"My Lord, I must protest in the strongest of terms! You have no idea what this island is like. Even if you are not attacked by natives, the insects alone could eat you alive." William Marbry tried to look as agitated as his words would imply, but underneath he did not feel the urgency. Indeed, he already knew that this island might swallow up this noble lord from the high country.
"Oh, come now, my dear Marbry," Jacob Harcourt said with a pococurance that amused Marbry even while it irritated him. "Many Englishmen have managed to live on this island without getting killed. Or eaten. I see no reason why I should be the exception."
"Your father was such as exception," Marbry pointed out.
"Indeed, and a unique one, apparently. There have been no pirate attacks on an islander house since then, and there were damnably few before. Why is that, Governor?"
"You will have to ask the pirates who did it, Lord Harcourt, if you ever see them face to face and live to speak of it."
Harcourt mused. "I understand that the Captain you claim was responsible for my father's death died two years ago."
Marbry treated Jacob Harcourt with a penetrating stare. "Yes, but his crew lives on, and they have a new captain now. The ship, called Jacob's Ladder, is crewed by many of the same men, and is led by one of the true monsters of the Caribbee', Bloody Beth."
Harcourt's eyebrows arched. "A woman?"
"A creature of indeterminate sex. I would argue that such a beast as she has little enough soul to be considered a human being. I have set my finest man, Captain Alison, upon her trail, but he has one ship, and she another, and she knows these waters better than anyone."
"Yes, I have met Captain Alison," Jacob replied. "A dour looking man. I do not suppose he will have as much luck in the next month as he has had in the past year." Jacob glanced around the ornately appointed room for a moment, then said, "I still must insist, Governor, on seeing my lands."
Marbry waved one hand dismissively. "Very well, Lord Harcourt. If you are determined to go and imperil your life in such a fashion, you are welcome to do so. I insist on giving you four guards for you and your lady. They will know the way to your father's old estate."
"Thank you, Governor." He bowed politely, as did the governor and his assistant, and then he left. When he reached the ground floor he found his friend and assistant, Parr, waiting for him.
"We are going to your father's estate?"
"We are, Parr. Inform Lady Elaine. There will be six of us. Herself, myself, and four soldiers. Have our belongings packed."
Parr bowed. "It will be done, my lord."
Harcourt made his way through the Governor's mansion to the guests' quarters, where the Lady Elaine awaited his return. When he arrived, he entered their apartment without announcing himself. "My Lady?"
Her voice called from an inner room. "In the bath, Jacob."
"May I enter?" he asked.
"Of course, dear husband," she responded. When he walked in, he found her naked, kneeling next to the bathtub, conscientiously wiping the dirt of travel from her body. It had been such a long and terribly dull voyage that both of them had been glad to get back onto solid ground. "It is not as bad as I recall from my youth when my Father traveled to the Far East, but I will admit that this place does not have a civilization to speak of."
Jacob knelt. "You are a civilization all your own." He kissed her naked shoulder. "And a balm upon my soul. Are you ready to do this? The house may be a ruin."
"Of course I am!" she said. "Jacob, anywhere with you is home enough. We have some nets, and blankets. I shall survive. Now, you will want to stand back. I am going to rinse." She picked up a wide, shallow basin and spread the water across her shoulders. It streamed over her large and perfect breasts and down her thighs. To Jacob, it was Venus emerging from the sea, a supernal demonstration of the Lady Elaine's beauty. He wondered, given her beauty, what it was that she saw in him. She could have had any man from among the many who offered themselves to her. He still did not know what he had done to be so blessed with a wife so beautiful, and so sharp, as this-- especially with his family life in such dire straits.
She stood, the water still sheeting off of her. His heart beat loud in his chest. He handed her a towel, and she accepted it with a smile. "Allow me to dress."
Reluctantly, he went out to the horses. Four guards waited for him there, each with his own horse as well. "Lieutenant," he said to the one in charge, "My wife will be joining us in a few minutes. We will be waiting for her here."
"Of course, sir," the Lieutenant replied, his manner of speech lackadaisical, almost resentful. Jacob ignored it for the most part. In these barbarous extremities of the empire one could hardly expect professionalism from even the best trained men. The heat, the distance, and the lawlessness all encouraged a lack of discipline. The other men in their party were no better-- slovenly, dusty of dress and unshaven of appearance.
Elaine joined them shortly. The guards would be scandalized by her dress-- tight pants of the sort male equestrians rode, a blouse shirt, and a hat into which she had tucked most of her golden tresses. If not for the obvious bounty beneath that shirt one might mistake her for another nobleman out on a ride. Jacob found the display amusing. "Ready, my dear?"
"Of course," she replied as she mounted-- straddled!-- her horse. The soldiers eying her seemed overcome with discomfort. "Husband?"
"Lieutenant, would you lead?"
"What? Oh. Yes, of course. Sir." With a smart turn, the man took the reins of his horse and began leading them out of town.
The morning heat had all six of them sweating even before they reached the edge of town. The "road" was little more than a dirt trail just wide enough to walk two horses side-by-side, and it had overgrown quite a bit in the past decade. Someone still used it, for there was evidence of fresh tracks on the ground, at least two horses, if Jacob read the trail correctly. "Is there any other house on this road, Lieutenant?"
"Not that I'm aware of," the soldier responded. "Just your father's lands."
"Then who would be riding out here this morning?"
"I can't say, sir. We should perhaps be careful in case they turn out to be bandits."
Jacob nodded. He did not like coincidence. The whole island could know he was here by now. He did not welcome the idea that the pirates who had killed half his family might be here now to finish the job once and for all. "We must be cautious."
They pressed on. Another hour passed. Jacob had never before seen a land that seemed to be both so desolate and yet so fecund. The sun blazed down with a ferocity that must have made the hardiest of beasts falter, but somehow the scrub grew to enormous heights, the strange trees stood against the heat, and the hills glowed with vegetation. His father must have truly found something to love about this place, to take himself and his daughter here to be raised in such a wilderness and at such risk. Jacob feared he would never know what it was.
The road narrowed slightly at a wide bend. Two people leading horses appeared from at the far edge of that bend. Both were dressed as one would expect of aristocracy: the lady in a white riding dress and a wide-brimmed white hat to keep out the sun, the man in a white shirt with a blue vest and cream-colored pants. "Hello!" Jacob called. "Are you well?"
"As well as could be expected," the man called back. "We decided to walk the horses. They were panting hard in the heat. I am Patrick Patria. This is my lady, Elizabeth." The woman glanced up for just a moment, waving a white-gloved hand.
They approached. "Can we be of assistance to you?" Jacob asked once the distance was closed. "Water? May I ask what you are doing out here?"
It was the lady who answered. "We are looking for you, Jacob Harcourt." In an instant, her hands were out, two pistols aimed at the heads of the Lord and Lady Harcourt. Men appeared from the dense undergrowth wielding rifles. "Lieutenant! Tell your men to throw down their arms!"
"I... I... " The soldier hesitated.
"Do it, you fool!" Jacob hissed. "Now!"
"Yes, sir." He nodded to the men behind him. As one, they dropped their arms by their horses.
"Spike," the woman with the pistols said, "One at a time, have the soldiers dismount, and then tie them up as we agreed."
A sour-looking man grinned. "Aye, aye, Captain."
Jacob felt a chill run down his spine. Captain? Then this was the infamous Bloody Beth, come to finish the job her predecessors had begun. He wondered how long he might have to live. They might be merely trying to ransom him. They must not have known about the family fortune, or lack thereof. He did not have a ransom's worth to give up.
"Off the horse, Jacob."
"You will address me as 'my lord.'"
"I will do no such thing," the woman replied. She looked into his face and it startled him. She had the same green eyes as his mother. It was strange to see them in such a face, so hard with the sea, so dark with the sun. "In case you have forgotten, I am holding a pistol on both you and your lady. You will follow my orders to the letter, regardless of my choice of address. Do you understand?"
Jacob swallowed. He decided not to argue with this aliene. "Yes." He dismounted swiftly.
"And you, Lady Harcourt. What is your given name?"
"Elaine," the lady responded even as she stepped off her horse.
Bloody Beth looked up at Jacob with a smile. "You did well for yourself, Jacob. I like her. A woman with the sense to dress for a horse is a good woman to have." Beth examined Elaine closely. "And she is beautiful, as well."
"Who are you to be addressing me in so familiar a fashion?" he demanded, outraged at the impertinence of this woman.
The pirate woman slammed him up against a tree, a pistol against his throat. "I am the pirate Bloody Beth, you foppish jackass. And if you value your life, you will behave yourself. Is that understood?"
Jacob nodded as the blood ran from his face, leaving him cold in the blazing sun. "Yes."
"Good. Come. We have a trip to make."
"Where are we going?" Jacob demanded.
Beth smiled. "We are completing your journey, and beginning another one. We are going to the Harcourt mansion, to her beach, and to my vessel, the Jacob's Ladder. More will be revealed. Eventually. Behave yourself, Jacob, and you may well end up more than merely alive at the end. You may well end up rich."
That last line confused Jacob. Beth's men took the soldiers' horses and now six of them rode up to Harcourt mansion.
The sight of it broke Jacob's heart. What had once been one of the finest examples of Spanish architecture on the Jamaican Islands now lay in ruins. The paint had long ago flaked away. Creepers indiscriminately covered much of the house, and all the glass had been destroyed. One corner of the west wing appeared to have collapsed. The stains of ten years' worth of wild animals littered the fountain and brick courtyard in front. There was no sign that once, a great and noble family had ruled here.
"Come," the piratess said, leading them round the back of the house, toward the water. She led them through a thicket of trees and down a steep hill to an open beach. The sand was as white as the clouds above. "There." She pointed to where a skiff lay on the beach, waiting for them. Two men raised their hands and waved the party on. Maybe two hundred yards offshore lay a ship.
"Can you stand more time on the sea?" Beth asked.
"We have no choice, I take it?" Jacob asked.
"None," Beth agreed. They loaded into the skiff and headed for the Jacob's Ladder. The water in this natural cove was tolerably still, although a stiff breeze blew through. "Thank you for not making this difficult, Jacob. It will be easier this way."
"If Elaine and I are to die, it may as well be done with courage."
"Die?" The Pirate Bloody Beth giggled like a girl. "Jacob, now that I have you on the water, I must be honest with you. My guns are not loaded."
"WHAT?" he shouted.
"I could no more kill you than I could my own flesh and blood. I told you, you are not in danger. Either of you." She put her pistols away, then turned to the front of the boat. "How are we doing, Bart?"
"We'll be away from here the second you're on board. The men have already hauled one anchor."
"Oh, and Jacob, do not try anything foolish or heroic. We all still have knives, and we all swim far better than you or your lady."
Jacob allowed himself to be led up the ladder into the pirate vessel. "Men, keep his lordship here. I will be taking the lady down."
Jacob protested as Elaine was led down into the ship's rear deck. He bit his lip, hoping they would not be too rough on her. When Beth emerged, she gestured to the two men holding him. He went, reluctantly, down the same hole his wife had disappeared through moments earlier. He was shown the door to a small cabin in the stern. It held a single cot and a broad window without glass. When the door closed again, he was alone with the Captain. "Sit, Jacob. There are chairs."
He took one and made himself comfortable. "What is to happen to me?"
"Nothing, actually. We are going to take a quick sail over the horizon, just to get away from Captain Alison and his men, and while we are here, you and I are going to talk. By the dawn of the day after tomorrow, you and your lovely wife will be returned to the shore, none the worse for wear. You have my word."
Jacob glanced around the small room. It had a chest of maps on the wall, the rolled up scrolls kept inside by a strand of twine netting them in. On another wall was a collection of pistols, also tied down. The bedding behind Captain Beth was old and worn, but seemed sturdy enough. A table occupied the wall opposite where he sat, and on it sat a tiny wooden chest. "What shall we talk about, Pirate Beth?"
She was silent for a long time before answering his question with another. "What was your mother like, Jacob?"
The strange question took Jacob off guard for a moment. "Why do you ask?"
"I didn't get to have one, Jacob. Tell me about yours." Her voice ached with a loneliness Jacob did not understand.
He paused to gather his recollection. "She was a sad woman, and not a strong one. She was shorter than I, given to bouts of crying at inopportune times. She taught me my letters. When father was killed she took up the reins of the family until I was old enough to take over." He sighed. "She died a year ago."
"Oh, no." Beth turned her face away, looking out the rectangular portal to the sea. "No. It can't be." She then swore with language that made Jacob blush.
"What is it?" he asked. "Did you know her?"
Beth turned. Her face was streaked with tears. "No, Jacob. I did not. But I wish I had." She walked across the cabin, opened the tiny chest atop the table, and pulled out a cross on a chain. "Here," she said. "Take this." She dropped it into his open hand.
Jacob turned the gold cross over. There was something written on the back. In the light of the single candle, he read, "'To my beloved child Elizabeth on her sixth birthday. Kendal Harcourt. 1656.'" He looked up. "What does this mean?"
"You should be smart enough to figure it out, Jacob." The smile on her face was not enough to hide her pain.
But then he realized what she was saying. The cross. Her eyes. Her mercy toward him. "But it cannot be," he said. "You cannot be she."
She walked over to him and, to his shock, knelt at his feet. "I am. Jacob, look at me."
He examined her face, not entirely sure what it was he sought. "You have her eyes. Mother's eyes, you have them. I saw that earlier." He looked out the same portal she had stood at earlier. The moon was rising out there; he could see its sheen on the water. "Could you really be my sister?"
"How... How did this happen?"
Beth gestured to the cabin. "This ship was named for you, Jacob. It was Father's personal merchant privateer. Father had an arrangement with King George, Jacob. He was to take control of a gold mine somewhere in the far south of the Spanish Main. It was a small operation, but it would be worth many thousands of pounds to our family, and it would finance the Dutch Wars evermore. But another islander wanted control of the operation. He sent in troops to murder the Harcourt household, then informed George that the operation was a loss."
Jacob was stunned. "I've never heard of any gold mining operation in the Caribbee', and we're not supposed to even be in Mexico."
"Not Mexico. Much further south. This ship was made large enough and fast enough to haul the gold after it was made into bars. It was supposed to be a secret source of funding. Father wanted to make as little noise as possible-- get in, get out. But the gold is now hidden somewhere on the southern coast, and only two people know where that is. I am one of them."
"And the other?"
"The other is our mortal enemy, Jacob. He is a strong and willful man, and he wants to be respected. He thinks the gold will get him what he can never have-- honor." She took a deep breath. "When I was eight years old, Jacob, that man led a band into my home, our father's home, and slaughtered every man and woman there. He took a map to the gold, but the map has no numbers on it. I know the numbers. I know to where the map points. I don't even need it to get the gold."
"Who is this man? How can he find the gold?"
"The man is William Marbry."
Jacob was shocked. It was no less than Beth had expected. "The Governor? I admit, he seems a hard man, but to murder our father?"
"I saw it with my own eyes. He had a man with him from father's ship, Jacob, a man known by the name of Drunk Dog." She sat down next to him. "As for how he can find it: the King has, upon Marbry's urging, commissioned an accurate mapping of the southern coast. If they do that, they'll find the landmarks and shapes they'll need to find the gold. It's only a matter of next summer, Jacob, and they will steal away with our family's treasure." She paused. "The Duke of Coke has taken on the task of funding the mapping; I suspect that he has a hand is this somewhere, but I can prove nothing yet. He may simply be abiding for a cut of the take."
Jacob was looking at his sister unsurely. "And you... you grew up all these years here, on this vessel. How could you stand it?"
She smiled. "Did I have a choice?"
He shook his head. "I am so sorry I did not know. If only I--"
She cut him off immediately. "Jacob, you were but four years my elder. What could you possibly have done? Led an army to save my life? Nobody knew I was here, and if old Jake had tried to ransom me off, I would have been dead inside a week, thanks to Marbry. I suppose he could have tried to ransom me off somewhere else, but... my life is here, Jacob. Until I kill Marbry and reclaim our fortune, I will not leave Jamaica."
Jacob mulled it over in his mind. "I don't... what can we do?"
"First, we get you reunited with your wife." She walked to the door. "Spike, could you escort the lady Elaine here shortly? Thank ye."
They waited until the lady Elaine joined them. She ignored Beth and embraced Jacob whole-heartedly as if decorum was a trifling matter in these circumstances. Beth wondered, idly, if Elaine might be at least part invert. She shook her head and banished the thought. Elaine was Jacob's wife, and although Beth might be perverse, she would certainly respect the marriage vows!
Elaine's eyes widened upon seeing her husband apparently unharmed. "Jacob! What is happening?"
Jacob cleared his throat and put an arm's distance between himself and his wife. "Elaine, I have an introduction to make. This is the Piratess Bloody Beth, or, as I once knew her, Elizabeth Rowena Harcourt, my sister."
Elaine's eyes widened as she regarded Beth, her mouth fallen open in a fetching pose. She examined the piratess with a stare that Beth felt down to her nether lips. "She does look like your mother, Jacob," Elaine said finally. "But- are you sure?"
"It isn't as if we have the same birthmark or some such minstrel nonsense, but I'm as sure as I could be. She is the right age and she has my sister's baptismal cross with my father's inscription on it." He regarded Beth. "And there's something else. I feel it. You act like one of my family. I can't put my finger on it, but I know you're Elizabeth Harcourt."
Beth's smile betrayed her inward thrill. "To be recognized by my brother, to be part of a family again, and not one of pirates and criminals! Oh, Jacob, you have no idea what this means to me!"
Jacob smiled, and embraced Beth momentarily. "We have much discuss."
Beth's demeanor took on a wary tone. "Yes. And I have put your life into danger, Jacob. Marbry will know that I have taken you. He will assume that you will know of his treachery. If I put you ashore--" She swore loudly, forgetting her manners and her brother's disposition. "I am a fool!"
"Perhaps not, sister," Jacob said. "For all we know, those sorry excuses for soldiers that led me to my estate this day were my assassins, come to finish the job and ensure that you and I never met."
"What we need, husband, sister, is a plan." Lady Elaine said it so simply that Beth almost missed the title. Elaine had called her 'sister.' That one word made her heart soar even higher.
Beth thought furiously. It had been a mistake to take Jacob like this, in the open with Marbry knowing that she had him. On the other hand, Jacob was equally correct that had she not kidnapped him, it was very likely that he would have been dead by dawn. She needed a way to indict Marbry, to reveal his and Coke's treachery to King George, while keeping all of them alive. She needed the gold. She needed hard evidence. And she needed an agent of the King who could be turned to her advantage, one who would prove a ready and yet unimpeachable testament to the truth of the Harcourt plight.
"I think I have an idea," she announced. Jacob and Elaine looked up expectantly. "But I cannot put it into practice for a few weeks. I have news from some contacts in Kingston that a second vessel is coming from England to assist in my capture." She grinned. "That may turn out to be fortuitous."
"What? The doubling of the number of people out to kill you would be good luck?" Elaine asked.
"Yes. Because unless I miss my guess, that means that the Queen Mary's Ranger will not be headed back to port." She looked up at them. "That is sure to be bad news for the command crew, who after three years are welcoming the end of their commissions and their return to England. If Marbry is not going to give it to them, they are going to be very upset indeed.
"With you two, I might convince the good Captain Allison that I am not what Marbry portrays me to be. It would mean that I would need to take Allison aside without alerting Marbry or his men, but that shouldn't be difficult. I know of a few places he haunts on his own. I know of one in particular that we have in common." She allowed a memory of Amalyn to cross her mind's eye before coming back to the here and the now.
"But what do we do in the meanwhile?" Jacob asked.
"How do you feel about becoming pirates?" Beth replied.
"Oh, Jacob! I can barely stand it!" Elaine had her arms wrapped about herself as if she were trying to hold something inside before it exploded like a keg of powder. Jacob turned to look at her, concerned that she might be despairing, but the look in her eyes was one of unmistakable glee. "Oh, the adventure of it!"
"My beloved wife," he said, "You must see the other side of it. We are to live out a month without even the simplest of pleasures we found on the Oxford. Can you imagine it? Bathing in the rain-- in the open! Without soaps or oils. And what do pirates eat? It must be salted, preserved, or so high as to be a danger to them all. And this cabin is..."
"Hush, Jacob." She reached out and pulled him down into her lap. "This cabin is our new home. If your sister does not lie then it is possibly true that she has saved our lives." She hugged him tightly. "And perhaps restored your family fortune."
"You knew?" he asked, tearing himself from her arms to stand and stare. "You knew all along that the family fortunes were gone, our enterprises burned down?"
"From before I married you," she said, her smile returning.
"Then... " Jacob found himself at a loss for words. "Elaine, I don't understand. I'm just a man with a title then. The estate is up for mortgage, the lands are to be parceled for more useful tasks upon my return. You must have understood that what little money I have left will go to my debtors. We'll be ruined when we get back." He thought. "If we do get back."
"If that is to be the case, beloved, then I will be ruined with you." She frowned. "Did you really think that I married you for the money? I have often told you that it is you I loved, not your money, or your title."
Jacob sank slowly to the floor, to kneel before her as she sat on the tiny cot they were to share together. "My beloved Elaine, you must forgive me for questioning you ever before. When I thought that you thought that I was rich--" He paused to think that phrase again, making sure he had got it right. "Then, I could not know. Look at you, Elaine. You are a goddess who walks among us, a creature of perfect skin, strong bone. You are my Helen, Elaine, my Aphrodite. For you, I would launch two thousand ships, every corvette, schooner, dhow, brigand and junk I could to recover you again." He paused. "I have never felt worthy of the attention you give to me so freely, Elaine, because I thought we were living a lie together. I so feared you learning the truth."
"I have always known the truth, Jacob." She touched his face. "It is you I have desired, Jacob. It is you that makes my sex weep with joy every time I see you. If I am Aphrodite, then you are my Apollo, for it is your beauty that inflames me. You have not the soldier's look to your body, but that is no look for me. You are a man, Jacob, and you come equipped with proper tools of manhood." Her hands reached down the length of his tunic, where his rampant prick awaited her touch. "You may not know this, Jacob. Have you ever had a chance to compare yourself to other men?"
Jacob shook his head. "No. I have no cause to look. I am no invert."
"I have had cause to compare notes with other women at the salon, Jacob, and they tell me that from my descriptions you are very well endowed. Perhaps not overso in size, but in your strength, Jacob. None of their men last so long as you, and none of them go more than once. You are a master of the love bed, Jacob, and I have no reason to dismiss you on that account." She let him go, leaned back with her arms to support her, and said, "I would ask that you master me, Jacob. Please. On this ship of scoundrels."
Jacob's hands slid along the length of her riding pants. "I'm afraid, Elaine, that you would have to be dressed differently for it to be that easy."
She looked down. "Yes, this does make it difficult." She tore at the drawstrings that held the waist cinched, kicking off her boots. Jacob assisted her, putting her boots into a corner and then pulling her pants down to her ankles. Even as she removed the blouse she had worn that morning, Jacob shed his clothes readily and fell upon her with abandon. "Yes, my husband!" she gasped as the thickness of his prick pressed against her inner thigh. "Yes, now!" she gasped.
He was inside her almost immediately. "God, yes!" she groaned. She looked up into his eyes. His lust was hard upon him, yet he was still the gentle man she knew and his caring for her glowed in his face. His prick, solid as a ship's mast, was within her, fulfilling her role as a woman, emptying and filling her over and over again. His body was all the strength she would ever need to get through life. She was wild with lust, with desire, with the obscene pleasure her mother had told her was the reward of men only, but she felt it every time Jacob was upon her.
He lasted, oh he lasted! And with every minute another rise, another crest, another wave of ecstasy broke upon the shores of her soul. She could forgive him any transgression if he would save this one gift for her and her alone! Her back arched to meet the heavy impact of his body. She moaned his name. She blessed him.
And his own ecstasy came to him in a flash. He climaxed with a scream, only a second of which lasted before he buried his face in the blankets of the cot, muffling it, trying not to arouse or upset the pirates with whom they guested.
He pushed himself up with his hands, his prick still within her, his eyes alight with pleasure. "You have blessed me again, dear wife."
"No, my love, you have given me the true pleasures of the flesh." She caressed his face. "I love you, Jacob."
"As I do you, Elaine." He kissed her cheeks, and she adored the touch of his lips to her body. "But if you are expecting me to be a hero tonight, please, do not ask it of me. I could do it, but after the shocks of the day I think I would rather rest."
She understood him completely. "Then let us rest, beloved Jacob. It has been a day to remember. And we will have opportunities soon."
He fell beside her. "Yes. We will." He took her hand in his and held it close. "Thank you." Before he heard her reply, he fell asleep.