Beth, dressed as a lady of Jamaica, watched with some satisfaction as William Marbry was led away in chains. He gave her just a glance as the marines led him down to the Macedonia. "What will he tell the court?" she asked Allison.
"He will tell them all sorts of things, of course, but none of it will matter. Our story is simple. When he attempted to have you murdered, your father's men, who were always loyal both to your father and the Crown, smuggled you to a Portuguese family of minor peerage, who raised you to young adulthood. When you heard that your brother was coming to Jamaica, you returned to the island and convinced me both of your peerage and the threat. I acted accordingly. The Ladder did what it had to do to survive as a merchant trader in local waters, remaining in contact with you as befit a loyal crew. You, Lady Co... I mean, Lady Speer, and I will all testify that the men on board acted honorably and that all of the reports of it being a terror on the high seas were falsified or generated by Marbry's bribes."
"Will it work?"
"With 150 tons of gold? Of course it will work. It was most convenient of the Spanish to launch an assault on the Portuguese holdings in Mexico. We can always claim that your adopters were killed and there will be nobody to refute your story." Allison gave her a smile that betrayed his usually honorable demeanor. "I am not a cunning man, my lady, but I am a member of the court. I do know how these things work."
She grinned at him. "When we get to England, dear Captain, tell me what salons you attend, and Jessica and I will do our best to be there. You and I shall share scotch and stories and shock all of those around us."
"I shall do that."
She nodded and walked back up the length of the peer and back onto the soil of Kingston. After so long at sea the land felt as if it were rocking back and forth uncomfortably. The price on her head had been lifted and for the first time in ten years the Jacob's Ladder lay in Kingston's harbor, ready to be hauled onto a framework of land to be patched and hulled. From where she stood it did not look as if the Ladder would ever sail again with anything like her old speed. One enormous hole, exposing a torn futtock, seemed to make up most of the starboard quarter of her stern.
She and Spike, still at her right hand, made their way back to the Governor's mansion, where the rest of this day's travesty was to be played out. The new Governor of Jamaica, The Honorable Gabriel Whitney, waited for them under the architrave of the mansion entrance. He had come from a family of minor peerage and, while probably just as given to the fractious infighting as Marbry, the local noblemen had decided that of all of them, Lord Whitney was the least likely to follow in Marbry's corrupt footsteps. He bowed courteously. "Lady Harcourt."
"Lord Whitney," she said. "A pleasure, this time."
"Indeed. I take it you will be heading to England as soon as this is all over?"
"The sooner the better."
"I understand. I have someone I want you to meet. Elvio?" He gestured inside and a tall, black man with a shaved head and one earring stepped into the light. She looked at him and a dim memory stirred. Then, a louder one. "Elvio?" she said.
"You remember me!"
"You were my father's gardener!" she said, running up into his arms. "You... you worked for Marbry?"
"And it was my letters, passed through Alvone's hands, that led you to Marbry's vessels, remember?"
"That was you?" she asked, amazed. "I always wondered where that sodden ol' rum-running frog got his news." She hugged him tightly. "Quick, how did you sign them?"
"'From a friend of your fathers,'" he said.
"Oh, it is you! God, what next?"
"I would not ask that too loudly, Lady Harcourt. Fortune often comes with both hands holding."
"Indeed," Beth said. "Indeed." She turned around. "Governor Whitney, may I see Amalynn?"
"We have not decided what to do with her. She is in the jail below, but there is no charge we can hold her on. Certainly to hold her on a charge of whoring would be ridiculous, and she could not know that she was threatening the life of a lady of the court."
"I would brand her with the mark of a traitor, if I had my choice," Beth snarled. "What was she offered?"
"Passage to Spain, I suspect," Lord Whitney.
"Is that all?" Beth sighed. "My life was worth a trip to the Spanish mainland?"
"That and some bounty besides if you were caught. It is appreciably more than she could make in a night. I suspect that she wanted to return as a lady of some wealth."
Beth nodded. "I would still like to see her."
"Elvio, you know the way."
"Indeed I do." The black secretary led Beth and Spike down into the dungeons and to a small room with a door, half-wood, half iron bars.
"Hello, Amalynn," Beth said, peering down on the sad-looking beauty within.
"Oh, Beth," she said. "I never meant for you... I didn't want you to..."
"Yes you did. You did it for the money. You did it because you wanted more than was offered to you by the life you had. I don't blame you too much, Amalynn. I just wish I did not feel so betrayed."
"Why should you feel betrayed? I am a whore. A criminal."
"And I was a pirate! And in all my years as a pirate I never felt the want to betray my friends, my customers, those who relied upon me. When running rum or timber or anything else, I was fair to those about me. I expected as much honor from you."
Amalynn hid her face in her hands.
Beth turned to Spike. "How much money does the compact have?"
Spike fumbled for numbers. "Too much," he finally said.
"Would the bounty on my head make much of a hole in it?"
"Nay," Spike said.
"Give it to her."
"What?" Spike and Amalynn said at the same time.
"Give it to her. She earned her blood money. Give it to her and put her on the first boat out of Jamaica headed toward Europe. I want her off the soil my father loved and I do not want her on the soil where my mother's bones are buried. Let her see if money will buy her what it could not buy William Marbry." She looked down at the girl who sat on the torn and stained wooden bench, her only bedding. Amalynn's face was caught between shame and shock, and Beth wanted to keep that memory alive. She turned away.
Still fuming, she walked away from her party and took to the stairs, seeking air. She walked up, up, to the second floor of the Governor's mansion, where she had spent too much of her time in the past two days, establishing her bona fides and signing papers that turned her father's territory over to her. Jacob had stood by her side and looked on, pleased, as she reclaimed her heritage.
She had been bad at paperwork on the Ladder. It had been no better doing it on dry land. What she had wanted, more than anything else, was to get alone with Jessica, to comfort her and hold her. She had been in shock following the voyage, the sudden realization that she was going to own all of Edric's holdings until her child was born, and even then she was going to be caretaker of those holdings until the child was of age and capable of taking care of those holdings himself. There was, Beth had noted, an assumption in the Governor's Letter Of Findings that Jessica was carrying a boy.
She sighed as she finally put the last pen away, looking up at Whitney and Elvio. "Is that it?"
"That is it," Whitney agreed with satisfaction. "It is good to hear that you intend to return your farm to production. I understand your brother's preoccupation, my lady, so I understand the reasons that it has remained fallow. But if he and his wife are to remain here, they will have to return the farm to prosperity." There was a twinkle in his eyes as he said 'wife,' as if he imagined himself bedding the woman who rumor held was the most beautiful on all of the island. She had seen Elaine without her clothes and had to agree-- there was an angelic, almost unnatural magnificence to her, with her rounded figure, her full and inviting breasts. But Elaine was as besotted with Jacob and he with her. There would be no one coming between them. At least, not without force.
And anyone using force would have to contend with the fact that Elaine and Jacob were under the protective eye of Bloody Beth. To England, she had been turned into a fiction, but the Islanders knew better.
Beth made her way down to the cabin, the young man who led her clearly made nervous by her mere proximity. She could hardly blame him; she was, after all, the infamous Bloody Beth, and he knew it as readily as she did herself.
The cabin was small, but clearly made for two. Captain Allison had made it clear to his men that the two women passengers destined for England were to be left alone, and that had suited Beth just fine. She opened the door of the cabin to find Jessica waiting for her, a smile on her lips suggesting something playful and wonderful. The moment the nervous boy was dismissed and the door closed, Beth fell into Jessica's willing arms with a sigh of pleasure and satisfaction that bordered on wholeness. "I love you," she whispered to Jessica.
"Oh, Beth, I have waited to hear those words." She kissed Beth's hair, her forehead, her lips, and Beth embraced the beautiful woman who shared her secret shame, their inversion. "But you love the sea more."
Beth nodded. "I grew up with it. Maybe it's time I did leave it, as a child leaves home."
"I don't know any child who grew up in a home so unforgiving as the sea. It is not a home-- it is just something to survive."
Beth held back her response that too many of the men on the Jacob's Ladder were from homes even more unforgiving as the sea. Unforgiving because at least, when you made a mistake on the sea, the sea had mercy and killed.. Many of the men had escaped from homes that left the body a mass of pain and the soul a thing of tatters. "I suppose you are right, my love; the sea is something I love."
"What will we do when we get to England?"
"In public, you will be the Widow Coke, mourning your lost husband even as he is convicted of crimes against another family. You will probably lose half your holdings in penalty, but the Coke estate is wealthy and you will survive. You will take up your new role' as my teacher, distancing me from my barbaric Portuguese habits and instructing me in the ways of the English peerage, even as I take up my role' as your companion, helping you through your difficult pregnancy. Together, we shall found a new partnership of Coke and Harcourt, and with the money we have together we shall take up my brother's investments in East India and the Western Islands, and we shall be unstoppable!"
She looked down between them, where Jessica's larger breasts crushed against her own, and pulled at one of the ties on Jessica's dress. "In private, we shall be what we are, sisters of the flesh, inverts, giving each other unreasonable, sinful pleasures that matter much to a church that matters little to us." She pulled at another tie, letting the brown ribbon free.
"Beth!" Jessica hissed.
"Are you not ready for this?"
"I am always ready!" Jessica whispered. "But... now?"
"We have the whole trip ahead of us, and I have no intention of spending all of it in here with you, but it has been three days, Jessica. Can you wait?" She reached her fingers into the bosom of Jessica's gown and cupped one of those breasts, her thumb gliding across the nipple.
Jessica whimpered. "No," she finally managed to choke. "No, I can't. Not when you do that. Not when you tease me so." She pulled Beth toward their cot and together they tumbled into it, Beth's slim, firm form against Jessica's full, feminine one.
Beth went through Jessica's bows and ties with all the proficiency a sailor should have with her knots, pushing aside the fabric of the dress and kirtle, letting Jessica's breasts into the air with sudden ease. Jessica moaned as Beth took one nipple into her mouth and caressed it with her lips and her tongue. Beth's heart raced at the sight of Jessica's easy lust, Jessica's readiness for her attentions. A tide of wet heat in her own body headed south for her sex.
Jessica's fingers slid between Beth's legs and found the wetness that had collected there. The press of a slim finger at that secret opening made Beth swoon and wish for more, but she had come here today to care for Jessica, not the other way around. She wanted to hear Jessica cry out her name-- quietly, Jessica thought, as this was not the Ladder.
She left a glistening trail on Jessica's chest and her smooth, beautiful belly, a belly that showed no sign of what they both knew was happening within. She reached the start of Jessica's nether hair, and inhaled deeply the clean scent that she and Jessica had started to cultivate and appreciate. Thank Elaine for teaching them both the joys of bathing!
She slid off the tiny cot. There was no room for two women to stretch out on it lengthwise, and Jessica was clearly ready for anything Beth would give her, in any position. Beth eased Jessica's legs over her shoulders and pressed her mouth greedily to her sex, kissing and licking her way into that precious, delicate core. Jessica moaned with need as Beth's tongue performed magic on her. Beth knew that tiny pearl at the top was the secret to a woman's pleasure and she abused that knowledge by abusing Jessica's excitement. Jessica's hands were in her hair, holding her in place, as Jessica's legs rose and parted, opening up the fullness of her pudendum to Beth's hungry eyes. She let her eyes fall on all the parts, the names of which she did not know but could readily identify, lips and tissues and pearl and pink skin. "What a beautiful woman you are!" she said.
Jessica was past receiving compliments. "Kiss me, Beth, oh kiss me now!"
Beth gave in, pressing her lips and tongue to the pearl before her eyes, kissing Jessica's demanding sex, licking at that pearl rapidly, flicking her tongue like a porpoise's tail at full swim. "Oh, God, Beth... Oh GOD!" Jessica shuddered, her whole body shaking, making the cot creak. "Oh, God..."
She subsided even as Beth wiped her mouth with a kerchief she had left on the tiny table. "Oh, Beth," Jessica sighed. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Jessica," Beth said gently. "I love you too." Beth's own sex wept softly with joy, and Beth had a sudden wish to have it filled. After some moments passed, she looked at Jessica and said, "Would you... do that to me?"
"Yes!" Jessica nearly bounced off the cot as she sat up, eager to please. Beth decided not to lie down lengthwise, but instead leaned up against the wall of her cabin against which the bed lay, the better to watch what Jessica did. She liked watching Jessica kiss her. There was something of the animal in Jessica when she did.
Jessica took readily to Beth's sex, her mouth easily finding its way into the parted lips of Beth's core. Jessica's tongue took long, slurping licks along the length of Beth's small vulva, from the bottom to the top. Beth felt the shocks of Jessica's kisses all the way to her toes. She hadn't expected to want Jessica's attention so much, but after all of the formal, ridiculous elegance of the past four days she was ready to indulge herself in license. "Oh, Jessica... fingers, please."
Jessica knew. She knew by now. One finger found its way into Beth's body, then another, then a third, even as her damnable tongue kept up its unrepentant torture of her pearl. Jessica even dared a fourth finger, filling Beth's opening more than Beth would have thought possible, and still in Beth's head the siren song of "more!" made its way past her lips.
But already the cannon charge in her belly had been put to fuse, already Jessica's attentions poured oil on the burning fire within her, and Beth exploded in a groan of ecstasy so powerful she covered her mouth with her hand and held back the screams, but not the tears.
"Oh, Jessica..." she whispered softly as she floated back down into her body. "Oh... oh... oh... " She pulled the other woman into her embrace and clasped her tight. "I will never let you go!"
"Nor I, you, my piratess," Jessica said. "Even if we are ordinary ladies of the peerage for the rest of our lives."
"We... shall never be ordinary!" Beth gasped, laughing. Jessica replied with her own laugh. "And I shall love you in Heaven, too," Beth said. "For there is nothing corrupt in my joys."
"Nor mine," Jessica agreed. She yawned. "I do not know why I am so tired!"
"You're with child!" Beth said. "Of course that must tax you. I'm sorry... I should have known!"
"No, no," Jessica said. "Don't deny me my pleasures, Beth. Just... accommodate me."
Beth smiled. "I'll do that." She helped Jessica into her nightclothes and under the covers. She dressed herself in the more commonplace men's clothing she was used to, just another sailor, no longer even the captain. She went on deck.
Jamaica was no longer visible to stern, and the ship held a good wind with full sails. The smell of the sea, Caribbean Sea, was all around, a thing more constant even than the roll of the waves, and she wondered if she could live without it. A part of her considered it an act like living without air.
Her new life. She feared it. She wanted to see it, but as one might go to India to see an elephant or a tiger.
But then little things came to her attention. Frayed ends of rope that needed stitching and oakum. A loose flap to one sail. A water butt with a loose top. The kinds of things that a captain might let go on the last leg of a journey, when the crew was going home to reward, pay, and then a return to the sea, when it would be the responsibility of her next crew to get her in shape for the sea. She frowned and fixed the cover on the butt, then sat down with the ropes. "You there!" she called to the man at the wheel. "Where's the thread for this?" She held up a rope.
The wheelman, a big fellow with arms like logs, was surprised at her address, but then pointed down to a cabinet affixed to the forecastle held shut with ties. Beth found the thick, waxy thread, and retrieved a spool with which to begin fixing the ends. As she sat on the deck and worked, she sighed, realizing that she would always be a seaman, always be first to bend her own back. As she looked at the stars and the full sails overhead, her hands going through the motions of repairing the fray, she knew that being a lady could not last for her. Jessica was right. Beth hoped that she could find a compromise.
The love of a good woman. The call of the sea. Beth wished for both as tears of love welled up in her eyes. She imagined the future, and hoped, wished, ached for days to come when she would hold cold, steely friends in her hands by day as readily as she held a warm woman at night. Looking out on the dark horizon, Beth whispered, "For broadsides... fire!"