quarter ~ to sail closer to the wind
close quarters ~ to be in a small space, esp. enclosed with others
The firelight was thick, like deep seawater, rocking me lazily. Soothingly. It was peace. And yet, a frisson. A thrill. A lingering, and a voice said, he said...
The dream exploded in a cloud of light and I sat up in bed, shielding my eyes from the sudden onslaught of sunlight.
"Pardon, sir," Godfrey said, standing by the curtain cord. "But you did say..."
"I did," I agreed, trying to trap the last strands of my dream, to name a face or even a form, or... something. What? It was gone, like a wave on the sand, leaving me with only an inexplicable warmth and tightness twisting up my insides.
I pushed back the covers and climbed out of bed, to avoid the inevitable half-hour of lethargy that would be induced once I remembered that I was landbound. After this long, I knew myself; that apathy could linger even a week after returning from a sea voyage.
Ridiculous, though, that as Commodore of the Fleet I seemed to spend less time on the decks of that fleet than ever before.
"Luncheon with the captains," Godfrey reminded as he dressed me. "Afternoon meeting with the Quartermaster. And dinner at the Governor's mansion."
Which still left plenty of dreary time locked inside four walls with the listing piles of paperwork that had accrued in my short absence.
Who'd be an officer of His Majesty's Navy?
"You look thoroughly fed up," Swann greeted me.
That was worth a smile at least, so I gave him one as I accepted a glass of sherry. "There's some truth in appearance, then."
It was turning into a beautiful evening, the heat chased away by the fresh breeze off the water, all of the wide windows of the house cast open to the late afternoon. On an evening like this, in good company, with good sherry in my glass, I could even admit there were some charms to life on dry land.
"Cheer up," Swann ordered blithely, as we took seats, he by the cold hearth, me beside the window. "It will get better."
Not unless I demoted myself back down to midshipman. Now there was an idea. "Yes, I imagine so."
"For starters," he continued, settling back in his chair, "Sparrow won't be cluttering up the place for much longer."
I looked up from my glass. "Oh?"
"Came to lunch, requested permission to sail on the morning tide, in pursuit of ventures beneficial to both himself and His Majesty - his very words."
That was it? He came crashing into our lives again like a drunken seagull, and then a month later was quietly and politely leaving by the back door? "No doubt the reprieve won't last long."
"Probably not," Swann agreed. "And he'll most like be getting up to all sorts of mischief out there in our name. But he did leave me with a most interesting and intricate report of the Santa Catalina voyage. Most extraordinary. Talking about reimbursement for money spent in the pursuit of his Majesty's aims, and dancing girls."
I snorted. Typical Sparrow. "I hope he wasn't claiming payment for them."
"What, the dancing girls? No." Swann frowned. "Why?"
"Because he didn't pay them; I did."
He was still staring at me, somewhat dumbfounded, when Elizabeth marched in, dragging young Turner behind her like a recalcitrant puppy. "Father, Will declares that he won't stay for dinner, though I've told him we already have a guest - hello, James - and he would in fact be making up the numbers, isn't that so?"
The puppy looked embarrassed, but made the best front he could, after that introduction. "Good evening, Commodore."
"Mister Turner," I responded, rising from my seat to shake his hand. "I trust you're well."
"Tolerably," he answered, the solemnity of the word reduced somewhat by his smile.
My gaze slipped to Elizabeth, and I kept up my own smile through polite habit alone. A young man in love - yes, I imagined he was very happy indeed. Bursting with it. I don't know that I'd ever be able to be that openly, gloriously happy, even had our positions been reversed. "I do hope you'll join us for dinner," I said, pulling my eyes back to Will. "Since I'm certainly not looking forward to being glared at all evening if Elizabeth doesn't get her way."
Turner managed to declare that, in that case, of course he'd stay, as the girl in question smiled at me most charmingly as she stepped up to take his arm.
She was beautiful. More than ever. Radiant as though she took all the sun-soaked glory of the Caribbean and made it her own. And she'd been so since I'd left her on the parapet with Turner, my quarry and my bride both lost. Not a bad morning's work.
I'd be lying if I said it didn't still ache. But it was bearable, and the world moved on. Sparrow and I drank - in a Spanish tavern, on a beach - and I could admit that though Elizabeth and I could have been happy, that future was well and truly lost. Turner was a good man, or at least, he would be one day. At least he'd stopped attempting to grow a beard; he hadn't been very good at that at all.
"How was Santa Catalina, then?" Elizabeth asked, as we sat down to dinner.
"Spanish," I told her. "Dissolute."
"Sounds thrilling," she smirked back, as I'd known she would.
"Unutterably dull," I countered, as she must have known I would.
"What, even with Jack there?" Turner interjected. "Unheard of."
I smiled thinly, looking down to my soup. I had to acknowledge his point. "Sparrow was -" watching with smirking disbelief giving way to laughter as I dangled the purse in front of the barmaid, told her what I needed her and her sister to do; bawling in bastardised, drunken Spanish at the guard as he waved a bottle; teaching every sailor not sprawled snoring on the beach the words to Elizabeth's ridiculous pirate song. "Sparrow was bearable."
From the nigh-on hysterical responses around the table, you'd think I'd advocated declaring the man an archbishop.
"Bearable!" Elizabeth repeated. "High praise indeed. No short drop, then?"
I could think of a long list of things I wanted to push Sparrow off. "Perhaps no sudden stop. Besides, I have to get used to not hanging him while he's commissioned." With a letter of marque that was, I knew, a forgery. Or tampered with. I wasn't sure of the legal name for what Sparrow had done. I'm a sailor, not a lawyer.
"Yes, well." Swann looked like he'd encountered something unpleasant in his soup. "At least we have the Reward back. Though that was hardly the aim of the exercise, it is most appreciated."
I looked down again, hopefully appearing contrite.
"Still, no harm done," Swann noted. "Unlikely we can be blamed for this and even if we could, there's the question of how the ship came to be there to be stolen back."
Elizabeth smiled, sweet and winsome. "So James has got away with an act of piracy."
I met her gaze steadily, which of course quelled her not even slightly. "It would seem that way, wouldn't it?"
We returned to the drawing room for brandy and coffee, Swann and I staying by the window while the young lovers bent their heads together by the still-cold fireplace.
Swann watched them for a moment with a stern, worried eye. "The sooner they marry, the better," he grumbled, and then started. "Oh, James, I'm sorry -"
I gestured with my brandy glass. "Please, don't trouble yourself over it." I braced myself, and asked, "Has a date been set, then?"
He rolled his eyes most expressively. "She has, at least, admitted that there are certain preparations essential to her station and she cannot merely conceive of a fancy to be married one week and have it done." A considerable victory, with Elizabeth. I smiled into the last of my brandy, and he added, "We have settled on two months hence, which is hardly enough time, but will have to do."
I nodded, and glanced out the window. Dusk had settled over the port, descending with tropical swiftness. In the brief period of dark blue light that lingered on the brink, lanterns were being lit on the manned vessels in the harbour - the Dauntless, the Reward, the Black Pearl. That last was sprouting pinpricks of light like a cluster of fireflies, the deck rippling with movement. Readying for tomorrow's departure, no doubt.
"Coffee?" Swann offered, and I blinked as I turned back to the lit room. The pair by the fire giggled. "Tell me," Swann said, taking a more serious tone, "how did Santa Catalina look?"
"Look?" I repeated, accepting the coffee dish. But even as I said it, I knew what would have to come next.
"It used to be an English possession, you know."
I sighed. "Yes, I know. And before that it was Spanish again, and before that ours." I'd checked that when we returned to Port Royal. I attempted to forestall the rest by adding, "It's a miserable clump of rock not worth the bother."
"Good position," Swann countered, unperturbed. "Better ours than theirs."
I grunted non-committally.
"That's neither here nor there, in any case. What's the situation?"
"After having a ship removed from under their noses, they'll be much more vigilant," I hedged.
Swann gave me a sharp glance, and I looked down. Could hear Sparrow's voice at the edge of my mind, even as I ran the defences of Santa Catalina through my mind, perfectly remembered from an unconsciously meticulous consideration.
"Single fort," I recited dully. "Good position, coverage of the whole bay, but only a dozen guns at the most in firing positions. No coverage of the landward side. A half-complement of men, of indifferent morale and dedication."
Swann nodded. "Excellent. I'll add that to my report."
"Very good, sir."
Via the docks was not the quickest route back to my lodgings, but I went that way anyway.
The Pearl was still lit up like some sort of summer garden party. From the quay it was unclear how much of the movement on deck was work and how much carousing. Things didn't really become any clearer as I walked down the dock toward the ship. The rum bottle was doing the rounds, the man coiling a rope pausing in his task to take a swig as it came past.
I didn't mark anyone taking note of me, but by the time I stood alongside the ship, Sparrow's head appeared over the rail.
"Done with society for the night?" he grinned. "Come up and join the party, Commodore."
"I wouldn't want to disturb your crew," I demurred.
"I'll come down then," he declared, and trailed along the rail until he could sashay down the gangway. "They're disturbed enough as it is," he confided, and leapt the last distance from plank to dock, boots thudding hollowly on the wood in front of me. "And what can I do for you?"
A very good question. I was unaccustomed to finding myself in positions where my purpose was unclear, especially to myself. "Swann told me of your imminent departure."
"Yes, well." He grimaced with exaggerated embarrassment. "A pirate cannot live on good will alone." He shifted, shadow to light to shadow, and his eyes glimmered. "And the sea calls."
And the sea called. It lapped against the hull beside us, whispered at distant shores.
I cleared my throat. "I'm sure you see that I'm bound to a certain professional interest in your intentions."
Sparrow seemed irritatingly uninterested in my sudden need to explain myself. "Shall I take a cage of carrier pigeons and send you daily updates?"
"Don't be ridiculous," I ordered, which curtailed his behaviour quite extensively.
"I don't know where we'll go or what we'll do," he said, more seriously than I could credit, but I couldn't see his face in the dim, shifting light. "I thought maybe east. The Antilles. Perhaps castigate the French a little."
I nodded to him. "Thank you."
He inclined his head in return, and then there came the glint of his grin. "Apart from that, you'll just have to trust me, mate."
"Unlikely," I replied, but I was smiling in the darkness.
"Good morning, sir."
I turned my head away from the sudden sunlight, into the pillow. No good; I was very awake, and the dream was gone. Utterly gone. Just my fingers clenched in the bedsheets, my palm sweaty, and Godfrey waiting for me to rise. Nothing for it.
Groves was in my office when I arrived.
"At ease, man." I took my time, set my hat on the desk, checked the harbour and aspect from the window. Something of a ritual. The harbour wasn't anywhere near empty. Just one conspicuous absence. "Are you certain you want to discuss this matter?"
I looked back at him as Groves started laughing, shaking his head. "Tell me James, do you just guess or are you actually brilliant?"
"It's amazing how often the one is mistaken for the other." I turned my back on the sea view and came back to the desk. I didn't sit down; there wasn't another chair for Groves. "Miss Anamaria sailed with her captain?"
"That's what sailors do," Groves said with a tight smile. "It was never likely to be something... permanent. I'm not afraid of facing the consequences." He looked down, fidgeting with a corner of his hat. "Are there going to be consequences?"
I did sit then, tired despite the fact that the day had just begun. "On the grand scheme of the sort of things that have been transpiring in the last six months, Lieutenant, I hardly think the admittedly somewhat unorthodox and highly questionable relations between a Naval officer and a former pirate will excite undue attention." I smoothed thumb and finger up the bridge of my nose, looked up to a loyal officer and a good friend. "I was going to recommend you to your own captaincy, but now..."
Groves, unimaginable in many ways, somehow the balance to Gillette and myself, merely shrugged. He was smiling as he settled his hat back on his wigged head.
I was asking the question before I could think better of it. "She was worth that?"
His smile broadened. "It's a little late now to quibble, don't you think?" He touched his hat as he nodded. "Good morning, sir. Thank you for your time."
The first message from Sparrow arrived a week after he sailed, carried in on a merchant sloop that had been hailed by the Pearl for news three days north-east of San Juan.
"Don't know any more, I'm afraid, Commodore," the jovial captain told me. "Right odd chap he was, though."
"That's Sparrow," I agreed, turning over the message he'd given me. It was sealed with the same swooping bird I remembered from the pirate's forearm tattoo, pressed into good-quality dark blue wax.
Sparrow's penmanship was quite as florid as you'd expect, though very even for all its flourishes. The epistle read: "Weather lovely, wish you were here. All my love, Jack."
Fortunately the merchant captain had already gone on his way, and there was no one else in the office to witness me laughing out loud at three lines from a pirate.
This time I was shaken awake, but candlelight was more gentle, closer to firelight, and that seemed to matter, because I could remember laughter, wild and exuberant, and a lower, darker thrill.
I recognised that laughter, and it was hard to think, it was late and dark and why was I awake?
Two figures by my bedside. Godfrey with a candle and a nightshirt; how did the man sleep in that in this heat? Gillette in full uniform. A duet of apologetic looks. "What?" I demanded, scrubbing a hand over my face.
"We've just apprehended a party of Spaniards," Gillette reported. "I think they were trying to steal the Reward back."
I swore at that, but I think a man's allowed certain liberties when he's been woken up in the middle of the night to a potential crisis and Jack Sparrow's laughing in his dreams.
There was an unfamiliar sloop in my harbour, a dozen Spaniards in my cells and their captain detained in my office at my pleasure.
I looked the ship over first. Unlike men, seasoned timbers, canvas and rope can't lie.
She was a trim little thing, nice standard lines, a beautiful little craft. Lovely ships, sloops. You can quarter them so close and still keep a line. They can leave everything else in dead water, even those new corvettes. An easy task for five men, four if everything is in perfect order, as was the case on this ship. She'd been made fast by my men when they took her in, but even where they'd had no occasion to dabble, she was scrupulously neat, every line tied and coiled.
Gillette was waiting on the wharf. "The captain," I said, as he fell in beside me. "What has he said?"
"Not much of anything," Gillette replied, "and all of that in Spanish." His grimace was eloquent; much more so than his ability in that language. "But he certainly isn't claiming any sort of rights as a Spanish officer. Even I can make that much out."
My officers know me and my suspicions well. "If that ship belongs to buccaneers then I'm one too," I stated.
"Indeed, sir," Gillette agreed, as we reached the fort.
I may have been a bit harsh on the Spanish captain. But it was the middle of the night - or rather false dawn by the time we settled to questioning him - and the bloody man was making my life more complicated than anybody else since Sparrow. Moreover, Groves seemed to be the only man in the whole company not awake, and he was usually the pleasant one in our usual three-part interrogation routine. Tough luck for the Spaniard.
Regardless, he stuck to his story. He knew nothing about anything official. They were privateers. They'd had nothing on their mind but plunder. I didn't lose my temper. I think that was quit an achievement, under the circumstances.
By the time I made my way up the hill to see Governor Swann, the sun was climbing the sky and it felt at least three hours later than it no doubt was. Swann was at breakfast, unsurprisingly alone; I'm sure Elizabeth wouldn't be seen for at least another hour.
Swann greeted me with customary courtesy. "For heaven's sake, man, sit down. Eat something." God bless Swann and his hospitality. I didn't quite fall into the chair, and accepted a cup of tea. "What's happened now?"
"I have a baker's dozen of Spanish sailors in my cells."
"Congratulations?" Swann offered, clearly perplexed.
"You might want to hold off on the good wishes," I advised. "I'm about to make them your problem. I don't know what else to do with them."
Swann put his teacup down.
"They say they're privateers, but their discipline is impressive, and their ship looks like it's been arranged by men with their superior officer breathing down their necks. Not to mention the sheer ridiculousness of a party of privateers of that size attempting to steal an empty merchant ship from a harbour like this one." I rubbed at one eye.
"You're telling me you're holding a Spanish naval vessel and its crew."
"Not according to what they're telling me," I pointed out, helping myself to bacon he obviously wasn't going to be wanting any more of.
"What were their intentions?"
"The Reward, we assume. That seemed to be the likely target. Whether to steal it back or burn it to the waterline, I don't know."
"You're going to cause a war with that ship," Swann predicted.
I didn't point out that I wasn't the one who wanted to invade Santa Catalina. It didn't matter; the Spanish obviously thought we'd think that way in any case. "Don't tell Sparrow," I said instead. "He'll gloat."
Swann aligned his cutlery gloomily on his plate. "Leave it with me. And get some sleep."
It was a nice idea.
The days dripped past in clusters of small problems, weighed down with paper. There was no further word from Sparrow, and I did my best not to think about the cells full of Spanish sailors.
The next big problem went to Swann first. Of course, that was only on its way to plague me; Swann invited me to dinner and introduced me to it, which was quite appallingly sneaky of him.
"Ah, excellent. Mrs George, it's my honour to present to you Commodore Norrington, our most able commander here in Port Royal."
Mrs George was small, prim, of respectable age and utterly respectable dress. She had the air of a capable and wealthy widow, which was, in fact, precisely what she turned out to be.
"Mr George," Swann explained, "was the owner and captain of the Reward before, er, the original business took place."
"Oh." I inclined my head to the lady. "I am most sorry, Mrs George."
She dismissed my condolences with a wave of her lace-gloved hand. "I had been reconciled to my loss, Commodore."
"Well, with the recovery of the ship, your loss is significantly reduced, though of course nothing can ever provide recompense for the death of a spouse--"
"I should say it can't," she interrupted me. "He certainly wasn't insured, but the boat was. And now the company's demanding its money back, which I need not tell you is most inconvenient. I am here, Commodore Norrington, to see if something cannot be done about the matter." She eyed me sharply.
Did she want me to lose the ship again? Set fire to it myself, perhaps?
Under the circumstances, there didn't seem to be much for it but to promise to bend my every effort to the purpose.
Because my life is such a blessed, free, untroubled existence, Elizabeth accompanied me outside as I took my leave that evening.
"You'll catch cold," I warned her.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "Now, James, there's something very particular and serious I want to ask you."
The entire time I was courting her she called me by my Christian name once. Now she's three months away from marrying another fellow, and she can't break the habit. She was looking at me, arch and expectant, so I did my best to look as though I was paying particular and serious attention to her.
Elizabeth took a deep and careful breath; not a good sign, I was sure. "I know I have no right to ask this of you, but it would mean a great deal to me, and to Will, if you would agree to stand with him at our wedding."
No one could take the wind out of the sails of a good bit of righteous indignation like Elizabeth, by admitting all the problems with it right at the beginning. I agreed, of course. Because she had no right, but she looked so earnest, so hopeful. It would mean a great deal to her, to both of them, and her face lit up with joy when I said yes, and she embraced me with absolutely no decorum whatsoever.
"Elizabeth," I chided, which had no effect, of course.
"Thank you!" she declared, grinning like an imp. "Good night!" And she lifted her skirts and ran back up the stairs into the house.
It bothered me. Of course it bothered me. I would be standing beside the man marrying the girl I'd wanted to marry.
But that didn't bother me as much as the fact that it didn't bother me as much as it should. I'd never been the romantic sort, but she had been different. A girl worth falling in love with. And I had. I shouldn't be able to face this turns of events with such equanimity.
At the end of such an evening, there was nothing else to be done. I went home, and went straight to sleep.
It was the beach, that nameless beach on the mainland where we'd caroused, navy man and pirate. Except not, for the fire was there, and we were there - Sparrow and I - but no other.
Sparrow was laughing. With me, laughing with me, that spirit filling my lungs.
"You owe me," I reminded him. And he did, for I hadn't told Swann that his letter of marque was falsified. Why hadn't I?
Then Sparrow was over me, blocking the firelight and laughing his other laugh that I could feel from my bare feet to my bare head and he said, he said...
He said, "How can I repay you, James?", and his voice was like the thunder across the horizon.
I remembered every minute of it when I woke the following morning. And I truly wished I didn't.
The knock at my office door revealed itself to be both Gillette and Groves, neither looking eager to step inside once they'd opened the door.
"What?" I barked, tossing aside the armoury report I hadn't really been reading. "For God's sake, you two, come in or go away." They came in, Groves then Gillette, closing the door behind them and taking up their places before my desk, tricorns in hand. "What's so bad that it requires both of you to inform me?"
They exchanged a glance, and seemed to nominate a spokesman. "There's a ship in from St Kitts, sir," Groves said.
I raised my eyebrows. "Full to the brim of Spanish sailors claiming to be pirates? Or perhaps more widows bent on cheating insurance companies?"
Neither of them smiled. "Uh, no, sir," Groves answered.
After a moment of silence, Gillette said, "It's word of Sparrow, sir. Just Caribbean gossip, heard from a ship who heard it from a ship, but..."
I'd never known Gillette uncertain about anything. "What's he done?" I asked, low and steady.
"Sacked Antigua?" Swann repeated, aghast. "But that's an English colony!"
I said nothing, merely stared at the cold fireplace, my arms locked, hands braced against the mantelpiece.
At the window, Swann swore. He didn't say anything I hadn't already, so I didn't feel I could berate him for it. "But there's nothing in the letters I've received about this," he objected.
I turned to face him; he was back at his desk, looking over the letters that had come to him on the same ship that had brought this news. "Do the governors of Barbados and St Kitts tell you about every pirate attack that has occurred in their area?"
"Of course not, but this sort of act at the hands of one of our commissioned privateers warrants at least a line!" he countered, reasonably. "I can't understand why they haven't said anything."
"Because--" Because Sparrow wasn't a commissioned privateer. Just a pirate with a talent for forgery. But what good would telling Swann do? No, the guilt for this rested upon me. I should have told him sooner, I hadn't. I'd answer for it, when the time came. For now, let Swann retain his relatively blissful ignorance, without this bitter taste in his mouth.
He was looking up at me. "Because...?" he prompted.
"Perhaps they had not heard when the letters were written," I said. "Ships' news always travels faster than official channels."
Swann sank into his chair, his face grim. "I want him this time, Norrington. I don't care about my daughter's romantic blind spot. I want him caught, condemned and hanged."
I stood straighter. "Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see it done, sir."
The official content of the letters from the other influential Caribbean governors was that an assault upon Santa Catalina seemed to be an idea so reasonable as to constitute a definite future action. Soon. Let's say a few months, and start organising yourselves. St Kitts and Barbados would both provide ships, marines to fill them and guns to arm them. However the command of the venture would fall to the man who made it all possible in the first place.
That's right. Me.
I should have been honoured. Flattered. At least pleased. Not only did this suggest that the unfortunate business of six months ago - the misplacing of the Interceptor and all - had been forgiven, but I was being given an opportunity for a notable military success. Of course, they didn't know the mistake I'd made since then, but this could still be more than just a feather in my cap; there could be an admiralship in it.
I managed a reasonable rendition of a gratified smile for Swann. The honour did not escape me.
I should have been pleased.
I arranged a full accounting of equipment and an appropriate refitting of all vessels. I reviewed the men and saw to extra training. I avoided the question of the Reward as much as possible, whether in the form of Spanish prisoners or English widows.
But I didn't sleep well, and had trouble with certain details, and every time I woke sweating in the middle of the night, and every time I laid eyes on a map of Santa Catalina, I cursed Jack Sparrow.
There was no reason why he should be haunting my dreams still, nothing he owed me that could be repaid with his body any way but dead at the end of a rope.
There was no reason I should feel guilty for betraying his trust when he'd betrayed mine so thoroughly already.
I should have been pleased. But I wasn't.
I missed it getting late. I realised the day was waning when they came in to light candles and lamps. Outside, the setting sun was gilding the promontory and the caps of the waves in the open sea beyond. Good; I'd be able to go home soon and leave this mess behind for another day. Bad; I was closer to having to sleep.
Splayed out on my map desk, held at one corner with an inkwell to replace the weight that had inexplicably gone missing, was a map of That Bloody Island. It wasn't accurate, of course. It wasn't even bloody close. By the lamplight, I glared at the hopeful wobble of the cartographer's pen that stood in the place of the true coastline.
When a knock sounded at the door, I barked, "What?" and transferred the glare to the door, and thence to Groves, who stepped in and flinched back.
"What?" I repeated, slightly less tersely.
"Mrs George," Groves said, and I must have flinched, because the shadow of a smile twitched across his face and he hurried to add, "Just a message from her. An invitation to luncheon with her the day after tomorrow."
I looked down, but Santa Catalina was there, utterly unhelpful. I stalked back across the room to my desk, where the latest reports weren't any better. Why couldn't that woman just go away? Still, there was a limit to how often one could avoid engagements while remaining polite.
"Tell her I'd be delighted to join her."
I felt almost sorry for making Groves lie, until he said, "Yes sir, I already did."
My officers knew me well, but there were limits. "And send the Quartermaster to see me," I growled.
Groves clicked his heels, delivered a stiff bow, and left without another word. Never let it be said I command fools.
Or sluggards. The Quartermaster was knocking at my door barely two minutes later. I tossed the report across the table to him. "Rotation of three companies, what's the discrepancy in provisions for the fort?"
He glanced over the figures. "The prisoners, sir."
I swore, but quietly enough that he could pretend he hadn't heard. Of course, the prisoners. I'd blessedly forgotten them. Just another thing nudging me towards a war I had no rational reason not to want. Just another reason to curse Sparrow, because if he hadn't tempted me across a tavern table like a dusky, glittering devil, the Reward wouldn't be sitting in my harbour and the Spaniards wouldn't be sitting in my cells.
Of course, I could have said no. The pirate had had the right of it. I'd wanted it done as much as he.
Another knock sounded at the door. I was the most popular man in Port Royal this evening. "Yes?"
Gillette this time, agitated enough to set me back in my chair. Justly so. "The Pearl!" he gasped. "She's slipped into the harbour."
I came to my feet, but the night was quiet and devoid of cannonfire. "And?" I prompted.
"And... she's docked at the wharf."
Three of the Black Pearl's crew had drawn short straws and been detailed to remain on board while the rest went carousing. Their mood wasn't improved by the arrival of a squad of marines and the announcement that they could consider themselves arrested.
"Where are the rest of them?"
The flavourful fellow in charge shrugged and spat eloquently over the side. "Dunno."
We started with the church this time, but it was empty at this hour. The taverns, on the other hand, were full. The pirates were in the third one we tried, raucous in the corner nearest the fire and in very good cheer.
Even as I turned to give the order to change that, a serving girl tapped me on the elbow. "'e's upstairs."
"What?" I demanded.
She gave me a withering look, but the opinion serving wenches had of my manners was currently somewhere at the bottom of things I cared about. "Sparra," she said. "Waiting on you upstairs. Though I must say yer right quick. 'e only just now sent the message."
"Gillette," I ordered, already heading for the stairs, "round up this lot."
Sparrow was in the cozy upstairs dining room, sprawling like a cat in an armchair by the fire, but he bounced beaming to his feet as I entered. "Commodore!" he declaimed, apparently delighted. "You came!"
How dare he. How dare he come traipsing back into my harbour and be happy to see me. How dare he stand there painted in firelight looking just like he always had, unchanged and unchangeable, when everything had shifted thrice over. How dare he tie me up in complications and smile so simply.
Assumptions are always dangerous with Sparrow. But surely it's safe to say that he didn't expect me to hit him.
My fist caught him on the chin, snapping his head back and away, tipping him into the chair he'd just vacated. I'd swung hard. It felt good. Sharp impact coiled up my arm, and my breath was audible over the pop of the fire. I smoothed it, straightened my shoulders.
Sparrow gurgled, wallowing in the chair. His hands cradled his jaw, monkey-fingers splayed over his face. They muffled his voice. "Now you hit me?"
"Seemed like the opportune moment," I said, each word cut and precise. "Considering what you've done."
"What I've done?" His hands fell away from a face that showed only perplexity. I clenched my fists, knuckles starting to throb. Itching for him to stand up so I could knock him down again.
"Antigua," I elucidated.
"Antigua?" I wondered if there was an echo in here. "I haven't been anywhere bloody near Antigua, mate."
I think the worst thing was how much I wanted to believe him. "We've heard all about it, Sparrow. And you were sighted off San Juan."
"Heading south," he countered. "Cut down to the southern islands and the eastern Main. The closest we got to your precious Antigua was Guadeloupe."
"You don't have the men to raid Guadeloupe." I don't know why I said it. It was irrelevant.
Sparrow was on his feet, eyes glittering hard like brilliant-cut gemstones. "Never mind that fever and the natives have made it worthless to even consider raiding the place, Antigua's an English colony. Did you really think I'd..." I didn't say anything. "You bloody did." He tilted his head, curved and wicked and sharp, more a raven than a sparrow. "I heard the story about Antigua too, and I laughed, because we were in Barbados refitting after a storm and the night it was supposed to have happened I'd been having dinner with the governor."
"Forth." Also irrelevant. Except that his was the signature on Sparrow's questionable letter of marque.
The sparkle of that smirk was dulled. "His memory isn't what it was, but the old rogue still sets a good table. How's that for an alibi?"
I couldn't find words. Any words. I didn't know where to start looking. There were feet on the stairs, stopping in the doorway behind me. "Sir? We've detained all the pirates."
Sparrow's eyebrows twitched. "Pirates," he repeated, voice scaldingly blank.
"Give me a moment," I said.
Gillette's foot scuffed in the doorway. "But, sir...?"
I turned on him. "Just a moment, Gillette. It's not that difficult."
His face startled to stillness, he backed out of the room, closing the door after him. I couldn't face Sparrow. I sank into the other armchair, eyes closed, pinching the bridge of my nose. I thought fondly, wildly, of my life half a year ago. When I'd hoped Elizabeth might marry me, instead of being bothered that I didn't mind that she was marrying another. When Jack Sparrow had been someone who troubled others, not me, waking and sleeping.
God help me. I believed him.
There was a slither, a thump, and when I opened my eyes, he was kneeling on the rug in front of the fire. In front of me. "I asked you to trust me," he said. His eyes weren't hard any more.
"You're a pirate," I pointed out. "You're Captain Jack Sparrow."
"But I wouldn't." There was something imploring in his eyes, his voice, and his fingers wavered vaguely in his urgency to make me understand. (And another irritation; the man like this and I couldn't properly appreciate it.) He frowned, helpless, and it was nice that I wasn't the only one. "Norrington. I owe you."
It wasn't just like the dreams. But it had enough similarities. The firelight gilding him, the words on his lips, the chaos within me.
I'd moved before I recognised my intention, forward off the chair to kneel before him. Over him, my knees sliding outside his as I leaned, caught him up...
And I was kissing him.
Even as I realised it, he made a noise in the back of his throat that buzzed against my lips as he opened his mouth. Even as I thought to pull back, Jack Sparrow drew me in, his hands coming up, under my coat, around my neck, his tongue darting betwixt my lips, quicksilver and taunting like the rogue himself. My hands were on his shoulders, my eyes closed and tinted with firelight. He tasted of rum and salt.
A knock on the door tore us asunder. I almost fell over the chair, leaping to my feet. Sparrow was nonchalantly sprawled back in the other chair as I turned to the door. I hesitated with my hand on the latch, realising I was breathing as though I'd just run down to the docks and back.
"Sir?" Gillette asked, from the other side of the door. I pulled it open. He didn't look reassured. "Your orders, sir?"
My orders. I resisted the urge to rest my forehead against the edge of the door. "Take Gibbs, Anamaria and two other sailors aside, and ask them where they were during the period pertinent to Antigua. Send a man for Groves, he can help you."
Gillette cleared his throat. "I already took the liberty of summoning Lieutenant Groves, sir; however, he was not at home. And, ah... Miss Anamaria is not amongst the crew downstairs."
Behind me, Jack said, "She missed him," in a voice so devoid of humour that I almost flinched.
"Never mind that, then," I said. A much more satisfactory solution had just occurred to me; let Swann decide. "I'll interview the sailors myself. You escort Captain Sparrow to the Governor, where he can present his defense as he's just outlined it to me."
"All of it?" Sparrow asked.
Gillette was staring past my shoulder. I turned to follow his gaze. Sparrow was standing in the middle of the room, head tilted, cheeky little bird. The red mark of my fist's impact on his jaw was already purpling towards bruise. It didn't disrupt his smirk, however. I dragged my eyes away from his mouth and met his gaze steadily. "You may tell him as many particulars as you deem appropriate to clearing up the matter at hand."
I expected him to pull a face at that, but he just nodded, apparently satisfied. He ambled towards the door. "You know," he said, with a frightening rendition of thoughtfulness, "I invited you up here for a quiet drink."
He had. I'd almost forgotten. "Another time."
On his way past, he wavered towards me, a negligible tilt on Sparrow's personal axis. "I'll hold you to that."
Gillette frowned at the world in general, and followed him down the stairs.
The crew corroborated Sparrow's story. Of course. And I was sure Jack could talk Swann around without difficulty. I could have found out once I'd declared the crew free to continue their interrupted carouse. I could have gone up to the mansion and delivered my report in person.
I had no difficulty with erring on the side of caution. Sparrow was the pirate, not me. I sent my findings in writing, and went home to bed.
If I dreamt, I don't remember it.
At his not unexpected invitation, I joined Swann in his office mid-morning.
My harbour was getting crowded, what with the ships of the line, the merchant vessels, the damn Reward, the insolent Black Pearl. And another ship had been spied inward-bound just before I left the fort. At least three masts, a lot of canvas. She'd have to moor in the road; we didn't have the wharfage to accommodate her.
"The ship from England's arriving this afternoon," I told Swann, accepting tea but declining scones.
"How do you know?" Swann asked, with the mildly annoyed tone of rhetoric.
I don't know. I just did. Something about the scent of the wind blowing it in. Something in the line of the ship, yearning for land. "She's two hours or so out," I said instead.
Two hours until we found out whether the Crown was as willing as its Governors to overlook the quite astonishing irregularity of events in its Caribbean colonies.
Brooding on it wasn't doing any good. "What did you make of Sparrow's story?" I asked.
Swann sighed the sigh of one with the weight of the world on his shoulders, or Jack Sparrow causing complications in his life. "We didn't really have anything to go on, did we?"
"Just ship gossip," I agreed.
"Do you believe him?"
Stupidly, I was entirely unprepared for the challenge. "Well, I, yes. I suppose so. I do."
Swann nodded as decisively as my answer wasn't. "Good enough for me."
How reassuring for him. I wasn't so sure how I felt about it.
I was still contemplating that when the door burst open under the combined impropriety of Elizabeth and the pirate in question, with Will Turner shame-faced and bringing up the rear.
"Father," Elizabeth began, and then beamed at me. "And James! Even better. Both of you: it's far too nice a day to allow you to moulder away inside. We're having a picnic lunch on the north lawn. Don't argue, Father, I've already arranged it with the cook and I asked your secretary; you're not doing anything else. And don't you try either, James. I'm sure they can get on without you perfectly well at your silly fort for an hour or so. Besides, I'm insisting, gentlemen, and how often do I insist on anything?"
Her wide eyes and the imperious tilt of her chin told us both that 'all the jolly time' was not the appropriate response. Over her shoulder, Jack grinned unrepentantly. I looked away to Swann.
Who looked pained but benevolent. "Very well, Elizabeth."
It was, as she'd promised, an absolutely beautiful day. Somehow I'd failed to notice it before then. It was, I thought, digging hard in my memory, an almost English day, and not Caribbean at all, the air mild, the sky clear save benign puffs of cloud that couldn't possibly ever turn into raging storms.
The Swanns' cook had obviously approved of the idea - or maybe she was no more immune to Elizabeth than the rest of us - for there was an impressive array of victuals on offer, spread out on what I suspected was an old horse blanket. Elizabeth, of course, insisted we all sit upon it. At least it kept those of us unfortunate enough to have white trousers off the grass.
Well-fed and suffering from sun-induced lethargy, we wallowed about on the lawn. I suspected Swann may have gone to sleep; he hadn't said anything in a good five minutes, but I was too comfortable to turn and look. Further out on the lawn, Jack and Will were playing at boules, the pirate teaching the blacksmith, or maybe the other way around, or maybe they were simply making the rules up as they went along. Elizabeth cheered them on indiscriminately.
I wondered what hour it was. Had the ship entered the harbour and moored yet?
A flitting shadow heralded Elizabeth, swooping over me and saying, "Father, come and play with me."
"What?" Swann said, in suddenly alert tones. "Yes, lovely day. What?"
I squinted up at Elizabeth, haloed by the sun and as pretty as any other girl. "Can I go inside now?" I asked, doing my best to sound pathetic.
"Of course not," she told me, tugging at her father's sleeve. "You must endure the tedium of our company and the weather for at least another half-hour yet."
Swann allowed himself to be drawn to his feet, brushing a leaf of grass from the hem of his coat. "They'll bring all the official missives up here anyway," he pointed out. "May as well stay."
I allowed he had a point, and the sun really was rather pleasant.
Swann and his daughter took up the boules set, making quite the pretty familial picture. But if they were playing, that meant-
Jack dropped down beside me on the picnic blanket. "I think Will cheats," he said.
"I should certainly hope so," I returned. "Playing against you."
"I'm a pirate. I'm supposed to cheat."
"All his bad habits are of your teaching."
"That may be true," Jack allowed. "But it doesn't make it any less unfair."
I smirked into the sun. "He beat you, I take it?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
I stretched my shoulders in the sunshine. It was almost getting hot under brocade and wig. I still hadn't looked at Sparrow; he was just a jewel-toned shadow at the corner of my eye. "What do you want to talk about, then?"
The answer came so fast he must have been waiting for the question. "Santa Catalina."
All the tightness I'd just eased out of my shoulders came back. I had no reason to feel guilty; but wait, that had been before, when I owed Jack Sparrow nothing. Now he hadn't betrayed us. Me. What did I owe him now?
The truth, at least. "It wasn't my idea." That sounded truly pathetic. "We're going to launch an assault on the island, it's almost a certainty. All that's needed is the inciting event, the one thing to make it sooner rather than later. That's just the way it is. Statecraft. I don't know."
A long moment of silence was broken only by the clink of boules across the lawn. When he finally spoke, his drawl was laced with amusement. "Are you all knotted up about it because of me?"
I turned on him, angry, and he was right there. Not that near; not nearly far enough. The bruising along his jaw had come up beautifully overnight, blotching along his jaw like fruit ruined in the heat, crawling up to pool in the hollow of his cheek. He was bright and stark and shadowed under the sun, the Caribbean sky, he belonged here. He looked right.
I blinked, and realised that I didn't know how long I'd been lost in rapt contemplation of him, what might have happened in the interim. I reached for something to say. "You didn't tell Will and Elizabeth how you came by that bruise, then, or they'd not be talking to me in such a civil manner today."
He smiled, slow and careful. "I could tell them you kissed it better." I opened my mouth - to say what, I don't know - but even as I did, he continued, expression unchanged: "I should lay it to rest, shouldn't I? There's not a chance anything can ever come of it."
The man was wretchedly unfair; I hadn't the faintest idea how to handle a serious Sparrow, his very stability knocking the balance from me.
I wanted to contradict him, that was the worst of it. But I couldn't, for there wasn't. Not a chance. Not for a Commodore of his Majesty's Navy. Not even in a world with Jack Sparrow in it.
He was the first to look down. "Aye," he murmured. "I know it."
Across the lawn, I'd missed the arrival of the master of the new addition to my harbour. He was reacting very well to being greeted by a Governor in stockinged feet and sweating from playing lawn games with his daughter. I knew I should go and add some naval gravitas to the exchange, but at present it would probably only be a different strain of colonial madness.
I was reluctant to know. What message he might have for me, what might be contained within the packet of papers he was handing over to Swann. Not that I could avoid the knowledge forever. Especially not when the entire party - master, Governor, daughter and fiance - were coming back to the picnic blanket.
Introductions were made. My own sealed letter was delivered; I left it to sit in my lap, heavy and somehow cold. Captain Gareth Abernathy blinked in very well controlled surprise at meeting Captain Jack Sparrow. "The pirate?"
"Turned privateer." Sparrow offered a grin that was rendered truly blinding by the sunlight. "For the good of Queen - sorry, King - and Country, seen the error of my ways, the redeemed sinner, etcetera."
"Well!" Abernathy declared, though he seemed fired by more than merely the mix of awe and horror that usually struck at first exposure to Sparrow. "This can only add to your reputation, Commodore."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Oh, James had very little to do with it," Elizabeth said, rather disloyally, I thought. "But what do you mean, his reputation?"
I was prevented from throwing her a stern look by Abernathy gesturing to my neglected letter. "Open it, man. I don't want to reveal aught before you are aware yourself, but I fear I shall not be able to hold my peace should the lady press me."
Which, of course, was all the invitation the lady required to begin to do just that. Abernathy declined to reveal this sudden secret with decreasing vehemence as I gazed down at the letter. No sooner had I picked it up, than Swann, head bowed over his own correspondence, said, "Good Lord!" Elizabeth began pestering him, and when I looked down again, a spider-fingered hand was passing me the cheese knife. I glanced at Sparrow, hovering at my shoulder with curiosity equal to Elizabeth's (though more quiet). I took the knife and broke the seal.
Official letters are never much like letters, and always a lot like each other. I brushed through the formula phrases, until I struck one that caught in my head, turning my blood cold, even in the early afternoon sun. I returned to the beginning, but it was still there the second time.
"Oh," Sparrow said in my ear, an echo of the noise I couldn't quite make.
"What, what?" Elizabeth demanded.
I looked up at her, her colour high, Will at her elbow. If I told her, it would somehow make it real. In the end, it was Sparrow who answered. "He's been recalled to England."
Her hand flew to her mouth. "Recalled?"
"And promoted!" Abernathy objected. "Special appointment to the Continental flotilla preparatory to becoming an Admiral." In which period We are sure you shall deport yourself in such manner as to lay to rest any lingering doubts regarding your suitability, the letter said. "The King has his eye on you, sir!"
Somehow Elizabeth had become the pin holding the party together. We all looked to her. "When do you go?" she asked.
I refolded the letter, hiding the words away on the inside. I'd seen enough. "I am given another six months to present myself in London," I said, and managed a smile for her. "Don't worry, I'll be here for your wedding."
I had never seen Elizabeth so uncertain. I looked down, and passed the cheese knife back to Sparrow.
It was late, and getting later. With the windows open, I could hear the faint echo of ships bells across the open water, as the watches changed. I should go to bed. I'd been telling myself that for hours.
My personal desk was far less crowded than the one in my office. The man had fewer concerns than the Commodore. Naval worries had supplanted the personal, at least on a tangible level; the desk was strewn with paperwork. A report on the Spanish prisoners, a rather forceful letter from Mrs George, the damnably inaccurate chart of Santa Catalina.
For all that I was poised over my desk, I wasn't really looking at any of them. My mind couldn't settle to anything. Irrespective of which direction I bent it, it returned endlessly to the contents of my most recently received letter.
God knew why. It wasn't as though I wanted to consider what it decreed for my future.
Ten years I'd been out here, in the Caribbean. When I'd been posted it had been a useful position, a place where a man might make his reputation. But also the end of the world. It had been fashionable to despise being removed from the civilised world of Europe.
Honestly, though, what had I cared for fashion? What had I cared for society or the other trappings of 'civilisation'?
What had I known, then, of the waters of the place to which I'd been sent? Nothing. Nothing of the secrets they hid in their transparent depths, the treacherous reefs, the capricious winds. Nothing of the way the slap of the waves against the hull could sound like the breathing of the world.
I could drown in the idea of cold northern oceans. Forget the sand, forget the sun. Perfect English days forever.
There was a discreet knock and a cough at the open door. "I'm sorry, Godfrey," I said, turning to the sideboard to refill my brandy glass. "I shall retire soon."
"It's not that, sir," he said, stepping fully into the room. "Though the night does grow long. This was just delivered, sir."
'This' was a document case, worn but well-made, polished more by handling than by industry. I knew, even as I took it, who it must be from, but I didn't dare imagine what might be contained inside. I knocked the end off, and shook forth the rolled contents, laying it out on the desk, an inkpot in one corner, a paperweight in another, my brandy glass in the third corner, my hand on the fourth.
It was a map. Beautifully detailed, painstakingly complete, entirely accurate. It was Santa Catalina.
There was a note rolled up in the middle, a familiar hand jaunty on the scrap of parchment. Imagine this is going to be of more use to you than to me. -Captn J S
I traced a finger down the coastline. Outside the edge of the map, I could see a corner of what was underneath, the Spanish prisoners, Mrs George...
All we need is an inciting incident.
It was a blinding moment of clarity, all my problems coming together in their own solution.
"Send for Gillette and Groves. I know it's late; apologise, but this won't wait. And send word to the fort that whoever is on prison duty is relieved, they may have the night off."
Godfrey wouldn't blink if I ordered the city torched, he'd just advise as to the best method. "Very good, sir. Will that be all?"
I picked up the brandy glass, letting the map roll up, and looked into its depths with a smile. "Find another bottle of this brandy, if we have one, and send it to the Black Pearl, for the captain."
"Very good, sir."
Yes. Maybe it just could be.
Caribbean Cartography by dee
To Gloria, for repeatedly poking me with sticks, spoons, fantasy authors, beta deadlines and anything else that came to hand.