[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
I admire this Captain Aubrey. He cuts a gallant figure at the rail, this great bluff officer with the ruddy face and a naval uniform from the battles with Napoleon, when my father was a boy. He sees me down on the gun deck, but he does not smile. I am an unwanted passenger aboard his ship, and a woman besides. Superstitious seamen believe it is unlucky for a woman to be aboard.

I wish the Captain would see me, that I might apologize. I did not ask to come aboard _Surprise_; indeed, I have no idea how I came to be on this vessel at all, in a quadrant of the world I have never visited, and in a time long before I was born. But the Captain is too busy to see anybody; there is a crisis at hand. _Surprise_ flees from another ship, a Spanish frigate. The Spaniard carries twenty more guns than our vessel. _Surprise_ ought to be more seaworthy, or so I have gathered from the mutterings of the crew, but for the curious and unexpected burden of passengers and cargo that she carries.

His Majesty joins me on the deck and stands with hands folded behind his back, chin held high, watching the wake of our passage disappear behind us. "A puzzlement," he declares. "Where is steam engines? Western watercraft is modern and technological, we are informed!" The canvas of the sails flap overhead to punctuate his point.

"Your Majesty is correct," I state, bowing my head and curtseying. "Modern warcraft are indeed steam-powered. I am not certain why this ship should be so primitive. However, proper grammar should be to say 'Where are the steam engines?'"

His Majesty bristles. "Grammatical constructs! Rules and regulations, bah! A King decides what is proper!"

A team of seamen brush past us, further arousing His Majesty's ire, but they pay him no attention. "Oi!" shouts one of the crewmen. "We've canvas to raise 'ere! Move yer blasted elephant!"

A man with a queer hat and cigar frowns. "This ain't no ordinary elephant," he declares, jerking a thumb at the enormous beast. "This is Jumbo, the World's Largest. Ain't that right, Barnum?"

"S'right, Bailey," hiccups a man with a string cravat and a striped jacket. "A genuine biological curiosity."

An old man wearing an overcoat bursts out of the throng milling on the gun deck. He attempts to chase down a lean cat that dodges between the legs of the crewmen. "Tonto!" he shouts. "Get back here!"


His Majesty scowls up at Jumbo. The boards of the decking groan piteously under the beast's feet. "This is not World's Largest Elephant," he declares coldly. "Largest Elephant is in my palace in Siam, along with second and third largest elephants."

"Listen, chum," the one named Barnum says, poking His Majesty in an overly familiar way. "I'll have you know Jumbo's been certified the World's Largest by the Largest Living Animal Advisory Board. And I'm certain it's true, because I'm the Board."

His Majesty's retort is drowned out in the din of another workcrew raising sail by turning a capstan. As the sailors turn the winch, the handle strikes a heavyset gentleman in the head. He turns in irritation but the capstan arm has rotated away, leaving only his slight and simpleminded friend, who smiles and blinks stupidly. The heavier man charitably doffs his hat. "I say, Stanley," he says politely. "Kindly watch out what you're doing."

"All right, Ollie," says his friend, still smiling blandly.

The crewmen pause below the bridge deck, and one of the junior officers addresses the captain. "Can't we move all these civilians out of the way, Captain?" he pleads. "They're in the way of the ship's business?"

"Where would you have me move them, Mowett?" asks Aubrey. "Things are rather more crowded below decks."

"Over the rail, that's where I'd have them," grumbles an old tar to his mate. Aubrey overhears – there is nothing wrong with the Captain's hearing – and he scowls.

"Take down that man's name!" he shouts. "We are a warship of His Majesty's navy, not a piratical outfit! We do not throw passengers overboard, no matter how dire the circumstances! Now get on with your work!" I think this Aubrey must be very kind – but the glower he favors me with makes me wither inside.

His Majesty sees my discomfiture. He takes my hand and leads me to the rail. "Most undignified are these circumstances," he says. "It is supposed that these queer matters are beyond the understanding of even a modern woman of school-teaching learnings?"

"It is so, Your Majesty," I reply. "I confess that I have no idea how we have come to be in this strange predicament."

"It is a place of impossibilities," said the King. "A fine word for this is 'paradox'. You shall agree with me."

"I do agree," I say. The capstan has struck the one called Ollie on the head again, and now he is genuinely angry at Stanley.

"Then, by my theorem of paradox, which we have invented, and is therefore correct," His Majesty states, "we must be in a place where all things, which are not possible, may yet be so." He takes my hands in his; our eyes lock. How I have longed for his touch, his impossible touch.

A ship's officer clears his throat; the King and I separate. It is Maturin, Aubrey's physician and ship's surgeon. "Miss Anna," he says formally, bowing. "Your Serene Majesty," he adds, bowing deeply to the King. The King composes himself and beams at Maturin.

"I hear that you are a Scientific man," he says warmly.

"I have a certain interest in Natural Philosophy," Maturin says, grinning sheepishly.

"Natural Philosophy!" proclaims the King. "These are words that suit each other. We shall say them again: Natural! Philosophy!"

"Well spoken, Your Highness," said Maturin. He turns to me seriously.

"Miss Anna," he says, "I hope you won't think too poorly of the Captain. He's under a dreadful amount of strain, you see."

"I quite comprehend," I reply. "Am I given to understand, then, that this Spanish ship is gaining upon _Surprise_?"

"I expect we will be within range of her guns before nightfall, madam," says Maturin soberly. But after a moment's reflection, his face lights up.

"But come now," he says, "the Captain has many tricks up his voluminous sleeves; I'm sure he'll devise some stratagem for our escape. Please, come with me up to the Bridge deck. I'll make sure he apologizes to you for his gruff manner. No matter how difficult our predicament, that's no excuse for behaving rudely towards a lady."

"I shall come," I say. His Majesty remains at the rail. We dodge Stan, who is pursued by Ollie wielding a gaff-hook; a cat and mouse chase each other under my skirts, their features and coloration so simple as to have come to life from a childrens' drawing. We gain the stair up to the steering deck, and there is Aubrey, watching the Spaniard through a glass.

"Come on, fall back," grunts Captain Aubrey. "Not so lubberly as most, this Spanishman." He snaps the glass closed and hands it to a midshipman. "If only we weren't so blastedly heavily laden."

"I apologize for that, Captain," I say, endeavoring to keep my voice steady. "If there is anything within my power to increase the worthiness of your craft, you have but to name it. I might be able to organize the mob on your decks, for instance."

Aubrey notices my presence, looks me up and down, and grunts again. "Within your power, hm," he says skeptically. "Thank you, madam, but I must tell you that the problem is not entirely related to the passenger's list. There is the small matter of the Spanish treasure ship we intercepted."

"Treasure ship!" I exclaim. "Then piracy is indeed among the duties of the British navy!"

"Hardly," snaps Aubrey. "In case you hadn't noticed, madam, we are at war with Boney, and at the moment, Boney owns Spain, body and soul. Gold for Spanish coffers means more men, more cannon, more shot for our foes. By intercepting their treasure, I am saving more lives than a thousand engagements with warships could ever manage."

"No wonder that frigate pursues you so industriously, Captain," I say. "I am sorry for insulting you."

On the far side of the deck, a quartet of ragged-looking young people begins to sing. "All the leaves are brown," they croon in perfect harmony. "And the sky is grey…."

"Get those civilians off my deck!" bellows Aubrey. As the beggar-minstrels are forcibly removed, shouting about the oppression of the military, the Captain calms himself. "Your apology is accepted, madam," he says, a trifle forced. "Our point remains, which is that we are presently laden with a certain quantity of bullion, silver, and precious effects that I mean to return to England, not the continent. Unfortunately, this means _Surprise_ carries herself low in the water, and the effect on our seaworthiness is most undesirable."

Aubrey's younger officers glance anxiously at each other. "Sir," says one timidly.

"Speak your mind, Pullings," says Aubrey curtly.

"Sir," says Pullings, "begging your pardon, but we were wondering about the curse."

Aubrey's smile becomes strained. "There's no curse," he says. "Curses are the stuff of superstition. Tell them, Stephen."

"Absolutely right, Captain," says Maturin. "It's unbelievable to me how a crew of well-trained sailors and officers can be unmanned by a single old Indian's cryptic proclamations."

"An old Indian?" I ask, arching an eyebrow.

"Madam," Maturin hastens to explain, "the Spanish treasure ship had a passenger aboard, a native of the region of the Spanish Americas near Veracruz. This elderly fellow claimed to be in charge of a special object that was sacred to his people. The Spanish called it the Ligaturo. It's really nothing special to look at."

"He said it was cursed, a magical object," Pullings insists, forgetting himself.

"Oh for goodness' sake," exclaims Aubrey. "It's a rather baroque bit of Indian silver, that's all. Unbelievable that my men should make such a fuss over it."

"Come on, Captain," urges Maturin. "Let me show it to the lady. What's the harm in it?"

"All right, if it will get yet another distraction off my bridge," says Aubrey crossly.

"Come along, Miss Anna," says Maturin solicitously. He guides me back down the stair to the gun deck. An old woman and a young man embrace near the mast; their kisses and gropings are so frankly sexual that most of the crew stops their work and stares until cuffed away by ship's mates. I blush, and Maturin hastily ushers me belowdecks.

The Captain spoke truthfully; conditions below are even more crowded than those above. "See, this is the main trouble with this movie," says a balding man. "It attempts to take the best parts of a series of books and somehow combine them into a single film, which is always a recipie for disaster."

"I couldn't agree less," says his paunchy, graying companion.

"Please be careful, madam," says Maturin anxiously. "We must pass through the brig, and conditions there are hardly suitable for a lady." His concerns are groundless, however; the cell doors are well secured, and only a pair of ruffians can be seen, whiling away the time behind bars, passing a pipe between them.

"I bet a cannon would make a pretty good bong, man," says the one with spectacles.

"Yeah, man," agrees his friend, who appears to be a Spaniard. "You stick your head in there and you'll be, like, blown away!" The two collapse into hysterical laughter. I have no idea what the ruffians are saying; we pass them by to a ship's locker at the fore of the ship.

Maturin dismisses a guard and opens the locker. Boxes and sea-chests are carefully stacked and secured within. Maturin selects a small coffer and opens it for me. It is lined with velvet within, and there lies the Ligaturo. It is a piece of ornately worked silver, no larger than my hand. It has many worked sigils and patterns upon it, and savage imagery such as skulls, but its overall shape resembles that of an ampersand.

"The nexus, senorita," hisses a voice behind me. A brig cell that I had thought empty reveals an occupant. It is an old, weathered looking man with copper-colored skin and long dirty grey hair. He leers at me.

"The Ligaturo, senorita," he says. "It draws things together."

I summon my courage. "Like the two ships, in the water," I say.

"Yes, and no," the Indian replies. "Ships, yes; but also people, things. All things that are two, and might be one, come together with the Ligaturo."

"That doesn't sound like a curse," I say.

"It is magic, senorita," says the Indian, nodding solemnly. "Who is to say what magic is good or evil?"

I pride myself on being a woman of learning. In matters of superstition I believe myself to be largely immune. But in my time in Siam I have seen strange things that I cannot explain with Western science. I turn to Maturin.

"Sir," I say, "would it be accurate to say that there is sufficient bullion aboard this ship to make the Captain and the rest of the crew very rich, should you successfully escape?"

Maturin appears surprised by the question. "Yes, Miss Anna," he says, "I haven't done the mathematics yet, but I suppose…."

"And certainly any treasure that does not return to England, but is denied the Spaniard, is treasure that serves at least half its value to the crown. Is it not so?" I demand.

"Why, certainly," says Maturin, even more shocked than before.

"Then one bit of it should not be missed," I say. I snatch the Ligaturo out of the coffer. It feels greasy-smooth, unsettlingly so. I bolt back out through the brig. "Wait!" shouts Maturin behind me. The old Indian cackles insanely.

Maturin catches my arm before I can gain the ladder. "I don't know what you plan to do, Miss Anna," he says darkly, "but aboard this ship, we do nothing without the order of the Captain."

"Let go of me!" I demand, holding the Ligaturo away from his grasping hand. A huge man in spectacles takes it from me.

"Oo, nice," he says, admiring it. "I think this is what Prince renamed himself. You like, Teller?" His mute companion nods happily.

"Well, if you like it so much," says the big man, "maybe you should eat it. Open wide."

"Here, now," says Maturin uneasily. "That's property of His Majesty; give it back."

"Sure, just as soon as my friend has his breakfast," says the fellow. "By the way, not only does the inflight service stink, but the movie is terrible. Here you go, Teller!" He turns and crams the Ligaturo down Teller's throat. Teller struggles, but when his friend lets him up, he holds his throat as if he is gagging.

"Here, let me have a look," says Maturin irritably. "Open your mouth, you."

The big man nudges me. He hands the Ligaturo to me; I tuck it into my bodice. As Maturin is distracted, I creep up the ladder.

I hear shouts from below as I regain the gun deck. Stan and Ollie are painting each other with brushes full of tar; Jumbo the elephant nearly knocks me off balance. Every way I turn, rushing seamen or outlandish passengers prevent me from reaching the rail. Maturin appears in the gangway entrance. "Stop her!" he shouts. "Grab her, men!" The crew turns to look at me, surprised.

"Hold!" It is His Majesty. One arm encircles my waist protectively; the other hand is thrown up in warding.

"This is a highly scientific woman," says His Majesty. "None shall seize her, by my order!"

Aubrey's raised voice pierces the silence on the deck. "You're aboard my ship," he says. "I am king and God aboard it. Your authority doesn't extend here."

"And yet," replies His Majesty loftily, "We are still King of Siam. Set hands upon us and ours, and there shall be War with your puny Empire!"

In the awkward standoff, the King and I shuffle back towards the rail. The sailors surround us, but the King's words have power. We are not taken, not yet. Maturin steps forward.

"It's superstitious nonsense, Miss Anna," he says. "Don't do it."

"I must," I say, looking at Captain Aubrey. "It's the only thing I can do within my power."

I hold the Ligaturo over the rail. The crew gasps as I release it. It splashes into the ship's wake and sinks out of sight immediately.

A kind of sigh passes through the rigging. The crew looks about them in confusion; this is no wind that they recognize. Then it is gone.

Barnum slaps his waistcoat. "Well, Bailey," he says, "I think it's time we moved on to that engagement in Philadelphia."

"Pittsburgh," corrects Bailey.

"That's right, Plattsburg," agrees Barnum. They make for the rear of the ship. Jumbo trundles along behind them.

"I hate you!" shouts the blonde female minstrel, weeping as she flees from one of the men. "Great, that's the end of the band then," the long-haired young man says morosely.

"All is forgiven, Stanley," says the big man with the stubby mustache. "Oh, good," says Stanley. "All of what?" They both step inside a coil of rope and disappear from view. There is no ladder or hatch there that I am aware of.

The King and I watch the deck slowly drain of extraneous persons. The canvas overhead whips and cracks; all the officers peer upwards. "Wind's freshening, Captain," says Mowett.

"Then get canvas up to meet it!" Aubrey bellows. "All hands!"

The King turns and takes my hands in his again."The impossible, it appears, is no longer possible," he says solemnly.

"I must agree, Your Majesty," I say. Is that a tear in his eye?

"Perhaps, in time, I theorize, the impossible shall again be possible." He fades. Is he fading, or am I?

"I hope so, my King," I whisper. But he is gone, and I am too; only a speedy ship remains, unjoined to anything else, save the story that framed it the way it was first written.

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hwrnmnbsol

September 2012

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