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Authors: William Dietrich

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The Barbed Crown

The Barbed Crown

An Ethan Gage Adventure

William Dietrich


To Molly, just starting her own explorations



—Corsican proverb recited by Napoleon Bonaparte

while making plans for an invasion of England


was smuggled to France on a moonless flood tide, soaked from rain and spattered with the blood of a sailor beheaded by a cannonball. The Comtesse Catherine Marceau took out a lace handkerchief as Davy Burgoyne’s body toppled overboard and was gone with a splash. I blinked and held tight to the tiller of the renegade sloop
, more accustomed to carnage than I would have preferred.

In fact, I judged Davy’s death an opportunity to engage my aloof yet strikingly attractive fellow spy. “I can offer my arm if it would make you feel safer, Comtesse.”

She dabbed her pale face, spotted like measles, and remained resolute in her rebellion against Napoleon. Catherine had witnessed worse sights, watching her parents beheaded before escaping to England during a Reign of Terror that executed forty thousand French and exiled one hundred thousand more. She didn’t need comfort from a lowborn and seemingly penurious opportunist like me. “Tend to your tiller, Ethan Gage,” she said in accented English. “I am quite capable of completing our voyage if we don’t wreck or surrender.” She was pretty as a porcelain doll, proud as a toreador, and stiff as whalebone. Spray sheeted across the gunwales, helping clean both of us.

I was recently bereaved, consumed by dreams of revenge against Napoleon, and richer than I appeared. I’d sold a stolen emerald in London so quick that you’d have thought it was a hot coal. I hadn’t dared crank up the price because of the jewel’s cursed history, lest it cause more trouble. Despite my haste, I’d still netted an astonishing £10,000, enough to keep me a minor gentleman for the rest of my life. I’d prudently invested it all with the financial firm of Tudwell, Rawlings, and Spence, which promised it could double my money, should I survive. My intention was to manage my fortune for my son, Harry, and avenge my missing wife, Astiza, who’d been carried off in a hurricane. Meanwhile, I appreciated the charms of my new co-conspirator I’d been matched with in London, quite the ornament for a raffish adventurer like me. “I’m here if you need me, mademoiselle.”

“And I am content to stay where I am.” She clutched the gunwale an oar’s length away, her demeanor cold as the wind.

The crewmen weren’t as entranced with our passenger as I was. “I told you a woman was bad luck,” one smuggler muttered to another. “Mercy on Davy’s soul.”

“It wasn’t
luck that was bad,” Catherine retorted calmly, not pretending she hadn’t overheard. “
still alive.”

I liked her spirit, but then I like pretty women even when I’m mourning, or perhaps because of it. My ache and longing for Astiza was a cavity, but one that nature prefers to fill, I guiltily told myself. And what a sally we were on! War between England and France, the English Channel crammed with hostile shipping, and a French cutter stumbling on us this foul night as we tried to sneak into its country. Our captain, the notorious moonshiner Tom Johnstone, gave me the job of steering toward a reef while he manned a swivel cannon. The rest of his crew cranked on sail and fired muskets. Catherine held a pistol in her lap, in case her enemies got close enough to kill.

The French bow gun that had killed Davy fired again, the cannonball screaming as it punched a hole through our jib, slackening our pace slightly.

The thing I don’t like about sailing is that there’s never a place to hide.

“Hold this course and watch for the white of breaking waves on the reef,” our captain instructed me. “Then aim precisely between the two highest fangs when they loom out of the dark. Our hull doesn’t draw much water, so with timing we’ll scrape across the barnacles while the frog boat tears out her bottom.”


“Need to catch it on a swell, lest we smash and drown.”

Our own craft was thirty-six feet on the waterline, with a single high mast, jutting bowsprit, and a lively fore-and-aft rig built for speed and close-haul sailing.
’s hull was low and lean as a greyhound, hard to spy, hard to catch, and tilted so hard that one rail was nearly in the water. Johnstone’s trade was smuggling contraband English wool to France, and French tobacco, brandy, and silk back to England. Normally, this bunch crisscrossed the Channel without problem, but this time we were pursued by a ship with a longer waterline, bigger sails, and eight broadside cannon. Had our enemies gotten a tip? The greater the conspiracy, the easier to find weak members to turn. With thousands scheming for the first consul’s downfall, any number of traitors could have betrayed us between London and Paris.

The cutter was gaining.

“They’re setting a spanker,” I said, sounding more nautical than I really am. “Or maybe it’s a studs’l.” I’ve crossed the ocean several times and acquired some salty vocabulary, but the enemy was actually little more than a gray blur. Our compass gyrated as uselessly as my stomach, I couldn’t see a star, and if I remained the helmsman, then my mission to kill Napoleon seemed likely to end before it properly got started. We were looking for a beach north of Dieppe, but damned if I knew whether we were pointed at the North Pole or Tahiti. I just aimed where Johnstone told me.

“A risk for Lacasse in this wind,” our smuggler said.

“You know our pursuer?”

“I know his boat. Antoine is an able seaman, but not as able as me.” Johnstone aimed his little cannon. It fired a ball too small to sink anything, but big enough to make our pursuers duck. “Maybe I can shoot down some rigging.”

“I hope you agree with the comtesse that it’s Davy’s fate that was bad, not our own.”

Johnstone grunted. He was a strapping six-foot-three, dark-haired, blue-eyed brute, with a big-nosed lump of a face from decades of wind and drink. “That lad never had luck since breech birth killed his ma. Clumsy as a mule, dumb as an ox, and happy as a clam, as the slower sailors usually are. Intelligence is the enemy of contentment, Ethan Gage, and Davy’s luck was accepting his lot and then finding a quicker way out of it than most of us can look forward to.” He cupped his hand to shelter a match near the touchhole, since the gun lacked the newer lanyard. “I’ve seen men hit by cannon fire take three days to die, screaming till their lips cracked.” He lit the charge, there was flare from the touchhole, and it fired. “Now, we Lymington sailors ain’t as neat with our round shot, so we’ll try to give the frogs some splinters to howl about.”

It was too dark to see the cannonball’s effect, but I imagined I heard shouts across the water.

I glanced again toward the comtesse, who’d been eighteen when exiled by the French Revolution and was now a Bourbon beauty of thirty-one, her cloak hooding a mass of golden hair as glossy as smuggled silk. I’d too recently lost my wife to be my typical flirtatious self, but it was still male instinct to want to impress a pretty Frenchwoman. We were introduced by the spymaster Sir Sidney Smith in London, united in wanting to do away with Napoleon, and divided by her haughty high birth. Her motives weren’t entirely clear to me, but I was happy having company in vengeance. My charm having failed to impress her, I decided to grin fiercely instead. “Win through or die,” I growled.

I was rewarded with an evaluating glance of her green eyes.

It was April 3, 1804, and the ashes of my ambition had been rekindled by tragedy and the desire to give payback for my missing wife. A mere year before I’d been hoping for a quiet retirement with my new family, financed by an emerald I’d snatched from the pasha of Tripoli. However, procrastination, greed, and poor vigilance ended up endangering my son and losing Astiza. I chased and lost a fortune in the Caribbean, and because I blamed myself for her drowning, I was anxious to extend the blame to someone else, like Napoleon. Her loss left me the shattered caretaker of little Harry, now approaching his fourth birthday. My enemy in the Caribbean, Leon Martel, had persuaded me that Bonaparte himself was behind this cruel manipulation of my family. So I’d returned with Harry to England, used the sale of the emerald to temporarily establish my boy with a clergy family named Chiswick, and sought the help of Smith to strike back at Napoleon. Much to my liking, he suggested Catherine as a useful partner.

One final quest, and then I’d make Harry and me a home.

A better man might have set aside such self-importance to take care of his son; my sticking him with strangers adding to the guilt I carried like chains. But like so many faulty fathers I let a noble and dangerous mission convince me that the more mundane duty of child rearing could wait.

Sir Sidney enlisted me in an elaborate French royalist conspiracy financed with English gold. That flamboyant officer had been fighting the Corsican since Bonaparte was an artilleryman who drove the British from Toulon and Smith was the English daredevil who burned the French fleet before retreating. The two have been scrapping every since.

I had a belt of francs, Louis, and English sovereigns strapped around my waist and another reserve tucked in my boot. I’d also retained two trinkets from the Caribbean. The first was a pendant with the letter
surrounded by a laurel leaf, which had been a gift from Napoleon. The second was a golden Aztec curio of a man astride a delta-shaped object that might be wings, and thus might represent a flying machine from the ancient past. Either or both might win me access to France’s ruler, so I could finish him off. There was also a pistol in my greatcoat pocket and a tomahawk in my sash, meaning all I lacked was a good Pennsylvania long rifle.

Our strategic situation was building to a climax. I’d met Napoleon when he was a mere ambitious general. He’d since seized power, gone back to war with England, and had one hundred thousand men eager to jump the Channel and reform English cooking. My late enemy Leon Martel had dreamed of vaulting the turbulent moat using Aztec flying machines. There were also schemes for balloons, tunnels, floating windmills, and twenty-mile-long pontoon bridges. Invasion was as daft as it was daring, so maybe a coven of spies could discourage it. That was my job.

My feelings about Napoleon were a mix of envy, admiration, resentment, and knowledge that he was as human as the rest of us. Bonaparte was a fallible idealist, ruthless as a banker. We’d fought together in Egypt, fought against each other at Acre, and I’d been his agent in Italy, America, and Greece in between times that he contemplated shooting me. Our history was a stormy one, the loss of my wife tipping our relationship to disaster.

Now it was time to put a stop to him, or at least his ambitions.

The Breton rebel Georges Cadoudal had already been landed with a million francs to prepare revolt. The assumption in Britain was that the French were restive (the fact I’d seen no evidence of this was met with annoyance) and that eliminating Napoleon was the easiest way to eliminate his army camped around Boulogne. “His imprisonment or death is the road to peace!” exhorted Smith. My job was to utilize my trinkets to get access to the highest circles, find Bonaparte’s weakness, and tell royalists the best time and way to strike.

The comtesse had been trained to be a seductress of an agent, and she’d practiced by letting me flirt with her before setting me straight with her political seriousness. Now she would pose as consort to my role as a self-absorbed, pleasure-seeking, politically harmless opportunist: a slander people disconcertingly accepted as fact. Catherine endured more than welcomed our partnership, worrying it would reflect on her own taste. It was too early to link with another woman and impossible not to think about doing so. In short, I was sailing for France with a ragged mess of feelings, not the least of them gloom, desperation, guilt, and suicidal recklessness. Frankly, I never would have hired me, but the British were eager for anyone lunatic enough to thread through Channel patrols.

Johnstone, who’d been transporting contraband since boyhood, had been freed from Fleet Prison to smuggle us in.

Now the black ocean lightened ahead from breaking surf. “I think I see the reef.”

“Cheat the rocks like you’d cheat at cards, Ethan,” the smuggler instructed as he rammed home a charge. Another French cannonball came our way, skipping like a stone off our stern. “A bluff between the worst pinnacles.” I’d inspired his metaphor not only by boasting of my gambling skills but by proving them by cleaning his crew of every shilling in the first ten miles. Accordingly, Johnstone thought me clever, which always results in too much responsibility.

I eyed the boil of foam ahead. “Maybe we should trade jobs.”

“I’ll give a hand when need be.” He sighted along his little cannon. “I do the gunnery because there’s an art to aim when rolling. And you’re used to risk.”

Our smuggler was a charming free-trade runner so fond of luxury and whores that he was thrown into Fleet for running up £11,000 in London debts, or more than I’d gleaned from my emerald. I agreed with Sidney Smith’s strategy of hiring a rascal to do a rascal’s job, but the foul weather we’d waited for is not the kind I prefer to sail through. Tom and his other smugglers regarded gales as friends, masts bent and lines thrumming. I dislike cold water, as well as jailing, death, or torture. So I steered dubiously toward a great wash of breaking waves, sea stacks materializing out of the gloom like guarding towers.

To take my mind off our peril, I decided to reinforce my reputation as a worldly gambler to impress Catherine Marceau. “To win at cards, you must be able to count, figure odds, and guard against cheats,” I pronounced loudly.

Johnstone fired his swivel. “And to win as a free trader you need cool nerve and the trick of concealment. There’re twenty thousand Englishmen who make their living evading the Revenue Service, Gage, and the first skill is concealing a false bottom or bulkhead. A customs officer without a tape is like an angler without a hook. He has to calculate if a ship’s hold matches the outside of the vessel.”

“Then I’ll be wary of officers with yardsticks,” I replied. “Now in gambling, the way to mark cards is to use your fingernail to notch the edge, or a sander to roughen, or a point to make a blister.”

“Old Jack Clancy built an entire double bottom,” our captain volleyed. “A false keel and false sides to lay in French brandy that could set him for a year. But you had to beach the beast and pry off its planks. One time the tide swept in and carried off half his cargo.” Johnstone laughed.

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