As Edmond Dantes was mummified alive in the darkness beneath Monte Cristo, he reflected on the events which had brought him there.
The look-out at the Marseille docks spotted the Michaeleon pulling in from sea on the 24th of February, 1815. The big three-mast ship came from Tunisia with untold exotic goods nestled in the hold. Spectators gathered to watch the Michaeleon sail into the harbour, past the rocky islands in the bay and the imposing walls of the prison of the Chateau d’If. The locals took a sense of pride in seeing the Marseille-built Michaeleon return to port.
A massive grey appendage emerged from the water just outside of the harbour and interrupted the spectacle. The slithering tentacle covered in razor-sharp ringed cups rose twenty feet straight up into the air before slamming down onto the deck of the Michaeleon. The ship’s pilot sounded the warning bell; the bell of the old fort on shore answered it. The sailors sprang into action with pistols and swords to dislodge the tentacle before it could pull them under.
Another incoming ship, the Pharaon, increased their sails to pick up more speed. A young man next to the pilot directed the deckhands to man the ship’s harpoon guns. They fired the large metal hooks into the blubbery sides of the kraken surfacing next to the imperiled Michaeleon. The beast’s ivory beak breached the surface, surrounded by smaller tendrils. One of them wrapped around the leg of an unfortunate seaman, dragging him closer to the beak to be torn in half.
The Pharaon drew closer. As a defensive measure against just this sort of creature, it had an extendable steel spike beneath the water line. The young man ordered it deployed, and their course allowed them to ram the kraken at full speed. The wounded creature screeched and flailed, withdrawing from its attack on the Michaeleon to focus on removing itself from the spike as the crew brought four-pounder cannons to the deck. With the tentacle clear of the Michaeleon’s deck, the sailors on that vessel brought their own cannons to bear as well. Fired upon on both flanks, the kraken decided to submerge and flee in search of an easier meal.
Monsieur Pierre Morrel, owner of the shipping company Morrel & Son and of the Pharaon, stood on the dock with great agitation. The Michaeleon was not one of his ships, but a kraken attack was never an easy thing to witness, especially when lives were lost. He made a mental note to check in with the ship’s owner later and see if the dead man had any family.
Another concern for him stood aboard the Pharaon itself; or rather, not aboard it. The young man giving orders was certainly not Captain LeClere. Furthermore, the ship was several days late in returning to Marseille.
Whoever the acting captain was, he had handled the kraken and now threw tow lines to the injured vessel. Morrel’s wooden leg beat an uneven rhythm against the dock as he rushed to a small skiff and paid the oarsman to bring him out to the Pharaon.
“Did you see that, monsieur?” the oarsman asked. “I’ve never seen a kraken so big in the harbour in all my days! Isn’t the coast guard supposed to keep them at bay?”
“Some ambassadors are returning from abroad and requested an escort, from what I hear,” Morrel said. “It seems that kept them busy.”
When Morrel came alongside, a rope ladder waited for him, and the young man stood at the top of it. A tall and slim young fellow of about eighteen or twenty, with hazel eyes and hair as black as a raven, and as pale as a hardy life under the Mediterranean sun allowed. His demeanour, even in the wake of battle, radiated a sort of calm peculiar to men who are equipped to deal with danger. Nevertheless, he looked worried.
“Edmond Dantes? Is that you, then?” Morrel asked as he climbed. “Where is Captain LeClere? Why did he leave you in command?”
“M. Morrel, I regret to tell you that Captain LeClere has died,” Edmond said as he helped to pull Morrel up onto the deck. “We lost him when we made port at Naples.”
“Lost him?” Morrel asked, devastated to hear such news about his best captain. Morrel’s wife and LeClere’s were bridge partners, and their children played together. “Was it pirates?”
“Just a moment, sir,” Edmond said. He gave new orders for a course correction to bring themselves and the Michaeleon into the docks. The pilot and eight other seamen sprang into action to respond. It impressed Morrel despite the terrible news.
“Ah, M. Morrel!” called another voice behind him. Morrel recognized the accent at once and was not surprised to see M. Danglars approaching.
Danglars was the ship’s supercargo, responsible for buying and selling as Morrel’s representative in foreign ports. His curly brown hair, receding already at twenty-five, resisted any attempt to tame it. It framed a round and rubbery face, with a large gap between the front teeth. Danglars pushed his way past the deckhands to reach Morrel without bothering to excuse himself, and his beady eyes kept tabs on Edmond as he did so.
“All of our transactions have been processed as directed, sir,” Danglars said when he reached Morrel. His voice was somehow both deep and nasal at the same time, a combination that Morrel found both unique and unpleasant. “I have a summary of the ledger here if you’d care to review it.”
“I’ll look at it shortly, Danglars,” Morrel said. Danglars was adept with figures, but his logs had a history of irregularities that worried Morrel. Every inconsistency had an explanation, and there had never been any trouble, but Morrel would not be surprised to learn Danglars was embezzling. Still, he had never been able to find any proof of it. “Tell me, what happened to Captain LeClere?”
“Ah, I see young Edmond has told you about our entirely avoidable misfortune,” Danglars said with a sniff. “We were ashore in Naples having supper, and LeClere heard a commotion in the street. A loup-garou was running loose in the street, and the captain put himself in harm’s way to draw the beast’s attention from some young women. It was elaborate suicide, really.”
“Werewolves! Foul creatures, the lot of them,” Morrel said. “Was the captain at least suitably equipped?”
“Not in the least,” Danglars said. “A jeweler arrived with silver bullets and put the wolf down, but it had already mauled the captain beyond hope of rescue. All we could do was bring him back to his cabin; he wanted to breathe his last aboard the Pharaon.”
“Mon dieu,” Morrel said, making the sign of the cross. “It will be a small comfort to his widow that he died a hero, but small comfort is better than none. Did he have any last words?”
“Ask Edmond; he was alone with the captain when he died and took it upon himself to give the crew new orders immediately,” Danglars said, staring at Morrel with intent. He pressed his thin lips together and stretched his cheeks, an expression which Morrel had learned served as a smile on Danglars’ face. “While you’re at it, I would suggest asking him about the unscheduled stop which not only delayed us but also brings us into port under the Hunger Moon. It’s a bad omen, sir.”
“I doubt very much that the moon cares about your date of arrival, M. Danglars, and Edmond was, after all, the first mate,” Morrel said, frowning. Danglars’ superstitions could be tiresome, but if Edmond had ordered the delay he would need to learn why. “See to it that everything is ready for customs to come aboard. I will check in with you before I leave the ship.”
Morrel hobbled across the deck on his wooden leg, grateful that the harbour was calm. He had lost the leg twelve years earlier, during the darkest period of Europe’s history: the Dead Plague.
Beginning in late 1787 in Eastern Europe, a mysterious event set in motion a terrible perversion of nature. The source of it was a tightly-guarded secret, but something spread across the continent which turned men, women, and children into walking corpses, hungry for human flesh. People called the creatures many names: undead, revenants, ghouls, zombies. Whatever the label, the Plague spread like fire and raged for seventeen years. One bite from an undead transmitted the infection; if the victim could avoid being devoured completely, they were doomed to become a zombie themselves.
Morrel had just avoided that fate in 1803, when a zombie concealed itself in the shadows beneath his front porch. Cold hands had clamped onto his ankle, and the zombie’s teeth passed through his boot to tear off a chunk of the flesh and tendons beneath. Morrel had only just been able to put a bullet through the zombie’s head when he fell. The quick action of his neighbour, a doctor, resulted in his losing the leg beneath the knee soon enough to prevent total infection.
He found Edmond supervising the crew from the upper deck. The crew responded as well to him as they ever had to Captain LeClere, and he handled the responsibility well. Morrel had seen many young men in their first command position turn to arrogance, but Edmond gave his orders respectfully. LeClere seemed to have taught him well. Morrel beckoned for Edmond to follow him to the captain’s office and waited for Edmond to close the door.
“M. Danglars tells me that there was an unscheduled stop,” Morrel said. “Can you explain it, please?”
“Of course, but it is a delicate matter,” Edmond said, standing at attention. “I wasn’t certain whether to log it before talking to you first. It has to do with Captain LeClere.”
“LeClere ordered the detour?” Morrel asked.
“In a way, sir. When he was dying on his bed, he sent everyone else away. His last request was that we deliver a letter to Marshal Bertrand at the island of Elba,” Edmond said. “The crew were allowed to come ashore as far as the beach, and I was taken to see the marshal alone.”
Morrel stroked his chin, surprised by the young man’s words. Omitting the visit from the logbook was prudent; Elba was the prison of Napoleon Bonaparte.
When the Dead Plague reached France in the summer of 1788, King Louis XVI and his court showed little concern for the commoners and instead focused on protecting themselves. The people revolted against this indifference in 1789 and overthrew the monarchy in a grand Revolution. Napoleon, a Corsican commander in the French army, organized his troops to subdue the worst of the undead uprising within France and earned the country’s adoration. The revolutionary government made him first a general and later their highest rank of First Consul.
Seeing an opportunity to increase French power, Napoleon led the army across Europe. Wherever he went, he wiped out the undead and demanded that the countries he liberated become vassals of France. Weakened by the Plague, they submitted to French rule. Finally, in 1804, he found something in a region of Eastern Europe which would one day become Ukraine. Napoleon never publicized his actions there, but because of what he did, every zombie in the world was destroyed in the same instant. He returned to Paris and gave himself a new title: Emperor.
All was not well for Napoleon, however. Royalist aristocrats who had survived the Revolution remained in exile, working among the new vassal states to stir up resentment against Napoleon and reclaim their former positions. The end of the Dead Plague did not end Napoleon’s ambitions, and he continued to expand his empire; in 1812, he overextended himself with a disastrous attempt to invade Russia and gave the Royalists their opportunity. Humiliated by his Russian defeat, Napoleon returned to Paris to find a coalition of Royalist-backed rebel forces waiting for him. He was forced to abdicate his throne, and the monarchy was restored with King Louis XVIII. Napoleon was exiled to Elba with his marshal and six-hundred men in his personal guard, and allowed to rule the native population there as a king.
“Sir?” Edmond said, bringing Morrel’s thoughts back to the present. Morrel realized he hadn’t spoken for several minutes.
“You should be alright,” Morrel said carefully. “As you said, the landing was made at LeClere’s request; no judge in the country would convict you for a dying man’s last wishes. As for the letter, I would not expect trouble. The postal service already carries news to and from the island, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
“Thank goodness, sir,” Edmond said, relaxing his shoulders. “I had half-convinced myself of the same thing, but it’s good to hear you say it.”
“Yes yes, that’s often the way of things,” Morrel said with a smile. He checked for eavesdroppers at the cabin door, then returned to Edmond. "Did you see the emperor? How is he doing?"
“He entered the marshal’s apartment while I was there and seemed quite well. In fact, he spoke to me, sir,” Edmond said.
“And what did he say to you?” Morrel asked.
“He asked me questions about the Pharaon, our trip from Marseille, and what was our cargo. He seemed pleased to have someone new to talk to, if only for a few minutes,” Edmond said. “I told him that she belonged to you; he told me he knew the firm and that a Morrel had served in his regiment many years ago.”
“Imagine that, the emperor remembers the name Morrel! That was my uncle, Policar. He would love to hear that, but...” Morrel stopped his joyful exclamations and laid a hand on Edmond’s shoulder. “Edmond, you did well to follow Captain LeClere’s last wishes. Regardless, I think it would be best if you tell nobody else about your visit to Elba.”
Edmond nodded, and then they heard a clamour outside signaling that they had reached the docks. Men shouted to each other as they lowered the gangway for the customs officers and health inspectors to come aboard.
“Excuse me sir, but as acting captain I should be out there,” Edmond said.
“True enough, true enough. Go!” Morrel said, watching Edmond leave before following him out onto the deck.
The health inspectors came aboard first, wearing thick leather overcoats and masks of fine mesh to avoid any possible contagion. The uniforms made Morrel imagine Hell’s own fencing team. They verified the ship’s logbook and compared the entries to a list of recent known outbreaks. With everything in order, they presented their bill to Edmond and left to admit the customs officers.
The customs officers wore ordinary suits and cravats and were accompanied by several pairs of uniformed gendarmes. Each pair brought with them a drake on a leash, a four-legged reptilian creature the size of a wolf. The gendarmes and their drakes inspected the cargo hold for any smuggled contraband. Meanwhile, the customs officers went to the supercargo’s office with Danglars’ assistant to inspect the books and determine what taxes would be excised from Morrel’s profits.
“I take it that young Edmond has given a satisfactory explanation for the landing at Elba?” Danglars asked, unhappy to see Morrel smiling after meeting with Edmond.
“He did,” Morrel said.
“Ah, very good,” Danglars said with a frown. “Speaking of the late Captain LeClere, did Edmond give you his letter? I think the captain entrusted him with one.”
“You’re awfully knowledgeable about a private meeting between Edmond and the dying captain, M. Danglars,” Morrel said, his eyes narrowing.
“I may have passed the door of the captain’s cabin as they were talking,” Danglars said, blushing. “It must have slipped my mind.”
Edmond soon returned and Danglars took the opportunity to retreat, though he remained close enough to keep an ear on their conversation.
“The customs details are taken care of, sir,” Edmond reported, “and the Michaeleon is safely at dock as well. The voyage is over!”
“Expertly handled, Edmond,” Morrel said. “When you’re done, I insist you join me for lunch. We should talk about the late captain, the journey at large, and perhaps your career as well.”
“It would be my honour, M. Morrel,” Edmond said, not bothering to hide his brilliant grin. “But I’ve been away for three months and need to see my father. How has his health been? Have you seen him lately?”
Morrel chuckled and rapped his knuckles against his wooden leg. “Us old cripples need to stick together! Your father has been fine, although you know how he likes to keep to himself. I expect a certain someone else will be receiving a visit soon after? A certain girl in the Catalan village?”
“Well, sir, that reminds me of something,” Edmond said, a flush creeping up to his high cheekbones. “Mercedes, that is the Catalan girl, agreed to marry me once I returned; I’d like to request a few days leave, sir.”
“For your wedding? Of course, dear boy! Consider it done,” Morrel said.
“The wedding, yes, but also an important errand I need to conduct in Paris. I’ll be back as soon as possible,” Edmond said.
“Not to worry,” Morrel said. “Take the time you need. It will take six weeks to unload the cargo, and three months to prepare for the next voyage. Just be back by then; after all, the Pharaon cannot sail without her captain!”
“Sir? I told you, Captain LeClere has…” Edmond trailed off, his eyes growing wide as he realized what Morrel had said. “If this is a joke, it’s a cruel one. I’ve dreamt of being captain of this ship since I first saw her and learned every inch of every job on her to prepare for it.”
“No joke, Edmond,” Morrel said. “Mind you, I still need to confer with my business partner before it can be official. But it’s a formality; he leaves the staffing decisions largely in my hands.”
“M. Morrel, I swear that I won’t let you down,” Edmond said with tears in his eyes as he shook Morrel’s hand.
“You can thank me once it’s official. Now go see your father! Go see your blushing bride!” Morrel said.
Edmond saluted Morrel and sprinted down the gangway, dashing towards the famous street of La Canebiere. From dawn to midnight, people swarmed La Canebiere’s many markets and restaurants and social clubs; the saying went that if Paris had La Canebiere, Paris would be a second Marseille. Morrel felt a large measure of paternal pride. He had a son of his own, only eight years old, but he couldn’t help seeing Edmond as a de facto godson.
Lurking by a mast, Danglars held a distinctly different attitude.
“Captain? At only nineteen?” he muttered with a scowl, too low for anyone to hear.