The Seas Never Rest
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Mr. Simon Theodosyevich Durov, Governor for Saint Petersburg, never particularly liked to handle trade affairs. A genius for city planning, he loved to deal with architects, delve into their drawings and ideas, inspect the construction sites and hold fetes galantes at the unveiling ceremonies. He would invite foreign masters — Trezzini, Rastrelli, even Schlüter — to design and build their baroque masterpieces such as the Kunstkamera or the Winter Palace. He loved it. And how he detested dealing with merchants! “Negotiants”, “agents”, “marketeers”, whatever they called themselves — they were merchants. Pick-pockets. Greed be their middle name. The soi-disant negotiants didn’t know a thing about negotiations. At best, they could bring expensive “gifts” and hope that their silverware and outlandish tobacco would secure them a slot at the pier and facilitated customs clearance. And reduced taxation. And an introduction to the Emperor’s court. In their dreams.
Merchant ships, brimming with spices and coffee beans, huddled in the Saint Petersburg harbor. Whenever the wind blew onshore, Simon Theodosyevich felt slightly irritated with the smell — so alien, so out of place in his cold, snow-covered city. City of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. The tall windows of Durov’s receiving office had been securely sealed to block the cold. It was November. The bitter wind was spattering snow against the windows.
This morning, Governor was supposed to meet yet another fresh merchant striving to enchant the Russian market with cocoa, cane sugar and lemons. But to his own surprise, Simon Theodosyevich wasn’t annoyed by the coming meeting. He was actually impatient for the merchant to arrive. The meeting was going to be an interesting one, since the merchant was — unbelievably, impossibly — a woman.
Her card arrived a few days previously. “Cornelia de Baalbergen & Co., Colonial Goods”. Durov’s secretary Frol who handled all incoming petitions, actually had to confirm twice with the merchant’s dark-skinned assistant that his headman was really a headwoman. Frol reported to the Governor at once: he knew the old man would be no less fascinated as he was.
“A lady merchant?” Simon Theodosyevich raised his bushy gray eyebrows. “A LADY merchant?”
“Precisely, Your Nobleness.”
“Holy Mother,” Durov smiled in amusement, reading her card. “Cornelia de Baalbergen... Colonial goods... Well, what do you say, Frol? Want to meet the Dutch lass?”
“I imagine this will be most engrossing, sir.”
““Engrossing” yourself, you grouse,” mimicked Simon Theodosyevich. “Off you go, off you go. And fetch Komyaga for me.”
After the secretary left, Vice Governor read the merchant’s card again. And then looked at the coronation portrait of the Emperor’s mother, Catherine II, hanging on the pale blue marezzo wall. Well, a queen is a queen. They had lady writers and poetesses and even teachers these days. But a lady merchant? Hmmm...
In summer, the petitions were many: the northern seas calmed during the warmer months, and foreigners came swarming in. But November was a dead season. The winds and the waves went ferocious, the navigation almost completely died out. One had to be desperate (or self-assured) like hell to dare venturing into the Russian seas in winter. Mr. Durov got more and more keen to meet the audacious merchant.
The first thing that struck the Governor when he met Cornelia de Baalbergen in the flesh was that she didn’t look Dutch at all. Her olive skin, bright eyes and jet-black hair twisted in an elegant hairdo reminded him of Spanish and Italian women he had met at the court. “De Baalbergen” is probably her married name, Durov thought as they exchanged greetings. She gave him a bow instead of curtsey. She was dressed in black.
“Welcome, madame de Baalbergen,” Simon Theodosyevich said, “have a seat. Coffee for you?”
“Good gracious, Governor!” Cornelia’s voice was slightly raspy but had an appealing quality. “I’ve travelled all the way from the Caribbean to be offered a coffee? How about a vodka?”
So she drinks vodka. A good sign.
“Frol, vodka for my guest. I’ll have the usual.”
“So tell me,” Simon Theodosyevich said, “what brings such a lovely lady to Russia?”
“I do business, Governor,” Cornelia spoke confidently. “That’s my trade. I’m sure the opportunities here are plenty and diverse. I stock silks in India, cocoa in Trinidad, coffee in Jamaica and limes in Sicily. Are you familiar with limes?”
“It’s a fruit like lemon, isn’t it?” Lemons were well-spread. Limes were new.
“Yes, sir, it’s like lemon. Only better,” she smiled. “Allow me to present you, sir? Andre!” she ordered after Durov nodded. Her assistant approached carrying a wooden chest. Cornelia opened it: it was full of bright-green citruses.
“Novelties quickly become fashionable,” said the merchant. “I know from experience.”
She drank her vodka in one quick swallow. Simon Theodosyevich thought that Cornelia actually resembled a swallow — quick and dark like the little bird. He suddenly thought of his own wife and daughters — pale skinned, fair haired. Like himself and most of his staff. The lime-bearing lady-merchant looked alien here, like a little devil in a garden of angels.
They discussed taxation, customs, area sales, and trade circuits. The little devil of a merchant definitely knew her business well. She mentioned she’d been doing trade for years, which seemed likely.
When the meeting was over and Cornelia left, Simon Theodosyevich drank his strong black tea in contemplation. Something was bothering him. He looked at Catherine the Great’s portrait again. The pale-faced, blue-eyed queen was smiling serenely.
Frol emerged from the back room with a silver tray (a gift from one of the merchants).
“Your Nobleness,” he spoke, “I’ve taken the liberty...” and put the tray on Vice Governor’s desk. Durov saw a Sevres porcelain saucer (another gift) full of sliced limes.
“Your Nobleness might want to try them in your tea,” Frol suggested politely. Simon Theodosyevich grabbed a slice with silver tongs (yet another gift which came with the tray).
“She’s an interesting one, isn’t she?”
“Yes, sir. She most certainly is.”
“Phew,” Cornelia exhaled once she and Andre were in the carriage, and no one could hear them. “These guys sure are tough.”
“Russians, Nella. What did you expect?”
“That’s one meeting down.” Cornelia blew on her hands to warm them. It’s only been a few minutes since she and Andre left the cozy reception hall, but they were already chilled to the marrow. “What was that other place again? The Merchants’ Court? Something like ‘Ghost Lore’...” She chortled. “How appropriate.”
“Hang on.” Andre produced a note from the pocket of his thick woolen coat. They had bought the coat in Kashmir where winter temperatures dropped well below zero, but in Saint Petersburg the coat proved useless: it couldn’t protect against the fierce winds. “Here it is,” Andre read, “Gostiny Dvor.”
“Gostiny Dvor!” Cornelia shouted to the yamshchik. The old hunched coachman rushed the horses, and off they went from the quiet yard into the busy street.
Gostiny Dvor, or the Merchants’ Court, was a magnificent yellow arcade in Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main street. Its colonnade stretched one block on either side (the Governor was particularly proud of this building, also designed by Italian baroque masters). The representative offices of trade companies from all around the world resided there. Cornelia took a deep breath before stepping from the carriage into the icy air again, and although it was only a few steps from the street to the front doors, the wind managed to play a mean trick on her: a sudden blast snatched her plumed hat off. The hat landed in the middle of the street where it was instantly crushed by a horse-driven cart.
“Jesus Christ!” Cornelia rushed but stopped on the edge of the pavement while the wind continued to destroy her hairdo. “My hat!”
“Nella! Forget the hat!” Andre urged her from the front doors. “Come!”
“Oh hell.” Once inside, the disheveled merchant looked at her reflection in the mirrored hall. “A perfect sight to start new business connections.”
Andre discreetly adjusted her hair into relative order.
“That’s good enough,” he said, carefully twisting a disobedient strand of hair over another. “Will do for establishing business connections with barbarians.”
Cornelia smiled. Andre had many talents. Humor, among others.
They went in and out of countless offices, all alike, like snowflakes, and each different. Iron from Kursk, hemp from Penza, tar from Archangelsk, furs and leathers from all across the Empire, Caspian caviar, Gusev cut glass, copper from the Kola Peninsula, floating fabrics from Tashkent, Vologda wax, wheat, sail cloth... Andre took lots and lots of notes, cards, addresses. Some of the merchants had already heard about “Baalbergen & Co.”, and just like the Governor, they wondered why Cornelia arrived in Saint Petersburg in winter — across the raging Baltic Sea? “You wouldn’t ask if you knew my crew,” she smiled proudly. “They love a good challenge.”
One of the offices was decorated with panels of shiny dark-green mineral. The showcases displayed lots of tableware and jewelry of the same rich, emerald-color material. The shop was empty save the prikazchik in an embroidered kaftan behind the bureau. When Cornelia spoke to him, he made a helpless gesture and replied “Nyet”.
“What’s wrong with him?” Andre said quietly.
“He doesn’t understand,” Cornelia assumed and turned to the prikazchik again: “Parlez-vous Français? Spreekt je Nederlands?”
He shook his head and made a wait-gesture, then shouted:
“Mishka! Davay-ka syuda tolmacha da pozhiveye!”
A young boy emerged from the back room, exchanged a few words with the prikazchik and ran out. The man gestured something that Cornelia didn’t quite understand.
“They are probably fetching an interpreter,” Andre suggested.
“Oh. Right. And I think we need one of our own if we want something done in this barbarian land,” Cornelia told her assistant. “Please make a note of it.”
A minute later the boy returned with the interpreter. Cornelia was poring over the arts on display and didn’t pay much attention to either of them. The prikazchik began with an air of importance:
“Moy-to promysel krupney vsekh po syu storonu Urala. Lyubogo malakhita uzho ne izvolte sumlevatsa, podi imperatorsky dom snabzhayem, tak-to.”
The interpreter nodded and spoke:
“Sergey Lukich says his enterprise is the largest malachite producer in The Urals—”
The sound of his voice struck Cornelia like a bolt of lightning. She turned to him so quickly that she nearly knocked Andre off his feet. She stared at the interpreter’s pale-skinned face.
“—and last but not least, their malachite even decorates the Winter Palace.”
Cornelia knew that voice. It was a voice from the past. Years ago, she had known that man.
The prikazchik watched her intently and looked quite satisfied with the effect his speech had made. He said another phrase in Russian, and the interpreter made to speak, but Cornelia interrupted:
“How? I mean— Just— How?”
“Well, theirs actually is a pretty important enterprise,” the fair-haired interpreter replied and Cornelia thought she noticed his lips curl into a smile beneath the ridiculous spade beard. “They easily bagged the contract to decorate the royal palace.”
Cornelia couldn’t say a word. She gazed in his eyes — bright blue, blue like the Caribbean Sea.
It took a great effort to look away from his face.
“What is it, Andre?”
“What is it, Nella?” Andre spoke in French so that the smiling interpreter would not understand. “Something’s wrong?”
It took another great effort to concentrate.
“I suppose... that this malachite thing can be golden,” Cornelia replied in French and then remembered that the “interpreter” used to speak French, too. Back then, back there... A vortex of long-forgotten memories flashed through her mind: “The Knave of Toro” — the Dragotta blade — Flotsam — Marquis de Singe — “The Howler Monkey” — Elaine Marley—
“Would you like ME to handle the talks?” Andre suggested. On rare occasions, he would indeed handle some of the deals. But this was not the case now.
Cornelia turned to the “interpreter”.
“Please tell the esteemed Mr. Sergey whats-his-last-name,” she spoke in English, “that his goods are of immense quality and indubitable market potential. I’m more than willing to have business relations with his enterprise. I’m coming back here tomorrow to secure our mutual interests.”
The prikazchik listened attentively to what the “interpreter” translated for him, then gave a Russian bow to Cornelia, indicating consent and acknowledgement.
“See you tomorrow then, madame,” said the mysterious fair-haired man, then disappeared behind the door. Cornelia hesitated for a moment, then commanded her assistant: “Go after him!”
Andre stared at her, bewildered.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked in a perplexed voice.
“Well, we need a Russian interpreter, don’t we?” Cornelia retorted. “Go after that man NOW and hire him!”
Quarter to five.
When Andre returned alone saying that the interpreter will join them at five at the “Angleterre”, Cornelia’s first impulse was to punch him square in the face. Delay was as risky as it was tantalizing. To avoid havoc, the secretary fled. One of Andre’s many talents was knowing when to get out of the way. He was keeping quiet somewhere in the reception room while Cornelia paced up and down the parlor. The minutes dragged.
Ten to five.
“Hotel d’Angleterre”, a red brick castle-prison hybrid where Cornelia quartered, wasn’t far from the Merchant’s Court. Would he walk? Did he have a horse? Cornelia remembered the state his clothes were in: judging by it, he probably wasn’t doing well now. The Caribbean’s greatest pirate in his day... The Tri-Island area went berserk when he disappeared. Marley searched high and low. She left no stone unturned. To no avail. He’d disappeared without a trace.
Five to five.
They theorized he’d drowned. Idiots. He was born for sailing; he couldn’t just “drown”. They theorized he’d been murdered out of revenge by the handful of former LeChuck’s gang members who survived their leader. Idiots indeed. A bunch of palukas couldn’t take down the man who had singlehandedly defeated Largo la Grande, Pegnose Pete, Captain Rottingham and his crew, fearsome pirates and whom not. And he had outfoxed a very mighty pirate hunter. And he finished LeChuck once and for all.
His fifth fight with LeChuck was his final. LeChuck never returned in all the years that followed. How long ago was it? Cornelia founded “Baalbergen & Co.” in 1789. And before that, two years at home. Holy mackerel, that’s NINE years since he destroyed LeChuck, and eight years since he went missing. “Holy mackerel”... It used to be his signature byword.
Five past five.
Cornelia was pacing the parlor up and down, hands clasped. So he was alive after all. Somehow, she’d always known. Dragotta used to say: you can never be sure until you’ve seen the corpse. Dragotta knew life well... Cornelia looked out the window. It had started to snow again, and the snow was flying horizontally because of the wild wind from the Neva river. The lights of glass street lamps burning their hemp oil were hardly discernable through the blizzard.
Ten past five.
His voice was ringing in her memory. “Shivress,” he’d call her. “Salty sea witch” and “Mon adversaire” (French, of course he spoke French.) But she was also “Honey” once — when they posed as newlyweds for one of his countless tricks. Holy mackerel... She never forgot his voice. Nor his eyes. Nor his—
The brass bell at the door jingled.
Cornelia jumped. She stopped dead in her tracks, all ears, hearing Andre’s footsteps on the parquet moving away, the front door opening, a few indistinct words, then two pairs of footsteps returning.
The secretary led the visitor into the parlor.
“Thank you, Andre,” Cornelia said dismissively. She didn’t notice the troubled look that the secretary gave her before shutting the door behind him. Her eyes were on the golden-haired man.
He didn’t change. Well, there might be a few wrinkles, maybe a few strands of silver in his once-golden hair. But his eyes were just as bright and clear as on that eye-wateringly sunny day nine years ago, when she pointed her sword at him instead of a formal introduction.
He, of all people, was standing here, in her parlor.
“I knew it.” He smiled, watching her face change expressions, recognition to remembrance to excitement. “I knew I’d see you again. Morgan.”
She shook her head.
“Don’t call me that. Morgan LeFlay is dead. But Guybrush, why on earth—”
“Don’t call me that,” he replied in the same tune. “Guybrush Threepwood is dead.”
“We’re both dead, then.” Morgan smiled.
“And this,” Guybrush looked over the room with obvious curiosity, “is one hell of an afterlife.”
“Angleterre” was a magnificent sight. The mahogany wood, antique statues and opulent carpets made this place fit for royalty. Russians loved pomp. Marley’s mansion looked like a monastery compared to this hotelroom.
“Well, business is booming. Can’t I afford a little luxury? Hope you don’t mind the porcelain,” Morgan noted ironically as she led Guybrush to a white velvet sofa and they sat. “So tell me, tell me everything!”
“Ahhh Mo. It’s kind of a long story... I’d rather you—”
“Do I have to take you on swordpoint again to loosen ye tongue?” Morgan said menacingly, and both chortled. Nine years ago, she’d held her blade to his throat. She wasn’t kidding: she was serious about murdering him. But he got away.
“Well, it all started on Flotsam Island. Back at sea, right after you and I watched the manatees swim into the sunset—”
“Oh my god! The flipper-holding manatees?? I had no idea I remembered that!”
“Yup. And then you got on the boat and sailed to— to wherever you sailed—”
“My burrow.” Morgan smiled. Guybrush still had no idea how close she was to betraying him that day. She was supposed to head-hunt him, for pity’s sake! She’d been offered a sack of gold for bringing him in. But she just couldn’t. Not after what they’d been through together. “I sailed to my burrow and the first thing I hear the next day is that you’ve been arrested on Flotsam—”
“—I barely stepped ashore, and there’s a crowd of grog-guzzling scumbags running at me with machetes and pitchforks and summon me to their court of pirate law.”
“I read about the process. There was like half a dozen charges and you got away with each and every one... Small wonder... And then you destroyed LeChuck?”
“Yup. Well, I rehearsed killing him four times... The fifth was the grand finale.”
“But I’ve no idea what you’ve been up to since?”
Suddenly, he turned away, his face darkening.
Morgan knew that expression. His face looked just like that when he was telling her, nine years previously, that his wife had caught the pox. Half the Caribbean were poxed that year. But Marley was the only one who mattered to him.
“Guybrush?” Morgan spoke very carefully. “Something I said?”
“Care for a drink?” He was smiling again. “I think I promised to buy you a grog some time?”
“Nothing of the sort. Where shall we go?”
To Be Continued