They were good men, his crew, the crew that Beckett had given him. Or, if not good, then at least obedient, and James was not going to quibble over details at this stage in the proceedings. The question of goodness was one over which he felt he was probably ill-equipped to dispense reprimands, in any case. Obedience was all he asked, and they delivered upon it. They had scarce blinked at the trails he had followed, and done naught when he'd announced he was going upstream but shake out the knucklebones to determine who'd row him.
They were reporting back to Beckett, of course. Probably not all of them, but the officers, definitely. None of his old men in his command, which made sense, because if James was in an unfamiliar place and wanting to get results as quickly as possible, he'd requisition useful men like Lieutenant Groves as well. He didn't care, in any case. Let Lord Cutler Beckett receive a full and accurate accounting of all of James Norrington's doings. James suspected that Beckett lacked the wherewithall to make sense of that accounting.
Very little of it made sense to James, after all.
But that was why he was here, leaving his ship in lagoon moorage to be rowed upriver in search of a specific bayou and its very specific inhabitant. To make sense of the insensible. Somehow.
There were lights in the jungle, and in the mist-whispered water; people watching them (or things). James knew the feel of unfriendly eyes. He had left off his uniform, not through any timidity, nor desire for guile, but simply because he made these enquiries not as an officer of His Majesty's Royal Navy, but as a confused man. It mattered. He suspected the watchers did not need the uniform to see him for what he was. He hoped they could also see that he had no interest in them and why they might be lurking here. Not this evening.
The little house looked organic, as though it had grown there instead of being built, squatting on stilts above the swamp. The boat bumped at the ladder leading up to it, and James grabbed a rung, holding steady. "You will wait in the boat," he ordered, and to their credit the men showed little relief. "If it seems prudent you may draw off a little, and I will signal you to return."
"Right you are, capt'n," the nearest oarsman said, and James swung himself up onto the ladder.
Aloft, the house seemed even more a natural thing, a cache of driftwood and other flotsam washed together and no work of man's at all. It seemed steady and sturdy, though, for all the floor echoed hollowly beneath his bootheel, and the ajar door creaked as he pushed it fully open.
It was light inside, a warm glow of lamplight with a faint sickly edge. Misshapen shadows skulked along the walls. In the centre of the room, hard to pick out against the general clutter, a woman sat at a table, its surface covered with scattered objects - chipped mugs, a dusty bottle, bundles of dried plants tied with ribbons, knucklebones, copper coins, a ship's bell. The woman was a dark centre of the bright room, and no less cluttered, with the mouldering bustle of her once-fine gown and beads weighting the matted locks of her hair. Her head was bowed over her work as her dark fingers pushed a curved needle through a tattered scrap of sailcloth.
James pushed the door to behind him, and stepped forward with hollow steps.
She spoke first. "Such heavy tread upon my floor. What weighs you down--" She looked up, her eyes bright and dark in a tattoo-dotted face. "James Norrington?"
It would not have been hard to hear he was looking for her. He had asked people who owed more to her than to him. They would have passed it on. Her knowing his name was no surprise. "Duty," he offered.
"Duty?" She cackled. "Her a cold mistress, and not known to forgive."
"We have done moderately well together." He sounded stiff, but there was little he could do about that. No likelihood anyone would believe he was not uneasy, out of his depth, in this place, with this woman.
She laughed. "Dat so?" Pushing her sailcloth aside on the table, she stood up, the lamplight catching the memories of gold thread in her wilted finery. She grinned as she came around the table, her teeth black-stained but whole. "You know who I am, yes?"
He'd come quite some way to find her. "They call you Tia Dalma."
"Dey call me," she agreed. Tilted her head, weighing him up. James wondered what she saw. Was a time he wouldn't have had to wonder. Was a time it would have been as inconceivable for him to wonder as for him to even be standing here. "When dey want somet'ing," she continued, "dey call me. What is it you want?"
"Answers," he replied shortly.
"No," she contradicted, shaking her head slowly as though she regretted the saying of it.
James shook his more vigorously. "Yes," he insisted, taking a step forward with the floor creaking beneath him. "I need to understand. I need to make sense of what's happened."
Tia Dalma did not step back, merely tilted her chin up further to watch him. "Do you?" she challenged. "Or do you need it to make sense? Do you want to understand, or do you merely want it to be understandable? Tell me," she snapped, "do you try to tame the storm-tossed sea?"
Of course not. It would not be tamed, the sea and the sky. Could only be worked around, run before. Or it would ruin him. Had ruined him. "No," he said, voice not much above a whisper.
"No," she echoed, smile warm and welcoming as she lifted her hand to his cheek. "Sailor." On her lips, the term felt like endearment and burden both. Her hand was warm but callused, her fingertips dry upon his skin as she stroked. "You yield."
James nodded, her palm cradling his jaw. "I yield." As he would yield to the winds that blew his life awry, when nothing but wreck came of fighting them. Only... only he did not know how. Did not know how to plot a course from where he had foundered. "Help me?"
Her thumbnail, ragged but not sharp, tugged at his bottom lip. "I have a price," she reminded him.
He should feel uneasy, James knew. He should be wary and troubled, but this seemed another world he had stepped inside, one of hearts in caskets and shifting sands. He needed to know. He needed to know. "What?" he asked.
She grinned, dark and promising, as she edged forward with a rustle of aged brocade. "Not'ing you will miss." She kissed him then, as fresh and faint and fleeting as salt spray upon his face, and when she withdrew he followed willingly in her wake.
There was another room to the little house, a bedroom with wide open windows through which the swamp breathed, heavy and earthy. He let her peel his plain clothes from him and press him down upon the narrow bed. It had been quite some time, and beneath her gown she was as warm and salty as the night air. James felt pale and strange, unnatural. She kissed him, hungrily, and again, until he matched her fervour. Until he ran his hands over the curves of her body and she rose over him, took him inside her and moved, rolling, implacable, like the sea. And he gasped, and he clutched at her, and he yielded.
There was stillness, afterwards, for a long, stretched moment. She rolled away, off the bed, and the night air was cool against the sweat on his skin. James turned his head to watch her stepping over the discarded wreck of her gown, just as confident in naught but her skin. She picked his hat off the floor, and set it jaunty atop her own head. She was smiling as she turned, satisfied and very womanly. "Ask your question," she suggested, and turned away, stepped out into the main room.
James sat up, reaching for his clothes. He dressed as his mind raced. Question, she had said. Singular. He followed her into the main room, fastening his shirt. She was back at the table, pouring from the dusty bottle into one of the mugs, humming a song that brushed against the edge of memory without catching. She set down the bottle and looked up at him in the doorway. "Well?"
He should ask about the heart. Should find out what Beckett knew and how, what he was about, what his plans were. Instead, he said, "Jack's compass. Where did it come from?"
She leant against the table, naked save his hat, but still more inscrutable than any well-dressed matron in a Barbados ballroom. "Dere was a captain," she said, with almost lascivious relish, "betrayed and mutinied, sent down to the depths with throat slit and compass clutched in him fist. The Merking, him prise it loose and give it him daughter as a playt'ing. But she love a sailor, and give it him to lead him back to her side. Dat sailor, him a rogue. He never return."
James shrugged into his coat, watching her dark smile, her glinting eyes. "Do you really expect me to believe that?"
The smile widened into a grin, alligator sharp. "No," she said.
He stepped forward and reclaimed his hat. "Then give me something I can believe."
She shrugged, a distracting gesture in her current state, and picked up the chipped mug. She held it out to James. "Drink," she demanded, and when he rolled his eyes, opened his mouth to object - he was done with that sort of lifestyle - she cut him off. "Drink," she repeated, hard-eyed and insistent, but then her smile broke like the moon behind clouds. "Just a little."
With a sigh, he took the mug, finding a portion of rim that was mostly whole, and sipped. It was, unsurprisingly, rum, even less surprisingly dark and vicious, a raw bite of sunshine converted straight to liquor without care for niceties. It sizzled against James's tongue, and swallowing made him bare his teeth and hiss.
Tia Dalma's hand closed over his around the mug, and her eyes, when he met them, were intense. "Why did you ask about Jack?" Her voice was barely above a murmur.
"Because..." James began. Had to pause, the rum still making his throat raw. Because he'd done a terrible thing, no matter that he'd paid him tit for tat. Because whichever way he turned, it seemed, he threw his lot in with pirates, only the nature of their dress and address changed. "Because it was my fault," he finished.
Her other hand clamped hard to the back of his head, knocking his hat askew, as she pulled him forward, into a hard kiss, her tongue plunging past his teeth like a diving porpoise arrowing into deep water. She burned almost like the rum, searing for a moment, but only that. As quick as she'd struck, she broke away.
"You're a good man, James Norrington," she said, her thumb stroking down his jaw as she smirked up at him. "Maybe I let duty keep you yet."
She stepped back, taking the mug of run out of his hand. She hawked and spat, like a sailor who'd witnessed incompetence in his watch officer, straight into the mug. Perhaps it was just the light glinting off the surface of the liquor, but it seemed to James that a shadow unfurled within, crackling through the rum like lightning above a stormy sea. He watched it, and felt no great disquiet.
When he looked back up into Tia Dalma's face, she was smiling, impossible secrets and clinging swamp mud. "I give you somet'ing you can believe. Jack will not stay dead."
And that... well, that made as much sense as anything else. It was enough.
Payment in Kind by dee
All stories are works of fan-fiction by Dee. "Fan-fiction" means that she does not own any of the core creative concepts and characters, but she does heap adulation, appreciation and awe upon those people who do hold the intellectual property rights to those concepts and characters. Further, any instances of real people are fictional, and the author does not wish to suggest any truth should be attached to the actions, emotions and words attributed to them in these fictional stories.