Disclaimer: The original journals belong to Madam Anna Leonowens, written in the 19th century. This is adapted heavily from Anna and the King, released in 1999 and starring Chow Yun Fat and Jody Foster. All rights are the property of others.
Author's Note: Although the category is under "The King and I", this is not based on the musical production. Much of the dialogue is directly lifted from the film mentioned above. Despite the fact that this is definitely not "my kind of movie", I got to be fascinated with it right before leaving Slovakia for India. When I returned to the United States, there was a lot about the film and Anna's emotional journey that spoke to me, so I adapted pieces of it into this. Happy reading - and please let me know what you think.
A Process of Evolution
She would never forget the first time she saw him. Straight-backed and immeasurably proud, his gold-threaded robe sweeping down a form so straight and unyielding one would think it carved from stone. Anna Leonowens had heard the whispers of her fellow countrymen. Belonging neither to French Indochina nor bearing the title of "British Protectorate", Siam was considered a nation of backwards people, remnants of an unenlightened and barbaric age of humanity.
There was nothing of the barbarian about this man. The French diplomats tendering their apologies before him did so in the most gracious language as he gazed at them, eyes steady and unwavering. Justice seemed to spread her cloak from his seat, and the Englishwoman felt a sharp note of interest covered with the faintest coating of hope lift her heart. This might be the ruler she had been hoping to meet after all.
Then he rose from his seat with the drums that indicated his departure, and the Prime Minister turned to her regretfully. "It appears sir must wait to meet His Majesty another day."
Frustration, sharpened for three weeks on a continual series of delays, found their sum in a burst of impatience. "No," she said firmly. "I do not think so." Ignoring the cries of the dismayed minister behind her, she rushed through rows of stirring people.
Silver flashed, blades humming through the air to halt at the king's instant command. With a cry, Louis threw himself down, but as she remained on her feet in the presence of the drawn swords, she saw intrigue replace incredulous anger in the black eyes, an expression that grew as he strode around her. She could not help the feeling that he was cataloguing every detail about her person, and stood straighter as he examined her – a foreigner in his world.
"You do not look sufficient of age for scientific teaching," he finally announced, and there was a slight challenge married to the curiosity in his tone. "How many years have you?"
The question surprised her. In England, no one would expect her to own her age, being a widow and with a son half-grown. "Enough to know that age and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand, Your Majesty," she replied as diplomatically as she could. She could not imagine what he had expected. Her son was just nine, a fact she had detailed in her letter. Had he been anticipating an old governess?
"I doubt you will say same for being bold and English." It was not a question, and indeed, even as she answered, he turned on his heel and left.
"His Majesty has not dismissed you," the Prime Minister hissed from his position lying prostrate on the floor. "Follow him!"
Rushing, one hand guiding Louis through a throng of courtiers no longer bent on stopping her, she reached the king's heels halfway through a flawlessly maintained garden.
"Logical answer under pressure, Ma'am Leonowens," he remarked as she caught up.
"That is very kind of Your Majesty, thank you," she breathed.
"But. Irritating, superior attitude King find most un-beautiful. However, it will serve you well given decision I now made."
Decision? Would he so hastily dismiss her? "First impressions can often be very misleading," she swiftly defended. He stopped her outside a door leading to yet another walled compound.
"Along with my eldest son, you shall now teach all my children." His eyes brooked no opposition, so she merely set her mouth, containing her sigh.
Taking her silence as assent, he pushed open the door. "Come," he bade her, and she followed him, taking her first steps into what would become her world.
The woman was…interesting. Bold, to be sure. Dedicated. Creative. His children seemed to enjoy her presence, though she had been teaching them for scarcely a month.
But she was arrogant. Unswerving. Unwilling to adapt. Utterly English.
And now this issue with the slave woman who had purchased her freedom, a freedom now bought twice. Once by the bond-servant and once by the Englishwoman whom he was beginning to begrudgingly admire.
"King's commitment to noble families must not be compromised," he warned his employee as she presented her defence. That he agreed with her in this case was immaterial. This headstrong woman had caused enough flutter already without bringing the whole of the aristocracy to their knees in front of him, crying their complaints.
Her answer was anything but repentant. "You claimed you wanted Siam to take its place among the nations of the modern world. You spoke of building something greater than yourself. A country where no man is above the law – which is why I chose to come here," she answered him firmly, sky-blue eyes never leaving his face.
"Schoolteacher has outstanding memory," he smiled. Faint puzzlement crossed her features, deepening his grin. She was unpredictable. It was good to know that she could no more anticipate him than he could her. Oblivious to the currents over her head, the noble woman kneeling before him demanded the return of her slave, and implored him to punish Ma'am Leonowens – supposedly for daring to keep her feet in front of him.
The imperiousness of his subject irritated him. The woman might have been a noble, but one of the worst of the species, greedy, self-satisfied and cruel. He directed his command to his Prime Minister. "If you would please honour Chow-Chung-Manda-Un with an explanation of the law?"
Ever the mild one, Kralahome gently tendered the truth: that the bond-servant and the Englishwoman were in the right.
The aristocrat's fierce outburst in response nearly caused him to laugh aloud as he leaned forward on his throne and dismissed her, his contempt ensuring that she would not waste his time with such trivialities again.
The king's smile vanished as he watched the woman storm from the hall, tearing the ring his teacher had surrendered to her from her finger. "This is a pauper's ring!" she declared fiercely, though there was no hope that the Englishwoman would understand. But as she reached the balcony, she flung it from in a universal gesture of fury and derision.
The gold flashed briefly, catching sunshine before plinking into the water and sinking out of sight.
Turning his eyes back to a stiff-backed Anna standing before him, the king caught her expression of un-masked pain, her sudden vulnerability a gaping hole in the confident tapestry she'd woven around herself. Her breath was caught in her throat, and her jaw locked, staving off tears as he stepped down towards her.
Compassion was one of Mongkut's remarkable features as a monarch. The bleak, lost face in front of him stirred it to life. This stranger from another world had offered something of great value to help someone she did not know, only to see it thrown back in her face.
"Why did you interfere?" he asked curiously.
She startled, taking a moment to recall herself to the throne room and his presence. "My conscience demanded it," she answered, voice rough with fresh grief.
"And boys' fisticuffs?" When she professed not to understand, he needled her a little, pushing her reply. Her sharp tongue produced clever answers that no man in his own country would have dared to voice, and certainly no woman. "I suppose since you must be both mother and father to son, tendency to overprotect is strong."
She did not disappoint. "Louis can fend for himself, Your Majesty," she replied after swallowing. "It was your son I was protecting." Her curtsey indicated that she was dismissing herself. "Thank you for the supper, although I do not think it was necessary."
At this he raised his eyebrows. He had been extending her a courtesy, as well as motivating his son's obedience. "I know my son," he told her with quiet amusement. "You would still be there."
"Perhaps. But then my point would have been made, Your Majesty. Not yours."
"I am king."
"Yes, and I am his schoolteacher. Which lesson do you think he learned? To respect his classmates, or to fear his father?"
Truly remarkable. She was fearless as well as mindless of basic courtesies in his presence "Husband must have been very understanding," he said, loud enough for to hear as she strode towards the other end of the hall.
"My husband was never threatened by my ideas or opinions," she said tightly as she faced him once more. He gazed at her steadily as he descended his throne, eyes tendering the olive branch that preceded his offer.
"And because I am also such," he replied, knowing that his next words would doubtless cause Kralahome to shake his head in dismay, "I will allow you to always stand upright in my presence. Provided that head," he qualified quickly, "is never higher than mine."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." She ducked in another curtsey and hurried from the hall.
As the doors closed behind her, he gestured for his Prime Minister to rise. "Your Majesty. I believe there's been enough insult caused by this woman who believes herself to be equal to a man," the elder man grumbled as he gained his feet, the question of his king's judgment plain in his eyes.
"Not the equal of a man, Chao-Pei. The equal of a king." And he was surprised by the genuinely delighted smile that stretched his lips.
He never tired of hearing them laugh. When he was praying, as he consulted with his ministers or his generals, as he read correspondence from all over the globe. He found himself conducting ever more business in the halls and rooms that had windows next to the schoolyard, stealing moments to gaze out at the happy multitude of his children playing some new game their teacher had invented.
He was there one day to watch his son and the English boy, Louis, catch a frog, Chulalonghorn mischievously offering it to her, who laughingly batted it away with her pale hands.
The memory of her delighted laughter, of the masses of blond hair that the Siamese sun shone on through the black widow's netting, echoed in his memory. It cropped up at the most inconvenient times, bringing with it an uncontained smile.
He shifted uncomfortably, aware that he was once more staring in the direction of the school, though he was too far away to see it properly. This would never do. She had to be removed.
Anna didn't know what to expect when she received orders to enter the king's private boat with her son. Tying her bonnet firmly on her head, she packed the valise she always brought to the classroom and hurried to obey. More than a month of living under the palace roof had taught her that, in spite of her independent spirit, the orders she could disregard were few, and she did not wish to invoke the king's anger. He was slow to express it, but terrifying when it burst forth.
Sitting by the edge of the boat, half an eye kept on Louis as she watched the verdant green of the jungle world go by, she became aware of eyes watching her. Turning slightly, she met the frank gaze of her employer.
"Fai-Ying loves the river," he opened conversationally, and she allowed herself to be drawn in. Their initial subject of legends rapidly exhausted, he said quietly:
"Buddhists believe all life is suffering." She wasn't going to argue that point. Tom had died in her arms, his horrific wounds claiming him drop by drop as she wept. For months afterwards she had raged at the Lord she had devotedly followed all her life. She had loved so deeply, to be denied so much…
"Take away pain of husband's death takes away Ma'am's chance to grow." She stopped breathing. So quick, this king. So perceptive. She had been better able to fool acquaintances of many years.
"I might have preferred a different lesson," she replied, her back mostly to him.
"Yes," he agreed. "But unique opportunity to change world would have passed to someone else."
She turned to him then, startled. He met her gaze frankly and said nothing, but she felt as if she stood naked before him. Not in body, but in soul, as if he could see the entirety of her past and the emptiness of her future rolled out behind her, open like a book for him to read.
Unable to think of a coherent reply, she quickly broke their glance, seeking a distraction-
"Louis! Do try to stay in the boat, darling." Her memory plucked a safe, convenient topic from one of Louis' endless lists of questions and she shifted once more. "Yesterday he asked me about your flag and the significance of the white elephant and I had no answer."
"Louis Leonowens!" The blond head flashed up under its boater, startled by the king's direct command. Anna realized that it was probably the very first time her son was being spoken to by Mongkut himself. He rushed along the boat's awkward planking, bobbing his head a little nervously when he reached the monarch.
"Erm…yes, Your Majesty?"
"I am teacher now," Mongkut declared, and Anna smiled, tilting her chin towards the man when Louis glanced at her for confirmation.
"The flag of Siam. Red is for-"
"Courage," his seven-year-old daughter, Fai-Ying, promptly replied.
"The white elephant," he continued solemnly, "is Siam's most rare and honoured creature. Perhaps on journey to rice festival, we will all see one."
"Rice festival?" Anna asked. Louis' excited voice interrupted her before she could get any further.
"Mother? Mother, look! There's Moonshee and Beebe!"
Surging to her feet, she saw her two servants, waving from the edge of what looked like expansive gardens surrounding a large private residence.
"I trust you will find ample space for indulging in English traditions," the king's voice came from behind her. "Even for growing of roses."
Impulsively, brought by the nature of their conversation, or the fact that she suddenly felt as if he knew her in ways none of her countrymen would ever learn, she twisted back to him, mischief in her voice. "Out of curiosity – is this because of our agreement, or are you simply trying to get rid of me?"
The eyes that saw too much crinkled with humour, casting crows-feet from their corners as he responded in kind. "Yes."
"The roses suit you, Ma'am."
The voice at her back startled her, and Anna stood quickly, feeling her cheeks heat. Since he had personally delivered her to her back doorstep, the king had never indicated any interest in how she was faring in her house on the river.
And here she stood in a one of Tom's old white shirts, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, linen sagging in a line from the too-wide shoulders to be tucked into a pair of his trousers, belted to fit the slender lines of her body. She would never consider allowing anyone other than Louis and her servants see her this way – dirt under her nails and coating her hands, smudging her forehead from where she had carelessly wiped away the beads of sweat that Siam brought on even when doing nothing more strenuous than reading.
And here stood the king, not only the ruler of the country, but also her employer, and she was completely wrong-footed. "Your Majesty!" She cleared her throat, casting about for something to say. "I didn't...that is to say...would you like some tea? I'm sure Beebe will have the kettle boiling in no time."
That gentle smile, the one that made it impossible to tell what was going on internally. "King did not come for tea, Ma'am Leonowens. I have that in palace. Merely...curiosity about what Ma'am does when she is not teaching schoolchildren – and wondering if Siamese land is good for English roses."
"It seems very good, Your Majesty." And it did. They had barely been planted, and already the bushes were thriving, putting out new shoots and miniature branches of green almost daily. The smallest buds were appearing now. "I fear that in the summer it might get too hot for them, but they seem to grow well in winter."
"Fai Ying has been asking for Ma'am," he continued quietly. He had not met her gaze once, eyes trained on the garden that six steady weeks of toil had brought into being. "I have promised her that if Ma'am cannot live in palace as she wishes, perhaps my little princess can have English rose to look after?" With the last, the dark eyes finally met hers, and the intensity in them stopped Anna's breath in her chest. His look never wavered, but she had no doubt that he was seeing all of her.
"His Majesty is welcome to anything he wishes," she said without thinking. Her brain caught up to her mouth too late, and her face got hotter. "That is...any rose, Your Majesty. I will have Beebe pack the plant for transportation." With a bob of a curtsey in her mens' clothing, she ducked past him and hurried into the house, calling for her Indian servant.
As Beebe bustled out to accommodate Mongkut's whim, Anna leaned her forehead against a wooden doorframe, drawing deep breaths, as if she feared drowning.
What was it about this man? Especially since she had moved into this house, she felt as though he singled her out. It was not uncommon to end a day's lesson and lift her head to see him lingering at the back of the school house, unwilling to interrupt, ready to wait for her to notice him.
She had never worked for a king, or in a palace, nor taught an heir to a throne. But that alone would never account for getting so flustered in his presence.
She shoved an errant strand of hair that had escaped from her bun behind an ear, wincing as she caught sight of her own filthy hands. But there was no time to wash them – and she could not simply vanish, leaving him in Beebe's capable care. That would be a worse crime than her attire. She stepped back out of the house to bid him farewell, tiny rose plant well-wrapped in dirt and cloth. Flustered or not, she had standards to maintain.
"Ma'am. Thank you," he said formally. "King has also come to inform Ma'am that rice festival begins next week. And that Ma'am will be joining court on its journey."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. I shall look forward to it."
Mongkut's gaze travelled to the thorny green bundle in his arms. "Fai Ying will be delighted with her gift."
Anna smiled in spite of her embarrassment. "I certainly hope so, Your Majesty. I think she will grow this English rose quite beautifully."
"Honestly Louis, I leave you alone for five minutes…" She allowed her voice to trail off with an exasperated sigh, pressing the cool cloth to her son's forehead. Here in Siam 'cool' was all one could get – small wonder the children on the way down had thought her stories of snow preposterous.
"It was his idea," came the feeble, age-old excuse from her son.
"Just because Prince Chulalonghorn jumps off a bridge doesn't mean you must as well," she scolded.
"How could anyone smoke those things?" Louis asked in a weakly disgusted voice.
"Well," Anna's voice softened in fond remembrance, recalling the smell that had soaked the very wood of their house in India, "your father certainly enjoyed them."
At this, Louis propped himself up on an elbow and studied her. It was a peculiar look, as if he were seeing a stranger instead of his mother, and he was clearly uncertain about his thoughts. "Is that why you like him?" he blurted awkwardly. "The king I mean. 'Cause he reminds you of Father?"
Had he struck her, she could not have been more shocked. Her breath left her in silent rush, and she scrambled for denial, even as her thoughts and the words she had so carelessly allowed to roll off her tongue rebounded in her head, damning her.
She had begun to re-think her initial, negative impression of the king when he had sent the supper that was deliberately denied to his son until Chulalonghorn finished his task. Though she had resented the interruption of her lesson, Anna had been pleased at this indication that Mongkut would support her authority – even over his own heir. He had reinforced her support a bare handful of days later when he had ruled in her favour regarding the bond-slave Lao.
She realized with prickling discomfort that she had a growing store of memories revolving around her employer. He arrived at the school at the end of the day, she had been summoned to him during meals, and he had caught her entering and exiting the gates. And the day they had sailed down the river, followed by the afternoon he had taken the rose...he saw more to her than any man in her life, including her dearly departed husband.
She was always a little disappointed when a day or two passed without an unannounced appearance, although until now she had not stopped to define the emotion, nor its cause.
He shocked her. He fascinated her. He teased her.
"Just because your father can make it rain doesn't mean I can make it snow," she told the children clustered around her with a laugh.
"At last I learn your limitations," Mongkut said triumphantly from the elephant alongside them. He reached into his pocket for a second cigar. "Louis. Smoke?" he extended the cylinder to her son. Anna's eyes widened in equal parts surprise and anger.
"What? Me?" She saw the blue eyes he had inherited from her grow large as he grinned. "Jolly good!"
"No!" she had hissed at Louis, then turned to the king, her scolding tone strengthening. "No!"
"But Mother, he's the king," Louis retorted, as if this one answer solved all problems. "And Father smoked too."
"Yes, but your father was a man who had already achieved his full height."
"I have been smoking since age six. And some consider me a giant among men," Mongkut remarked mildly, blowing smoke rings from the cigar he had so blithely offered her son.
"Yes. In intelligence as well as stature, Your Majesty," she baited. "Which is why, Louis, I'm sure His Majesty was only teasing." There had been steel in the last words, and the king had dismissed the children in order to speak to her alone.
Much as she resisted, a new rose was blossoming in the place Tom had vacated two years ago. But it was a rose that could not grow to healthy fruition.
"I think that cigar has clouded your brain, young man," she finally answered briskly. "Go on, go to sleep." She kissed his forehead and settled him, but as she rose, her eyes settled on his face.
Louis was growing. She could not hope to keep him a child forever, wrapped in a world that largely ignored the adult mess surrounding it.
"Is that why you like him?" No…she realized suddenly. King Mongkut was charming and compelling, but…different. Exotic. Too much so, she reminded herself firmly. He had twenty-four wives, forty-two concubines and now sixty-five children. Nothing like her dear Tom.
She blew out the candle, focusing on her prayers to keep the face of a too-exotic man at bay.
"And you water it just a little bit. Not too much."
"But flower needs water to eat," the little girl objected, reluctantly staying the porcelain bowl stolen from the kitchens. The rose had been planted in a place where Anna would be sure to see it, only a few yards from the school house.
"But too much water is not good for a rose, just as it's not good for a little girl," Anna smiled at the young princess as Fai Ying considered the possible truth of these words.
"Do English always use rice bowls to water their roses?" Anna lifted her head as a shadow joined them, Mongkut gazing down at his delighted daughter.
"Only when teaching Siamese children, Your Majesty," she replied with a faint smile. "She seemed to think that they would get better nutrients from her rice bowl."
"Father, Ma'am Anna says if I water it too much, the rose will get sick and die. Is this true?"
"Of course. Remember, little one," he squatted next to her, "that although the king brings the rains to the rice fields, he does not bring them every day. There is a time for rain, and a time for sun. Let your rose find the sun. It is all the way from England, where they have no sun."
"No sun?" Her eyes were almost comically round when they lifted to Anna's. "No sun, Ma'am Anna?"
"Well...I have not lived there for many years, but when I was a little girl like you, we had sun sometimes. It does rain more there."
"You should tell your king not to make it rain so much," the princess said factually, and looked down into her half-full bowl. "I will give rest of water to flowers over there!" She skipped towards a long bank of riotous gold, leaving the king and Anna to smile at each other.
"She was very happy with gift, Ma'am. I think king not only one who...appreciates...English roses." Anna glanced at him sharply, seeking a double meaning, but he settled for giving her his quiet smile before pursuing his daughter in her enthusiasm.
He did not know why it was her opinion he so wanted. But hers was the important one to have. Letter crumpled in one hand, he blew through the halls of his palace and towards the classroom, the measured anger of his steps clearing the paths before him as leaves blow in a storm.
As always, the garden ringing the women and children's quarter brought him some measure of peace, and when he silently stepped into the school area, he had reined his temper enough to stop himself and observe.
Most of his children and no fewer than six wives were seated in their customary circle, their rapt attention on the smiling face of their teacher as she demonstrated how an egg would not fit in a bottle. Lighting a bit of paper on fire and tossing it into the bottle, the egg defied their judgment, and was sucked into the tight neck to shimmy down, landing with a plop!
His children giggled and he moved forward as she continued speaking. "You see, one way to achieve the impossible, is to change the climate. Now-" The flurry of scraping chairs interrupted her. Intent on her lesson, she was the last to notice his arrival.
Even as she dipped into her curtsey, he was dismissing her pupils with a curt, "Leave us." They hurried, the open school house flooding children like a burst dam. When he glanced back to her face he saw the naked irritation there. Her jaw worked as if she might speak, but she held her tongue and waited. Had his mood been different, this sign that she was, indeed, learning some patience would have amused him.
As it was, he was merely grateful that they were alone.
"The French," he began without preamble, "say that I am uncivilized ruler. I. Who have spent entire life attempting to teach self history, literature and science."
"Why would they print such things, Your Majesty?" she asked neutrally. He glowered at her, seeing only the image of her so-European face, the visage of a culture that stood as his judge.
"You are English. You should not be so surprised."
"Well, I can still be appalled," she returned neatly.
"More importantly, do you…" As a what? His employee? A woman he couldn't stop thinking about? "...as a foreigner, see me in this light?"
She looked uncomfortable for a moment as she studied him, and her answer began with the customary politeness he had grown to expect from her. "I do not know all that you are, Your Majesty. But I believe I know what you're not. And you are not what they say."
The weight that had driven him here lifted, as suddenly as wind blows the blossoms from trees. She never lied to him. "Thank you, Ma'am. For humble validation." He held her eyes until she dropped her head, unable to look at him. He realized she did that a great deal in moments of stillness. She had not once evaded his gaze when challenging him, but when stillness fell and he could see the woman behind the armour that locked out the world, she seemed unable to remain at rest, and instantly sought another task.
He watched her for a moment more, his most recent argument with Alak darkening his thoughts. His general was convinced that the British were goading the Burmese into the attacks that had ravaged his countryside for months. "One of us is wrong about the British," he recalled his flat words. Alak's vision of the Imperialists as monsters would have been easier to accept a year ago, before the arrival of the woman standing a few steps away. Now, with the reality of Anna – Anna, who tried so hard to understand, Anna who wished to make his son a king that would outshine all his ancestors, Anna, who would not leave his thoughts, even when he deliberately kept himself from her for days – working, praying, being with his wives…
"This is not a war that can be won on a battlefield," he had told Alak, Kralahome and his younger brother. He knew that even without his reluctance on behalf of his English teacher, his words were no more than the truth. Siam could never hope to challenge the empire's strength and man-power. No…it would have to be fought with European cutlery at a dinner table, waltzes on a marble floor, and this remarkable woman that might be able to bridge the gap between them.
"I have decided to give self anniversary dinner," he announced into the thickening silence, "and invite important English nobles and diplomats."
"I don't understand."
"French Indochina grows stronger and more aggressive. But if I improve our foreign intercourse with your Queen's special envoy, French will think three times before trying to undermine Siam."
"That's very clever, Your Majesty." The sincerity in her voice was a further balm to his ruffled feathers and he turned a pleased smile on her.
"You will take charge of all amenities, as Ma'am is obvious choice to make certain guests feel at home."
This was far outside the scope of any duties she could have expected as his employee, and he could see troubled surprise flit across her face. "But…the anniversary is when?"
"Three weeks from yesterday."
"Three weeks?" Annoyance coloured her voice. "That's impossible."
"Ma'am?" He stepped closer to her, and she did not back away from the intimacy as she had before, but held her ground, watching him. He tapped the bottle on the desk with his crumpled letter.
"The egg is in the bottle."
The whispers stilled the hall before he knew their source. Turning from his discussion with Lord Bradley to follow a sweep of admiring eyes, he saw the figure of his children's teacher hurrying up the marble stairs.
His heart jumped, momentarily closing his throat. Gone was the grief-wrapped widow, the drawn, stoic features of a woman bound to make her way through a torturous life. In her place stood a vivacious girl dressed in a shimmering gown that belonged to the fairytales of her native country, the maturity of a life lived sparkling in her eyes alone. The hair that had threaded itself vividly through his imagination was drawn back but uncovered, allowing a small golden tail to kiss her shoulder.
As she ascended the steps, she saw him, and without breaking her stride, moved towards him as if he were the only one in the room. "Forgive me, Your Majesty," she said through her smile. "I believe the sun set a little earlier today."
The impossibility of her explanation pushed his heart back to where it belonged and he cleared his throat. "Ma'am. You arrange all this to influence positive future of Siam." Wariness touched the bright blue – she had no idea what he was going to say. The sweep of his glance, from her head to her toes, took in not only her ensemble, but the woman wearing it, and there was no mistaking his admiration as he continued, "And now, you steal attention away from it."
"Oh!" Her smile broke again. "Well, that was not my intention, Your Majesty."
"Mrs. Leonowens." Lord Bradley's dry voice and short bow shattered the instant that had enclosed just the two of them. "What a delightful surprise, encountering such a charming countryman. And so far from home."
"Lord Bradley. This is indeed a great honour."
A gentle ringing of bells summoned their guests to dinner, interrupting anything else they might have said. "Madam Leonowens?" A young man with a curly head of red hair had appeared at her side, a bright grin on his face. "Captain William Blake. I believe that I am to sit next to you. As I am unaccompanied, might I have the honour of escorting you to dinner?"
Reflexively, Anna's eyes flashed to the king's. He had said nothing about her arrangements for the evening, other than that he wanted her, as well as Alak and the Prime Minister, to be seated near him. The black eyes, usually so expressive, were wiped oddly blank. A flicker of disappointment flared at his rare decision to give her no indication of his desires. "Of course, sir," she accepted graciously, and laid her hand on the young man's red sleeve.
"And in honour of our most distinguished guests, a waltz. As is European custom of dancing after dinner." She nodded at him approvingly when his eyes alighted on her, a faint question mark asking if he had followed the protocol she had scrupulously schooled him in. Anna had attended a number of public dinners on the arm of her husband, but none had ever been quite so stressful – or so much fun. Watching Mongkut, who's command of English was exemplary but hardly a native's speech, run verbal rings around her countrymen was as funny as their brass assumptions and crudeness was embarrassing.
She was also frankly surprised at how at ease she felt in the court. Her place was on a diagonal from the king, who had rolled charm out before him like a red carpet, deftly brushing aside the challenges and downright rudeness of the representative from the East India Trading Company. She had smothered her laugh with her hand more than once when his barbs found their stinging home in the breast of the coarse Mycroft Kincade.
Then Mongkut looked at her directly, and extended his hand.
The ease she felt vanished in a flash of heat. She was still staring at him, aware of the glance of hundreds of pairs of shocked eyes, when her chair scooted from behind her, deftly manoeuvred by a servant.
She was clearly not allowed to say no. And as her face burned under the stock-still and silent gazes of Siam's court and half the English nobility of Asia, she stepped back from the table. Eyes never leaving his, as if his audacity was feeding her strength, she made her slow way down the table, lightness expanding in her chest with every step.
As she walked, the shapes in front of her moved. The shuffle of feet and rustle of skirts told her that the shapes were people, that the gawking stares of hundreds were tracking her. With an enormous, abrupt sense of freedom, she found she didn't care.
She reached the end of the line, and there he stood at the head of the staircase, arm still stretched to take hers.
She had never touched him before. He had stood so close to her that his breath brushed her face, that the heat of his body flushed her own, that her heart and her skin prickled at his appearance and ached for the centimetres that separated them to close, for breath and heat to become flesh and blood – but he had only tantalized, never satiated her desire.
As she lifted her hand, she gave the whole of her body to one task: keeping her arm steady. Safely beneath layers of petticoats, her legs trembled, but her will forced her upper body to behave.
Her smaller hand settled in his, and she greedily took the opportunity to map a hand that had begun to enter her fantasies. She might have once expected it to be soft like a noblewoman's from a life in a palace, but it was callused from years of riding horses and studying swordplay. As she lifted her eyes to catch his intent look, he gently squeezed, massaging her palm. She wondered if his pulse leapt as hers did, making breathing in her corset almost impossible.
With a tug, he was leading her forward, his stately walk carrying them down the steps.
"I must tell you, Your Majesty," she forced the words off a too-dry tongue, "that I have not done this in some time. And, seeing as the evening has gone so well, we wouldn't want to end up in a heap, now, would we?" She could not prevent her voice from climbing with her nervousness.
"I am king. I shall lead." He gestured for the orchestra to begin before glancing down at her. "I never danced with an Englishwoman before, Ma'am."
"Nor I with a king," she returned.
"I want you to make promise, Ma'am, to always tell king what you think, no matter what. Like the man from East India Company." A graceful sweep brought her into his arms, and she found her left hand sliding effortlessly up his sleeve to rest on his shoulder, as if they had long ago settled into such closeness, his large hand splaying on her back, holding her against him.
"I always have," she said honestly, willing the hummingbird that had replaced her heart to slow down. The violins started, and he carried her effortlessly into the dance.
Fai-Ying turned circles on the grass, the gold of her anniversary gown flashing unusual patterns in a garden accustomed to traditional Siamese dress as she swayed to and fro in tempo with an imaginary orchestra.
From the balcony, watching her absorbed in a fantasy world while her siblings played all about her, King Mongkut smiled. His precious, precocious daughter. Of all the many moments of his anniversary dinner, her endearing, "Father, may I please kiss goodnight?" might have been the only one that Siamese and English alike had approved of.
Unlike his choice of partner for the opening dance – which none of his guests had anticipated or agreed with.
"Your Majesty?" Her voice intruded. "You sent for me?"
"Ah, yes. But here," he pointed to Fai-Ying's concentrated efforts, "look." Her sky-blue eyes followed his gesture, and they shared a smile. "Something tells me my little monkey did not go to bed night of anniversary."
"Yes, I know. I've been presented with drawings of couples dancing ever since." She laughed, setting off his laughter in turn, two loving parents indulging a favourite child.
The illusion lasted only as long as it took him to turn to her again, and as she once again avoided his eyes, he gestured for her to go inside. "Come."
She hesitated at the door. She seldom entered the area where he worked. Among many other places in the palace, it had always seemed to carry the air of the forbidden about it, as if it were a place regulated strictly to the men who ran the realm.
"Sit, please," he indicated a chair, a hand brushing against her back to urge her there. Increasingly curious, she obeyed, watching him attentively.
He paused before her, uncharacteristically at a loss for words as he studied her. In hindsight, he had to admit to himself that dancing with her had been a mistake. The first dance had been so enjoyable that it had taken a great deal of restraint not to monopolize her all evening. Had he been anyone but the king, he might have disregarded all his own traditions, but as it was, he had forced himself to turn from her, to deal with the affairs of state that had prompted the dinner in the first place. And suffered accordingly. Watching her partner at least half a dozen other, young British officers had brought his blood to a low simmer.
He had not seen her since. He had never met a woman whose very existence was so taxing on the self control he had gained in half a lifetime's worth of study in a monastery.
And now…he was to strike her a blow. For blow it would be. Her impassioned defence of his country: "Superiority? I do not recall anyone being given the right to judge who's country or culture is superior," in the face of Kincade's assertions about the British did not change the fact that she was English, and that it would hurt her to know what he now suspected.
"Perhaps you should simply say what it is you're trying so hard not to," she prompted him gently. A tight smile, all light-heartedness faded from his bearing, he turned from her, retreating to his desk, donning the mantle of ruler and putting away the man who would rather be saying so many other things to this woman.
"I share this with you, Ma'am, because I believe you to be trustworthy." He seated himself, unable to meet her eyes. "Events are happening which I now believe to be of Burmese origin." The king lifted his gaze. "And I fear that military action is unavoidable."
He saw shock impact the blue eyes he had learned to read so well, the pain as her mouth moved soundlessly. "But Burma is British," she finally objected.
Unrelenting control. The defensive teacher that had rushed into his throne room for the first time had returned. "Then it is not the French you were worried about, is it?"
A shake of his head, his hands folded before him. "I see."
The stiffness brought his gaze up again, a need to leave this meeting on the lighter note that it had been started.
"On table, Ma'am," he interrupted her exit. "A small gift of appreciation for your many efforts at anniversary party."
He propped his spectacles on his nose as if to continue with business, but stopped to watch her open the small gold box.
Slender fingers hesitated, then lifted. Ears attuned, he caught her gasp as she touched the ring.
The conversation she had shared with Beebe in the marketplace just yesterday jumped to the forefront of her mind.
"I quite enjoyed myself. Even the dancing." Especially the dancing. Mongkut had proven as excellent a dancer as conversationalist.
"And how did His Majesty fare with all those Englishmen?" Beebe asked casually.
"He was charming. Absolutely charming. I don't think I'll ever forget the way he stood there, holding his hand out to me as if I was-" Anna was smiling. As if she were special to him, as if he thought of her as-
"-one of his twenty-six wives," Beebe said flatly.
Startled and annoyed by the other woman's comparison, Anna said sharply, "Why, thank you, Beebe. I hadn't thought of it in that way."
Her Indian servant did not apologize as she issued her warning. "Well, perhaps you should."
Now she was looking at a ring that had cost someone a small fortune, and grief for Tom, for her empty finger and the emptier love that was growing where he had once stood, swamped her. Mongkut could never be what Tom had been, even if they both wished it. Tears wetted her lashes.
"Ma'ams's hand...has been lonely without such," Mongkut said quietly. He could not be more explicit. He dared not spell out what he felt. He could have any woman in his kingdom – except the one he wanted. But let her take this, let her acknowledge what they shared-
"It is, most kind, Your Majesty," she said with difficulty. "It is very beautiful. And though I am terribly grateful-"
He could feel her denial coming on, and he cut her off quickly. "It is custom," he reassured her, "to bestow favours for those who...who please King...and Ma'am has done so." Not merely for the anniversary party, but he would never tell her that.
"I'm sorry. I cannot accept such generosity." Without waiting for him to stop her, without curtseying or offering a goodbye, she dropped the ring on the table and walked away.
"Ma'am Anna..." The fever-ridden child tossed in her bed, twisting under light sheets that were still too hot for her cholera-riddled body. Sick black eyes opened, saw her anguished father standing at her bedside, reached for his hand, pulling a finger.
"Father...Ma'am Anna..." Fai-Ying released him and rolled over, vomiting violently into the bucket next to the bed.
Mongkut hesitated. He had not seen the English teacher for nearly a month. The two solid weeks of rain that had resulted in Fai-Ying's sickness had been preceded by days of awkward chilliness following her refusal of his gift. He knew that she did not want to see him, and was at a loss for what he would say if he did encounter her.
The rustling increased. "Ma'am Anna!" came Fai-Ying's heartrending cry.
He lifted his head to meet the concerned eyes of his Prime Minister. Face drawn with grief, he gave the order to fulfil his dying daughter's final wish. "Bring Ma'am Leonowens."
"His Majesty is grateful," Kralahome said as they halted in front of the white doors. "The little one has made frequent mention of sir's name."
With that, the doors swung open, and Anna entered.
Mongkut was seated on the bed, Fai-Ying supported against his chest. He looked up as she entered and she faltered, struck by the difference the illness had made. The onyx eyes were lustreless with sorrow, shadows burning holes under them. But she saw gratitude in them as she stepped towards him, and she nearly reached out to touch him. Mastering the inappropriate impulse, she settled for summoning a weak smile for the dying girl and her father as she fisted her skirt in one hand and settled herself next to the bed.
Mongkut whispered something to Fai Ying, and the little girl opened her eyes, training them on her teacher. A small smile crawled to her lips, bringing salt to sting Anna's eyes. Fai-Ying was so small. So young.
The king glanced at Anna, pressed a kiss to his daughter's sweat-soaked hair and looked to her again, needing a reassurance she could not give him. Fai-Ying's teacher had loved the little girl almost as dearly as her father did. Lady Thiang stood at the foot of the bed, his brother and eldest son were at his side, but Mongkut felt as if he had shared his most precious daughter with Anna more than anyone. Watching her dance. Seeing her play. Helping her care for the rose now in full, rich blossom in the school yard. Listening to her English. Being proudly presented with every single drawing before they graced the Englishwoman's rooms.
Ours, a buried part of him acknowledged, and saw the answering affirmation in Anna's foreign blue eyes. Ours, and we loved her. Now ours to lose.
Fai-Ying's eyes drifted closed again as she burrowed her face into her father's shirt. She swallowed convulsively. A silent breath left her body. Her head tipped back, caught in the crook of her father's arm.
Between one sigh and the next, it was over. "I'm not princess, I'm monkey!" Her introduction sounded in Anna's head, rapidly overlapped by their second day of class. "I drew this for you tomorrow." A child's world of monkeys, summer palaces, beaches of golden sand. Walls of pictures. Who would now draw them?
Why did life leave so easily? How could the spark of the girl be there...and then vanish? Where did she go?
Anna thought her chest would surely collapse with suppressed pain. Mongkut wrapped his arms fiercely about the tiny girl, his mouth against her head to stifle the sobs that wracked his body. "Ma'am must not be heard weeping," Kralahome had warned her. She couldn't make a sound, even had she wanted to. Numbed stillness had wrapped her, leaving only her eyes free for tears.
Mongkut rose, arranged his daughter on the bed as if she were merely sleeping, patted Chulalonghorn on the cheek and left. Anna turned with his stride, wishing for the impossible – that he might kneel beside her, that the arms holding Fai-Ying might now offer her comfort.
But he was gone, and Anna found her eyes locked with Lady Thiang's as water flowed down their cheeks.
"Inside!" he snarled furiously at the servants laying a lavish lunch on the lawns. "I take all meals inside!" His work had consumed him – worry for the Burmese terrorists, negotiating with the French – anything to keep his mind off Fai-Ying.
Only one woman in the world would have the courage to interrupt him in such a mood, and it was her face, more than anyone's, that he had no wish to see. Looking at her, he could hear Fai-Ying's excited voice ringing in his ears, see his little monkey's dancing form.
"Being as the rain has stopped, the children hoped you might join them for a picnic," she persevered gently.
His eyes scanned the hopeful faces of his sons, daughters and wives. The absence of Fai-Ying was loudest here, where she would have stood in the front, dark eyes sparkling with some amusement for him to share. "Ma'am," he said abruptly, turning away towards the palace. "I will always remember your feelings for my daughter."
He strode up the stairs. "And you shall never forget: you are not here to teach king."
"The children miss you terribly, Your Majesty!" she cried. And so do I, she thought helplessly. She had found herself lonelier than she had been for months since his total withdrawal. The ladies of the harem lacked his education, and children were...children. They played and laughed as they ought, but dispensed no pearls of Buddha's wisdom and never challenged her.
He paused, did not turn, continued towards the door. "You cannot shut the world out forever," she pressed. Anna knew she was entering a danger zone. His temper was uncertain – more now than ever – but she had not gotten close enough to speak to him for weeks. His head turned to her. "Believe me, I've tried. When my Tom died, I thought my heart would never mend. But then there was Louis. He was my salvation, you see."
At this, Mongkut turned to face her fully, a cold hardness on his gentle face. "And yet, you still refuse to live." He swiftly turned on his heel, the conversation over.
"I beg your pardon?" Her startled voice followed him. Mongkut whirled toward her, his next words measured with each step.
"A mother. A teacher. A widow. But you're never just woman."
"That is not fair." The words barely came through her surprise. Never before had his comments been so blatantly personal.
"In spite of all you say, Ma'am is not accepting passing of husband. It is why you so protect son. And devote all time to books and issues. And why you cannot accept gift!" The last sentence stunned them both. He had not let himself know how deeply her refusal had affected him. She took a physical step backward, clearly shaken.
"Why are you saying this?" she asked, eyes wide.
He leaned over the railing, the pain of Fai-Ying's death and his deadlocked frustration with desire driving him. This passionate woman who had condemned herself to sterility for the sake of a dead loved one. "Because you lie even to yourself. So do not lecture me about living. You are not qualified."
Later that afternoon, as Anna watched the wives splashing about shamelessly in the ocean, indulging in raucous fun that no lady in England would hesitate to condescendingly censure as child's play, a stroke of longing pulsed in her.
Would it be so awful, a slumbering part of her whispered, to have been born to this life? They laugh and learn, surrounded by dozens of companions, forever a part of a vast family, supported by and supporting the rest. And, of course, they have the king-
She felt the blush spreading up her face and hastily poured the tea Beebe had provided. Despite their frequency, such thoughts produced no practical or positive solution.
"You are not qualified."
Mongkut's words haunted her. Was it wrong? To live again, to laugh again, to feel joy in Tom's absence? He would always be part of her. She could no sooner erase him that she could eliminate her soul. But he was no longer here, and could not return to her.
And the king? the traitorous, darker part of herself whispered. A king that looks at you in a way that no Englishman will?
No. But the water that had called so invitingly this afternoon...a swim in the warm, shallow ocean could surely do no harm?
She glanced at herself in the mirror, taking in the white sleeping bonnet, the sorrow-lined face and down-turned mouth beneath it. With a jerk of her hand, she was undoing the ties, a sweep of her fingers yanking it from her head. It was nearly midnight. The water would be deserted. She was an Englishwoman, a representative of her country, but the night was private, and she yearned to feel the coolness of the water.
Lantern in hand, she slid silently through the back door, padded noiselessly down the wooden stairs in deliciously barren feet, burying her toes in sand the darkness had long since chilled, swallowing the day's heat.
Hurrying, she set the lantern on a rock, glanced around to assure herself that she was completely alone, and began to lift her nightdress.
"These hours are meant for sleep."
The king's voice came from behind her, and she jumped, dropping the skirt and feeling her face heat spectacularly.
"You startled me."
"I thought it wise to do so." The opposite of their earlier encounter, Mongkut's face was soft with amusement, black eyes glittering.
"May I ask," she was rubbing her hands together nervously, "what His Majesty is doing awake at such an ungodly hour?" Awkwardly, she crossed her arms over her chest. She was fully clothed – more of her covered than any of his wives or concubines were in the sunlight – but it was not easy to override the training of a lifetime. Her mother's lessons were busy screaming that this whole situation was highly improper.
"Gazing at the moon."
Her heart jumped, and her stomach felt heavy as she followed his eyes. "Yes, it's beautiful."
"As the sun rises, she will surrender the night. But she is always with him, even when he cannot see her." His speech had brought him within touching distance and Anna wondered whether he was speaking of her, or of Fai-Ying.
"It must be of great comfort to him."
"Yes." His eyes drifted from the full silver orb to search her face, and her heart shot lightning to her womb. He was speaking to her.
She held her breath, waiting...he seemed as if he wished to say something else...
And then he took just a half step back, enough to remind her who she was, and said, "Ah. This come from Bangkok." He extended a letter, which she took. "You may find it of some interest."
She unfolded the stiff sheet, caught the seal of the country emblazoned on the top. "It's from-"
"Yes." His hand brought up the lantern. "Please to read." He stepped closer, close enough that their clothes whispered together, white on white. "As monkey has stolen king's spectacles." The light lifted, casting its molten gold glow over the script.
Anna could feel the shortness of her breath, and she consciously drew it before murmuring, "Your Majesty." She read Abraham Lincoln's letter, barely aware of the words tumbling out of her mouth. Mongkut's smell filled her mouth and nose with every breath she drew, and she could feel the heat of his chest bathing her left shoulder, the gentle kiss of his breath on her hair.
"I admire this man for what he is trying to do for his people," Mongkut said quietly when she had finished. "They say at the battle of Antietam, seventy-thousand men killed each other in one day. And each one of those soldiers has a father who grieves. I am father to all of Siam. Ma'am was not wrong about moving on."
She couldn't have looked away from him even if she wanted to. "Neither were you, Your Majesty."
So close. His eyes dropped to her mouth, searching her face.
The night is secret, she could hear the voice even as heaviness stole over her body. She would not resist him. Could not. In darkness, there is nothing. Only the stars will see you. Her chin tilted back, inviting him to finish what his glance had started.
He leaned forward, gaze still fastened on her lips-
-and reined himself. He cleared his throat, took a few steps away from her. "When we return," he said spontaneously, trying to pull them back onto the safe ground they had occupied for so long, "it is time for teacher to teach Chulalongkorn and others any subject she wish. As long as king know first, so can be prepared for consequences."
Fiercely beating back a rising tide of regret, Anna found a tremulous smile. "I'll do my best, Your Majesty."
"And I was always believing English women...slept in hats," Mongkut teased. But his eyes travelled down her body a last time, and she knew, as she blushed, looked away, and forced herself to look back again, that he was thinking of what could have been – here, on the sand, with nothing save the silent moon and quieter stars as witnesses.
And he walked on, bound by the knowledge they could not escape, not even under the cover of night. He was, and would always be, the king of Siam. And she could not change the fact that she was merely an English teacher.
Dread made his soul heavy. Dread, and anger. He loved Anna's opinions. He loved her ferocity. He loved the way she indiscriminately dispensed both love and knowledge to his many children and his wives. He loved her – he could not fool himself any longer about that.
Curse Tuptim. Curse the day her father had sent her, and the cruelty of a parent that would deliberately send a young woman so very much in love with another man into his household. Tuptim had been...pleasant. But he had so many wives. And his heart lay elsewhere. If he had known...there was no reason for her or Balat to suffer so.
But the law had discovered his young wife's betrayal before he had, and Anna's insistence on interfering whenever she thought best would now cost the young woman her life as tradition demanded. Tuptim's head...or else Siam would erupt in the flames that the Burmese had kindled by killing his brother and Alak. He could not afford to be seen as a puppet for anyone, least of all the British who controlled their enemies.
The door opened, and his anxiety deepened as she curtsied. "Thank you for seeing me, Your Majesty. I was told by your Prime Minister that this was none of my concern-"
"It is none of Ma'am's concern. And king is seeing you now to tell you same himself."
"Forgive me, Your Majesty, but-"
"I do not wish for you to talk more on this one. To king or anyone." He had interrupted her twice. Not since her first months here had he so deliberately cut her off. His face was closed, his manner, too quiet.
"But I was only trying to-"
"Tuptim broke law!" The quiet shattered.
"By loving someone!" She wasn't backing down. She never backed down. "Sacrifice your life for truth. Persecute no man. Are these not the teachings of Buddha?"
Grief met fury. "I am king, and I say no!" He shoved one of the vases near his throne, sending it clattering to the floor. Anna froze, startled. He had been impatient when she had arrived, brusque while grieving. But he had not yet released the full range of his temper on her.
"You asked me to always tell you what I think," she rallied.
"What you think," he spat, rising, "and what you do, and how, and when you do them, are not the same thing. If you think I wished to execute this girl...but now, because you say to court you can tell king what to do, I cannot intervene as I had planned."
"Intervene?" she snapped back. "After they're tortured?"
"Yes! But you," his voice dripped contempt, "a woman, and a foreigner, have made it seem king at your command. You have made me appear weak! And impossible for me to step in and not lose face!"
"You are the king," she pleaded.
"And to remain such, I cannot undermine the ability to keep loyalty, which I must have to keep country secure!"
"You have the power to lead your people-"
"Now is not the time to change the way that things are done!" he bellowed.
"But if not now, then when?" Where was the man she knew? The reasonable discussions, the openness of mind? He had been replaced by an unmerciful tyrant, and for the first time, Anna was afraid to be standing in his presence. But it did not stop her tongue. "How many more people must die so that you might save face?!"
As suddenly as it had come, the storm was over. Seated on the steps that led to his throne, the king lifted his gaze to her. She could see the heartsickness in them briefly before they flattened, all shutters slammed closed.
"Go home Ma'am," he dismissed her quietly. "You help enough for one day."
Blinded by the salt water stinging her eyes as she rushed from the throne room through the gardens, a brilliant shaft of violent pink caught her eye, like a beam of sunlight breaking a storm. Anna halted abruptly, as if striking an invisible barrier that she could not push through.
Siamese soil and rain had indeed suited English roses. Fai Ying's flower had blossomed riotously, and the teacher felt a surge of unnameable fury a the stirring petals, as if its flourishing were a conscious mockery of its owner's untimely passing, a vivid thrust of life in a world that suddenly seemed choked with death.
Fai Ying. Tuptim. Balat. Siam had dealt cruelly with those she had grown to love, and Anna found herself halfway to the plant, reaching for the stem that had thickened from barren shoot to thorny stalk, wishing nothing more than to wrest it from the earth.
"Ma'am! Ma'am Anna! See my flower!" Fai Ying's voice reached the Englishwoman in the school pavilion, and Anna whirled in time to see the child pull the just-barely-opening rose from the stalk. The princess rushed to her, hand outstretched in triumph.
"See my flower?" she repeated eagerly.
"I do," Anna laughed. "But a flower cannot be taken from a plant too soon, Fai Ying. Like a child that needs milk from its mother, a rose must stay on the bush until it has opened. But this one," she added swiftly, watching the girl's face fall, "we can put in water, and it will bloom as beautifully as any."
"Ma'am has ways to make everything work," the king observed as Fai Ying carefully collected water in her rice bowl and the bud inscribed a gentle circle.
"Not everything, Your Majesty," she answered, curtseying. Their eyes went to the child, arranging the bud next to the bush already sprouting smaller knuckles of bright green.
"Fai Ying is pleased," he told her factually, the crows' feet around his eyes crinkling warmly. And so was he. She smiled.
Anna withdrew her hand, gazing down at the plant. Let Mongkut keep it. It would be his reminder of both his daughter and his employee – a bitter beauty, for all its love of life.
Tears dried, mouth set in the same intractable line it had born when her husband had died, Madam Leonowens returned to the boat waiting on the bank of the river. She had a letter of resignation to write, and much to pack.
The monthly ship to Newcastle would be in port in seventeen days.
Moonlight streamed through the open-air columns of the former schoolhouse, illuminating the empty desks with a white-blue glow. An abandoned primer lay on the corner of one table, discarded by a student with the automatic, careless assurance that they would be back to retrieve it the following day.
The king silently walked through the deserted room, stirring his ghosts.
"Ma'am Leonowens has tendered her resignation, Your Majesty. She gave it to me herself this morning." Kralahome's soft voice and gentler retreat left Mongkut with no doubt as to the expression on his face. She was leaving. Leaving Siam. Leaving him.
"I cannot imagine anywhere I'd rather be," she had said at the summer palace, the smile in her blue eyes recalling their near-miss on the shore, a secret that had coalesced into sweetness between them. Now she was ready to vanish into the world that had sculpted her.
Tuptim's execution had been a disaster on more than one front.
He leaned down and picked up the elementary book, running his fingers over the uneven leather binding as his eyes blindly sought the far corner, the semi-separate area where she kept her books.
Their time at the summer palace had bled into the world of Bangkok, even though the eyes that followed them here were tenfold. He had been unable to keep himself from seeking her company in a thousand small ways. And, one afternoon when the court had been occupied, they had snatched a more intimate moment here. The memory burned him now, their final argument making it bitterer than sweet.
He could see the wide hoop of her skirt from his balcony as she rustled around the school house. Lessons had been dismissed for some time and her son was doubtless running about with his son, seeking mischief while their parents were otherwise engaged.
Mongkut made the decision without thinking, letting his bare feet take him into the gardens, silently padding up the path to the shallow stairs that led to the school.
Her back was to him, her blue skirt swaying faintly with the breeze and her quiet movements as she re-sorted her books after their months at the other palace, oblivious to the rest of the world. He mounted the steps soundlessly and walked up behind her, one hand gliding around to capture a wrist intent on its task.
"Oh!" She startled with her soft exhalation, her head turning to meet his eyes. "Your Majesty."
"Ma'am is always working," he noted, his other hand encircling her to pluck the volume from her fingers. He did not set it down, and she allowed herself to briefly savour the feeling of standing in his loose embrace. She took two steps forward, hindered by the hold he still had on her wrist.
"There is much to do, Your Majesty. Your children have many questions and I would hate to be unprepared." She swallowed as she tried to hold his gaze.
"You should learn relaxing." His deep, amused voice washed over her as her cradled her hand, palm up, in his own. He lightly ran the pad of his thumb over the inside of her wrist, raising gooseflesh up her arms and sending chills into her stomach.
She leaned back involuntarily, allowing her narrow shoulders to come to rest on his chest, her head tucked beneath his chin. Mongkut dropped the book on a side table and brought his other arm firmly about her waist, securing her against him as they stood breathing the late-autumn air, rich with the scent of rain-battered earth and swollen fruit.
Her hair smelled of the soap she used, something laced with crushed flowers, and he breathed it quietly. He had discovered that calmed him, this smell, and its meaning: that she was nearby.
"Your Majesty..." she whispered, both in warning and in plea...and another emotion, left undefined.
"Anna." It was only her name. But it was the first and only time he had ever said it, the sound rolling in honey from his tongue.
He set the primer gently back in its place, where it would wait through the long days of the coming seasons to be lifted again, perhaps discovered only when its cover was cracked and its pages stained with water.
A riot of red-and-white flags greeted their passage through the streets, and the words "White elephant" rolled off many tongues, echoing in the air. The sound of firecrackers filled the air with sulphur and screams of delight. Louis was twisting with curiosity, staring at the throngs surging through Bangkok's narrow streets, their jubilation so at odds with his own dark mood.
They were leaving Siam. His mother had been very vague on the details, but the long looks shared by Beebe and Moonshee, the conversations in whispered Hindi that he more-than-half understood, had made it clear that his mother had had a fight of some kind with the king.
"So?" he asked Moonshee as the older man painstakingly packed their remaining tea set. His mother had done something with the other one. Another question he was not allowed to ask.
"Mother's had loads of fights with him before. Why do we have to leave because of this one?"
"There are some things that cannot be resolved, Louis," Moonshee answered. "Some...differences of opinion that cannot be ignored."
"But Mother likes-"
"Louis. Your mother has said we are going. It is her decision."
"I don't want to go, Mother," Louis said sullenly as he got out of the carriage. "I don't want to leave my friends."
His mother turned back to him, and the grief in her eyes wrapped him, smothering him like a wool blanket in monsoon season. "The king has done good things too," he tried to comfort and convince her.
"Your mother has much on her mind," Moonshee said softly, gently turning Louis away.
"You said the Siamese people are just like us!" he continued, wrenching away from the manservant. "And what about Chulalonghorn? Doesn't he matter anymore?"
"Believe me darling," Anna could hear her voice cracking against the noise of the ecstatic celebration behind them, "I wish this could all be very different." She placed both hands on his shoulders. "But it's the right decision." Louis wondered whether she was trying to persuade him, or herself. "We must go," she finished. Her nodded head directed him towards the carriage to continue carrying things onto the ship and she rushed into the jumping crowds, visible from a distance with her wide skirts and black parasol.
Anna fought her way through the multitudes to the stalls where tickets were being sold. She hated to uproot Louis again. It wasn't fair, moving from place to place, giving him an education in the world while denying him a home. She had hoped that Siam might be home for a bit longer. But she couldn't stay...not with this king whom she simultaneously loved and despised, adored and despaired of understanding. A man who tested all the limits of her self-control.
But as she hurried to queue behind a gentleman, she stopped.
The Prime Minister, Kralahome, was standing by the stall. A sweep of his greying head brought his eyes to meet hers. She swallowed. In the three weeks since she had tendered her resignation and packed the house, she had received no messages from or had any contact with anyone in the palace. Lessons had ceased immediately, and she had not re-entered its gates since Mongkut's dismissal.
Why now? she wondered bitterly. Perhaps sending the highly-ranked official was Mongkut's way of trying to honour her departure – as the palace had not honoured her coming.
She strode up to the man selling tickets, the Prime Minister meeting her there. "Sir," he said, before she could buy, "You, most of all, are aware that there are certain boundaries I cannot cross. One being to contradict king."
Not a send-off then, she thought, and her blue eyes remained stiff and cold. "Yes," she agreed. That had always been her job. "And God help him. Excuse me." She turned to the ticket master. "Passage for four, Newcastle. Thank you."
As she reached for her money, the Prime Minister's next words stopped her. "There is no white elephant, sir."
She straightened, puzzled. "King invented sighting at Padjung Pouri so he can escort royal family to greet imaginary beast as in tradition."
Anna shook her head. "I don't understand."
Kralahome glanced around them, drew her away from the counter and lowered his voice. "There is a traitor marching on palace. Deception's only purpose is to hide children in monastery in village of Non Khai." The dark eyes searched hers. "Please, Ma'am. My king believes you are wise. You are the only one who can persuade him to stay with children until army returns to Bangkok and palace is secure."
She could not answer. A traitor marching on the palace. The unforgiving anger that had driven her through packing up her house vanished as if it had never been. Chulalonghorn was scarce thirteen. Too young to be king.
And Mongkut...her heart stopped. She could have left him, knowing his life continued uninterrupted. She could have sailed, leaving part of herself incurably stuck in Siam with him.
"Please, Ma'am," Kralahome said again, his soft voice pleading.
"Maybe, on journey to rice festival, we will all see one." Fai-Ying's face glowed in her memory, grinning from her place on her father's lap. She could not abandon him to a fate that would so soon re-unite him with his daughter.
Anna jerked her head, unable to speak. The Prime Minister's forehead relaxed. "Come, Ma'am. We don't have much time."
"Everything in order, gentlemen?" the king asked as they strode toward the double doors leading to the courtyard and his entourage.
"We have fireworks to announce the sighting and musicians for the journey," his bodyguard assured him.
"Let us hope Alak is convinced," Mongkut said grimly. Alak. His general. His advisor. His grim, troubled friend. He should have known. Should have paid attention to the warning signals, to his eagerness for blood.
The man marching to Bangkok to slaughter his family. Seventy children. Twenty-six wives. Everyone he loved.
Except Anna. For the first time in three weeks, his soul rustled with relief instead of grief. Perhaps it had been Buddha's wisdom to send Tuptim and Balat, and the fight that had followed. Now she would be safe, sailing to Newcastle in ignorance, instead of here, in danger.
The great double doors of his palace swung open to the courtyard, where the royal family and its retainers bent their knees to press their foreheads to the ground. In a wave, spreading out from his feet like the ripples on a rock-shattered pond, they bowed.
And there, revealed as they folded gracefully, was Anna Leonowens. Stiff, still dressed in her travelling clothes, and definitely not on a boat to England.
He squinted, unable to credit his eyes with seeing the figure he had yearned for in the past month, but the arrogant, self-assured stance undeniably belonged to his English teacher. Mongkut's heart beat madly against his ribs as he began his descent, eyes locked on the figure standing at the back of the crowd, open and vulnerable in the afternoon sun.
The distance between them passed beneath his feet as if it did not exist, and then he was standing in front of her as he had done so many times before, just remembering to restrain his fingers in their desire to reach for her, to promise himself that she was real.
"I have just been informed of the...nature...of your expedition, Your Majesty." Her voice was gentle, her eyes smiling hesitantly. "And, um...I would like to ask a few questions about the dangers involved, as I've heard – at times – wild elephants cannot be reasoned with."
Wild elephants. Always the challenge. But this was neither the place nor the time. Better for her to be gone. His Prime Minister had showed a surprising, and displeasing, initiative. Black eyes flickered to his official, and the king kept his voice cool. "I am surprised that Kralahome took the time to arouse such curiosity rather than make sure Ma'am not miss her boat."
He moved past her, wondering if she would remember her first lesson and follow him. She did. "We have already missed our boat, Your Majesty, that I may speak with you now."
"King cannot miss his boat," he replied firmly. Why had she come? What did she want?
"If it would not be inconvenient, we should like to go with you," she told him directly.
"Jungle is no place for proper English teacher." His tone had not warmed.
"No, it is not, Your Majesty," she said, her voice crackling with barely-leashed patience. "Which is why the presence of one in your cortege might help ensure your display."
This stopped him. Kralahome had, indeed, told her the full nature of their journey. He glanced down at her, his surprise in his eyes.
"Something I feel, for many reasons, I would very much like to do," she finished quietly.
Her blue-blue eyes shone with sincerity, and it was suddenly all he could do not to lift his hand, not to caress the face he had learned to read so long ago.
She had come back for him. Knowing the dangers she would face and the truth hidden behind the lie, she had returned, risking herself and her son. He tilted his head in acceptance, and she fell in step at his side as they strode out of the gate.
She stood alone, gazing at the water, deliberately aloof and apart as the royal barge slipped down river. Her son and his had vanished together, ignoring the politics of their parents as children everywhere will do. He was aware of Lady Thiang's eyes on him as he studied the form of his English teacher.
She was thinner now than she had been when he'd last seen her. But she still warped the world with her presence, the angles of her body, the awkwardness of her seclusion radiating her foreignness as she had never done before.
Abruptly, he pushed himself out of his seat and approached her. Her arrival at the palace today was the first time they'd spoken since the ill-fated interview, and he had to know. Had to see if she was truly committed to being back in his world as she had been, or whether he was getting the professional shell she wore as naturally as a second skin.
"When a woman, who has much to say, says nothing, her silence is deafening." She did not look at him. He stepped closer, studying her profile. "I wish to thank you, Ma'am." That earned a startled glance. "For your courage," he continued.
Silence as the blue eyes searched his face, sorrow as they slid away again and she admitted, "I thought I never wanted to see you again." He sighed, moved past her, gripped the railing as he recalled the vivid dream that had awakened him many nights ago.
"I had a vision of young Tuptim, and of Balat. I think, by touching us all, they have fulfilled their destiny, and attained eternal peace." He turned back to her, to see the frank gaze he had grown to trust over the years. "Though birth and re-birth, we Buddhists hope to learn from our mistakes."
"You told me once that I had never accepted the loss of my husband," she began haltingly. Regret flushed him. He had been so angry that day, and spoken in haste-
"I had no right," he apologized, dropping his eyes as he shook his head.
"No, no. That was true," she said quickly, as if afraid that if she didn't say it quickly, it wouldn't come out at all. "I now realize that it is not enough to just survive. That life is...precious. Especially if you're a Christian, and you're only allowed to have one."
One that she was risking by standing there. Hers. Her son's. Moonshee and Beebe's as well. All that she loved, all that was familiar, for a man she had never wanted to see again. He gazed at her with the scorching regard he had turned on her that night on the shore, making it impossible to look away. "Why did you come back?"
Why? Because I could not sail for England and know that you were in danger or dying. Because I could not stomach the idea that Chulalonghorn would be a boy-king, too young and soon to be executed. Because I had to stand on the docks, brimful of furious righteousness and listen to your Kralehome to know. To know that I love you, without reason, regardless of law or common sense, and that I cannot live in a world where you do not.
She swallowed and said, "Because I could not imagine a Siam without you."
As she dried her hands, turning from the wash basin Beebe had hastened to fill as they pitched their tents next to a large stone Buddha, Anna saw one of Mongkut's personal guard tiptoe silently through the throng of kneeling children to drop beside the king, disturbing his meditation.
A furiously whispered conversation, and both rose, catlike in their effort not to alarm the praying family. Mongkut's mouth was grim, seldom-used frown lines slashing his brow as he stared out across a distance she could only guess at.
Their rapid footfalls brought each child and wife upright as they passed back through them, an undulating wave of dark heads rising. Instinct stilled normally-curious tongues as the king approached the eyeglass trained on their vulnerable point – the narrow bridge spanning a nearby gorge – and peered into it.
Even from this distance, the instant tightening of his body was obvious, and his slow straightening betrayed fear and dread.
"What has happened?" She met him in the middle of the camp, blue eyes searching the king's dark ones. Mongkut's shoulders were taut, the set of his mouth erasing the genial good humour he had made such a staunch effort to maintain in front of his children and his wives.
"You and the children must go on to Non Khai without me." Her sky-like eyes widened in distress, a hand rising unconsciously in protest. There were many reasons he might issue such orders – but none of them could be good.
"What-" she instantly began to demur.
"I will meet you there," he cut her off as he strode past her, intent on another goal.
"I can see it in your eyes," she persisted, following him as swiftly as her skirts would allow, "something awful has happened."
"Was not to be this way, Ma'am," he answered shortly, halting, his eyes still scanning the camp. She waited. He turned, and she was suddenly aware that he was telling her something that he would not tell his wives, his children or even his heir.
"Alak's army has found us. If he crosses the bridge..." Again, the black gaze swept over where his wives and children sat, chatted and played without worry, "everything I love will die." The sweep of his head brought his eyes back to her, and she felt, so intensely it physically burned, the unnamed truth of his regard.
"But – they're only children," she blurted, covering the moment and all the many things she could not respond to.
"Yes. And each one, heir to throne." A brief pause, a last study of his oblivious family, and he was moving again. "Now. You must hurry."
"What will you do?" Anna could hear the uncontrolled panic in her own voice – had she come back only to lose him anyway? There were no more warriors here than the half-dozen of Mongkut's fiercely loyal, private guard. And though compassion was a word she would use to describe him, weakness and forgiveness were not.
The king's voice was flat with anger. "Blow up the bridge."
"Will that stop him?" A general as determined and ruthless as Alak would hardly allow a few hundred feet of wood and crossties to be more than a small setback.
"It will. If he's on it."
If he's on it. But Mongkut would have to goad his wily enemy into such precipitous action. And as it was the king Alak was coming for-
A lure, she realized, and her nameless sense of dread crystallized, stopping her in her tracks as he moved purposefully towards what would probably be his death. Mongkut was going to use himself.
Her feet found motion as she spoke, heedless of the words falling from her lips, or that she was making an impossible demand in front of an entire camp. "Your Majesty, promise me! Promise me that I will see you again!"
Steps interrupted by her demand, he stopped abruptly, his back to her for a long moment. When he finally pivoted, she knew that he would not speak the words she so craved to hear. Theirs had been a relationship of brutal, even painful, honesty. He would not lie to her, not even to offer comfort.
But he took a step closer, gaze fixed on her face, voice quiet, as if they were standing in her classroom or one of his many rooms of state instead of a tension-laden potential battlefield.
"If your Bible is correct, whole world created in seven days...therefore – possible handful of men can stop an army."
She wanted to object...had to say something, anything, that would turn him aside from this disastrous course...But there was nothing to say. He was king, as well as father, and she felt an immense, bitter pride that this man who she loved would surrender so much to guarantee their safety, and the security of his nation.
Mongkut let his eyes travel over every feature of the once-strange, now dearly-loved face of the foreign woman he had welcomed into his world. The unlined brow, the sun-lightened hair no longer caught within the grief of widow's netting, the clear-blue eyes so impossible in his own people. It was the last time he would see her. By the time the sun set, the threat to Siam would be eradicated and Chulalonghorn would be king.
"I could not imagine a Siam without you."
In a quiet, deliberated gesture, he lifted his hand, allowing his fingers to brush her cheek and cradle her face. He could feel her shaking under his touch as he lightly ran his thumb over her skin in tacit affirmation of what they felt.
The night on the shore, the afternoon stolen in the classroom...Anna closed her eyes, treasuring his lingering touch, knowing that this was the closest they'd ever been, surrounded by his retinue under the dusty weight of a hot summer sun. The roughened fingertips tightened against her face, then relaxed-
-and he was walking away, into a fate where she could not follow.
The camp was hastening to obey Mongkut's final command, stripping and re-packing the tents they had only just assembled. Her mischievous, curious students had disappeared into a steady, disciplined work force taking commands from her, from their mothers, from Lady Thiang.
"Mother! Come look!" His small basket already packed, Louis was standing at the ignored bronze eyeglass, studying the confrontation they were all forcing themselves to ignore.
"The king is waiting on the bridge!" Louis announced.
"What?" came her half whisper, half cry as her heart squeezed, so painful it seemed to stop. The satchel only partially closed in her hand dropped open, emptying its contents into the dust at her feet. She knelt instinctively, scrambling as memory overlaid the present, the suddenly-fresh grief of both wetting her lashes.
"Ma'am..." The young officer stood stiffly at attention, Adam's apple bobbing, Anna's eyes transfixed on him. The white shirt under his jacket was barely distinguishable from the red of his outer coat, soaked in blood. Tom had been wounded before, but she had never seen so much of it so dramatically.
And given that the stripling in front of her seemed to find her gaze the worst discomfort, it was probably not his.
"What is it?" she breathed, rising numbly. "What has happened?"
A stout, able-bodied woman entered the tent, shoving the young private aside. Her tone spoke of only facts, but her eyes held a well of sorrow, sympathy and kindness. "Go on, Wuthers. You need to get back to the company . Madam..." A deep breath. It told Anna all she needed to know. "Captain Leonowens is asking for you."
An Indian tribe, rebellious to the last, was all she had been able to learn from the shaken soldiers who had followed her husband. Saving most of his men with a rear-guard charge as they retreated, Tom had taken multiple spear-wounds, puncturing lungs, stomach and heart. It was remarkable that he had survived long enough to tell her goodbye.
"...and there's hundreds of men on the other side!" Louis' voice interrupted her past heartache, returning her to the present one. She was aware of cool metal under her fingers and she stared at it, forcing the mind she had relied on for so many years back into action. Louis' trumpet. A child's toy...
"Wait!" she ordered. "Stop the carriage!"
Not this time, she promised herself grimly as she hastily ordered Lady Thiang to take the fireworks – brought only for the show of leaving Bangkok – from the wagons. Tom's sightless eyes seemed to approve from somewhere within her. Not when we can do something to stop it.
"You!" She startled, glanced up from where she stooped, packing, with Moonshee and Beebe. It was only then that she noticed the sooty camp had stilled with the monarch's arrival, silence swamping what had been so explosively busy only minutes before. She stood slowly, meeting the angry dark eyes with joyous indifference. As long as the king was alive to be furious, Anna had what she wanted.
"Why did you not go to monastery, like king order?" he demanded, bewildered pain clear in his voice. Her decision had put the whole of his large family at risk. Had Alak's renegades not panicked...
But she could not have left him to die. "I lost one man to the jungle, Your Majesty," she answered honestly, her voice cracking from emotion and the strain of shouting commands in Siamese through smoke-choked air. "I wasn't about to let that happen again."
"Ma'am Anna not fully to blame, Father," Chulalonghorn stepped forward, drawing Mongkut's glare as iron draws lightning. "After all, you did put me in charge."
The king stared from his son to his employee and back again. Louis stood, as ever, at Chulalonghorn's side. But now Mongkut could see the marred and smudged instrument clutched in the English boy's hands.
"You sound...English bugles, in our defence," he marvelled, his gaze travelling back to Anna, a smile growing on lips and in his eyes.
"Yes," she said simply.
"I wasn't about to let that happen again." "I couldn't imagine a Siam without you." Her hair fluttered everywhere, long-since pulled from the confines that kept it so rigidly in place, dust cloaking the blond tresses flowing across her dirt-lined face. She had never looked so beautiful.
"When king say handful of men can save all Siam, he was most, unusually, incorrect." The tilt from his waist as he bowed filled her, the highest acknowledgement he could hand to another – an acknowledgement of equality.
He spied her sitting alone on the balcony overlooking the main hall, a music box open at her side. His children had been packed off to bed after performing their fictional account of finding the white elephant – Chulalonghorn still displeased that their lack of practice had resulted in so many mistakes. To his pleasure, under the tutelage of this woman, his son had turned into a hard-worker and a perfectionist. Kingship would teach him to reign the second and hone the first.
"Will he be a good one?" he had asked her in the summer on the shore.
"Well...he is still a boy, Your Majesty. But, a keenly intelligent one. With a warm heart, a sympathetic soul. Qualities, I believe, of a great king." One she had helped to train. One she would now leave, as she would all of them, continuing her life elsewhere.
His slippers masked the sound of his steps as he crept up behind his English teacher, but she did not startle when he entered her field of vision. She had long since been able to feel his presence – so much a part of her world that it was now impossible to remember a time without. "I, ah, ordered this some time ago for the children," she told him with a watery smile, struggling for the composure once so natural, "It's a fine example of scientific thinking, as music is mathematical in nature." Emotion overrode control, and she swallowed, unable to continue.
Mongkut completed the thought. "Chords. Constructed from notes in intervals of thirds. And so on, and so on."
"Precisely." The smile she had learned to read graced his face, the one that told her he saw too much. She rose, breaking the gaze to move restlessly to the rail, staring into the court that had once seemed so new and now felt so effortless to fit into. Was she really going to trade Siam's blue skies, verdant trees and hot, rioting beauty for the cool, cloudy, grey landscaping of her girl-hood world? A palace for the quiet sitting-rooms of the well-to-do? The honest laughter of the harem's ladies for a society built on stilted propriety?
I will never see English women play in the ocean, she thought trivially, and her throat tightened. Siam was beautiful, as was England, in its way, but that was not the crux of these thoughts.
Mongkut...only in the privacy of her own head had she ever pronounced the name. Never to see him. Never to walk at his side, to feel the heat of his touch, the weight of his eyes. Never to have someone who knew her.
"I would like to know why, if science can unravel something as beautiful as music," she turned back to him, as if, like his subjects, she expected him to produce the answer she sought, "why it cannot posit a solution for a schoolteacher and a king?"
"The manner in which people might understand such new possibilities is also process of evolution," he answered, hands clasped behind his back.
Some of the Kralahome's first words came back to her, and Anna smiled through her tears. "Everything in Siam has its own time."
Her quotation sparked a smile, and a faint question. "Even if king is also wanting it to be different."
She shook her head, hearing the unstated request. "I still must go, Your Majesty."
A sigh, a tilt of his head as he moved to stand next to her, bracing himself against the railing to stare over his palace.
"So. Where is it you will be going?"
A nod. "Home." Home. Was it, anymore? Louis had been quite right when he had announced rather callously that they could not have a proper English household – he had never been to the isle, and her parents had moved her to India when she had been younger than her son was now. She had lived most of her life in Asia – it was now more home than anywhere else.
"This is good, Ma'am. Very good for Louis as well." She hoped so...her son who now spoke Siamese and some Hindi. How would he find England after growing up in this so-different world?
England. She was leaving. In the morning, the ship sailed for Newcastle, and this time, Alak would not interrupt her departure. Leaving...
Mongkut's eyes were on her, studying her in the same way they had in the night on the shore, in the longboat running from Alak. She knew, suddenly, that he was bidding her farewell. He would not see her to the ship tomorrow. To the public eye, she was merely his English teacher. "What?" she breathed as he stepped closer to her, the heat of his body warming her.
"Am wondering if, given circumstances, is appropriate...for king to ask...Anna, to dance?"
He had called her by her given name only once before, and she strained now to master her tears. Let him not remember me crying. "I have danced with a king before, Your Majesty."
"And I, an English woman," he answered, extending his hand. Without looking away, she slid her smaller one into it, and for a long moment they did not move, their touch such a fragile thing to break or interrupt. Then he pulled her gently from the edge of the marble towards the middle, lifting his left hand in expectation. She hesitantly placed her right within it, and he folded them, enclosed, against his heart.
"Until now, Madam Leonowens," he murmured, eyes searching her face, "I did not understand supposition: that man could be satisfied with only one woman." He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her palm, then her fingers, before settling them back on his chest.
There were no more words to be said. She let herself melt into him as the music-box played its uncomplicated tune, her head coming to rest on his right shoulder, feeling the curve of his chin against her forehead. She felt as if she should try to catalogue every passing moment...too soon, there would be no more. But sensation, the feeling of his chest rising and falling next to hers, the warmth of his hands interlaced with her fingers, filled her, drowned her, and her eyelids drifted down, allowing her to immerse herself in sensation.
The box's voice began to wind down, going slower, and slower, until Mongkut was little more than rocking her, and the last, plaintive note, echoed in the air.
She felt his mouth on her forehead, and instinctively tilted her head up, watching him with wide blue eyes. Onyx studied her, anguish and ecstasy glittering in their depths as he bent his head to finish what they had started on a moonlit beach so many months ago.
His kiss was slightly hesitant, soft, and almost chaste – a consecration of that which would never be. Anna almost feared to breathe, so feather-light was the whispering movement of his mouth on hers. His lips left to press a second time against her forehead, and he stepped away.
The slight tilt of his bow, equal-to-equal, a tight squeeze of her hand that told her all the many things he would never express aloud, and he was walking away, his stride one that she would recognize if she saw it again in a hundred years.
Gripping the marble railing, Anna watched him out-of-sight. She brought a hand to her lips, as if hardly daring credit her memory.
When the last beat of his heels had faded, she resolutely wiped her eyes. There was a new world to find come morning, the next stage of her life to live. Siam – rich, beautiful, majestic, exotic, beloved Siam – would be a world contained in the quiet pages of journals and the roads of remembrance.
For the rest of her life, it would have to be enough.
A/N: As a side note of interest: in the battle of Antietam, 23,000 (not the 70,000 claimed in the movie) men were killed, according to Wikipedia.