"Mind the fucking paintwork!"
Lieutenant Norrington turned from the log slate to see one of the oldest of the Interceptor's hands shaking a furious fist at one of the small native scows that had floated a bit too close to the Interceptor's freshly-painted bow for his taste. "Damned local paddlers," the man muttered, after he had assured himself that no damage had been done. "No fucking idea," he added spitefully in the direction of the docks as he picked up his tools and wandered off to polish another patch of railing. Norrington could hardly find it in himself to disagree with the man. As first lieutenant of the Interceptor it was his duty to see the ship was kept to an immaculate polish at all times, and the crew had been hard at work at it since putting into Port Royale two days ago; an Atlantic crossing was hard on paintwork and brass polish.
One of the smallest midshipmen scuttled up to Norrington's side, touched his hat hurriedly and said, "Captain's complements, sir, and would you attend to the -- the -- no, at your earliest convenience." The boy delivered his message, breathlessly proud, and earnestly awaited a reply. Norrington hid a smile. They might be less than useless for sailing the ship at that size, but one could hardly begrudge their earnestness.
"Thank you, Mr Reade," he said, "I shall be along directly." Reade touched his hat again and hurried off on another unknown errand. He had certainly internalized the Navy ethic of expediency, if nothing else.
Norrington had met Captain Linton only twice in the three days since his arrival in Port Royale, and he did not yet feel capable of judging his captain's moods. The strongest impression he gave was that he was an old man, and that he had been an old man since reaching the age of twenty-five. He had had command of the Dauntless, a stately and imposing three-decker, for some two decades, and it seemed that he intended to hold on to this position until his name reached the top of the lists and he was awarded his admiral's flag.
Aged or aging, Captain Linton was not stingy with his personal stores, and they were both halfway through glasses of some very fine madiera before Linton got down to business.
"I wonder what precisely the opinion is in England about the West Indian station," Linton said, giving Norrington a canny look over the top of his glass.
Norrington frowned; there were many possible answers to that question, all of them less than complementary to someone or other. He settled on what seemed to be the safest. "The government seems much concerned with reports of piracy that have been increasing since the end of the war."
"Just so, just so." Linton refilled his own glass. "The Interceptor is most surely a sign of that concern, and well enough, she will be no small help in fighting that infestation. And Captain Wyman?"
Believes he can win a crew's loyalty by making them all as mad for blood as he is, Norrington thought. "He is a very capable officer."
"Just so." Linton smiled obscurely; Norrington kept his face composed. Years in the Navy, nevermind his father's distaste of his youngest son's sometimes very sharp tongue, had taught him a great deal about composure. "I find myself in need of a capable first lieutenant," the captain said, in a very different tone. "The climate did not agree with Mr Campbell, and he was carried off by the fever some months ago. I shall expect you tomorrow in the morning watch."
"Of course, sir." Norrington was not surprised; the Interceptor was nowhere near large enough to accommodate the number of officers she had carried from England. Wyman might find the loss of a division something of a blow, but then, if there were no out-of-work sailors in Jamaica, there would not be all this trouble with pirates.
"One other thing," Captain Linton offered as Norrington prepared to take his leave. "Kindly find a suitable division of men to bring with you; we find that the climate does not agree with many men here, and I should like a full complement to work the guns. English sailors, if you please, Mr Norrington. Our divisions want reorganizing."
It was not how Norrington had ever imagined his first days wearing a captain's rank -- an acting commission hastily ratified by the governor, his commanding officer dead, the decks of the Dauntless still wet with the blood of mutineers. It left a sour taste in his mouth, and although he knew he had done everything in his power to put a stop to it, the promotion still felt undeserved and underhanded, and he found he wished it had not come at all.
He wished too that he could believe that Captain Wyman, formerly of the Interceptor but now to move into Captain' Linton's cabin on the Dauntless, felt anything like the same way. Wyman looked as haggard as Norrington felt, but he still exuded a sort of manic energy, as if the events of the mutiny had lit a fire within him that would not go out. He had invited Norrington to dine with him alone -- "one captain to another, eh?" but he clearly had something he wished very badly to explain, and had been restraining himself to some degree of politeness all evening. Now he had turned his attention to dancing around the subject of the mutiny, which Norrington was finding nearly impossible to listen to.
"I understand your reasoning -- agree with it, even," Captain Wyman carried on blithely. "Damn brave thing you did there, and I can't say I don't appreciate it. But you can't indulge the men, you know, can't let them think they're getting the best of you."
"Of course not, sir," Norrington said, perhaps a hint of indignance creeping into his tone. Because naturally allowing the men to be treated like human beings instead of animals was indulging them. Norrington had met more than one officer who thought this way, and was not surprised that Wyman was another.
Wyman blinked. "Oh, no offense, surely. I only mean to say that we must bring them back into fighting trim immediately, before they get any ideas. Your Irishman will always think a minor concession on our part is a major victory on his. No, the thing to do is to give them something to rally 'round, a good victory to bring the ship's company together again."
This in itself was probably not a bad idea. "Did you have something in mind, sir?" Norrington asked, hoping to distract the subject away from the 'damned Irish' again.
"Absolutely." Wyman grinned ferally; he looked like a wolf hunting its prey. He spread a chart out on the table in front of him, weighing down a corner of it with a heavy silver candlestick. Norrington leaned over and peered at the map. Small, mostly uninhabited islands; certainly none with any English presence of its own, and precious few of any other nation. A familiar name caught his eye; he looked closer, before finally realizing what it was.
"Isla Vaca? The pirate stronghold?" he said, keeping his voice as level as possible. Incredulity was not something that Captain Wyman seemed to take very well.
"Absolutely," Wyman said with another grin. "The problem with the pirates around here is we go too easy on 'em. Let them get away with all the pillaging they want to be doing. Letting that island sit there, leaving them a home port to return to, is nothing more than an affront to English decency, and I intend to do something about it."
Norrington refrained from mentioning that hanging any man even suspected of engaging in acts of piracy could hardly be called going easy. "Certainly, sir," he said rationally, "chasing out the pirates' port of call can hardly be expected to get rid of them. All it will do is send them looking for another safe port of call -- one we are not aware of -- and leave them even more desperate than before." Wyman waved his concerns away with an easy hand.
"They think they're safe from us, that's their problem," he said firmly. "And until now that was true. We could hammer 'em down with the Dauntless, but we couldn't catch 'em. Now we have the Interceptor, we have the means of chasing them down, knowing exactly where their harbor lies. But we can't spend all our time chasing the damn pirates from one end of the Caribbean to the other, one at a time. If we burn down their port, they'll have nowhere left to go."
Except, thought Norrington, into Port Royale itself. He was sure the new Governor would think very highly of that idea. He had heard stories of what the colony's capital had been like, before the Dauntless had been sent. None of them were pretty.
"And," Wyman added, "we'll take one or two of their ships as prizes -- bring them back home, sell off all we can and sell the ships into the Navy yards, and share out the winnings. Nothing sailors like better than coins to clink together in their pockets." Norrington was becoming increasingly aware that this was not a plan he was expected to contribute to, only to agree with; so he did, and if the evening found him in the public house instead of in his lodgings, who was there particularly to notice?
"My god, man," came a voice from behind him, "you look as if the ship's cat has decided to use your spare wig as a den for its kittens."
"Theodore," Norrington said companionably, offering him one of the two mugs sitting in front of him.
Groves sat down, raising an eyebrow. "I would very much like to believe," he said, "that you had bought this drink intending for me to come and seek you out so that we may commiserate together over whatever terrible fate has befallen you. However, I suspect that is not the case. I shall accept it nonetheless."
"Ah," said Groves, and took a drink. "Well, what is it? Are we all to be sacrificed to the cannibals of the mainlands? Is the Earth preparing to open and swallow us up? Or the sea, perhaps, I suppose."
Norrington outlined the basics of Captain Wyman's plan. Groves shook his head pathetically. "It'll never work, you know. All they'll do is come swarming out here into Port Royale, the way they did before Linton put a stop to it."
"I seem to be perfectly aware of that," Norrington informed him. "You seem to be perfectly aware of that. Captain Wyman, on the other hand, is certainly much more interested in his own reputation." Norrington thought for a moment. "And perhaps in a number of large explosions."
Groves snorted in disdain. "What do you intend to do about it?" he asked, and Norrington raised an eyebrow.
"What precisely would be possible to do about it? He is our commanding officer, however foolish; we will follow Captain Wyman's orders, we will watch the state of law in the Caribbean fall into disarray once again, and then we will pick up the pieces when it is all over with."
Groves shook his head. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "one of these days you are going to be in command of this entire operation, and quite frankly I only hope I live to see it. As unlikely as that seems."
It took scarcely two days to ready the Interceptor for the attack, leaving behind only the Dauntless and the rawest of the untrained crews to defend Port Royale. Governor Swann seemed less than overwhelmed with the proposition, but Captain Wyman assured him that after this success, he would have little need to fear for the safety of his city again. The governor eventually acquiesced, having, after all, very little real choice in the matter.
The other officers were not informed of their destination, mostly on Norrington's own discretion. He had suggested to Wyman that perhaps the element of surprise would be better preserved by not allowing gossip to spread through the docks before their departure, and Wyman had agreed, so as they set sail only Captain Wyman, Acting Captain Norrington and Lieutenant Groves knew the full story.
They were blessed with fair weather, a good stiff breeze, and no hint of the hurricanes that the Caribbean could sometimes bless them with in this season. In point of fact, the crew did seem happy to be at sea again, back to the constant cycle of watch and watch, steady and predictable as the rising of the sun. Norrington could not help but think they would be more unhappy if they knew their destination. He could not help but take a certain pleasure in the voyage, however; although Wyman still held the captain's cabin and the true command of the voyage, now that Norrington held a captain's commission the Interceptor was to be his ship. It surprised him how different it felt, and how familiar, after months aboard the Dauntless. Where the Dauntless was a vital symbol of the power of the British Navy, a small floating city with its three decks of guns and its hundreds of men, the Interceptor felt more like a living being, powerful in an entirely different way.
"Mr Norrington," Groves called across the quarterdeck, and Norrington joined him at the taffrail. Groves offered him a glass and looked pointedly toward the western horizon.
The glass might have been the best on board, but it did little to illuminate matters. The ship -- if it was a ship -- was far enough distant that it showed as little more than a blur, a flash of what might have been sails but then again might not. And although it was a clear, hot day, there was a shadow of fog around the hint of sails -- A chill ran down Norrington's spine, and he quashed it firmly. The only thing to be afraid of was that the other ship had sighted them and would somehow find a way to raise the alarm. Unlikely, given relative distance and the prevailing wind.
"Do you think it could be the Black Pearl?" Groves' voice was tense with concern and the anticipation of action.
"Don't be ridiculous," Norrington snapped, more fiercely than he'd intended. "If the men get wind of that idea, we'll have another mutiny on our hands. But if we've been sighted -- Beat to quarters. I'll inform the captain."
But Captain Wyman was not impressed with the near-sighting. By the time he came on deck to see for himself, the horizon was clear, and at any rate no one else appeared to have noticed anything amiss. "Careful not to be seeing phantoms, gentlemen," he told them, "but at any rate, she won't bother us for long."
"I wonder just how many of the pirates berth at Isla Vaca," Groves commented after Wyman had walked away. "Half of them? Less? Certainly none the size of the Black Pearl."
"The Black Pearl doesn't exist," Norrington told him firmly, but he watched the horizon carefully for the rest of the afternoon.
The distance to the pirates' port was short enough that Norrington was tempted to concede that Wyman had a point; it took less than a day of fair sailing under these winds to come up close enough until they were forced to haul in sail and weigh anchor to wait for the fall of darkness. It would not do to have pirates approaching their port for an evening's festivities only to discover the great Navy ship lying in wait for them.
The officers dined in the Captain's cabin, where Wyman gleefully laid out his plan for them. Lieutenant Roberts, whom Wyman had brought along from the Dauntless, seemed pleased by the idea; one could practically see visions of captains' epaulettes gleaming in their eyes. After the pudding, Wyman presented a detailed chart of the island, which laid out shoals and coastlines in enough detail there was no question as to its origin. On the lee shore of the island was a natural harbor, sheltered by the curve of the land, and at its innermost point was marked the nameless pirate city.
The Interceptor was to sail into the harbor under as few lights as possible, masquerading as another light, fast pirate vessel, and her boats were to go ashore under the command of Wyman and Roberts to cut out one or two of the ships lying in the port -- hopefully, ones whose crews would already be in a drunken stupor ashore, and ones who might be carrying some remnant of the treasure the pirates had plundered. English treasure, of course, would be returned to its rightful owners, but anything coming from a French or Spanish ship would be considered part of the prize. "Only think," said Roberts, red-faced after perhaps one too many glasses of wine, "with prizes like this we could all be rich men."
"We haven't any prizes as yet," Norrington pointed out, and had he had as many glasses of wine as Roberts he might also have wondered why, if they were interested in prize money, they were quite so eager to attempt to wipe out the supply.
Wyman cut in quickly, as Roberts' face grew even redder, saying, "Captain Norrington is right," which caused Norrington to flush a bit himself. He had still not had time to grow used to the rank. "And it's to be a long night tonight, gentleman, so perhaps we all ought to get some sleep before the action. Can't strike fear into the hearts of the scum of the Caribbean by yawning at them, eh?"
As night fell, the Interceptor was stripped down, her colors hidden, her ropes made to lie uncoiled about the deck, her sails reefed sloppily and unseamanlike. In the full dark, she might well pass for a pirate, so long as no one looked too closely. Even so, they made anchor as far from the docks as they could without looking suspicious. The boats slipped into the water silently, leaving the crew remaining on the Interceptor to watch and wait.
The problem with this position, Norrington was beginning to realize, was that although it left him in command of the overwhelming majority of the firepower they had ready to hand, should something go amiss, it also left him with virtually no warning of such a mishap. The docks of Isla Vaca were remarkably poorly lit; either the pirates who berthed here all had exceptionally good sailing masters, or they cared very little for the risk they ran of running aground. Or, he thought, they hoped to escape notice by lurking in the dark. He allowed himself a moment of smug satisfaction at the thought.
Of the ships docked in the bay, only one showed lights from the stern gallery, suggesting perhaps her captain remained on board; the other two hung only lanterns fore and aft and probably had only a handful of men left to guard them. There was a fourth, a tiny vessel that could scarcely be called a sloop, which hung no lights at all; Captain Wyman dismissed it out of hand as an irrelevance. The boats had made for the nearer of the two, a ship which Pearson, the gunner's mate, thought he recognized as the merchant ship Dolphin from Plymouth, now styling herself the Bloody Compass. "Ah, but whose blood does it mean, there's the question," Wyman had laughed. He'd clapped the man on the back and invited him to join the boarding party. Pearson had looked less than pleased, but knew better than to argue.
That had been half an hour ago, and the tense silence was beginning to wear on nerves. There had already been more than one set of burned fingers, carried by men who'd been staring shoreward with such fierce concentration they had forgotten the slow-match they were holding. Norrington tried not to let his concern show, but he grew more agitated with every passing minute, as sand poured through the hourglass and no sign of the captain's success -- or even of his continued efforts -- showed itself. The ship was eerie in its silence, and the waves slapping against her hull sounded ominous.
Norrington was trying to decide whether the risk of a light glinting off the lens was worth the reassurance it would give him to turn his spyglass toward the shore when the signal midshipman appeared at his side, saluted, and said, "Lieutenant Groves' complements, sir, and the sloop looks to be passing us to windward."
On the opposite side of the quarterdeck, well within speaking distance if they were not so concerned for stealth and silence, Groves was watching the sloop through his own glass, which he handed to Norrington wordlessly. The sloop did indeed seem to be making an escape, although curiously it too was running silently and under no lights. The captain must be very sure of himself to attempt to make the passage in complete darkness, but then, he surely knew this stretch of ocean better than they did. Lovely. Norrington pondered what Captain Wyman might be expected to do in this situation. The Interceptor was meant to be catching any escapees, of course, but they had assumed that ships and boats would be fleeing from the chaos on shore. There was, as yet, no chaos on shore at all, but firing on the sloop would certainly cause some.
"Do we open fire?" Groves asked, his voice scarcely above a whisper.
Norrington shook his head. "We cannot put the lives of the entire shore party at risk for the sake of one ship." Groves nodded his agreement, and may well have looked relieved, but Norrington had no time to consider this as a bell rang out across the water -- not from the Interceptor, but from one of the pirate ships at anchor. He swore fiercely in the same low tone he'd been speaking in, then rose his voice to command level as he said, "Bring our starboard guns to bear on the enemy, Mr Groves. And put a shot across the bow of the sloop, if you can," he added, almost as an afterthought.
"Aye aye, sir," replied Groves, and it was as if all the tension had gone out of the ship with this one order. There was not a man who did not leap to his duty with a hearty good will, not an officer who did not throw himself into the action with all that he had, as though there had never been discord among them. The ships were alongside in moments, and then it was all smoke and fire and chaos. Norrington was aware of a corner of his mind that was frantically trying to decipher what had happened to Wyman and the shore party, just how they had gone so terribly wrong as to be receiving broadsides from a pirate ship, but mostly he was aware only of the regular repetition of our guns, their guns; deceiving smoke and threatening shrapnel; pistol shots, shouts, snapped ropes, noise. He saw Groves, standing by the taffrail with a pistol in one hand, the right leg of his breeches gone red with blood, though he did not seem aware of it. The signal midshipman next to him went down to the sound of cannon fire, and Norrington bent to help him up again before realizing there would be no point. When the boarders came over the side, wild men with wild battle cries in unknown tongues, it was not until he had killed the second of them that he realized it must mean that the battle was nearing its end.
The boarders were, indeed, the last of them; though it had fought with everything it had, no pirate ship could withstand very many broadsides from a well-trained Navy gun crew, and it was sinking fast, its hull punctured beneath the water. Norrington wondered what could have possessed the pirates to attempt to board; the shore was not so far away, and could they really prefer a death at the end of the hangman's rope?
As the last shots faded and the pirate foundered pathetically, Norrington turned to see flames licking across the waterfront, people pouring out of burning inns and alehouses. At least something had gone according to plan, he thought, but it rang hollow even in his own mind. He glanced across the quarterdeck; Groves had vanished, hopefully to the surgeon's care, and in his place stood Mr Roberts, his face dark with sweat and gunpowder. "Put us out to sea," Norrington told him, "wait for the boats until sunrise, and then we will return to Port Royale."
"It is a dreadful thing, to lose another captain so quickly; dreadful," Governor Swann said for the fourth time, stirring his tea with the absent-minded gesture of a man who has nearly forgotten its presence. "Will the Admiralty be much displeased, do you think?" He looked at Norrington hopefully, clearly expecting the young officer -- only twenty-four, and the most senior officer of the Navy in Jamaica -- to offer him some reassurance. Norrington felt profoundly out of his depth.
"The Admiralty is aware of the dangers of the Caribbean station," he said with more confidence than he felt. "And we have lost no ships, there is that to be thankful for." He hoped that he was right. The tolerance of the New World admirals was legendary, as was the expendability of Caribbean captains, but it seemed there had been nothing but bad luck and worse since the Interceptor had arrived in Port Royale.
"Yes, yes, there is that." The governor did look relieved. "Ah, Elizabeth, do pay your respects to Captain Norrington," he said, and Norrington turned to see the child enter the room. She was dressed very prettily for tea, a picture of white lace and ribbon that no doubt represented the height of London fashion for eight-year-olds.
She curtsied gracefully, and said very formally, "My deepest regrets about Captain Wyman." Norrington inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Did you kill many pirates?" So she had not changed much since their first meeting.
"Elizabeth!" Governor Swann was a picture of affronted respectability. Elizabeth pretended to ignore her father, and looked only slightly ashamed. Norrington found a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. He leaned forward a little, conspiratorially, and told her, "In point of fact, we sank one of their ships and set fire to their docks. I shall tell you all about it. When you are older," he added, at Governor Swann's disapproving look.
Elizabeth pouted, and was a little sullen throughout tea as the conversation turned to less bloodthirsty matters, but Norrington found as he left the governor's manor that his spirits were much lifted.