It had been thirteen years since he'd seen the man; thirteen years since he'd been humiliated and betrayed; thirteen years since he had taken his revenge, in blood and pain and anguish.
Jack Sparrow ought not to have survived. Between the branding, the beating, and being cast adrift beneath the scorching sun of the Gold Coast, he ought not to have survived. And yet survived he had.
Cutler Beckett wished he was more surprised, but from their first acquaintance he had known that Jack Sparrow was no ordinary man. The very Devil himself, perhaps, had sent him to torment the obscene desires of even the best of men.
Jones - that other devil - claimed to have raised Jack from the depths, him and his precious Black Pearl, in some kind of Faustian bargain that had cursed Sparrow's soul. But Jones claimed many things about Jack Sparrow, among them the fact that the man was already dead. That, as it had turned out, was incorrect. Which meant that Jones was unreliable; hardly a surprise, given the fact that he was only barely human.
However, now that Sparrow was within his grasp, Beckett found himself welcoming Jones' duplicity; it gave him ample reason to press the pirate for information. And that, he knew, would be a process of dark and dreadful delight.
Not trusting himself in the company of the gaolers, Beckett had ordered Sparrow brought to his own quarters in the fort. He wanted no witness to this reunion; no audience for Sparrow to manipulate with his wicked tongue.
This meeting would be between them, and them alone.
He'd given himself hours to prepare. Let Sparrow stew in the stinking gaol with nothing to do but contemplate the proximity of the hangman's noose, both for himself and for his high-class doxy. It was almost a pity, Beckett mused, that Weatherby Swann had been dispatched so soon; he'd have enjoyed watching the horror on the old man's face when he'd understood the extent of his daughter's downfall – the tag-along wench of the Caribbean's most debauched Lothario.
And yet, despite all his preparation, Beckett found himself overwhelmed by a surge of emotion when the crisp knock announced the arrival of the prisoner. "One moment!" he called, unexpectedly assaulted by a lamp-lit memory of glistening skin and sin-black eyes, of the dissolute touch of a fallen angel whispering silken lies against his sweat-slick shoulder. He could almost feel the burn of those pickpocket fingers biting into his hip, holding him steady until the tidal wave broke and sent him gasping into the sprawling sheets of his bed.
The memory was disturbing; stirring, and entirely inopportune. All thoughts of those nights had been banished, accessed only rarely and always when he was alone.
He shifted and adjusted his coat. Behind the door he heard the mutter of low voices, but couldn't discern one from the other. Clearing his throat, he braced a hand on the mantle and turned his back to the door. "Bring him in," he called, careful to keep his voice flat.
The door opened. He heard the crisp booted steps of his men and, beneath them, a lighter, softer tread, ornamented by the clink of shackles.
"Bind him to the chair," Beckett said, not yet ready to turn around; the evidence of this demon's power over him was still too pronounced. "Make sure he cannot get free."
There was muttering, then the click of a lock opening and closing again. But not a word from Sparrow; Beckett found the anticipation almost unendurable. "Leave us."
"Wait outside!" Beckett glared at the uneasy lieutenant, deliberately averting his gaze from the prisoner. But he couldn't avoid a blur of dark hair and a familiar insolent slouch at the edge of his vision. Something low in his stomach clenched.
"Yes, sir," came the smart reply and the two solders left hurriedly, closing the door behind them.
Beckett drew in a deep, steadying breath and still Sparrow did not speak.
With all the dignity of his office - Lord Beckett, now - he turned to face his nemesis. Jack Sparrow sat with his arms chained behind the chair, feet bound to its legs and a stout rope about his waist and chest. His hair, longer than Beckett remembered, was roped with savage braids and bound through with trinkets and baubles, tied back with a faded rag that might once have been red. His face - familiar as the sin it inspired - was sharper, less angelic than it had been, yet still extraordinary. That such a face should be wasted upon such a low, wretched—
And then Sparrow looked up, lifting black smudged lids to meet Beckett's gaze; his eyes were dark and still, deep as the ocean and just as desolate. Where was the devil's dance, the mercurial tease - the heat? For the first time since he'd heard the tale, Beckett began to wonder if there was some truth in Jones' stories of this terrible Locker and its punishments.
He found himself moved, if not to pity then to disappointment. "Jack Sparrow," he said, leaning back against the mantel and allowing his gaze to travel the length of the man. "Did you really think you could escape me?"
"Can't say I've given you much thought at all, mate."
Like a rapier thrust to the heart, he'd always known how to hurt in the most exquisite ways. Beckett forced a flicker of a smile. "I've been giving you quite considerable thought these past few days, Sparrow." He took a step closer, noticing the gleam of sweat upon the man's chest; a v-shape of bronzed skin, the hint of a tattoo. Deliberately, he did not lick his lips. "You and I have a mutual acquaintance, I believe."
Sparrow didn't answer, just fixed him with those dark jewelled eyes.
"Davy Jones," Beckett said, annunciating each syllable so as not to be misheard. "And he has much to say on the subject of Jack Sparrow."
"Does he now?"
"For instance, he tells me that you—" He waved a dismissive hand in Sparrow's direction. "That you are to lead a pirate rebellion against the forces of law and order, that you seek to redraw the lines around these islands and drive His Majesty's forces into the sea."
Sparrow made a slight movement, almost a shrug. "Seems unlikely."
"So there's no truth in it?"
"No truth at all." And yet there was something in his eyes as he spoke, a defiance that was both arousing and infuriating.
Beckett began to stroll, circling slowly around the man he had sought for so long. Just a man, after all. He reached out a finger and trailed it across the pirate's shoulders; muscles shifted beneath his touch and Beckett found his breath coming a little too fast. "You think me a fool," he said. "Thirteen years can teach a man a great deal, Jack Sparrow."
"Aye, and cost him a great deal too."
"You reap what you sow." Beckett's fingers brushed a light caress across the thick braid that ran down the man's back; so exotic, so strange. "Betrayal brings a bitter harvest."
Sparrow made no answer again, and didn't move as Beckett came to stand once more before him. In every imagined version of this scene, Sparrow had been cocksure and insolent - this taciturn, beaten man before him was not the seducer he remembered and Beckett felt somehow cheated of his victory.
"Where are the pirates gathering?" he said, watching Sparrow's face closely.
"Don't lie to me."
He moved his head, tipping it to one side and bared his teeth in a smile. "I'm not."
"Do you really think there is any possibility of me believing you?" He leaned closer, taking in the subtle lines about the man's eyes, the darker hue to his skin; time written in a faint hand across his face. "You taught me not to believe a word that fell from your lips."
A brief light flared in his eyes. "As I recall, it wasn't the words falling from me lips what interested you. Mate."
His pulse stammered, tripping over itself. Memory and blood surged. "And yet," he said softly, "now it is. Ironic, isn't it?"
Sparrow sighed, callous and dismissive. "I've neither the energy nor the inclination for a seduction, if that's what you're after. You'd best try the docks, if your tastes still run in that direction."
Like a taper to a touch paper, anger flared; his fist hit Sparrow's cheek before he knew he'd lifted his hand.
Sparrow didn't cry out, though the chair rocked onto its back legs before thumping forward again. His head dropped with it, onto his chest, and for a moment Beckett thought he might have knocked him unconscious. But after a moment he saw Sparrow work his jaw from left to right, then he lifted his head, shaking the hair from his face, and fixed Beckett with a furious glare; a livid mark marred his right cheek, the eye watering and already a little puffy. It almost seemed a shame...
A shame to mar something so beautiful, he'd said as his lips traced the curling patterns of ink that licked the man's hip with a serpent's forked tongue.
'Tis the mark of the sea, mate. Shows I'm a man. You, now... You've skin like milk; soft as a girl's where it matters.
Show me, he'd implored. Show me where it matters...
"I ask you again." Beckett's voice shook, fingers stinging from the blow – and from the
brief scorch of the man's skin against his hand. "Where are the pirates gathering?"
"You've had my answer."
"Unfortunately, that answer will not suffice."
Jack lifted his shoulders in an indifferent shrug. "Then you're out of luck, because it's the only one I've got."
Flexing his fingers, Beckett considered another blow. To the gut, perhaps. Or lower still. He sucked in a breath through his nose; there was a risk here, he saw, of distraction. He must be sharp, on his guard, and to the point. Turning on his heel, he walked to the table that stood by the window and, for a moment, gazed out across the infinite, conspiring blackness of the sea.
He loathed the sea with all his heart; uncontrollable and wild, like the men it spawned, it was the antithesis of all he valued. He'd been seduced by it, once, but never again. The sea - and Jack Sparrow - would be brought to heel.
From the narrow box that lay upon the table he lifted the gleaming blade of a sword – made by the hand of one William Turner and presented to Commodore Norrington, as was; he'd offered to return it to him upon his reinstatement into the Navy, but Norrington had refused. Some residual animosity toward the boy who had stolen his childhood sweetheart, perhaps. Having seen her looking like a hungry street whore, Beckett believed Norrington owed the Turner boy a debt.
He lifted the sword, tested its weight, and watched the gleam of lamplight run along its length. "A fine sword," he commented. "Forged by the hand of a friend of yours, I believe." When Sparrow didn't answer, Beckett turned around and found him watching the blade as if entranced. "Can you imagine," he said, advancing slowly, "what it would feel like as it pierced your heart? Can you imagine it slicing skin from flesh, flesh from bone?"
Sparrow swallowed, throat rising and falling, his gaze never leaving the weapon. "Better than you know."
"I assure you," Beckett said, swinging the sword lightly, experimentally, "that I am quite capable of causing you pain, of ending your life – here and now – before you ever reach the gallows."
Sparrow's eyes lifted from the blade. "Why don't you then? I've told you the truth; there ain't no pirate gathering, no uprising. Jones has fed you a line, mate; no doubt for his own purpose." He smiled a wintery smile. "You really should stop believing people who tell you what you want to hear."
"And you are a liar, Jack Sparrow." The blade was levelled at his throat now, resting lightly in the hollow at its base; Beckett could see the man's pulse beat slow and steady. "Tell me what I wish to know, or I will end it. Right now."
Sparrow closed his eyes, a slight smile touching his lips. "You'll get blood on the carpets. Terrible mess."
He pressed the blade closer. "I mean what I say."
"Do it, then."
But his hand was shaking, from frustration rather than fear. This would not do for an end, there was no victory here! There was no fear, no humiliation, no dread; Sparrow waited for death with a smile upon his lips! The point of the blade sent a trickle of blood running across his breastbone, seeping into the white of his shirt, and it would have been so easy to slide it through the soft, yielding flesh...
Easy, mate. Relax. You'll enjoy it. It's what you want most in the world.
Sweat beaded his forehead and he lowered the weapon, struggling to keep his voice even. "No," he said. "No, this will not do."
Sparrow opened his eyes; was that disappointment he saw lurking like mist? Or something else – fear, a twinge of panic?
He could have kicked himself for his foolishness; the girl was the key, that screaming banshee of a woman who had kicked and spat like a lunatic as they dragged her into the fort.
He smiled. "Lieutenant!"
The door opened and the soldier appeared, clearly relieved to find Sparrow still bound. "Sir."
"Bring the prisoner," Beckett said, returning Norrington's sword to the case. "And follow me to the gaol." His attention returned to Sparrow, but he could see nothing in that black gaze but the glitter of firelight. "I wish to try an alternative means of persuasion."
The image would not leave her mind, repeating over and over, and each time as vivid as the first.
“Elizabeth…!” So much joy in his face, so much hope.
And then Mercer’s blade driving through his back, a bright spurt of lifeblood, the brief look of astonishment on his dear, kind face, and then he was falling and she was screaming, and someone was trying to drag her back to the boat. But she fought them off and ran to him, catching him as he fell, touching his face, weeping against his hair as he whispered her name and then…
The sob, dry from too many tears, tore wretchedly from her chest as she wrapped her arms about her legs and tried to sink into the stone floor. Only death could relieve her from this pain – from this guilt. How could she bear it? Had she never left him, Beckett could not have used him to bait the trap. Had she been but a moment sooner, just a second faster, she could have reached Mercer before his sword struck. Had the moon not been so bright, had the tide been higher… If only, if only.
And now all too late. He was gone, the kindest, gentlest and best of men. Her dear Papa, her protector, her only true friend in the world…
The sharp rap of soldier’s boots on the stone steps cut into her grief, but she did not lift her head. Despite her pain, however, she found herself wearily alert. Listening, calculating. How many men? What did they plan?
“Miss Swann.” She did lift her head then, at the cultured tone of Cutler Beckett. “How delightful to meet you again; my, but you look radiant.”
“Go to Hell,” she spat. But then, behind him, she noticed Jack. He was watching her with that same inscrutable gaze he’d worn since he returned from the Locker, and for one bleak moment she thought he had somehow betrayed her.
“I leave my eternal fate in the hands of God,” Beckett said. “In the mean time…”
Jack was suddenly thrust forward, his arms held behind his back by a brute of a man in a red coat.
“I ask you again,” Beckett said, his gaze fixed on Jack. “Where are the pirates meeting? What is their purpose? When will they attack?”
Jack said nothing, though she noticed how his jaw was clenched – noticed the swollen eye and cheek.
“Very well, then.” Beckett gestured toward another man and, from the shadows, stepped Mercer. “Bring her.”
Elizabeth scrambled to her feet, wishing she had something – anything – to use as a weapon. But there was nothing but mouldy straw in the cell, and she was no match for Mercer as he seized her arm and threw her, hard, against the bars of her cell, holding her there with a hand on the back of her neck. Breath came through clenched teeth in a sweep of cold rage; her grief was gone, so was her fear. All that was left was hatred for this man who had murdered her father. “What do you want with me?” she hissed through the bars.
“With you?” Beckett’s smile was a cold dismissal. “Not a great deal. However…” He nodded and her head was yanked back, Mercer’s knife at her throat.
Beckett’s attention returned to Jack. “Answer me, or she dies. Now.”
There was a pause – a moment where the world hung from a strand – and then Jack smiled. “You need to do your homework, mate. Who do you think was the treacherous, murdering harlot what sent me to me untimely – albeit impermanent – death?”
A flutter of uncertainty flickered across Beckett’s face. “Don’t be absurd.”
Jack shrugged. “Kill her then. Or, better still, free me and I’ll do it me bloody self.”
If her father’s death was the knife in her ribs, then this was the twisting of the blade. “Jack, please…”
And suddenly Beckett was looking at her, really looking at her, with a strangely heightened glee. “Yes,” he said softly, drawing closer to study her face. “Yes, of course. So that’s how you escaped Jones’ beast. You sacrificed him to save yourself, and in your grief sailed to the ends of the Earth to bring him back. Is that it?”
Elizabeth said nothing.
“And now, your beloved pirate – the betrayer betrayed – has thrown you out of his bed, cast you aside like the little whore you are.” Beckett smiled. “But you can’t help it, can you?” He drew closer, reached through the bars to touch her face with one cool finger. “You can’t help still wanting him, still hoping… And, oh, how it would break your tender heart to see him harmed. To hear him scream…” His smile was cruel. “Shackle him to the bars,” Beckett said to the soldier who held Jack. “Let her watch.”
Sullenly, Jack was held against the bars of her cell as his arms were bound in place.
“Mercer,” Beckett said, “fetch the cat.”
With a shove, Mercer let her go and Elizabeth moved to where Jack was bound, facing him through the bars. “Jack, what—?”
“Turn away,” he hissed. “Cover your ears.”
She shook her head and drew closer. “Lord Beckett, this is barbaric!”
“So is piracy.” His tone was bored, but his eyes were bright with anticipation.
“Mercer, strip him.”
Jack grimaced as the shirt was torn from his back, his lip curling in a defiant snarl that only Elizabeth could see. “She won’t tell you anything.”
“No…” But her denial was a whisper and no one heard.
With a nod, Beckett gave the order.
The cat swished through the air like a sigh, its crack a gunshot when it struck Jack’s back. His cry was muffled, but his face twisted and his fingers clutched the bars until they turned white. A thin trickle of blood seeped from between his lips, and he spat roughly on the floor as he cursed; he’d bitten his tongue.
When his eyes opened they were splinters of pain. “Don’t think I deserved that,” he said in a scratchy voice.
“Oh, but you did,” came Beckett’s eager reply. “Again!”
The cat howled, and this time so did Jack, once, and for a moment Elizabeth thought she could smell the stench of the Kraken’s breath.
“NO!” Her shout came without thought, without hesitation. “No, wait.” Somehow her hand was covering Jack’s fingers, her head pounding with horror piled upon horror; her father, the Kraken, Jack’s swollen face and pain filled eyes.
“Elizabeth…” His tone was a warning, a tangle of confusion.
“You have some information for me, Miss Swann?”
Jack’s fingers scrabbled for hers. “Elizabeth, don’t.”
“There are coins,” she said, ignoring him, so close to grief her voice shook. “Each Pirate Lord has a coin.”
Her fingers tightened on his and she refused to look away from the plea in his eyes. “And there’s a song.”
Beckett drew closer. “A song? A coin? What nonsense is this?”
“There’s a…a court. The Brethren, something about Brethren. The Pirate Lords have been summoned and there’s to be a meeting… Some kind of meeting.”
Beckett’s face was flushed, his eyes too bright; she thought he looked thrilled and disgusted in equal measure. “Where?”
“I don’t know.”
His eyes narrowed. “Mercer…”
“Shipwreck Cove.” It was Jack who answered, leaning his forehead against the bars in weary resignation. “It’s called Shipwreck Cove.”
“And where is this cove? In the Caribbean?”
“Buggered if I know,” Jack sighed. “Why don’t you ask your new pet?”
Beckett paused, considering. “Jones?”
With an effort, Jack turned his head. “I suppose he forgot to tell you, among everything else, that he’s the Ninth Pirate Lord, and therefore privy to all their charlatan’s claptrap?”
For a moment Beckett just looked at Jack as if measuring the truth of his words, and then he turned on his heel and strode to the door. At the last moment he paused and said, “Untie him. Leave him in the cells.”
With that he was gone and Jack was freed, shoved without ceremony into the cell. Elizabeth caught him just as his knees gave way, lowering him as gently as possible onto the damp stone floor.
“Not good,” he hissed through his teeth, wincing as he sprawled onto his stomach, forehead braced against one arm. “Shouldn’t have told him.”
But his back was a crosshatch of raw, seeping wounds and she couldn’t regret her choice. “He’s not won yet,” she said, reaching out to touch his shoulder. “Will won’t leave us here. There’s still a chance.”
Jack didn’t answer, but neither did he shrug free of her touch.
“And then,” she said into the silence of the gaol, “I will kill Frederick Mercer with my own hands, and leave his rotting guts for the birds to gorge upon.”
Jack made a soft sound – it might have been a grunt of agreement, or it might have been a word half swallowed…Pirate.
And perhaps she was, after all.