."
I shook my head, smiling despite myself as I looked down to the uncertain path. "Just habit."
"Glad to hear it. Hate to think I'm not worth a Commodore all by me onesie."
I snorted at that, and paced along beside him down the hill, to the sea.
I'll say one thing for Santa Catalina, and that's that the harbour was naturally magnificent, and entirely wasted on the paltry collection of twigs and canvas that bobbed desultorily at the jetties.
"They used to get the Treasure Fleet in here, y'know," Sparrow said unexpectedly as we strolled along the waterfront, stepping over the inert bodies of those who had yet to realise that last night was over.
I looked again at the harbour, squinting and pulling the tricorn lower against the morning glare. It was high water, maybe an hour into the ebb, and it was easy to imagine the bay a forest of masts and rigging. "Well, not any more."
"No," Sparrow agreed. "And that's equally your fault and mine - the pirates and the British, and the combination of the two. With a little weather thrown in. Diminishing the glory of the world for petty monetary gain."
Not the sort of thing I expected to hear coming out of that mouth, and I'd turned to him in something approaching astonishment, when he pointed away in front of us and across me. "That one, what d'ya think?"
I followed the line of his arm, out past the unimpressive collection of patched fishing vessels and two-man pinnaces. There was a smart little merchantman moored in the road, her rigging naked and her deck bare. Not Spanish make. "I think we need a closer look."
But when I started forward, a hand closed around my arm, and Sparrow tugged me towards a side street.
"Now what?" I demanded, but followed, if only to avoid the ignominy of being dragged through the streets by a flamboyant pirate who'd have no qualms about milking the event for every last drop of drama.
"Now we get a closer look," he said. We went up the hill, and though I kept my eyes on the treacherous road, Sparrow kept looking up, craning his neck and catching his hat before it fell off. "Here, this one."
I looked up. 'The Bell and Whistle', a dingy sign declared, jutting off an even dingier building with two listing upper stories. "Now we get a closer look at the bottom of a tankard?" I suggested caustically.
Sparrow fixed me with a stern eye. "I really don't think we should be drinking on duty, Commodore." And he shoved the door open.
For close to eleven in the morning, the tavern was doing a roaring trade. At least two thirds of the tables were occupied, a matching pair of barmaids - sisters, perhaps - wending their way through the many-handed gloom with an ease that spoke of long practice.
Sparrow yanked on my collar, and I stumbled over something that I didn't want to investigate, nor think too closely upon. "C'mon," he declared brightly. "Mind on the job, sailor."
I followed him through the room and into a small corridor. I consoled myself with thinking, as we climbed a narrow flight of stairs, that we'd have to come back down again, and then I could be rid of my personal demon with just one little nudge.
We wound up on the top floor, which had obviously - from the low ceiling and general lack of space on the landing - been attics before some enterprising innkeep had decided to turn it into rooms. Sparrow did a little dance; he wiggled hips and hands left and then right, spun around once, then seemed to reach a decision, lunging to one side with a cry of "ah-hah!" and flinging open a door.
Sunlight, a shoe and a feminine scream hit him almost in unison, and he flailed wildly, shouted, "Sorry ma'am!" and pulled the door shut again.
"Not a word," he said to me, and I performed the best smug stance I could, given I didn't dare lean on the railing of the stairwell for fear it would collapse.
He crept up on the next door as though expecting it to bite him, and opened it with almost ridiculous care. When neither footwear nor affront seemed forthcoming, he pushed it all the way open and stood up straight. "Good. Right. Come along, then."
The room was plain well and truly beyond the point of sparsity, with only a narrow cot, single blanket and a chair that looked about as sturdy as everything else in the building. It was surprisingly pleasant for this sort of establishment. The window was clean enough to let sunlight in, and getting cleaner by the minute as Sparrow rubbed at the lower left pane with the cuff of his coat.
"Bring your spyglass, Commodore?" he asked, grinning over his shoulder.
And as I stepped up to that shoulder, I had to admit that the bloody pirate certainly had his moments of brilliance. Out the grubby window we had a perfect view over the low roof of the building opposite, leaving the entire bay spread out before us. "Lucky for you I did," I said, reaching into the inner pocket of the boring coat.
Sparrow relinquished the window, throwing himself with unwise force into the chair. "A man would lose no money wagering on your being responsibly prepared," he said.
"One of these days I'll surprise you," I said idly, concentrating on arranging glass, ship and eye in the right relationship. I ignored the disbelieving snort from behind me as the circle of my vision filled with wooden hull. She was a well-constructed ship - definitely not Spanish - though obviously built for cargo rather than speed.
The chair creaked, and then Sparrow was looking over my shoulder. "Bloody wallowing cog," he said dismissively. "No offence, mate."
I shrugged him off. "None taken. She's not my ship." I looked over the empty deck - there was a man on board, just a lone guard, looking bored and sleepy. "You sank my ship."
"Now that wasn't me."
I hadn't really meant to say that at all, let alone sound so petulant, but Sparrow was so immediately contrite that I lowered the glass and turned from the window to regard him steadily.
He had both hands crossed over his chest, and earnest solicitude on his face. "It wasn't! I'd never do that to someone."
"And yet you made off with her," I reminded him.
The crossed hands flew up in a desperate flap. "I was going to bring her back!"
It was too much - I lost my composure and laughed outright. "How, precisely, did you plan to do that?"
He started at me, wide-eyed. "Somehow."
I grinned, and collapsed the spyglass. "It's the Reward. We're done here."
Showing amazing restraint, Sparrow lasted until we were down the stairs and almost out the door before he stopped, tugged at my elbow and said, "What's the rush? Still plenty of time. Let's have a little drink, shall we?"
I managed a feasible performance of surprise before grudgingly giving way. "Well, alright, I suppose. But just one. If we leave this afternoon we can be halfway home by sunset."
A gross exaggeration, but he didn't comment on it.
We took a table by the simple expedient of tipping its snoring occupant onto the floor. He didn't object, just kept snoring. The maid brought us two flagons and we made ourselves reasonably comfortable.
After one mouthful, however, I set down my flagon and said, "Right, let's get started."
Sparrow squinted suspiciously over the rim of his mug. "What?"
"I know you probably want to mellow me before you go to work on this, possibly you even have some unlikely notion of getting me slightly drunk, but while this beer isn't bad enough to spit out immediately, it's certainly not worth suffering through a second or third mug while you get to the point. So..." I lifted my mediocre beer and waved a 'carry on' hand.
He matched it with a 'you spoil all my fun' glare, and nudged his own mug aside to spread spider-leg fingers on the table. "Alright then. We aren't really just going to scurry off home now, are we?"
"We've completed our assignment," I countered.
"Well, yes," Sparrow allowed, shooing that pesky detail away into a corner. "But honestly, that's a bit ridiculous, don't you think? Just go and have a gander at what the neighbours are up to. Are we gossips, or men of action?" He brought down an enthusiastic fist on the table, slopping his beer.
I sipped my own, and raised an eyebrow.
He changed tack, and turned wheedling. "C'mon. You know if we go back with this news, he'll go hmm, hmm..." He did an amusingly accurate impersonation of a thoughtful Swann and I almost choked on my beer. "And then he'll send us right back here to get her, by which time she'll be long gone anyway. So we'll be saving everyone time in the long run if we just pick her up now, sort of anticipatory-like."
I peered into my flagon. "I'm almost finished," I told him.
Those spider-fingers braced on the edge of the table, and he fixed me with the most direct look I'd ever seen on him. "You owe me."
I choked again. "I what?"
"You owe me," he repeated, getting a sparkle, a quirk at the corner of his mouth. "You owe me for the change to play your little sailing game, getting your hands on your ship, an actual chance to sail, haven't done that in a while, have you, Commodore?"
I met his gaze as long as I could, but I was remembering the joyous leap of the timbers beneath me, the chorus of wind and canvas. When I dropped my eyes to the lees of beer in my mug, I knew Sparrow's smirk had become a grin.
"Besides," he added, voice closing as he leaned across the table, "you want this too." He waited until I looked up before he said, quiet and serious, "We are men of action, Norrington. And you can bluster about serving others, but it will rankle you no less than I to walk out of here and leave that ship in Spanish hands." He leaned back, distance creeping between us again. "Now, look me in the eye and tell me we're leaving."
Well, since he asked... I met his gaze and said, "We're leaving."
He watched me, and I watched him, and then he grinned. "Barmaid! Another round!"
"If we're doing this," I said, leaning forward on the table, "then we do it properly. For God's sake, no getting caught."
"I never get caught," Sparrow declared grandly. I raised an eyebrow, and he added: "You cheated."
I snorted. "How?"
"Threw your fiancee off a cliff."
There was nowhere to even start with that - I just laughed. The barmaid, slopping down two tankards of beer, gave us each a smirk and slid away.
"Come on," Sparrow said. "No worries. I could do this one-handed and drunk in a typhoon. She's all alone out there, begging to be taken away. There's not another ship in port could hope to catch her, lumbering hulk though she might be."
"The fort," I pointed out. "The guns'd range at least out to the headland, which puts a good few hundred feet of cannonball territory between you and getting away with it."
"Alright," Sparrow allowed, "it would be useful if we could get the fort to look the other way for a minute or five." He squinted at me suspiciously, and then pointed an accusing finger. "You've got an idea."
"I do," I admitted, pulling my purse from my waistcoat and feeling its heft. I eyed the nearest waitress consideringly. "I don't think there'll be any trouble distracting the fort."
Sparrow beamed. "Then we do this!" He held his tankard aloft to toast.
I held up a cautionary finger rather than my own tankard. "We go back to the ships, gather a suitable skeleton crew to help you make off with the Reward, wait until nightfall, and then we do this."
"Deal," Sparrow agreed, and jiggled his mug.
This time I lifted mine to knock against his. "Deal," I echoed, and we drank.
I thought Gillette's eyes were going to fall out of his head. "You're-"
"Mad, yes, I know," I said, cutting him short. "Someone's going to have to take nominal command of the Pearl while Sparrow's having his little adventure. I say nominal, because technically whoever he leaves behind will have command, but while we might be forced to embrace a measure of trust for the captain, I draw the line at blithely trusting the whole piratical crew."
"Better be me, sir," Groves spoke up, both of us ignoring the interesting colour Gillette was turning.
In the circumstances, I had to agree with him.
We gathered on shore as the sun skulked behind the peak of the mountain - Sparrow, Gibbs and two other of his crew, me and four of the most capable sailors I could find aboard the Dauntless, to form the other half of his skeleton crew.
"Amazed you're relinquishing them into my command," Sparrow muttered at my shoulder, as we milled around on the beach, getting ready. "Not worried I'll turn them pirate?"
I snorted. "They're sailors of his Majesty's navy. They're practically pirates already."
I left Sparrow, and went to stand with Groves, who was getting ready to return to the Pearl. He looked up at me with something like the familiar cheeky grin that had got all of us in trouble more than once. "Last useless pieces of advice?" he asked. Or offered.
"Be careful with her," I told him, taking the opportunity to check my pistol.
To his credit, he didn't even try to pretend he didn't know what I was talking about. Just looked down and scuffed his shoes in the sand. "Sir, what if you don't return?"
I lifted an eyebrow at the change of subject. "In that case, return to Port Royal and hope that Sparrow's inevitably ridiculous escape will include my own liberty."
"No sir." He shook his head, and cast a dark glance over to where Sparrow was introducing himself extravagantly to the sailors. "What if they come back without you?"
It was a chill, even though I'd always known it was a possibility. That there was, somewhere in here, a more sinister plan than just annoying me into madness. Always a possibility.
However, this was hardly the - what did he call it? - the opportune moment.
"We have his ship," I pointed out. "If it comes to it, sink it."
Further up the beach, so far away he couldn't possibly have heard me, Jack's head came up, his eyes locked on mine.
I looked back to Groves. "But it won't come to that."
It didn't come to that. Everything went off without a hitch. Despite Sparrow being involved.
"This is just wrong," he complained as we stood at the railing of the Reward. "You hear me?"
"I hear you," I muttered, running my spyglass along the battlements of the fort. One man, two, three. "Keep in the shadows, man."
Sparrow kept in the shadows, and kept complaining. "Too damn easy," he grumbled. "Too planned." He spat the word out like it was something he'd scraped off his shoe.
We'd rowed out to the ship as easily as if we were going fishing, and as loudly as if the urge had come upon us when we were filthy drunk. With the result that the lone guard on board the Reward had been involved in a frank exchange of views with us when the two pirates came out of the water on the other side of the ship, scaled the side, and knocked him out with the butt of his own rifle.
Now they were amusing themselves, and the sailors I'd brought from the Dauntless, by coming up with increasingly amusing situations to strand our prisoner in, while the lot of them were hiding out of sight of the fort in the lee of the poop deck.
"Serves me right for getting involved with the bloody Navy," Sparrow said.
"It does." The men were still at their posts on the forts. Had my distraction gone astray? Or did they have more discipline than I'd bargained for? Suddenly my plan seemed about as clever as one of Sparrow's; which was to say, utterly laughable.
"This," the devil himself declared, "is about as much fun as not doing it at all. I'm sorry you talked me into it."
And, of course, as soon as I'd likened my methods to Sparrow's, it worked. First one fort sentry, then the other two together, left their posts. A further sweep of the battlements showed them empty.
"We're clear," I stated, lowering the spyglass and collapsing it again.
Sparrow was looking at me steadily, the light from the single lantern sparking once, deep in his eyes. He was smirking. "You were nervous," he accused.
There didn't seem to be any possible dignified answer to that, so I turned to the others. "Look lively. And I'll be taking the Spaniard with me, Mr Gibbs."
"Right you are, sir," the man said, and started directing the other two pirates in loading the still-unconscious man into the rowboat.
When I turned back to him, Sparrow was still smirking. Hardly surprising. The man only seemed to stop when a noose was waved in his face. And then not for long. "Well? You have a ship to commandeer, Captain."
The smirk broadened into a gold-glinted grin. "I do," he agreed. "So get off her and let me get on with it."
I was halfway down the ladder to the rowboat when his head appeared over the side. "Oi. Anything happens to my Pearl it'll be dire, savvy?"
I paused and looked back up. I could barely make him out, just a shadow amidst shadows. "Oh? And what'll you do to me?"
"Burst into tears all over you, for starters," he shot back.
"A terrifying thought," I admitted, and went back to climbing. "I'll see you at the rendezvous in three days, Sparrow."
"Aye, you will at that." His voice floated down to me.
I practised my Spanish on the guard as I rowed back to shore. He was still unconscious, which was probably just as well - it'd been a while since I used the language, and I was more than a little rusty. Not that I'd ever been entirely fluent to start with. My tutor had always been prone to throw his hands up and declare my accent an abomination. Melodramatic Spaniards.
Maybe there was Spanish blood in Sparrow's background. That would explain a few things.
As you'd expect, the pirate could move fast. Before I was halfway to shore, the Reward was a shadow slipping from the harbour. By the time I was tying the little boat to the mooring we'd liberated it from, she was gone as if she'd never been.
"Well, look at it this way," I told the guard. "If you'd really wanted to keep her, you would have been guarding her more thoroughly, wouldn't you?"
I'd obviously been spending too much time with Sparrow.
I left the Spaniard trussed, gagged and out cold in the bottom of the boat. It was a balmy night, and the coracle was steady enough that I doubted he'd be able to wriggle enough to tip himself out. He probably wouldn't be found until morning, but the timing of that mattered little. The Reward was gone, and Sparrow with it, and after one small matter more, I'd be gone as well.
I didn't have to loiter long outside the fort before the sally port opened and two giggling girls spilled out. One was lacing up her bodice as the other blew kisses back to the gateman.
I waited until the sally port closed again before stepping out of the shadows.
The barmaids from the Bell and Whistle stopped as soon as the lead one saw me, the one who'd been blowing kisses almost running into her sister. "You," she said, sounding surprised. "Didn't think to be seeing you again."
I bounced my purse on my palm. "I said same again after."
"But you could have skipped without paying," she pointed out.
"And you might have pocketed the first payment without any intention of fulfilling your obligation," I countered.
Her chin came up. "And you're obviously up to no good, so we could make more money by turning you in right now!"
"Shut up, Bella," the other sister snapped. She was shorter, and younger, I hazarded, but there was a sharp intelligence in her face that reminded me of Sparrow's second mate. I tossed her the purse, and she caught it deftly, hefting it once to get a feel for the weight. "You've been right generous," she said guardedly. "But we won't be lashed for you. If they ask, we'll tell everything."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," I assured her. "Oh." On the point of leaving, I turned back. "Don't forget to mention my friend. The fellow I was with earlier."
The older sister frowned. "Ridiculous hair, funny walk, quite handsome?"
"That's the one."
Because if I knew Sparrow, the only thing better than getting away with it, was everyone knowing about it. Maybe that would help ease his sulk.
The rendezvous point was a certain bay in the coast of the mainland, well know to both sides of the law as a favourite haunt for smugglers. (No doubt because it was the only stretch of truly solid shore for miles in either direction.)
There weren't any there when we arrived. Not a single pirate in sight. Which, just to be contrary, annoyed Gillette to incoherence, a point he admittedly hadn't strayed far from for the entire journey. Perhaps it was time to give him his own command, if only to get him out of my hair. Wig. Which I was, of course, back to wearing, and it was amazing how in the space of a single day you could forget how much the damn thing could itch.
I scratched at the back of my neck, watching Gillette pace the quarterdeck like an affronted cat. "When was the last time you had any extended shore leave?" I asked, and he gave me a look as though I'd just stepped on his tail. "For God's sake, man, be at ease. He'll be here. Sparrow is not going to leave his ship in my hands."
He glanced over to the Pearl, moored between the Dauntless and the shore (I wasn't a complete idiot, after all). "But sir--"
"No. No but-sirs. There's no need to be worried--"
Anything else I might have said was cut off by the look-out's cry of "Sail ho!"
I was immediately at the rail, spyglass out and scanning the starboard quarter. A sail. Colours. They were English - I'd wager that amused Sparrow no end.
It was him. The Reward.
I lowered the glass to see Gillette smirking at me. "No need to worry, sir?"
"Shut up, Gillette."
Three ships moored in the bay, their crews spilt forth on the beach. It seemed a suitable time to break out the grog rations, a few bonfires were built on the sand, and the whole thing devolved into something of a celebration. As the sun sank over the land behind us, the festivities showed no signs of slowing.
I spoke to the sailors who'd been with Sparrow, making sure they weren't significantly closer to pirate than they had been previously.
I briefly joined Gillette and Gibbs, who seemed to have found common ground in not very fond reminiscences of a captain they'd both served under. My presence obviously still made Gibbs nervous, however, so I moved on.
I didn't even try to bother Groves and Anamaria.
Eventually I wandered up the beach, out of the immediate circle of firelight. Near the edge of the forest there was a chunk of driftwood so significant it had resisted all attempts to add it to the pyres. Perhaps it was a fallen tree. I sat on it and took off my shoes to empty out the significant portion of the coastline I'd accumulated.
"Skulking?" was the first thing he said, a disembodied word out of the darkness that made me almost drop the shoe. I looked up, and picked out the mass of reflective surfaces that was Jack Sparrow, approaching me from further along the beach.
I put my shoe back on. "I prefer 'hiding'."
"You would." Somewhere between a decision and loss of balance, Sparrow deposited himself in the sand a few feet away from me. He waved a hand, holding something. A bottle, I'd imagine. "Never be involved with something so sinister, would you? Bet you're a right-handed man an' all."
Obviously not his first bottle, either.
"I can have my ship back now, can't I?" He sounded almost plaintive. "One of your boys can captain the Reward home."
I stared into the darkness, hoping it would hide my smile.
"Commodore," he said, something of a scolding schoolmaster in his tone.
I laughed. "Of course. How cruel do you think I am?"
He didn't answer that - probably just as well. Just beamed a cluster of gold-glints in the night, and passed me the bottle. "Drink up!"
"Rum?" I asked with distaste, but still reached for it.
"Brandy," Sparrow corrected. "We're all out of the good stuff."
I took a careful swig from the bottle. "You're a heathen. This is the good stuff."
"I'm accustomed." He accepted the bottle back. "But I'll put up with this in lieu."
We sat, and the sailors caroused (as much as they could when not really ashore and still nominally under their commanding officers eyes - but they managed, being the well-practised carousers that they were). When Sparrow passed me the bottle, I swigged politely. He stretched his legs out, leaning back on his elbows, and started humming something that seemed familiar, though I couldn't think how.
I held up the bottle to the firelight, measuring the remains, and a burning question popped into my mind.
"Jack, how did you get that letter of marque?"
"Oh, that old thing. Had it forever. Scraped the date off and wrote it in new, didn't I?"
Well, that set the world to rights again.
With a slithering jingle, he sat up straight. "Eh, don't tell Swann."
I grinned into the brandy.
"Norrington," he growled.
"I won't," I assured him, and passed the bottle.
He hesitated a long moment, looking up at me - and the fire was behind him, his face in darkness, mine in light - before he took the bottle. "Well, good."
I grinned. "And now," I said, "you owe me."
- The Treasure Fleet actually sailed for the last time in 1788, and most of the problems with it were caused by two sinkings, in 1715 and 1733. But my version's much more romantic and useful to my story.
- Santa Catalina is related to modern-day San Andres (it's a tiny island in the same group, near Providencia). Henry Morgan used the island of Santa Catalina (St Catherine) as a base. What's most untrue about its depiction here is how little Norrington knows about it - ownership of the islands was contested by the Spanish and the English for about two hundred years, up until the late 18th century, so he'd probably have more detailed maps at least.
Caribbean Cartography by dee
To Mary, for the seed.