by Stephen G Dodge
with Alec King, Robert Follows, Rory Tassonyi, and Ryan Kroon
The following actually happened, though the details have been lost to history, and the men who lived these stories were guilty of extreme embellishment. Undoubtedly, alcohol was involved.
This is the third chapter of a longer record of the adventures of the HMS Alcmene.
A Memorable Party
Beck slunk along the dirt path. They had walked for over an hour. The marines were trodding along at the corners of the coach, their constitution unbroken. The horses huffed and puffed. The marines were unarmed. Their rifles were stowed in the cart with Brock’s bag of implements, but Beck still had his hatchet, freshly cleaned, hidden tightly inside his jacket.
Night had fallen. The stars shone bright, but the moon was hidden. It was very dark. They were far west of the market, in the middle of a marshy, forested peninsula. It wasn’t a tactically ideal setting. They were already fifteen minutes from the relative safe of the mainland.
The horses pulled towards Grog. Gaspode yanked them back. The cart thumped through a rut. Grog giggled. The road widened a little. Now the forest was manicured and a stubby hedgerow ran along the path. Through the trees Beck could see a cathedral spire. It was the first building he’d seen in a while. Must be where the royal family take their service. He thought.
A lantern flickered up ahead. They were approaching the estate.
* * *
The coach bumpped and Byrne thumped his head. His turban offered little protection.
Brock yelled “Grog, stop bothering the horses!” out the window.
“French from here on out!” Beck whispered from outside.
Byrne was facing Brock and Jenson, who were squeezed together tightly in the rear of the coach. Neither had wanted to sit beneath the driver’s seat for the lack of headroom. Byrne now understood the reasoning. Each time Gaspode lost the horses, he hit his head.
Jenson leaned in. “Dr. Byrne, do you think we should tell Mr. Beck about the Prince?” he whispered.
Byrne thought for a moment. He wondered why Jenson hadn’t outright told Beck that there weren’t any material gains to be had. Now, an expectation had been set.
“What will he think when he discovers?” Byrne asked.
“My concern is nothing good.”
“Why did we let him get this far?” whispered Brock.
“There wasn’t a good moment, Mr. Brock.” replied Jenson.
“When we hired him, maybe?” Brock shot back.
“We shouldn’t give up Society secrets if we don’t have to.” said Byrne. “It’s good we didn’t.”
“And when he finds out, and we force him to leave empty handed?”
“We’re here,” said Byrne. “He got us here. It was good to use him. Just because we’re only here for the Prince doesn’t mean that he can’t line his pockets, right? We can cut him loose in the estate and he can steal anything he wants, can’t he?”
“That could work.” said Jenson.
“Then he’ll disappear and we don’t need to worry.”
There was a knock on the coach door. Beck appeared in the window with a Norwegian.
“Monsieur” he said, with a terrible accent.
Jenson produced three invitations from his jacket pocket and handed them over. The guard broke each seal and read the paper quickly. He looked entirely uninterested. He passed the invitations to Beck, and waved the coach through without a word.
* * *
The estate was hidden from the road. It appeared suddenly when the hedge gave way to ornate iron fencing. A hundred feet later, the road turned through a main gate. It was a small estate, nothing like the ones Beck had seen in France and Austria. It was a wide and short cottage, just two stories tall, with a vaulted roof above the main entryway. The entrance faced a cul de sac lined with expensive looking carriages. In comparison, Gaspode’s black coach looked dull, even with its ornate carvings.
Beck stowed his greatcoat in the coach’s chest and strode to the door. He presented the invitations to another guard. Byrne, Brock, Jenson, Smith and Klein followed. Or was it Klein and Smith? Grog petted the horses by the coach. None of the Alcmenes seemed to pay him any mind. The guard said “bonsoir” and ushers opened the tall double doors.
The great hall was long and narrow. An ornate split marble staircase was centered at one end, and marble pillars stood along the walls. Three jeweled chandeliers were hung along its length. The room shone gold from their light.
Guests of all colours milled about. There were royals from Iberia, Ottoman diplomats, French aristocrats, Austrians, Russians, and Italians. They all shared the space. Everyone was present but the English. It was packed. Up above, on balconies set into the walls, more guests ate, drank, and watched the crowd. Stewards worked through the room with silver trays of food. Beck stood in awe. He’d tangled with the ultra wealthy before, but he’d never seen so many in one place.
Apparently there was a plan. The Alcmenes worked their way into the hall. Smith and Klein split off with Brock and Jenson. Byrne waved Beck to follow and led them into a quiet room off to the right. It was empty. Trays of food and drinks sat undisturbed on long tables.
Byrne spoke quietly. “Jenson and Brock have gone to meet our contact in the east wing. You and I must be on the lookout for, and identify French agents.”
“So, the question is, how do we find them?”
“We think like them.” said Beck. “What would they be here for?”
A door behind them swung open. A woman entered with two guards who looked like Beck. French guards. Byrne stared at her surprised. The woman was about Beck’s height, a little shorter than Byrne, a little taller than average. Her dress was coloured in bright reds and yellows, and cut a little lower than was usual. In contrast she was very fair and her hair, tied intricately, was very dark. Her eyes flashed to Byrne. She looked surprised too.
She waved a hand and said something in French. Beck didn’t understand. Her guards disappeared through the door. She was staring at Beck expectantly, her hand still raised. He could see the muscles in her forearm tense. Beck looked at Byrne, who nodded. He stepped past the woman, and through the door.
He was in the servant stairs. It was a cold stone corridor with grey brick walls and nothing in the way of decoration. The landing was at a corner. The corridor stepped down toward a dark basement ahead of him, and upwards to his left. On his right was a second heavy wooden door.
The French guards were chatting. One was leaning on the wall headed upstairs. The other had his back to the side door. He looked at Beck and said, “Ça va?”
What? Beck was not prepared. He thought hard. He had a couple options. He could play the strong and silent type, but it would be difficult since he couldn’t understand the Frenchmen. Maybe he could leave? Would it be suspicious? They probably think he’s Byrne’s guard. But he had to leave. He didn’t know enough French to stay. What did the doorman say earlier? Bon something. Bon soeur? No, that didn’t sound right.
“Bien?” asked the Frenchman.
Beck took a long stride forward down the basement stairs and did the best impression he could. “Bon soir.” he said.
He quickly worked his way down the steps. Behind him he heard the Frenchman say “Quoi?” and then rapid footsteps. Beck bolted around the corner and didn’t look back.
* * *
The French woman strided across the room to Byrne. She moved with urgency.
“Are you the doctor?” she asked. Her French was thick. Byrne recognized the Parisian accent.
“A doctor, certainly.” he responded in French, trying his best to be charming.
“I have heard stories.”
She was three feet away, across a slim table.
“What sort of stories?” Byrne asked. He didn’t recognize her. She was beautiful. Could she be an agent? How did she know him? Had he dressed similarly to some other easterner doctor? He removed his turban, and placed it on the table between them. His hair was flat.
“The most incredible stories.” she said, leaning in over the turban. “You saved a village form the plague in India, yes? And saved their elder so he could preside over his own daughter’s wedding that day?”
Her dark eyes were lit with excitement. She was very close, even with the table between them. The story was something like an adventure of his. It had been in China, though, in a remote town up the river from Peking. Their well had been contaminated. Not knowing, they had continued to drink the water, fearing dehydration. Once they stopped, they recovered quickly. The part about the wedding was new information to Byrne. Admittedly, he had left the town quickly.
“Yes, that was me.” he concluded. “Though it was his niece’s wedding. That part always gets lost.” he embellished. He wasn’t sure why he said that.
“You are an English doctor, yes?” she asked, now in English with the same heavy accent. She nodded with the question. Her smile was incredible.
“Irish,” he said, switching to English. “I must confess I am. I hope you won’t hold it against me.”
“I should have known.”
She reached out a hand and brushed the tip of his beard. Very lightly, very quickly, like a hummingbird. She leaned off the table and slid around. Now there was nothing between them.
“I’m sorry but I do not know your name, madam.” said Byrne.
“How rude of me!” she exclaimed, and offered a hand. “I am Lisette.”
“Pleasure to meet you. I am doctor William Byrne.” he took her hand and kissed it a little higher than was usual. “Please call me Liam.”
“Liam, I want to hear more of your stories.” she exclaimed, spinning with anticipation. “They are so incredible. You must be so brave to have traveled so far!”
Liam watched her dress as it spun. The colours were brilliant. The hem was cut just a little higher than was usual.
“Your dress shines like my beard.” he said. The moment the words left his mouth he kicked himself. Who would say something like that?
“That’s why I wore it.” she said.
She leaned in close. Her perfume filled Byrne’s mind. She placed a hand on his chest where the scarves parted.
“You are always so fantastically dressed in the stories. Such colours, they say. Like fire!” She slid her hand upwards. “Are you wearing armor?”
“One can never be too prepared.” he said, taken by her forwardness.
She breathed on his neck and moved her hand down his chest again. Her fingers slipped under his scarves. Down and down. Byrne was going to be driven mad. Her breath was warm. Her hand slid farther still, deep into his scarves, and she grasped his little black code book. She yanked it away, reared back, and buried her knee in his groin. Byrne lurched forward and she headbutted him in the nose. He crumpled, clutching his groin. He caught the table but it gave way. He fell flat. Lisette leapt over him. As she passed he could see a dagger strapped to her ankle. She ran from the room, the way she’d come.
* * *
Beck sprinted down the basement steps. He had to move quickly. The Frenchmen were after him. The stairs turned three times and ended in a stone hallway. Beck kept running. He was in a cellar. The floor was an uneven slab. It felt like a prison.
Twenty paces and Beck made a turn. The guards certainly saw him. He ducked right at an intersection and heard one of the French guards yell. Should he stop and fight? Running wasn’t working. He only had the hatchet. He’d abandoned his pistol in his greatcoat, but that didn’t hurt the odds too much. He wasn’t confident in his shooting. Did the Frenchmen have guns?
He looked for somewhere he could spring an ambush. Surviving a close engagement against two attackers would be difficult. Doing so when either could have a gun was suicidal. He’d need to even the odds quickly. He’d need the perfect opportunity.
Another intersection. Straight or left. Beck looked left. Through an arched door and down three steps he saw a room. Dead end. On the far wall a Norwegian was sitting at a desk reading a book. Not a good option. He heard the French yell again. The guy at the desk must have heard too.
The next room was perfect. He bolted inside and down four steps. It was a long, narrow cistern, half full of water. A stone path ran its length. It was dim. A torch burned above his head and another flickered on the far wall. Down the length of the pathway, four pairs of stone pillars supported the arched ceiling. Each was a yard wide, and square. Each offered near perfect cover. Each cast great shadows around the room. Beck rushed to the second pair and hid on the right. The water stood like glass next to him. He loosed his hatchet tested the ground by rubbing his foot on the stone. Good grip. No grit beneath him. Nothing to make any unwanted noise.
Behind the pillar he was in almost perfect shadow. A little light flickered on the surfaces around him, but Beck was in the dark. Shadows played strangely on the wall beside him, across the narrow strip of water. It looked like the walls were cracked. Or hollow? There were deep, man sized crevices running up and down them.
He heard the Frenchmen. They stepped heavily. Their boots were naturally loud. Ametures. Beck thought. They approached slowly. He heard the click of a pistol primer. He listened to them reach the first pair of pillars. There were two distinct sounds as they swept behind one, then swept behind the other.
It was five strides from the first pair of pillars to the second. Beck counted. They came up the center of the pathway. He slipped around as they approached, feet shuffling. They checked left. Nothing. They checked right. They saw nothing.
Beck stepped around the pillar and removed his tricorn. The Frenchmen were facing away. He threw the hat over their heads. It carried in the air. The Frenchmen watched. Beck lunged.
He buried the hatchet in the first man’s right shoulder. Bone caught the impact but the damage was done. He wouldn’t be shooting anything. The second man wheeled and Beck buried a foot in his stomach. He went off balance, and fell sideways. The first man bowed in pain and the hatchet came out. He spun and lunged at Beck, who parried. He took a chunk of the man’s ear off but the momentum couldn’t be stopped. He hurled into Beck and they flew backwards, but the Frenchman couldn’t grapple with his injured arm. They crashed to the ground and slid across the stone together. Beck gripped the Frenchman’s head and thumped him with the butt of the hatchet. The weapon slipped from his hand, and rolled the Frenchman off.
The second Frenchman was on his feet. Beck was up at the same time. He was unarmed. The Frenchman drew. Beck was on him. He flying tackled the Frenchman and they both went down. The man was winded. Beck was on his back. The other Frenchman was charging. Beck hadn’t hit him hard enough. He had a sword in his uninjured hand. He swung it high and came down at Beck. Beck rolled. The sword grazed his arm and crashed against the rock. Beck swept the Frenchman’s feet and he was down again. Beck leapt to his knees, swinging a fist. The blow landed. The Frenchman’s head crunched against the ground. It wasn’t enough. He grabbed Beck around the waist and rolled on top of him. He lunged at Beck’s face, but Beck caught his hand, and yanked the Frenchman forward with his own momentum. The injured Frenchman tumbled, and caught a pillar with his leg. His femur snapped. He screamed. His leg bent in half. The bone ripped through his breaches. Blood spattered the stone.
Beck rolled to one knee, and got a hand on his hatchet. A pistol clicked. Primed. Shot. The bang was deafening. The room rang. The water shook. Spent gunpowder sprayed Beck in the cheeks. He was expecting more. What happened? Through the smoke the Frenchman looked equally surprised. Beck charged, hatchet up. He slashed. The blade clashed with the gun. Three fingers and the pistol fell to the floor. The Frenchman shrieked.
Beck heard yelling behind him. He dove to the left, behind the third set of pillars, and leapt at the wall. He wedged himself into a crevice cast in darkness. Panting, he tried to catch his breath. His arm was bleeding. He should have taken the chainmail from Ser Richard.
The guard who had been reading in the other room ran down the steps. He wore blue fringed with red and a white X on his chest. Must be a Royal Guard. Beck thought. He’d seen them about.
The Norwegian ran to the Frenchman with the broken leg. Beck could see the pool of blood beneath him. The Frenchman was limp. The Norwegian looked at the bloody sword next to him. He looked at the Frenchman with three missing fingers, still screaming in agony. Beck crossed his fingers for what would happen next. The Norwegian yelled something. The Frenchman screamed. The Norwegian yelled something else. The Frenchman screamed breathlessly. The Norwegian kicked the Frenchman in the teeth. The screaming stopped. He grabbed the back of the Frenchman’s coat and dragged him towards the steps.
Beck shimmied out of the crevice and the rocks around him shook. What caused that? A boom echoed down the hall into the cistern.
* * *
Byrne came to. He was lying on the floor. He didn’t feel like he’d been out long. His nose stung. His crotch ached. His back was stiff from the fall. He felt like he was going to lose his supper. He rolled onto his knee. It felt like the floor was shaking beneath him.
He looked up at the ceiling and breathed heavily. Blood drained from his nose into his throat. He took his turban from the floor and hurled.
* * *
The party flowed through a wide arch on the left of the great hall. Jenson and Brock and their marines followed. Guests milled around large displays of food and art, lit intricately by inlaid candles. The crowd was dense, but through the throng Jenson saw a man that didn’t fit in. He was a guard adorned in white and gold. Austrian, no doubt. He stood to the side of a subtly decorated door. It didn’t merit a second glance, if one happened to notice it at all.
Jenson approached with purpose. The guard stepped into his path. His face was powdered in its entirety. His eyes were bloodshot. Where his skin showed, it was grey and dull. He did not look healthy.
“Your business?” he hissed in French
“Your Lady requested our presence, good sir.” Jenson replied in French, stressing his accent to sound genuine.
“Your purpose?” The inside of the guard’s lips were blood red. His tongue flitted between them.
“We are to conclude a deal.”
“The Alcmene, if you please.” Jenson spoke low.
The guard’s eyes lit up. They flicked to meet Jenson’s, then skipped to Brock, then Smith, then Klein. He smiled thinly, and slipped into the room. The door slammed shut before Jenson could get a look. How odd.
There was a thump on the other side of the door. Then a scraping sound. Then a slam. The door opened and the guard bowed to Jenson.
“Only the captain.” he hissed.
“I am the representative of the captain, good sir.”
The guard cocked his head, let out a breath, and stepped to the side. Jenson looked back at Brock, who was waiting expectantly.
“Stay close.” he said.
Brock nodded once. Jenson entered. The Austrian guard stepped out. The door slammed shut.
The room was empty. It smelled like roses. There were roses everywhere, in fact. Two bouquets sat on either side of the door on little ornate end tables. A mahogany grand piano sat to his left. Its lid was closed and hosted two more bouquets, framing a silver flagon and a number of wine glasses. Behind the piano, a wall-length bookshelf sported three bouquets among the books. On his right a three-paned privacy wall stood ahead of a bed. Ahead of the wall another table housed another bouquet. Before Jenson, on either side of an open double door were two more tables, and two more bouquets. Jenson stepped to the center of the room and paused beneath the chandelier with his hands clasped loosely behind his back. The smell was overpowering. The cold night air flowed through the doors, but it did little to help.
There was motion behind the privacy wall. Jenson turned.
“You’re not Sutton.” a woman’s voice said.
“No, my lady, Sutton was reassigned at Copenhagen. Carlisle is the Alcmene’s captain.”
“But you’re not Carlisle either, are you?”
She emerged from behind her wall. She was a peculiar woman. She was beautiful, to be sure, but she was dressed in the oddest way. She wore breeches, and long leather boots tied tightly up their sides. Her shirt was like Jenson’s, tucked loosely into her pants, but it lay open much lower than was proper. Jenson thought he saw a flash of a corset underneath. She wore a jacket like his as well, short in the front, cut tightly, and long at the rear. Beyond her odd manner of dressing, she was a striking woman. Her hair was dark as the night, and her skin looked as if it had never seen day. She was a ghostly pink, but her lips were deeply coloured, and her eyes were a stunning green. They shone in the candlelight.
She stepped to the door and sealed out the night. “So who are you?”
“Lieutenant Jenson.” he bowed. “Acting first lieutenant aboard the Alcmene, and your humble servant. I presume you are Lady Tennebrisa?”
“Then Carlisle is acting captain?” she ignored the question. She stood with her back on the door, six paces from Jenson.
“You are correct.”
“Then you are equals, really, are you not?”
She raised a hand as if balancing the statement.
“No, my lady, he is the captain and I am not.”
“But you were equals?”
“No, in our time together as lieutenants he had seniority to the post.”
“But you are older?” she stepped towards him, slowly.
“I believe so.”
“Does that not bother you?” another step.
“No, my lady, I live by the decree of the Admiralty.”
“But a first lieutenant should have experience, no?” another step.
“A depth, I am sure.”
“Are you not thoroughly experienced?” another step.
“In a variety of fields.” Jenson allowed.
“But not captaining.” she was a pace away.
“In the King’s Navy, I am not.”
“Neither am I.” she said, and extended a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you lieutenant Jenson, I am Lady Tennebrisa.”
Jenson took her hand and moved to kiss it. She held him firmly at waist level, shaking his hand as he would a fellow officer.
“I too have a storied past.” she added, releasing her grip.
She stepped away to the piano and sat on it’s bench, her legs crossed. Jenson stayed where he was.
“Jenson, I like to learn the colour of a man before I do business.” She poured a glass of wine. “So if you’re in no rush I should like to learn about you, and allow you to learn about me. Would you like some wine?”
Jenson didn’t. “I would be honoured by a glass.” he said.
She poured and walked it to him, briskly. He didn’t have the opportunity to protest her effort. Her hand brushed his. It was stone cold.
“And, to ease your mind, I can assure you that I have upheld my end of our bargain.” She paced the room. “So, you are a first lieutenant?”
“Yes, I am.” he said, he turned to face her.
“How long have you been with the Alcmene?” she asked, disappearing behind the privacy wall.
“Three years now.”
“Have you been a navy man all your life?”
“No, my lady. I grew up in Newfoundland and whaled with my father. We did very well. We traded across Europe. The navy only became my calling recently out of some necessity.”
“These are times of great turmoil.” she said. She was behind him now.
“There is never a moment’s quiet in this line.” he agreed.
Lady Tennebrisa was at the piano again. She set a ream of papers on its lid and refilled her glass. Jenson took a sip of his wine, so as not to appear rude. It was a fantastically rich blend, and the deepest red he’d ever seen. Lady Tennebrisa, in all her oddity, was no doubt a conversationalist. He was relaxed. There was a task at hand, to be sure, but he felt an innate trust in her. He knew she meant what she said, about keeping her end of the bargain.
“I must confess, lieutenant.” she sat and leaned back on the board cover. “I already know a great deal about you.”
“And how is that?” Jenson turned to face her. She had her legs crossed to the side and one foot hanging in the air.
“I know a great deal about all of your men on the Alcmene, really.” She took a long sip. “It is my business to know, and the Society was kind enough to provide the details of your expedition and ranks before we entered into our agreement. I should say,” she set down her glass, “You have some interesting characters among the ranks of your sailors. You would do well to investigate.”
She handed him the ream of papers. Emblazoned at the head of the first sheet was a gold seal depicting a dragon, reared like a horse, breathing fire.
“The society wrote praises of many of your officers.” she continued, “All are brave, some may be brash, but each is deserving of merit through their long records of service. All but you. Your record of service is quite short, but nonetheless the reports sing their praises. I’m sure you would have never known they had a record of you, especially one as long as it is.”
Jenson took another sip of his wine. Lady Tennebrisa returned to the piano.
“That is what I like about the Society, you see, lieutenant. They believe in discretion. They keep records and they dig for information, and sometimes they have an agenda, but most of all they believe that things which are unseen, may remain as such. If the little details of history should fall to legend, then it’s not their place to drag those details back into the light of day. The examples abound. It’s in their name, even. The Society of St. George; St. George the Dragon Slayer, of course. The story is true, you know? Before his time and before Rome itself dragons prowled much of the world. The stories were passed but they passed into obscurity, and when St. George killed the last dragon the stories were lost to myth. The Society protects the living and the lost history of the world, but they will not go out of their way to remind the world of something which it forgot.”
She sighed. Jenson was fixated. He knew stories of dragons. His father told him a few when he was young. He never imagined they were possibly true.
“Of course, there are some things we want to remember.” said Tennebrisa. She was staring into some distant sky. “I know your pain, lieutenant. What was her name? Samantha?”
The word stung.
“I know it better than you might imagine. A deeper pain, perhaps. I met a man in Lisbon, you see, some time ago. We courted for a month. We went to the same parties. We ran in similar circles. We were deeply passionate, him and I. I traveled with him to his castle and it was a great controversy back home. But we were in love, so what did it matter? We spent the summer together. We walked in the gardens, and hiked in the countryside. We did all sorts of wonderful things. Have you ever fallen asleep in a rowboat under a moonless, star-filled sky? You should, once, before you die, lieutenant.” she looked to Jenson with a half smile. “But it wasn’t meant to be. Agents of mayhem and hate seeded stories in the nearby village. They told of an evil baron and his wickedness. The stories were dispassionate, heartless lies, but they did the task. A mob was raised. The castle was stormed. They took him away and I can only imagine what they did to him.”
The room was silent. The sound of the party floated on the air..
“That was many years ago, now.” she said. “The world moved on, and so must I, but I still see his face when I’m alone, or when it’s warm, or when the stars shine on a night like tonight. But I don’t think the face I see is his anymore. I’ve remembered it so many times, and it’s been so long since I last saw him, that the details have changed. I can’t remember his tenderness, or the smell that used to remind me of him, or the sound of his voice. All I have left is his name, and everyone else has forgotten that too. How long has it been since you saw Samantha, lieutenant?”
“Five years.” he whispered.
“And the details are fading.”
“What a tragic duo we are.” she said. “There is some good in the world, however. I fear I cannot help you regain Samantha, but I know, given time, you will. Today my personal tragedy had a windfall. The agents of mayhem who sewed that dissent so long ago have fallen from grace. They are the French agents who have been harassing you, you see. I have them on their heels. They want a truce with my people, and I plan to offer it to them with exceedingly harsh terms. But, their ill fortune has made them desperate. I fear they will make a move to try to improve their lot. So, in exchange for the help I have provided for your mission, I must ask you two favours.”
Lady Tennebrisa went to Jenson. She stood very close.
“Now would be a good time to mention,” she whispered, with some urgency, “Your Prince is safe but still in custody. He is here tonight and we have arranged for his man Sven to break him free. He will flee in your carriage. His man Gaspode drove you here, no? When you have created an ample distraction, Sven will spring to action. With that said, may I ask you my favours?”
“My lady, I think it is the least I can do.” said Jenson, moved.
“I am thankful for that. The first is a warning, really. Be watchful for Lady Demeter. She masquerades by the name Lisette. She leads these agents of mayhem and will stop at nothing to achieve her success. If you should see her, treat her with prejudice, on my behalf.”
“A simple request. The forewarning is appreciated.” Jenson finished his wine.
“The second is a greater ask. If Lady Demeter cannot win some better bargaining position, she will be forced to the bargaining table to discuss our truce. We are to meet at a remote outpost on the North Sea. I believe that is already your heading. I ask that you ferry me and my companions to this meeting.”
“The Captain must allow for it, but I have no doubt he will offer his cabin.”
“The hold will be more than sufficient.” Tennebrisa smiled. “I am undyingly grateful.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Not wanting to impose any longer, Jenson said. “Regarding this diversion, when do you recommend we begin?”
“Any time will do. Sven is ready at any moment.”
“Then I should see to causing some sort of commotion.” Jenson smiled.
“Indeed.” she placed a hand on Jenson’s shoulder. “Thank you for listening, lieutenant. I find that sharing ones’ tragic past is the best way to manage it. And we are all so tragic, aren’t we?”
“Indeed.” Jenson agreed. He turned to the door.
“And lieutenant?” Tennebrisa called. “Would you ask your man Brock to join me? I understand his father was killed by the French and I should like to share with him too.”
“Of course.” he said.
“We are a very tragic lot.” she added again.
Brock replaced Jenson in the rose-filled room and Jenson stepped away for some air. Smith and Klein followed, but at a distance. Now was a waiting game. Jenson didn’t want to start any sort of diversion without Brock involved. He was a tactical menace. If there was damage to be done, he was first choice. Jenson figured this diversion would need to be good.
Instead of plotting, Jenson wandered. There weren’t many places at this party where one could think, undisturbed. He found himself on the balcony above the great hall, leaning out. He hadn’t thought of Samantha in a month or two. Her memory would be incessant some weeks, and gone the next. Such was navy life. Sometimes the seas were persistent. The sail from Copenhagen certainly was. On others, when the wind was calm, your mind could fill with thoughts of home. He tried to picture her face. He simply couldn’t. Emotion welled inside him. He held fast, and focused on the party below.
There was a flow to the party. The crowd moved clockwise, slowly, proceeding around the room like a river. Little clusters of guests eddied on the edges. A guest would mingle, pause on the wall, and then flow back out along with new partners. There was an eerie consistency to it. It was mesmerizing. He focused on the scene for some time, working hard to ease his mind.
A woman broke the pattern. He saw her dark hair bobbing in the crowd. She came out of a room across from Jenson and worked her way towards the steps, moving counterclockwise against the flow of the crowd. She went up the steps and right, onto the balcony adjacent to Jenson. The other balcony was shielded behind the light from the chandeliers. As quickly as she’d appeared, she was gone. The flow of the room carried on.
A side door near the hall’s entrance opened. An eddy of people was forced back into the flow and a void formed. Two Norwegian guards stepped into the room. Blue coats, red stripes, white crosses, ceremonial silver pikes. A young man with bright blond hair joined them. He wore a red jacket with a vibrant blue sash and two gold fringed epaulettes. Prince Frederick.
The Prince worked his way into the room. The flow of guests parted around him like a boulder in a rushing stream. He followed the clockwise rotation, but slower than the regular flow. As guests passed, they stopped to greet him. Bows and curtsies were exchanged, and the flow carried on.
The Prince was a few steps from the stairs when the flow paused. The chandeliers jingled. The candlelight danced. The floor shook. It was over in an instant. Was that the distraction? Jenson thought. Maybe Brock had gone to work already.
Prince Frederick stepped onto the second stair at the head of the hall. The room went quiet. Jenson leaned on the balcony rail. The Prince raised his hands and spoke in Norwegian.
On the other end of the hall, up on the balcony, there was a shout. Below Jenson four blue cloaked men stepped from the crowd with pistols drawn. The pikemen leveled their weapons at the attackers. A shot erupted from the balcony. The Prince clutched his chest and fell onto the steps. The four attackers fired their pistols. The pikemen were killed.
Jenson snapped up his pistol and fired a shot at the opposing balcony. The shot careened through the center chandelier. He couldn’t see if it made its mark. The chandelier groaned and the chain snapped. It plummeted to the floor. In the void, Jenson saw the balcony was empty.
The room fell to chaos.
* * *
Beck snuck up the steps out of the cistern. The Norwegian guard had left the Frenchman unconscious at the mouth of the arch and run back to his desk. Beck stood over the body. He was breathing. Only one death so far this evening. He thought.
Down the hall there was a commotion. A short yell and a shorter shriek. Was that the guard? Beck carried on towards the sound. Ten paces from the guard’s post he saw two men emerge into the hall. They didn’t look right. They were too short. They looked like Gaspode. What an oddity. They drew pistols.
“I’m with Gaspode!” Beck yelled reflexively.
The closer one lowered his pistol and waved Beck over.
“Who are you?” the short man said in a thick highland accent.
“I’m Beck. Gaspode brought me here with the Englishmen.” Beck was still very aware the other pistol had not been lowered.
The man looked at his companion. The one with the pistol shrugged. He looked back at Beck.
“I am Prince Siegfried Stonerow. This is Sven. We need your carriage.”
Beck wasn’t in a mood to ask questions anymore. This day was too strange. “Follow me.” he said, and ran down the hallway the way he’d come.
The trio reached the servants’ stairs and Beck heard a gunshot above them. He sprinted up the flight and reached the landing where he’d been chased. A woman barrelled into him from upstairs. Beck kept his footing and she flipped over him. She flew into the door with a thud. Beck looked at her. It was the woman who had been with Byrne. The short men came up behind him.
“Go through this door, out and to the left. It’s thirty paces.” he said.
“Fifty for us.” said the Prince, with a wink.
Sven pushed the door open and the woman’s head thudded onto the marble.
Beck burst into the room where he’d left Byrne. Byrne was on his hands and knees, his turbin beneath him filled with vomit. The table beside him was cracked and flipped over. Trays of food were strewn around.
“Get up! We need a doctor!” Beck yelled to Byrne, forcing him to his feet.
Byrne’s nose was bloodied but dry. He seemed to be in fighting shape, if not a little dazed. His eyes darted wildly.
“Where?” he asked, urgently, breathlessly.
“Great question. I’m sure somewhere.”
Beck dragged Byrne into the great hall. A man was lying on the steps, bleeding deep red onto the marble. Two spearmen flanked him. One was unmoving. The other writhed in agony, clutching his gut. Guards surrounded them.
Beck and Byrne were three paces into the room. The Norwegian guards leveled their pistols at them. Jenson came running down the stairs above the scene with Smith and Klein. Half the pistols turned to them. Brock burst from the side room further down the hall. A woman dressed like a man followed. More pistols went to them.
Byrne yelled “I’m a doctor!” in blatant, slurred English.
The Norwegians held fast. They didn’t seem to understand.
Byrne tried in French.
Blank looks from the Norwegians. The writhing pikeman raised a bloody hand towards Byrne. “Aidez-moi, médecin!”
No one moved. The Norwegians looked like they were trying to process what they’d heard. Byrne took an unsteady step forward. Pistols followed him. The pikeman yelled something in Norwegian. The pistols fell. Byrne stumbled to the pikeman’s side.
He placed one hand on the pikeman’s head and the other on his bloodied stomach. The pikeman looked calm. He stared up at the ceiling. His eyes darted around, then he screamed. Byrne shoved his hand into the wound. He came out quickly, holding the pistol shot firmly, and tossed it away. It rolled along the marble floor leaving a little red trail. The pikeman went limp. Byrne had his hand clamped down on the pikeman’s stomach. There was a charge in the air. Beck’s hair stood up.
* * *
Prince Frederick’s mother died when he was seven. He didn’t know her well. His father didn’t talk about her, but their court physician had told the Prince stories of her beauty. She stood before him now, on the melting steps of the estate’s great hall. Frederick reached out to her. She extended a hand to him. He couldn’t reach.
The room was spinning. He focused on her. A cloud of white smoke erupted to his right and filled the world. She was still there, but her face had changed. His daughter! Caroline! She should be at Fredericksburg. Why was she here?
Frederick called out but no words came. He clutched his throat and called again. Smoke poured out of his lungs and filled his eyes. Like that, she was gone. Flits of flame cut towards him. The estate was on fire!
Frederick tried to reach his feet. His legs wouldn’t move. Damn them! He tried to push himself up. He was too heavy. Something was holding him down. He felt an incredible weight on his chest. The fire was closing in. He had to move. He grabbed at his chest. His hand came away bloody. He looked down and saw he was soaked in blood.
The sky above Frederick opened. The smoke and flame swirled away and an incredible light shined down. It was the most brilliant gold Frederick had ever seen. Was this heaven? He reached upwards and the face of God descended through the light. His savior. His beard glowed orange with the flames around him.
The world went dark.
Frederick opened his eyes and saw God staring down at him. His beard still glowed orange, his nose bloodied.
* * *
Byrne helped Prince Frederick to his feet. Beck didn’t know what to think. What had he just witnessed? The Prince was dead. Now he was bowing to Byrne. The Norwegian guards bowed in turn. One pikeman still lay dead on the floor.
The Prince continued to sing praises as the Alcmenes and the strange woman walked to the coach. She slipped away to exchange a whispered word with Gaspode, and took a seat inside. Brock and Byrne did as well. Jenson opted to walk. Beck removed his greatcoat from coach’s chest and found the short men buried underneath. Prince Stonerow put a finger to his lips, reached up, and shut the chest. Best not to ask questions, Beck thought again.
Gaspode urged the horses on. Beck jogged up to Jenson. His pockets jingled with gemstones he had plucked from the fallen chandelier.
“Successful evening?” asked Beck.
“It seems so, Mr. Beck.” said Jenson.
The coach rolled to a stop. Up ahead, one of the marines yelled “Ho there!”
“What is it Klein?” Jenson called.
Two men stood in the road. One leaned on the other. The other held a bottle high in the air. They were shrouded in darkness.
“Is that...?” Jenson started.
One of the figures called “Was that you Klein?” in a thick London accent.
Beck wished he’d seen which marine had yelled.
Jenson called back “Captain Carlisle?”
“Lieutenant!” the captain responded, excited. “I have our dear sailing master in company as well!”
The leaning figure waved halfheartedly.
Jenson jogged to the pair and Gaspode rolled the coach forward. Beck followed. Captain Carlisle was the man Beck had seen on the stretcher. He sported the same dark bruise above his eye. His companion, the sailing master, looked quite drunk. He was stooped and standing very wide. Much of his long hair was thrown over his face. Carlisle looked drunk too, but not quite to the same degree.
“Mr. Bones told us your plan!” the Captain exclaimed. “An excellent plan indeed! Mr. Prudge and I went to town to toast to your success when he had an excellent idea! We came to the party to see the action unfold first hand!” Carlisle dropped his gaze and spoke directly to Jenson. “It seems we have missed it.”
“Captain we were successful. Your toast is appreciated.” said Jenson.
Carlisle clapped Jenson on the shoulder. The sailing master slumped to the ground and rolled onto his back.
“Good work indeed!” Carlisle cried. He took a swig from his bottle and flung it into the woods.
There was a cry of pain from in the trees.
“You hurt his feelings.” the sailing master gurgled on the ground.
Carlisle drew his pistol. “Who’s there?” he yelled.
A volley of shots erupted from the forest. One of the marines crumpled to the ground. Beck dove for cover behind the coach.
Brock burst out the door and nearly trampled Beck. “Grog, get Mr. Prudge in the coach! Help Smith!” he yelled.
The big marine leapt to action and scooped the sailing master and the wounded marine into his arms. Jenson, Carlisle, and Klein advanced into the woods. Grog flung the two unconscious men into the coach and slammed the door. Byrne stumbled out the other side.
Sven erupted from the coach’s chest and yelled “Fly, Gaspode!” He was clutching Brock’s bag of implements.
Gaspode did as commanded. The horses reared and galloped. The coach was gone. Brock and Grog dove into the woods. Beck clambered to his feet. On the road behind him he saw a woman standing with a pistol leveled. She was the woman from before with the red and yellow dress. She was listing slightly. She shot. The flash was blinding. The ball ricocheted off the road between Beck and Byrne. Byrne drew a pistol. He screamed. The gun went off. The woman fell. There was a moment of quiet.
Carlisle burst from the woods, his long coat flew up as he ran. “We’re routed!” he yelled.
Jenson, Klein, Brock, and Grog ran behind him.
“Quickly!” yelled Sven. “To the cathedral!”
Sven led with incredible speed. The Alcmenes fled into the trees. Another volley let loose behind them. Splinters flew up. Branches and leaves clawed at Beck's face. He caught glimpses of Sven ahead of him. There were sounds behind. Another volley of shots. The trees ahead flashed white. The crack of muskets echoed from all sides.
Beck burst into a clearing. The Cathedral lay ahead of them. Sven was at a side door. He tore it open and disappeared inside. It was pitch black. The Alcmenes piled in and the door slammed shut. Sven lit a torch. Everyone caught their breath.
Shadows danced around the room. They were in a little vestibule. It could barely fit the eight men in their company. Sven led them downwards into a crawlspace. Beck heard the door lock behind them. All the superstructure of the chapel hall stood above them. It was utterly silent. Beck heard the grand doors opening up above. Heavy boots pounded the floor.
“They'll never find us down here.” Sven whispered.
He moved the torch and revealed a long stone path descending into the cavernous darkness.
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