Read Three Emperors (9780062194138) Online

Authors: William Dietrich

Three Emperors (9780062194138)

BOOK: Three Emperors (9780062194138)
12.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


To Heidi, Charlie, and newcomer Isaac Mills, beginning their own adventures


There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed.



Chapter 1

t is remarkably convenient to be dead.

As I studied my opponents at a Venetian casino, I marveled at the advantages of my temporary demise. One's debts and obligations disappear. Projects can remain unfinished. Enemies are permanently avoided. Failures are forgotten. Even people with nothing good to say while you are alive might spare a word of sympathy at your passing.

If you are Ethan Gage, the American sharpshooter, savant of electricity, treasure hunter, spy, diplomat, and mercenary, this is all to the good.

So I enjoyed my decision to stay missing after narrowly surviving the epic naval battle of Trafalgar. I traded the problems of Gage for temporary reinvention as Hieronymus Franklin, a distant cousin of the famed American philosopher Benjamin Franklin. I'd fled the battle's aftermath in a captain's boat cut loose from the sinking
, been storm-pushed through Gibraltar, sold the gig for passage on a swift ship on its way to Venice, made an end run round Napoleon's empire by sea, and arrived at the most beautiful, corrupt, decaying, polluted, and elegant city on earth.

I had died and gone to gambler's heaven.

“I'm a confidant of President Jefferson and scholar of civilization who hopes to combine republican virtue with your venerable wisdom,” I said when introducing myself to every well-dressed notable I encountered after stepping ashore, since I needed invitations to dances and card games. “The whole world can benefit from Venetian industry.” Never mind that Venice hadn't been industrious for two hundred years: if you wish to be believed, flatter.

The fact that I'd actually been a young protégé of the late Franklin helped me cheerfully lie about him, and myself. I was aided by the Venetian habit of wearing disguises at carnivals and casinos. Since medieval times, the anonymity of the mask has meant freedom for nobles hobbled by rank and protocol. They can gamble, flirt, test outrageous ideas, negotiate agreements, and debate. Liaisons can be arranged, dance partners traded, courtesans hired, bribes taken, and class lines crossed.

I purchased an eye mask of foppish silver filigree worn under a purple tricorne hat, with golden breeches and embroidered waistcoat better suited to the recently passed eighteenth century than to early November of 1805. My cape was midnight blue, its lining white silk, and its piping gold. In short, I looked ridiculous, but safely disguised as a fool.

My missing wife has fondly called me the Fool, the madman of the tarot deck, in search of experience and crazed wisdom. She'd have laughed and called me dressed for the part, and I miss her desperately. Now I had to win enough money to find her. My costume and a stake in our games had consumed the twenty gold guineas I'd been paid by English spymaster Sir Sidney Smith, plus the remainder of what I'd earned from selling the stolen captain's gig and posing as a physician during my passage.

Hieronymus Franklin, professor of medicine. Yes, I'd pretended to be a doctor who “cured” the seasickness of a Hapsburg countess and her lady-in-waiting by mixing a tincture of sugar, rum, and poppy seeds I'd bought from a Moroccan spice peddler in Gibraltar. The opium eased my own aches after battle. I advised my patients to rest amidships for a minimum of two days and talked importantly of phlegm, bile, and the four humours. It didn't hurt that I shamelessly flirted with a lady of too little chin and too much nose, remembering Franklin's advice that the plain are more grateful for attention than the pretty. I clasped hands, stroked forehead, and made a bawdy joke or two while the drug did its work.

Like any medical expert, I took full credit when the pair awoke with their sea legs, and I suggested they someday visit my clinic in Boston, which doesn't exist.
God heals, and the doctor takes the fee
, my mentor Benjamin Franklin observed.

Such enterprise padded my purse, but I needed more money to complete my quest. Almost a year before, I'd been separated from my wife and son at Napoleon's coronation at Notre Dame, they fleeing east as I fled west. My enemy Catherine Marceau wrote shortly before Trafalgar that my wife was captive in Bohemia and in danger of being burned as a witch. Confined with Astiza was my four-year-old son, Horus, or Harry.

Almost as alarming was wicked Catherine's proposal that we ally. The pretty spy had tried to woo me a couple of times in my family's apartment in Paris. Couldn't blame the woman, given my dash, but she was persistent as a pox. Rather than get tangled with that seductress and her plotters in France, I'd flanked Napoleon's empire.

All I needed was enough money to hurry on to Vienna and Prague. In the meantime I'd avoid uncomfortable questions about my job as spy and peripatetic diplomat by letting Ethan Gage temporarily rest at the bottom of the Atlantic.

I said not a word about the naval battle, since I'd outsailed official news of it, deferring instead to card players hundreds of miles from any real information. Ignorance always fortifies certainty.

“This time Bonaparte is finished,” prophesied a red-masked opponent across the table from me. Lord Frederick Ramsey was a seedy English aristocrat who avoided London creditors by gambling away the last of his fortune in a foreign place. “There are half a million soldiers arrayed against him, he will recklessly advance too far, and Emperors Francis and Alexander will hand him his usurper head. And with that, my friends, the world will return to normal.”

“Normal” meant England triumphant and royalism secure. That country had succeeded in assembling a Third Coalition that enlisted Austria and Russia against France's new emperor. Napoleon had been forced to abandon his plans to invade Britain and was marching east to meet this new threat.

I studied my cards, decorated with the Italian suits of wands, cups, swords, and coins, and reflected on my life. In the previous two years I'd spied for both Britain and France, lost my savings, let Catherine make a fool of me, and misplaced my family. I've achieved more notoriety than fame, and accumulated more experience than money. Now I pondered my purpose. Armies tramp, fleets thunder, and new aristocracies of strivers swirl to the waltz while Bonaparte broods in one corner, looking at his watch.

My savant friends take the long view. The earth is indescribably old, scientists inform me, and we are gnats in the gusts of time. These intellectuals live for knowledge, the only achievement they deem eternal.

My less learned companions, such as adventurers Pierre, Jubal, and Ned, think great men waste today to pursue tomorrow. They let the future go hang.

My women have a different strategy yet, living for love, children, and home. Their immortality is their descendants.

I share all these goals and another as well, my own cantankerous freedom. However life is judged, I want to be responsible for it and yet unfettered. So I married a priestess, sired an adventurous little boy, and when I steered the Gibraltar storm and asked myself what I desired most, it was for us to live independently and stop chasing the fool's gold of fame.

However, it takes real gold to make anything happen in today's violent world. I needed an oracle to give me answers, and Astiza was on a quest to find a mechanical one built in medieval times. This was the Brazen Head, constructed by Albertus Magnus and reputed to foretell the future. Some said Saint Thomas Aquinas had destroyed the automaton as evil. Others said the mystic Christian Rosenkreutz had spirited it away to a hiding place in Bohemia.

The future! Any king would rejoice at such advantage. Or would he go mad from foreseeing the inevitable tragedies that await us all?

I shifted uncomfortably in my casino chair, its legs carved like griffins and its back topped by the wings of the falcon god Horus. The hilt of a mysterious broken sword I'd been given by Talleyrand was uncomfortably tied to the small of my back, because he'd claimed it might prove a clue to finding the Brazen Head. When I rubbed my itch like a bear, the others thought I was fidgeting, and I was counting on their overconfidence. I needed a thousand Venetian sequins to find my family.

“Is something causing you discomfort, Franklin?” Ramsey boomed.

I smiled wanly. “Only a little indigestion.”

“Damned foreign fare. Travel exacts its indignities.”

“Not enough fruit at sea.”

“Do my best thinking on the privy!” He laughed.

The women redirected the conversation. “You give the Corsican so little military credit, Lord Ramsey?” asked the self-described Marchesa Antonia Rinaldi, the curving feathers of her mask adding to the high plumage of her hair. Venetians love to dress up.

Whether Antonia was really a marchesa we'd no idea, but it was charity to call her one, since time had roughened her beauty. She still had an imposing bosom and corseted waist, and in dim candlelight the years faded away. A half mask allowed her to display wide lips and liberally sample the casino's prosecco and cognac. The thrice-widowed marchesa usually found a man to go home with, and thus paid more attention to Ramsey's opinions than he might otherwise get.

“Napoleon is a lucky general, but he hasn't faced the full might of the Austrian and Russian nobility,” the Brit said. “The French army draws its leadership from the mob and its manipulators. The aristocrats of the Continent ride into battle with five hundred years of breeding.”
He that speaks much is much mistaken
, Franklin taught.

The marchesa nodded, however, since agreement is always seductive to a man. I avoided comment, lest I resurrect Ethan Gage too early. Despite my good heart, I've accumulated a ball and chain of enemies.

Certainly the strategic situation was complex. The French marshal Masséna was marching toward Venice as we spoke, while Austria's Archduke Charles maneuvered to block him. The British were organizing expeditionary forces at Naples in the south and Hanover in the north. The Russians were marching west to join the Austrians. The allegiance of the Bavarians was uncertain.

My battlefield was considerably smaller. I couldn't afford the stakes at Palazzo Vendramin Calergi, with its Murano glass chandeliers, silk wallpaper, and fireplaces as ornate as altars. The venerable and fraying Casino dei Nobili fit the purse of down-at-heel aristocrats, of which Venice had a surplus since Napoleon ended their thousand-year republic in 1797. The carpets were stained, the dusty chandeliers were trimmed of a third of their candles, and the floors pitched from the mansion's settlement into the lagoon. Age-spotted mirrors reflected dim light, felt cloths hid chipped tables, and powdered wigs topped clumsy servants. The players were greedy as bankers and rootless as gypsies. Our hands had the gambler's twitch, and risk was our refuge. The drapes were heavy, the clocks stilled, and the stacks of Venetian sequins, British guineas, Spanish doubloons, fresh new napoleons, and German talers were thick with golden light.

Our bravado fit the city. Venice had passed from French rule back to Austrian, and was so thoroughly looted in the process that all it had left was atmosphere. This it retained in abundance. The houses and churches shimmered above the lagoon like jewelry on a lacquered table, their baroque decorations a frozen music. Rascals and strumpets from a dozen nations rode gondolas like plumed birds, dressed for display while scrounging for opportunity.

Napoleon had bullied the city into surrender eight years before, threatening to be “an Attila to the state of Venice.” The invading French troops had erected a Tree of Liberty in Piazza San Marco, ordered the Jews released from their ghetto, and hung revolutionary banners between old Roman columns. They also levied an indemnity of three million livres, three ships of the line, twenty paintings, five hundred manuscripts, and thousands of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, and amethysts, all pried from the gold and silver settings in the Treasury of St. Mark's. Then, thinking better of it, they took the settings, too. Napoleon made war pay for itself.

Now war had erupted again, and I turned to my skills as a gambler in the particularly risky game of brelan, matching the city's mood. The languor of Venice, its decay of mold and peeling paint, its wines and campo suppers, and its nightly concerts all emphasize the brevity and beauty of life and the need to take chances. Travelers come to risk love, the love pox, commerce, and wagers, because existence is precarious and time fleeting.

I must turn this to my favor.

Thus far, I'd had a minor triumph in biribi, a game of pure chance similar to roulette in France. The player bets on one of thirty-six figures placed like chessmen on a sumptuous cloth. The figures were painted to resemble the war's generals. To curry favor, I resisted the temptation to bet on Napoleon, who I knew was the best of the lot, and wagered instead on Austria's Archduke Charles. I electrified my audience (I am a Franklin man, have generated sparks at parties, and enjoy the fashionable metaphor) by luckily selecting the ball representing Charles from a leather bag. I thus won thirty-two times my wager.

I pocketed half my 320 sequins and left the rest on the table, in the remote chance that the next player might pluck Charles again, making me a fortune. Alas, pulled from the bag was General Mack, who commanded in Bavaria. So I lost that bet and turned with the rest of my winnings to brelan.

This is a game dependent on one's ability to judge an opponent's character. A “brelan” is a triplet in a game of thirty-two cards. What makes the match intriguing is that the player with the highest card can take all the cards in that suit, winning decisively if he captures many, or still losing if few cards of that suit have been dealt.

The dealer also turns a final card, called
la retourne
, claimed by the player holding a brelan or the highest card in the
s suit.

The skill is reading opponents to know when to bluff and when to fold. The luck is the cards dealt.

Lord Ramsey and the countess were drunk enough to be impulsive. Across from me was the younger and watchful Countess Nahir de Lusignan, a beauty with Astiza's dusky sculpture. She even claimed to have been born in Alexandria, where I'd captured my bride. Nahir's golden mask was trimmed to reveal attractive cheekbones, her lips were gilded, and her black hair was a complicated macramé that fell down her back. We had met at a dance when I entered the city two days before, and playing her was a dance as well.

BOOK: Three Emperors (9780062194138)
12.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Thicker Than Blood by Matthew Newhall
Game of Fear by Robin Perini
Ladivine by Marie Ndiaye
Day of the Damned by David Gunn
Wolf Moon by Ed Gorman
The Ghosts of Glevum by Rosemary Rowe