Cape Coast, 1787
The royal prison was dark and reeked of piss and sewer water. Pirate captives dressed in bloody rags were being dragged into their cells by His Majesty’s soldiers, fresh from a battle that had ended on the beach in the king’s favor. The pirates would protest until what was left of their strength was absorbed by the cold, hard prison walls. Their cries for freedom would fall on the deaf bricks and echo through the halls as the cries of penned animals. In captivity, days would seem like weeks, and weeks as months, and no longer would the captives cry out their wretched wails and curses, for they would gradually grow to be as quiet as the walls themselves. Outside the prison walls, the scattered sounds of distant musket fire interrupted the rhythmic crashing of waves against the shore as British soldiers shot at fleeing remnants of the pirate band. Just like the screams of the condemned men, these too were fading away.
An old cell door let out a rusty creak to let in two soldiers clutching a wild-haired man with a tattered scarlet coat and what had once been a fine hat. The man said nothing but merely grinned at the soldiers even as they threw him into his cell. The pirate landed face first on the cold cell floor, drawing a cruel chuckle from his guards as he got back on his feet. They stopped when he turned around to face them, and as his grin met theirs, they turned sour.
“The hell are you smiling at?” said one of the soldiers, pointing his musket at the prisoner’s nose.
“In a few hours,” the prisoner replied with a heavy accent. “I will be free.”
The guards laughed even harder than before.
“You’ll be free all right, you’s a pirate! You’ll be free to hang from the gallows while the seagulls peck out your eyes!”
The soldiers’ laughter was interrupted by the sound of footsteps bouncing off the stone floor. The two stood straight at attention as an officer approached the cell. The tall, handsome captain carried himself with an air of refinement that his men seemed to lack. He eyed his two soldiers, then the prisoner, who tipped his hat to him.
“Name,” said the captain in a stiff tone.
“Rodion Ivanovich Kazansky, monsieur capitaine,” replied the pirate.
The captain was visibly surprised.
“Je comprends un tout petit peu le français, comme une vache espagnole,” replied the pirate with a smile.
“May I trouble you to continue our conversation in French?”
“Oui, certainement mon seigneur.”
The captain stepped into the cell and continued to talk to the prisoner in French as the two soldiers looked at each other in bewilderment.
“It has been a long time since I last conversed in my native tongue. I am Captain Auguste Rochat, but you do not have a French name, therefore you are not a French pirate.”
“And you, sir?” Are you a French captain commanding an English garrison?”
Auguste let out a soft chuckle, “No, I am Swiss. But enough pleasantries.” He clenched his jaw and the smile on his face disappeared, “Are you known as an officer, leader, or other person of importance amongst the group of pirates and brigands that have organized an attack on Cape Coast Castle, an asset of His Majesty’s African Company of Merchants?”
“Yes. I am their captain, but I am not a pirate.”
Auguste frowned, “are you aware, then, that transgressions and felonies that your men have committed at sea are punishable by the Piracy Act, and that the prescribed penalty for such acts is to suffer the pains of death?”
Rodion nodded slowly, “Of this I am keenly aware, and I will tell you again, I am not a pirate, and I am innocent of these charges.”
“The typical words of a liar and a blackguard. You will be given an expedited trial, then, God-willing, you will be hanged by the neck until dead, which is the customary cure for the ills of piracy. It was refreshing to speak my language again, and for this I thank you. Good day, Monsieur Kazansky.”
As the captain turned to leave, Rodion’s bound hands reached into his ruffled lace collar and pulled out a necklace with a large golden ring on it. Its face bore a double-headed eagle.
“Do you know what this is, captain? This is the imperial seal of Her Highness the Czarina Catherine of Russia.”
Auguste glanced over his shoulder at the ring.
“You know, it is customary to address the sovereign of a nation as ‘majesty,’ not ‘highness.’ If you had actually met your monarch, whom you claim to serve, you would have known this. Perhaps you are no more than a common thief with a stolen ring.”
“Perhaps, but a smart thief would have sold this long ago. But here I am, far away from my home country, as you are from yours; with an imperial seal around my neck, trying my best to speak your language and not choke on my own phlegm. How many Russian pirates have you heard of, my good sir?”
“Not a one.”
The captain winced, realizing that the prisoner was right. A person like him was indeed a rarity.
“Are you not curious about the events leading up to my imprisonment in your lovely chateau of a jailhouse?”
“Satisfy, then, my curiosity.”
Of the many conceptions you might have of me, this much I can tell you is true: I am a foreigner and I am in prison. You believe that it was my intention to sack this beautiful island of yours and perhaps burn it to the ground, and that I am a liar and a scoundrel for telling you otherwise. However, if I were to explain the events leading up to my present unfortunate circumstances, perhaps your opinion of me might differ. But as I tell you this tale, keep in mind that no man’s memory is perfect, and that I do not remember the exact words of every single man or woman, either gentlefolk or scoundrel that I have come across, especially at a time when I did not speak French or English, but I shall do my best to construct what I can from memory.
A little over a year ago, I was as much a prisoner as I am now, except that my captors were correct to capture me, and my crimes were true. Justified, but true. This was in my homeland of Krym, which you would call Crimea. Our old masters the Tatars had made slaves of us good Christians, forcing us into poverty and back-breaking labor.
I was born of the steppe, son of a free Cossack. I knew how to ride, how to shoot, and how to handle the blade of a shashka, as we all did. But alas we could not stand against the Tatars, the Mohammedan people who call the steppes their home. When I was ten years old, they came to my village, killed my papa, raped my mama, and then took me as a slave. My childhood was made of tears, hard labor in the mines, and constant beatings. Despite the darkness and hellish nature of the iron mines, I managed to make friends there, and they told me their stories. I was not any different from any Boris, Vladimir, or Ivan. Thousands of papas murdered, thousands of mamas raped, and thousands of children sold into slavery. I was not special.
Czarina Catherine would not stand for the mistreatment of her people. She would regularly send ransom-men to free the sons and daughters of Mother Russia from bondage. When at long last my own ransom was paid, I was released into the world with a heart full of vengeance. My release coincided with the fall of the Tatar state to the Russian Empire. The Khan was overthrown, and with the Czarina came our freedom, and for that I felt truly free. However, it would not last.
The same czarina that freed us grew jealous of our liberty and demanded that we free Cossacks subject ourselves to her “benevolence.” When we refused, she razed our homes to the ground. She would not stand for a people that valued no rule but our own. Our treasures were confiscated, our warriors were disarmed, and we were dispersed beyond our homeland. We became destitute, impoverished vagabonds; living through sin and misdeeds.
This was when I first learned how to commit petty crimes: pickpocketing, lifting, coney catching, and the like. When I grew older, I also grew bolder. I committed burglaries, engaged in highway robbery, and became involved with river piracy.
Now, while I enjoyed the mischief of escaping with my life after ruffling through someone’s coin purse, or the rush after cleaning out the lodgings of some silk-wearing bey, it did not compare to the joy of sailing up and down the Dnieper with the wind in my face and a gang of loyal comrades beside me, ready to take up arms against any Tatar or Turk.
My crew had grown accustomed to raiding Tatar settlements along the river, and I remember the particular raid that led to my imprisonment. It was a cloudless day, and there was a gentle breeze that carried us along the length of the Dnieper. Our old chaika that we had used for countless trips up and down the river resembled a giant jolly boat with a sail. She had no guns as you would know them, just twenty strong men with muskets, swords, and axes. We believed that our arms and numbers were more than sufficient for dealing with anything that the Tatars could muster. On this particular raid, we were to sack a tiny Tatar village whose inhabitants had been launching their own raids against us Cossacks.
It was a cloudless day, and there was a gentle breeze that carried our old chaika along the length of the Dnieper. Our fearless leader Captain Tokar stood on the bow of the boat, hands on his hips, like a majestic statue of an old Greek hero. The others, Yehor, Stefan, the Kirilenko brothers, and a dozen others rowed the boat while Misha and I kept watch with our muskets for any Tatars along the riverbanks. Misha gave me a yellow-toothed grin and asked me,
“What are you going to do with your share?”
“I know you want me to say that I would pay you back for my gambling debts,” I groaned, “but a man has needs.”
“Am I not a man? Do I not have needs as well?”
“Bread is a need, Misha. Water is a need. Whores and kvass are not. And you of all people should be thinking of bread to put meat on those bones. You may suckle a whore’s tits all you want, but you will gain no nourishment.”
We laughed as we approached a bend in the river, but we grew silent as our view was obscured by thick reeds and bushes that hugged the river bank. As we sailed closer, off in the distance we could see the village we were to raid with its simple log cabins breaking the flat horizon. But in the docks by the village, we caught sight of a multitude of small boats, loaded with Tatar warriors. The cunning bastards had been waiting for us. We could not hope to cross swords with them and come out alive.
“Row for your lives!” our captain yelled.
The serene water beneath us churned in the wake of our furious paddling. Between strokes, I turned my head to see the Tatars, who were paddling just as fast to catch us. The gentle breeze that was once working in our favor suddenly turned into a strong gale, and we were sailing windward into it. It was hard to think of anything else at that moment other than our doom.
Arrows flew into the air, splashing into the water only a few feet from our boat. It seemed that every other shot came closer and closer to its mark. A few of us abandoned our oars and reached for our muskets. The boat slowed down as more men elected to fight rather than retreat.
“Idiots!” I protested, “We haven’t enough shot for all of them!”
“We’re all dead men anyway, but we will go down fighting!” replied Captain Tokar.
Not long after that, an arrow struck one of my comrades in the throat even before he had the chance to fire his weapon.
“By the cross!” said Yehor, nearly dropping his oar, “They got Misha!”
“Good! I owed him money! Paddle faster!”
It was unfortunate that in our rush to get away, no one had thought to simply reef the sails. The Tatars filled the sky with arrows. We returned fire, of course, but a Tatar archer can let loose many arrows in the time it takes for a Cossack to fire his musket once. Down they came like rain, and all we could do was lie flat against the floor of the boat and pray to the Almighty that none of us would get hit in the ass. I was afraid that the boat might sink from all the arrows that were piercing the hull.
Then, I felt a bit of wetness against my boot. An arrowhead was poking through the hull, and water was seeping in from a small hole.
“The boat is leaking!” I shouted.
The others ignored me, too fixated on the fight ahead of us to listen to my warning. More of my brothers picked up their weapons to fight, until I alone was at the oars. The Tatar boats drew ever nearer, and the enemy was close enough for me to see the intricate needlework in their clothing and the hatred in their eyes. It was then that I made the first choice of many that led me to where I am today.
“God be with you, my brothers! I will see you all in heaven!” They did not even hear me as I jumped into the water. I swam as fast as I could to the riverbank, swallowing water and half expecting that an arrow would strike me as I splashed about. I closed my eyes and prayed to the Almighty that if I died, I would die quickly. As I prayed, I focused only on putting one tired arm in front of the other and kicking as fast as my legs would allow. Imagine my surprise when my palm struck the soft dirt of the riverbank.
It became apparent to me that the Tatars assumed one of them had shot me and I had slipped out of the boat. I crawled onto shore, exhausted. My chest heaved, but I suppressed a cough that would have given away my position. Concerned over the fate of my comrades, I looked towards the river, just in time to see a Tatar boat ram into our old chaika. The heathen warriors boarded it and cut down my brothers with their scimitars and clubs. All of them screamed, none of them begged for their lives. I was honored to know such men, but I would grieve for them later. First, I needed to flee.
Sitnik reeds choked the banks of the river. I crawled towards them and concealed myself within their prickly spines until I could catch my breath. From my hiding place, I watched as the Tatars looted my brothers’ corpses for trinkets. There was nothing I could do but grit my teeth and wait for them to pass on. They did not bother searching for me. In their minds, they had set out for what they needed to do: destroy the invaders. Now that their vengeance was satisfied, they tossed the bodies of my friends into the river and paddled away, leaving our old chaika to slowly sink to the bottom.
Even after they disappeared from view, I lay there, cowering in the reeds, staring at the chaika’s prow that jutted above the waterline. To stay and fight would have been more noble, but I would have joined my brothers in death, and such a futile effort would have been an exercise in stupidity. Two spirits tugged at my heart. The first was one of vengeance, for as the last survivor of our band, it was my God-given duty to avenge the deaths of my comrades. The second spirit was that of shame, which whispered to me that I was a coward for deserting my friends in their hour of need. Perhaps if I had somehow rowed harder, then we would have lived. Perhaps… but that was all folly now. I was alone in the barrens near the Dnieper with nothing. My thoughts turned to food, shelter, and survival, of which survival was the topmost import. For a moment, I sat still, giving any lingering Tatars time pass by.
I poked my head above the reeds for the first time in what seemed like hours. The sun had barely moved from where it was when the first arrow struck the water. All that I had left were my soggy clothes and the articles that hung from my belt. My shashka’s blade was still sharp, for I could always count on her to be a good sword. My pistol, though, was water-logged, and since my powder was likewise useless, the pistol could only serve as a hammer. The only other implement I had was a simple dagger which I kept in my boot.
I would try to find my way back to a Christian camp away from the Tatars, I did not care if I met Poles or Russians, but other Cossacks like myself I obviously preferred. Once I made sure that there were indeed no remnants of the Tatar band around me, I crept out of the reeds and made my way towards the nearest road. I thanked God for the daylight; I dreaded the thought of getting entangled in these woods in the dead of the night. Brambles got caught in my clothes and the tall grass made it impossible to see anything beyond them. My steps were slow and deliberate, as I did not want to step into a fox’s den or any such obstruction.
A loud rustle in some bushes ahead caught my attention. I froze. Could the Tatars have somehow tracked me to the riverbank? Was it a wild animal that planned to stalk me? My hand shot straight for the hilt of my shashka and I drew the blade to cut down whatever was in front of me.
A loud neigh burst out of the bushes. Was it a wild horse or a Tatar cavalryman? I did not want to leap haphazardly to what could be my own death. I took a peek through the foliage to spy the white backside of the animal. I heard neither the clinking of stirrups nor the humming of a foreign melody. This horse was alone; a gift from the Almighty that I might ride back to civilization.
I very carefully made my way out of the bushes and approached the horse, whispering to it. It turned towards me and stared with its frightened eyes. As gentle as I could, I put my hand over the horse’s neck and caressed it. Then noble beast let out a long snort of contentment as I trailed my hand along its side.
“Be calm,” I said, more to myself than to the animal. “I am going to mount you now.”
With a swift jump, I was on its back, and much to my surprise, the horse showed no distress. I laughed at my own luck. The path forward seemed clear as day. I would go to Kherson, the Russian fort in the east, and I would tell the garrison there about what had happened today. Our vengeance would be swift and brutal.
I was no stranger to riding without a saddle. Curiously, the horse had a bridle, and from that I assumed that it had broken free from some carriage or troika. The great white horse moved at a comfortable, relaxed walk towards Kherson while I steered with my feet. I ascended out of the marshy riverlands towards the steppe roads. There was something tranquil about the vast sea of grass and the honking of the wild geese in the distance.
It was not long before the calm was broken. Out of the flat horizon, a rider approached, galloping towards me waving his arms in the air and yelling something incoherent. There was nothing behind me, and there was no approaching horde behind him. I squinted at him to see his colors. A colorful coat would indicate a Tatar, while a more subdued color would tell me he was a Cossack like myself. As he rode closer, I could see the green of the Imperial Army. But it was unusual that he was alone. Seeing that he was waving his arms at me and not a saber, I decided to ride out to meet him.
I could see him clearer as I approached; he wore the colors of a soldier, but had the frame of a book-keeper. On his head, a black cocked hat sat on top of a finely coiffed white wig. He had a nervous smile, and the nearer I drew, the more anxiety I could see.
“Good day to you, kind sir,” he said. His voice had no depth to it, and the man looked and sounded as if someone had a firm grip on his man-eggs. “That is a very fine horse you are riding,” he said through a stammer, “but I am afraid that I must relieve you of it, for…”
I drew my shashka and her blade at the man’s nose.
“You will relieve yourself in your trousers before you relieve me of this horse.”
The man turned ghostly white as he stared down my blade.
“Sir, please, I am only doing this at the pleasure of Her Majesty!”
“What do you mean, moskal?” I said, spitting that slur that was tailor-made for Russians such as he.
“This horse… it belongs to the czarina, and I am only here to retrieve it for her! I am a simple footman, a stain upon your blade! Your strength would be wasted on me!”
I cringed in disgust. I hate cowards, especially those who plead for their lives. This one, though, had an interesting story. The mention of the czarina sparked my interest, but I had designs of my own.
“I am leaving on this horse and you will never take it from me. Besides that, how do I know this business with the czarina is not a ruse?”
The man was silent for a moment. His eyes darted around, as if looking for an answer in the grass and the distant mountains.
“Perhaps… you could… come with me?” he winced.
It stank of a trap. But if that were the case, would not he or his band have tried to attack me already? I looked around at the vast empty steppe. There were no trees, no rocks, and no cover of any sort. Nothing to conceal hidden enemies. The man himself was completely unarmed, and he did not have the demeanor of a highwayman, or at least, that was how he wanted me to think. I would go to Kherson.
“I am going to Kherson,” I said, sheathing my blade. “Hinder me if you dare.”
“Wonderful! The czarina’s party is encamped near Kherson. She refused to proceed until she could have all forty of her horses. Doubtless you will find her there.”
I blinked at him in disbelief. Either he saw my unwillingness to follow him and he was attempting to outmaneuver me, or he was being genuine and I would actually see the czarina of all the Russias along my way. Regardless, Kherson was still the only semblance of civilization nearby, and I would make my way there, trap or no trap. However, I would not allow this stuttering fool to follow me.
Without another word, I spurred my horse into a full gallop and left the hare-hearted fool coughing in the wake of my dust clouds. I smiled to myself as I breathed the fresh steppe air and my mind filled with visions of vengeance. I would ride back to the Tatars with an army, and we would obliterate the settlement and salt the earth so nothing would ever grow there again.
All of a sudden, I heard the thundering of hooves behind me. I looked back to see the green-coated pest was chasing me. He held onto his hat with one hand while his other hand held on for dear life to his reigns. His face bore no signs of malice, only enormous distress.
“Go fuck yourself, moskal!”
“I would thank you to stop referring to me by that word, please!” he shouted over the sound of our horses galloping, “I have no ill will towards you, sir!”
“Then stop following me, moskal!”
“I am merely coming back to the czarina with the news that you are returning her property!”
Again with the czarina. Perhaps he was simply mad? A fool with delusions that he was on some quest for the empress. Whoever he was, his presence tested my patience. It was impossible to lose him in the barrens of the steppe, but it was my hope that my steed was faster than his.
“Gey! Gey! Gey!” I shouted, spurring my horse onward. The beast shot forth like a dart. As I looked behind me, I could see the Russian slowly fade into the distance, back into my dust clouds where he belonged. I snickered to myself, relieved that I was rid of him.
I approached a rise in the terrain and I braced myself for the steep drop. Beyond this small hill were the dirt roads that led to Kherson. By my reckoning, I would be able to reach the settlement in only an hour if I rode hard enough.
Just as I ascended the hill, I stopped. My eyes widened at the vision before me: a magnificent host of soldiers and horses, thousands of them attired in imperial splendor. Hundreds of campfires and colorful tents stood around an impressive pavilion of golden silk. A yellow flag emblazoned with the double-headed eagle of the Russians flew over it, and melodious foreign music drifted through the air.
The green man was not lying. The czarina was here.
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