The cold—the sharpest, blackest, toothiest cold he’d ever known—seemed to’ve penetrated right through to the marrow of Jack Sparrow’s bones. It felt as though his flesh was supported by a skeleton of ice, and nothing around him seemed able to melt that glacial core. Not the warmth of the fire (“Jack, the edge of your coat is smoking, I suggest a very small strategic retreat,” said Enoch Root blandly) nor the steaming soup in his bowl; not even the welcome sight of Jack Shaftoe, twisting through the fuggy crowded room, somehow managing to carry no fewer than eight pottery mugs and a large jug of something that he swore would warm Jack up.
(There was only one thing that Jack knew of that reliably warmed him at the moment, and unfortunately it wasn’t available to him in a crowded bloody pub.)
Shaftoe ducked to avoid a particularly low rafter, and Bill took the jug from him and poured. It looked hot; smelled sweet and spicy. Shaftoe squirmed past Enoch Root and sat back down beside Jack, who surreptitiously wriggled closer. Not surreptitiously enough for Shaftoe, who threw him a laughing look.
“You can’t still be cold. Here, get this inside you.”
Jack needed no more than a cocked eyebrow and a moment’s eye contact to make a silent comment about what he’d really like to get inside him, and Jack Shaftoe ducked his head and smirked, though he flushed a little.
“You know what’d warm you properly? Getting off your arse and walking. I can’t fucking believe we’re this close to London and waiting on a bloody coach.”
“We ain’t all vagabonds, Mr Shaftoe.”
“Oh, come on; if you can march through the Guyanan bloody jungles, I’m sure you could manage thirty mile on a good English road.”
“I’m merely thinking of the comfort of our companions,” said Jack with shameless mendacity, and he threw a sympathetic look across the table at Will and Djagdao, whose skin had taken on a grey taint in this vicious foreign climate and who were swathed in so many scarves, hats, and layered coats that they made Jack look positively under-dressed in comparison.
“I do not wish to walk,” said Will, rather sullenly. He didn’t wish to do much, it seemed, apart from curl up in the warm nook behind the galley that he’d commandeered for himself and Jamie Martingale; it was only Martingale’s repeated urging (Jack’d say nagging, but that was such a womanish word) that’d persuaded him to come and take advantage of this chance to see the greatest city in the known world.
Their timing, though, wasn’t the best. Coldest winter anyone could remember, they said; two months back, the damn sea’d been frozen, the whole rivermouth, wide as it was. Jack could believe it. It’d been many, many years since he’d set foot in this country, and he still couldn’t quite conceive how so many people managed to survive in such horrible damn’d conditions. He longed for the sun, stroking his skin, and for a gentle wind that cooled you down instead of freezing you to the very innards.
Foolishly, he’d admitted as much to Jack Shaftoe, and now he was paying the price in a constant stream of taunts and jests. Which meant, of course, that he had to put on a brave face and pretend that he wasn’t suff’ring at all. When the men complained, he’d rolled his eyes and likened them to pampered little girls. When Joe Henry lost the feeling in his fingers and fell out of the ratlines, knocking himself out on the ice-rimed deck, Jack’d told him to borrow some gloves and harden up. When the coldest, bitterest hours of the night came round, Jack himself had to be the one out there, showing that it could be borne.
“Walking warms the blood,” Shaftoe was insisting to Will. “Why, when it gets truly cold, ‘tis the best thing to do; I remember in the winter of ’79, I crossed France in little more’n a week. Too cold to stop, it was, I’d just walk most of the night. With a firebrand to scare away the wolves.”
“Well, there’s an attractive proposition,” said Jack, rolling his eyes. “Why would we want to travel in comfort, in the warmth of a coach, when we could be stamping through the bloody snow, scaring off wild beasts in the dark?”
“Be a damn sight cheaper,” said Shaftoe for the hundredth time, though rather indistinctly through a mouthful of bread.
“Who gives a shit? May I remind you that we’re currently rolling it in?” Jack snapped.
“Got better things to do wi’ my money, in London Town,” said Shaftoe, with a crooked grin. Lower, half under his breath, he added: “Oh, I’ve some sights to show you, Jack Sparrow.”
Jack licked his lips and spent a brief and pleasant moment reflecting on sights that Jack Shaftoe’d already shown him, and wondered whether London Town had any chance in the world of bettering them. Could any sight be as glorious as the sight of Jack Shaftoe, bare and bold and gold on a deserted Caribbean beach? Or Jack Shaftoe, wind-tangled and bright-eyed and full of laughing glee beside Jack at the helm of the Pearl… More lately, in the short cold days of these last few weeks, rounding the coast of England, Jack Shaftoe’s face all pinked with cold and eyes all icy-blue to match those rare patches of sky, his grin growing ever wider and merrier as they drew closer to his old haunts?
Or, better still than all those: the sight of Jack Shaftoe, beckoning Jack into the messy cocoon of their bed and promising he’d ways to warm him. Jack Shaftoe delivering on his promises, over and over, so fiery and fierce that afterwards Jack’d feel like Shaftoe’d planted the sun inside him. Jack Shaftoe hanging above him, red mouth open and gaspy, staring at Jack as though he were the meaning of the world.
Bill Turner had the oblivious temerity to interrupt this exceptionally pleasurable reverie. “Are you certain, Jack? That you don’t mind my coming? That you’re happy leaving the ship with West?”
As it happened, Jack wasn’t overly enthused about it. But there was so much ice on the river still, the spring thaw barely begun, that they’d not been able to proceed past Rochester. The town’s port was swollen with other vessels suffering the same, her taverns full of sailors and merchants making their laden way overland into London; so their early plan, of putting in at Deptford Creek, where Bill’s Kitty and their little son lived, had come to naught. And Jack hadn’t the heart to deny Bill his family comforts, not after so long. ‘T’wouldn’t be right. They’d drop him there. And Jack should probably go and pay his respects to Kitty, too, though it wasn’t a prospect he relished.
“Ty West’ll be fine,” Jack said, “so stop going on about it, mate.”
“He can send for me, if he needs me, I can be back in a day.”
“Bill, nothing’s going to happen,” Shaftoe said. “Me an’ Jack an’ Enoch’ll go sell our cure, make a load of money; these boys here’ll back us up if need be, an’ get to experience a bit of good old English hospitality; an’ we’ll be back to get you in a week or so, no worries.”
“Finish up, gentlemen,” Enoch murmured. “The coachman, over there, looks about set to go.”
Jack drained his toddy in a gulp, and Will’s too, since the fellow’d pulled such a face at it. No sense in wasting warmth, not to mention alcohol.
“Don’t go without me, now,” Jack said, and stood, pulling his coat tighter about him. “Back in a flash.”
In the alleyway behind the tavern it was gloomy, even though the sun was at its zenith. The snow was chill, dirty slush under his boots. There was, though, one thing to be said for this bloody weather; latrines were a lot less foul, frozen. Behind the rickety fence, he fumbled through layers of clothing, and the cold nipped and bit at his fingers, his nose, at every skerrick of exposed skin. He cursed under his breath. Filthy bloody country.
“What’s the matter, mate? Shrunk up too small, has it? Can’t find it? Want a hand?”
Strong arms came round him, hands still warm from the tavern delved under his clothes. Jack Shaftoe pressed against Jack’s back, his breath sending white clouds over Jack’s shoulder as he bent and pressed his lips to Jack’s jaw.
Jack grinned and squirmed. “Think it’s getting bigger as we speak. D’you mind? I’ve got a job to do here.”
“Don’t let me stop you.” Shaftoe’s hands covered Jack’s as he freed his yard; his crooked eye-tooth scraped against Jack’s cheekbone, his head tilted at a wild angle to fit under the brim of Jack’s hat, pulled low. Jack pissed into the snow, steam rising, his cock tingling and swelling as he did it, and Shaftoe hummed and tilted into him as though his were doing the same. Not that Jack could tell, with all those layers between ‘em.
“Where sh’ll we stay tonight, then?” Jack muttered. “Got somewhere in mind, have you?”
“Plenty of places; depends how far we get, what sort of time the damn coach can make in this weather,” Shaftoe said. “But this I promise you, Jack; you an’ I’ll have a room of our own, an’ it’ll have a fire of its own; an’ between us I’d lay we’ll manage to make enough heat to see us through the night.”
Jack shook off, once, twice. The gelid air pinched its way across his belly, and Jack Shaftoe’s hands followed it, casting it out. The bloody coach journey couldn’t be over with fast enough as far as Jack was concerned.
It was Burton, calling from the back door of the tavern.
“Aye, coming,” Jack called back, and he tucked himself away, and said, “I’ll hold you to that promise, Mr Shaftoe.”
Jack Shaftoe’s smile was near as warm as his hands had been, and not kissing him was a deliciously challenging proposition. “I’ll deliver on’t,” he assured Jack, and added with a wink, “Tenfold.”
* * *
Bundled under a blanket, curled into one another for warmth, Martingale and Will were asleep before a mile had passed. Beside them, John Burton didn’t seem to feel the cold at all; Jack Shaftoe doubted that Djagdao could say the same, but if he did he wouldn’t let Burton see it. The Indian peered out the window of the coach, wiping the condensation from the glass every few minutes, asking a constant stream of guttural, muttered questions and frequently looking mystified by Burton’s answers. At least he was curious; Will seemed so bemused by everything, as though it were all too new and too much and he could ‘compass nothing except Martingale.
On the seat facing forward, Jack was crushed close against Sparrow, who sat with his rag-wrapped hands jammed into his armpits, his head tilted back against the seat and his hat pulled down over his face as though he were sleeping. (Jack knew better. He’d caught Sparrow doing this before—blowing his warm breath into the crown of his hat to heat his face.) Enoch read a book. Turner stared out the other window, straight-backed, quiet as the grave, as though he should do nothing to disrupt this journey that was bringing him home to his wife and his boy.
A long journey, it’d been; many months and many miles since Jack’d left London in Enoch Root’s company. He was returning, now, a different man in so many ways. A cured man. A far richer man, and not just for the gold in his pockets neither. A man who wasn’t alone.
These first few days in England had been a laugh, and he’d no doubt that London would be ten times as amusing. Jack was looking forward to watching those poor bloody Indians see a city for the first time, its noise and rush and size and beauty and ugliness. And to watching Jack Sparrow drinking it in; Sparrow’d been vague about the last time he’d been in England, but Jack was certain he’d been no more than a sprat, whenever it was.
Even more, he was looking forward to watching London watch them back. It was like being part of a circus troupe, walking English streets with Jack Sparrow and his Indians. Everyone they passed stopped and stared; mothers picked up their children, little boys followed them, gawping and giggling and astonished. Grown men couldn’t avert their eyes, and it wasn’t just the natives that excited their curiosity; here in the grey cold, Jack Sparrow was like some exotic bird of paradise, never mind that he was all wrapped and swaddled against the cold. Sparrow did it his own inimitable way. Gold still glinted in his mouth, dangled from his ears and in his hair; peeping from under his heavy greatcoat were brilliant shards of colour; wound about his neck was the glossy dark fur of some unfortunate New World creature; he didn’t stop blacking his eyes, never mind the pallid and unthreatening northern sun.
Lord alone knew what Jack’s old mates would think of him. One way or another, it wouldn’t be boring, that much Jack could guarantee.
The day was dimming already, swirls of snow coming down. The coach shuddered over frozen ruts, and Jack wished again that he were walking, never mind the inclemency of the weather; at least his spine would survive the experience intact.
He wished it even harder when the coach swayed, and the horses whinnied in panic, and out of the gloaming a hoarse muffled voice cried, “Stand, sir: stand, and then by God you’ll deliver!”
Enoch Root heaved a huge sigh; Jack Sparrow’s hat flew forward as the coach stopped abruptly (Jack spared a moment to admire the speed with which the pirate’s hand shot out and caught it), and Martingale started awake, said confusedly, “Wha’?”
“Fucking coaches,” said Jack feelingly, and pulled out his pistol.