Witchy Winter – Snippet 24
“I think you gravely overestimate the appetite most people have for accounting.”
Nathaniel opened his eyes and he hurt.
~The man-thing is not dead.~
“The man-thing is not dead,” he said, caught unawares.
“No, you are not. I wouldn’t have called you a thing, though.”
Nathaniel raised his head. He was still bound in a wool blanket and his mouth was dry. “Will you release me?”
Ma’iingan sat a few feet away, cross-legged on the earth, humming a tune Nathaniel didn’t know. “You’re not my prisoner, God-Has-Given. But I think it might be wise to lie still a little longer.”
“I have to get back,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” Ma’iingan said. “It’s already too late. In your absence, the whole Turtle Kingdom collapsed. Just gave up. Without the boy Nathaniel, they said, can there be any point to any of this, na?”
“That’s not it.” Nathaniel lay back.
“Hmm. Well, my manidoo sent me to take care of you. I don’t think I’d be doing a very good job if I let you re-open all your wounds.”
“My manidoo said you should let me go.” Nathaniel said it impulsively, but the Ojibwe seemed to consider it seriously.
“It’s your manidoo that makes you scream strange things, na?” the Indian asked.
“Like ‘the man-thing is not dead’. Is that a message from your manidoo?”
The whine in his ear became a shriek. “I don’t think I have a manidoo,” Nathaniel said. “That was just a joke. My people don’t get a manidoo. Except the New Light, they believe they get the Holy Ghost. But that’s different. I think.”
“Maybe this is the problem. I like jokes, but maybe you need a manidoo. Maybe all you Zhaaganaashii need a manidoo.”
“I don’t think that’s the problem. Besides, did your manidoo tell you to help all the . . . English speakers, or just me?”
~Death! Death! Death!~
Nathaniel pawed at his obtruding ear.
“Zhaaganaashii is the word you’re looking for.” Ma’iingan observed him closely. “Maybe you have a manidoo and you don’t know it. Though if so, your manidoo seems to have a dark sense of humor.”
Nathaniel only shook his head.
Ma’iingan shrugged. “Well, my manidoo said you’re a great healer. It said you’ve been laid low, and if I can help you rise again, you can heal my son.”
Nathaniel opened and closed his mouth several times before he found words. “That’s . . . that doesn’t make any sense. I can’t heal anybody.”
“Henh, not now,” Ma’iingan agreed. “You are laid low.”
“That’s because I’m tied up in your blanket. If you want to raise me up, let me out of this . . . bundle board, or whatever you called it.”
“Cradleboard. I think that’s the Zhaaganaashii word. A dakobinaawaswaan, in the language of the People. Not one of the words you borrowed from us.”
“We borrowed words from you?”
“Of course. Wiigiwaam. Makizin. Plus some animals: mooz, jidmoonh.”
“What’s a jidmoonh?”
“You know it. Like a small squirrel.”
A chipmunk. “Well, isn’t that how it goes? Languages borrow.” Nathaniel cast about for an example. “What do you call your rifle over there, in Ojibwe?”
“Anwii-baashkizigan. I don’t think we learned that word from the Zhaaganaashii. Or the Germans.”
“What about money? What do you call a shilling?”
“Waabik.” Ma’iingan scratched his chin. “It means iron, actually.”
“You call a shilling iron? They’re made of silver.”
“Henh. But you know, the Moundbuilders make their money out of iron, and we’ve known them longer than we’ve known you.”
“So you borrowed the term from them!”
“No, waabik is an Anishinaabe word. We just borrowed the idea.”
“Close enough,” Nathaniel muttered.
The Indian stood and stretched. “Very well, Nathaniel. Tell me why you’re so anxious to get back. Before, you were certain no one would miss you. No one would even come look for you, except maybe Charles. Now you want to go back. Tell me the truth, you’re just frightened of me, na?” He grinned, an expression that was fierce and comical at the same time.
“Well, usually I only get that reaction from women and small children. But you are bound in a dakobinaawaswaan.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Too bad, God-Has-Given. You can learn to live with a little fear.”
“I’ll be blamed,” Nathaniel said. “I know it.”
“Blamed?” Ma’iingan frowned. “Blamed for what?”
“George played a joke on me and Landon. Mostly on Landon. And Landon was humiliated, and there were witnesses.”
Ma’iingan cocked his head to one side. “Landon ran away naked in the night.”
“People saw him. George will mock him. And Landon will do what he always does.”
“Take his clothes off and roll around in pig shit, na?”
“No, that’s . . . unusual. That only happened once. What happens all the time is he gets bitten by George, and he turns around and bites me.”
“Good. You aren’t there, he can’t bite you.”
“Yes he can. He can tell others his humiliation was my fault. He can say I played the joke, or . . . .” Nathaniel searched his worst fears, “he can tell them I ran away. That I was scared of the farmer with the blunderbuss, and I ran. That I’m a coward.”
“To be called a coward is a much less terrible thing than actually to be a coward, Nathaniel.”
“But people will believe him.” Nathaniel felt moisture in his eyes. It was the physical pain from the wounds in his arms and leg, he told himself.
~Pain is life. Pain is life.~
“Why will they believe him?” Ma’iingan looked skeptical. “Does Landon possess some great reputation for truthfulness?”
“He’s . . . more important than me.”
The Indian stared.
“He’s the earl’s son. A bastard, so he won’t ever be earl himself, but he’ll be set up with land someday, and when he’s old enough he’ll have a commission. Or he’ll get easy admission to the College of Godar in Raleigh, if he wants to and Old One Eye will have him. I’m nobody, I’m just an orphan.”
Ma’iingan considered. “Well, my manidoo made no mention of Landon or Old One Eye or any of the others. And it said you were a great healer. So that makes you more important than Landon to me, and to my son.”
“But the earl . . .” Nathaniel groped. “Charles. Even George and Landon, and Jenny Farewell, and the others. They’re my people.”
“Ah.” The Ojibwe nodded. “You fear separation from your people.”
“Yes,” Nathaniel said. “And from my world.”
Ma’iingan knelt and began unwrapping the blanket. “You’ll find the world is much bigger than your people, Zhaaganaashii God-Has-Given. If the manidoo of a simple man from the headwaters of the Michi-Zibii can send to have you summoned to heal a child, then you have journeys long and strange ahead of you.”
“But you’re unwrapping me.”
“Henh. I would not have any person cut off from his people,” the Ojibwe said. “But we’ll travel slow, and you won’t leave my sight. You understand, na?”
“I promise,” Nathaniel said.
Ojibwe laughed. “Silly Zhaaganaashii.”
“Why’s that? Why am I silly?” Nathaniel sat up carefully, feeling pain lance into his wounded limbs and especially his rib. “Can I have some water, please?”
Ma’iingan threw the blanket back over his shoulders like a cape and fetched a birch-bark bowl full of cold water. Nathaniel sipped at it, feeling the shock as the chilled liquid soaked his tongue and the insides of his cheeks.
“You know that if you say ‘I promise’ when you want me really to believe you, that tells me that when you don’t say ‘I promise,’ you don’t really mean it, na? If you speak the truth all the time and keep all your obligations, you never have to say you promise.”
Nathaniel reached out an arm and Ma’iingan helped him climb to his feet. “Do you think that’s what I need, is to be taught a lesson in frank speaking?”
“No, I’m just a fountain of wisdom. I can’t help it, I walk around with good advice and proverbs falling from my fingertips and getting tangled in my hair. Try not to trip on the good sense I accidentally fling into your path. That’s what my name, Ma’iingan, means. Fountain of wisdom.”
“You said it meant wolf.”
“Ah, caught in a lie, again.”
Ahmed Abd al-Wahid, prince-capitaine of the order of mamelukes of the Caliphate of Egypt and the West, tried not to breathe in the fumes.
Even on his previous visit, he had found the smell of the chevalier’s Palais off-putting. Under the best of conditions, it smelled like the Christian and Jewish quarters of Paris; of sweat, of unfreshened breath, and of the occasional hint of full chamberpot, wafting in from a bedchamber on an inopportune breeze. That latrine stench of Christendom never went away, and no amount of Cologne water (which the wealthy of New Orleans applied in cloyingly large amounts) and tobacco smoke (with which the inhabitants of this continent seemed determined to fumigate their entire land) could completely hide it.
All of Paris had once smelled thus, he knew. Abd al-Wahid was Egyptian, born a mameluke to a mameluke father and trained in Egypt’s madrassas in the classical arts of language, literature, swordplay, strategy, herbalism, medicine, and the Qur’an. After the westerner Napoleon had first ingratiated himself into the mameluke brotherhood, then been initiated and finally exalted to its head, Abd al-Wahid had been part of the mameluke vanguard to return with him to conquer Paris.
The conquered parts had been scoured, irrigated, introduced to incense and spices. Those parts — the neighborhoods of Paris that were truly part of al-Islam, and not in name only — were now a garden of delights, the air breathable and the streets safe.
In their ghettoes, Christians dickered over the price of grain and Jews made sour faces over the interest rates of payable instruments in fetid clouds of mankindity of which New Orleans was a pungent reminder.
Now the Palais was full of smoke. Not the delightful citrus smell of frankincense burning, or the anointing fragrance of myrrh and cloves together in virgin olive oil, but thick, nose-shattering smoke made by burning a weed Abd al-Wahid did not recognize, green and fresh from the earth.
Clay pots stood at the corners of each room and at intervals in the halls. If he stooped, he knew he could get his head beneath the thick clouds and see more clearly, but Abd al-Wahid stayed erect.
A mameluke didn’t stoop, except to pray.
And he liked that the thick, aromatic smoke tended to hide from his view the many idolatrous paintings with which the chevalier decorated his palace. Abd al-Wahid knew they were saints from the style of the paintings, with strange little icons — fish and books and weapons — attached to each figure, but he couldn’t have identified any of them.
They were all idols to him.
The other five mamelukes in his party followed him: Ravi the Jew, who was an alchemist and astrologer; Zayyid al-Syri, who knew poisons and the care of beasts; Nabil al-Muhasib, who had memorized maps of this New World Empire and was the only member of the party other than Abd al-Wahid to speak its languages well; Tariq al-Farangi, who had been born Gerard, to Christian parents, and who was master of the intricacies of both ship and wagon; and Omar al-Talib, who claimed he had read every book in the al-Qayrawan mosque, but was such a liar that no one believed him. Still, Omar was a subtle torturer and a competent physician.
Abd al-Wahid had expected that he might be in this New World a long time, hunting the renegade Talleyrand across the filthy, freezing continent, and he had chosen his men carefully. They weren’t loyal to him — al-Farangi and al-Muhasib had been known to Abd al-Wahid only by reputation before he’d selected them — but they were loyal to the order, to the Caliph, and to the prophet.
Peace be upon him.
They had come to the New World in eight, but two of those eight had returned to Paris with Talleyrand’s head.
They climbed a staircase behind one of the chevalier’s servants.
“The smoke,” Abd al-Wahid asked, looking at Ravi and Omar each in turn. “What do you make of it?”
“I wish they were burning their furniture. This building has so many cabinets and bookcases!” Tariq laughed harshly. “A true man needs no furnishing but a mat.”
“For prayer?” Al-Farangi asked. “Or for entertaining a woman?”
“By God,” Tariq said, “I can’t always tell the difference!”
Abd al-Wahid permitted himself a hidden smile.
“The smoke is against illness,” Ravi said.
“Couldn’t they spoil the air in the room only where the sick person lies, o stargazing son of Isaac?” Zayyid al-Syri coughed.
Tariq laughed again. “But it’s the chevalier who is ill, and so his servants must suffer as well. It’s the way of all great men.”
Omar shook his head. “No, they fear contagion.”
“What is it they burn?” al-Wahid asked.
“I know not, prince-capitaine,” Omar said. “I know only that it stinks.”
“Barbarians!” Ravi spat into the soil of a potted lemon tree.
“Christians!” Al-Farangi joined him in spitting.
“I believe I know the scent,” al-Syri offered.
“A poison?” For a moment, Abd al-Wahid feared he had been lured into a trap to be murdered.
“Peppered camel’s dung,” al-Syri said. “Wet. Heavy on the pepper. With dried orange rind added for nuance.”
“You have smelled such a compound before?” Abd al-Wahid asked.
“In Jerusalem,” al-Syri said. “It was sold as a food.”
“Only to children of Ishmael,” Ravi fired back. “They’re accustomed to eating camel’s dung without any spices at all, and so regard the addition of the orange rind and the pepper as a great sophistication.”
Abd al-Wahid laughed drily, and then the servant ushered them into a room.
This was the audience chamber where the chevalier had seen them before. The desk was gone, replaced with a bed such as the French kings before the Caliph had used to receive morning visitors. Bloated and pale, they had lain in their nightclothes in bed to demonstrate their power to force the nobility of their land to approach them in a ridiculous circumstance.