With travel being really difficult right now, I have begun an adventure into the intersection of travel writing and fiction. This is my first short story, set in one of my favorite cities. Chapter one is available here, and subsequent chapters (there are six total) will be published each week. Alternatively, you can purchase the story in its entirety for only $.99 using the PayPal link at the bottom, and I will send you a lovely pdf version. You can also receive this and future stories before general publication by becoming a patron of The Royal Tour through our Patreon site.
I wake with a jolt as the plane touches down. A smooth landing, all in all, but enough to jar me from whatever dream I was having; it’s gone now, never to hit my conscious self. I yawn and stretch, grateful for my ability to sleep pretty much any time and any place. Even this short ninety minute flight from London – two hours gate to gate – was enough for a bit of shuteye. Add to that the six or so hours I slept on the flight from Los Angeles and I should be able to actually function today.
Everyone clamors up out of their seats as the British Airways flight pulls up to our gate, but I don’t move. Sitting in seat 27A of this Airbus A321, I know it will be a while before I am able to disembark. I’ve never understood the rush to stand, only to be crowded and prodded in the aisle. I make eye contact with one of the flight attendants, shake my head and smile. He grins back, rolling his eyes slightly.
Finally it is my turn, and I take my backpack from under the seat, grab my bright blue roller board suitcase from the overhead, and make my way up the jet bridge and into the terminal. French is a wonderful sounding language, and I take a moment to soak it in as I follow the signs for the sortie. This is my first time at the Marseille-Provence Airport, and it’s a quick walk to the curb. The sun is shining outside, not surprising given this is southern France in spring, and white seabirds float amongst the wispy clouds. Most foreigners head for buses to Aix-en-Provence, the tourist capital of the region. My destination is Marseille itself, a gritty metropolis, France’s second largest city and most important Mediterranean port, and a city much older than the country it serves.
The airport shuttle will take me to the center of the city for roughly €8, and that seems a better deal than a €50 cab, so I stow my suitcase below and climb on. It is about a thirty-minute ride into Marseille from the airport, and I think back on the blur of the previous couple days that ended with me here.
It is a normal Tuesday in my life, the simple existence of a travel blogger, the editor of a fairly small niche travel website called Nathan’s Notes. I am sitting in Starbucks, in my favorite padded brown chair by the window, grande vanilla latte on the small table next to me, and my laptop balanced on a combination of the chair arm and my knee as I sit sort of diagonally across the seat. It’s my best thinking position, and one I frequently find myself sitting in.
My phone, sitting on the table next to my drink, buzzes. Engrossed in an article about the street food scene of Singapore – seriously, it’s amazing and worth making the trip just to eat – I barely hear it. A second buzz, then a third. I finish typing with my left hand, poking at the keys with my index and middle fingers, while my right grabs the phone. I save my file, and glance down.
“Are you around?”
“We need to talk ASAP”
The sender is listed only as X in my brand new iPhone, and to be honest, I don’t even know his real name. To be really honest, I don’t even know if X is a he, but since the voice “he” uses to talk to me is a computer-generated British male – the one with the classy accent that sounds royal – I’ve just referred to him as a him, much the same way Siri is a she to millions of iPhone users everywhere.
“Give me 10” I type back, and immediately pack my stuff up for the quick walk to my home, a studio apartment in downtown Los Angeles. It takes me about seven minutes to walk the two short blocks, fumble with my keys before entering my building, and check my mail which, as usual, has piled up considerably. Nothing looks interesting, so I shove it all back into the box. It will keep.
I enter the apartment and toss my stuff onto my padded chair by the window. It has a coffee cup next to it in the exact same place my latte was at Starbucks. After all, consistency and routine are everything in the life of a self-employed freelance writer. This chair is yellow, not brown like at Starbucks, but that ceased to bother me after about six months. I set up my laptop again, balance into my thinking position, and a moment later, X’s name pops up on Skype.
“Nate, hi,” X says in “his” awesome British accent.
“Hi! How are you? Anything new?” It is important to me that X knows I care. After all, two people who are obviously so close need to start all conversations with personal pleasantries.
“What do you know about Napoleon?” X never seems to agree with my assessment of the level of our friendship nor the need for checking in on each other’s health.
“Um, let’s see. Short, French, dead, something about dynamite… Why?”
X isn’t amused. “In 1813, after he was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon was exiled on the island of Elba. Over the next two years, he communicated with his supporters in France through a system of spies, plotting to return to claim his place as emperor. In his letters, he said that he would send his signet ring with a messenger to use as the signal that the emperor himself was on his way from Elba to Paris. The ring was of the highest quality gold with a large yellow-specked sapphire, upon which was his emblem, a golden eagle, and encrusted in diamonds. Needless to say, such a ring is worth a fortune, both for the gold and gemstones as well as its historical value. It disappeared from records, and I want you to find it. I already have a buyer, and you’ll get your normal fee.”
A quick calculation in my head – ten percent of “a fortune” – and my interest is piqued. “You must have a lead on where it is or you wouldn’t be coming to me,” I say.
“The messenger set out from Elba to Marseille aboard a fishing boat in February of 1815. You’ll start there.”
The call disconnects, and I stare at the blank screen for a minute. Napoleon’s signet ring.Ten percent of a fortune. Marseille. A moment later, I book an overnight transatlantic flight.
The bus ride passes quickly, with glimpses of the bright blue Mediterranean alternating with high-rise low-income apartments and warehouses, and a couple of modern skyscrapers. Port facilities seem to be everywhere until we turn inland toward our destination, Marseille’s Saint Charles Station. Opened in 1848, it is an imposing glass and stone structure, more crowded than the airport terminal. I weave my way between passengers rushing to catch their trains, using my lousy French with the much-needed pardonez-moi as my rollerboard suitcase and I bump people obviously much more used to this environment than I am.
I finally reach the exit, a grand staircase flanked by stone lions, and the glory of Marseille comes into full view. From here, the old city and its harbor sit nestled against the sea, and the magnificent basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde (I have a theory that every city in France needs a Notre Dame of some sort in order to receive its charter) at the top of the hill overlooking it all. Stunning is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but it seems useful here, and I am thrilled that my phone doubles as a camera. Seriously, what did people do before modern camera phones? A few photos and a couple more pardons and I am in a cab for the quick ride to my hotel.
The Intercontinental Hotel Dieu sits just above Marseille’s famous Vieux-Port, the old port, literally. Now just a hub for fishing and tourist craft – the commercial port is what we passed on our way into the city – it is the center of life here in Marseille, lined with restaurants, shops, and bars. My hotel is itself a grand building, but there are only a few hours of afternoon sun remaining and a city beckoning to be explored. I am, after all, a travel bloggerfirst in addition to moonlighting running these errands for X, and you never want to get between a travel blogger and somewhere he or she has never been. The trample potential is real!
I check in using my real name, Nathan Shapiro. I was never one for an alias like X, and I don’t even know if a hotel would book a room for an X with no other name. Anyway, it has taken me long enough to accept that I do indeed look like a Nathan (though I prefer Nate), curly dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and skin that looks to have never seen the sun tucked behind a fashionista’s dream wardrobe of American Eagle jeans and mono-colored t-shirts from Target. I receive my room key, drop my suitcase and backpack on the floor, note with delight that there’s a padded chair – blue this time – throw some cold water on my face, and set out.
Marseille, my online guidebook tells me, was founded as a Greek outpost, but really hit the history books as a Roman port city. Today, what was the Roman port sits somewhere between the modern Vieux-Port and the basement of my hotel, as tides and construction have moved it inland quite a ways. The sun seems to shine directly down from the basilica, which dominates the view from this side of the harbor, graceful stone spire topped with a golden figure of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. I frame it between the masts of a couple of the plentiful sailboats, mentally patting myself on the back for getting the shot that has already been captured by every other person here. Unique, that’s what I am.
I finally tear my gaze away from the boats to look at the people walking the open pavement between the shops and the waterfront. Marseille may be the most diverse city in France, its role as a bustling port making it a logical entrance-point for immigrants from all over the French-speaking world and beyond. The city is especially known for its North African population, but French people of all shades and backgrounds call Marseille home. I decline crossing the harbor by water-taxi, preferring to stretch my legs. I pass a pizza shop, then a second, then a third and fourth, and decide that sure, pizza sounds French today. Apparently it’s a thing here, and I get a slice with potatoes on it, and a single olive in the middle, pit still included as a bonus souvenir straight to the throat. I cough and throw the pit away before demolishing the rest of the slice.
I am about to order another when a sign catches my eye. It sits in a corner of a restaurant, Chez Marmar, and reads “Part of the Bouillabaisse Charter” in both French and English, with a tiny emblem of a ship topped by a golden eagle. X’s words about a messenger in a fishing boat and a signet ring with a golden eagle interrupt my beautiful day, and I head over to find out that, like most restaurants in Marseille, it doesn’t open for dinner until a bit later, so I quickly make a reservation with the hostess in front and return to the hotel to change. Sometimes my job requires intense sacrifice, and eating traditional fish stew is one I will reluctantly make.
To purchase The Ring of Marseille in its entirety, please use the PayPal link below, or send $.99 via Venmo to @Jonathan-Berg-6 with your email address included in the description. Please allow 24 hours to receive the story. It will come via email.
The Ring of Marseille
A short story combining travel and mystery, set in the south of France.