Despatches from Palermo (Part 1)
by Lord William Bentinck, English Ambassador to the Kingdom of Two Naples
My dear Lord Chamberlain,
I enclose this letter to you privately, so it will not appear in official correspondence.
It is a season for political misjudgements as I know you will be quick to remind me, but if this matter escalates, I would rather you hear about early and directly from me.
As you know, Sicily recently welcomed the arrival of a new envoy, Sheik Selim Omar, a cousin to the Ottoman emperor. He is keen to know, as we all are, when this bloody war with France will be over.
Last week I agreed to sponsor a party at the request of his Majesty the King of Naples and the University of Palermo and invite the Ottoman envoy as our guest.
It seemed an ideal opportunity to warm relationships between our three nations.
The party was the idea of one of our citizens, a Professor Jonas Fenton from Cambridge who, along with Professor Giovanni Mazzara from the university here in Palermo wanted to stage a tableaux vivants to show off some Greek and Roman history.
I didn’t see the harm in it, so I agreed.
The two young ladies involved in the tableaux were Jonas Fenton’s English nieces – quite unusual beauties too.
Miss Sophia Green is a raven haired beauty, part-Spanish I was told, and apparently a first rate antiquities student. The other girl, Laura Cappleman is a perfect flower of England, fair hair and fair complexion.
As you may remember from other correspondence, I have cultivated the acquaintance of a young Englishman, Captain Christopher Hardacre who owns a schooner called the Calliope based out of Palermo.
He’s always been a bit of a hot head, but never fails to come back with some interesting intelligence about the Barbary Coast pirates which I have passed on to the Admiralty.
Today, I had to suffer two hours of bluster and threats from the Emir because Hardacre had insulted the envoy in his own language right in front of the tableaux.
You can be assured I called Hardacre to account for his actions and man had the audacity to refuse to apologise either to me or to Sheik Selim Omar. He claims the man had grievously insulted the young ladies but refuses to tell me exactly what was said.
For what information might be of use, Hardacre tells me that there is to be a gathering of Barbary pirates in Tunisia before the end of summer. His source tells him they are to met with a wealthy patron.
You’ll not be surprised to learn that Hardacre thinks Selim Omar is the man they are waiting for but he offers no proof.
I’ll write when I have more news,
“I had an official complaint this morning from the Ottoman envoy over your behavior at the reception.”
Kit allowed his contempt to show. “And he was so overcome by my rudeness it took him three days to lodge his complaint? The man’s an arse.”
“He might be an arse, but he’s close to his cousin, who, need I remind you, is the Sultan of the entire bloody Ottoman Empire! If Turkey switches sides to France, once more, then we’re really screwed.”
While Bentinck raged, he raised his eyes to stare at the portrait of the Prince Regent hung on the wall behind the desk. Kit had weathered greater storms than this one. And like the ones he’d sailed in the Atlantic, this, too, would blow itself out. It did with a long, put-upon sigh.
“Pour us some of that sherry you brought me back from Spain, and tell me the news from the African coast.”
Kit bit back another smart retort, swallowed his indignation and poured the amber liquid into two dainty twist-stemmed glasses.
“It’s been quiet.”
“That would suit us all.” Bentinck raised his glass and saluted Kit. “We’re bloody tired of this war with Napoleon. At least our navy can concentrate fighting the Frenchies instead of fighting a war on two fronts with those Barbary pirates nipping at our heels.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not going to stay quiet for long. My contact tells me Kaddouri has a powerful and influential ally who has helped finance a stronghold on the Tunisian coast.”
“Ah yes, Kaddouri. You never did explain your particular obsession with that man.” Bentinck waited for a justification Kit knew he would never give. His reasons were his own – as was the vengeance he planned. After a moment of silence, Bentinck tried a different question.
“Where on the Tunisian coast?”
Kit shook his head and lied. “That I’ve yet to determine. The Calliope will be in the area again in a few weeks. If we see anything, we’ll let you know.”
Bentinck’s look was unwavering; he seemed to know he was not being told the truth. But with no other explanation forthcoming, the ambassador picked up his pen and waved at the mounds of correspondence on his table. “Well then, if that’s all you have to report, then go. I have work to do. Stay out of trouble and don’t harass His Majesty’s foreign guests.”
That was just a dig too far.
“I don’t trust Selim Omar and I suggest you don’t either.”
Bentinck set the quill back into its holder. “Why? Because you thought he and his party were rude to Jonas Fenton’s nieces? I never saw you as a gallant.”
“The Ottomans ravage the coastlines of Europe, plunder villages, put men in chains, and work them to death. The depraved savagery you hear of is nothing until you’ve witnessed it yourself. Consider yourself lucky you and your good lady wife are childless, for what they do to daughters—”
Bentinck rose to his feet.
“—You’ve made your feelings amply clear on the matter, but unless you have something His Majesty’s government can act upon, keep your opinions to yourself. Stay out of the man’s way if he bothers you so much.”
Bluestocking Sophia Green’s future is uncertain. Orphaned as a child and raised by the wealthy Cappleman family, she has become the companion to her attractive younger cousin, Laura, while harboring to her breast an unrequited love for Laura’s diffident brother.
Sea captain Kit Hardacre’s past is a mystery – even to him. Kidnapped by Barbary Coast pirates at the age of 10, he does not remember his parents or even his real name. All he recalls are things he would rather forget.
When Laura’s reputation is threatened by a scandal, Sophia suggests weathering the storm in Sicily with their elderly uncle, a prominent archaeologist.
Their passage to Palermo is aboard Hardacre’s ship, but the Calliope, like its captain, is not all it seems. Both have only one mission – to rid the world of the evil pirate slaver Kaddouri or die in the attempt.
Initially disdainful of the captain’s devil-may-care attitude, Sophia can’t deny a growing attraction. And Kit begins to see in her a woman who could help him forget the horrors of his past.
Sophia allows herself to be drawn into the shallows of Kit’s world, but when the naive misjudgment of her cousins sees Laura abducted, Sophia is dragged into dangerous depths that could cost her life or her sanity in a living hell.
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