Witchy Winter – Snippet 08
Very few robbers would be bold enough to walk into a bank or a goldsmiths’ and demand to redeem stolen certificates.
So water damage was a bigger worry than theft.
In a pinch, the Joe Duncan would probably hold more than twenty. Now its customary crew of eight made the director’s canoe secure, and two men with long rifles sat in it, fore and aft, watching both banks of the river for any sign of a threat. Mostly, they watched the Parkersburg side of the water.
The Imperial Ohio Company made regular use of oversized canoes like the Joe Duncan; they were hard to sink and could be portaged, which made them useful craft for a region bounded by four great lakes and two enormous rivers, and fissured by innumerable smaller waterways. What made the Joe Duncan noteworthy was that it carried one of the Company’s five directors. The other four, all of whom were men, were generally to be found in an office near the eastern end of the Ohio or even in Pennsland, or occasionally in an ornate carriage on one of the Imperial pikes.
Notwithstanding Schmidt, the only woman of their number, spent most of her time in the west. She generally traveled by this canoe; Luman couldn’t decide whether that, too, was a matter of economy, or a gesture of solidarity with her traders, or a point of personal style, or whether perhaps she simply found it convenient to go by boat in a land of many waters.
He still had no idea why the canoe was called the Joe Duncan.
The eight men paddling the canoe made it secure and then waited. They were armed, as anyone not a fool traveling in the Ohio was, but they weren’t soldiers. They were porters and traders, Imperial Ohio Company men, and they were doing their best to look as innocuous as possible.
Oldham, the man who was to remain behind, stayed with them. He whistled some Pennslander hymn Luman didn’t quite recognize, and stared across the river at Adena forestland.
Luman Walters followed Notwithstanding Schmidt up the pier to Parkersburg. The afternoon air was cool and descending with the sun toward chilly; he smelled woodsmoke and roasting meat.
Luman knew the plan and was prepared. While Schmidt carried only a packet of papers in an oilskin envelope, Luman carried all the magical paraphernalia he could, as usual, stuffed into the many pockets of his long, custom-made travel coat.
In addition, he carried a small wooden box in one hand. The box had small air holes drilled in the top, and every few minutes it shuddered slightly in his grip.
Other than Luman’s ritual dagger, the black-handled athame he’d had made for himself in the cellar of the King of Prussia tavern in Cambry, they were unarmed.
Parkersburg was a small town, a jumbled shrug of wooden buildings that started with a cluster of warehouses around the docks and then scattered out concentrically through inns and hostels and coffee shops until it became farmland. Schmidt knew just where she was going and made a beeline for the back door of a nondescript two-story warehouse.
A boardwalk ran along the side of the warehouse, turning the corner at the edge of the building in a three-way intersection. Luman looked and saw that if he lay on his belly, he could squeeze his way under the boardwalk, and that the ground beneath it looked like simple earth.
Schmidt knocked once, but didn’t wait, opening the door and marching in. Luman followed.
Within, a plain office: shelves of ledgers, a desk, two chairs in front of the desk. Behind the desk sat a thick-necked man with receding hair, wearing a cotton shirt printed with a paisley pattern, the pattern very à la mode among traders wishing to show their international sophistication, but the fabric too thin for the weather, and cort-du-roi trousers. He stood and smiled.
“I don’t think we have an appointment,” he said.
Schmidt sat down.
Luman shut the door and did the same.
“My name is Notwithstanding Schmidt. I’m a director of the Imperial Ohio Company.”
“Yes, Madam Director.” The thick-necked man swallowed but then relaxed back into his chair. “I’m Reuben Clay, I’m Foreman of the Stevedores Association in Parkersburg.”
“To hell with the stevedores.” Schmidt laid her oilskin packet on the desk
Clay looked at the packet and smiled. “I thought maybe you had come because the Imperial Ohio wanted to conduct some business here.”
“We do. To hell with the stevedores. I’m here because you’re the first man among the Hansa of Parkersburg.”
Clay smiled. “Director . . . .”
“Don’t waste your time denying anything. And don’t cavil about titles, because I don’t know your Hansard title and I don’t care. Grand Mufti Hansard of Parkersburg, that’s you. I knew your predecessor in this office and I know your game. You run this town and all the traders in it.”
Clay spread his arms. “The Lord Mayor . . . .”
Schmidt didn’t budge. “You run this town, like Tup Jenkins did before you.”
Clay dropped his arms, sucked at his lower lip, looked from Schmidt to Luman and back again, and finally nodded. “Yeah. I run this town.”
“You and I know the truth,” Schmidt said. “We trade in life.”
The Hansard raised an eyebrow. “How do you mean?”
“Money,” Schmidt said. “Wealth. It’s a mere abstraction for power, and specifically the power to purchase. Others may think you and I trade in money, but in fact we trade in the power to have food when one is hungry, the power to shelter within four walls from winter’s blast, the power to have shoes on our feet. The power to live.”
“Director Schmidt, you are delightfully philosophical, but a little indirect.”
“The Emperor’s enemies in the Ohio, the Cahokian rebels and other Ophidian traitors, continue to thrive.”
“I’m not a condottiere, Director. My men would fight to defend a cargo, or collect a tariff, but I can hardly go to war with Adena.”
“The Emperor doesn’t require it. As I was explaining, we’ll strike at the lives of the Emperor’s enemies in another way. From now on, Grand Mufti Hansard, you will not sell to any representative of any power in the seven kingdoms.”
Clay squinted. “Would you like to know my actual title? As opposed to calling me that bit of pseudo-mussulman nonsense?”
Schmidt ignored the offer. “You won’t sell to any Firstborn. You won’t sell to any person you have any reason to believe will sell to any Ophidian.”
“I can’t decide to blacklist purchasers on my own. I’ll be violating the Charter. The whole League will know it because Parkersburg will wither and die. I’ll be removed, at least.”
The box Luman carried thumped once, in sympathy.
“You will continue to sell,” Schmidt said. “I will leave an Imperial Ohio Company Trader here, and he will buy any goods you cannot sell to children of Eve. These are the rates he’ll pay, eighty percent in bank notes redeemable in Philadelphia and twenty percent in silver.” Schmidt opened the string catch on the oilskin packet and removed the first document, a three-page list of prices.
Clay took the list and scanned it. “These prices are . . . a little low.”
“Yes,” Schmidt acknowledged, “but only a little. You can make it happen.”
“True.” Clay set down the list. “But I’d rather sell to the Firstborn.”
Schmidt removed the second document from the packet. “You will sign this agreement. You see that there are two copies; I’ll keep one. So long as my agent is satisfied that you are keeping the terms of our agreement, he’ll remit to you a douceur of one percent of all purchases he makes, in specie.”
“Remit to me . . . or to the Hansa?”
“That will be your decision,” Schmidt said.
Clay looked to Luman. “And is this your agent, then?”
“No. My agent is Ira Oldham; you’ll meet him. This is my wizard.”
That was Luman’s prompt. He carefully settled his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. Then he opened the box and reached in to grab the sleepy and confused bat inside.
“Your copy of the agreement is your insurance,” Clay said. “It’s a threat. You’ll blackmail me.”
“Only if you stop cooperating. And as long as you cooperate, you’ll be paid.”
The bat squeaked a strong objection at being gripped, but when Luman pressed the tip of his athame to its left eye and popped the eyeball out onto the table, the bat screamed. Its cry sounded almost like a child’s.
“Gott in Himmel!” Clay cursed. “Must he do that in here?”
“Yes,” Schmidt said. “He must. I trust the agent I’ll leave in Parkersburg, but I also suspect you’ll try to subvert him, or try to sneak around him at the margins. So I need a second mechanism to watch you.”