Authors: William Dietrich
Tags: #Historical Fiction
PRAISE FOR THE ETHAN GAGE SERIES:
“Dietrich is becoming a leader among historical novelists.”
THE ROSETTA KEY:
“The action in nearly nonstop, the humor is plentiful, and the intrigue is more than enough to keep the pages turning.”
—School Library Journal
THE DAKOTA CIPHER:
“Fast, fun and fill of surprises … rich in intrigue and impressive historical detail.”
THE BARBARY PIRATES:
“An action-filled romp that’s both historically accurate and great fun.”
THE EMERALD STORM:
“A breathlessly exciting adventure.”
THE BARBED CROWN:
“Description of war on the high seas is rarely better than in this novel.”
—San Antonio Express-News
THE THREE EMPERORS:
“An especially interesting underlying tension of mysticism and science.”
—Historical Novel Review
ALSO BY WILLIAM DIETRICH
THE ETHAN GAGE SERIES
The Rosetta Key
The Dakota Cipher
The Barbary Pirates
The Emerald Storm
The Barbed Crown
The Three Emperors
The Murder of Adam and Eve
Blood of the Reich
The Scourge of God
The North Cascades
On Puget Sound
The Final Forest
Copyright 2016 by William Dietrich
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication can be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher.
Book Cover Design/eBook Design/Production by VMC Art & Design
To Henry Mills, just beginning to explore the world.
I ran from the wolf and encountered the bear.
Table of Contents
nglish cannon barked and jumped, the crash of their carriages so severe that it rattled the chains of my manacles. I was blind to the battle on the deck overhead, but I could hear it. A cry of command, a tense pause while the touchhole was lit, the roar of the 24-pounders, the snap of restraining tackle as the guns recoiled, and then their heavy slam to the planking. Next a rumble of feet as cursing men sponged and reloaded. Howls if an Ottoman ball hit home. Cheers if the Turkish forts were hit. The slap of a bosun whipping frightened sailors back to duty.
The smoke of the fight descended to the orlop deck where I was miserably confined, my only light a single lantern. The haze choked like vile fog. We were sailing into a trap, a gantlet between two forts that I myself had engineered. What a surprise I’d prepared! How ironic that I was about to get a taste of my own deviltry!
I shouted again to be allowed to come to the quarterdeck to give warning. “Shut up, Gage!” the marines snapped back from where they guarded the powder magazine farther aft, taking care that no spark came near it. “To the devil with your tongue!” I could just make out the dim forms of powder monkeys scurrying up the companionways to bring fresh shot and sack. How I longed to be with the gun crews! Yes, put me in the midst of the blood-splashed tumult, far more exposed to cannon fire than here below the waterline—put me up there because I dreaded far more what lurked in this awful hold.
Another passenger—titled, cursed, silent, and implacable—was segregated in a wood and iron cage closer to the bow. Perhaps he was confined. Perhaps he’d demanded solitude. Perhaps he slept. Certainly he waited with the patience of a creature with endless time.
Waited to stalk my family.
This sea fight had many smells. The saltwater of the Dardanelles, of course. The scent of gunpowder, the sand spread to give traction in the blood, the blood itself, iron, grease, tallow, sweat, and even the ammonia of the piss buckets. When shots strike home and splinters fly, you can whiff the sweetness of raw wood. Stand with the marines and it’s wool and gun oil.
These were not the smells that haunted me, however. I remembered all too vividly the rock dust of the gigantic granite cannonballs I’d help the Turks roll into place, and that was fearful enough. But now my nose was filled with a darker stench, an odor that made the British seamen avoid this orlop as if it was the womb of the plague.
It wasn’t just the usual bilge water and rat droppings. This putrefaction was a reminder of the must of the tomb, the corruption of gangrene, the rot of spoiled food, and the pulp stench of worms. It was the smell of the world’s darkest and deepest places, vents of sulfur, bones of gnawed flesh. It was the horrible stink of fundamental evil, a twisted hostility to everything good. It was the reek of secrets hidden and forbidden. It was the smell of the man, or thing, or monster, in the iron cubicle ten paces from me.
A bulkhead prevented me from seeing what the creature was doing. This alone inflamed my imagination.
Boom! Crash! Sound punched my ears, the ship shook from the pounding, and I was bounced an inch by every report of the artillery. What I dreaded was a far bigger impact, however, and what it might set loose.
The weight of the granite cannonballs I’d contrived could cause enough damage to set loose this fellow traveler. He lusted for Astiza’s heart like a demented lover, and desired my son Harry for pitiless revenge.
I heaved against chains that wouldn’t yield. My hands and ankles were raw. My throat was sore from protest and pleading. I had to protect my family and didn’t even know if they were vulnerably unprotected in a foreign embassy or entangled in the world’s greatest harem. They were in grave danger outside the seraglio and in terrible peril within it, given that the sultan’s house was a pit of intriguing concubines, eunuchs, dwarves, mutes, and sultanas who conspired to elevate their rival sons.
So I tortured my imagination while tensing for imminent impact. The ship would reel when one of the massive cannonballs hit. Ribs could buckle, the hold could fill with water, I’d fight fruitlessly against my chains, men would wail prayers, and the evil one would burst from its dark quarters to roam like a beast.
How had I come to such desperation, after so many schemes?
As I told the British, one thing led to another …
ou teeter on the lip of Vesuvius, Ethan Gage,” warned the Russian foreign minister as I calculated my surroundings. To Adam Czartoryski’s cautionary eye, I was a political opportunist leaning too far over the precipice.
“If so, it’s a volcano of gold.”
Indeed, I felt that I was inside a treasure chest in the gilded ballroom of Catherine the Great’s former palace outside St. Petersburg. The occasion was a reception for Tsar Alexander, seeking public reassurance after his recent defeat by Napoleon at Austerlitz. I’d not only survived that battle, I was smartly dressed, comfortably dry, and flirting not just with nobility, but the chance to become noble myself.
“Not all that glitters is gold, my American friend. That’s a Russian proverb.”
“Fortune sides with him who dares. That’s a Roman one.” I’m ever the gambler, as well as a treasure hunter and go-between. The latest St. Petersburg craze was whist, and I could converse, flatter, and lose at cards when it was socially strategic to do so.
“Ah, Virgil,” Czartoryski recognized. “You have a classical education?”
“No, I simply prefer concise wisdom to the windy. Napoleon says the key to communication is brevity. He can issue five orders in the time it takes most generals to clear their throat.”
My patron laughed. Czartoryski’s caution was well meant, but he was as indulgent of my ambition as I was impatient to exercise it. Russia didn’t just seethe with opportunity, it glowed. The snow outside the palace was diamond bright, its reflection bouncing from window to mirror to candle, setting afire the gold leaf that climbed wedding-white walls like vines. The result was dazzle that would honor heaven, and it seemed an appropriate place to congratulate myself. If my life to date has been a catalog of frustrations, I still believe—like all Americans—that I deserve to be lucky someday.
Maybe that day had come.
Catherine the Great’s palace in the outlying town of Tsarskoe Selo has a Great Hall the size of a cow pasture. One bank of windows looks out on a vast courtyard crowded with expensive sleighs, horses pissing craters in the snow and bundled teamsters smoking pipes around a bonfire. The other side views vast and empty gardens, their beds ermine white this February of 1806. The floor of the ballroom is intricate parquet, and the ceiling has a painting bigger than a circus tent called “The Triumph of Russia.”
Nor is that all. Through arched doors I spied another gold room, and another and another, in infinite reproduction, until one reached a room paneled in orange amber, as cloying as honey and soothing as a womb. There were golden statues on the roof, marble statues in the garden, and crystal chandeliers big enough to hold a troop of monkeys. In other words, everything in Russia was grander than I’d dreamed.
And here I was, a ragtag American adventurer, wayward protégé of Benjamin Franklin, spy, soldier of fortune, and family man, with the world’s most beautiful woman as wife. I frankly can’t decide on the truth of Christian miracles, but I felt the devil’s luck here in St. Petersburg. Less than three months before I’d been treacherously shot in the back. Now I was flattered as a military expert in surroundings sumptuous enough to sate a congressman. The place made Thomas Jefferson’s new President’s House seem like a log cabin.
I glanced at Astiza. At thirty-five my wife is no innocent ingénue. Her recent underground imprisonment has inevitably left lines in the corners of her eyes, just as I’ve detected the first gray on my temples. But we still have the ambition of the young. Moreover, Astiza does not just display the silken hair of Cleopatra, the face of Helen, the wisdom of Minerva, and the curves of Venus, she has presence wrought by character—or so is my opinion. She’s also brilliantly eccentric, not least in the astounding fact that she married me. “Impressive, no?” I meant the palace, but was fishing for a compliment.
“If all the poor of Russia could come inside.”
Such an attitude is sedition in St. Petersburg, but part of my wife’s charm is candor. Lest she expand dangerously, I turned back to Czartoryski. “Yes, I heard you climbed Vesuvius above Pompeii while a diplomat in Italy. But I don’t see the resemblance between that sulfur pot and this.” The palace halls were jammed with five thousand of the rich and striving, including a crush of Prussians, Poles, Swedes, English, Austrians, Persians, and Ottomans. There were gigantic Circassian servants with russet beards and scarlet sashes, waiters “of color” (the new Parisian euphemism) in yellow jackets, and serving girls dressed like nymphs. The male European guests were booted, the women bejeweled, and the place had that reek of sweat and perfume that beclouds every royal gathering. Laughter pitched high because of anxiety. Dresses were cut low to command attention.
We were the only American couple, or rather half-American, since my Greek-Egyptian wife has never seen the United States. Today’s occasion was Maslenitsa, the last week before Lent and the seventh before Easter. Russia, I’d learned, has more religious holidays than a banker in Jerusalem.
“Hell below, and Italy’s blue vault of heaven above,” Czartoryski said of the famed volcano. “One can slip, or ascend. That’s life in the Russian court. In America you can afford to be naïve. In St. Petersburg, never.”
I rotated my head. “I only see the heaven part. But I rely on you, Adam, to keep me from falling.” My wife squeezed my arm, prudence in every finger press.
“And I rely on you to help me keep rising.” His smile was that of a conspirator.
What fools our egos make us.
The Pole and I had struck up an unlikely alliance. He was fascinated that I’d known Franklin and dined with Jefferson, since Polish patriots admire the American Revolution. He hoped any military advice I gave might include reconstituting Poland as a buffer state between the French and Russian empires.
I was happy to oblige. While it’s true I have the blemishes of ne’er-do-well, opportunist, cardsharp, and sycophant, I can sell myself as an expert after my misadventures with Napoleon, since the French emperor and I are both idealistic rascals with biographies in need of edit. Foreigners hold a third of the highest jobs in the Russian capital and are called
Adam was my best chance to become a
The Russian government had given my family an apartment on Nevsky Prospect, a burly and gruff butler named Gregor so mute you’d think I’d cut out his tongue, and a stipend of five hundred rubles a month. All this when a Russian soldier could be fed with nine! I’d already acquired a sleigh, a fine new Jaeger hunting gun, a fur-coat for Astiza, and lead soldiers for my five-year-old son Horus, or Harry. It’s gratifying to be a good provider—and if there’s one thing that money guarantees, Franklin quipped, it’s the desire for more.
“When will I have an audience with Tsar Alexander?” I knew a courtier could rattle around for months. “I can explain how the French army is different from the Russian.”
“Yes. Frenchmen are allowed to think.” Czartoryski had wit.
“And your own rise, foreign minister, is evidence such reform will be encouraged.” I smiled at my wife, wishing she were more impressed by my flatteries. But wives know husbands too well, and she’d experienced just how catastrophic my partnerships with Bonaparte had been. Yet her gaze was determined too, her lips set in a necessary smile. Even sage and skeptical Astiza saw chance in our gleaming surroundings.
“Perhaps you can catch Alexander’s eye today,” Czartoryski said. “But don’t be disheartened if such favor eludes you. You’ll see a tsar’s dilemma, thousands of people vying for his attention. Part of surviving Vesuvius is luck. You must time your visit between eruptions.”
“And time your broadsides,” boomed Vice Admiral Dmitry Senyavin, commander of the Russian Adriatic fleet. He was on winter leave and tacked our way like a slim frigate, having been fascinated by my account of Trafalgar. “I believe you called the English smashers, did you not, Monsieur Gage?”
“Napoleon too,” I told them. “Strike first, split the enemy, and annihilate each fragment in turn. I think Nelson and Napoleon might be twins separated at birth, one staying on land and the other going to sea.”
“But Nelson dead.”
“He had the genius to die at his greatest triumph. We’ll see if Bonaparte’s timing is equally adept.”
“And our timing must include other guests.” Czartoryski bowed and the minister and admiral turned. Astiza and I weaved our way to the groaning appetizer tables to snack on cheese, caviar, wintered fruit, and Russian teacakes, me slipping a few of the latter into my green frock coat pockets. I estimated getting from one end of the palace to the other was a good day’s march, so I’d draw proper rations.
“I think we should heed the minister’s friendly warning,” Astiza murmured, nibbling as I chewed. “Politics here is treachery.”
“Franklin said people should jump at opportunity as quickly as they do at conclusions.” It’s peculiar I still believe that, since so much treasure has slipped from my grasp. However, it’s the most desperate who play the lottery most recklessly. When you have little chance, even the slimmest becomes compelling.
“Everyone here is dependent on the tsar and jealous as children.”
“Czartoryski thinks that with your help I could get my own title.” My wife wins invitations with her beauty and mystic reputation as a seer. Russians are as superstitious as sailors, their Christianity painted onto Slavic paganism.
“Certainly your wife’s charm is your only chance, Ethan Gage.” We turned. A uniformed Prince Peter Petrovich Dolgoruki bowed to Astiza with flirtatious flourish, his white glove fluttering this way and that like a moth. He surfaced to smirk at me. “I’m astonished you married so well.”
“Ethan saved me,” Astiza said.
“I cannot think of another explanation. Now: Does this reception not eclipse the court of Bonaparte?”
Dolgoruki demanded flattery even when he disdained me. The prince had reluctantly escorted us to this capital under the tsar’s order, despite a mutual contempt forged shortly before Austerlitz. He was a dashing warrior of twenty-nine; I was a skeptical forty and still striving for the kind of fortune Dolgoruki was born to. The nobleman stood like a rooster, chest out, head high, his waist bearing a golden sword of the Order of St. George that had been awarded by Tsar Alexander to his losing officers to obscure defeat. While I thought Dolgoruki the epitome of highborn arrogance, he thought me the nadir of lowborn irreverence, a man who confused cynicism with intelligence.
Fate had kept us in orbit around each other.
“Well, both courts speak French,” I replied. Seeking reassurance of Russian superiority was absurd since every noble in St. Petersburg dressed in French fashion, danced the polonaise, and did their best—which was not very good—to copy French manners. Russian men clumsily bobbed and weaved as they tried to master kissing both cheeks. Their women were worse, first evaluating each other’s dresses, then bussing four to six times, next promising eternal friendship, and finally speculating on the preening males. I recognized the ritual, but you have to be born to that peculiar mix of grace and wit that the French bring to their palaces. I just play the sharpshooting American and neutral diplomat.
“I’m impressed by all the gold,” I went on. “For a nation sustained by millions of serfs, imperial Russia has accumulated more than its share of precious metal.” The country must have a mine somewhere, though it would be crass to ask for directions. “Best paint job since the Sistine Chapel. Not as holy, but damned inspiring in its own way. But it’s not the court you have to equal, Prince Dolgoruki, it’s the French army. Isn’t it?”
He scowled. “Which you claim to know how to beat.”
“I’ve absorbed the precepts of Napoleon.”
“And when is this secret to be shared with our tsar?”
“I’m awaiting Alexander’s invitation. Foreign minister Czartoryski suggested I might catch his eye here.” I dropped the name of Dolgoruki’s rival to remind the prince I was fortified with my own powerful allies. “I anticipate the tsar will want my perspective on America, too. Jefferson is my old friend, and the two leaders have written each other.” As often as I can, I mention the President and Franklin, in hope their luster will rub off. Talleyrand, Fouché, Nelson, Pitt. I’m shameless.
“Stay away from Czartoryski. He cares more about Poland than Russia.”
“Well, the tsar’s wife seems to like him.” It was common knowledge that Elizabeth and Adam had been lovers with Alexander’s permission, since the tsar was besotted with beautiful Polish mistress Maria Narayshkina. One needed a chart to keep track of who was sleeping with whom in St. Petersburg.
“And the empress consort has gone on to another lover, at that fool’s peril.” Dolgoruki meant dashing Captain Alexis Okhotnikov, who strutted while the nobility quietly made bets on how long he’d live before an accident ended his unsanctioned romance with the tsar’s wife. “Make no mistake, Gage. Be useful or find yourself out in the snow. Or in Siberia, should you really displease him.”
I smiled brightly. “I’m sure the same admonition applies to you.”
“I was born to this. You, like Bonaparte, are a scrambler.”
“I’m honored by the comparison. He’s an able fellow.”
“We’ll have our revenge on him someday. Perhaps I’ll bring your wife his famous hat.”
“I’d suggest trying peace. He’s a difficult friend, but a terrible enemy.” And I steered Astiza away, confident that Dolgoruki was simply jealous of my influence. St. Petersburg was stuffed with foreign military officers, architects, artists, gunners, chemists, diplomats, and explorers. Even the tsar’s doctor was an Englishman named Sir Alexander Crichton, which was prudent given the Russian tradition of poison and quackery.
“You shouldn’t antagonize the noble who brought us here,” Astiza murmured. “Never humiliate a prince.”
“The title is an honorific, like a knighthood in England.” The Dolgorukis were an old and noble family, but heredity guarantees little in Russia. A good chunk of the aristocracy is chronically bankrupt from poor soil, worse weather, absentee management, and tsarist disfavor. “Word is that Dolgoruki will be promoted to save face and sent south to fight the Turks. Good riddance.”