Chapter Fourteen: The Thickening Plot
Margaret, Countess of Moresby, was thoroughly enjoying herself in Lord Jeffrey's mansion. The servants literally waited on her hand and foot; the governor's storehouses had yielded gorgeous gowns, underthings made of finest lawn, dainty embroidered slippers to wear on her narrow, aristocratic feet. As a concession to the heat, she'd taken to wearing only a lacy nightdress made of nearly transparent cotton during the day and only dressing in her finest when the sun went down, bringing with it some modicum of relief from the unrelenting tropical sun.
Now she lounged with Sir Jeffrey on the terrace, enjoying the cooling sea breezes, shaded by lemon and orange trees. The bodies of the pirates who'd been hung on the governor's orders still swung gently from their noosed necks, although the birds had already been at their faces and hands. Thankfully, the wind hadn't shifted and was still blowing the already heavy stench of their rotting flesh away from the mansion, otherwise it would have been overwhelming.
Margaret relaxed with a sigh, dabbing her sweaty forehead with a perfumed handkerchief. "Your blood must be made of pure ice," she groaned. "This heat is positively stifling!"
Lord Jeffrey paused in his examination of some papers that had been presented by his cringing secretary. "Why don't you have one of the servants draw you a cool bath?," he suggested. His watery maroon eyes were ringed with a layer of black lead in startling contrast to the powdered white skin of his face. A beauty mark in the shape of a crescent moon was peeling away from the corner of his mouth. "I understand that Achilles has recovered from his last bout of service to you. Or should I more properly say - servicing you?"
Margaret flushed slightly. Achilles was a tall, heavily muscular slave who had been imported from Africa as a child. Trained to utter servility in the governor's strict and brutal regime, Achilles had proven to be the perfect sexual toy for the sadistic Countess. Lord Jeffrey had been forced to reprimand her after his valuable property had been whipped to within an inch of his life; Margaret demanded blood with her satisfaction and was quite adept at proving that her woman's strength was more than enough to make even the most stubborn man cry out for mercy when she inflicted her peculiar brand of agonies.
"How tiresome of you, my lord," Margaret said, batting her eyelashes and shifting a bit in her chair, the better to allow the governor a better glimpse of her heavy breasts as they swayed and strained at the thin fabric of her gown. "Have you no better subject of conversation?"
Lord Jeffrey bared his blackened teeth in a grin of pure malice. "You are too free with my property, madame," he retorted. "You'd not like it overmuch should I be forced to take recompense for my abused slaves out of your precious hide. But, there's an end to it! Such small topics of conversation are soon exhausted." He shuffled his papers aside. "Do you wish to hear what Captain Splitfoot and I have been about whilst you've been occupied with more fleshly concerns?"
Margaret leaned forward eagerly. "Oh, yes!," she trilled. "Do tell, my lord. What delicious plan have you and that beastly man dreamed up for the pirate bitch?"
Lord Jeffrey looked pleased. He took a sip of spiced rum and rolled the golden liquid around on his tongue before answering. "First of all, when O'Malley learns of your disappearance - and I'd be mortally surprised if she hasn't already - she'll also be informed that you were abducted by Captain Jack Splitfoot. His crewmen have been haunting every low dive in Port Royale, spreading rumors and telling the tale to any ears that listen. No doubt O'Malley's men will have heard the news and will hasten to bring it to her attention."
"Go on," Margaret urged, her amethyst eyes glittering.
"Splitfoot is an ignorant fellow; I know all about his precious treasure map and the fact that O'Malley has two... no, three pieces of the four. I received word this afternoon about her bold venture against Harry Wagstaff. Stole the map and nearly got herself skewered." He chuckled. "She was nearly shot by one of her own crewmen as well. A beardless boy so drunk he nearly blew open his own captain's brainpan."
Margaret waved a hand impatiently. "The plot, sir! The plot!"
To punish her for interrupting his tale, Lord Jeffrey spent some time sipping his drink and allowing her to stew. Her mouth drew into a thin line and her nostrils flared, but she realized that he would not be pushed; if she allowed her anger to show, he would only delay further.
Finally, when he decided she'd been punished enough, he continued, "At any rate, madame, O'Malley will surely make haste to Splitfoot's ship, the Brimstone, both in order to recover her stolen property -" he nodded in Margaret's direction - "and to steal Splitfoot's piece of the map. Our good Captain Jack has been ostentatiously spending my good gold in taverns and whorehouses, pretending to be on a drunken spree of magnificent proportions. His ship is supposedly lightly guarded with only a skeleton crew between O'Malley and her prizes. However..."
He paused and waited with raised eyebrows.
Margaret had learned her lesson and kept her mouth tightly closed against temptation.
Satisfied, Lord Jeffrey drawled, "However, the Brimstone's hold does not carry stolen goods. Instead, I have secretly installed twenty of my best soldiers, all of them heavily armed and primed for fierceness. I've offered a bonus of two hundred pounds to the man who captures O'Malley alive. My soldiers lurk in the ship's hold as if it were a Trojan horse... and O'Malley will trustingly walk into our trap like a lamb to the slaughter."
"My lord?," Margaret affected to be puzzled. "Why do you wish the bitch alive? Surely, it would be better if she were killed on the spot."
"Because, my dear Countess..." Lord Jeffrey leaned closer; his breath smelled of rum and rot. Margaret was hard pressed not to flinch away. "I want her to hang. Surely you can understand that? A person like O'Malley would suffer far more from a hangman's noose than from the quick surcease of a bullet. Don't you agree?"
Margaret nodded eagerly. As she thought of being able to actually witness O'Malley's death, she felt such a rush of liquid heat between her thighs that she was forced to press her legs tightly together. Her eyes fluttered and she let her head fall back in ecstasy. "Oh, yes...," she whispered. "Oh, yes... hang her, my lord. Kill her slowly; let her strangle on the executioner's knot."
Noting the look of sheer bliss on the Countess' face, Lord Jeffrey drew back slightly. "I promise you, my dear, I shall do precisely that."
Margaret licked her lips as a strong surge of sexual excitement sent a wave of wet heat crashing through her core.
Lord Jeffrey looked at her with hooded eyes, sniffed
once, curled his upper lip... and said nothing.
As the sun fell, a few of her crewmen returned - drunk, empty-pocketed and fairly reeling. But none of them were too taken with drink to inform her - no matter how incoherently - of the Countess' abduction by Jack Splitfoot, the murder of the men who were supposed to have taken her to the slave market, the disappearance of Black Michael and his cronies, and various other rumors that had been circulated by the Brimstone's crew.
At first, Graciela was dubious. True, the crewmen she'd entrusted to deliver the Countess to the Sultan of Bey's factor hadn't shown up yet, but then again, it was the nature of a sailor to carouse heedlessly as soon as his feet touched solid land. However, when a messenger was rowed over from the dock, bearing a message of fiery reproof from the infuriated factor, she began to believe... and believing, began to rage.
When Miguel turned up, looking much the worse for both drink and fighting, Graciela collared him immediately.
"Do you know what's happened?," she asked, pale eyes fairly snapping in fury.
"That puta of an Englishwoman's been taken by Splitfoot," the Spaniard replied thickly. His bottom lip was split and when he talked, a new trickle of bright blood crawled down his chin.
"That bastard!" Graciela wheeled away to pace some more. "How could this have happened? Did my own men sell me out? I'll wring those sons-of-bitches' necks myself and have their jewels for earbobs!"
"The way I heard it," Miguel replied, sinking down to sit on a coil of rope, "is that Black Michael and his boys - you remember how much trouble they were before, cap'n? - betrayed you to Splitfoot. He it was that stole the Englishwoman; I overheard some of his crewmen talking about how Splitfoot's got the puta tucked away on the Brimstone. I think he figures to make her his fancy woman."
"Hah! As if that sorry sea beggar had the liver to deal with that hellcat!" She abruptly stopped pacing and confronted Miguel directly. "The Countess' beauty might be temptin', but I'd rather bed a seasnake and take less risk in bein' poisoned."
Miguel, despite the painful aches and bruises in his face - and everywhere else - chuckled. "You know Splitfoot better than I," he said and immediately regretted the remark.
Graciela turned pale; the corners of her mouth turned down in an ugly grimace. In the pale light of the ship's lanterns, her face assumed the heavily carved lines and frightening aspect of a she-demon. "Aye, I know him well," she murmured, and there was an unmistakable thread of implacable hatred in her tone. She turned away and Miguel sighed, but he knew better than to offer a word of sympathy.
Her back was to him; the shorn length of her hair fluttered gently on her shoulders. In a moment, her voice came to him softly: "What's the crew complement of the Brimstone?"
If Miguel was puzzled by this question, he didn't show it. "Hundred fifty-three," he replied. "But tonight, a skeleton crew of a dozen only. The rest are in town."
She didn't respond, only continued to stare out at the dark waters and the rippling reflections of dozens of lights, both from the docks and the ships around them.
Miguel cleared his throat. "What of..." He hesitated; after the brawl in the Swan's Ear, he'd ended up along with dozens of others who'd been tossed out into the street. Knowing that Elizabeth was in the company of the Captain, he'd dusted himself off, catalogued his injuries, and staggered away to find solace in the arms of a plump, sloe-eyed prostitute who claimed to be from famed Madrid. Now he wondered what had happened to his erstwhile student and felt slightly ashamed at leaving her to face Graciela's wrath alone.
Graciela's shoulders hitched a little. "What?," she snapped, not deigning to turn around.
Miguel casually popped the ruby from his eyesocket, polished it on the arm of his jerkin, and thrust it back inside; it was a gesture he performed when he wished to stall for time to think. Finally, he sighed. "How is Lizzybetta?," he asked calmly, although his stomach cramped in anxiety.
"She's in my cabin, where she'd going to stay," Graciela replied in a no-nonsense tone. "I've already given her seventeen kinds of hell for running off like that." Abruptly, the pirate whirled around and Miguel instinctively shrank down into his coil of rope; when the Captain looked like that, even black-hearted, fearless, motherless bastards felt their testicles trying to crawl back up to safety.
Graciela continued crisply, "I know this fool's errand was your idea, Miguel Valencia Francisco Cristobal de Santiago de Hidalgo de Fuentes y Esperanza. But I've other things on my mind right now, so I can't take the time to flay you down to a strip of salted skin like you deserve."
Miguel gulped; when Graciela used all of his names that way, it reminded him of his saintly mother - God grant her peace! - who had ruled her roost of fourteen with an iron hand and a tongue of pure cut-steel. He knew he deserved a scolding at least; in other circumstances, he would have accepted the Captain's often biting comments without so much as a squirm. But he was still worried about his pupil, so interrupted Graciela as graciously as he could. "My pardon, cap'n, but how is Lizzybetta? Will she be staying on?"
"No, I've decided to sell her in the Countess' place," Graciela replied shockingly. "She's pretty enough, I think, to grace the jaded Sultan's harem - even if she is all elbows and knees and has about as much grace as a pig on ice."
Miguel's mouth opened and his wheezed protest was cut off by Graciela's bark of laughter. "Don't piddle down your leg, amigo," she said. "She's to stay as part of the crew... within certain limitations. Since she deliberately disobeyed my order to remain aboard ship, she'll cool her heels in my cabin for a while. You've my permission to see she's educated in what she needs to know - including how to properly handle a flintlock, for sweet Jesu's sake! She nearly blew my head off in the Swan's Ear! I'm makin' you responsible for her, Miguel. D'ye hear me? Anything that happens to her will fall on your head, my friend. No mistake... you wanted her, now I'm putting her around your neck until further notice."
Miguel didn't know whether to breathe a prayer of gratitude or curse his fate. He liked Elizabeth enough, as an uncle to a favorite niece; but when he considered the sheer amount of trouble this task was going to cause, on top of his other duties as first mate... but then again, thinking of the way she'd struggled this afternoon, pushing herself physically, mentally and emotionally... well, the son of Diego de Fuentes was more determined than ever to make the tall, gawky maid into a force to be reckoned with - and be proud of.
"Aye, cap'n," he replied with such meekness and such an innocent mien that Graciela became suspicious, searching his beaming face for any sign of sarcasm or rebellion. However, she could find nothing in his attitude to support her sneaking feelings, so she decided to let the matter drop... for now.
"When Cox comes back, have him mix up a pot of his hangover hellbrew for the men. We're shipping out tomorrow," Graciela said.
Miguel was taken aback. "But... I thought we were to remain for at least four days!"
"I've changed my mind." Graciela turned away again. Arms crossed over her chest, she leaned against the brass rail and stared up at the glittering stars. "As soon as the tide's right, we'll leave Port Royale and make for the Quartermoon Archipelago. I've business to take care of tonight; when I return, I'll plot our course. In the meantime, get some rest, amigo. It's going to be a long day tomorrow, and any man who fails to return on time can bloody well stay here. We wait for no one. Spread the word and then go to bed."
Miguel frowned, thought about making further objections, and subsided. Still, he couldn't help but ask one burning question. "Does your business tonight require any assistance?"
Graciela snorted. "Nay," she replied, eyes still fixed on the heavens. "T'is but a small piece of personal business I've delayed for too long; it's best I take care of things alone."
Miguel stood up, wincing as his joints popped and creaked; he wasn't a young man anymore and despite his superb physical condition, there were days when he felt his age. Like now. "Are you going after the Countess?," he asked.
Graciela didn't answer immediately; she continued to look up in what appeared a trance. But as Miguel painfully limped away from the quarterdeck, the fresh, salty breeze carried her whispered answer to his ears.
"That and more, my friend. Blood debts are easy to come by, but hard to revenge. Now's the time and I'll not miss my chance."
Miguel made his way back to his hammock, slung between keel beams in the forecastle. Sleep refused to come to his troubled mind and by dawn he knew why.
Returning sailors brought the most evil and dreaded news of all...
The She-Wolf of the Caribbean had been captured!
She languished in the governor's jail!
And she was due to hang in three day's time.
Miguel cursed himself, God, Graciela and Fate itself. As the blood curdling oaths rippled from his tongue, the sly Spaniard contrived a cunning plan. Ignoring his shipmate's alarm (and in some isolated cases, gloating triumph), he made his way to the captain's cabin...
For freeing the captain depended entirely on the courage to be found in a gawky, frightened but stubborn girl's heart.