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The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of Glad that the penal colony is behind him, Captain Aubrey discovers a stowaway prisoner aboard near Norfolk Island. He deals with her before he allows the cutter from the governor at New South Wales to deliver his new orders to handle a political situation on a Pacific island.
En route, Maturin learns the key to finding the high level agent giving British information to the French, while Aubrey addresses the unhappy crew of Surprise. One reviewer finds this novel a pure joy to read as it shares unmistakably original insights into the mysteries of the world. Jack Aubrey is in an ill-humour as a result of the frigate 's visit to the abysmal penal settlement — firstly, because Stephen Maturin's duel with an army officer antagonized the local administration until the governor returned, and secondly because Padeen Colman, Maturin's servant and an absconder, was rescued against Aubrey's wishes.
Aubrey observes ribaldry amongst his crew and remains puzzled until he and Pullings find a young female convict, Clarissa Harvill, during the ship's inspection. She was smuggled aboard in Sydney Cove by Midshipman Oakes. Aubrey is at first determined to leave them both on Norfolk Island , but lets them stay aboard until they reach a safer port. Surprise spots a cutter , Eclair. Aubrey suspects the cutter seeks the runaways. He agrees that Harvill and Oakes may marry on board. Aubrey gives some fine red silk he bought for Sophie to be used for a wedding dress for Clarissa, who wears midshipman 's clothes.
Martin conducts the ceremony, while Bonden hides Padeen. The cutter bears dispatches for Aubrey and mail for the ship, and a captain whose father was surgeon on Surprise , eager to see her. The mail brings many letters from Sophia and from Diana. Aubrey sees Maturin's happiness that his daughter was born, while Sophia writes him that the infant has development troubles, a secret to keep from Maturin.
The governor orders Aubrey to settle a local dispute on Moahu , a nominally British island to the south of the Sandwich Islands. The gun room feasts the newlyweds. Despite the delicious swordfish speared by Davies after it pierced the ship , good conversation is impaired by the level of animosity existing amongst the gun room members, most visibly West and Davidge. The cause is jealousy over Clarissa, who has had sexual liaisons with several of the ship's officers.