Disclaimer: All fictional characters are owned by the Walt Disney Company, not me. Historical characters are owned by themselves.
Author's Note: This story is AU after the first film (sequels never happened). If it seems familiar, there's a good reason for that. It was written a couple of years ago, but only posted to LiveJournal at the time. It's finished and runs eleven chapters. I'll be putting up a chapter a day. Notes and thanks will be included at the end.
Historical Note: This story is an experiment in dropping POTC characters into an actual historical event: the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741. Most of the non-POTC characters in the story are real people. I did, however, alter history quite a bit. If you're interested, I can tell you at the end what I changed.
Warning: This story contains mature content in later chapters. Please read something else if you aren't comfortable with explicit slash.
In which the offer is made
2 September, 1739
James shut his eyes, but they snapped open again. Above him, the tell-tale compass jerked and rolled in its gimbals, in phase with his swinging bunk. He was deeply, dangerously tired, but he'd never learned to sleep during a blow, and this one was going on its fifth day. The seas had increased in the last hour and his stomach flipped with each little tug of the ship's head toward the wind. All around him, timbers groaned. Most of him knew his ship would hold together, but a corner of his mind argued, and kept him awake.
The Black Pearl must have been in this storm too—he'd watched her vanish under a black horizon blinking with lightning—but Sparrow's supernatural luck had no doubt borne her out of it days ago. Meanwhile, James and his crew of mere mortals toiled on. In Port Royal, his desk was piling up with reports of Spanish guarda costas boarding English ships, and what was he doing? Chasing one little epicene pickpocket who posed no danger to anyone but James himself—not to mention the five hundred hollow-eyed men puking into their hats and working watch and watch without soup or sleep. There was simply no way chasing Sparrow could any longer be considered the act of a rational man.
His eyelids drooped, vision fixed on the compass card dipping and turning. Suddenly the card spun along with his bunk. The ship had yawed, and now it gave a great lee-lurch as the sea struck its quarter. James leapt out of the bunk on the top of the next roll, already scrambling into his breeches.
He pushed through a pack of drenched seamen headed for the wardroom and made for the main deck, lurching forward, holding fast, and lurching again. He reached the top of the ladder just in time to duck as a cold sheet of spray swept the deck. Glossy shapes moved around in the yellow light, the men in their oilskins, and as the wind died for a moment, their thin voices floated above the howl. Suddenly Captain Gillette was at his side.
"The tiller-rope's parted, sir!" he shouted. That explained the yaw that had thrown James from his bunk. "The relieving tackles are holding for now. Groves is seeing to it."
"Damn." James looked up at the wheel spinning free, then at the main topsail, which hadn't flown back yet, at least. He pulled Gillette closer so they could speak without hollering. "Does everything else hold?"
There was a crack, higher than the blast of a gun but nearly as loud, and the foremast gave an agonized groan. The topmast forestay had parted, sending their lone headsail whipping out into the dark where it fluttered off the bow like a ragged spirit. The ship yawed again. With no headsail set, it was impossible to steer, impossible to keep the ship before the wind and out from under the heavy following seas.
"Come up the backstays!" shouted Gillette, his voice nearly lost as the ship crashed down into a trough. "Save that mast, and for God's sake, set the foresail!"
"See to the helm," said James, and rushed forward with a dozen men at his heels.
Barefoot, in nothing but his soaked shirt and smallclothes, James skidded down the gangway. A boy at his side lost his footing and James reached out to gather him up as the ship struck the bottom of the next trough. For a long moment, they could do nothing but push through the water sweeping the waist, blind and deaf in the roaring flood, and then the deck began to rise, the close-reefed topsail caught the wind again, and the ship turned slowly, inexorably off her course.
"Man the yard!" James shouted. "Cut away those gaskets! Hurry!"
Men swarmed up the foremast and out onto the yard, and James waited, breathless, for the sail to drop. The ship was nearly broadside to the sea now; the next wave would sweep them onto their beam-ends. The foresail came down, and for several thunderous seconds it flapped uselessly in the roaring wind. "Sheet home, sheet home!" James cried, even as his eyes fell on the jammed block that held the weather sheet captive. There was no time for an order. He ran to it and pulled it free, tearing the skin from his hands as it escaped, and at last the foresail bellied out. The ship pivoted, falling off the wind, and slowly righted herself.
James clung to a stanchion and caught his breath as certain doom withdrew.
They fought a long, wet battle to set up a new forestay. James wrapped his hands in strips from his shirt and shouted until he was hoarse. Once the mast was out of danger, he made his way aft. He found Gillette beside the restored helm, hollering his orders to the four seamen wrestling the wheel. Around them, the creaking of the yards and braces had begun to lose its urgency, and the light had grown less ghastly.
"When did you last sleep?" James shouted.
"Two days ago, sir."
"Go below. I'll take the con."
"Are you certain? You look—"
Gillette disappeared down the hatchway, and James took his spot beside the wheel, his eyes fixed on the sea chasing them in mountainous swells. His steward brought him a coat, and he shivered in the damp wool as he spoke steadily to the helmsmen keeping the ship before the wind. An hour later, the master relieved him at the con and he staggered below, clumsy with exhaustion, feeling his way toward his cabin with raw, aching hands.
On the ladder, he heard Gillette's raised voice, distinct for just a moment over the din of the complaining ship. James made out the words, "I'll see you hanged!"
Curiosity trumped exhaustion. As he crept toward the wardroom, Gillette's irate voice reached him in fragments. "…Yes, present your case to the Commodore, by all means," it sneered. "Watch your careers turn to ash—I'll make sure of it myself, you blackguards."
"…was just a bit of talk," came Lieutenant Groves's voice, which surprised James. Groves was Gillette's particular friend.
"That kind of talk will get you court-martialed!" Gillette replied.
There was a heavy pause. Then Groves said, "The whole ship's thinking it, I'm just putting words to it. The lower decks all think the Commodore's gone mad."
"The lower decks will follow orders and so will you!" Gillette shouted, and a drop in the wind admitted his voice all over the ship.
James shrank back when footsteps drew near, then the door slammed shut.
Groves was right, of course. It was mad indeed to keep chasing Sparrow. Duty demanded he give it up before men began to die for it. If only he could bring himself to admit defeat.
Three days later, his ship lay in Port Royal Harbor, patiently allowing the dockyard to patch her wounds. Up in his townhouse, James stood in front of his wash basin, naked, sore and stiff. For the first time in weeks, he was alone, and his ears rang in the silence, his skin prickling in the empty space free of other bodies. His drawn curtains had turned his room into a humid cave, and two beads of sweat trickled down his ribs. The wash basin was frosted with a thin gray scum.
In the glass, he saw an unfamiliar face with dark circles under its eyes and a five-day beard. He splashed it, soaped it, and applied the razor to his cheek just beside his ear. There was nothing so pleasurable as warm water and a sharp razor after many days in a blow. He opened his eyes, and the face in the glass looked startled, with its neat rectangle of bare flesh cut from a field of soapy beard. He cut a swath down the opposite cheek.
London wouldn't object if he gave up on Sparrow. They'd probably thank him for it. The shipping interests in Parliament were getting louder, and Sparrow would fade into another frivolous anecdote if James could put the Spanish in their place. He'd be lauded all over the realm. He'd be a hero.
A face was emerging in the glass. A handsome face, a confident face. He craned his neck to draw the blade up over his throat. Sparrow was personally offensive; that had to be why James could not let him go. He'd made a fool of James at least four times, and James saved his most passionate hatred for men who embarrassed him. It was emotional, then, and he was above that.
He splashed his face and looked up. There was James Norrington again—a bit worse for wear, but still the man he'd been before a storm called Sparrow had brought him by the lee. Still the youngest commander-in-chief these waters had ever seen; still a man who served his king before himself. He patted his chin dry.
The parade ground at Fort Charles was crowded with flotsam the storm had washed ashore: warrant officers, lieutenants, Marines, midshipman, clerks. A figure in a tartan coat moved toward him out of the throng. He tried to change direction, but it was too late.
"Commodore!" The man chased after him. "I demand an audience! You have been holding my cargo for six months and I'm this close to writing my friends in the London press to make an example of you!"
James spun around and faced the man, whose name was Margrave. "You've got a lot of nerve coming it high with me," he sneered. "You are a smuggler and a pirate and I'd happily see you hanged. Now get out of my fort or I'll have you removed."
"You twit!" snarled Captain Margrave. "What kind of Englishman are you, taking the Spanish side against English merchants?"
"Merchants!" James laughed. "You are criminals! Mewling your tales of woe about Spanish atrocities when you've all done just as bad or worse. Well, I don't consider it my patriotic duty to accept bribes, sir. You'll get your cargo back when the courts say so—that of it which is deemed legal, anyway."
He went on his way, but his harasser followed. "Norrington the pirate hunter," laughed Margrave. "Bringing law to the Caribbean whether your country wishes it or not. If you're such a man of the law, care to tell us why Sparrow's still free?"
"Sparrow is nothing compared to—" James bit his tongue. Had he just been about to defend Sparrow? "Look to your own house, Margrave. And by the way"—he bared his teeth—"by all means, keep casting aspersions on my loyalty. I have no love of dueling, but I'm in excellent practice with both sword and pistol should you care to test it."
Margrave turned red and stopped, leaving James to walk on.
This was all Ogle's fault. In the six years James had served under him on the West Indies station, he'd never been able to square the middle-aged commodore who humored smugglers with the young captain who'd crushed Black Bart Roberts in '22. Perhaps that was the depressing reality of growing old. When Ogle had been ordered back home, James had inherited an ambiguous world in which England made treaties with Spain it fully expected its subjects to break. In such a world, it seemed pointless to worry about someone as trifling as Sparrow. But James had plans for himself. He could not lug this failure around for the rest of his career.
In his office, his secretary Mr. Sandys was leaving a stack of letters on his desk. "Two from Whitehall," Sandys said, then threw open the shutters and left.
He found the letters from the Admiralty and tore them open. Shortly, his steward hurried in with a pot of coffee, but James didn't touch it. He reread the letters, tapped their edges on the table, then read them again.
On the balcony, with the letters crumpled in his hand, he gazed out upon his little kingdom. Beyond the ships anchored in the roadstead, water bled into sky in a hot blue haze, and as his eyes unfocused in it, shock faded into the beginnings of ideas. The catastrophe contained in those letters might be opportunity in disguise. By the time he sat down to his cold coffee, he almost believed in luck.
"Commodore!" Elizabeth pushed up the brim of her floppy straw hat. "There's tea over there. You'll understand if I don't pour it for you."
"I say," said James, stepping into the garden, "are you quite sure you're supposed to treat it like that?"
"Of course." She set down her knife and fussed with the seedling's pruned boughs, like a governess arranging a little girl's dress. "It won't thrive otherwise."
The little tree shivered in its nudity. Elizabeth gave it a crowning snip and stood back.
"Perfect," said James.
"Sit down." Elizabeth pulled off her heavy gloves as she came over to the table. "Sit. I didn't expect to see you. I thought you'd be down in the harbor."
"I am occasionally capable of delegation," he said, pouring a cup of tea and sitting.
Elizabeth poured her own tea. "Then why do you look like you have business on your mind?"
"I always have business on my mind," he said dryly. "I simply choose most of the time not to speak of it." He endured a few more moments of her glare before saying, "Actually, I have a favor to ask."
"As I thought." Then she blinked. "A favor? You never ask favors of anybody, Commodore. You are a creature of perfect self-sufficiency."
"I do try. But some things fall outside my influence. You see, I need to get in touch with your friend Captain Sparrow."
For once, she ignored the heavy irony he'd loaded onto the word 'captain'. "And what," she said through a frozen smile, "makes you think I could do such a thing?"
His defenses against Elizabeth were formidable by now, but every now and then, he remembered that he was a strange and amusing species to her, not one of her own tribe; that she would never trust him, never want his company the way he wanted hers. No subject had the effect of bringing this into sharper focus than Sparrow.
He looked away. "Mrs. Turner, let us not lie to each other. I know you and your husband keep regular contact with Sparrow. And I assure you that for once, I mean your pet pirate no harm."
"That's…good to hear," she said.
He peered at her; she peered back. "All right," he sighed at last. "Let us suppose you had contact with Sparrow. Were this to be true, you could bear him a message that would have positive ramifications for his life and legal status in these waters."
"It would." He pushed away his tea, frustrated by the blank front she was presenting. "I am changing my policy toward Sparrow—from destruction to assimilation."
Understanding dawned on her face. "A privateer's commission!" Then suspicion returned. "But why?"
"Call it a radical realignment of priorities. My superiors are about to become profoundly uninterested in pirates, except those who fly the colors of Spain." Elizabeth's eyes widened, and he nodded. "War will be declared by the end of the month, and I won't have time to chase Sparrow anymore. However, I think I know a way for everyone to come out ahead. Your father could issue Sparrow a pardon and a letter of marque and reprisal to attack Spanish shipping, at once neutralizing the threat he poses to these colonies and furnishing me with a valuable ally."
Elizabeth smiled. "Are you admitting you need help? From Jack, of all people?"
He shrugged. "My authority in the Caribbean is about to be superseded by a politically appointed admiral who thinks this war is my fault. Any remaining enemies I must either destroy or transform into friends. Sparrow is a trifling enemy, but he could be a good friend were he to direct his energy toward annoying and distressing the Spanish instead of me."
"Annoying and distressing certainly sounds like him. But Jack wouldn't be told what to do. You know how he is—if it's not nailed down, he just can't help himself."
"That," said James coolly, "is his problem. He might bear in mind that although the Spanish are our new favorite enemies, he is no safer from us. These waters will shortly be filled with British warships, all of them very much inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. Someone will take him, probably several someones, bristling with enough guns to sink five Black Pearls. This is an offer he cannot rationally refuse, and I will not make it twice."
Elizabeth was chewing her lip. "I suppose that if I were in contact with Jack—which I'm not"— she glared—"then I might convey this message. If I could."
"Excellent. You have my hypothetical thanks." He picked his tea back up.
"There is one problem," she said. "If Jack wished to come and speak to you, how could he be sure it wasn't a trap?"
"He has my word that just this once, he could leave unmolested. You might, however, also mention that this is a temporary and conditional truce between him and myself alone. Now would be a bad time for him to do something stupid."
"Were I to send him this message, I would make sure that this latter point was most clear."
"You are a wise and clever woman." He did not say it with complete approval.
"And you, Commodore, are a man of hidden depths. Now—if we're done speculating, can you stay a while, or does the harbor require your attention after all?"
"It's my writing desk that requires attention." He looked around at the light dappling through the lime trees, and then back at Elizabeth's radiant face, open and importuning, and stifled the lurch in his chest. None of it was for him. "I'm afraid I cannot linger." He rose. "I have a war to prepare for."
"My compliments to the kitchen," said Jack, swallowing a mouthful of rabbit. He tried to remember his manners, but he hadn't seen a table this magnificent since he'd convinced the Governor of San Juan de Puerto Rico he was the Duke of Calabria. Don Francisco Martinez de Retez, Governor of Portobello, was less of a pushover, but his larder made up for it. "Did I hear you say 'oysters'?"
"They are nearly ready." Don Francisco refilled Jack's wine glass. "I apologize for my hospitality; it was all I could manage at such a late hour. Let me offer you another pepper."
Jack glanced at Don Francisco's glass. Its level never seemed to drop, while Jack's went up and down like a Thames weir-lock. Under the Governor's unassuming Castilian charm was an alert and suspicious mind, and somewhere along the way—probably between the fish pie and the chorizo—Jack had gone from predator to prey. "You're too modest," he smiled, taking an exaggerated sip. "This is a royal feast after what I've been through."
"I'm sure." Don Francisco laid his hand over his heart. "You captains of the treasure fleet are a credit to Spain. I only hope that the storm that swept you from your ship batters the English fleet as well. Even in the peace, we suffered grievously under English pirates, you know, and their navy did nothing to stop them."
"Didn't they?" Jack paused in his chewing. Horrified that he had just considered defending Norrington, he devoured the pepper. "Tricky customers, those English."
"You know much of them? I have never known any, myself…"
"Oh, I've met a few," said Jack. "Savages, mostly. Capable of the most violent turtle."
Don Francisco raised a brow.
"Torture, I mean," said Jack. "Must be the wine. Cape?"
"Canary." Don Francisco studied him. "The commander of our guarda costas here at Portobello has told me about English atrocities—"
"Tastes a bit young, don't you think?" Jack turned his glass appraisingly.
"It ought to. Tenerife had a good vintage this year. But our commander…"
Jack smacked his lips. "Remind me of the gentleman's name?"
"Don Francisco de Abaroa. I do wish he were here; he would delight in your heroic survival tale."
Jack nodded sympathetically. He had to avoid Abaroa at all costs. Two years ago, the man had gone to sleep aboard a thirty-two-gun snow and woken in the bottom of a six-oared longboat, and he probably hadn't forgotten.
"So tell me again," said Don Francisco, "how many days since you were tossed from your galleon?"
"Hard to say, really." Jack started in on the beans—white beans with onions, his favorite. "You lose track of time out there, baking in the sun, all dried out like seaweed on a rock. Say"—he disguised another sip as a gulp—"any word on what's become of my fleet?"
"It is extraordinary that you should wash ashore here." Don Francisco clucked. "Why, it must have been hundreds of miles…"
"Oh, that's simple enough," said Jack. "Porpoises."
"Four of them. Very much like people, those creatures, and as swift as horses. Carried me on their backs."
"All four of them?"
"They took turns. So they wouldn't wear themselves out."
"I see." Don Francisco was eyeing Jack's tattered velvet waistcoat. "You must pardon my rudeness, Don Joaquín, but I cannot place your dialect. Where did you say you were from?"
And there he thought he'd been doing a perfect Catalonian accent. "Here and there," he mumbled. "Barcelona, Ferrol…a spell in Cadiz…" He had only the vaguest sense of where these places were, but the more he piled on, the fewer openings for the Governor to ask questions. "So, my fleet? They ought to be nearly here by now."
"I've received no word yet," said Don Francisco. "As you know, a boat is dispatched here when the treasure fleet is on its way so that I may notify my colleague in Panama. Only then does he send his goods across the isthmus to us to be sold." The Governor peered at Jack. "So you see, it is sensitive information, not something I could give out to just anyone."
Jack made his eyes big and moist. "But I'm not just anyone! Please, I must know what's become of my ship."
The Governor patted Jack's knee. "I'm sure I'd have heard by now if any of the galleons had been lost. Don't worry yourself; have more wine."
This was going nowhere. He might as well just go up the river to Venta Cruz with a few armed men and wait for the mule-trains from Panama to trundle by. But that could take weeks, and if he went inland to seize the treasure from Panama, he'd miss out on the galleons from Spain. The whole point was to capture both. The annual Spanish treasure fleet was a dance of many complex steps, and if a pirate wanted to cut in, he had to watch his feet. The most opportune moment was right before Portobello's legendary fair, when for forty days, New World treasure was traded for Old. But Jack needed to know the whens and the wheres if he was to get a piece of it.
Don Francisco was smiling blandly, sipping like a hummingbird from his ever-full glass. He didn't look clever enough to lie, yet Jack was still playing a defensive game. Did the man even know where those galleons were?
At this point, there was really only one way to find out.
Don Francisco jumped and knocked over his glass when he saw the pistol. Jack smiled reassuringly. "Just tell me where those ships are and no one loses an eye."
"Why, you little snake," the Governor said petulantly, mopping the wine off his waistcoat. "Porpoises, for God's sake…I never heard such a tremendous load of—"
"I can't make any promises if you don't start talking," said Jack, waving the gun.
"I haven't the faintest idea where they are," said Don Francisco. "I've received no word at all."
Jack picked up his wine glass and fixed the Governor with a hard look. "Spaniards in the New World make their own wine," he said softly. "They don't wait for Old Spain to send it. Canary in my glass means somebody visited recently. And this time of year, ports are closed to all but the king's vessels, lest news of the fleet get round. As you know." He leaned across the table and touched the barrel of the gun to the dark patch on the Governor's waistcoat. "Tell me which islands the fleet will touch at and when, and your servants will only have the wine to worry about."
Don Francisco's chin trembled as he watched the gun barrel. "The courier arrived only in these last few days. The fleet touched at Grand Canary a month ago. That is all I know."
"Let's see—" Jack sat back. "If you figure a month for them to waddle here from the Canaries, they should be landing at the French Antilles any day now."
"I suppose," said Don Francisco quietly.
Jack had obviously worn out his welcome. He'd already planned his bolt route through the kitchen so he didn't need to worry about the armed men outside. He finished his beans, drained his wine, wiped his whiskers, belched, and stood.
"Governor," he said with a low bow, "I am greatly in your debt, and I beg you not to take this personally." With the butt of his pistol, he knocked the terrified man on the head. As he arranged the limp body in the chair, he noticed a signet ring on the Governor's hand and snatched it, more out of habit than with any purpose. He dropped it into his spacious coat pocket to join the pieces of eight he'd nicked, and ran.
The jungle embraced him, and he trekked up the coast in the dark, leaving a trail of oyster shells. The question was where to go next. His buccaneer forebears had simply lain to windward of the islands where the treasure fleet made landfall, but his Pearl alone wasn't strong enough for nine armed galleons, and he still had his heart set on the money from Panama.
Logic told him that there was no way to take both, but a deep part of him believed he could always have both. He could round up the old crowd—Benedict Booth and his painted tub of a ship were still around, and Norrington hadn't hung Castor Kennedy yet. Even Deadwater Dan might be worth scraping off the street, as long as they had a few days to dry him out. Jack hated sharing, but drunk pirates were easy enough to talk out of their money.
The sky behind Isla Grande was rose-pink by the time he rowed out to his ship. He'd go to Tortuga first. In addition to friends, he had a modest intelligence network there. Of all treasures, information was the most valuable, for it alone could generate more. Or so he told himself when his pockets were empty.
16 September, 1739
James had not joined the Navy to do paperwork. He'd gone to sea for the intensity of experience, the salt and the stars and the nausea. In port, reviewing logbooks and accounts, he mourned it. But there were trade-offs. If he'd spent his whole life at sea, he would have missed out on one of his life's great pleasures: angry letters to London.
He began one in his head as he left his house on High Street and walked up the sandy hill to Fort Charles, where the sky was streaked with broken clouds fading in the gold dawn. The humid quiet was filled with the knock of hammers in the harbor, where the men working on the careening wharf and capstan-house were getting in a few hours before the noonday heat descended. That the Naval Board had not paid them since July was one of the catalogue of grievances going into the letter. He suspected there was a file at the Navy Office marked "Norrington" into which they dropped his correspondence, held squeamishly between thumb and forefinger. He rather hoped there was.
At the fort entrance loitered Groves, paging slowly through a muster-book as though examining it for codes. James nodded to his hasty "Good morning, sir," and said, "Have you seen Mr. Sandys?"
"He was headed to the agent-victualer's office when I saw him, sir."
"Send someone to fetch him. Tell him to clear his schedule. I owe the Navy Board a large piece of my mind and the home convoy leaves tomorrow."
He left Groves and his muster-book behind and passed onto the parade ground, still dreaming of his letter. Captain Berkeley of the Windsor stood near the guard house, arguing loudly with the storehouse attendant.
"What the devil are you still doing here?" James barked, striding over. "You're supposed to be halfway to the Caracas by now."
"I quite agree," said Berkeley angrily. "As I was explaining to this gentleman, I am still waiting on my provisions, my water and my ordnance stores, and nobody in Port Royal can spare me a boat to send for them."
James sighed. "Find the master-attendant. Tell him Commodore Norrington insists he spare as many boats as you need, immediately. If the Admiral arrives and finds no one watching that coast, we shall all answer for it."
He continued on his way. Up the stairs of the north bastion, he came to a closed door, where he waved over a soldier with a ring of keys. They opened the door to reveal a grumpy Spaniard slouched in a chair by the barred window.
"Captain Elizagaray," James sighed, folding his hands behind his back. In Spanish, he asked, "How fares your eminence?"
"My name sounds like shit in your mouth," sneered the man. "You speak Spanish like a peasant."
"Then it's a good thing I won't be appearing at court anytime soon," James replied. "You've obviously worked hard to wash your own origins out of your mouth, Don Pedro, so let's not trade barbs about gentility, shall we? Now, is there anything I can do to make your grace more comfortable?"
"You could find me a decent chess partner." Don Pedro smoldered, pride still smarting. "Isn't there a single educated man among you?"
James smiled frostily. "Most of us spent our formative years learning to sail and fight, not reciting declensions or reading about the sex lives of pagan gods. Anything else?"
"I wouldn't turn away another bottle of that Montilla wine with dinner," the man muttered.
"You mean the Montilla we seized from your ship?" James chuckled. "Of course, Don Pedro. What's ours is yours again. Now"—he twirled the keys on his finger—"let me remind you how you can regain your freedom."
"For the last time, I will not betray my country!" The Spaniard spat on the floor. "I'll never tell you where those treasure galleons are. Go ahead and torture me if you like!"
"Spare me the histrionics," James sighed. "I save torture for spies—of which you are obviously not one. Spies are usually clever and subtle."
"Oh yes," Don Pedro cried, "insult me all you like. You'll never torment me into speaking against my sovereign king!"
"If I'd wanted to torment you, I wouldn't let you sit here drinking all my wine," James said, and turned to go.
"The only good wine you have on this rock is what you stole from us!" the Spaniard shouted as James shut the door.
He hurried across the parade ground toward the east side, looking over his shoulder. He was about due for a confrontation with Port Royal's Naval Officer, which happened every week like clockwork. He reached his office, shut himself in, threw open the shutters and shed his hat and coat.
From his balcony, Port Royal didn't look like it was at war, but war was full of delays. If one looked closely, one could see the signs. The shipyard was bedlam, doing its best to operate while under construction. Men and rafts crowded the unfinished end of the careening wharf where bare pilings marched out into deeper water, while the Falmouth stooped over the finished end, hove down with her masts nearly sideways. Gouts of white smoke bloomed off her sides where men were breaming the weeds and barnacles off her hull. The smell of burning pitch and sulfur drifted into the room.
Mr. Sandys had been through recently, because new papers had been added to the stacks tiling James's desk. A hydrographic survey from Captain Stapleton; a plan and elevation of a new battery for the windward side of the peninsula; an enormous stack of naval store accounts; a letter from the Ordnance Board accusing James of "subversive shenanigans." James read this last item with relish, already composing his reply.
Just as he was about to pick up the accounts, there was a knock at the door.
"Sandys?" he called. "Get in here, for heaven's sake."
The door burst open. "This cannot continue, Commodore!" cried the Naval Officer, striding over to James's desk. "You are running up a tab the Navy Board shall refuse to settle. I can only make so many excuses. You're a damned profligate!"
"What I am is in a hurry," James said, leaning back in his chair. "Admiral Vernon will be here in less than a month. If we can't keep our own ships repaired on schedule, what are we going to do with a whole battle squadron? I trust you shall tell their lordships as much. Now, good day."
"Norrington, this is unacceptable, I—"
"Out!" James rubbed his temple.
Miraculously, the man obeyed.
James leaned on his elbows and rubbed his eyes, listening to the sounds of construction in the harbor. The Admiral. What would he find when he arrived? A tiny port with half-finished refit facilities and no stores, nor certainly any progress against the Spanish. And who would the Admiral hold accountable for this state of affairs? There wasn't enough time or money, especially if James's ships kept crawling home without Spanish prizes.
After a minute, there was another knock on the door.
"That had better be Sandys!" James shouted.
The door opened and Lieutenant Groves put his head inside.
"What is it?" James looked up at him. "I have a stack of accounts here that makes the Principia Mathematica look like a grocer's list. Well?"
"Sir, there's someone here to see you."
"Unless they're Sandys, tell them to come back later." James picked up the accounts. They weren't the ones he needed for his letter. He tossed them back down.
"Sir, it's a Frenchman," said Groves.
"I don't care if it's a Spanish Infanta. If Sandys is not here with this month's construction expenditures in the next ten minutes, there's going to be trouble." Groves didn't move. James sighed. "What's his name? What does he want?"
"He says his name is Cassini de Thury, and that he is working on the problem of the longitude. He wants a safe conduct pass to measure magnetic variation in the waters off Jamaica."
"Safe conduct?" James frowned. "That's a matter for the foreign office, not me."
"He doesn't look like he's going to go away. Perhaps you could explain the proper bureaucratic process to him, sir."
"Fine, fine, send him in. And find Sandys!"
Groves slipped out, and after a moment, the door flew open and in strutted a man in a velvet boot-sleeved coat and an explosion of snowy ringlet curls. His face, beard and mustache were all powdered, hair and flesh alike caked with a waxy, necrotic paste. There was a livid beauty mark under his left eye.
James leapt to his feet. "You look ridiculous," he hissed. "Shut the door!"
Sparrow kicked the door shut with one red heel. "You don't think your dim lieutenant suspected me, do you?"
"He was probably just being polite," James said through his teeth. "Now sit down and—I can't talk to you when you're wearing that ludicrous thing."
"It's all the rage in Paris." Sparrow didn't lift a finger toward the extravagant headwear. "I'm the very picture of a young vicomte about town."
"Which is odd, since you're posing as a scientist." James sat. "Well—it's nice to see you've obviously robbed the French recently. Now, to business. I take it you received my message."
"I did, an' I promised not to say how."
James thinned his lips. "You two are a matched pair."
"So I've always said. Now, the way I understand it, you want to give me something valuable in exchange for something valuable, which is how it usually works. I see the value of what you're giving me. What I'm asked to tender is a bit more vague. Long experience tells me you have more conditions hidden up your sleeve."
"My sleeves aren't the suspicious ones here," James muttered, eying Sparrow's roomy cuffs. "All I'm asking is that you limit your depredations to Spanish ships. If you take an English ship or otherwise molest and assail British subjects, you revert to your status as public enemy and I hunt you down, this time with twice the forces I had at my disposal before."
Sparrow trailed a hand over the edge of the desk, and James kept track of the items nearby. Sparrow poked a dirty finger at the inkstand. "I'd also have to give you a piece of it, wouldn't I?"
"An' wait around for some prize-court to drop a few groats into me 'umbly outstretched palm."
"Look," said James, exasperated, "the life of a privateer involves a bit more administrative hassle than that of a pirate, but it's time to grow up, Sparrow. I don't know if you noticed, but the age of true piracy is over." He smiled. "Your kind has given way to me, I'm afraid."
"Well then," Sparrow grinned, "you must be mighty hacked off about this admiral comin' to take your place."
James's smile vanished. "That's none of your business." He laced his fingers. "Like I said, your days are numbered, and when the squadron from England arrives, you will vanish without even a memory to mark your passing."
Sparrow smiled at that. Then he stroked his beard with the head of his cane, parting it into waxy clumps. "Elizabeth said you mean to save your reputation—to 'assimilate' me, as you put it. Which, clever move, my respects. But if, as you claim, your reinforcements will forthwith render me obsolete, why bother? Why give me a way out on the very eve of your victory?"
James saw no particular downside to being honest. "Because," he said, "you were mine to catch, not theirs."
Sparrow threw his head back, white curls flying, and laughed. "If I weren't so intelligent," he said, still chuckling, "I'd believe you. Your fleet can give the Spanish all the hell they need. Tell me what you really need Captain Jack Sparrow for."
James sighed. "Very well. Do you know what azogue is?"
"Of course. Slippery stuff, looks like metal, gives you a rash."
"Don't be obtuse. As a man who's deeply interested in precious metals, you know exactly what quicksilver is for. The Spanish use it to extract silver from the ore they mine in Peru. Every year in Cadiz, they put a vast quantity of it aboard a fleet of galleons and send it here, to the Spanish Main. Once those galleons have disembarked their cargo, they load up with other valuables, including prodigious amounts of bullion and specie—are you listening?"
"Sorry. Listening now. Specie?"
"Money, Sparrow, money."
"I know what bloody specie is." Sparrow picked his teeth with the pin of a brooch that could have sustained an Italian principality for a year. "The only specie I'm interested in is the kind that is potentially mine."
"I'm getting there." James wrinkled his nose at Sparrow's display of hygiene. "The Spanish have a dangerous habit of concentrating their wealth, especially all the way out here where it is vulnerable to the likes of us. If you can help me locate that treasure fleet, then I can assure you a portion of the money that is at this very moment making its way from Panama to Portobello, where it will be traded for the cargo on those ships." He leaned back and let himself dream. "If I were to take that money and those ships, it would be an economic blow to Spain they would need years to recover from. I want those ships, and I want what is destined for them, and if we work together we stand a good chance of securing both."
Sparrow put up his feet. "You know, it occurs to me, Norrington, that you are a natural pirate. Have you ever considered—"
"There is a crucial difference between myself and a pirate," snapped James, leaning across his desk and knocking Sparrow's feet away. "I want these things for my country. A pirate wants them for himself."
Sparrow put his feet back up. "What you want is to snatch up those ships for yourself before that admiral can steal your glory."
James pursed his lips. "So what if I do?"
Sparrow took his feet off the desk and sat up. "If I want that swag, I don't need you to get it, Norrington. Tell me one good reason, other than this vague and rather biblical threat of death you hold over me, why I should settle for one piece of the pie when I could have the whole bloody thing?"
"Because you aren't that good," snarled James. "You think you're special, Sparrow, but true buccaneering died with Bartholomew Roberts and Hector Barbossa. You are just a common thief."
"Then why haven't you caught me yet?"
"The ability to run away does not make you a good pirate."
"Then why do you need my help?"
"Because to catch these galleons, I require something I do not possess: dishonesty."
"Well, then," Sparrow grinned, showing a glint of gold, "if that's all it is—see you at the finish line, Commodore."
James started forward. "That's it, then? You're throwing away the chance of a pardon and a significant amount of honestly made cash just because I won't let you have it all?"
"Aye, pretty much." Sparrow stood and copped a grotesque bow, holding back the ringlets that flopped onto his shoe buckles. "A pleasure as always. Give me regards to the ex-future-Mrs. Commodore and her bonny swain."
"Very well," James said softly. "Next time we meet, I shall show no mercy. Though in all likelihood, it won't even be me who finds you."
"I do so hope it's you," said Sparrow with a sinister smile. "Wouldn't be right, gettin' caught by some starched ninny who don't know me from Adam. As opposed to one who does."
James swallowed. "Out of curiosity," he said, leaning back, "when you came in here knowing you would refuse my offer, how were you planning on getting out?"
Sparrow flipped aside an enormous cuff to reveal an ivory-handled pistol. "Bit of insurance," he smiled.
"There's no need," said James. "We'll have plenty of opportunity next time."
"You'll forgive me if I don't look forward to it." Sparrow edged over to the door, opened it a crack, and slipped out.
James released a sigh. He had the most peculiar feeling, as though something—an age, an idea, a sheltered belief—had come to an end.
There was a knock, and the door opened. "You needed me, sir?" asked Mr. Sandys.
To be continued...