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Pirate Vindaloo, Chapter 14
Playing at Tigers
Disclaimers: The Rodent Empire owns them. We pilfer.
Originally Posted: 6/21/06
Note: Our sincerest and hearty thanks to smtfhw for her excellent beta.
Warnings: Potential spoilerish appearances for those who are adamant
Summary: A plot is hatched amid more adventures in Bombay and a left turn of Fate.
The first light of dawn teased into their room, throwing it into a strangely calm and cool grey, rays of light bouncing back from the embroidered pillows. With a grunt, James rolled over, and prodded Jack, who lay draped over a good part of bed and commodore, yet still succeeded in having both feet dangling in the air. "Up, starfish." Jack pretended to snore into the pillow, reluctant to leave the comfort of the bed. Suddenly, he pounced atop James and tickled him. "Starfish! I prefer t'think of meself as a giant squid!" He stopped to steal a kiss. "Mornin' luv. Yer right, let's get going." 'Going' for Jack entailed a lot of laughter, a pillow-fight and swatting each other with towels as they washed. Matthew heard the fun and burst through the door to join them with Bertie still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. While Jack was still making a show of getting into his breeches, jumping on one leg and wriggling his backside into the fabric, James attempted to groom Matthew's hair into some semblance of order. He gave up and shook his head at both of them. "Let's go." Jack put out his tongue and they threaded their way through the market stalls, pausing to buy some of the local flat bread, still hot from the oven, and munching it on their way. The Chimaera was already a hive of activity when Jack swatted Matthew up the gang, a local shipwright and his crew high on the mainmast, fitting and measuring and yelling to one another in their foreign babble. The watch crew from the previous day were twitching with anticipation of leave, eager to enjoy their time. Jack stopped on deck to whisper to Griffin and squawked a hello to the workmen, sashaying his way to where Longthorpe and Hamilton stood on the quarterdeck. "Cap'n. Mr. Longthorpe. We're back. Wot ya want us t'do?" James followed in silence and only spared Griffin a glare as he stalked past him. Hamilton raised an eyebrow as Longthorpe answered. "You, Spanish get t'the Great Cabin. Captain wants a course charted back around the Cape. Norbury, go help the crew with th' new bowsprit. Take Matthew with you. Berthot, get below an' help Gentile. G'wan, you lot. Get movin'." Jack blew James a little kiss and headed down the stairs reluctantly. It was a beautiful day and he really did not relish being stuck in the cabin. There was a commotion on the gang and a loud voice bellowed, "Get out of my way, you scum!" Jack glanced over his shoulder and took a breath, slipping beneath the quarterdeck's stairs to peer at the fine-dressed gentleman who strode aboard, swinging his molucca cane amid the departing tars like a fly-swatter. Well, well, more old birds come back to roost. Jack grinned. Sir John Merriweather Gainsell himself, as he lived and breathed! The very bastard who'd sold him out to the bloody East India Company five years earlier. That would bear some thought. Jack heard his heels clatter up the stairs and raced into the Great Cabin to settle himself at the table, tying his hair into his headscarf and keeping his head low over the chart. Matthew tugged James towards the bow, squealing in excitement when he got a knife to help cut away the draggled remainders of netting and rigging before they could fit the new bowsprit into place. It was an arduous and longsome task that occupied them until well past noon. The sun already glared down and the smell of fish had intensified to almost unbearable levels when they finally began to rig the new jib. Jack took the opportunity of the general bustle to slip down to listen at the door of the Captain's cabin. Gainsell was talking loud enough to drown a brass band, discussing the worth of the ivory they had plundered from the Spanish ship. He grinned and hoped they'd enjoy the sherry as he went back to his chart. Late in the afternoon, he stretched his legs, and scratched the last mark on the page, tossing the quill aside. Two good charts in record time had worked up a powerful thirst and he headed down to his cask for a refill. The brig hold was crammed with even more crates of shot than it had been before docking. Curious, he took a peek at the orlop deck, where one of the crates of ivory had been pried open, a huge tusk gleaming in the lanternlight. His smile was broad as he toasted a new plan on his way topside. He found James leaning against the bow rail, wiping the sweat from his face. "Hello luv. Now that is just lovely!" He admired the new bowsprit and rigging. "It is called a bowsprit, Jack." "Aye, a most fine bowsprit, 'nd I'm sure 'tis giving yer Spanish friend some finer ideas!" James rolled his eyes at Jackson. "He does not need further encouragement." His sleeves were rolled up, sweat gluing his shirt to his chest. "We were lucky it did not take any of the bow rail with it when it broke, so it was easy enough to replace. If one discounts helpers who cannot keep starboard from larboard." Matthew blushed and pouted at once. "I were sitting on that damn thing the other way 'round as ye lowered it!" Jack laughed and clapped Matthew's small shoulder. "Don't you worry none, lad. Ye'll figger it out when yer compass has got used t'Bombay. Hey Jamie, let's see jus' how sound it is." He shimmied out as far as he dared and sat astride, legs dangling over the water. James chuckled and climbed after him. "Do you think we constructed a toothpick here?" He sat behind Jack, the ship tilting in the gentle wavelets of the dock, rocking them. "I must say, you make a fine figurehead." "Jamie, we're havin' such good luck." Jack made that odd gesture with his fingers and knocked on the bowsprit just to be sure he didn't chase the fair fortune off, his voice dropping to a whisper. "Hamilton's sellin' the ivory and I've a mind t'get it back. Tell ya later. An' I plotted him a return course that'd take him square inta the middle o' Madagascar, just fer fun. Stashed the real one below." Bertie laughed at them from the rail. "Wot you lovebirds on about, eh? Get back here. Cookie's got grub but Cap'n says we can go back inta town after watch." Jack raised an eyebrow at the waves. It seemed as though most of the crew were being allowed to run riot all over the port, only the workmen and a few carefully chosen men staying with the Chimaera; a sure sign that Hamilton was up to something. He crowed, "C'mon," and whispered to James, "I'll force it down but there'll be a treat fer supper." James laughed and gave a shove, tumbling them both down into the netting. "We can always claim our stomachs are tender from the local food if he questions our lack of appetite." They climbed out and made for the galley. Cookie was grumbling about the stink of 'foreign food' and dished out something that looked like it had once belonged in a cow's gut. Manfully, Jack took a bite and turned a trifle green, picking his way through it with difficulty. There was, however, fresh-baked bread that was surprisingly delicious. "Who knew he could bake?" he hissed into James' ear. The grog was stronger than usual and Jack grinned. "Seems like someone got hold of a new rum supply." Aye, indeed an' I've a good idea the Navy's out a few hogsheads, he thought with a smile. "Are you perchance jealous of said rum?" James teased. After their delicious meal the day before, even he had difficulty forcing down what Cookie called a stew, not to mention that the smaller watch crew meant that there was more for each of them. Once they had finished, James had remedied his conviction that there was no worse stench than that of the fish market. Jack chattered with them like a parrot until Longthorpe chased them back to work and he spent the remainder of the watch drawing obscene caricatures of his shipmates all over a good sheet of paper, then stuffed it into his pocket for laughs later. The sun was just setting when he was shooed topside and he dragged James down the gang. "God, I need a decent meal. Thought I'd heave it all up again. But who knew Cooks could bake so lovely!" He ribbed Bertie about Farhad's and gave him the promised warning about the pox, teased Matthew about not knowing which side of a ship was which, and was clearly in high spirits. They drifted aimlessly along the streets, then, suddenly, he was gone. James froze, turned and scanned the crowd. No sign of dark hair under a red headscarf. "Bertie, where is Jack?" Bertie shook his head helplessly. James bit back a curse. "Very well. Take Matthew back to the inn and wait there. I will check by the dock." At their third crossing, he had begun to memorise at least some alleys, different markets, and where he did not, a general account of the cardinal points helped. What he did not find was Jack, and each of his glances around the area became more frantic. He was about to retrace his steps once more when Jack fell into step beside him. "Sorry, luv. Had t'see a man 'bout a dog. Where'd Bert and Mattie go?" "Back to the inn. You were gone all of a sudden. I was wo-wondered where you had gone." Jack just grinned at him and whistled a scrap of a tune, throwing an arm around James' waist and heading them towards the inn. James sighed and shook his head. "I recall you wishing to tell me something about ivory and an insanely clever plan of yours." Jack's smile widened, his ever-watchful gaze taking in the crowd around them. "All that lovely ivory. 'Twould be a pity t'lose it to that toff Hamilton spent all mornin' jawin' with." James cocked his head in a way far too similar to Jack's and arched one eyebrow. "You intend to steal it back? Piracy biting its own tail?" "Why not? Plunder is plunder. I know Sir John a mite better than I'd like to and he's a nasty piece o' work, courtesy of the East India Company. He cheats 'em and his suppliers regularly. Let's jus' say I got a bit o' payback in mind." Jack's dark eyes were dancing with mischief. James tapped his fingers lightly over Jack's wrist, the brand hidden beneath the shirt. "Do not allow this to become personal." "Business, mate. We get the goods and the profit. I'm gonna need the money if I'm recruitin', aye? Now, let's find somethin' to wipe away the memory of that mess in the galley. Yesterday? That food were more Arab. You gotta try the local grub. It's heaven." Jack was irrepressible, singing the chorus of a very obscene shanty and dragging James from one stall to another as they neared the end of the marketplace. James sighed. "After that stew, I am willing to try anything." They returned to the inn to find Bertie and Matthew. More correctly, Matthew found them, launching himself into Jack's arms with a giggle. "So wot now, barnacle? Ready fer a decent meal?" He gave James respite from carrying the boy as they wandered to a new place and settled down on the cushions for a different meal. They were all braver than the day before, brutally reminded of how their usual shipboard meals compared. The food looked and smelled just as strange, but its taste was delicious. To James it seemed another of the mysteries of this port, foreign and dangerous at first only to reveal its treasure after thorough exploration. He was hungry but tasted every bite carefully, as if to commit it to memory, trying to compare it to a familiar meal and falling short. Jack entertained them with explanations of the various dishes as they ate; how the yellow dish was a curry of lentils and vegetables and the spicy-hot red one was called vindaloo; how the bread was slapped on the side of a big clay oven to bake and a thousand other interesting bits of information. He'd also managed to find a full bottle of rum to wash down the meal, and laughed as Matthew made a piglet of himself with the sticky-sweet balls of cheese in syrup that served as dessert. Their stomachs full, he flipped a few coins to the young proprietor and James could not help but notice the glint of gold in his palm as he pocketed the rest. They walked back to the inn slowly in the darkened streets and Jack teased Bertie. "Headin' t'Farhad's again, you rake?" "Not all of us have the fun coming t'our hammock," Bertie announced and slapped Jack's shoulders. "And there ain't no tellin' how long we're gonna take back, so I've to make th'best of time here, don't I? Try not to scandalise th'boy, awright?" Jack snorted a response and hoisted Mattie from where he leaned against James, stupefied with an overfull belly. "C'mon, barnacle, let's get you tucked in." Matthew blinked sleepily and it wasn't long before Jack had told him stories and sung enough songs to send him to dreamland. He tucked the covers around him and blew out the lamp, one finger to his lips. There was something in the gesture that forcibly reminded James of his mother dousing the lamps as her skirts rustled when he was a child. Jack came back to where a lone nub of candle guttered on a low table and sprawled on the floor, handing James the bottle. "Now that was a meal." He belched, covering his mouth with a giggle. "Shhhh." James slumped down next to him, leaning against the wall. "Have you no manners at all? Like a little babe to belch the moment it has finished eating." The rum tasted all the sweeter after the spicy meal and he tipped it back with a sigh. "Don't ya know that a good belch after a meal is a compliment to the chef hereabouts, luv?" His dark eyes were teasing, gleaming in the half-light like an animal's. "Typical of you to blame the local traditions," James huffed, then leaned back in lazy silence. "The boy snores," he chuckled. "Well, I wouldn't say that, but he does make an effort!" Matthew's breathing was deep and soft, occasionally broken with a true snore. "He'll rattle a window or two one day." Jack took off his coat and bunched it under one arm as a makeshift pillow, watching the way the light glittered in James' hair and eyes and smiling absurdly. James rolled his shoulders and stretched out. "The food was excellent, if highly unusual. My commendations. And now tell me what you truly were up to after disappearing, and where you got all that gold." Jack leaned forward, his voice hushed. "Oh, I had a thing or two to ‘sell'." He looked at James sidelong and rummaged around in his coat. When his hand emerged, James nearly spit up rum. Glittering in the light against the dark palm were diamonds, rubies, pearls; all substantial, fine-cut and each worth a fortune. Jack thought it rather a shame that James was so serious, for his eyes were dreadfully wide and precisely the same colour as the emerald missing from the horde. James' voice, even muffled, was harsh. "Where did you get these?" "Found 'em in Hamilton's cabin the day he flogged you. He's been holdin' out on his crew, Jamie. And that's just wot I need to bring 'em round." He let the gems slip from one hand to the other, then laid them down on the table, watching them wink and glitter in a rainbow of colour. James sat up and weighed a few of them in his palm. "And where did he get those?" "Cut stones like this? He's prob'ly been stashin' 'em fer years. Too bad I knew just where t'look, aye?" Jack's face went dark, his eyes hooded. "Besides, the lot of 'em couldn't pay fer wot he did t'you." The tone was a tiny window into Jack's heart and he pushed the stones around with one finger, lifting up an enormous black pearl. "This I keep. Pick wotever ya like. The rest I'll use well, I promise ya that." James shook his head. "I want no part of them. Use what we need to return home, and do what you will with the rest." He looked up, that stern ice that had almost, but never quite melted, back in his eyes. His voice was gentle enough. "My blood need not be repaid with something that cost that of another." Jack's smile was rather sad as he ran one finger through the treasure trove. It wavered above an intricately carved bit of pale jade. The next moment, it was gone, palmed and deposited wherever the pearl had disappeared. He scooped up the rest and returned them to the various hidden stashes in the lining of his coat. "I coulda ripped his liver out fer that, luv. 'Twas miserable bad form an' a cruel thing." He held out his hand again, a small ruby glinting in the palm. "Ya think the barnacle'd like this?" James smiled and closed Jack's palm around it. "I am certain he would." The boy would like the way the light played off the precious stone, not quite yet realising what it was that made men kill for such a thing. His smile grew a little harder and more resigned as he shook his head. "The flogging was well within his right. I doubted his command. I suspected he would react like that, but I wanted to be certain. What was wrong is how he 'recruited' us and how he placed the whole crew into danger for his vanity. That is miserable bad form." "It is indeed and pressin' is a dreadful thing. Specially in Tortuga, of all bloody places! But these, James!" Jack's eyes sparkled like black jewels themselves. "Don't ya realise how I can use 'em? Sure, we'll need the coin, but 'tis far better to show these to those of the crew as we trust and let 'em know where I found 'em. Hamilton'll be lucky if they don't bleedin' keelhaul him and all run off with us!" He chuckled at the irony of it. "Damned arrogant bogtrotter'll find himself shipless soon enough. I sold one t'that dog I slipped off t'see, Jamie. Just one! An' lookit this." He rummaged into his coat again, the ruby disappearing to the depths as he fished out a small pouch and tossed it to James. Norrington weighed it in his palm and frowned. How did this matter to the crew? For certain, there was always petty envy, but that was hardly enough reason to mutiny against a captain, especially when few of the sailors would have anywhere better to go. He looked up at Jack in disbelief, then, suddenly, he understood. He blinked. "Prize money?" "Aye, I'm sure of it. He hid 'em and cheated the crew outta their fair share. No pirate should need t'press a crew. I had my suspicions, but this proved it. They were hidden in his cabin---usual stuff, hidden drawers in cabinets an' walls. The man's no proper pirate at all! Not to mention them four letters o'marque, playing all sides, and I've no doubt sellin' the English to the Spanish an' back again. Bloody bastard." Jack's expression was comically derisive, the same face James might expect of a high-born gentleman speaking of a peer who had raised his chambermaid to mistress: offensive but admirable in its sheer audacity. "Is this going against your pirate honour then?" James quirked a smile, then became serious. Even after this revelation, he felt hopelessly helpless. Were he truly one of the crew, he would confront Hamilton directly, but that would not win them the Chimaera and a crew to guide her home. He understood Jack's plan well enough, but it was not his. He turned to his side expectantly. "So where do you want to start?" Jack sat cross-legged, looking more like a boy plotting mischief than a man scheming a capital criminal enterprise. "Got a handle on where sailors here go t'find work and y'know yerself how many of the crew were pressed into service. Most of 'em were merchantmen, so they've no idea how he'd been cheatin' 'em. Bet the bugger's been doin' it fer years. Anyways, we'll go to this tavern tomorra fer a look-see. The Chimaera's repairs'll take another two, maybe three days. We wait until then." His grin was conspiratorial and utterly infectious. "And we have fun!" "You mean to wait?" James' brows drew together. It was not that he did not enjoy Jack's company, to be shown the wonders of Bombay; he enjoyed it all too much. He enjoyed it so much that, when he thought too long of it, he could not fathom going back to a profession that denied him these wonders. But precisely that was their goal, and he would not allow himself to rest ere that was achieved. "Is there nothing...useful we can do while we wait?" Jack tugged at the braid in his hair. "Wait fer the opportune moment, luv. We want the Chimaera fully stocked an' ready t'sail, aye?" James had always considered himself a patient man, except now. He forced a grin. "I feel like being caught in the calm, knowing there is a storm ahead." Jack laughed softly as young Matthew snorted and rolled over, sprawling like a small octopus. He rose and tucked the blankets around the boy and silently set the wooden dressing screen around the bed, then returned to sit behind James, toying with his hair, combing his fingers through the tangles. "Best t'wait. I'll need time to fill out the crew and sell off a few more o' them sparklies so I've somethin' to tempt 'em with. And even I like a nice bit o'shoreleave after four months, mate." He busied himself, braiding one sundrenched lock and slipping a small trifle he'd lifted from a table on his way to the fence's shop; a small disk of green stone, flecked with forest shadows they called malachite. "You shall not spend this shoreleave working at my hair until I truly look like a paler half of you," James warned, allowing Jack to finish the braid before he turned. It seemed ridiculous to have waited for over four months and now be unable to bide a few days. But no matter how often he told himself that, he could barely sit still. Jack finished the braid and smiled at James' restless energy. "There. That's just the colour of yer eyes when yer snappin' mad. Like the first time I saw ya." He remembered the sword at his throat, the green eyes dark with fear and fury, set in a pale face under a silly wig. "I have never seen your eyes when you were not mad. But then, I doubt anyone has." James tossed his head, shoving the braid back with the rest of his hair. It fell forward again and he glared at it like an angry cat, stifling the urge to snarl. "My hair has not been this long in years. Do you have a ribbon to spare?" Jack laughed and dove back into his pockets, holding up an ell of pale green grosgrain. "Thought you might be wantin' somethin' like this." He watched James tie his hair back, biting his thumbnail and never knowing how his eyes spoke. He wanted to decorate James with all the jewels of the orient, dress him in silks and satins, and feed him delicacies fit for gods. When James looked up again, he caught the glint in Jack's eyes, eyebrows lifting for a moment; then his eyes narrowed, going dark. They sat and stared each other down for a while, then James' grin widened to show teeth, his voice smooth and low. "Are you going to pounce me in front of the boy?" Jack pounced. He plundered James' lips, looted his shirt, pillaged his breeches, all the while laughing and trying to keep them both quiet. He had just finished kissing away the lines of worry when a small part of him warned, 'you are far too happy, Jack. Be careful. Be warned.' But he couldn't listen to that voice and James' soft sounds at once. They giggled and hushed each other, James' protests as quickly silenced as his moans. For a little while, James almost forgot about the Chimaera and the Cape, about Hamilton, his greed and his vanity, lost between giving and receiving pleasure. Afterwards, James leaned heavily against the wall, his restlessness replaced by a lazy, sated smile. "It is a miracle Matthew slept through that outcry." Jack turned in his arms and grimaced. "I should make sure we ain't been spied on!" He folded back the screen and bent over the boy, smoothing the fair hair and smiling. "He's a fine lad, Mattie is. Wanna make sure--" He caught James watching him and hid under his hair, replacing the flimsy wooden barrier and retreating to the window. James looked at him, half tempted to laugh at the hint of a blush that suddenly crept onto Jack's face. He grinned, pulled on his breeches and prodded the boy. Matthew grunted and curled into himself, freeing a spot on which James sat down, crooking his finger in invitation. "He'll be fine. Let's sleep." Jack's teeth gleamed as the candle sputtered and fizzed, then went out in a thin thread of smoke. "You go on, luv. I don't wanna sleep just yet." He sat in the windowsill, watching the stars long after James' breathing had slowed to soft snores; saw the few lights wink and disappear, the mastheads clustered like a black forest against the night sky. His head dropped forward a third time and he settled himself on the thin rug next to the bed, his coat bunched up as a pillow, and dreamed of glittering green stones and open seas.
Jack's eyes fluttered open when he found his head buried in the much-less than fresh armpit of his coat. He rolled away from it and banged his head on the bed frame, groaning. James grumbled and pulled the pillow over his head, as he got to his feet, wincing. "Yer gonna kill me, luv!" he grinned. Padding to the open window, he squinted at the sunlight pooling on the floor and the foot of the bed. For a moment, he leaned out to watch the street below, remembering the angle; James pounding into him from behind, and he fingered a tender spot on either hipbone where the sill had dug into him. He bent down to pull on his breeches and decided that he'd better find some distraction or he'd have a devil of a time walking for the next three days. Not that he minded, but dear me, the Commodore was certainly making up for lost buggery. Jack reckoned it was nearly ten already, for the light was warm and golden, and he slugged down a bit of rum by way of breakfast. He knew that would hardly suffice for a growing boy and threw on the rest of his clothes, carrying his boots as he slipped out, closing the door quietly. It did not take long for James to blink himself awake, easing himself away Matthew's clutch. He rolled over to look at the floor, realising that Jack had never come to bed. He sat up and smiled sleepily, half a blush creeping on his face as his gaze fell on the window sill, effortlessly imagining a golden body arched over it, gleaming with sweat and moonlight. He shook the sleep from his eyes and sat up further. Oh, the delicious way Jack had writhed underneath him and begged for more, in a voice that hitched with lack of breath, muffled but without any real restraint. He rose with a start, quickly washed and dressed, then went back to the bed to gently shake Matthew awake. "Hey, little one. The sun is up." Jack clattered up the stairs with a basket full of bread and fruit and a few carefully-wrapped sticky sweets, poked his head into the room, and threw the door wide open. "Hullo, mates. Got us some breakfast and they'll send up tea. Mattie, ya slug, it's long past ten. Guess Bertie never made it back!" He grinned and plopped the basket down on the bed, folding himself into a corner of it, Indian-fashion. Matthew sat up suddenly, blinking sleepily and yawning loudly. "Had the loveliest dream. No fair of you to be waking me." Jack tousled the boy's head. "An' wot were ya dreamin' that keeps yer eyes shut on such a lovely day?" "Good morning, Jack." James wondered if he would ever get used to the faint limp in Jack's walk on a morning. He reached out and broke a bit of bread, crumbs falling on the floor. "Are you all right?" he asked hesitantly. "I saw you slept on the floor." Jack winked at James, smiling at the concerned eyes and faint flush. "I'm right as rain, luv. Ready t'see wot kinda trouble we can find this fine day?" He stuffed a bit of bread into his mouth and washed it down with rum. The bottle was, of course, in one of his coat pockets, as bottomless as Jack's appetites, for he was always pulling bits and pieces from them, wondering where he'd found some interesting item. He tossed what looked like a pair of wooden sticks into the boy's lap. "Thought you'd find that amusin'." Two curved, slender sticks, rubbed smooth as glass, connected with little strings held captive an elaborately carved wheel. He reached out one finger to push the wheel and it travelled up the sticks, around the curve and down, then started upwards once more. Matthew was soon lost in the peculiar toy, sleep and dreams, questions and food forgotten as he sat up straighter, nudging the wheel around, until James thought he would go dizzy from it. He cracked a smile at Jack. "I see your childish mind has found the proper occupation for little Matthew." The boy looked up, eyes very wide and lips slightly agape. With exaggerated care, he put the device aside and threw himself at Jack, clinging to his shoulders. "Wot's all this?" Jack laughed and hugged him, swinging him out of the bed and dancing around the small room like a demented pixie. "How'd ya like t'see some real tigers, luv? There's a place where they got 'em in a garden I know." It was a true miracle that Matthew's eyes had not yet popped out of his head. He nodded eagerly, then stopped short, nibbling at his lower lip. "Ain't they dangerous? Heard tell of 'em once and they're supposed to be some right savage beasts." "Aye lad, terrible savage. Sometimes, if they get too hungry or th' moon's right, they'll descend on villages in the country and hunt." Jack set Matthew down and prowled after him, hunched over, his hands raised. "An' they'll look fer jus' the right size boy and pounce and drag him off to their lair fer supper." Jack deposited a squealing Matthew on the bed and put the toy aside to rummage in the basket for a banana. "Course, these ones ain't quite so savage. 'Tis a huge garden and we'll have t'sneak in, but they're the most beautiful creatures y'ever saw. Big cats, big as ponies." "Matthew, you are not a savage cat yourself. There is no need to eat like one," James chided. Matthew was munching contentedly on the bread, frowning as James plucked it from his fingers, showing him how to break mouth-sized bits off rather than sinking his teeth into it. "Like ponies?" he asked between two bites. "Do they ride on'em?" "Not likely! They got huge fangs and claws. An' y'know how cats don't like being told wot t'do? Well, they're great big cats. We'll go see 'em after we've eaten." Jack grinned at James. "Thought we could use a decent breakfast. Ah, here's yer tea." One of the serving lads was trying to balance a tray and get the door open. Matthew, now wide awake, bounced off the bed and helped the boy carry the tray inside, setting it down on the table proudly and then imitating the strange bow Jack always made. He was tugging at Jack's sleeve while James poured the tea. "How big are they? Like this?" Matthew lifted a hand to his mid-chest. "Near big as me when I do this." Jack rolled off the bed to prowl around Matthew on all fours, growling and snarling. He pounced on his banana, forgotten on the bed, and settled on the floor to munch it. Matthew was giggling and pointed at Jack. "And you complain 'bout my eating manners!" James laughed. "Well, little Matthew, what you see here is a mixture of a tiger, a monkey and an absolute madman. You, on the other hand, are a fine young man and need to learn what is proper." Jack made a face and swiped at James with an imaginary paw. "Wonder where Bertie is? Hope he didn't get himself lost." He leaned back against the bed, stretching out his legs and fishing a persimmon out of the basket, cutting it in half with his boot knife. He offered one part to James and sliced off a piece for Matthew. "Go on. It's good." Matthew bit into it and made a mess of the sticky, tough fruit. He licked his fingers and his eyes lit up, then he sank his teeth into it and he ripped half of the small bit off, like a tiny feral cat himself. James chewed more thoughtfully. "I wonder if this is Cookie's fault, or if the food here really is that excellent." Jack contemplated the orange fruit in his hand. "These kind ya can eat like apples. Others, ya gotta wait till they're so soft the insides are like jelly. 'Tis the truth, Jamie. The Orient's got some o' the best victuals I've ever tasted. Can't say as much fer the liquor, though. Rice wine is nasty and the plum wine in China ain't fit fer human lips. Seems we got th drop on distilling. " He laughed, finished off the fruit, and amused Matthew by spitting the pit expertly onto the tea tray. "So, we see the tigers, an' then wot?" "Then we see where Bertie has got to, and maybe run into a few other sailors." Matthew was far too busy licking his fingers clean and then contemplating his new toy to catch James' serious glance at the words. "Besides, you are the tour guide here, lest you have degenerated completely into a feral cat, intent on destroying all the education I strive to give the boy." Jack laughed and gnawed on another piece of bread, lacing his tea liberally with rum. He bounced to his feet and paced about restlessly while James got Matthew washed and dressed; perching on the sill, the bed, the small stool, then back again to the sill. James shooed them out into the streets, dust stirring whenever there was a breeze, the sun burning down from its zenith, not even the narrow alleys providing any shadow. Matthew settled himself comfortably on James' shoulders, one hand shading his eyes like any good outlook would. Jack called his head a crow's nest and James faked a scowl. The streets widened, houses becoming larger and set further apart until Jack suddenly turned them down a barely perceptible path that twisted amid groves of trees, until they came to a high wall. They followed beside it for a time, until it became lower, deep in the shade, and Jack stopped. He hushed them and laced his fingers together to hoist the boy onto the wall, then jumped to haul himself up, straddling it, and held out a hand to James. Below them was a garden of exquisite beauty, fruit trees planted in miniature groves, paths of pale golden bricks winding through them. They could hear an unseen fountain at play, somewhere beyond the leafy bower, and there, lounging by a small pool, was a tiger. Indeed, not just one; there were several, striped hides dappled in the shadows, all sleeping contently. James peered at Matthew's wide grin and remembered being a boy himself, climbing the large apple tree to peer out at the street when he was not supposed to be outside alone, desperately keeping his breeches clean to avoid any incriminating evidence. Now, he grinned like a conspirator and marvelled at the tigers' sleek elegance. Jack plucked at Matthew's sleeve and pointed to a shadowy place, near the pool, where two cubs tumbled in a heap together, sleeping under the lazy eyes of their mother. She lifted her head to sniff the air and gazed inscrutably at the strange trio on her wall. James bent closer to whisper into Jack's ear. "How much trouble do we court by being here?" "Wouldn't do t'get caught." Jack grinned. "It's a harem garden an' we'd likely lose our heads." "Oh, excellent. And simply because you do not need yours, you thought you would put ours on the line?" James teased. Jack bit back his former adventure in this place as not fit to tell with small barnacles about, and reached out to pluck a pear from a bough close to his head. James chuckled as Jack fed him a bite, then turned to give the fruit to Matthew, who had stared at the cubs in fascination, his eyes wide. That moment, he jumped down to get a closer look. "Jesus!" Jack hissed and jumped down after him, grabbing Matthew and edging back to the wall, his eyes fixed on the mother tiger, who, half-tame or not, had flattened her ears and uttered a low growl. Her maw opened, fangs glistening in the dappled light, and quickly, Jack hoisted the boy up towards James, his breath coming up short as her tail lashed and she started to rise. He gulped, staring at the flicking tip of it, anywhere but directly into her golden eyes. James frantically shoved Matthew down the other side of the wall, then leaned down and grabbed Jack's hand, bracing himself with the other. The mother tiger was prowling closer, eyes fixed on Jack. James yanked roughly, hauling him up as fast as he could. The tiger shifted, her lean muscles tensing as she jumped, pouncing at empty air. Jack scrabbled to get his feet over the ledge and tumbled to the other side, taking James with him. He was up a second later. "Run!" he gasped, heaving Matthew into his arms and tearing down the path as fast as he could go. He didn't stop until they were back amid the winding alleys, leaning back against a wall to catch his breath, laughing, "Lord! Thought I was gonna be dinner." Matthew's eyes had drawn together and he was still shivering. "I'm sorry, so sorry. I just wanted t'get a closer look." James turned to Jack, panting. "Are you quite all right? Besides the usual." He quickly checked Jack for any injuries, then turned to Matthew, ruffling his curls until he looked up. "Matthew. You said yourself that they were ferocious beasts. Appearances can be deceiving. What you did was very foolish, and it is more than luck that nothing happened." Jack crouched down to face the boy whose lower lip was starting to tremble. "I'm perfectly fine, luv. Here now, none o'that. Mamma animals can get awful fierce if they see someone near their babes. You'll remember that, aye?" He pulled the flask from his pocket and handed it to the shaken lad. "It'll steady yer nerves." He brushed away a tear that dripped down the small nose with a smile. "No harm done an' we've had our first adventure t'day! Just think how you can tell 'em all that you got chased by a real live tiger." He passed the flask to James with a wink, keeping one arm around Matthew, who manfully sniffed and squared his shoulders. Then suddenly, the boy clung again, sniffling away a last sob. James reached down and slipped an arm round his shoulder, squeezing gently. "I wonder if you are doing all that just to have Jack jumping after you," he teased. "Any other suggestions, oh captain of tour guides?" Jack stowed the flask with a swift smile, glad to still have both legs intact. "Wanna see a temple? There's one not too far from here." And he was off again, pulling them through the labyrinthine of streets willy-nilly, like a dervish on a crooked course. They stopped to watch a woman spinning with a small wheel, a man juggling near a dozen balls, another playing a flute for an undulating snake. Matthew had calmed, but his enthusiasm was still subdued, his voice almost a whisper where before he would have pointed and squealed. Still, he was fascinated and James noticed it with a smile, hoisting the boy atop his shoulders again. They were enfolded in colour, a world that seemed so complete and yet it effortlessly made way for them to submerge in it. James barely noticed the heat that had vexed him in the Caribbean, and only when a veiled girl dropped her gaze did he realise that he was staring. He swallowed and turned to Jack. "Will they allow us into the temple? I would rather not court more trouble." "Just have to take off our boots an' keep quiet. 'Tis rather like bein' in a church, y'know, but prettier, I think." Jack led them down a broad avenue amid dozens of locals, the women swaying in their layers of bright cloth, dark eyes dropping under long lashes, gold glinting in nose-rings that obscured full lips. They left their boots with a toothless old man who bowed and grinned as Jack bowed back and handed him a coin, beckoning them towards the tall spires covered in sculptures up to their stone pinnacles. James did not shout or point, his eyes did not go wide, but the light in them was the same as in Matthew's. It was a miracle, to find a new world on a continent he had thought he knew from one visit, had discarded as a less-civilised English colony. To realise that there was more to learn and explore here, it tugged at the same urge that had first lured him to sea, made it flare up with a strength he had thought lost. They ducked under a low arch like the mouth of a cave, and found themselves in a massive space, lit all round with little oil lamps that sputtered in the cool air. Women crowded around the shrine of a goddess with massive proportions and many arms, laying wreathes of flowers and lighting their clay lamps like the Wise Virgins. Slowly, they skirted the entire place, passing bearded men with paint on their foreheads, sitting or standing as if frozen in strange postures. The air was ripe with the smell of flowers and smoke. Jack paused before a statue of a rotund man with multiple arms and the head of an elephant, bobbing a bow and leaning forward to slip a coin onto the pedestal with a wink. James shifted closer, eyeing the statue with wide, amazed eyed. "Who is that?" His voice was low, his head bowed. "What is that head?" James barely stifled the urge to reach out and touch, clutching at Matthew's reaching arm. "That's Ganesha, the head god, Shiva's son. He's mighty good luck an' promises happiness and fortune to all. I'm very fond of him." Jack bowed again and led them further, trying to distract Matthew quietly from staring at a large sculpture of a many-armed god and his goddess, entwined in a frankly carnal embrace. James coughed delicately, bowing his head and staring up through his lashes. "Two more of your favourite heathen gods?" His voice was still a low whisper as they walked onwards, shooing the boy away from the offending sculpture. "Oh aye!" Jack grinned and bowed to them with a sly wink at James. He left another coin with a little man as wrinkled as a dried apple, before leading them back out into the sun, blinking like owls as they collected their boots and headed down the road. It was getting near mid-afternoon and young Matthew's stomach was growling. "Think it's time we got some grub and tried t'find where Bertie's gone." "I do believe we shall find him in worship of these two most interesting deities." They found him back at the inn, snoring loudly after what had obviously been a most interesting and satisfying night. They managed to wake him and set out for another delicious dinner. This time, James did not feast so recklessly. A filled stomach caused lethargy which did not fit his restless mood at all. Exotic though the port was, the first priority was to get home. Jack tucked into the bright yellow curry with a passion that made the rest stare at him, since Spanish was well-known for his birdlike appetite and everyone wondered how in hell he managed to stay fit at all. Then again, not 'everyone' knew about that magically refilling flask of his. He finished with a huge, satisfied belch that made the owner beam and slip Matthew a few more pieces of sticky sweets to carry away, wrapped in a bit of bright-coloured paper. "Now where to, mates? Heard tell of a sailor's tavern down that way. Sound good?" Jack was absently rubbing the honey-syrup from Mattie's face with one sleeve and trying to uncap the flask at the same time. James lifted the boy into his lap and cleaned his face thoroughly, grinning at Jack with a nod. Bertie gave a small cheer. "Aye, I definitely need a drink." They got moving and outside, James hoisted Matthew up again. "We should take the lad to the inn." Jack shook his head so hard it set all his baubles rattling. "Bertie, you g'wan with the barnacle. Catch up in a sec." He watched them round the corner and turned to James, his eyes wide. "Are ya mad? We can't leave him there. He'll be gone fast as Bob's yer uncle, mate!" "Do you suggest taking him to the tavern? I know many a dockside tavern, and not one of them is a place for a boy his age." Jack resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "James, th' only reason he's left be is cos he's always with one o' us. Those blond curls an' blue eyes? Do ya not know how much he'd be worth t'some pasha once they cut off his ballocks? This ain't home, luv. Here it don't matter wot bloody colour yer hide is. If yer young enough an' pretty, it's a danger. I'm sure young Matthew's seen the inside of many a tavern afore this. Worse thing that can happen there is he'll fall asleep under a table." James' voice trailed off and he bit at the insides of his lip. He had no account of this port, and thus no right to object. He sighed. "Very well then." Jack slipped an arm through James' and laughed, pulling him round the corner. "Besides, we're just lookin' fer a few drinks and laughs t'night. No harm can come to him if one of us keeps a foot on him." They rounded the corner and Jack walked a little faster, watching a dark man busily distracting Bertie while another lurked in the shadows of a tent, his eyes fixed on Matthew, who had drifted a few feet away. Jack had his knife in his hand and tapped the man on the shoulder as he reached towards the boy. "I wouldn't be doin' that, mate." James had Matthew atop his shoulders in a heartbeat. The boy giggled and tried to steer him like a horse, tugging at each ear to determine a direction. James followed obligingly, one hand slipped around Matthew's leg. His look at the two men was icy, and the one who'd been talking to Bertie slunk away and disappeared into the crowd. Jack muttered a few words to Bertie, then stashed the knife in his boot so quickly it seemed to vanish into thin air. He whistled a tune and had them all singing as they reached the tavern. It looked like any dockside hovel in any port and certainly sounded the same: loud laughter and shouts, drunken singing, the occasional screech. Jack was perfectly at home and cleared a path for them to the bar to purchase three bottles and the use of four mugs. They found it advantageous to stay close to him as he threaded his way to a corner table, for he managed to move through the chaos as if enclosed in a magical bubble, ducking fists or gesturing hands and never spilling a drop. "There now." He threw himself on the bench where he could watch the door and handed the bottles out, filling a mug for Matthew from his own. "Drink up, lads." Meanwhile, his eyes and ears were wide open, scanning for languages, faces; mentally ticking off those to remember, instantly forgetting any not worth the effort. Years had passed since James had truly frequented such establishments, and to say he felt at home was an exaggeration. Yet, he had spent all his life among sailors and had learnt to distinguish serious curses from those brought about by inebriation and jest. And he knew how to duck. Matthew trailed ahead of him, but the boy seemed to ignore everything, turning the mug of rum in his hands and sniffing at it. Then he looked up at Jack with wide eyes, downing a large gulp which promptly sent him coughing. James carefully watched for any choking, but Matthew only coughed more, eyes bright and wet. He remembered how embarrassed he had been when everyone had noticed his choking on his first mug of pure rum. He had downed the rest of the mug in one go and felt miserable for days. He had no wish for Matthew to repeat such an experience. Jack pounded the boy on the back, laughing. "Take it easy, barnacle. Y'tryin' to outdrink us all?" He winked at James and Bertie, then leaped to his feet, waving his arms around and shouted, "Ahoy, Berks!" Berkely grinned and, after a few tactical shoves, joined them at the table. "Ahoy there, Spanish. Had fun, eh?" "Oh, aye we have! You enjoyin' the leisure time?" "Shore leave. I wager y'know how 'tis. Course ya do, Spanish." He looked at James, then laughed. "Or perhaps ye don't. But I'm sure Bertie here sets a fine example." Jack poked at Matthew. "Young Mattie's had quite an adventure today, didn't ya?" Matthew blushed to both ears and edged closer to James. "Jack saved me from a tiger," he managed eventually, hiding his face against James' sleeve. Finally, James had mercy. "Young Matthew here was a little too curious and wished to take a closer look at the tiger cubs, which was not to the liking of their mother." Jack gulped down more in one swallow than any man of his slender build had a right to consume, and laughed. "Got a firsthand view of how fierce they are, didn't ya, barnacle? And we went to the temple." Berkely raised an eyebrow at them, as if to ask why they should waste precious shore leave on such things. Matthew's head shot up and he nodded eagerly at Berkely. "Yes, an' they've the funniest statues there! You should've seen them!" It was James' turn to cough up his rum. "The temples are fine works of art." Jack refilled his mug and giggled. "Must say, their idea of wot gods do on their days off is more pleasant than flyin' round with harps." He had one eye on a Dutch sailor reeling toward a back room. "Hey Berks, they got a game goin' on in there?" His eyes were wickedly appraising. "Could fancy a wager or two." "Cards. But they've a damn good player back there. Lost a bit of coin t'him last night, don't fancy losing me whole share to Lady Luck." James frowned into his mug. "Surely you would not wish to waste time and money on gambling?" Jack shot him a predatory look and stretched, smiling archly. "I ain't had a good game in months. Might just have t'give their good player a go. C'mon. Let's go see." He bounded up over the table, dragging Matthew with him. Bertie and Berkely had already picked up their rum and followed, so James had little choice. Lips drawn into a tight line and his fist clenching on his mug, he followed. If possible, the back room was even seedier than the rest of the tavern, more silent, darker. Around a table, several players were assembled, more watchiner over their shoulders. Jack stood towards the back of the room, watching, his eyes gleaming in the darkness, very like the tigers'. He bent down close to Matthew. "Now, listen up, mate. You stick close t'Jamie. Don't go gettin' lost and don't go outside alone fer nothin'. If ya gotta piss, get one of us t'come along. Promise?" Matthew looked up at him, his lips edging towards a pout for a moment, then he nodded with all the gravity a little boy could possess. "Promise." True to his word, he slunk closer to James, who put an arm around his shoulder before edging closer to Jack. "What do you want to do here? Besides being completely insane?" "Just havin' a bit of fun, luv." At the table, one of the players threw down his hand in disgust and got up, grumbling. In a trice, Jack was standing behind the chair. He flipped a gold piece into the air, catching it with a grin. "Wot say you t'real stakes?" Murmurs started up all around the table and James drew his breath in with a hiss and a headshake, taking a seat in the back. Bertie shrugged and slapped his shoulder. "Spanish's mad. You should know that best of all." Berkely's eyes followed the glittering coin and narrowed as the big African at the table looked at Jack with a sly smile. Drunken sailors with too much money after a long voyage were his business and he nodded for Jack to take the vacated seat. "Bone-Ace, aye?" Jack watched the shuffle and deal, grinning as he easily picked out the marks on the back of the old deck. He dutifully lost a few hands, then promptly switched his hold on the cards so the backs were covered and his agile brain worked out the markings. Then he started to win. He was smart enough to lose a few more, then win when the pot was big; to bet low, then high, and by the time he'd been an hour at the table, he knew every hand just from the backs of the cards. It was child's play and he amused himself with half his attention on the game, joking and laughing with the other players. The dealer's sly smile grew nastier, just a hint of blackened teeth behind tightly drawn lips. "Yer in luck, mister, " he snarled. "But what say you t'raising the stakes higher?" He tossed a pouch on the table that spilled coin, silver and a tantalising flash of gold glittering in the dim light. Most of the players tossed in their hands at the sight, the others' eyes widening with naked greed. Jack smiled sweetly, batted his eyes and reached into his pocket, holding up a pearl the size of a cherry, its perfect white gleaming like a beacon between his dirty fingers. "Raise ya. Deal." Bertie looked at James wide-eyed. "Where th' hell?" James shook his head. "Long story. Ask him later." It was Jack who always insisted on the opportune moment, but James knew well enough when the moment was not opportune. Berkely's eyes, too, had gone wide, and they all stared at the table. Everyone but Jack and the dealer had backed away from the game, but they all watched, Jack's grin as genial as the dealer's was nasty and angered. Jack barely glanced at his hand and kept asking for another card, then another and one more, finally waving his fingers and waiting for the inevitable explosion. He knew the dealer was already over 31 and turned over his hand to display the exact number. "Not yer night, is it, mate?" He grinned and swept his winnings into one pocket with an exaggerated bow. "Drinks all 'round! Mighty thirsty work, all that, isn't it?" There were cheers all around, and the dealer's snarl was lost amidst them. He stood up with a start, his chair crashing to the floor, but not even that stopped the sudden elation. "Yer a lucky one, Mister. Hope it don't run out." With those words, he strode from the room while all the others collected around Jack. Nothing attracted more attention in a tavern than riches, drink and luck. Jack watched him leave with one eyebrow arched into his headscarf. He leaned over to Berkely. "We'll be seein' more of him later, I imagine." He laughed and toasted the group, singing a positively lewd Dutch shanty at the top of his lungs. James leaned back in his chair and watched, keeping up the impression that he was constantly drinking while barely sipping from his mug at all. It was a vital skill if one wished to remain sober at balls and receptions without appearing impolite. He knew how much a man would let slip when he thought others as drunk as himself, and he waited for anything of that ilk to happen. It did not. Jack drank, Jack sang, Jack bought rounds of drinks, but over the hours, James could not make out anything that was worth considering, and certainly nothing he could repeat in front of the boy. By the time most were tumbling into chairs or snoring on the floor, Jack finished another outrageous story and grinned at little Matthew who was sound asleep, curled around James' leg. "Wake yer charge, luv. I think we got wot we came fer." "Money and drink?" It took a few minutes and several shakes until the boy woke with an enormous yawn, curling into a ball once more. James had to resort to tickles to get him upright and walking. Outside, the street was quiet, and Bertie and Berkely watched Jack warily. Something in Spanish had been different in that room; there was a glamour about him they hadn't noticed, born of mystery and money. Where had he gotten gold? And such a pearl? The street was no place to discuss such matters so they followed quietly until Jack suddenly stopped, then swerved down an alley. "Take Matthew back to the inn. Don't stop fer no one." His voice was low, knife already in hand. "Now go. Fast. Jamie, we got comp'ny." A snarl was James' reply as his hand went to his swordless hip. He could already smell a fight in the air and feel the tingle in his blood. "How many?" "Three. Could be more. C'mon, let's throw 'em off a bit." Jack began to thread his way through the maze of streets, chattering a little too loudly, swaying and swaggering more than usual, his voice cutting through the quiet. They turned a corner and his eyes widened. "Bugger!" "Sparrow? SPARROW! I shoulda known! Come back here, ya scurvy son of a whore!" the giant looming at the end of the alley boomed. "Jesus, Jamie! RUN!" Jack tore off to the left and disappeared down another street with James hot on his heels. They raced through streets, alleys, a mad chase, and but for the stars, James would have lost his bearings completely. Further and further they ran from the docks, deeper into the city. As they raced around another corner, Jack yanked him into a doorway with a sharp hiss. "Shhhh." Jack rummaged in his pockets and found the pick, courtesy of another lift in the market. He wobbled it in the lock, cursing under his breath. "Dammit, c'mon, ya bastard. Turn. Damn. Turn, please!" The tumblers clicked and the door opened. They slipped inside, both panting. There was a soft giggle behind them.
Chapter 13 ::
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