London's slums were not a pleasant place to be at night - especially on nights as black as pitch, where not a single star peeped through the thick, dark clouds that hung threateningly overhead. A night such as this, Lord Cutler Beckett thought with a small frown as his carriage came to an abrupt halt. In nights like this, anyone can hide in the darkness and never be found…

Beckett was not pleased to be out that night. He had intended to remain in his office for the evening, checking over East India Trading Company ledgers and ensuring that they were correct. It was a tedious task, but necessary, and Beckett had never been one to put off necessary work merely because he did not wish to do it. His tenacity and discipline were part of the reason he had risen to such great power in so brief a period of time, and they were attributes he greatly admired about himself.

Of course, he was Beckett. He admired virtually every attribute he possessed.

But his tenacity at times could be annoying - especially when it involved him in situations such as this. Chasing down an errant (and arrogant) young noblewoman and spying on her was not at all what Beckett had wished to do that night. But the ever-charming (and ever-elusive) Miss Victoria Thorne was Beckett's prime target of interest, and when her maid reported to Beckett's clerk that she had disappeared into the night - well, he had had to follow.

Beckett turned his eyes almost idly to the very clerk who had brought him the night's invaluable information - Mr. Mercer. Mercer was Beckett's most loyal minion and best associate, and on occasions like these Beckett was particularly grateful for him. Mercer was present to do all of Beckett's dirty work - work that might cause a stain on Beckett's surprisingly flawless reputation. It would not be Beckett following Miss Thorne through the streets that night - it would be Mercer.

"You know where she's going?" Beckett asked, breaking the silence that had hung in the carriage for the vast majority of the ride.

"A combination inn and brothel called The Blind Beggar," Mercer answered matter-of-factly. "She has several associates there who she meets when she can - the primary one being a man who goes by the name of Orson."

"Ah, yes," Beckett said disdainfully. "The pirate."

"Yes," Mercer agreed with an almost equal amount of contempt. "That one. My sources tell me they've been lovers for quite some time."

"I trust you will see to it that such liaisons cease?" Beckett questioned - but not so much a question as a command.

Mercer grinned, a dark, merciless grin. "As you command, sir," he said, and with that, he swung open the carriage door and leapt nimbly out, disappearing into the darkness.

Beckett settled back in the carriage seat to wait.

- - - - - - - - -

Unlike his employer, Mercer loved the darkened streets of London's slums. The sense of danger that was ever-present, the smell of rot, the drunken celebrations that masked the shattered lives of those unfortunate enough to live here - all of it brought him a twisted sort of joy. Ruin and decay had engulfed Mercer as a boy; now he wrought both upon anyone who stood in his master's way.

In places such as this, of course, ruin and decay were both abundant, and nowhere could examples of both be seen more prominently than in the Blind Beggar.

Run by a foreign couple known as Maximino and Magana Macias, the Blind Beggar had an incredible reputation for miles around as the best bawdy-house and inn in the area. The place was overflowing with pirates, whores, thieves, traitors, and other scum of the earth. Anyone of the aristocracy who was unfortunate enough to enter the place usually found themselves robbed blind and left on the street before they could spend any significant amount of time there.

There was only one aristocrat who had managed to slip beyond this barrier, and her name was Victoria Trilby Thorne.

Unusually romantic and incredibly naïve, the lovely Victoria had often come down to the Blind Beggar with her governess as a child (needless to say, her governess was less than strict and less than appropriate for a young aristocrat's daughter; Victoria learned more willfulness and vice than demureness and propriety from her.) There, while the governess had gotten quite drunk, Victoria had been regaled by stories of the great deeds of pirates by the various sailors who visited the tavern. The stories, unfortunately, had quite gone to her head, and she had fallen in love with them in the worst way - even going so far as to take a pirate for a lover.

Of course, none of this was known within the circles of high society, for which, Mercer thought with a wry grin, her family should have been quite grateful. If any nobles had known of her activities… well, she would have been shunned and her family utterly ruined. And it would only have been made worse if word would have gotten out that Victoria had taken a lover and long ago lost her innocence to him.

How fortunate, then, that the one man who did not care what sort of company she kept was the man most likely to win her hand.

Cutler Beckett was the sole person whom Mercer admired in any way. Beckett appeared the epitome of a gentleman, but he was as vicious and ruthless as any cutthroat who inhabited these dank and unhappy streets. He wielded more power than virtually any lord in Parliament and was not afraid to use it to get precisely what he wanted. He had literally thousands of enemies, but he was clever enough to know how to beat them into submission, and how to protect himself against them should they attempt to kill him. Mercer wouldn't have been surprised if Beckett somehow manipulated the rule of England right from King George's hands.

Most importantly, when Beckett decided that he wanted something, he fought for it with total abandon, cutting down any who stood in his way until at last he reached the final goal. There was nothing in the world out of Beckett's grasp - even if there were those who believed otherwise…

Mercer walked up to the door of the Blind Beggar and peered in through the window, his eyes coming to rest on an exquisitely beautiful and well-dressed young woman seated with a much harsher looking man who appeared to be in about his mid-thirties. Mercer studied her face for a long moment and shook his head. She was one of those who believed she could escape Beckett's insidious reach. Poor, naïve little Victoria actually thought that she would be able to evade him in the end; but she had no idea how closely guarded she was, nor how soon she would be utterly cut off from this world of scum that she so idealized.

The girl had been most foolish in her dealings with Beckett - most foolish, indeed. But, Mercer thought with a slight mental shrug, it seemed in her nature to note men's attentions, accept them, and then almost instantly turn about and reject them. But toying with Beckett… well, that had been clear and simple stupidity on her part.

Mercer still remembered the idle way Beckett's gaze had wandered to Victoria. They'd been standing in an upper level of balconies overlooking the ballroom floor of the Whitlock mansion, and Miss Thorne had been across the way, staring absentmindedly downwards into the crowd below her and looking immensely bored. She must have felt Beckett's stare, because she looked up and met his gaze head on; then, pretending continued disinterest, had turned away with a slight flourish of her fan.

Mercer didn't know what else had occurred that night, but he remembered that Beckett had almost casually wandered to where she stood. He knew they talked a long time, and that Victoria had been the worst of flirts, and then had turned icy and aloof. And he knew she had flatly refused Beckett's request to dance with her and to walk with her around the gardens.

Refusing Beckett was not a wise idea. Typically, it infuriated him, and when Beckett was infuriated, heads tended to roll - literally. Interestingly, in this situation her rejection had merely intrigued him.

She was lucky in that regard, even if she did not believe it so.

His curiosity had been mild at first, and their conversations at public functions were always brief and always ended in some variety of argument. Eventually their arguments grew longer and more pronounced; her rejections more blatant and more public; and Beckett's previously mild curiosity exploded into the very dangerous need to possess.

After all, Beckett wanted only the best in everything - and the best of women, in his mind, would be disdainful of his power and his wealth, would in fact expect such things as part and parcel of her suitor. Victoria's contempt for him and everything he owned inflamed him, made him want smash her resistance and see her fall beneath his control.

Beckett had always loved the challenge of triumphing over that which he could not control.

Mercer stared hard at the girl inside the inn, her face alight with a joyous smile and her green eyes sparkling with such happiness. It didn't seem possible that such an innocent little creature had the gall to resist the most powerful lord in England. But her resistance would not last long. Plans were already in place to bring her to her knees. Soon enough, she would belong completely and utterly to Lord Beckett.

Soon.

- - - - - - - - -

Victoria Thorne could barely hear her lover's voice over the sounds of drunken song and raucous laughter that echoed loudly about the Blind Beggar, but she didn't really care. She loved this place, for all its dirtiness and filth. It was home to some of the finest people she knew - brave people, good people, whatever their reputation in the world above might be. And it had been far too long since she'd had a chance to be here - three months, at least. She had missed this place, had missed its people - especially Orson.

Orson was a sailor aboard the pirate Tyris Burton's ship Redemption, and it wasn't often that he was at home. When she had gotten the letter from him three nights previously, she had made every possible preparation to ensure that she could escape the house. It had been so long since he'd been back…

Victoria carefully studied Orson's face as he told her one of many stories about his adventures on the high seas. His eyes were dark brown, as was his hair, which curled slightly over his forehead and was held out of his face by a thick strip of cloth tied around his head. His skin was tanned from all his time in the sun. Despite his somewhat weathered appearance, Victoria didn't believe there was a man more handsome than he.

He leaned closer to her and shouted over the din, "How have things been since I've been gone?"

Victoria also leaned in and replied, "Lonely, but ever interesting. Such is the way of the aristocracy…"

Orson chuckled slightly. "What's been happening at the watering holes of the well-to-do?"

Victoria sighed and took a sip of Orson's rum. "Oh, the usual drama, of course," she said in a bored tone. "So-and-so wishes to wed so-and-so but someone is interfering…"

"I trust that such is not the case with you," Orson said, raising an eyebrow.

Victoria hesitated, a sudden frown crossing her otherwise happy face. She had no desire to marry any nobleman who had sought her so far, and had been quite capable of driving them off… save one.

"Well…" she said finally, "Lord Beckett seems rather interested in me…"

Orson choked on his rum. "Beckett?" he repeated, and he sounded almost horrified. Several pirates' heads swiveled in their direction at the mention of the name. "What's he want with you?"

"Presumably what most bachelor nobleman want," Victoria said, a little surprised at his reaction. "A wife."

"Are you certain?" Orson asked forcefully. "Does he know of your… er… adventures down here?"

"Of course not," Victoria said indignantly. "How would he have any idea?"

"You will find that Beckett is uncommon good at receiving and using information," one pirate interjected, dragging his chair to their table. "Especially when that information involves pirates. The man deplores us."

"He wants to wipe us all out," another agreed darkly. "He thinks we stand in the way of his oh-so-precious East India Trading Company."

"Damn right we do!" a third pirate roared drunkenly, and his cry was met with loud cheers and laughter. "We could slay the entire East India fleet if we chose!"

"You're a fool if you believe that," Orson said grimly. "Beckett has the entire royal navy at his command as well as his own ships. He could destroy us all, even if we stood together."

"Gentlemen, I'm sure you have nothing to be concerned about," Victoria soothed. "No one else in the aristocracy knows of my visits here; why should he?"

"As I said," the first pirate warned, "He knows a whole lot of things the rest of the aristocracy don't. If he discovers the link between you and us, he'll exploit it until this entire wharf is under his control and all of us are hangin' from a gallows, mark my words."

Orson was nodding in agreement, a concerned frown on his face. "Bloody hell, Victoria, why did you come here when you knew he might be following you?" he growled, slamming his mug of rum on the table.

Victoria cowered back slightly as the other pirates turned heated stares to her face. "I… I didn't think…" she stuttered, stunned that they would blame her for such a development.

"No, clearly you didn't," Orson snapped, "Or else you wouldn't be here now." He looked around almost nervously. "We should get you out of here," he said.

"But I've only just arrived!" Victoria cried. "And I haven't seen you in so long…"

"You'll have to wait a bit longer then, won't you?" Orson said frostily. "Go on, then. I'm sure your servant's waiting for you in the same spot as usual."

Victoria stared at the mob of irate faces around her and chewed her lip unhappily. "I don't understand why you're so afraid," she said finally, allowing her own anger to show. "I didn't realize that I was surrounded by weak men who cowered at the mention of Beckett's name – Beckett, of all people, who probably couldn't harm you even if he tried."

"You would be wise, Miss Thorne, to cower yourself," the pirate who first spoke warned her. "If what you've said is true, you've caught his attention – and believe you me, if that attention flourishes too much, you'll find yourself fearing him just as much as we do."

One of the other pirates who had joined their conversation stood and bowed mockingly to her. "My deepest sympathies to you, Lady Beckett," he said sardonically. She stiffened and opened her mouth to retort, but he cut her off. "No, don't deny the title that will be yours," he said harshly. "For if what you say is true, and Beckett wants you as his wife… no one, least of all you, is going to stop him."

She glared at him, furious words boiling into her mouth, but she lifted her chin and flounced out, her skirts swishing softly behind her as she left.

She was so caught up in refusing to look at any of the denizens of the Blind Beggar that she didn't notice the one figure in the shadows that might have interested her. Chuckling wryly once she had passed, the man in the shadows unfurled himself and entered the tavern, turning over the words he had heard in his head.

- - - - - - - - -

Damarah Stovall was good at her job, and proud of it, too.

Granted, her job was prostitution, but even the lowliest of the low needed something to take pride in.

She hadn't been much in demand yet that night, as most of the men had been drinking and telling stories. Besides, Victoria Thorne had been in, and most of the scum there liked to get a good, long look at her in her fine clothes and with her incredible jewels before they dragged a poor whore upstairs to live out their frenzied fantasies about her. Much as each man among the lot of them hated the wealthy nobles, they all wished Victoria had fallen in love with them, instead of a no-account deckhand like Orson Shaw.

Damarah didn't like Orson much. He was a liar and a cheat and he liked to hit the prostitutes when he used their services. Of course, Damarah being the type she was, had hit him back, and that had been the end of their business relationship. But there were other reasons she despised him – largely, in fact, because of his relationship with Victoria.

Damarah was actually rather fond of the Thorne girl. She had something that all women who lived in the slums lacked – innocence. One of Damarah's frequent clients, as he had been describing her, had said she was "still shiny." Damarah liked that – still shiny, like the world was still bright and fresh and new about her, instead of run-down and tired and old.

Damarah glanced at the door and saw the very client who had dubbed Victoria "shiny" entering the tavern. She grinned broadly and sauntered down the tavern stairs to meet him. "Mr. Mercer," she said, the smile on her face also apparent in her voice.

Mercer glanced over his shoulder and returned the grin. "Miss Stovall," he said, inclining his head. "Been busy this evening?"

"Not a customer all night," she said, pouting slightly. "They've been drooling over other, more worthy prey."

"I can't begin to imagine who that might be," Mercer said. The banter was easy and familiar, and Damarah liked it. Mercer didn't flirt, ever, with anyone; she was the only exception to this very solid rule, and even then the flirtation wasn't remotely genuine - it was simply a cover for their more important business.

She raised an eyebrow and nodded slightly in the direction of the stairs. "Come up and I'll tell you about her," she offered.

Mercer shrugged slightly. "I can't stay," he said. He didn't sound particularly regretful.

If he were any other man, Damarah would have pouted until he gave in, but it was unlikely he would have remained, anyway. Mercer only rarely used the services she offered as a whore, and only when he'd been having an incredibly difficult time of it. Since he'd been employed by a new noble – he'd never told her who – he hadn't had a bad week. Damarah simply shrugged and led him upstairs to her room.

When the door was safely shut and barred, she said, "That girl you wanted to know about – the Thorne girl – she was here tonight."

"Was she, now?" Mercer didn't appear to be surprised. "What was she doing here?"

"Meeting with Orson Shaw," Damarah said in disgust. "He's the one who's her lover, you know. I told you about him last time."

"I remember," Mercer said. He leaned casually against the wall and asked, "What are Orson's intentions towards Miss Thorne?"

Damarah shrugged again. "He claims he's going to take her away someday and marry her," she said. "She believes he'll whisk her off into some mystical life of adventure and happiness."

Mercer shook his head slightly, disbelievingly. "Still shiny," he murmured. "I don't remember a time where I was ever so innocent."

Damarah sighed sadly. "Me, neither," she said. After a moment, she continued, "She claims Cutler Beckett's got an interest in her."

Mercer chuckled. "Indeed he does," he said. "Unfortunately for her…"

"I should say so," Damarah agreed. "It's frightened all the pirates here half to death. They think he'll discover her connection with them and use her to wipe them all out. Do you think he's got spies down here, watching us, revealing things to him?"

"Oh, undoubtedly," Mercer said seriously. "So you'd best keep a tight rein on your tongue, or else information may fall into the wrong hands."

"It's only you I ever tell things to," Damarah assured him. "I trust your lord won't use it in the wrong way."

"Oh, don't worry, Damarah," Mercer said. "It'll be used for the common good."

"I'm glad to hear it," she said fervently. She tilted her head slightly to the side and said, "Any more questions?"

"Is Miss Thorne returning here any time soon?"

"I doubt it," Damarah snorted. "The pirates here practically threw her from the tavern once they heard Beckett might be chasing her. She's a willful little thing, though, isn't she?"

"Oh, yes," Mercer said darkly, "But I suspect that won't last much longer."

"Not with Beckett hounding her at every turn," Damarah said, shaking her head. "Poor girl. I only hope she finds out a few things about Orson before she comes back. Maybe that'll ease the pain of her marriage."

Mercer looked intrigued. "Such as…?" he asked.

"Oh, just thinking out loud," Damarah sighed. "Seeing as Orson's married and all already…"

"Is he?" Mercer pounced on this tidbit of information almost gleefully. "To whom?"

"Some girl named Jane," Damarah said, waving a hand dismissively. "I think her last name used to be Thrush. They've got three boys now – lovely children, all. No idea that her husband's been seeing a dainty little rich girl for nigh a year now."

"How tragic," Mercer said, in a voice that clearly indicated he did not believe it tragic at all. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small purse of coins. "Thank you for the information, Damarah," he said, tossing the coins to her.

"I wish you could stay longer," Damarah blurted out, and blushed furiously at the words and wished she hadn't said them.

Mercer looked vaguely surprised by the comment, but seemed preoccupied and therefore didn't say anything rude in response. He waved a hand and muttered, "Maybe another time," and then turned and rushed out, skipping down the stairs and then striding hurriedly out the door.

Damarah watched him go, chewing slightly on her fingernails. Sometimes she wondered if giving him information without knowing his employer was the right thing to do. But she'd known him for years. He was one of relatively few people she trusted, even though she knew implicitly that she shouldn't. She'd let it go a little longer before asking who he worked for.

She nodded decisively, then put on her best smile and waltzed flirtatiously into the middle of the tavern. Time to do some honest business… or as honest of business as could be found in the dark streets of London.