“My, what a feast we have had,” said Captain Adams, closing his spyglass. “Aubert, we have really outdone ourselves today.”
He leaned against the taffrail and gazed out at the four whaling ships floating sullenly astern. Trimalchio’s boats swarmed about, unloading captives and cargo.
“This must be what Caesar felt in Gaul. Truly sublime.”
“I’m sure Allen would paint you accordingly, if you asked,” mused Captain Aubert, wandering across the quarterdeck. “What’s the tally?”
Adams wiped his brow. The equatorial heat was stifling. “Those two were only newly arrived, but loaded with supplies and some nice contraband. The one on the end there has been out just under a year and is carrying about 500 barrels.” He grinned. “And this last fellow was homeward bound. Twelve-hundred barrels, along with a hoard of skins and furs we’ll be counting for days.”
Aubert clapped him on the back. “You have a greedy eye, my friend. It seems to be serving us very well.”
Meeting little resistance to the enormous firepower at her disposal, Trimalchio had proven a fearsome hunter, enjoying a glut of victory and reward Adams had thought implausible when he’d first been approached with the scheme. Their perfectly timed coup in Rio had given him hope, but it was not until they took their first prize that he realized just how successful the expedition could be.
He had worried about their prospects, about losing a fortune, but at Juan Fernandez they’d demonstrated that it took little more than a well-placed warning shot, a mere whiff of gunpowder, to induce a whaling-ship to surrender. The whalers were defenseless against Trimalchio’s powerful broadside and knew it. Adams could take anything, filling his cargo hold until the ship’s timbers creaked, and they could do nothing to resist.
From there they had pirated their way up the coast, chasing and capturing six more ships. Many of the British whalers, avoiding oppressive tariffs, liked to engage in illegal trading with the Spanish colonies while they were in the area and Trimalchio found them loaded with timber, textiles, provisions, and even silver specie.
The only resistance they’d encountered was a little privateer out of Callao. The sloop had done everything it could, but was no match for the great frigate and surrendered after a single broadside. Captain Aubert had sent over spare crew and cannons and suddenly Trimalchio had a hunting-partner.
Adams had been a laughingstock in the Navy, famed only for his nepotistic appointment and for spurning his first wife in favor of the new Mrs. Adams in a highly publicized affair. But now with every passing month his collection of victories only grew. He imagined the amazed faces of his peers back home, seeing his success. With every captured prize the increasingly bold Captain Adams enriched his growing fleet with more men, more ships, more guns, and more treasure.
Between the capture of the privateer sloop and the arming of the taken whale-ships, the expedition had transformed from a single daring frigate into a dangerous squadron that spread out over the sea in daily search of new prey. They were now nine ships in total, enough to match any force in the Pacific, and seemed destined to only grow stronger.
Adams began to style himself Commodore, adorning his hat accordingly, though few would address him as such. But as pleased as he was with the voyage, no one aboard enjoyed it all more than his wife.
“My, what a feast I have had,” said Mrs. Adams, stifling a belch. “Allen, I really have…outdone myself today.”
She leaned back in her chair and gazed down at the table, where four emptied dishes were stacked upon one another in triumph. Crumbs and sauces were splattered across the table.
“This must be what Adelaide felt at that last party. Truly sublime.”
“We must do another portrait sometime,” mused Mr. Allen, wandering in from the wardroom. “What’s the butcher’s bill?”
Mrs. Adams wiped her mouth. Pineapple juice was dripping onto her bosom. “Those two were more of the tortoise stew. That one was the lobster we took from the little fishing-boat yesterday.” She grinned. “And that was a special preparation courtesy of our newest captive…ceviche, made with ‘corvina.’ I think I’ll be digesting this for days.”
She set a hand on her gut and puffed out her cheeks. Her skin glistened in the lanternlight and her heart pounded in her chest. She began to take on the oily, grease-filled look that was becoming so familiar to her shipmates.
Allen patted her flabby side. “You have a greedy eye, my dear. It seems to be serving you very well.”
With little else to do while the men made war and with the enormous quantity of plunder at her disposal, Mrs. Adams had given in unreservedly to her appetite, enjoying a glut of indulgence and excess she would have thought not only improper but impossible back when she’d been a preening belle with rivals to impress. Her very comfortable time in Rio had given her a taste—and Adelaide had set quite an example— but it was not until they’d taken their first prize that she realized just what it was she most desired.
She had once worried about her figure, about losing her social prospects, but at Juan Fernandez they’d discovered that it took little more than the sight of stolen riches, a mere whiff of plundered cuisine, to awaken an insatiable hunger. The captives were powerless to keep any treat from her. Mrs. Adams could eat anything, filling herself until she fell asleep at the table, and the fact that it had been stolen only made the food all the more delicious.
From there she had dined her way up the coast, enjoying the spoils of six more captured ships and raided ports. Many of the whalers, avoiding tariffs, carried delicious tropical fruits, exotic meats, wildly expensive wines, and even some fine silks, increasingly welcome as she outgrew another dress.
The only vexation in her life was her maid, who seemed to speak only in sullen retorts. Zephyra did everything she asked, but begrudgingly, and could be distressingly scathing in her comments about weight. It had at first unnerved Mrs. Adams, but the maid was powerless. She ordered Zephyra’s rations halved and ate her own extravagant meals all the more ostentatiously in front of her.
Mrs. Adams had once been the great fair-haired beauty of Maryland, famed for her golden locks, smooth complexion, and willowy elegance. It had been widely remarked that she had begun to thicken after her scandalous liaison with Captain Adams was made public. But now with every passing month her belly’s glutted roundness only became more permanent; she imagined the shocked faces of the coquettes back home, seeing her excess.
With every captured whaler the increasingly blubbery Mrs. Adams gorged herself on more pilfered delicacies. The captain’s wife had transformed from a slight, wholesomely composed belle into a demanding, pear-shaped gourmand whose backside spilled over the seat of her chair and whose quaggy thighs wobbled with the motion of the sea. She’d already blossomed enough to match her husband’s twenty stone, and seemed intent on only growing softer.
She began to style herself ‘Queen Georgia,’ covering herself in the gold chains and jewelry taken from Trimalchio’s captives: a ring from a specktioneer, a gold watch from a cook, a harpooneer’s wedding ring. Her royal affectations irked some of the more politically-minded American sailors, but no one felt comfortable speaking up. They could only watch as she paraded about the deck, seemingly wider every day, her reluctant maid in tow.
Zephyra spent most of her days at Mrs. Adam’s side. The woman was hardly large enough to warrant help, but she had seen and envied all that the maid had done for Adelaide. Zephyra helped her dress, helped her undress, brushed her hair, and fetched her books and mirrors and drinks. She would quietly comment on Mrs. Adams’ new cellulite or a new crease when she leaned over. Mrs. Adams would glare and decide that she would eat Zephyra’s meager dinner, too.
Once she’d delivered Mrs. Adams to bed and sufficiently massaged her bloated belly, Zephyra could slip away and tiptoe from the great-cabin for a moment of quiet. She could make her way to the lower deck, share a smile with the marine sentry she’d befriended, and then be permitted a brief visit to the brig.
“Four more today,” she reported.
“Four?” asked Captain Muir. “All at once?”
“They were watering at one of the islands. Gave up without a shot. They’d heard of us.”
“That’s a fine catch.”
“Georgia’s in a fine state. A few more months of this and the whalers will be hunting her.”
He managed a smirk and leaned back against the bars. Muir had originally been permitted a cabin and leisure on deck, but after two escape attempts had been consigned to rot below. “And you? How are you holding up? I heard she cut your rations.”
“I’m fine.” She shrugged, but her stomach whined. “I’d been meaning to lose weight, anyway. Adelaide and Boreas were…very bad influences.”
“Hm,” replied Captain Muir, looking down.
“Oh, also, Aubert said it was time to start heading west.”
“As I thought, then…they’ll want to get to their island to refit and consolidate their force. We’d best settle in for a long voyage.”
“Bless me. Do you think anyone will find us in all this ocean?”
“They’ll never find us,” promised Captain Aubert. He made a few measurements on the chart, tapped his finger, and drew a tiny dot in an empty stretch of ocean just south of the equator. “There it is.”
“No one else knows?” asked Adams.
“No one. I was aboard the ship that sighted it, twenty years ago. We never shared the discovery. It has never yet appeared on a chart.”
Allen gazed at the map. “It seems quite perfectly situated. We could reach anywhere in the pacific. By God, we could even challenge the tea trade.”
“A lucky find,” Adams agreed. “What shall we call it?”
Aubert pondered for a moment. Then, snickering quietly to himself, he dipped his pen and in flowing script labeled their destination “Île Chanceuse.”
They hadn’t seen a sail in eight thousand miles. Tryphena traveled alone across the vastness of the Pacific with only her reflection for company.
It was generally pleasant sailing, in comparison with their tribulations around the Horn. The equatorial winds were constant and reliable. The helmsmen and sailing-master could go days on end without touching the wheel or adjusting the yards. The latitude noted in the ship’s log rarely varied and the chart of their westward progress showed only a straight line plunging through the blankest area of the page.
One sunny day followed the other, week after week, and Tryphena’s tiny world became nothing but infinite routine. The log’s weekly record of activities became indistinguishable.
At four in the morning came the boatswain’s dreaded cry: “rouse, you sleepers, out of those hammocks, now, lads. I come with a sharp knife and a clear conscience.” The morning watch rolled out, groaning and grumbling. Adelaide would trundle up with her appointed division to swab and holystone the deck. The sun rose over her broad backside, hanging half out of her trousers as she bent down, wobbling in rhythm as she mopped. She was only given a small corner to clean, the stooped posture understood to be painful for her, but no corner of the ship gleamed brighter than Adelaide’s.
Breakfast afterward was a hurried meal, but she would pack away more oatmeal and molasses than anyone aboard and it would usually be enough to keep her stomach from complaining through the forenoon watch.
These hours she would spend massaging her muscles and joints after the morning’s exertions. Once recovered, she would rejoin her mates for the unending list of tedious but vital maintenance tasks: splicing cables, caulking seams, cleaning tools, repainting the boats, washing clothes. Every day they fixed something and every day there was something new to fix. She was excused any duty that necessitated climbing, venturing into tight spaces, or heavy lifting, but took on other seated chores to compensate.
Their reward for all the morning’s labor, once noon had been observed, was dinner. Now Adelaide could eat, if not to her genuine ‘fill,’ at least to a modest satisfaction. She could finish her allotted heap of salt-pork, her stack of ship’s biscuit, and anything her messmates couldn’t finish, washing it all down with a quantity of grog that would have earned the average seaman a flogging for drunkenness. Adelaide, twice the size of the average seaman, returned to duty for the afternoon watch with only a little rosiness to her face and sometimes a thicker French accent than before. When there was a spare moment of idle time she lounged on the forecastle, belly out in the warmth of the sun, digesting.
She would be up and alert in time for gunnery practice, though. They rarely fired the great guns for fear of exhausting their limited powder supply, but regularly rehearsed loading and running them out. Adelaide enjoyed aiming the cannons, but when it became clear that she couldn’t pull her bulk out of the way of their recoil in time she was given charge of a small swivel-gun on the quarterdeck instead. The officers could only stare as her exposed flesh rippled with each broadside.
Once battle stations had been cleared and the ship returned to order, their small supper was served. The catch-all pudding, though it satisfied the men, was never quite enough for Adelaide. She had grown too used to falling asleep on a churning, massively full stomach and could not help but miss her indulgent nights in Brazil. Sometimes there would be enough galley leftovers to hush the growling, but more and more often she found herself concealing hunger pangs through the evening watch.
After some leisure-time under the Pacific sunset, the men would trudge below and crawl into their hammocks. Adelaide, whom no hammock could safely hold and whose girth far exceeded a seaman’s allotted twenty-eight inches of airspace, would return to the cramped privacy of her cabin. She would lapse into sleep the moment she touched her cot, dreaming of elegant ballrooms, endless feasts, and handsome, generous, very willing admirers. She dreamed of the lovers and the luxuries she’d left on the other side of the world. She dreamed of large, opulent bedrooms. She dreamed of Zephyra and Captain Muir, just beyond her reach.
The bell would ring and the boatswain would growl out his morning refrain. The sun rose again, and then again; another watch, another day, another week, another identical expanse of ocean. They sailed further and further into an unchanging world.
There were, however, some small indications of passing time. Adelaide soon began to find herself hungrier more and more often at the end of the day, even hungrier than usual. A sheepish conversation with Boreas and Lieutenant Calder revealed the disheartening truth: their provisions would not last. Even without a woman of her appetite aboard, they were quick to reassure her, the problem would have struck.
The hold still leaked from Tryphena’s trials at Cape Horn and rot had crept further into her timbers than anyone could have known. It had reached the crates and casks stowed below and the provisions were turning up sour. They were running short of meat, they were running short of flour, and they were running short of fresh water.
After another week a meeting was held and the situation was openly presented. Supplies were dwindling and so far the only islands they’d passed had been dry, rocky atolls with no safe anchorage. If they continued their hunt for Trimalchio, plodding carefully along and wasting time to investigate every mirage on the horizon, they would surely starve or sink. If, instead, they bore up and ran with all haste for the East Indies, they might reach help in time to survive. There was no denying it: the Americans had disappeared into the vastness of the Pacific and the odds of stumbling upon them now were too small to calculate.
Lynn, the marooned whaler, thanked everyone kindly for their efforts. He assured them that making it safely to the fleet and conveying news of the enemy was a greater service than perpetuating a futile search. Boreas concurred and vowed to contact his Company friends for support once they’d arrived. The crew could only nod their understanding. Adelaide gazed astern, wiping her eyes.
But no sooner than they’d made their difficult decision, the wind failed them. Tryphena’s sails went limp and her bow-wake smoothed to a mere ripple. A day later the entire sea was still.
The ship floated helpless for nearly two weeks, turning in the unseen current. The sun blazed hotter and closer. The air boiled. The pretense of naval routine continued, but labor ceased. The men laid about on deck, fanning themselves under what little shade the sails could provide. Adelaide could scarcely move, too large and lethargic to function in such heat, reduced to a ball of blubber and sweat.
The provisions began to disappear with dreadful speed. The men caught what fish and fowl they could to supplement their dinners, but without rain the fresh water couldn’t be replenished. The lime juice was running out and it was only a matter of time before the scurvy would begin to show itself. For the first time since her escape from France, Adelaide felt the inescapable ache of starvation. They whistled and touched wood and scratched backstays, but no mortal ritual appeased the fickle sea-gods. Many tried to give Adelaide part of their rations and when she wouldn’t have them, offerings began to appear again below her faded portrait.
A few days after even the most superstitious had finally given up, the breeze suddenly returned. Any celebrations, though, were cut short as the wind began to blow stronger and harsher.
It grew overnight into a furious gale. They spread what sail they could handle and rode it desperately, exhausting themselves in the rigging as they had done in the southern ocean, praying for any sheltered landfall. Sometimes they could see tiny islands and atolls in the distance, but always inaccessible behind the frothing wall of a vicious ship-killing reef.
Thunder rumbled overhead and the sea grew rougher. The waves came in strange, unpredictable swells, twisting Tryphena’s bow side to side with sickening irregularity. The sky darkened, but with no other choice before her she sailed on into the typhoon.
After a week in the storm, during a wet, brutal squall, the mainmast gave out, toppling over and wrecking the ship’s rigging with a mighty crash. The men labored without rest for a day straight to keep Tryphena from following her mast into the sea. Water gushed into the hold and the pumps had to be turned day and night to slow the inevitable.
The storm finally dissipated, but Tryphena could now only drift along under a few jury-rigged sails. The hull was too battered and too weak; the men were too hungry and too tired. Calder choked out the order to abandon ship and they began to load their few remaining provisions into the boats.
When a sail appeared on the horizon the next morning, just as Calder prepared to record his final entry in the log, they cheered loudly enough for all the ocean to hear. It was a small craft full of friendly people who spoke no English, but nodded and waved at the Tryphenas’ pleas. When the craft turned and sailed away, the men could only stare and curse, too distraught to continue loading the boats.
They recanted everything when the fishing boat returned the following afternoon with a British man-of-war in company. Irving sprinted to the flag-locker and sent up the private signal before Calder could think to give him the order.
She was the sloop Caerus, on patrol out of Banda Neira. She sent across fresh water and a fresh-faced young commander. He surveyed the shocking damage and listened to their tale, congratulating them on having survived such a crossing.
The men were certainly heroes, he observed, noble paragons of British seamanship. He also observed privately to Lieutenant Calder, with some concern, that one of the seamen appeared to be, in fact, an enormously large woman.
“What? Oh, no. She’s a guest, sir,” Calder stammered in a panic. “A distinguished guest. She is only in slops because, um, the chest with all her dresses was, um, lost overboard in the last squall. Yes. Here, ah, may I present her ladyship the, um, Madame de V—”
Adelaide cut him short with a nervous laugh. “No ‘madame,’ sir. Just Addie, if it please you, sir. The lieutenant has been so prodigious kind, treating this poor lost serving-girl like a proper lady.” She forced out her best attempt at a shipmate’s accent.
He matched her smile. “Ho, you had my heart in my throat. We’ve heard such frightening rumors of a French dame playing the spy.”
She shot Calder a look.
“Well, Miss, I am at your service,” the commander continued, taking her hand. “And how came you aboard a man-of-war?”
“Which I…saved up all me wages, didn’t I, thrifty-like, like me dear mam always bade me, so she did, so as to book passage aboard of a little brig from…from…”
The old foretopman caught her searching eye. He mouthed “Portsmouth.”
“…from Portsmouth, right, of a mind to follow my dear husband to his new posting overseas, he being the sort of cove what gets lonesome without I’m the one brings out his pudding—which no one makes a spotted dog quite like I do, he says—but bloat me—”
The commander’s expression suggested this was wrong. She glanced back at the topman for a correction.
“…blow me down if those bloody, um, yanks didn’t…” She gestured vaguely and waved an invisible cutlass.
“How awful,” said the commander. “You must tell me all about it. Come and dine with us on Caerus while the men put Tryphena to rights. The perfect reward for enduring such privations at sea.”
“Dinner?” she gasped involuntarily.
“I have a marvelous local cook aboard. Last we spoke he was preparing squid in colo-colo and a beef-rib soup. I shall ask him to do his signature dessert for you. It is a sweet rice-jelly…”
Adelaide’s stomach growled so violently she could feel her fat shudder. She looked across the water at Caerus.
She saw herself, in vivid, sensuous detail, devouring every morsel of food the little ship possessed, eating for hours and hours without a moment’s pause, with barely time to breathe between huge, sloppy mouthfuls, until every last barrel and cask was empty. Licking her lips, she instinctively started forward.
“No,” she blurted, halting herself at the rail. “I…you’re very kind, sir, but I’ll remain here to help. I wouldn’t dare dine until my dear shipmates are safe and fed, too.”
The commander gave her—and the exposed lower roll of her stomach—a skeptical look, but nodded. “As you like. Lieutenant, I’m happy to send across our carpenter and his best mates. I expect together we can keep the ship afloat long enough to tow you into Batavia.”
Calder breathed out a relieved sigh. “Sir, we should be most grateful.”
“You may want to shine up your uniform, though. The admiral will want to know what you’re doing on the wrong side of the globe without your captain.”
The island was smaller than Captain Aubert had promised. It was little more than a glorified atoll, only a few miles across, much of its interior taken up by a lagoon.
But it was a pleasant refuge all the same. The narrow ring of coral and volcanic earth was covered in lush scrub and palms, edible fruits and wildlife were plentiful, and the sheltered bay at the western edge of the island formed a perfect anchorage. The lagoon had a crystalline aquamarine hue that sparkled in the daylight and seemed to glow at night.
Trimalchio’s growing hoard of captured whalers and traders could anchor safely in the bay. They had arrived just ahead of rough weather and when the anchorage proved sufficient to protect them from the subsequent storm, the expedition knew they had found their new home.
The smaller ships were emptied and pulled apart. Their guns were consolidated aboard a sloop and one of the largest whalers, creating a pair of capable consorts to hunt alongside Trimalchio. The trio could sally out in nice weather, disappear for a week or two, and return to the island with another rich new prize.
The other ships were disassembled and their timbers carried ashore to be repurposed for huts, boardwalks, and storehouses. A small wooden fort was constructed on the heights above the anchorage and armed with the artillery pieces from Trimalchio’s hold. By the end of the second month a veritable seaside village of sailcloth tents and reed huts had sprouted up, populated by sailors, marines, and the captured whalers who’d chosen to join them. A prison was built on the opposite side of the bay to contain those who hadn’t.
Adams oversaw the island’s activities, entrusting Trimalchio and the privateering to Captain Aubert. He organized gardening, fishing, and hunting parties to bolster their food supply, he set his purser up in a store to distribute tools and provisions, and he hosted weekly entertainments to dispel boredom and raise morale for those who had been left ashore.
These events began as the usual mariner’s fare: cricket matches on the beach or rafting races across the lagoon. As everyone grew more comfortable, though, the events developed into elaborate festivals with dances and contests and feasts, feasts that lasted longer and longer into the night.
The feasts naturally became the most popular part of the week. On most other days no one (save her royal highness) was served anything but the standard ship’s rations at mealtime. But on those blessed feast days the long party-tables could feature parrotfish, breadfruit, all manner of shellfish, and steamed puddings. It was the feasts that usually persuaded any reluctant prisoners to defect and join the crew. Few could blame them.
Beloved as the meals were, though, no one relished them more than Mrs. Adams, who as the captain’s esteemed wife and self-appointed queen was of course afforded every privilege and courtesy she could think to demand.
She expected to be served first and to never wait for replenished plates. The dishes she liked became regular fare and those that sat poorly with her were excised from the menu. Allen’s portraits of her began to appear in public buildings. He depicted her in crowns and regalia, surrounded by knights and attendants, holding court in a gilded throneroom. Every portrait showed her just a little wider.
Zephyra followed her everywhere, keeping her golden hair perfectly in order and her stomach constantly satisfied. The maid seemed to shrink as Mrs. Adams grew, her smock hanging loose below her bosom and her face losing some of its roundness. As one of the few women on the island Zephyra remained infinitely popular, but Queen Georgia kept her too busy and exhausted for much fraternization.
After feasts, though, while the queen slept off her indulgence, Zephyra could sneak away for a few hours. Sometimes she visited Captain Muir in his prison with updates, sometimes she found a handsome sailor to let off steam, and sometimes she simply lay on the beach under the brilliant expanse of stars. It could be her lone moment of peace, at least until one of the crabs scuttled by.
The crabs were the island’s only real nuisance. They were enormous, but although they could be eaten they often made people ill and were generally regarded with suspicion. They were as dexterous as they were clever and would without hesitation carry off any unattended item their pincers could grab. And they were everywhere.
“Drop it!” wailed Mrs. Adams, the next morning. She had twisted around in her chair, trying to reach around her overstuffed belly. One of the infernal crabs taunted her from the corner of her hut, waving a wedge of cheese. “Thief! Devil take you. Zephyra! Zephyra, go after the damned creature!”
Zephyra sighed. “We have more cheese, Georgia. A lot more.”
“But that’s the cheshire they took off the little whaler last week. It’s meant for me, not some pilfering crustacean!”
The crab snapped its free claw. Zephyra lunged. After a lengthy and violent match the crab, unharmed, scuttled from the hut and the maid, her dress in tatters, set the cheese back on the table with a defiant thud.
Mrs. Adams looked at the wedge and belched. “I’m full.”
Zephyra clenched her fist, but the reeds parted and Captain Adams ducked into the hut. “Sweetheart,” he announced, “we have just finished unloading our most recent capture. You will not believe what we…yes, come in.”
Two American seamen shuffled in, looking nervous.
“Oh,” choked the taller one, tearing his eyes away from Zephyra’s panting cleavage, “we just wanted to ask, sir, since the men have been a-discussing of it…”
“Flags,” blurted the shorter one, tearing his eyes away from Mrs. Adam’s bulging midsection.
Captain Adams eyed them. “Flags?”
“Er, yessir. It’s…we’ve finished the fort, you know, up on the harbor, and it occurred to us that there’s no flag a-flying over it.”
“Ain’t natural,” observed the other, “fort with no flag.”
“We hoped we could have permission to knock up a pole, you know, and get the stars and stripes up there. Just like home.”
“Or one of the banners.” The taller seaman unrolled a white sheet on which they’d painted, in sloppy lettering, ‘FREE TRADE AND SAILERS RITES.’
“It’s the American thing to do.”
Captain Adams adjusted his belt. “Well, now, that’s…to be honest, boys, we aren’t exactly under U.S. Navy orders anymore. We’ve gone a little above and beyond.”
“Now don’t worry, we can still fly a flag.” He grinned. “But it’ll be a black flag.”
“That’s right,” his wife suddenly crowed, standing unsteadily and jostling the table. Zephyra dove to preserve the glassware. Mrs. Adams pulled her blouse down over her sagging, grease-splotched belly and beamed at the sailors. “To hell with the States, to hell with Britain and France. We’re our own sovereigns.” She tottered and belched. “I am Georgia, the Pirate Queen of Île Chanceuse! Let the oceans tremble before me!”
The crabs did not tremble, but the sailors shuddered a little before backing out of the room.
The Dutch had surrendered their last stronghold in the East Indies to a British expeditionary force two years earlier, all but ending the war in those waters. A British governor had taken up residence on Java and the Royal Navy managed affairs from the famed harbor at Batavia.
The spice-merchants weren’t picky about which flag the port-admiral flew as long as he kept their routes free of pirates and privateers. The port was as busy as ever, teeming with tradeships from every part of the world. Their crews wandered the streets, bought strange animals and keepsakes for home, and spent as many evenings as they could in the taverns.
The Gebroken Riem opened its doors relatively early in the day, welcoming officers and respectable clientele for lunch before the debauched foremast men awoke. It provided the gentlemen with a limited opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal served by beautiful servers, but they knew to leave before the more boisterous evening crowd could arrive and sully their upstanding reputations.
“Not that I had much of a reputation, mind you,” sighed Lieutenant Calder. “But now I am known only for a foolhardy wild-goose-chase across the Pacific. I doubt I’ll ever get a ship again.”
“You weren’t dismissed the service, though,” said one of his tablemates.
The other nodded. “That must mean there’s some hope. Or you could always quit the navy and try your luck with the Company, like us.”
“I wager it’s more that he doesn’t want a record of my idiocy in the Gazette.” Calder poked at his stew. “Likely easier to reassign the crew and simply consign me to the beach. By thunder, fellows, you should have heard the admiral. But maybe you did…he was marvelous loud. ‘You let some bloody colonials make off with your commanding officer, man?’ ‘You endanger a King’s ship, man, in some reckless, unauthorized, and unsuccessful adventure half the world away from your appointed station?’ ‘You keep aboard some wanton, grossly obese harbor-wench, fraudulently entering her onto the ship’s books, man, feeding her provisions purchased by His Majesty’s own coin…’ The old chap was very insistent about the provisions…”
One of his tablemates gestured across the room. “Harkee, gentlemen, now here’s someone who’s probably insistent about her provisions, ha ha.”
A jiggling, thirty-stone barmaid emerged from the kitchens with a tray, flushed pink and breathing loudly. Her progress through the tavern was slow and hesitant, for she was often too round for the spaces between tables. Her hips brushed constantly against chairs and, as they watched, her backside knocked off a man’s hat. She was too wide to avoid, but not tall enough to alert the crowds to her approach. The tray and its contents only survived because she had braced it securely between her gut and her bosom.
“I say, Colonel, she has something familiar about her.”
“Why, Captain, I believe you’re right. That sharp little nose I could swear I have seen before, though without such round, wobbling cheeks beside it…”
Calder waved and beckoned her over as politely as he could. Adelaide nodded and once she’d delivered her tray she began squeezing and wriggling her way back through the crowd.
“Lieutenant,” she huffed, wiping the sweat from her brow and loosening the collar around her second chin.
“Madame,” he ventured. “I hope you’re well this morning?”
She tried to steady her breathing. The other men at the table were studying her intently; she stared back, trying to place them. “Can I get you something? We’re really very busy today.”
Calder offered her a chair. “Only a moment. I’d like to introduce a pair of most interesting fellows who have just come out to seek their fortunes with the Company. A former soldier and a former naval officer…something I will be shortly myself, I’m afraid. Anyway, um, Captain Brise, Colonel Rafaga, allow me to introduce my good friend Adelaide…”
Their eyes widened. Adelaide stiffened and patted the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Lieutenant Calder, I…have to get back to work. Some of us don’t have naval half-pay to live on while we wait here.” She curtsied—almost—and hurried off.
Calder leapt up to follow. Brise and Rafaga shared an awestruck stare.
“Adelaide, wait,” the lieutenant pleaded, grabbing her sleeve.
She turned. “For all love…Calder, when are we to sail again? We’ve been rotting here for months.”
“That’s why I was hoping to find you today. We…we have had news. I wanted you to hear it from me.”
She waited. He looked over his shoulder.
“The admiral’s made his decision. Tryphena isn’t worth half what it would cost to make her seaworthy again. She…what’s left of her, that is…is to be sold at auction.”
Adelaide shrank back and fidgeted with her apron. “What does that mean? What’s going to happen?”
He spread his hands. “Some merchant will buy her. Given her condition, she’ll probably be broken up for scrap or converted into a sheer-hulk. It means she’s done sailing. And it means I’m out of a commission.”
“What about the captain? Zephyra? The Americans?”
“The admiral here won’t make Trimalchio a priority. The South American station will dispatch a squadron to protect the whaling fleet. And there have been rumors…” He scratched his head. “We don’t even know if they’re still out there.”
“Adelaide, we’ll all keep trying to find better work for you. Somewhere else to stay…some protection. Boreas thinks when he gets back he can find you a berth on an Indiaman, if we can afford it.”
“What? To go where?”
He stared at the floor. “Home, Adelaide. Bonaparte is on the retreat. The war has to end at some point. You can go home to France. This can all be over.”
“Zut alors, Calder, I don’t…there’s…I can’t…”
“I’m sorry. Truly. We’ve just…” He took her shoulder, but saw her expression and retracted his hand. “We’ve run out of luck.”
Adelaide spun and stormed into the kitchen. Two of the smaller servers had to dive out of her way.
The tavern’s owner shuffled over to tell her to get back to work, but he was an empathetic man and one glimpse of her eyes changed his mind. He poured her a mug of ale and took the next tray out himself. Adelaide thanked him quietly and quaffed it all down in one long pull.
He had offered her the deal that had usually saved him so much money: a smaller salary, but free food and drink. His pocketbook sorely regretted the arrangement now, but Mr. Boreas was a family friend and the barkeep’s heart had quickly warmed to the woman. She was undoubtedly the largest and laziest barmaid on the island, but it was hard to dislike her.
His pocketbook certainly disliked her that afternoon, for she processed the disappointing news the only way she knew how. The cooks plied her with heaps of rice, milkfish, and plump vegetables in peanut sauce while the other girls plied her with ale until she seemed, if not happier, at least calmed and pleasantly distracted by indulgence.
Thus, when the officers had all finally departed and the foremast men had invaded in search of debauchery and companionship, Adelaide returned to work with a languid smile. Bloated and tipsy, she let down her hair, opened her blouse to display more of her flabby bosom, and flirted with anyone who happened to glance her way.
Many glanced—she was a sight difficult to avoid—but few engaged her. The tavern was filled with lithe, toned women barely a third Adelaide’s size, women who could sit on their clients’ laps without breaking a chair, women who could dance with them for more than a few minutes without gasping for a rest.
“But can they do this?” shouted Adelaide. She plucked a thick springroll from the plate, ate it in a single bite, and washed it down with a stolen drink.
The two soldiers at the table had to admit she was right.
“Exactement! There are so many different kinds of fun. So many different ways for people to…to be beautiful and enjoy each other.” She attempted a sultry gaze, her chin sinking into several folds.
“I absolutely concur,” declared one of the soldiers, giving the other a conspiratorial smirk.
“Would you entertain a proposition, doll?” asked the other.
“Does it involve more…urrp.” She gestured to empty plates and mugs.
“Oh, undoubtedly. We’d love for you to come continue the party over at the barracks. See, we’ve a mate what swears he’s the greatest appetite in the service and we’ve made ourselves a wager that he’s all stuff.”
She stifled a belch. “Stuff.”
He set a stack of coins on the table.
“Pourquoi pas?” she lilted. “Seems it’s either the taverns or home to the gendarmes. Bring on your camarade’s bottomless appetite.”
Their tale quickly proved a lie. The only bottomless appetite at the barracks was hers, though it was certainly rewarded. There was no wager and no challenger, only a small table of their army-issue meat and biscuit and an audience of inebriated soldiers eager for a show.
They had not heard of Lady Luck nor the Madame de Ville-Chanceuse, but they had heard of a barmaid as large as anyone they’d ever seen, with a capacity to match. They had sought her out as an exotic curiosity and gathered to witness a marvel.
Part of her was insulted, but she was by now fairly drunk and their money would be enough to pay her lodgings a little longer. Most importantly, they made sure she got enough to feel properly, exceedingly glutted to a degree she hadn’t been able to achieve since Brazil and she made sure they got their money’s worth in entertainment. She quickly took command of the situation.
Midnight found her sitting atop the table, naked, dripping with ale, loosing a wet belch that echoed through the barracks while the men fondled and squeezed and massaged her every flabby roll. Her belly swelled to her knees and as their hands covered it with attention she leaned back in decadent bliss, almost—almost—forgetting her despair.
The door behind her crashed open and the men scrambled back, stumbling and clutching at their clothes. Adelaide, suddenly unsupported, almost fell from the table.
“What fresh hell is this?” demanded a rich baritone voice. “What are you at now, you bloody swine? Who the blazes is…”
She turned around, as much as her fullness would allow. She lurched with a painful hiccup and reached for a neckerchief to cover herself.
The boisterous din of the marketplaces joined the calls of innumerable birds and insects. The waterfront was filled with inescapable but cheerful noise, a liveliness that echoed up and down the canal and out into the harbor. The sun sparkled on the Java Sea and a hundred curiously-rigged boats flitted in and out of port.
Commander Brenton paused beneath a towering palm to sip from his canteen and admire the seascape. The pristine blue of his eyes matched that of the water. He broke into a fulfilled smile, pleased with his morning’s exercise.
Adelaide caught up a minute or two later. She reached a hand to the palm’s trunk and leaned against it with a choked groan, heaving over and trying not to wheeze too audibly. No amount of serving at the tavern or working the ship’s decks could match Brenton’s idea of a ‘jolly little tour of the estuary’ and the entirety of her thirty-stone frame screamed at her.
The commander was not ignorant of her size—he certainly felt free to comment frequently on the over two hundred pounds of weight she’d gained since leaving him—but seemed unable or unwilling to grasp how it might shape her choices in recreation. Since their reunion he had been effusively generous with his money, but had also become strangely compelled, as though duty-bound, to lead her in increasingly physically demanding activities. Twice she had been obliged to explain to him why she would not join him in scaling Mount Bromo and she had only agreed to the present march because the alternative was climbing down into some horrible cave-system he’d heard about west of the city.
She eventually straightened and gave Brenton a smile. The dress he’d bought her was now soaked through with sweat, clinging to her every roll, and she tugged at it nervously.
“There she is,” he beamed, taking her pudgy hand. “A lovely smile in the middle of a peaceful garden. I believe I almost recognize the sight, from somewhere on the horizon of memory. Ha, I should say you seem almost yourself again.”
Still catching her breath, she squeezed his hand and allowed herself to blush. “Myself? Had I become someone else?”
He began to laugh, but when she only appeared confused her grimaced and cleared his throat. “Adelaide, when I found you that night in the barracks…”
“Oh, Kenneth, that’s unfair.”
“But even when I called upon you the next morning, after you had…” He waved the recollection away. “I don’t know how best to say it, but, darling, I scarcely recognized you. You really seemed another woman entirely.”
She gazed up at him. “But I’m still Adelaide…your Adelaide.”
“Of course, yes, but…” He linked her flabby arm with his. “Let us walk down to the strand and I will explain my meaning.”
“For all love, Kenneth, couldn’t we sit awhile, first? There’s a bench.”
“For a time. But let's not squander too much of this splendid, sunlit day in sitting. Now, when you and I first walked together in a garden, I recall that you wore a splendid yellow dress and that blazing spread of diamonds. You moved with such practiced grace and elegance. You were so endearingly careful to observe every rule of etiquette. We talked for hours in that garden, about so many things. I remember remarking to myself that you were the noblest woman I had ever met.”
She lowered herself onto the bench. “I remember the picnic, too.”
“I will confess that in my diary that very evening I dared use the word ‘perfect.’ The woman I found in the barracks…I could not conceive it. I am overwhelmed with pity and concern, darling. You deserve jewelry and dresses and gentility. I would have done anything, anything to maintain you in such comforts.”
Adelaide grimaced and looked down. She released his hand and they sat half an hour in silence. A wealthy, well-dressed couple meandered past, somewhat older and both quite slender. They waved to a distant acquaintance and, arm in arm, quickened their pace to meet him.
“Kenneth, I’m sorry I left like that,” Adelaide said later, on the far side of the canal.
They had walked a little further, though much more slowly, for her legs simply could not muster any more strength. They reached a livery beside one of the markets and she found a crate to sit on.
“I wanted to write. I composed so many letters and tore them up…I felt it would only make things worse. I was so afraid. Can you ever forgive me?”
He brushed a curl from her face. “I was never once angry.”
“You don’t have to say that. Of course you must have been. I was so selfish.”
“Never. I was worried. Despondent, darling. My most desperate hope was only ever to be your soldier, your protector.” He pressed a hand to his breast. “And to hear all you’ve experienced since I lost you…having to stow away like a rat, having to take up with such loathsome and ignoble characters, having to hide yourself away in such filthy, villainous hives, having to play servant to common folk…having to sell yourself, good heavens…surviving capture and battle and betrayal and the storms of the south seas…nearly sunk, poor thing…I can see the very understandable consequences of all those stresses upon you.”
She cocked an eyebrow.
“But you should have been with me, darling, safe from all that. You could have spent these years reading poetry in the garden instead of experiencing all that terror. You could still be what you were.” He gestured vaguely. “Wait. I have it—stay here a moment.”
“It wasn’t all terrible,” she murmured. He disappeared around the corner. After some minutes had passed she stood gingerly to follow.
Brenton had gone into the livery and summoned a stable-boy. Adelaide found him inspecting a pair of horses.
“Let’s ride back into town,” he exclaimed, reaching for his coinpurse. “There’s something I must show you and I am in too great a hurry now to walk.”
Adelaide and the horse traded a glance and both stared back at Brenton in disbelief. She furtively shook her head and realization slowly crept over the commander’s face.
“So, you see my meaning,” he resumed, once they’d flagged down a carriage.
She stirred. The coach’s rhythmic jostling and her body’s thorough exhaustion had lulled her into a daze. “Hm?”
“I had always hoped you would return someday to Malta, that the perfect woman I longed for would finally reappear. When they transferred me out here…a reassignment I still believe to be intended as punishment…why, I despaired of ever seeing you again.” He set his hand upon hers. “Imagine my joy at discovering you on the other side of the globe, as though we’d been drawn together by the stars…”
“Mon petit chou, always a poet,” she teased.
“But the shock of finding you so transformed by unkind fate into a desperate tavern-wench, so removed from the comforts and trappings of the life you deserve, dressed in rags and in so many ways…” He averted his gaze from her abdomen. “…changed…”
She pulled her hand away on the pretext of adjusting her snug dress.
“Let me restore you, darling. Let me make up for having failed you in your time of need.”
“Restore me? How?”
“I will buy you jewelry and dresses and treat you with gentility. I’ll see to it that you live in stately rooms again, in proper houses, houses with names. I will see to it that you need never again toil like a commoner. I will give you everything you once had.” His smile widened and she felt her heart quicken. “And you can once again be what you once were. I will use all the knowledge of training and self-discipline a lifetime in the King’s army has given me…we will restore your health and then, when you have rediscovered your captivating natural shape, I will present you anew at the great galas. All of high society will cheer the return of the Madame de Ville-Chanceuse.”
The coach pulled off the main thoroughfare with a bounce and rolled toward the garrison.
Her eyes narrowed. “Natural shape?”
He patted her thigh. “Now, I mean no offense. Consequences of your journey’s unwomanly stresses, as I mentioned. I understand completely how it can happen. But not everyone will…you know how they do talk. Imagine what they would say, were you to return to court like…well, like…”
She stared, folding her arms across her belly and waiting for him to complete his thought.
“I would never disparage,” he protested. “I know how you’ve struggled with your weight. I saw it in Valletta. Now, you know how dearly I admired your curves, perhaps even past the point of social acceptability, but this is decidedly out of hand. Darling, you’re heavier by twenty stone than when we met. You have trebled in size. You can’t deny it.”
“I do not struggle with my weight,” she replied. “I adore it.”
The coach stopped. Brenton leapt out, letting her answer hang heavy and unacknowledged in the air. He paid the driver and helped Adelaide down, then pulled her impatiently toward the officers’ quarters.
“Here we are,” he announced, throwing open the door. “I am just up the stairs here, in a lovely, private…”
She looked up at the staircase and choked out a defeated sigh. He followed her gaze, realized the narrowness of the passage and the steepness of the rise, and set a hand on her shoulder.
“Stay. I will bring it down.”
He raced up. Adelaide found a chair, tested its sturdiness, and carefully sat herself. A file of soldiers marched past the open door; two of the men recognized her and she managed a coy wink.
She had hauled one ankle across her knee for a soothing rub when Brenton finally returned.
“I must confess something,” he began, peeking outside and closing the door. “There are standing orders throughout the British Empire. The, ah, Madame de Ville-Chanceuse is to be arrested on sight.”
Adelaide stiffened. She let her foot fall back down.
“They involved me heavily in the investigation, as I could provide the most accurate description of the…well, the fugitive, as it were.” He gave her a conspiratorial smile. “So, in one way we are fortunate that you have become so difficult to recognize. It now falls to me to keep you from prison.”
“I’ve been given a second chance to protect you. You see, darling, I have kept it with me, all this time.” He opened a small jewelry-case to reveal the glittering ring within. “I was ready to ask you, the day you disappeared. I am still ready today.”
Captain Aubert dropped into the barge and nodded to his coxswain. The oarsmen grunted and pulled away from Trimalchio. No one spoke, nor even dared exchange a meaningful glance, for the captain was clearly furious.
He stood in the stern, hand on his pistol, scanning the harbor with a cold gaze. A pair of captured tradeships floated at one end of the bay. Above them loomed the fort, its guns aglow in the evening sun; a black flag fluttered lazily overhead. On the opposite end of the anchorage, the prisoners who still refused to defect sat in their barred hillside cells, watching.
The beach was unusually quiet. No one emerged to greet the captain as he stepped out of the boat. He drew his weapon and gestured for his pirates to fall in behind him.
“You men, on me,” he said quietly. “We’ll see what’s amiss. And you there, get the new prisoners to a cell.”
The men of the second boat nodded and shoved forward a half-dozen whalers they’d taken off the latest prize. One particularly large, one-eyed harpooneer spat at his captors and received a sharp jab in the ribs.
Aubert led his party up the shallows to the settlement’s makeshift palisade, kicking aside a few of the ever-present crabs. The main gate was unsecured and flapped partway open in the breeze. There was no guard in sight.
Aubert rapped on the timbers, but heard no reply. He fired his pistol into the air, sending a flock of birds up from a nearby grove.
“This is Aubert!” he roared. “I have returned with Trimalchio and new prizes. I am coming in and I will expect an explanation!”
Footsteps splashed toward them. “Safe, captain,” panted a voice. “Welcome back. All is well—”
“All is hardly well,” he retorted, storming through the gate and rounding on the shirtless seaman who had come out to greet him. “We are to be an impregnable citadel, vigilant at all times, ready to strike, yet you cannot reliably attend to the island’s singular gate. Mais enfin, what is amiss here?”
“I have been at sea nearly two months, carrying on with our endeavor and battling all manner of weather and hardship to enrich this island. I have made every merchant from Canton to Callao afraid of us. Yet as I return no one comes to greet me, the fort fails to return my salute, and…” He gaped up at the town they’d built. “…all around me is in grave disrepair. Has there been some disaster? A storm? A plague? What has become of my dream?”
The thatched huts, half ship’s timber and half palm-trunk, lined a sandy thoroughfare that curved along the northeast arc of the atoll. Many buildings sat damaged or unfinished. Several had carved out garden plots, but the soil sat untilled and nothing grew within but the island’s ubiquitous scrub. A few of the men sat out front, looking wan and sullen.
Aubert prodded one with his foot. “Well, man, are you ill?
The man groaned. “Only resting, sir. I confess it’s to be my watch, but I am so weak. I’ll be stronger after dinner, I promise.”
“This is unacceptable. Come with us to the mess hall, then. You must have something. We cannot have our guards fainting from hunger when they should be on duty.”
“No, oh no, sir. I wouldn’t dare. We mustn’t eat without her blessing. I won’t be called a thief, sir, I won’t. I’ve seen the reprisals.”
Aubert stiffened. He turned back to the man who’d met him at the gate. “What has happened, that rations are withheld? You cannot be lacking for provisions. We found resources here in abundance and I’ve sent you prize after prize full of food!”
“The officers tell us that we must be very cautious…that we behaved too selfishly at our weekly festivals. They have closed the storehouses to us.”
“How can things be so dire? I captured a Chinese trader not two weeks ago, loaded down with grain and produce.” His eyes widened. “I didn’t see it in the anchorage. Has it not arrived? Was the prize-crew lost? Retaken?”
“They made it, sir, last Friday. Officers unloaded the foodstuffs to their private pantry. Said we’d been too lazy for handouts…couldn’t be trusted to apportion it wisely. It was for our own good.” He nodded the lagoon. “We broke up the ship for the Admiral’s new house.”
Aubert eyed him and turned back to the weakened guard. “I commend you men on your discipline. It is not unusual for lesser souls, without an officer’s enlightened perspective, to attempt mutinous designs in the face of such challenges. Loyalty rises above all.”
“And if we work hard enough,” coughed the guard, “there’s a chance she’ll make us part of the royal entourage…earn some of the officers’ privileges.”
“I will see to it you’re provisioned. And you will attend to my island’s defenses.” Aubert stepped back, took a long, angry breath, and pulled on his hat. “Where is Captain Adams?”
The other man scratched his head. “Couldn’t say, sir. But I did see her majesty’s litter being carried toward the palace.”
On the eastern point of the island, a compound of much larger huts and houses had been constructed that took up nearly as much space as the fledgling village. It overlooked its own private stretch of beach on one side. On the other, its largest hall had been built atop repurposed longboats and floated out over the lagoon, accessible only by a suspended rope-bridge. A flag fluttered from the roof on a pole just taller than that above the fort.
Ostensibly the compound’s grounds could only be reached by boat, with more palisades lining the shore. But the water beyond them remained absurdly shallow and Aubert simply stepped around.
Within the compound he found a pair of long storehouses, unlocked and packed with their naval provisions, the foodstuffs stolen from prizes, and all the meats and produce gathered from the island itself. He glared through a few windows and saw large, comfortable bedrooms fashioned from purloined trade-goods: Aubert recognized the ornately carved bookshelf from a whale-ship he’d captured three months before. Some of the officers he’d left behind lounged in the beds or makeshift divans, looking slovenly and rather doughier than he remembered. One dozed with a half-finished plate of roast boar perched atop his stomach.
There was a long dining-table at the center of the compound under an awning of palm fronds, littered with stolen chinaware. A woman sat unconscious in her chair, head on the table beside two empty bowls. Aubert recognized her as the wife of a whaler who’d defected, but he did not recognize the distended belly protruding above her grass skirt.
The sound of singing drifted out of the floating house. Aubert straightened his jacket and marched over. The bridge creaked under his boots.
“Messieurs,” he growled, kicking open the door, “you will explain this lunacy at once.”
Captain Adams jerked awake. He lay swaying gently in a hammock, wearing only snug breeches and his uniform jacket. A round, hairy paunch jutted out from the open jacket and it creased as he struggled to sit up. “Whass…”
Hermes Allen looked up from his easel. He, at least, wore a voluminous silk robe that covered his bulk. His canvas showed a highly detailed painting of a woman’s lips, glistening, with some exotic sauce dribbling from one corner.
“It’s Aubert!” realized the painter. “Welcome back, friend.”
“Happy hunting, I hope?” asked Adams, scratching his stubble.
The Frenchman glared. “Captain Adams, I—”
“Admiral. Admiral Adams, now, given how well we have done for ourselves. Admiral.”
“Adams, what is all this?” He waved around the room. Stolen artwork covered the walls, dozens of bottles hung from the ceiling on twine, and a clutter of dishes, fruit rinds, and fishbones covered the floor.
“Why, Aubert, it’s our dream. Don’t you remember? It’s what we came out here for. We’re finally masters of our own domain, just like you wanted. And I’m using that opportunity to give myself and Mrs. Adams the life she deserves. She’s earned it.”
“Earned it?” Aubert scoffed. “Has she done something besides lie about in a stupor, doing nothing but eat, sleep, bathe—”
“No, and it’s perfect!” sang a voice.
Aubert turned, filling with dread.
A palm curtain at the back parted and four powerful, shirtless seamen carried a broad litter into the room. Mrs. Adams lounged atop it, sipping something pungent from a coconut. She wore only leaves and jewelry and the entirety of her girth was on proud display. Her oiled stomach gleamed in the torchlight and seemed to slosh to and fro with the sailors’ every step. She rocked back and shuddered with glee, setting her gold jingling and her gemstones clinking.
“It’s everything I…I never even knew I wanted.” The queen patted one of the seamen on his head and the litter came to a halt. “All those years I…I starved myself for those cruel women back home, when I could have…when I could have been…when I could have been feeling like this!”
She drained her drink. She rested her head back, let the coconut fall to the floor, and sank her hands into the plush folds of her belly. Full though it was, it had little roundness to it, instead only sagging further and further out through its lower rolls as she grew. Her enormous backside propped her up as high as any of the stolen pillows behind her; its cheeks and her blubbery, uneven thighs bulged over the edges of her platform.
Mrs. Adams had, since coming to the island, swelled to eclipse even Mr. Allen’s frame. She had achieved this in so relatively short a time not only by regularly devouring everything in sight until she grew ill, but also by moving as little as she could possibly contrive.
She was nowhere near too heavy to walk under her own power, but refused to travel more than even a few steps without being carried. Plates had to be delivered within easy reach and by the end of larger meals she expected to be hand-fed. Her servants fanned her, dressed her, bathed her, pleasured her, and entertained her.
All luxury goods made their way to her; all the silks, all the precious metals and stones, all the furniture, all the art. All the private stores were hers to enjoy, all the new dishes hers to experience in abundance: braised sea-cucumber, grilled eel, baked ray, shrimp fritters, sauteed sea-snails. Captured ships’ masters were forced to watch while she gorged herself on their pork and drank down all their wine.
The queen was always stuffed, rarely sober, and endlessly demanding. Few on the island had escaped her impatient temper.
She belched and clapped. “But you’re back, captain! Welcome. We missed you. Did you bring any…more presents? Oh, I finished all the pineapples you brought last time and would so love more…Zephyra? Zephyra, get the captain something to drink.”
The harried maid appeared from behind her litter, wearing only a few strips of cloth. She had lost another stone of weight, if not more, and her face was pure exhaustion. “What would you like, sir?”
He waved her away. “Not now. Gentlemen—”
“I’ll have more, though,” Mrs. Adams declared. “Zephyra, my coconut is empty. Urrp.”
“You…have had quite enough, madame.”
She rolled over to face Aubert. The men carrying her winced and stumbled at the sudden shift. “I will have more,” she assured him. She jabbed a finger at him, missed, and tried again. “I will always have more. I am going to…to keep having more…and more and more. Next year it’ll take six of these men to car—hurrp—carry me around. And I’ll still want more. I’ll want every…everything I want. I am…I am your queen!”
Aubert watched her loll back to her more comfortably reclined position. He gave each of the men carrying her a long glare until each met his gaze. “Put her down.”
She blew a raspberry and tossed a loose bundle of leaves at him. But the litter descended. The men set her on the debris-strewn floor and backed away.
“What? No. I…you can’t. Guards…oof…guards, come back here and—”
“Be silent,” spat Aubert. He turned to Captain Adams. “I have wreaked havoc across this ocean. Traders are afraid to cross the Pacific. There is panic in the markets. Have you done anything in my absence to further our endeavors and frustrate our enemies? Have you done anything save debase yourself? Why are our other ships idle in the harbor when they should be helping me hunt?”
The captain shrugged. “You’re such a capable corsair on your own. I…we…”
“Adams, I fear a Spanish galleon full of gold could float within a cable’s length and you would lack the wits to go aboard.”
Mrs. Adams giggled. “Like when that little boat went by last week. Urrp.”
Aubert bristled. Captain Adams paled. “She doesn’t know what she’s…she’s…”
“Adams, tell me you did not allow a ship to sight this island and go free.”
He sputtered. “The Mrs. and I…we were…it was…I was so comfortable and everyone was so tired from the party…”
Aubert drew his cutlass. He hacked at the rope holding Adams’ hammock and with one clean stroke sent the captain crashing to the floor. Mrs. Adams wobbled with laughter.
Allen stepped out from behind his easel. “Aubert, please. You’re right to be upset. But my dear fellow, we’ve found some happiness here. You can’t begrudge us that. Please don’t take it all away.”
“Keep it all,” Aubert sighed. “You may keep your dinners. You may keep your luxuries. You may keep all your intemperate, insobrietous, indefensible gule.” He sheathed his sword and glanced out at the lagoon. “But I am taking command.”
Adelaide gazed down at the harbor. Through the dusty tavern window she could see a crowd gathering at the dockyard: a mix of navy men, shipwrights, and merchants.
The tavern was nearly empty so early in the day. Mr. Boreas had come up, looking destitute and hopeless, his appeals to the Company having fallen flat. Adelaide had motioned for him to sit and wait and shushed him any time he tried to speak. The other servers watched quietly from the kitchen as she fidgeted with a small bag and grimaced out the window. She’d fortified herself with two bowls of stir-fry, but her fat cheeks dimpled with anxiety and her lips occasionally quivered.
The doors swung open and Commander Brenton marched in. He was in full dress uniform, as dashing and handsome and perfect as ever he’d looked, dazzling beyond what all the British Army’s propaganda could ever have hoped to sell. He smiled politely at the barman, puffed out his muscular chest, and crossed the room to Adelaide.
“Darling,” he intoned in his buttery voice.
Adelaide shuddered. She turned to peer up at him.
He took her hand. “I have come for an answer. I wish, madame, to take you from here…to take you out of poverty, to raise you to riches, to free you from your fugitive state, to make you a lady of standing, to end your tribulations. I wish to bring you away, to establish you in a proper house, to come home to you and our beautiful—”
He drew closer to her and produced the glimmering ring. “Darling, let me be your anchor against the unpredictable seas.”
One of the other barmaids sniffled and wiped her eyes. Another offered a handkerchief.
Adelaide took a long breath. She shook her head. Brenton paled.
“Kenneth, I don’t need an anchor. I need a ship.”
“No. Not ‘madame.’ It was an act, Kenneth, a lie, a performance. You may think you loved the Madame de Ville-Chanceuse, but she has never existed.” Adelaide released his hand. “You cannot reconcile who I tried to be then with who you see now, but I am both. And I will be more.”
Brenton blinked and furrowed his brow. He reached for her again, but she stepped back and swallowed.
“But, Adelaide, I do love you.”
“I know. You may arrest me if you must. I wish you well, commander, and I will always love you. But I will not be your wife.”
She turned away. “You have made me feel small.”
Adelaide untied her apron, breathing shakily. She nodded to Boreas and plucked her bag from the table. He shot up from his seat and hurried over, his bewildered eyes darting from her to the paralyzed commander.
She opened the door, set her eyes on the dockyard, and pulled her diamonds from the bag.
Zephyra’s stomach tightened and whined. She shushed it.
Mrs. Adams’ stomach bubbled and burgled. She moaned softly, struggling to take a full breath. Mango juice trickled from her pouting lips. Her eyes were squeezed shut. A low rumbled resounded from within her midsection and she weakly pointed to a spot above her navel.
Rolling over in the bed, Zephyra massaged her way up the sloping stomach to the indicated spot. She plunged her hands into the queen’s supple flesh and found the remarkable but now very familiar fullness within, like a boulder beneath a pillow.
She pressed upward and the flesh rose in her hands like dough. It flowed out over the queen’s lap as she pushed it back down and rippled as Zephyra released it, waiting to be seized and kneaded again and again. Sauce-stains stretched into vast splotches and crumbs tumbled out of her folds.
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Adams whispered, relaxing back against her mountain of pillows. “Oh, Zephyra.”
“Shh, your majesty, just lie still.”
“It’s ‘highness.’ Queens are…” She winced as her belly churned. Zephyra could feel the rumble in her hands. “But yes. I’ll never…move again. Just keep…doing that…oh.”
“I will, your majesty.” Zephyra glanced around with an impatient grimace. Through the hut’s thatched door she could see starlight reflected on the lagoon. It had to be long after midnight. Behind her on the bed, Captain Adams snored gently.
“You’re so…devious,” Mrs. Adams slurred, “so thoughtful. This idea to…have dessert here…while Aubert’s on his boat…hee hee. You know how…how I’d enjoy…enjoy…” Her abdomen bounced. “He’ll be so mad…when he finds us here. Hee. You know me…so well…you sneaky…beautiful…oh, right there…just like…that…”
She fell silent. After another minute her shallow breaths grew more regular.
Zephyra waited and watched. The queen had been woken by her own belches before. She prodded Mrs. Adams’ rolls where she knew her to be most sensitive, but received no response. A seabird called outside.
It had taken a whole plate of seared mahi-mahi, a bucket of clam fritters, a bowl of stewed octopus, nearly three bottles of wine, a pile of coconut croquettes, and over an hour of attentive belly-rubs, but the queen had finally sunk into a deep slumber. Zephyra sat up.
Captain Adams stirred at the sudden motion. She petted his head until he’d resumed snoring, waited another minute, and slipped cautiously out of the overtaxed bed. Its frame bowed visibly beneath the couple’s combined weight.
She pulled on what remained of her clothes and fumbled through the room. There was the drawer, right where the guard had promised, and inside—thank heaven—were the spare keys. Zephyra tucked them into her cleavage, peeked out the door, and headed into the night.
“I’ll be right back,” she explained to the sentries. “Just need to get her highness some more fruit.” Their eyes widened with disbelief (they were new to the officers’ post) but waved her past. The men who carried Mrs. Adams’ litter, resting at a nearby table, only shook their weary heads.
Zephyra rounded the storehouse, though, and ducked into the brush to continue toward the edge of the compound. She tiptoed through the scrub, picked her way around the last of the huts, and paused to glance through the window.
Mr. Allen stood with his back to her, pondering his easel. On it he’d painted half a portrait of Adelaide, reclining on a litter of her own, grown truly too large to walk.
A crab scuttled by. Zephyra nudged it aside, bent low, and continued on. She rounded the palisades and cut across the island’s uninhabited southern strand. Two guardboats patrolled the lagoon and lights flickered in the distant fort. Vigilance had increased dramatically since Aubert’s return: everyone was armed and everyone was on edge.
Another sentry paced the heights around the prison. He passed the cells of captured officers and malcontents and strolled beyond the smallest and most cramped cell at the end of the row to a palm-grove, where he paused at the call of a bird.
He watched Zephyra emerge from the foliage and unslung his musket. “I was starting to worry you wouldn’t come.”
She pulled him close, tilted her head up, and kissed him. Before his hands could quest too far, though, she plucked the keyring from her bosom and hurled it aside.
The guard seemed to take the sudden, awkward movement as a passionate spasm and pressed her against his chest. She whispered into his ear; he failed to hear the keys land behind him, he failed to hear them rattling in the lock, he failed to hear a cell door creak open, and he failed to hear Captain Muir’s footsteps.
He jerked aside and slumped to the ground. Muir shook out his hand. Zephyra wiped her mouth and pushed her hair from her face.
“Are you alright?” whispered the captain.
She straightened her meager clothing. “I’m fine. A little lightheaded, but fine. I was planning to grab a biscuit or something once Georgia passed out, but she…” Zephyra blew out a long breath and massaged her shrunken midsection. “Bless me, Benedict, if we get off this island I will never turn down a meal again, not for as long as I live.”
He pulled on his threadbare jacket. “Though if we do not make it off the island now, I doubt we’ll live very long at all. Where’s Captain Aubert?”
“He should be in the anchorage, getting Trimalchio and Giton ready for sea.” Zephyra smirked. “The crews got a late start on loading after, uh, the party I talked the officers into throwing the other day, so he’s working them through the night as punishment. Gave me the chance to grab those before he sails off with them again.” She nodded to the keys.
“It’s as good a chance as we’re like to get. Capital work.” He woke the whalers imprisoned in the next cell and turned over the lock. “If you’re in, lads, we’re making a go of it.”
As soon as the latch had clicked, the barred door flew open and a gigantic, one-eyed harpooneer stormed out. He snorted and cracked his knuckles. “Get me a fucking weapon.”
There were only about a dozen prisoners left, mostly hostage officers or those who’d been too stubborn or too slow to the get into the boats when Trimalchio boarded. The others had all eventually joined up, however reluctantly, with the pirates.
Zephyra guided the ragged pack down from the hill and through an overgrown path. They armed themselves with the sentry’s musket and any sticks and stones they could find.
“Aubert’s got the shore-parties loading provisions in the anchorage,” she explained, “but there are guards posted everywhere else, ready to raise the alarm. They’ve had to be extra alert…he’s worried about disciplinary issues.”
“And the other officers?” whispered Muir.
“A few are with him at the ships, but most are back at the compound, off-duty and out cold. And Captain Adams and his wife are, uh…they won’t be an issue.”
The one-eyed whaler whistled. “You took them all down? How?”
She paused at the edge of a clearing. “Let’s talk about something else. I’m already hungry enough without having to think about their dinner.”
“Do we have a plan?” asked a merchant.
“Our best hope,” suggested Muir, crouching behind them, “will be to commandeer one of the prizes. If we can escape the anchorage, we should be able to make for Port Jackson.”
“If we can escape. And she just said the anchorage is currently crawling with pirates.”
“And no ship’s getting out of here with that fort watching. That battery could sink a whaling-ship in minutes.” He nodded to himself and scratched his stubble. “We’ll start there.”
Zephyra turned. “The fort?”
“If we can keep the edge of surprise…yes. We get into the fort, spike the guns, and blow the magazine. Should throw things into chaos and we slip out in the confusion.” He stared up at the battery. “If we’re lucky.”
A guard strolled past. The harpooneer tackled and subdued him and they pulled him into the brush. Taking his weapons, the prisoners dashed across the clearing and split to hide behind several trees near the town’s palisade.
Shouts echoed up from the bay, but they were only the usual impatient commands and curses involved in loading a ship. The pirates’ village was generally quiet, but the aromas of dinner and grog drifted out and Zephyra all but doubled over from hunger.
They made for the smaller gate, overwhelming the two guards there. The guards’ muskets, swords, knives, and, for some reason, one of their hats were taken and the prisoners crept into the town.
The thoroughfare was empty and most of the houses sat dark. Zephyra started for the mess-tent, almost unconsciously, but the others pulled her onward.
A wandering sentry saw them and froze. He fumbled with his musket for a moment and reached for his whistle, but managed only a shrill cough before the harpooneer had him on the ground.
Someone stirred in the nearest hut. “That you, Smith? You alright?”
The whaler pressed a knife to the guard’s throat. “All fine,” choked the guard, gaping up at the whaler’s crazed eye. “Just, ah, stepping over to sneak a bite form the mess.”
“Right. Well, careful with those bites, Smith, or you’ll end up as big as that Mrs. Adams, ha ha, and I ain’t carrying you around.”
The prisoners eventually picked their way to the far end of the village, dispatching the sentries at the next gate. They cracked open the door and filed out onto a winding path. Looking up, they could see the lights of the fort atop its hill. Muir gripped his stolen cutlass, glanced back at the others, and started up the path.
He froze as a handful of pirates stumbled out of the brush. “But sir,” cried one, “we’ve been a-loading crates all night.”
“We just want five minutes for a biscuit,” wailed another, “to keep up our strength, sir.”
Captain Aubert strode out after them, flanked by a dozen marines. “We will rest when the work is completed, you fat, lazy…”
He shoved the simpering seaman aside and glared at the escaped prisoners. The marines raised their muskets. The whalers nervously brandished their various stolen weapons.
“Go and raise the alarm,” said the Frenchman, motioning to one of the pirates. “Captain Muir, I would be a hypocrite to begrudge you an escape attempt, but I would certainly prefer that you stay where you are put, for once.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Stand down and let these men take you back to your cells, or carry on and I will let these men shoot you down.”
Muir glanced back at the others. No one moved, keeping their weapons trained on the pirates. “I think we’ll try our luck.”
Aubert nodded and gestured to his marines. “C’est dommage. Take aim—”
Zephyra tensed. The marines cocked their muskets.
A flash lit the anchorage. A thunderous boom followed and something crashed into the rocks nearby. The pirates fell back and gaped about in shock; the harpooneer tackled the nearest marine and the prisoners scattered into the scrub.
More lights erupted from the sea, one after the other. Orange tongues of flame leapt from the shadow of a distant ship, briefly illuminating a weathered hull, masts, and sails. Iron shot smashed into the wood and stones of the fort as the bewildered pirates dove for cover.