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On the Possibilities of Sail

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"It is not, you perceive, that the moon as seen here in the tropics is measurably larger than the moon one sees in more northerly lands," Stephen says. "They are one and the same. It is merely that our perception of it is altered."

The night is clear, the sea calm. The moon lies just over the horizon, a great silver disc.

"A question of perception, perhaps, as if one saw through a great microscope. One cannot but wonder that the illusion is something to do with the interaction of water and air in such a climate." He is musing, but his fingers twitch for a pencil and notebook.

"So, would you say...a sea change?" Jack says. His voice has a note of suppressed mirth.

"Jack," Stephen warns.

"The concept appears entirely reasonable," Jack says. "Another glass?"

They have taken the port out onto the quarterdeck, and a blanket. Surprise, gently heeling to the breeze, slides through the waves. To Stephen, accustomed to the splutter and heave of the harnessed frigate, the ease of their passage is remarkable.

"Thank you, I believe I shall," he says.

There is a faint, warning splash, and Terror's vast head rises above the deck. Moonlight gleams green from his wet scales and the elegant flumes of his fins, gold from his clear, bright eyes. It positively glints from his teeth.

Jack whistles. The serpent swivels his head, his neck arching, and Jack reaches into the bucket by his knee and throws over a single sprat. Terror snaps it out of the air.

"Well, in truth, you are more familiar with the idea than I," Stephen says. "Radically so, in point of fact."

"What?"

"A positively revolutionary change," Stephen adds, and feels the blanket shift under his breeches as Jack sits up.

"Stephen, you wound me with the implication! Nothing could be further from the truth! Another minute, and you will be suggesting that the ship be ruled by committee and every man should have the vote!"

On the other side of the wheelhouse, Lieutenant Pullings, a Tory, scuffles his feet.

Stephen frowns over his port and defies the lieutenant's displeasure. "And every woman, Jack."

"A recipe for - my lady! Sprat?"

Hesitant, rather further from the rail than their own Terror, the Spanish serpent too has raised her head. Stephen, peering, notes with some relief that her carefully roped dressing is still in place.

"It is important, I gather, in the treatment of serpents, that both should be treated with equality," Stephen notes.

Jack looks at the sprat in his hand, shrugs, and casts it over the rail. The Spanish serpent rears back: the sprat bounces from her snout. She dives.

"We shall have her eating from the hand soon enough," Jack declares, just as the serpent raises her head again. "Hah!" he cries, and throws. The serpent opens her mouth, the fish falls inside, and if ever a serpent could look astonished, her visage expresses the emotion. Jack crows with triumph. "See! Shortly we shall have her as loyal a servant of the King as our own dear Terror."

"I feel our own serpent's affection directed more at our ship and her captain than our monarch," Stephen says.

"Well," Jack says, coughs, and is silent.

Stephen raises an eyebrow. He should not be so cruel, he knows it, to tease Jack about his loyalties, for there is a straightforward and appealing honesty to such honest enthusiasm he cannot himself encompass. The Surprise, the Navy, the King - to ask Jack himself to consider in what order to rank them is a step he will not take. Instead, in silent apology, he reaches for the bottle and pours another glass for both of them.

Jack stays his hand. He extracts the bottle, and sets it safely on the other side of the blanket. Without haste, dear, sentimental man that he is, he raises Stephen's fingers and presses them to his lips. It is the mention of affection, Stephen thinks, warmed beyond sensible thought, that - he is smiling, the most foolish of smiles, he ducks his head. Lieutenant Pullings takes a turn on the far side of the deck, and Jack squeezes his fingers and lets go.

"In truth," Stephen says, his voice caught half a tone below his usual register and husky, besides. "In truth, I believe you have already performed miracles."

Jack's answering smile is so very fond, Stephen must stare out to sea for the span of at least a quarter turn of the glass, and only belated realises that the great streaks of light he sees are the serpents' wakes, outlined in moonlight. Their tails, cresting the waves, show entwined.

"I believe the Navy may have have further interest in the application of sail," Jack says.

"And the advantages of an unchained serpent," Stephen cannot but add.

Jack sighs, shifting. His shoulder, moving away from Stephen's own, leaves an unexpected chill in its absence. "Stephen. Please tell me you shall not make this one of your political metaphors."

"Oh, do not bridle at me so, Jack," Stephen says, rephrasing as he does so the second paper is currently composing. "You know very well that one ship alone will not change the world!"

" 'Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains'," Jack said, making himself comfortable. He leans in, a little harder. His eyes would appear shut, but for the glitter under his eyelashes. "This is the way of the world."

In disbelief, Stephen is driven to expostulation. "You quote Rousseau at me."

"Well, you must admit, my dear doctor," Jack says, "In your company, I have attained a little enlightenment."