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Serpent's Egg (WIP)

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Time is too slow for those who wait,
too swift for those who fear,
too long for those who grieve,
too short for those who rejoice,
but for those who love, time is eternity.
Henry Van Dyke

 

“I wasn’t there when she challenged the Brethren to fight.”

Teague’s messenger sat on the deck, cross-legged. Since leaving Tortuga, Swift seemed to be everywhere Barbossa was, with the exception of the Captain’s cabin. Constant shadowing had begun to affect Barbossa’s disposition for the worse, wakening memories of hungered frustration experienced during his last days under the Aztec curse.

“Captain Teague gave me the word-for-word later,” Swift said. “Holds Captain Swann in high esteem, he does.”

“From what I hear, Cap’n Teague holds many women in high esteem,” Barbossa rasped.

“Captain Teague is a man whose reality matches his reputation.” Swift took a set of pipes from his pocket and blew softly against the arrangement of short tubes.

Barbossa rolled his eyes. He was of no mind for music, song, or pleasantry of any kind.

“I’ll be happy to tell you the tale, the entire tale, mind. Starting with first meeting ‘twixt young master Turner and the girl child Elizabeth Swann; ending on the white sand at Shipwreck Cove and the sundering apart of William Turner the man, entrusted with the sea’s responsibility to ease lost souls to the next world, and Elizabeth Turner, woman, king, warrior, widow.” Gibbs’ voice soared dramatically, a marked changed from his dour report concerning the state of cobbled repairs in the Pearl’s lower reaches.

“You can tell stories when the Pearl’s more seaworthy. Right now there’s work to be done.”

A sideways glance to gauge the degree of his captain’s irritation resulted in Mr. Gibbs’ rapid departure for the lower deck.

Swift was not the only contributor to Barbossa’s faltering routine aboard the Pearl. Every time he turned around, either Swift or Jack lurked nearby. While the cabin remained Swift-free, Jack was usually ensconced on the bunk or at the table puzzling over old books and Sao Feng’s maps.

Or watching Elizabeth with a wholly unsettling, unreadable expression in his eyes.

It might have been amusing viewed as a farce in which Barbossa was spectator rather than participant. Elizabeth had, with practical finesse, settled them into a routine that provided occasion for intimacy without belaboring the obvious reason for the juggling. She continued to come to his bed with enthusiasm and joy. But something had changed. Not between them so much as inside her.

For all her passion, natural intelligence, and rather frightening ability to absorb new experience and translate that experience to action, Elizabeth’s upbringing had provided a limited stock of experience on which to draw. A young woman of privilege, she had been raised to ornament a father’s, then a husband’s, household. During his years on the sea Barbossa had seen young men of limited competence promoted steadily and surely, due to condition of birth. Occasionally he had seen young men of extraordinary ability, but no great heritage, rise in recognition and rank. Had Elizabeth been born male, Barbossa was sure she would have far surpassed her father’s rather mediocre accomplishments, and most of the men around her.

Long black nights alone with the wheel, avoiding thoughts of what Jack and Elizabeth would be doing together, forced Barbossa to examine the scope of mystery that was Elizabeth Swann. Along the stages of their relationship as she progressed from nuisance to blood sacrifice to pawn -- then king -- in the game of freeing Calypso, there had been no moment of unrequited longing, no moment of revelation that left him fevered with quivering need for Elizabeth Swann.

It wasn’t until after the game was won, the privileged lady wed and widowed, that chance and desire brought them together in most unexpected intimacy.

What can I get away with?

If you have to ask, you’re not a pirate.

It came to Barbossa on one of those wild, solitary nights that whatever he had been in the days before his heart was pierced by Jack’s single shot, he might be no longer. More disturbing was the realization the killing shot was not the first time Barbossa had been transformed and remade by Jack Sparrow. He came to the Pearl a supremely competent sea-faring rogue and adventurer, holding a useless title taken in battle. Pirate Lord. Those words had never placed gold in his pockets. Stealing the Pearl had brought him gold beyond his imagining, accompanied by an equal measure of disenchantment and despair. With the sinking of Isla de Muerta the sea engulfed all that remained of Hector Barbossa.

Pirate Lord, mutineer, Captain of the Black Pearl, cursed thief, twice-dead and revived architect of Calypso’s freedom, lover of Elizabeth Swann . . . the man now living and breathing due to Calypso’s need and intervention with Death might hold the memories and form of that other man, might even essentially be that other man. But there were also differences. The man Barbossa saw when he regarded himself in a looking glass was familiar, recognizable. But in the depths of the eyes, about the set of the mouth, the reflected visage was subtly altered.

During the weeks since confronting the EITC fleet, Barbossa and the Pearl had neither pursued nor taken any prize. There were reasons, or perhaps excuses, for this. The aborted plan to follow Sao Feng’s maps. A layover in Tortuga with a battered ship. A foray to Stinking Island, with the intention of enriching the treasury. And now a judicious response to Teague’s summons.

Good reasons, all.

The thought burrowed and reproduced like a weevil in a sack of flour, no matter how he tried to eradicate it. Barbossa wasn’t sure he was still a pirate.

 

Small Jack scampered up the stairs with practiced grace in spite of way the Pearl danced beneath them. Weather continued to be inclement and unpleasant since their departure from Tortuga.

“Careful lad.” Barbossa found Small Jack’s tail and gave it a gentle tug. “You’d be better off in the cabin.”

Swift stopped his blowing against the pipes. “Fret not, we’ll come safe to harbor, Captain Barbossa.”

“Should have repaired in Tortuga,” Barbossa said tersely. “There’s too much water below. Teague may have proper business with the Pirate King, and Jack’s his own flesh and blood, but he has no authority over me. Under other circumstances I’d show his summons the back of m’ . . .”

“What of Calypso? Would you respond to a summons from her?”

“The question is irrelevant.” Barbossa snorted. “If Calypso wanted my attention, a bit o’ parchment is the last thing she’d send my way.”

“Mmm.” Swift played a few more notes, a haunting tune that wove in and out of the music the wind made over rope and rigging. “Calypso is not an only child. Unless I’m much mistaken, and I seldom am, our visitor is -- at the very least -- related to Calypso.”

“If you’ve something to say, do so. Otherwise, you’re small enough that kicking the shite out of you would take but a few, entertaining moments.” The more he thought about it, the better the idea sat with him. Barbossa glared down at Swift and felt his right foot twitch.

“I’m dev’lish hard to catch, Captain Barbossa.” Swift grinned. His teeth were amazingly white and even, except for his canines, which looked a bit long and sharp. One stormy grey eye winked over the top of his spectacles. “You’re grumpish. That’s not unnatural. There’s not much I can say. Teague would strip the skin from me arse.”

“That should concern me?”

The pipes disappeared into Swift’s coat. He stood and leaned against the rail. A gust of wind took his curling white hair and transformed it into a moving cloud that crowned him like a stationary thunderhead. “Soon enough it will, Captain Hector Barbossa.”

 

Shipwreck Cove.

Barbossa stared up at the mound of debris, smoke and fog-wreathed in the morning air. If some heathen god had swept the world’s shorelines after a great storm, then dumped the accumulated wrack into a single, towering heap, something very like Shipwreck City might have been created. The notion that whole families lived and worked in the labyrinthine warren of hulks seemed preposterous.

“One errant spark from a candle should have taken the whole place a century past,” Barbossa said under his breath. On his shoulder, Small Jack chattered agreement.

“There’s more to her than meets the eye, as is so often the case.” Swift joined Barbossa at the prow. “You judge the outer shell. Inside she’s reinforced with rock and metal. The City has inflexible rules about the use of fire, and an elaborate dispersal of water barrels against the unforeseen event.” Swift shrugged. “As soon as a child can walk and talk, they learn the rules governing fire in the City.”

Barbossa nodded grudgingly. “Points taken, Mr. Swift.”

“We heard the anchor drop.” Elizabeth ran up the stairs, closely followed by Jack. Both looked indecently cheerful.

Small Jack made a rude noise, jumped to the deck and disappeared into a hatch.

“More water below.” Jack squinted at Shipwreck City. “Can you get some of Teague’s ‘wrights out here, Swift? I have sufficient coin to pay for such service.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged. As soon as I deliver you to Teague.”

 

The great hall was deserted, even a bit dusty.

They filed past the long table. Elizabeth and Jack stared at the scarred and battered surface. Making allowance for Jack’s facial hair and darkened eyelids, the expressions on their faces were nearly identical. Memories of chaos and discord, and what came from it, Barbossa thought; memories of a plan gone in directions none of them had foreseen.

“They’re waiting for us in the library.” Swift led them to a door tucked under the stairs against the back of the hall. He knocked twice, softly, then opened the door and motioned Elizabeth to precede them. “Captain Swann, Captain Sparrow, Captain Barbossa . . .alea acta est.

Elizabeth made a small noise of appreciation. “So many books. More books than father ever had.”

Teague’s library would not have been out of place in any of the great houses Barbossa had seen in his youth. Taking in the appointments of the room, Barbossa wondered anew at the work that must have been done over the centuries to join and create the interior spaces of Shipwreck Cove.

Shelving covered an area perhaps thirty feet long against the slightly curving wall opposite the door, then continued around the room to meet the casing of the door through which they had entered. Oiled, gleaming woods both dark and light -- calamander, zebrawood, teak, cherry, oak and walnut -- were joined with cunningly fitted angles, constructed by the hand of a master carpenter. Row after row of books lined the shelves, all sizes and widths, bound in a myriad of colors and textures.

The smell of old leather, parchment, ink and perfume of scalded sealing wax hung in the air.

“Captains.” Teague occupied a massive leather-padded chair. A wide, rectangular table in front of him held a disarray of books and papers. To his right, on a gilded pedestal ornately carved with every variety of heathen symbol and sigil, perched The Codex. The over-sized omnibus was cracked open to a spread of pages that appeared to contain an ominous amount of dark red ink.

To his left a slight, dark-haired woman sat in a smaller version of Teague’s chair. Her race was problematical, although Chinese seemed likely. She wore a belted purple-black tunic, with dark cotton trousers peeking out beneath. Lustrous, intricately braided black hair, porcelain skin gilded by sunshine, eyes like amber beads . . .

A quicksilver shudder ran down Barbossa’s back. He perceived the same intensity in the stranger’s golden eyes that he remembered marking in Calypso’s muddy gaze. Fragile as Damascus steel, and not completely human. Barbossa gritted his teeth and glared directly into the woman’s eyes, defiantly.

“Thank you for responding with alacrity to my summons.”

Barbossa let his eyes shift to meet Teague’s look impassively, with interior interest. Until coming to Shipwreck Cove on Calypso’s errand, he had never met the man face to face. Teague’s eyes, set clear and bright in his ruined, aging face, seemed in turn to weigh Barbossa. It was an uncomfortable sensation, one that left the distasteful impression that his potential for use had been judged to a nicety.

“Your summons, along with the words of your messenger, convinced us there was need.” Elizabeth stepped forward and rested her hands, palms down, on the brilliant parquet surface of the table between them. “So why are we here?”

“There is grave need. Lady Lin, this is Elizabeth Swann, Hector Barbossa, and my own son Jack Sparrow.” Teague gestured with one long, ring-bedecked finger. “Please sit. Thank you, Swift.”

It was a dismissal. Barbossa heard the tone, saw Swift raise his eyebrows in amusement. Swift bowed to the lady, then stepped behind Teague’s chair. The soft ‘snick’ of another door opening, or closing followed the disappearance.

“Elizabeth Swann. The woman who would be Pirate King of the Brethren.” The Lady’s quiet voice held the music of water cascading over mossy pebbles in a silent forest.

“Not would be.” Elizabeth perched on a common oak stool, with fully as much self-possession and innate presence as Teague projected. “For whatever the title is worth, I am Pirate King. Who are you, Lady?”

The Lady looked downwards at her hands, folded demurely in her lap. There was an expression of introspection so encompassing that Barbossa felt an essential part of himself freeze with uncomfortable anticipation. What had Swift murmured? The die is cast.

“I am a daughter. A sister. A mother. I am an agent of the ones some of your people call the Heathen Gods. There is a task that needs doing, by the hand of mortals. In the vaults of prophesy there is a book. In that book is a chapter. In that chapter is a verse:

Seek the woman with three husbands
mirror of symmetry that wings above sea and land
mirror of souls that hold justice is might
and love is enough reason for mortal man's existence.

“Obscure, as prophesies are inclined to be." Elizabeth frowned. "I’ve braved the weird once. Get to the point of the matter.”

Lady Lin smiled, an expression of predacious amusement that sent another chill down Barbossa’s spine.

“We’re giving up so much of what we are,” the Lady said in a confidential tone. “This modern tendency to rush toward a resolution takes a while to accustom oneself to. You should cultivate a more deliberate, gracious approach when considering the weird, Captain Swann.”

“Where did y’think to be sending us, and with what purpose?” Jack looked at Teague, ignoring the Lady. “It is us, innit? The whole three husbands fol-de-rol suggests inconveniencing the men in Captain Swann’s life, of which I am one, an admission that surprises me as much as it must surprise you.”

Lady Lin shifted her eyes downward to her lap. “I have seen them, Captain Teague. You and I have arrangements to make.”

“As you say. Swift --” The words had scarcely left Teague’s mouth before Swift was back at his elbow.

“Captains. If you would come with me?”

Elizabeth stood, watching the Lady. “If you wanted deliberate and gracious, coming to a collection of pirates argues a certain lack of acumen. I’m fairly sure you don’t lack acumen, Lady Lin.”

“You are a forward and presumptuous young mortal.” Lady Lin’s expression of amused approbation belied her words. “We will speak further this evening.”

 

Swift led them from the library with a rapid, bouncing gait.

"Wait a bit." Jack scurried to match steps with Swift. “He’s well?”

“He is. And he’ll be glad you asked.” Swift looked back over his shoulder, met Barbossa's eyes and winked with sly humor. “There’s some in the households as would like to see you, Jackie.”

Jack shook his head violently. “Not in m’best interest, at this time.”

“You’re probably right.” Swift laughed. “Teague said to put you in the crow’s nest while you’re here.”

“That’s all right, then.” Jack gave an exaggerated sigh of relief.

While it did not seem unusual to Barbossa that a man would find his childhood home an uncomfortable place, for the first time he gave conscious consideration to the fact that the only place he had seen Jack truly comfortable and at ease was on the Pearl. The notion brought an unwanted sense of kinship so distasteful that Barbossa ignored it and deliberately moved his thoughts elsewhere.

“We’ve no need for accommodations. The Pearl is --”

“The Pearl is full of carpenters and shipwrights,” Swift said. “Teague has assigned every free man to her repair.”

“And there was still much to be repaired in the Captain’s cabin,” Elizabeth pointed out.

“You’ll like the view from the crow’s nest, Hector.” Jack took Elizabeth’s arm and swaggered on ahead. “Haven’t been up there in years.”

“He used to drop fruit,” Swift whispered, grinning. “There was a time Teague banned him from the nest.”

Barbossa enjoyed a mental image of the citizens on the lower parts of Shipwreck City being visited by evidence of young Jack’s Sparrow’s thoughtless experiments. “I’m surprised he only dropped fruit.”

Swift paused at the bottom of a ladder and watched Jack and Elizabeth disappear through an opening that might originally have been a hatch. “Fruit was all they could prove.”

 

The crow’s nest was a platform that had once been the deck of an ancient ship. Positioned at the very crown of Shipwreck City, the ancient figurehead pointed a forked tongue into the northern sky. Most of the deck had been built upon and roofed over, creating a single open-sided room with moveable screens that could be used for walls. A huge sleigh-backed, oak-slatted bed frame filled most of the space under the roof.

“Drakkar.” Barbossa walked to the figurehead and looked up at the northern sky past the rim of Shipwreck basin. “Tough old ship.”

“It’s a dragon.” Elizabeth followed him. “Where did all these ships come from?” She leaned over the railing, trying to count the number of individual ships in the mad stack beneath their perch.

“And how did this one end up at the top, instead of the bottom?” The wood felt smooth and warm under Barbossa's hand. “She’s probably the oldest one here.” For a moment he seemed to hear an echo of turbulent shouting, voices of warriors who once braved unknown waters, fought, raided, lived and died on or near the sea.

“Added her when I was a boy,” Jack said. “Someone found her and got her as far as the Cove. Teague’s carpenters pared her down and hoisted her into place. The dragon was widely considered to be a good omen for the city.”

“You’ll sleep well up here. I always do,” Swift said. “The bed’s not made up for company. We’ll send accoutrements up directly. Jack can show you where to bathe. Captain Teague requests you join him for a meal at sunset.”

“Bathe? But that means going below.” Jack twisted a bit of beard distractedly. “I suppose that’s also an order from on-high.”

Swift laughed and disappeared back down the ladder.

“Does bathe mean hot water?” Elizabeth’s voice had a greedy sound. “Why are you standing there, Jack? Show us the way.”