English cannon barked and jumped, the crash of their carriages so severe that it rattled the chains of my manacles. I was blind to the battle on the deck overhead, but I could hear it. A cry of command, a tense pause while the touchhole was lit, the roar of the 24-pounders, the snap of restraining tackle as the guns recoiled, and then their heavy slam to the planking. Next a rumble of feet as cursing men sponged and reloaded. Howls if an Ottoman ball hit home. Cheers if the Turkish forts were hit. The slap of a bosun whipping frightened sailors back to duty.
The smoke of the fight descended to the orlop deck where I was miserably confined, my only light a single lantern. The haze choked like vile fog. We were sailing into a trap, a gantlet between two forts that I myself had engineered. What a surprise I’d prepared! How ironic that I was about to get a taste of my own deviltry!
I shouted again to be allowed to come to the quarterdeck to give warning. “Shut up, Gage!” the marines snapped back from where the guarded the powder magazine farther aft, taking care that no spark came near it. “To the devil with your tongue!” I could just make out the dim forms of powder monkeys scurrying up the companionways to bring fresh shot and sack. How I longed to be with the gun crews! Yes, put me in the midst of the blood-splashed tumult, far more exposed to cannon fire than here below the waterline – put me up there because I dreaded far more what lurked in this awful hold.
Another passenger – titled, cursed, silent, and implacable – was segregated in a wood and iron cage closer to the bow. Perhaps he was confined. Perhaps he’d demanded solitude. Perhaps he slept. Certainly he waited with the patience of a creature with endless time.
Waited to stalk my family.
This sea fight had many smells. The saltwater of the Dardanelles, of course. The scent of gunpowder, the sand spread to give traction in the blood, the blood itself, iron, grease, tallow, sweat, and even the ammonia of the piss buckets. When shots strike home and splinters fly, you can whiff the sweetness of raw wood. Stand with the marines and it’s wool and gun oil.
These were not the smells that haunted me, however. I remembered all too vividly the rock dust of the gigantic granite cannonballs I’d help the Turks roll into place, and that was fearful enough. But now my nose was filled with a darker stench, an odor that made the British seamen avoid this orlop as if it was the womb of the plague.
It wasn’t just the usual bilge water and rat droppings. This putrefaction was a reminder of the must of the tomb, the corruption of gangrene, the rot of spoiled food, and the pulp stench of worms. It was the smell of the world’s darkest and deepest places, vents of sulfur, bones of gnawed flesh. It was the horrible stink of fundamental evil, a twisted hostility to everything good. It was the reek of secrets hidden and forbidden. It was the smell of the man, or thing, or monster, in the iron cubicle ten paces from me.
A bulkhead prevented me from seeing what the creature was doing. This alone inflamed my imagination.
Boom! Crash! Sound punched my ears, the ship shook from the pounding, and I was bounced an inch by every report of the artillery. What I dreaded was a far bigger impact, however, and what it might set loose.
The weight of the granite cannonballs I’d contrived could cause enough damage to set loose this fellow traveler. He lusted for Astiza’s heart like a demented lover, and desired my son Harry for pitiless revenge.
I heaved against chains that wouldn’t yield. My hands and ankles were raw. My throat was sore from protest and pleading. I had to protect my family and didn’t even know if they were vulnerably unprotected in a foreign embassy or entangled in the world’s greatest harem. They were in grave danger outside the seraglio and in terrible peril within it, given that the sultan’s house was a pit of intriguing concubines, eunuchs, dwarves, mutes, and sultanas who conspired to elevate their rival sons.
So I tortured my imagination while tensing for imminent impact. The ship would reel when one of the massive cannonballs hit. Ribs could buckle, the hold could fill with water, I’d fight fruitlessly against my chains, men would wail prayers, and the evil one would burst from its dark quarters to roam like a beast.
How had I come to such desperation, after so many schemes?
As I told the British, one thing led to another . . .