The North Sea
“This fog is convenient.” Worthington wrapped the rope around an anchor cleat and held it firm as Santiago helped his men off the ship’s turning paddles and onto the deck.
“For us, yes, but also for them,” the Spaniard lifted the last man on board.
“We are still on time.” Elias raised Lady Masveh over the railing as she gave a one word command to her ship. The end of the rope was flung onto the deck and the large shadow below slipped under the surface of the water with the smoothness of a diving dolphin.
“I don’t like it.” Santiago glanced at his time piece. “The dinner is barely starting but several of the crew quarters below have been empty for at least an hour.
“Ah, they refuse to follow your schedule.” Lady Masveh cut her own comment short as something else caught her attention. She stepped forward following the wall to her right.
Elias kept an eye on her as he addressed the Spaniard. “By your plan, our timing must be exact, yes, even dangerously so; we must give them the chance to reveal themselves before we strike. Otherwise we ourselves will be perceived as the enemy. The crossfire would leave few survivors.”
The woman returned to them, visibly perturbed. She bent over to touch the deck, ran her face across the railing one more time, and one more time she sniffed the air all around. “She’s here; Doctor Bernice is on this ship.”
“I hear men, running.” She snarled. In an instant she was racing through the fog, her gray cloak flying behind her.
“Keep to your plan, we will protect the doctor.” Elias followed after her.
Bernice and the two young men ascended the steps outside the galley, and started into the dining room. They hesitated at the door. The crowd within was undisturbed; the Royal family was not there yet. “You find them,” Bernice said, “I’ll go to the bridge.”
“No you won’t”
At the voice, the Portuguese man reached for his revolver. Before he had completed his turn something hit him in the chest. The sound was like an arrow plunging into its mark and then came the explosion, felt more than heard, but horrible to behold. The young man’s chest doubled violently in size and he was dead before he hit the ground.
The Frenchman shoved Bernice behind him through the door into the room and struck the man’s head with a sweep of his right foot. A second blow would have knocked the man out but two other men tackled him toppling him and Bernice into the edge of the crowd within.
As a wave of confusion and startled cries started to spread, one of the cloaked men yanked Bernice aside by her wrist. The Frenchman shoved one of his attackers down and started to his feet. “You won’t get the chance savateur.” The man fired the weapon into his right knee; and the explosion, spattering blood and bits of bone everywhere, sent the severed leg sliding across the room. That sight plunged the crowd into a panic that the man used to herd them to the walls.
Bernice slipped out of his grip and ran for the fallen Frenchman. She started wrapping her scarf around the bleeding limb. Using the baton he had drawn as a tourniquet, she tightened the knot in desperation. A moment later she was again yanked away and then the assailant realized she was not his quarry.
“You are not the princess.” He threw her down and pointed the weapon at her chest. “Where –” He didn’t finish his threat.
Bernice felt the arms of a woman wrap around her from behind and raise her to her feet.
The man’s face switched from anger into shock. He looked to his left and to his right. The crowd was still cowering against the edges of the room but the young woman was gone; in her place stood an old lady hunched before him.
“Where did she go?” He grasped the old woman by the lace of her black dress and lifted her up.
“Play along, Doctor.” Masveh’s voice whispered into her ear.
“She’s not here.” Bernice stuttered. And the man let her go, stepping back in utter confusion. His companions were as baffled as he was.
“Where is she!” he demanded of the crowd, swinging his weapon at them.
Bernice felt the tall woman slip around her, hold her tight against her chest with one arm, and then they turned together. Masveh’s free hand, swinging through the air, caught the man across the neck as he turned again toward her. A choking cry barely escaped his slit throat. The two others stared incredulous at his collapsing form.
The closest one raised his weapon at the old woman and then cried out. “She’s gone.” In her place was a small child. They rushed past the child, refusing to believe what their eyes told them; and fear started to bead on their foreheads.
Again Masveh moved, carrying Bernice with her as in a dance. Turning to the right she switched her grip, set free her left hand and, in a sweep, the second man was sent down; his hands, clutching his throat, could not contain the red flow of escaping life. The third man started screaming. He fired his gun at the empty air, blowing a hole in the wall across the room.
One more dance-like step brought them just behind him. With still one arm around Bernice’s shoulders Masveh reached out and pulled the man into her sphere of influence. What he saw, what Bernice saw, was not a woman but a fearsome creature, covered in scales of silver and sea-gray, a blue mane crowning her head and naked shoulders; and when she spoke, the sibilant words were uttered from behind a row of piranha-like teeth.
She raised him to her face. “How many of you, how many?”
The man, drenched in sweat, shaking uncontrollably, managed to say “T-thirteen,” before Masveh cast him like a doll across the room.
Someone down the corridor shouted in Danish, ‘Protect the Prince’.
And then another voice right next to Bernice, in a foreign accent, returned her to reality. “Gunfire, they have found the others.” Bernice glanced down to see the source of those words: a man in a burgundy cloak, elegantly attired, with a dark beard and deep brown eyes. He had dragged the Frenchman to the wall and was finishing the knot on the binding of his leg. He poured the contents of a vial into the wounded man’s mouth and covered his shivering form with the cloak of one of the dead men.
Lady Masveh was indeed the woman holding her. The black long-sleeved dress she wore under her gray cloak had the smooth appearance of velvet but by the way it clung to the woman’s body it had to be thinner than fine silk. In her gloved hands she held twin daggers with hooked hilts that encircled her thumbs. By the slight pressure of two fingers she held the blades resting against her forearms. She handed Bernice to the man in the burgundy cloak and raced toward the sounds. They followed.
The ballroom was under siege. The shots had come from the corridor on the opposite side, but two of the cloaked men were circling around just in front of them to outflank the defenders. The sound of steps behind the men made them turn. Masveh simply slipped between them. The man in the burgundy cloak threw himself at them, sword drawn.
Neither assailant had a chance in the confined space of the corridor. In two strokes Elias had sliced through the tubes connected to their weapons. The flat of his sword smashed resoundingly on one head and, as the second tripped over his companion, he brought the edge down onto the back of the man’s right calf, slicing through muscle and Achilles tendon.
Lady Masveh had reached the door first, her eyes intensely studying the battlefield. They were looking into the ballroom from the rear door, to the left of the defenders. Danish and British royalty were hidden behind a wall of men. Santiago had positioned himself directly in front of the Prince of Denmark. Worthington protected Alix and her mother, Princess Louise of Hesse-Cassel, with his own body.
The captain lay wounded on the floor. Two sailors and an elderly gentleman lay dead beside him. His officers, revolvers in hand, surrounded him and held up a barricade of tables and chairs. Two cloaked men lay unmoving in the center of the room. On the opposite side, the other three cloaked men had half the crowd gathered before them, forming a shield.
“Their plan is foiled,” Elias whispered. “As soon as they are convinced of that, the bloodshed will be indiscriminate.”
“Not while I am here…” Masveh stepped forward but it was Princess Alix who strode into the room. “Father?” she called out.
“No matter what you see, do not leave your post, men.” That command given in perfect Danish came from the lips of Worthington. He moved to completely obscure the princess behind him.
The confusion in the room lasted but seconds. The cloaked men had their target, defenseless, before them; the completion of their mission was at hand. Each thrust aside the hostages they had held before them and rushed, guns drawn, at their intended victim. And Masveh danced again.
The walls of the room suddenly bent around the men. To their eyes, what had been a ballroom a moment before, became a corridor and at its farthest edge was the Princess, running, running. So they ran. Within moments she had the three attackers running after each other in a circle in the center of the room, oblivious to the crowd around them.
Lady Masveh stepped outside that circle with a wide grin on her face. Swinging her gray cloak off her back, like a Spanish torero swings his cape, she drew the attention of every eye in that room and with a sharp thrust of her hand she took over the room.
It felt to Bernice like the blast of air that precedes a rushing train as it passes by. When she shook her face she realized that almost every person in the ballroom was frozen in place, like statues in a wax museum. Only Santiago and his men were moving. Elias had turned to face the doctor; the ring on his finger snapped open to reveal a container filled with a reddish gel. He had already daubed his finger and had been about to apply it to Bernice’s eyes when he realized she too was moving.
It was then that Bernice felt the burning sensation on her left ear. She reached for it as the man Elias gently turned her face to the right. “Ah, I see you have been immunized.”
“How is this possible?”
Elias glanced at the woman that held that room in her thrall, and returned his eyes to Bernice. His explanation was cryptic. “We are on the open sea.”
Lady Masveh strode deliberately around the trio of cloaked men that by now was also frozen in place. The expression on her face could only be described as exultation. When the woman opened her mouth to speak to herself Bernice felt something like a rumbling throb through her chest. The image of the silver-scaled creature kept flickering into her eyes.
Masveh turned to face Elias. No words were exchanged, her posture, her motions said it all. ‘They are mine.’ She spread her arms out as she turned to the men again. Bernice thought she could see the glint of a silver edge stretching well past her fingers. ‘Mine.’
“Rapha, Masveh,” Elias called out.
“Ehyeh Memeth.” The woman’s retort was barely a whisper. But she looked back at him. There was a flash of surprise, uncomprehending disappointment, and then the woman acquiesced. She recovered her cloak, gathering it about her, and stepped back. If the bearded man had not spoken, three throats would have been slit in one stroke.
The Spaniard and his men stepped forward. They were each wearing a kind of leather covered cuirass. What was left of the Spaniard’s hung in strands over his shoulders, the splintered edges evidence of the explosion it had absorbed. His eyes lingered on Bernice’s face and then he noticed the spatters of blood on her dress. A shiver that he refused to acknowledge brought his mind back to the room. “Mateo, Andre’, they were supposed to…”
“Andre’ is alive, seriously hurt but alive.” Elias answered, and his omission of the Portuguese young man told Santiago all he needed to know. “The dining room,” Elias added. At his nod two of Santiago’s men ran to get him.
Worthington and the other men started to bind the assailants. Bernice forced her eyes off the Spaniard and shook her face at the sense of wrongness again. “Thirteen,” she said. “One is missing.”
She started running toward her cousin even as her eyes scanned the room behind her. An Englishman in the crowd at the other end of the room slipped to the right. Bernice cried out and threw herself on her cousin, holding her tight, her back to the man’s rising weapon.
“No!” Santiago started to draw his revolver, started to run to place his body into the line of fire. And then the man’s eyes met the Spaniard’s. A spark of recognition sent hatred washing over that face. He turned the gun straight at the Spaniard’s chest and fired twice. Elias was there first and took the two shots in his own chest. Santiago’s gun buried three rounds into the Englishman just as the twin explosions filled the burgundy cloak.
Bernice’s cry of horror could not compare to the howl that escaped Masveh’s throat. They converged on the falling form that, incredibly, landed on his knees and almost staggered back to his feet.
The thirteenth man had slumped to the floor, both lungs and heart pierced through and yet he too clung to his life. There was something in that last glance of hatred that made the Spaniard hesitate. With quaking hands almost beyond his control, the man put the muzzle of his own weapon to the roof of his mouth and smiled. It was then that Santiago noticed the faint red circle on his forehead. The man stared into his eyes, smiled again and fired. And the flash of the violent explosion erased any evidence that might have been sealed in that skull.
“Elias.” Lady Masveh knelt beside him and clung to his arm. But the man did not collapse. He just knelt in the middle of the bloody debris from his own body and gasped, coughed and cursed in a language Bernice had never heard before.
His voice became clearer, his words switched to English, and he stood up, leaning on Bernice and Lady Masveh. The sight was impossible to believe. His jacket and shirt had been blasted off, front and back; shreds were still falling off. Only his burgundy cloak was intact. It was just covered with gore and that too was changing. For the bits of flesh and blood were sliding off, smoking as they fell, to end on the ground as ashes. In a minute his chest went from an exposed rib cage to a new covering of muscle, to re-knitted skin. By the time he was fully upright, he was standing in a patch of gray ashes. He looked down at the shredded rags hanging from his waist and shook his head. “It was a new coat.”
Lady Masveh clung to his arm. Bernice could still sense the anxiety in the woman’s breathing.
“Lady Masveh,” Santiago drew her attention. “We need to take our captives away. Find out who sent them. We have a chance to finish this.”
She looked into the bearded man’s eyes, and with a closing of his eyes he gave her leave to do her job. Before coming to the men she stopped by Bernice, glanced once at the Spaniard and then gave her a curious look. There was only that and the faint purr she felt in her chest, but Bernice could tell the woman was glad she too was alive.
“Doctor,” the Spaniard drew near to her. “We need to leave. They will remember nothing of what has happened here. Masveh will see to that. You will be safe on board. And I assure you England is safe soil for now. If you will allow me, I will explain within a fortnight.” He started to turn. “Please extend my wishes for a long and happy life to Princess Alexandra and the Prince of Wales.”
The Spaniard’s team cleaned up the rooms, mended tables and repaired walls. They could not repair lost lives. Masveh created the memory of a freak accident in the engine room that explained both the captain’s wounds and the unfortunate death of the gentleman on the floor and the two sailors. By daybreak they had left the ship; and Bernice spent that whole day as close as she could to her cousin until exhaustion drew her back to her room that night. Sleep conquered her in the midst of prayers that could hardly be uttered without setting her heart racing again.
Two and a half days later they arrived in Gravesend, Kent on the seventh of March 1863. Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, greeted the Princess in ode:
“Sea King’s daughter from over the sea, Alexandra!
Saxon and Norman and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in our welcome of thee,