Pirates find the good ship Cascafionn and batter it dead in the water with their guns. The captain and crew are unhurt. They stand in terror as the pirate captain comes on board. He’s swaggering. Just a little bit, but you can tell.
“Your tiger,” he says.
“We have pearls.”
Pirate Captain Steven shakes his head. He smiles at the crew.
“I’m very particular,” he says. “You can keep your pearls. You can keep your gold. You can keep your maidens fair.”
The crew shivers like rabbits at his smile.
“You have a tiger on board,” says Pirate Captain Steven. “I want it. ”
The captain of the Cascafionn is named Benjamin Iris Gould. Reluctantly, he makes a gesture. The crew drags out a diamond from the hold. They dump it on the deck. It’s eight feet tall if it’s an inch. It’s carved to a tiger’s shape.
“It’s not real,” Pirate Captain Steven says. “I want the real one.”
Captain Benjamin hesitates. He turns to his first mate. “Do we have a real tiger?”
“Cookie might have one,” the first mate says. “He likes to think of himself as a gourmet.”
They both look at Cookie. He looks down at the deck. He scuffs it with a toe. It doesn’t scuff. That’s how insubstantial the shame of one man is, compared to the vastness of the sea.
“I’ll get it,” Cookie says, finally. He goes below. He drags up a tiger’s carcass.
“It’s not alive,” Pirate Captain Steven says. “I want the living one.”
Now Captain Benjamin looks stumped. “I don’t think I have a living tiger on board. You’re sure you’re not thinking of the diamond?”
“Wealth is nothing if you can’t wear it ostentatiously and impress the peons,” Pirate Captain Steven says. He fingers his gold earrings significantly. He jingles the gold bracelets around his ankles. He taps meaningfully upon his Mickey Mouse watch.
“Well,” says Captain Benjamin, “I don’t have a tiger.”
Pirate Captain Steven turns. He unlashes a rope that’s connecting the two ships. It’s clear he means to swing back onto his own. “Then I’ll sink you all, and to Davey’s Locker with you.”
Captain Benjamin looks down. “I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you, Mr. Pirate.”
Pirate Captain Steven smirks. Then he prepares to swing.
“Wait!” says the cabin boy.
Pirate Captain Steven glances back. He raises an eyebrow. His hat shifts. It’s not that his eyebrow moved very far. It’s just that the pirate hat wasn’t very steady. The hat almost falls off. Pirate Captain Steven grabs for it. His hands let go of the rope. The rope swings back to his ship on its own. Pirate Captain Steven pouts. “Make it good,” he says.
“I’m a tiger,” says the cabin boy.
“I thought you were my bonnie lass!” says Captain Benjamin.
“I thought he was a cabin boy!” says the first mate.
But Pirate Captain Steven only peers at her slowly. “Well,” he says, “tell me about it.”
“I was on a ship,” she says. “It went to the westernmost edge of the world. And it did not stop. The wind was hard in our sails. We ran before it like a great beast on the sea. And we felt ourselves changing, every man and girl of us. There was the smell of the hunt in the air. There was the bunching of lean muscle under our coats. And then there were only tigers, scattering, running on the waves. And it was beautiful; and I could have run forever; but I missed the mortal sea.”
“There are five of you,” says Pirate Captain Steven. “Tiger from the west, elephant from the north, snake in the east, and twin horses in the south.”
“I’ll take you to the center of the world. The five of you will be my crew. When a pirate captain brings the snake, the horses, the tiger, and the elephant to the center of the world, the sea becomes a tunnel. We’ll sail down and we’ll sail deep and we’ll find our heart’s desire.”
“How do you know?” asks the cabin boy.
“I’ve done it before,” he answers.
“Then what was your heart’s desire?” she asks.
“I wanted to do it all again,” he says, “without killing people on the way.”