"Airship! Airship comin' in!"
Captain Jack Sparrow looked up from his book and tilted his hat back on his head. There indeed on the horizon was a tiny glint, sunlight striking off aerotors some miles off. "Colors?" he bellowed to the watch.
"British Royal Library, sir!"
Jack felt himself grinning, and rifled the pages of his book. "Excellent. Anamaria, you have command. I'm going ashore."
Tortuga was well-known as a pirate port, one of the wilder points in the West Indes, but it was still nominally under the flag of Her Royal Imperial High Majestyness Queen Victoria May She Ever Reign Eternal If Her Flesh-Docs Have Anything To Say About It. Her island territories still provided the goods of sugar cane and aetherfluid that kept the Empire sweet and steaming, and if Her Majesty's troops couldn't hold much inland for fear of the natives' own wicker-and-battery clockdefenses, well, she had an iron grip on more of the globe than any of the other Traditional Powers had managed to hold onto. Spain and Portugal had retreated to lick their wounds and sell gilding for other nations' gold, France had to be content with pretending the Fédération Américaine was really French and not just mooching French protection from the Tribal Nations, and the Catholic States were locked in a never-ending spiral of purification and war. The West was Wild, the East was Inscrutable, and Civilization was Hard Come By In These Trying Times.
To those Civilized Corners of Her Empire, Her Majesty sent Bookships.
Gleaming with the pride of the Royal Navy, the Bookships came from the great libraries of England packed to the brim with knowledge. They would flit through colonies like fat honeybees, pollinating the minds of the citizenry, and return to the hive with news from all corners of the map. The ship assigned to the West Indes was usually the Dauntless, and she would make several circuits of the islands before returning across the ocean.
Jack put the book in his cabin, thoughtfully bookmarking the passage he'd been studying instead of folding over the corner. Then he headed down the gangplank and into town toward the airship dock.
The crowds were already thronging when he got there, the citizen-carded longing to browse the stacks of knowledge, the hawkers ready to pounce on aeronauts long aloft, the pickpockets ready to prey on everyone. The airship's gasbag eclipsed the sun as she maneuvered toward the dock, crews tossing down docking cables as the last yards were traversed. The ship's name gleamed in golden letters across her prow: Dauntless.
Civilization she carried, but the Dauntless was a formidable fighting beast on her own, with a double-line of electrical cannons and squadron of flying men alert at all times to repel any attempts to down or capture her precious cargo. Jack oftentimes wondered what it said about the psychological makeup of a country that sent out bloated balloons loaded with aethercharge to drop books on the populace, but it wasn't as though he minded the Dauntless being able to secure her own free passage. His own interests would be much harder to gain if the Dauntless had needed escorting.
As the gangway was lowered, a party of soldiers beat the restless crowd into a queue with the butts of their rifles. Jack stayed back to give them a wide berth, patient, and followed the shambling line into the belly of the ship when the doors opened.
The designers of the Dauntless and her sisters would have liked to follow the model of classical Greece or Rome and have huge arching marble doors with engraved titles, and pillared walkways so giant that steps would echo and patrons would be shamed into silence by majesty. That being vetoed, barely, as too impractical to carry, they took out their frustration by covering the sky-alum frame of the superstructure with panels of richly varnished and intricately carved oak that took the Dauntless' small army of librarians' constant attentions to keep polished and dust-free. The space was lit dimly by anabaric bulbs, no sunlight being allowed in this space to damage the precious, precious books. Though the stated goal of the library was to allow men who had no books at home to borrow some to improve their minds, one got the impression that the notion was an affront to the great overriding library aesthetic, which was conceived to keep the hoi polloi too awed to consider putting their grubby hands on the Empire's pages.
Jack stuck the citizenship card that he used on occasions like this into the door reader, got a nod from the guard, and stepped inside. Leisurely he walked the aisles, occasionally pulling down books that looked interesting--a cooking manual from Indja, new methods in single-man wing harness construction, plays by Oscar Wilde, the latest set of prognostications by the Council of Mystical Mystics. He'd piled up quite a stack by the time he made it around to the front desk again.
The head librarian looked up as Jack dropped the pile on the (lovingly polished oak) desk and brandished his library card.
"Mr. Sparrow," Head Librarian James Norrington said, in a voice like warm honey drizzled over crystallized irritation. Between the voice and his astonishing agate-green eyes, Jack almost forgot to be annoyed with him.
"Captain," he corrected, and dropped his punch-card in the reader. "Please."
Norrington looked down to where the mechanism was tapping the three rows of Jack's identity into its files. "Mr. Sparrow, I'm afraid you won't be able to check out any of those books today." He smiled, somewhat nastily, Jack thought. "You've got rather a bit of a fine racked up."
"Oh, dear," Jack said. "No chance of letting it go until next time, mate?"
Norrington stoically pointed to a sign on the desk, charmingly hand-calligraphed in the Lloyd Reynolds school, which read, "No books may be lent while the Patron has a book in his possession on which a late fine is levied." Below that, it read, "No consuming of food or drink in the Library. Keep silent unless necessary. Librarians may eject Patrons at their own discretion."
"Ohhhh," Jack said thoughtfully.
"Either return the book," Norrington said, "pay the fine, or leave these here." He tapped the side of the stack, somewhat reverently.
"Well, I'd love to do any of those things, mate," Jack said, leaning conversationally against the counter and smudging some of the polish with his fingertips. Norrington looked at his fingers disapprovingly. "But the thing is, I don't have enough to cover the fine with me, and some of these books, they're not for me, mate. Some of me crew, see, they've been wanting to better themselves, so I offered to take responsibility for their educating, like a captain ought to. And they're not all..." he waved his free hand a bit, indicating the great fungibility of the situation. "Right proper citizens, see. Bit of paperwork to go through. So they can't study here."
Norrington waited. Jack smiled. Norrington cleared his throat. "And the book?"
"Oh! The book! It's back on the Pearl."
Norrington nodded and gently pulled the stack of books over the counter toward him. "I can hold these until you return with the missing volume," he said, in the voice of a man fully intending to turn the entire stack over to Reshelving as soon as Jack was out the door.
Jack scuffed the toe of his boot against the elegant Persian carpet. "See, mate, there's a problem there. It's been mislaid."
Norrington raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow. "Mislaid?"
"Yeah. In the ship."
"Most people would say 'lost.'"
Jack chuckled. "You're forgetting something, mate." He straightened himself up while Norrington raised his other eyebrow. "I'm Captain Jack Sparrow! And," he leaned over the desk until he was nose-to-nose with Norrington, "I don't lose books."
Norrington blinked his hypnotically green eyes and said flatly, "You just 'mislay' them."
"Aye, that's the size of it."
There was a long pause in which Jack sized up Norrington's willpower and Norrington remained inscrutable.
Finally, Norrington turned in his chair and made to stand. "I can send Gilette over--"
"Erm," Jack cut him off. "A situation this... delicate, you might want to handle yourself. Gilette might be put off by the crew. Wouldn't want a clash of personalities. Head librarian's much more discreet about such things." Norrington stared at him icily. "Just a consideration, mate."
Norrington sighed, then stood and pulled a transceiver off the shelf behind him. He checked the dowsing rod, then bent over the desk and wrote the file number for Jack's missing--misplaced book on a slip of card and slid it into his pocket. Jack grinned and headed toward the door.
Norrington stopped only to say something to his second, and collect his hat. Then, with only one more sigh of irritation, he followed Jack out into the sunlight.
Jack didn't give him any time to reconsider; he shepherded the librarian down the gangplank and into the streets, the mirror-reverse of the path he'd taken earlier. Norrington only hesitated minutely when they reached the water-docks and the gangway out to his Pearl.
The Black Pearl was a lovely oceangoing ship, a sailing ship, no aetherfluidic engines or steam-pumps for her. She was silent, and even with no engines, she was fast. Jack strutted up to the main deck, nodding hello to Marty, who was keeping watch, and Anamaria, who was overseeing loading on fresh water. Norrington only looked slightly uncomfortable as Jack turned to him and beckoned at the transceiver. "Right, then. Time to do your magic."
Norrington sighed and pulled the card with the file number out of his pocket. He carefully aligned the switches on top of the box, then put away the card and gave the crank a couple of smooth turns. It only took a moment for the battery to catch and the small box to hum with life.
Books were printed in the Empire every day--printing presses whirred, binders threaded pages together, pamphlets and broadsheets clogged the streets. But the books from the library were special. Each one had a key embedded in the spine which broadcast aetherically its location, to be picked up by a transceiver if the book ever got lost. The pages were treated to be waterproof and tear-proof, and the spines solid and up to quite rough handling. The books were a remarkable investment, which meant it was worthwhile to send librarians after them when they got lost. Misplaced.
Marty was watching Norrington's actions with interest--he was the ship's engineer, which meant he took care of the cannons and a number of aetheric projects he set up in the hold. Norrington unsheathed the dowsing rod and held it out, turning it until the tip glowed brightly. Then he turned and glared at Jack.
Jack clapped his hands. "Excellent."
"Somewhere in your quarters, then?"
Jack shrugged. "Makes sense, doesn't it?" He motioned Norrington forward and gave Anamaria a wave. She rolled her eyes at him.
Norrington got as far as a couple steps into Jack's bedchamber before he stopped. "Jack," he complained.
"Oh," Jack said, looking at the volume he'd set on his bedside table earlier. "That's where it is. Knew it was around here somewhere."
Norrington holstered the dowsing rod sharply. "You have no respect for my profession--"
That was as far as he got before Jack got sick of him complaining and kissed him. He struggled for a moment, almost perfunctory, then grabbed Jack's waist and pulled him close.
"I've been studying," Jack said, knocking Norrington's hat to the floor. Norrington ignored it, gently setting the transceiver down beside his feet. "C'mere, James."
And James--shedding his jacket, his weskit, his librarian's formality, said, "The bawdier verses of Catullus? I noticed which book you mislaid."
"'Veranius, friend better than three hundred thousand friends,'" Jack recited as he pulled James toward the bed, "'You've come home to your family--such joyful news..'"
James stumbled, reached down to tug on one of his boots. "Jack..."
"'I'll hear your tales of Spain and stranger lands, and lean over you while you talk, and kiss your mouth--'" he proceeded to do just that, then tugged James down until they both tumbled onto his sheets, "'and your laughing eyes.'"
James leaned over him, searching his face for something. Jack swallowed and finished, "'And of all the world's happy men, who shall be happier than I?'"
He waited as James reached up with his hand, ran his thumb gently across Jack's cheek. "That wasn't what I expected, I'll admit,"
"I'm full of surprises," Jack said. "Let me show you."
Much later, as they lay there listening to the timbers creak and the start of a storm outside, James said, "That trick isn't going to work again."
"I'll think of a new one when that one stops working."
James sighed. "You can't just steal me away whenever you please. I have duties."
Jack raised a finger. James quieted, reluctantly, to let Jack have his say. Jack smiled.
"Pirate," he reminded his librarian, and kissed him again.