Beth greeted the knock on her door with relief. The ship's steward had just come to her with the news that their quick flight had left them low on supplies. They had planned on stopping at a small island in the Grenadines which most of the ships around here used as neutral territory and which had water, but one of her men had spotted The Medusa, Morrow's ship, and they had steered clear. The water was the worst news, but even the food had gotten short. Bart had taken to coaxing rats out of the bilge, smashing them on the head, and tossing them into whatever Seaburr was cooking that night.
"Come in," she said.
"My lady," came her brother's voice as he announced himself.
"My lord," she replied with some small irony. She had never thought of herself as a lady in her adult life, and the idea that she should be considered one now struck her as absurd. Still, that was the title Jacob insisted upon using about her and she was not going to argue it with him.
"It is good to see you well," he began as he closed the door behind himself. "I was concerned when you showed up with a bullet wound in the meat of your arm."
"It heals. They always do." He cringed at her familiarity with injuries. She just grinned. "Sit, Jacob." She indicated the one spare chair, the one she shared every morning with Spike, even now with Jessica sharing the cabin. Jessica had learned that, on the sea, the rituals of the sea were as sacrosanct as those of the Holy Church of England. There was no compromise here, no, not even for love.
Jacob took the chair easily. In his simple breeches and blouse he looked every bit the pirate. "I am concerned about other things, my sister."
"I know." She looked at him squarely. She had come to realize that his concerns were real, and that she would have to deal with them soon enough. "Your concerns are threefold. One, your sister has been dead for nine years and suddenly comes back. What story do you tell? To whom do you reveal the truth? What of the men who followed with her? I tell you, Jacob, that never did we plunder an English ship that wasn't bound for Marbry's coffers. Spanish, Dutch, even a few Frenchmen, God knows what they were doing here.
"Two, your sister has been leading the life of a pirate for all these years. What kind of man wants her? You know I'm not a maiden, Jacob; even if I had been taught to keep my maidenhead precious by my nanny while Father lived, I could not have among these men. It isn't that they would have raped me, oh no; it just would never have occurred to me to consider it precious after all. And I have led a life of adventure; am I now ready to settle down and be wife to some casual fop who's going to go fat in middle age?
"Three, and this is the biggest problem of all, you sister appears to be something of an invert. This makes the selection of a husband all the more troubling because what man wants to marry a woman who is not interested in him and keeps pinching the fannies of the servant girls herself?
"Have I got them all right?" She grinned.
"Every one. I should have guessed you were the brighter one in the family."
"Nonsense, Jacob. You've carried yourself far better than I. You've even got yourself a hellion for a faithful wife. She is strong, bound for every adventure, lets modicum work where it must and throws it overboard when it may, and besides that, she's the most beautiful creature God has ever made. And I know beautiful women."
"Yes," Jacob said. "And you've become one yourself. So let me ask you directly, Elizabeth: if we got to England, what would be your ideal?"
"You'll win my heart too readily with that, Jacob. You asked the right question." She paused, tapping the dry end of the stylus against her teeth. "I don't know. I want to go and be Elizabeth Harcourt, see what kind of life I would be leading as a woman of the court. I suppose I'm rather old and weatherbeaten as unmarried women go."
"Perhaps," Jacob replied. "But don't let that stop you. There are older and more weatherbeaten men always looking for a second wife after their first dies in childbirth. It's a sad and common enough tale." He paused. "I hope you do marry, sister. It is good for the soul."
"Are you really so very concerned with the state of my soul?"
Jacob looked uncomfortable for a moment. "Although I can find no mention of it in my teachings, I am sure that you relationship with the lady Speer is frowned upon by the teachings of the Bible."
"Jacob, I could no more deny my feelings for Jessica than I could deny my right hand." She smiled. "It is simply something that, if I must, I shall hide from the bishop. Two girls playing is hardly something for the church to frown upon."
A knock at the door interrupted Jacob's possibly reply. "Cap'n, you'd better come ha' a look at this."
"Open it. Trouble, Bart?"
The seaman stuck his head into the room. "Storm, captain. Looks bad. Could be a hurricane."
Beth had smelled it that morning, but she had thought they could skirt the storm. "Be right up."
On the deck, she used her Galileo glass and peered through to the oncoming wave of black clouds and lightning. Bart hadn't been exaggerating. It did look bad. She jumped up onto the wheeldeck, but Stede, at the wheel, already knew what she had in mind.
"Gonna be a Hell of a squall."
"Steady as she goes, Stede. We can't outrun her if she's a hurricane, and we can't outfight the bitch of the sea either. We'll just have to survive it best we can." She patted him on the shoulder and he grinned at her.
"How much gold are we going for this trip? It had better be worth it for going through that thing."
"An honest man's worth," Beth replied. "If I miss my guess, five hundred thousand pounds' worth for the ship. The rest, for the King of England. And pardons for all of us."
"Every man has his dream," Stede replied.
"Every woman, too." She eyed the storm again. It loomed from one end of the horizon to the other, threatening. She had seen storms do that before, but there was no way to tell how big a storm was once it reached that size. It could just be a spread-out line squall, or it could be a hurricane. It was just about the season for it, although usually such storms struck further north. "Just keep us afloat, Stede."
"Do m'best," he said. "There're times when I wish Morrow was right."
"Me, too, Stede. Me too." Beth descended into the ship. Jacob had disappeared into his cabin, she imagined. Spike had grumbled at losing it to Jacob and Elaine, but there had been no other place to put them.
Still, Elizabeth was gratified to see that the pirate's life hadn't broken either one of them. Elaine was a miracle with the maintenance of the sails, and Jacob had learned navigation, knots, and rigging quite readily. Each did their part to keep the ship running; each understood that they were part of a compact, and if they failed the compact it might well fail them.
Jessica fared less well. Seasick in the second week, she suspected pregnancy. Elaine had become her nursemaid, and both Bart and Patrick had begun to fawn over her when they learned that she might be with child. Patrick, Beth could understand, but not Bart. That huge, hoary black bear of a Scotsman had never turned his eye toward a woman or womanly kindness in his life. Even some of the sodomites on board were intimidated by Bart, who claimed he liked to "fuck the way men ought to fuck!" That he should suddenly go all soft over a pregnancy was not what Beth had come to expect from him. Still, some of her men had their secret sides and hidden talents and she didn't begrudge Jessica the attention.
She walked into her cabin to find Jessica mending clothing. It was something she had come to do regularly, her way of helping without getting in the way or vomiting onto the deck. The mending was something that the men usually did themselves, but this freed them up for other duties, such as the fishnets they had stolen off a Dutch galley some years ago. She kept the window open. "How are you feeling today?" Beth asked.
"Better," Jessica replied. "I think I'm coming over the sickness. I ate some of your bread." She nodded toward the table, where a hunk of fresh black bread awaited her. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Beth replied. "We're worried that a storm may be coming. A big one. If you're inclined to be sick, this may be the worst time for you."
"Is it dangerous?"
Beth laughed. "Every day on the sea is dangerous, some days are just more so than others. But yes, this is a bad one. Ships get smashed in storms like this one. But Stede and Renny know their business; they'll get us through this one alive. They always have."
Jessica held out her arms and Beth fell into them, gratefully. "Oh, Beth," she sighed, "You have made my life so... queer!"
Beth laughed and kissed her. "And you have made it feel so complete," she sighed. "You are so beautiful, Jessica."
"Mind my mending!" Jessica laughed, saving the shirt she had been patching together. "Later, beloved Beth. We have all the time in the world."
"Yes," Beth agreed. "We will make that time." She kissed Jessica on the cheek again. "I must see to my ship."
She checked with Seaburr, the ship's cook (and its barber, and its doctor, although truthfully he was not much of any of those, but no man was better). "There are enough to get us to the Brasilia coast, Captain, but not much besides. We'll be hurting for water if it don't rain."
"Get your barrels ready tonight, then. It looks to be a Hell of a storm. We'll crew the pumps in the morning."
"Aye," he growled. Beth walked about the ship, giving orders, making suggestions, making sure that the Crew and Compact of the Jacob's Ladder were ready to take on whatever the coming storm, mere squall or no, held in ready for them. She enjoyed this part of the life. The sea held a tension that crackled about her even before the lightning that was to come. The men jumped at her orders because they knew she was right. She had made them comfortable, and some of them remembered the promise she had made to make them rich. Now the time was coming when they would see that promise fulfilled.
The rigging creaked as the men secured the sails with storm-strong lashing, tied down the lines, cleared the deck of anything they couldn't afford to lose, stowing tools and lines, and battened down the hatches.
And then they waited.
Renny took over from Stede and plotted a path at an angle away from the storm. It would take them toward land further north than Beth had originally plotted, but there was no helping it. Dinner was eaten in grim silence. Beth had been fooling herself with the sight of that blackness on the horizon. However big it was, something that size was always a killer.
At first, it was just the rain, beating on the one sail left unfurled, the patter of it against the ship's deck. Then the wind, a soft wind that grew-- grew like a hunger in the belly grows, at first almost pleasant, a reminder of meals past eaten, but then the hunger grows, as the storm's hunger grew, until one is truly suffering. Night fell about them, and lanterns were lit. The men hauled shut every hatch and posted a sentry at every one, each with a rope about his ankle, the other end fixed to a beam, lest he should be swept away. Each man had a knife to cut the rope as well, although a storm great enough to drown a man below the hatches was a storm no man would survive.
Waves battered the Ladder as Renny, still on deck, lashed to the wheel, fought to keep her pointed into the storm. "Bart!" Beth ordered.
"Aye!" he replied, knowing exactly what she meant. Bart leaped for a hatch, taking a line with him. The hatch closed behind him as one of the other men jumped to secure it.
Jacob came back from his cabin. "The womenfolk will care for one another," he said. "I wanted to come back and see if there was anything I could do."
Beth's crew, small as it was, looked at him. "This is what it means," said Dismas, the blackest man Jacob had ever met, and one who sometimes spoke in riddles. "You sit with the rats and you wait. You can no see, you can just hear the ocean. It wants to kill you. Always it wants to kill you. Now is angry enough to try."
Beth nodded. "We wait. We hope Bart and Renny make it through the night alive. We hope the storm isn't as bad as it--" A powerful surge forced the ship upwards and every man held onto something to keep from being swept to the stern. Timbers creaked. A loud crack rolled through the ship. "Captain! We've lost the top of the mizzen!" a voice shouted.
"Nothing we can do 'til morning!" she shouted back. "Hold tight, men!"
Hold they did. Hold until dawn.
Somehow, the ship made it. The storm had been ugly, but it had not been a monster hurricane. The rear mast had been showing signs of rot, so Beth wasn't that surprised to see it go. She stood on the deck as the men swarmed over it. Bart and Renny had been sent downstairs and Seaburr assured her that both men had done their tasks without harm. "Next time," Renny had told her after the storm had passed, "You take the wheel."
"It's a deal," she told the short man with the charming voice. "Where are we?" she asked Jacob.
"Closer to the Spanish Main than we really want to be. We wanted to be much further south."
"Beeline for the Amazon," she shouted up onto the wheeldeck. A whirr of sheeting and a loud thud accompanied the sounds of the mizzen topsail being dropped. After the mast had broken it had hung there, bound and useless, through the night.
"Let's hope we don't encounter anyone on the way," she muttered to her brother. "We've got no place to hang the spanker, and that's one sail you want if you're to outmaneuver an enemy. We can fix it on the way back, but with five hundred tons in the hold we'll be in a similar fix, wallowing. Father overbuilt this ship because it had to be both a privateer and a cargo vessel from inside Brasilia all the way to England. But it can't do both at the same time. That's its weakness."
"Father put the family fortune into this ship," Jacob said, "Because he knew a larger one could well come from it. I'm sorry he had to die to have it happen."
They made for Brasilia and headed southwards. Soon, with the help of a crossstick, Beth announced that they were at the right latitude. Jessica proved to have the best eyes on the whole ship, and soon she was standing on the forecastle, watching through the glass for the sighting of the two stones that would indicate the path to the mine.
"How are you feeling?" Beth asked as she walked up. She handed Jessica a leathern tankard filled with water.
"Better, thank you," Jessica said.
They sat in silence as Jessica leaned on the rails, watching the coast sail by slowly. "Will I ever stop being a pirate, now that I've become one?"
"Of course you shall," Beth replied. "If it's what you want. This will just be a small time of your life, Jessica."
"That's not what I mean, Beth. I mean, do I want to stop being a pirate?"
"Oh." Beth sat. "I've been thinking the same thing myself. One can get used to anything so long as it means staying alive. That's what I've learned over the years. Staying alive meant being a pirate. So that's what I've become. Few people are really meant to become a pirate. Look at these men. They never wanted to be pirates. They just wanted to be boys, once upon a time. Their mums wouldn't let that happen, so they became bandits, then pressed into naval men, and finally they became pirates. It's an accident. A joke of the Lord's, I would imagine."
Jessica said nothing. She took up the glass and peered across the water to shore, looking for the signs as they appeared on the chart. Beth watched her, enticed by the stretch of her pretty neck, the long line that led up to her rounded chin and full lips. It was hard for her not to notice these things in Jessica.
It had taken her days to sort it out. Jessica's immediate infatuation with her when they had met at the Coke estate had alarmed her, but Beth had found, contrary to her own wishes, she could not stop thinking of Jessica in anything but terms of love. She stretched out one finger to touch that neck, to trace that soft line of white flesh down into Jessica's shirt, down to her lovely white breasts and the nipples that Jessica so loved to have touched. "Beth," she whispered. "Not in the open like this!"
Beth pulled her hand back, only to replace it with her lips at Jessica's ear. "Even if this ship is small, Jessica, I imagine that we are too far away when you are below and I am on deck."
Jessica turned to look at her. "Thinking of you makes my knees weak, Beth. And if you want me to find this mine of yours, let my knees be strong."
Beth laughed, and Jessica laughed just as readily. "I will leave you to your searching," Beth said, getting up. Even as she turned her back, Jessica said "There!"
"There! The stone with the nose! I see it!" She grabbed the glass and peered through it. "Yes, there it is! And the river! Not large enough for the Jacob, but it will take the ship's boat."
Beth ran back up to the forecastle. "Show me!"
Jessica handed her the glass and Beth peered through it. She had seen the chart every day for two weeks now and she knew what it said without consulting it. Jessica was right; she had found the very place. "The mine is just a few leagues inland," she breathed. "We'll take the ship's boat and go get the gold."
The men were efficient enough in launching the boat, and soon they were rowing up the river. It was a slow, meandering thing, and it took little effort to counter the flow. All around them, the jungle seemed to close in. The screeches of colorful birds assailed them from every angle and, as if that weren't enough, once they heard the roar of some great animal. "They say there are dragons in these woods," Dismas intoned gravely. "I would not like to meet one."
"Then keep to your oars," Beth said with a grin. "Soon, we'll have more riches than you can imagine."
They rowed continuously for two hours, stopping only twice for water. Beth tapped Dismas on the shoulder. "There! There! To the shore, men!"
Jacob waited anxiously on the deck. "They have been gone for five hours!" he protested.
"These things, they take time," Seaburr assured him. "You just wait."
Jacob paced the windward stretch of the deck, taking up Beth's privileged position, the captain's pace, but nobody argued with him. "Husband, you will wear a tread."
He looked up. Elaine had come up. "Here. Have some of this. The locals call it coffee. It is strong, bitter, and it has the most invigorating effect. You will enjoy it."
He took the offered cup and tasted. It was truly bitter, but even as he sipped it his shoulders lighted and his mind seemed to become clearer. "Good God!" he said. "This is better than the blackest tea I've ever seen come from India."
"Is it not delightful, despite the taste?" she said, giving him that soft smile that made any man who looked upon her want to melt into the ground. Any usual man. The pirates seemed to be more afraid of her than desirous. At her urging, he had long ago ceased to imagine that the instant flood of warmth and of pressure that he felt in his sex at her presence was an affront to her purity. She was so beautiful as to be beyond such pettiness. That she adored him was a gift he never forgot. "Look. Here comes your sister now."
He turned to see Beth and the four men with her rowing hard, their boat laden down with a tarpaulin thrown over their cargo. "Come see!" she shouted as they reached the Ladder. She threw aside the tarpaulin and there, underneath, lay bars of gold, as many as the boat could carry. "There is more there than we could take in the Ladder on one voyage! Come! We must hurry to fill the hold."
Work proceeded through that day and well into the night before Beth decided that her crew needed its rest. The hold wouldn't even be full before she decided that the weight of the gold would limit how much they could carry; the last thing she wanted to do was founder, not when the stakes were so high. Each bar was pressed with the stamp of the King of England; her father had earned the right to wield the stamp, and it pleased her to see such an example of his handiwork.
They had found the gold stockpiled in a natural cave, just as depicted on the chart, at the end of which was a shaft leading downwards. Scars on the landscape around the cave had indicated a great fire, and here and there the equipment with which the mine had operated had been found. She had been astounded at just how large the operation had been. Where had the men gone? Who had they been? She didn't know, and she was ashamed to admit it. She wanted to reward them for the incredible work they had done. Now she was here to pick up the pieces and go on. There had been more of it than she could have imagined. One hundred fifty TONS of gold; they could, at most, carry twenty-five tons on board. She would never have imagined having that much gold.
For each trip: to the Harcourt estate, eight tons; to her men, another seven tons. She pondered, briefly, what a man would do with a thousand pounds of solid gold. She decided it did not matter. It saddened her to think that with such riches these men would soon be the targets of every other pirate about them. She supposed that their best bet was to take the Jacob back to England and try to settle down there. But how could a man like Dismas settle down? And Caflice, with his tattoos, would never find a peaceful corner of the Earth to call his own.
She collapsed onto her bed, exhausted. She had put her back into moving the gold along with every other man on board the ship, and she had paid for that effort with soreness in every joint of her body. How she wished for Amalynn's strong hands. A moment of guilt crossed her as she thought about Amalynn's sweet body. She was an invert, yes, but did she have to be a dishonest one as well? She adored Jessica, there was no doubt about that. Maybe all she craved was the kind of relaxation Jessica had no skill in giving.
Jessica, her timing terrible, chose that moment to enter. "Beth?"
"I am here, Jessica. I'm resting."
"Yes. I saw you and the men killing yourselves to load the gold. Is it really as much as you say it is?"
"Possibly more," Beth said. "Oh, I never thought money should bring such pain, neither here," she said, indicating her back, "nor here," and she touched her head.
"I understand both. You have much to do. Leave it to your brother. I heard him discussing this with his wife. Together, they seem to understand what is at stake with the finances."
Beth nodded. A pattering sound arose outside. "The rain I felt this morning, it's begun," she observed, softly.
"It won't be a storm, will it?" Jessica asked.
"No, not likely. We didn't see one coming on the evening air, and night-time storms are rare down this way. It's just a squall. It will rain for a while, then stop, and then a harder rain will begin. We'll use this time to collect rainwater into the barrels. The men will be happy to have fresh water again. That river is clean enough, but it's muddy to drink." She got up out of bed. "And I am going to use this opportunity to scrape some of the dirt off of my body."
"I have gotten used to being clean, Jessica. Care to join me?"
"I... I will at least watch." She followed Beth up onto the upper deck. The rain was coming down only moderately, but she took refuge under the overhang that covered the galley and protected its coals. She watched with her own earnest interest as Beth stripped down and tossed aside her wet clothes. In the dim light of moon, which was still visible on the horizon, Beth's body shined with a light that must have seemed magical, perhaps even unholy. She let the rain run over her body as she scrubbed and scoured her flesh, removing every trace of the dirt and sweat that was a daily part of her life. Jessica watched as Beth stepped out under a loose sail that caught the rain and guided it down to the deck in torrents.
Jessica decided to join her. She dropped her own clothing and joined Beth. "Wash me?" she said.
Beth grinned and, with a cloth only slightly cleaner than she, began to scrub Jessica's willing body. She loved Jessica's breasts, large, soft, and willing as they were, with nipples that stood up at the slightest provocation. "I wish I had some soap," she sighed.
"We'll buy a ton when we get to England!" Jessica giggled. "We'll never be this filthy again!"
Beth grinned as she knelt down at Jessica's feet and performed her ablutions on Jessica's legs, thighs, and sex. She was careful to wash both front and backsides, and then up Jessica's back. She kneaded Jessica's hair to get as much water into it as possible, squeezing the water through the strands in the unlikely hope of getting the hair to behave as it should for a lady of England.
They were gathering up their clothing and hanging it up to dry, if the rain ever stopped before morning, when she heard a voice say, "What in the name of God are you two doing?"
"Washing, Jacob," Beth giggled. "You might give it a try." She took Jessica's hand and the two of them fled, laughing, into their cabin. Beth handed Jessica a cloth suitable for drying, and the two of them went at one another with all the enthusiasm girls reserve for each other's company.
Beth found herself up against Jessica's naked body once again. "We are clean again, and together, and naked," she breathed. "By God, I want you, Jessica."
"And I have been waiting long for you, Beth." Their mouths met in an ardent kiss, their tongues touching with a new familiarity. The taste of rum was on each and neither cared. Beth's face warmed with the touch of Jessica's cheeks; both women sighed as if the whole world had been made for them to experience this one moment. Beth's hands eased down Jessica's back until they brushed the first curves of her buttocks.
Jessica leaned against Beth as the piratess's fingers slipped down between the taller woman's cheeks and probed and touched in intimate places where no one, man or woman, had ever gone. The touch was new to her and she wouldn't have allowed it under any other circumstances. But now she trusted Beth, and decided that if Beth wanted to explore her body so completely she would let her.
Beth slowly knelt again, pressing her face to the soft flesh of Jessica's sweet breasts and belly before she sank completely to her knees, her mouth level with the thatch of black fur that covered Jessica's pudenda. She adored the color of it, like a night without a moon. She thrust her face against Jessica so hard that the other woman cried out in surprise and grabbed the table behind her for balance. Beth dug her tongue between the moist lips of Jessica's sex, taking in a headful of her scent, her soul burning as Jessica's thighs quivered against her cheeks. Her hands held her to Jessica as she licked at her sex, coaxing the sweet fluid from her opening, stroking without mercy at Jessica's already inflamed pearl of pleasure.
Jessica made little "Unh, unh, unh!" sounds as Beth tossed her head wildly back and forth, her tongue a sea of pleasure against Jessica's sex. Jessica had longed for this kind of attention from Beth for weeks; they had not had much chance aboard the ship, not without bathing, not with the attention that a ship of this size took out of Beth every night. Jessica grew wetter under Beth's attentions.
Beth slid two fingers into Jessica's sex and pressed upwards, finding that little spot that Amalynn had taught her about so long ago. It worked. With a shriek of pleasure Jessica climaxed, her body trembling as the force of their lovemaking soared through her. "Oh, Beth!" she moaned. "Beth, Beth, Beth!"
Beth stood up. She waited for Jessica to open her eyes, and as the other women did so she kissed her on the lips. "You liked that?"
"I love you," Jessica said, kissing Beth just as hard.
"And I love you," Beth sighed, finally mouthing the words that had been in her heart for days now. "We must rise with the sun, if not before," Beth murmured.
"Don't you want that..."
"Later," Beth said. "There will always be time for more."