The Barbed Crown - By William Dietrich


I 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 Phantom, 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 my luck that was bad,” Catherine retorted calmly, not pretending she hadn’t overheard. “I’m 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. Phantom’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