Chapter Seventeen: Beware of Beauty !
"Pardon me, monseigneur. Would you be so kind as to direct me to the superintendent of this most impressive edifice?" The gentleman's voice was like warm oil; greasy and obsequious, with just the right mixture of humility and pride, and his liquid accent was straight out of Castilian Spain.
Thomas Carbuncle, head jailer of the Port Royale prison, gazed at his visitor with lifted brows. The man was dressed in sumptuous livery, dark green silk knee britches and frock coat heavily frogged with gold cord and a snowy white shirt. Wrapped around his neck were the tallest, most impressive and ornately knotted cravat that Carbuncle had ever seen, and one of his hot black eyes was covered by a red velvet patch.
Hastily brushing away the crumbs of his early evening snack, Carbuncle said, "That would be me, my good man. How may I serve you?"
The servant bowed his head slightly. His periwig had slipped a little in the heat, showing a small fringe of lustrous black locks at his hairline. "I have the honor of introducing to you my mistress, Her Grace, the Duchess of Birlingham."
A woman stepped out of the shadows behind the servant, accompanied by another female who was obviously a maid. The Duchess' dress was of pale peach silk, the full skirt split up the front to show the crimson and apricot underskirt beneath. The daringly low neckline was outlined in lace, and a waterfall of the cobwebby stuff dripped from the three-quarter length sleeves. Graceful arabesques of embroidered berries and vines covered the bodice and were matched by the woman's brocade shoes with their scarlet court heels. Her fingers were covered in glittering rings and her magnificent hat with its profusion of ostrich plumes was perched atop a glorious confection of red-gold curls that must have taken a skilled hairdresser hours to create.
The Duchess minced forward, skirts swaying, and snapped open a fan of pierced ivory work. "So this is the place you spoke of, Esperanza?" She spoke to the servant, who bowed lower.
"Yes, Your Grace," he answered. "May I introduce to you Master Thomas Carbuncle, superintendent of the Governor's magnificent jail."
The Duchess' emerald green eyes slewed towards the waiting Carbuncle and her fan fluttered a little faster. "Lawks, Esperanza!" she said in a high-pitched squeak. "I'd no idea that the colonies grew such handsome men!"
Thomas Carbuncle gulped and wet his lips. He unconsciously tried to suck in his enormous gut and throw back his slumping shoulders. "How may I be of assistance, Your Grace?" he asked in a slightly patronizing tone.
The Duchess giggled behind her fan. "Lawks, sir! You are bold!" She turned again to Esperanza. "Kindly inform the naughty Master Carbuncle why I have come here today."
While the jailer tried not to be too obvious about ogling the Duchess' breasts, which were squeezed into quivering mounds of succulent flesh by the tightness of her bodice, and while the Duchess simpered and made big eyes at the fat man, Esperanza said in his oily voice, "My mistress has recently arrived from London and has come to your beautiful island to visit her sister, Lady Sherness. While she is enraptured by the unusual tropical delights, there are, alas, few amusements suited to a lady of my mistress' delicate upbringing."
Carbuncle frowned slightly but didn't take his eyes away from the Duchess' creamy décolletage. "Yes?"
Esperanza smiled. "In London, Her Grace is famous for her generosity and the charitable acts which she performs for the less fortunate. Many times she has visited hospitals and prisons, bringing the gift of God's holy word to the inmates in the hopes that they will turn away from iniquity and reform their wicked ways."
He made a gesture and the female attendant came to his side. She was dressed in a plain, rather dowdy, loose-fitting gown and a lacy mobcap concealed her hair. Despite the ugliness of her dress, the maidservant's face was pretty enough to tear Carbuncle's eyes away from the Duchess.
"What exactly does Her Grace wish to do?" the jailer inquired.
Esperanza made another gesture and the maid opened the basket, revealing copies of the Bible. "With your kind permission, it is the wish of my mistress to visit the prisoners here and give each unworthy soul the opportunity for redemption by blessing them with God's word as well as delivering such uplifting phrases and encouragement's as they are likely to receive. Such ungodly men and women as dwell in this place may perhaps, therefore, be saved from their lives of corruption and vice."
When Carbuncle seemed unsure, Esperanza took a pouch from his frock coat and jingled it temptingly, adding, "Of course, my mistress would not dream of neglecting to reward the good Christian gentleman who so lovingly cares for the souls of those who are in his care."
Carbuncle looked left, then right, then reached out and took the heavy pouch from the servant's hand. "Can't say as I've ever refused a request from such a beautiful lady as Her Grace." He didn't believe for a second that this empty-headed noblewoman actually ascribed to such saintly motivations; he thought that the Duchess really wanted to gawk at the prisoners - especially those bestial criminals that were scheduled to hang. Visiting such places as lunatic asylums and prisons was a commonplace activity of the wealthy and jaded; it was their way of getting a little thrill of horror that would provide conversational material for a fortnight.
The Duchess rolled her emerald eyes and squeaked. "Lawks! How can a man of such fine sense, of such amiable qualities, be forced to cater to such terrible people as you have here?" She gave a theatrical shudder. "I'm all a-quiver with fright, I assure you!"
Carbuncle gave a clumsy bow. "Fear not, your Grace," he said, congratulating himself on the rightness of his conclusion about the Duchess' visit. "Rest assured, no harm shall come to you here, not while my strong arm protects you."
"How wonderful!" the Duchess squealed, her fan fluttering so fast it threatened to blow away the curling feathers on her hat. "You are too kind, sir. And so gallant!" She let out a peal of high-pitched giggles that made Carbuncle wince.
The jailer eyed the luscious mounds of the Duchess' breasts again, obviously weighing the benefits of watching the noblewoman stooping over to examine some lice-ridden wretch (and thus, affording an excellent opportunity for peering further down her bodice) against having to listen to the silly woman for a few hours. With a sigh of regret and one last sharp glance at what may have been a sliver of rosy nipple peeking through a film of lace, Carbuncle reached over and pulled a bell-rope.
"I hope you'll forgive me, your Grace," Carbuncle said, "but I must remain at my post. Governor's orders, you know. However," he continued as a stoop-shouldered old man entered the room, "my best under-jailor, Master Pease, will take you on a tour of prison."
The Duchess let out another string of nerve-shattering giggles. "Oh, this will be such good sport! Won't it, Esperanza?"
The manservant stifled a sigh. "Of course, your Grace," he answered.
The maid hefted her basket of Bibles and said nothing.
Carbuncle swiftly apprised Pease of the situation. Drawing the old man aside, he added in a hoarse whisper, "Keep that damned foolish woman out of trouble! And keep an eye on the servant, Esperanza. That Spanish bugger looks like he'd steal the gold teeth from his grandmother's head, given half a chance."
Pease nodded and gripped his hardwood club firmly.
After exchanging a few more pleasantries, accompanied by the Duchess' exclamations of "Lawks!," the noblewoman, servants and Pease left the antechamber, giving Carbuncle some much needed peace and quiet.
The jailer was so relieved - and the lighting so dim - that he never noticed the bloodstains on the back of Esperanza's frock coat, as well as the unmistakable dagger slit where the coat's previous owner had been forced to relinquish his livery and his life.
Miguel tugged at the length of linen that was wrapped high around his throat and threatening to choke him. "Did you have to knot this God-forsaken thing so tight?," he muttered to the "Duchess."
Elizabeth hissed out of the corner of her mouth, "Do you think I'm comfortable in these stays?" She pressed a hand to the busk beneath her bodice; the garment compressed her torso, forcing her breasts up and making it difficult to breathe. "I can hardly draw a scrap of free air."
Davy Mulvaney, the ship's cabin boy, whined softly, "Bloody 'ell, these shoe's is too tight by 'arf! And I'm all over itchin', too!"
Miguel reached out and twisted Davy's arm through the woolen dress he wore. "Close your face, boy, and act like a proper lady!"
Elizabeth's toes were also pinched cruelly by the shoes she was wearing; the prostitute they'd gotten the dress from had been about the maid's height but her feet were much smaller. The brothels in Port Royale catered to every taste, including expensive ones, and the fabulous gown had been a necessity. Only by imitating a noble lady and her retinue, and fooling Carbuncle in the process, could they have a prayer of getting to the captain.
Despite Elizabeth's genuine pain, she fluttered her fan, altered her gait so the heavy brocade skirts swayed gracefully, and tried to stay in character.
"Lawks!," she exclaimed as Pease droned on about the prison's history. "If these walls could talk, eh, Esperanza?!"
Pease gave the girl a sour look over his shoulder and continued to lead them through the maze of corridors and cells that made up the prison.
After what seemed an interminable time of slogging through dirty straw, peering at unwashed and groaning prisoners, and listening to Master Pease's dry commentary, the party finally reached the cells for condemned prisoners.
"Here be the ones what's goin' ter hang," said Pease. "I ain't gonna open no cells, so iffen ya wants ter pass out yer Bibles ter these devils, go right on. Jest don't get close, see; these fellers is des'prate enow wit'out temptation starin' them in the face." He looked pointedly at Elizabeth's gaping bodice and crumpled up his face in disapproval.
Elizabeth pretended not to notice; she snapped her fan closed and gestured to Davy. "Lawks!," she gurgled. "How exciting! Here, help me with these heavy books, Esperanza. Oh, good Master Pease, will you be so kind as to hold the basket for us? I fear my poor maid Lucy is quite spent from all that carrying."
Davy was looking nothing but bored until Elizabeth stepped sharply on his foot. Smothering a yelp, the cabin boy quickly drooped like the helpless lily he was supposed to be and turned a doe-eyed look of imploring on the stiff under-jailor.
Pease took the basket with ill-grace. "Don't dawdle about, lass. Gie on wit' it."
Miguel, Elizabeth and Davy quickly distributed the Bibles, shoving one through each of the cells. When they came to Graciela's cell, however, their efficiency ended suddenly and spectacularly.
"Lawks!," Elizabeth squealed as Miguel tripped over his own feet, falling heavily against her. At that same moment, Davy - impelled by a shove from Miguel - flew headlong into Master Pease's arms, knocking the old man to the floor.
"Gie orf me, ya poxy wench!," the old jailer squawked breathlessly as Davy squirmed on top of him, squeaking apologies and thrashing around in a play of helpless clumsiness.
While Miguel made his way over to the pair on the floor, ostensibly to help but effectively blocking Pease's view of the cell, Elizabeth squatted down and hissed urgently, "Graciela!"
The jingling of chains came from the darkness of the cell. Suddenly, the pirate captain's pale face loomed out of the shadows and Elizabeth gave a gasp of dismay and pity. Graciela had been tortured; that was plain enough from the bruises and dried crusts of blood on her face, the way she moved slowly, painfully and with infinite care across the small space that separated the heap of filthy straw she used as a bed from the iron bars of her cell.
One of her eyes was swollen shut; the other pale blue orb was unnaturally bright and glazed with fever. Graciela stared at the woman in front of her, wondering briefly if her wits had fled entirely. How could this vision of aristocratic beauty, this obviously high born and bred lady, know the name of a condemned pirate? The layers of skillfully applied makeup, the elaborate hairstyle, the gown and hat, all unfamiliar. Then she peered into the woman's emerald eyes and realized with a start that this was no Court coquette... against all the odds and perhaps even against God Himself, her Elizabeth was here!
Elizabeth saw recognition dawn on Graciela's battered face and thrust her arm through the bars. In her hand was a black leather bound Bible. "Take this!" she whispered, "Quickly!"
Graciela took the book and grimaced. "Now's a fine time to try converting me to Christian ways," she answered hoarsely.
Elizabeth shook her head impatiently. The farcial struggle between Master Pease, Davy and Miguel would be over in heartbeats and she had a message to impart. Snatching a few precious seconds to speak to Graciela privately was the whole reason behind Davy's pretend clumsiness.
"Listen!" she whispered, trying to control her voice to keep Master Pease from overhearing and ruining their plans. "Keep the Bible with you when they take you to hang tomorrow. There is aid between its covers... and we will not be far behind."
Graciela's black brows rose involuntarily and she grunted as this action caused a small cut on her forehead to open up again and a trickle of blood crawled slowly down the side of her face. "I know you're a good girl who believes in the intercession of a merciful God, Lizzybet, but couldn't you have brought me a blunderbuss instead?" she asked irritably. "What am I to do? Pray my enemies to death?"
Elizabeth peeked over her shoulder; Master Pease was getting to his feet, "aided" by Miguel and Davy, both of them apologizing loudly and profusely to cover her conversation with Graciela. There was no more time. "Don't forget the Bible," she urged. "And don't despair, I beg you. I... we won't let anything happen to you... I swear."
Seeing the desperate glint in the maid's green eyes, Graciela lifted her free hand and clasped Elizabeth's wrist. Lowering her head, she planted a dry, hot kiss on the back of Elizabeth's fingers. The maid immediately flushed, the crimson color blossoming on her cheeks and running down to paint her neck and breasts a bright scarlet to match. Graciela released Elizabeth and stared solemnly into her face.
"Until tomorrow, querida," the pirate captain said, painfully bowing from the waist. The gallant gesture cost her; straightening up was an effort and the world spun in dizzying circles for moments after. "Tell Miguel... take a sighting on the Hunter by the glass in the Devil's cabin," she choked. "Tell him that exactly! D'ye hear? Exactly!"
Elizabeth nodded, stood and pulled her arm from between the bars. She felt a sudden longing to caress Graciela's ebony hair, to fall into the depths of those pale sapphire eyes, to submit her burning flesh to the pirate's desires and be consumed by passion, burnt to ashes by love. She shook her head and stepped away from the cell, adjusting the bodice of her gown.
She suddenly found herself remembering the insults Graciela had thrown at her, a harsh memory that was seared into her brain, made her want to writhe in shame. The burning in her veins, the heat she felt in her loins, was transformed in an instant to righteous indignation. She remembered the way she'd been spurned like a dog, left lying stripped of any modicum of pride. Elizabeth's head came up and there was a stubborn tilt to her chin. Graciela didn't love her; she didn't even find her sexually desirable. That much the captain had made perfectly clear. She had rejected Elizabeth in the most embarrassing and humiliating terms possible... and the maid found that difficult to forgive, let alone forget.
Savagely, Elizabeth crushed her fantasies, allowed anger and injured pride to reign. She wanted to be a pirate, not a pirate captain's mistress, not a debased and disrespected whore. She'd had enough of being weak and helpless; she wanted to be brave and strong. She wanted to be much, much more than the Great Gawk... and whatever it took to achieve those goals, she would do it without hesitation or regret. Graciela was her captain, nothing more. She owed the woman loyalty and aid, nothing more.
She would play her part in the rescue of the captain because it was necessary. The crew needed their chieftain to survive, and for good or ill, Elizabeth was part of that crew by her own oath.
Loyalty, respect, obedience... these things she owed Graciela, and she'd be damned if she gave that infuriating woman a hair more than she was due. The fact that her heart felt as if it had been broken into a thousand bitter pieces made no difference.
Her face felt flushed and hot as a starching iron and there was a suspicious burning in her eyes. Elizabeth told herself sternly that there was no reason for tears; she'd accomplished the first part of their plan and all had gone well.
Reaching up, she adjusted her ostrich feather-trimmed hat to a rakish angle over her face and stepped over to where Davy and Miguel were slapping Master Pease's coat, raising such a cloud of dust and dirt that they all nearly choked. At last, when Davy's high-pitched apologies and Miguel's thickly accented excuses were finished, Master Pease shook himself and gave the three visitors a poisonous glare from his glittering black eyes.
"Naught good e'er came from lettin' quality mix wit' trash," he muttered darkly in disgust as Davy hastened to thrust his hardwood club back into the old man's hands. "If yer all thru muckin' about like monkeys in the dark, I reckon ye'd best get gone afore ye makes me miss me tea."
Without a backward glance, Elizabeth sailed out into the corridor, followed by Pease, Miguel and Davy, the pseudo-lady chattering on as if completely empty-minded. It wasn't until the party had gotten half-way back to the jail entrance that Elizabeth finally tripped over her skirts and pitched head-over-heels into a kitchen midden. Although dripping with foul stinking liquids and having wilted, rotting vegetables drooping from her hired hat, she was nevertheless glad for once of her clumsiness. It saved her from having to make up an excuse for why she was crying.
Behind her, lying on a lice-ridden bed of dirty straw in an iron-barred stone cell, Graciela opened the Bible and discovered the secret that lay at its heart.
For between the chapters of Hester in the Old Testament and Galatians in the New, God's word had been carved out to make a hollow space...
And in that place lay a flintlock pistol - loaded, primed and ready for action.
For the first time since she'd been captured, Graciela let a slow, savage smile drift across her face.
"Oh, you're in for a treat, you are," she said softly to herself, fingers lingering on the cool barrel of the gun. "Oh, aye, Governor Pouffe and Countess Whore... you're in for a treat, indeed."
Hugging the precious book to her bosom, Graciela closed her good eye, ignoring the twitches, twinges and burning of her injuries.
She was frankly astonished that Elizabeth had taken such a perilous chance. Although the girl was new to her crew and as yet had no price on her head as a pirate, still to have been caught aiding and abetting a convicted felon would have put her life at serious risk.
I hadn't thought the wench had enough gumption for such a scheme, she thought. Aye, but Lizzybet's a bold one, slipping t'wixt the teeth of Carbuncle and his dirty crew. I was wrong about her, I can see that. And I see that I've been blind as well; I let my lust overrule my sense. Lizzybet's more valuable to me right now as an ally than a bedmate.
The event that had so scarred Elizabeth - her rejection by Graciela - was almost forgotten by the pirate chieftain. True, she'd acted shamefully, nearly raping the maid in her unthinking haste to taste Elizabeth's abundant delights. She'd said some harsh words in the heat of anger, that was true as well. But the incident was over and done with as far as Graciela was concerned; no need chewing the old bones of the past when the future looked so bright and promising.
When I'm free again with the map in my hands and a sweet sou'wester in my hair, I'll have a talk with Lizzybet. 'Tis high time we hammered out an agreement of sorts, she and I. Although I'd not be loath to take a tumble with her if she's agreeable - by God, dressed and kited out like that, she's the very picture of an angel, tho' not a whit saintly! - still, after this, she's more than earned her proper place with my crew.
Graciela couldn't help turning her mind again and again to the vision that Elizabeth had made. That peach silk dress with the crimson underskirt flaming beneath, mimicking the red-gold glory of her hair. The twin mounds of quivering ivory flesh that bulged from the bodice, nestled in delicate lace like precious relics to be prized by a connoisseur's hand. Those emerald eyes, so earnest, so bewitching. Graciela wondered what it would be like to drown in Lizzybet's eyes, to slowly peel back her magnificent garments and awaken the flesh beneath with wet, heated kisses.
Her breathing slowed into an even rhythm and her body relaxed as these pleasant thoughts ran through her head. Without realizing it, Graciela fell asleep, still dreaming of an enchantress whose curving abundance was warm in her arms, whose lips tasted of wine and cinnamon, whose voice cried out in sweetly surrendered passion, making the air ring with no name but her own.
Margaret, Countess of Morseby, sipped from a tall glass of golden rum and purred, "Such a lovely day for a hanging. Don't you agree, Your Excellency?" Her amethyst eyes, shaded by the wide brim of her hat, shone in barely contained excitement.
Lord Jeffrey glanced at the sun, plucked a plum from the bowl at his elbow and bit into the sweet fruit, shiny runnels of juice sliding down his chin and staining the lacy cravat that had been tied carelessly around his throat. "The sun is shining, madame; the bulk of the island's population is crowded before the gallows like groundlings at a cheap play. One of the most dangerous criminals in the Caribbean is about to be lawfully executed, thus gaining me considerable reward as well as a feather in my cap as far as the Court is concerned. I may even get an earldom for this."
He paused, squeezing his strange maroon eyes closed for a moment before continuing, "Yes, Your Grace. Today is quite an extraordinarily good day for a hanging... for me at least. The prisoner O'Malley will almost certainly believe otherwise."
Margaret made a face at the govenor's dry humor. They were reclined on cane chairs beneath a light muslin canopy that screened out the harsh sun but allow any stray breezes to pass through . Tables of chilled fruit, drinks, cold game pies, vinegary sallets and other summer fare were watched over by light-skinned slaves armed with fly whisks, which they flicked energetically over the plates in an effort to keep the rapacious flies at bay. Besides Lord Jeffrey and the Countess, the only others allowed beneath this canopy of state were Captain Jack Splitfoot and Sir George Fitzwilliam, head of the govenor's guards.
Sir George was as broad as he was tall but there was not an ounce of fat on his squat frame. Immense shoulders and a barrel chest tapered down to a trim waist and the short, bandy legs that were the bane of his existance. He wore his frockcoats cut much shorter than fashionable in order to create the illusion of longer legs but he still resembled a dwarf of legend, all arms, shoulders and ox-like chest with ridiculously spindled legs to support his massive frame.
The guardsman gripped a horn cup of rum and cast many covert glances at the Countess of Moresby in between gulps. She was the most beautiful, desirable woman he'd ever seen and in such close proximity - he could almost taste her rosewater perfume in the back of his throat - he had to keep his legs tightly crossed to avoid offending her by the growing bulge in his trousers.
Sir George blew out a breath, fluttering the bristly mustache that hung down on either side of his mouth. The Countess was dressed in an thin cotton gown, exquisitely embroidered with bright butterflies and tropical vines. The fabric had been sponged with cool water before she'd donned it; the gown molded to her curves, boldly outlining her high, firm breasts, rounded thighs and the intoxicating vee between her legs. Sir George felt himself growing harder and groaned softly. He wanted the delicate and high bred Countess more than anything or anyone else in the world... and the hell of it was that he'd never get her. His rank and prospects were too low to temp this temptress. He would never dare declare himself; he would have to be content to admire her from afar and enshrine her in his heart as the perfect woman.
Ignorent of Sir George's admiration, Margaret peered at the gallows. Lord Jeffrey had positioned his tent a few hundred yards away, directly opposite the structure, on a small hill. They were close enough for easy viewing and could easily see above the heads of the crowd that had gathered to witness the Crown's justice first hand. Down below, respectable tradesmen rubbed elbows with whores and cut-purses; well dressed ladies vied with beggars and fruit sellers for the best positions. Jamaica had not seen such anticipation and excitement since the execution of the notorious Henry "the Shiv" Blackpool nearly a decade before.
The executioner and his assistant were testing the gallows by tying a sack of sand to the noose and releasing the trapdoor. The bag dropped with a satisfying bang and the crowd howled its appreciation. Resetting the door and beckoning to the waiting guards garnered another delirious shout.
Margaret stiffened in her seat as Graciela O'Malley, She-Wolf of the Caribbean, was led up the stairs to her execution. Her hands were fastened together in front of her with rope and her ankles were chained together. The pirate wore a cheap dress of black cotton, wrinkled and stained, and her feet were bare. She was led on either side by the governor's guards, burly chaps dressed in their distinctive uniforms of sky blue and gold, their steel conquistador-style helmets decorated with dyed ostrich feathers that fluttered and danced in the bitter sea breeze.
As Graciela mounted the gallows, an elderly priest came forward. "My daughter," he said in his quavering voice, "I see that you carry God's holy word with you. Do you wish to repent of your sins and beg His forgiveness?"
Graciela pursed her lips and the priest flinched back, obviously expecting her to spit. Instead, she smiled, and the priest clutched his own Bible as if seeking protection from the malice in the woman's expression.
""I'd druther put my faith in this book than in all the prayers ever spoke under heaven," she said lightly.
The priest scuttled back to his place with a sour frown and the executioner came forward. He had the customary black hood over his head that concealed his features. Without a word, he took Graciela's elbow and led her to the trapdoor, fitting the hempen noose over her head and around her neck with precision and an expertise that spoke of much practice.
Lord Jeffrey adjusted his powdered periwig and stood. "Madame, I must take leave of you for a moment while I read the charges against O'Malley and legitimize these proceedings. I am certain that Captain Splitfoot or Sir George will be glad to entertain you during my absence." He and Splitfoot exchanged a knowing leer before the governor swept himself out of the pavillion, his guards shoving people out of his path.
Margaret was almost beside herself with excitement. This was the moment of her final triumph over the hated O'Malley and the heat rising from her slick loins was almost too great to bear. Somehow, her visits to the pirate in prison, her taunts and torments, hadn't been as satisfying as the Countess would have wished. Even persuading Lord Jeffrey to have Graciela visited by a professional torturer hadn't been as complete a revenge as she'd thought. But now the pirate was to die... and Margaret found herself so aroused that she could have grabbed the nearest male and rutted like an animal in the bushes, abandoning herself completely and without shame. Saliva gathered in her mouth and she swallowed thickly, unconsciously rubbing her legs together in an effort to ease that wild, sweet ache between her thighs.
Lord Jeffrey, safely ensconced on the gallows platform, raised both hands for silence. He made a magnificent picture, the hot sun glinting down on his sky blue satin frockcoat with diamond buttons , snowy cravat, immaculate hose and his favorite high heeled shoes with enormous sapphire and opal buckles. He waited until the crowd settled down then began to speak in a loud, carrying voice, trickles of sweat running down from his hairline and cutting through the white lead makeup on his face.
"Inasmuch as the woman Graciela O'Malley, also known as the She-Wolf of the Caribbean, has committing the heinous crime of kidnapping a servant of the Crown and a peer of the realm, and has also committed other offenses against His Majesty's laws, including murder, piracy and smuggling, and has been duly adjudged guilty of these crimes by a lawfully appointed minister of the Crown's justice, then by the authority invested in me as a representative of the sovereign nation of England, I hereby sentence her to be hanged by the neck until she is dead. May God Almighty have mercy upon your soul."
The governor stepped in front of Graciela. The beauty spot on his left cheekbone had slipped, coming to rest against the side of his nose. "Have you any last words, pirate?" he drawled.
Graciela's icy blue eyes bored into Lord Jeffrey's; her face bore such an expression of contempt and disdain that the govenor drew back a little. "Hanging me without trial? Is this what English justice has come to?"
"You are guilty, O'Malley." Lord Jeffrey made a show of adjusting the waterfall of lace that spilled from the cuffs of his frockcoat. "We both know it. Why waste time and money with a trial? Still... I suppose I could find it in my heart to give you a last minute pardon if..."
Graciela raised a brow. The rope around her neck was not chokingly tight but the rough fibers irritated the scratches and bruises on her throat. "If?" she repeated.
Lord Jeffrey sidled so close to the pirate that they were nearly nose to nose. Graciela could clearly see the tiny red veins in the governor's eyes, the flaking patches of lead on his cheeks, and his breath smelled strongly of wine. "I know you took Splitfoot's piece of the Sirena map, even if we don't know where you hid it," he whispered. "I know you have the other three pieces in your possession. Give them all to me, O'Malley, and I'll pardon you. It isn't too late, you know."
Graciela coughed, sending a fine spray of spittle in the governor's face. "And what of Splitfoot?" she asked, keeping her voice low. "He'll not like double-dealing. He wants me dead worse than he wants treasure."
Lord Jeffrey smiled but the muscle in one of his eyelids trembled uncontrollably. "I can take care of Splitfoot, madame. He's an ignorant miscreant, a filthy and foolish fellow who could be wiped from God's earth with no more effort than I could take to squash a bug. The map, O'Malley! Where is it? Tell me and you'll be free!"
Graciela hefted the Bible in her hands. There was a trace of amusement and something else in her face. Triumph? The governor wasn't sure and for a moment he wavered, torn between ordering the maddening woman's execution immediately or going through with his scheme. The professional torturer he'd brought in to cow O'Malley hadn't been solely for Margaret's sake; he'd hoped to break the pirate captain, force her to divulge the hiding place of the precious map. That hadn't worked; O'Malley had been tougher to crack than he'd thought. In a heartbeat, greed reasserted itself and his momentary doubts fled.
"What's your answer, pirate?" he asked.
Graciela looked down at the Bible; one of her hands caressed the cowhide cover lightly, as if brushing the flesh of a lover. Then her glance lifted and he saw death in her cold pale eyes.
"My answer...?" she replied. "My answer is this!"
And Lord Jeffrey screamed shrilly, both in fright and frustration as all his carefully laid plans suddenly went awry in the most dangerous way.