Witchy Winter – Snippet 25
Now they all lay in muddy unmarked graves, downriver from Paris along the Seine.
But the chevalier lay in bed not to demonstrate his power, but as a sign of his illness. In the corners of this room stood not one smoking pot, but four, one per corner. A young girl sat on a stool to the chevalier’s side, dabbing at his face with a damp cloth.
The Chevalier of New Orleans was skeletal. The flesh on his face, and his neck and hands, and around his collarbone where it was visible, had all sunk and turned gray. Here and there the ashen skin was marked with lesions, bleeding and oozing dark yellow liquid, leaving the chevalier’s nightshirt a mottled orange and brown. The chevalier’s beard had grown in along his jaw, thin and patchy. The orbs of his eyes were dark yellow and his teeth looked unnaturally long — his gums were receding.
“Va-t’en.” His voice was sepulchral. The girl set down her rag and duly left.
Abd al-Wahid spoke to his fellows in Arabic. “When I am ill, it is God who heals me.”
“Perhaps,” al-Syri said drily, “the chevalier doesn’t know the Qur’an as well as you do.”
The chevalier exhaled, his breath rattling like the gasps of a dying man in his chest. He continued in French. “What experience do you have with curses?”
It was an unexpected question. “There is the evil eye,” Abd al-Wahid said. “One does not compliment a mother too enthusiastically on the beauty of her child, for fear it may attract the envy of the djinn.”
The chevalier waved his hand impatiently. “I mean real curses.”
“By a magician?”
“Worse. A holy man.”
Ahmed Abd al-Wahid considered. “Then you fear that it’s God Himself who has cursed you, by the instrument of this holy man.”
“Priest. Yes. He laid it upon me while living, and then the curse struck me the day the holy man was laid in his grave.”
Abd al-Wahid consulted with Ravi. Everyone knew that for exorcism, you asked a Jew.
“Tell him, if God wanted the chevalier dead, the chevalier would be dead,” Ravi said. “This isn’t the work of God, it’s the work of a sorcerer. Or perhaps his humors are out of balance.”
Abd al-Wahid passed on the message.
“Perhaps. The pain struck me first when I removed . . . certain defensive talismans. And when I tried to replace them, the talismans themselves burned.” The chevalier ruminated. “The priest’s son. The man you are to kill. He has a reputation for being a Vodun sorcerer.”
The mameluke had little sense of what this word Vodun meant. “He’s also a priest, like his father. And he is loved, if I’m to judge by the crowd that filled the cathedral.”
“Ask him,” Ravi said, “is the fumigation a magical defense against the curse?”
Abd al-Wahid turned to the chevalier. “Is the reason you’re burning this camel’s dung to protect you against the curse?”
The chevalier laughed, just a bit at first, and then enough that he vomited, leaning over to spit a yellow string of bile to the floor. “It’s not camel’s dung,” he said. “I think. And yes.”
Abd al-Wahid translated.
“Good.” Ravi bobbed his head enthusiastically. “His defense is working, but it’s not enough. So tell him, get his own sorcerer. Not to defend, you understand, but to go on the attack. Like a boxer, the chevalier must punch back until his enemy is compelled to pull away.”
Abd al-Wahid translated. The chevalier’s eyebrows rose slightly. “And you? What will you do?”
Abd al-Wahid sighed. “This man is difficult. He has many bodyguards, and for much of his day he’s surrounded by them. The time when he’s most exposed is when he’s preaching in the cathedral.”
“You attacked him there before.”
“He’s protected by some . . . power of fascination. He has djinn with him, or houris, and they are mighty to attract and command women.”
The chevalier coughed. “If I have a choice, I’d rather he not be killed during an actual service. That would be two bishops in a row, and it might be too much for even the most jaded residents of New Orleans.”
Abd al-Wahid bowed slightly, hand on his heart. “We’ll find the right moment. Fear not, Chevalier; it is only a matter of time.”
“Josep!” Montse called.
The man who poked his head up over the rail of La Verge Caníbal wasn’t Josep, but Miquel. Miquel was Josep’s younger cousin, too young to have seen war but old enough to have slipped through more blockades than he could remember.
Miquel waved. “Montserrat!”
Montse waved back and waited. She stood on a rocky arm of land that crawled out past jungle and bayou to create a small bay, unseen from any highway and out of the way of the sea-lanes. Two fires burned low beside her, two to make a coherent signal because a single fire might be laid by a casual traveler or a fisherman. La Verge Caníbal had sailed in in response to the fires and now dropped anchor.
She was a beautiful sloop, large enough to pose a threat to most commercial vehicles, but small enough to hide even on this busy coast, and with a sufficiently shallow draft that she could sail up the Mississippi at least as far as Shreveport. Her name was painted proudly on her prow, as if she were an Imperial cruiser — though a patch of black-painted sailcloth could be dropped over the name at a moment’s notice to conceal it — and her Catalan crew now hastily threw two men overboard in a small boat to come retrieve their captain.
Josep was one of them. Once her would-be lover, his success was making him portly, but he was a deadly gunner with small arms as well as with cannons, and knew every spar and plank of La Verge Caníbal as if the ship, and not its mistress, was the woman he had wooed for years.
Josep sat in front. Miquel sat behind and plied the oars.
Montse had released the chevalier’s horse to freedom miles away and walked here. Her route had taken her past alligator-infested creeks and muddy trickles squirming with venomous snakes.
Josep sprang to the earth and tweaked both mustachios before opening his arms. “Montse, meu amor!” he exclaimed.
“Josep, you fat bastard, you’ve been eating sugar candy non-stop since I left.”
Josep nodded vigorously. “And washing it down with rum. How else shall I console myself for the absence of the light of my life?”
“If I die, you can have the ship,” Montse said. “That’s all I have for you, and you know it.”
“You will no doubt live longer than I, Capità, and deprive me of my inheritance.”
“That’s certainly my plan.”
They embraced briefly.
Miquel stepped into the shallow water and steadied the boat with his hands.
“The ship, I have taken good care of her in your absence, Capità,” Josep said.
“You may as well tell me you have breathed in the time since I left, Josep. Of course you’ve taken excellent care of her.” Montse stepped into the boat and sat down.
“In anxious anticipation that you would return to our ménage a trois.” Josep leaped into the boat. Despite his bulk, he landed with perfect poise and the boat barely noticed his arrival.
“Why do you soil your manly Catalan lips with French words, Josep? They aren’t worthy of your blood.”
“In your absence, what else shall I soil them with? What but your skin would be worthy?”
“Never mind. If it keeps your sugar-stained lips away from me, speak all the French you like.”
Josep and Miquel both hesitated, looking at the jungle at the end of the spur of earth.
“And Margarida?” Josep asked.
“Margarida has been taken,” she said.
“Was she captured by the customs men?” Miquel’s voice was proud. “The girl is old enough to spend a little time with the gendarmes, until we find the man to bribe.”
“The girl isn’t one of us,” Montse said slowly.
“Why do you talk nonsense?” Josep cut her off sharply. “Of course she is one of us. La Verge Caníbal won’t abandon any of her crew.”
“Yes,” Montse agreed. “La Verge Caníbal will abandon no one. But the girl has another heritage, and now I must tell it to you, if I’m to ask you to risk your lives.”
“Well.” Josep raised both his eyebrows several times in quick succession. “You could offer me other compensations besides knowledge.”
“You’ll die lonely waiting for me, Josep,” she said.
“I’ll die,” he agreed. “But I’m not lonely.”
“What’s her heritage, then?” Miquel asked.
Montse stared at the jungle, and beyond it, the Pontchartrain and New Orleans. “She’s the daughter of Hannah Penn, the greatest beauty ever to walk the woods and fields of Pennsland, and the King of Cahokia. She’s a true princess born, and the Chevalier of New Orleans wishes to hold her hostage.”
Miquel whistled low.
“I don’t think so,” Josep said immediately, a gleam in his eyes.
“No. I think my friend Margarida is a Catalan to her bones, and the Chevalier of New Orleans is about to learn that no es fote mai amb els catalans.”
The members of the City Council looked astonished.
There was the Dutch furniture merchant, Van Dijk, in a fine black frock coat and white cravat despite the hour; the weave of his waistcoat matched a popular style of upholstery he sold to the grandees of the city, a style called Champlain, for the great family of Acadia. Van Dijk was tall, thin, and beardless; white-haired, bespectacled, and baffled.
Van Dijk sat at the end of the table where the Council deliberated formally. The table rested on a broad dais at one end of a long room, which was filled with upholstered, wooden chairs on which an audience could sit.
The chairs were upholstered, naturally, in Champlain.
Beside him lounged Renan DuBois, a mixed French-Bantu plantation owner whose lands were on the border Louisiana shared with the Cotton Princedoms, but who preferred to spend his time in Etienne’s casino, losing the Louis d’or his cotton earned at the gaming tables. Renan looked wary.
The third member of the City Council was Onyinye Diokpo. The heavy Igbo woman might have been Etienne’s grandmother, for the lines around her eyes and the gray in her hair; she owned a constellation of elegant hotels along the Esplanade, and a galaxy of less elegant boarding rooms, hostels, and dives elsewhere throughout the city. Her dress was the colorful but simple garb you might see in any of the Igbo Free Cities, but her jewelry was gold and she wore a lot of it.
Beside Onyinye sat Eoin Kennedie. The Irishman’s face looked younger than his years, and his keen eye was trained on Etienne. Kennedie owned a legitimate business, a tavern in the Faubourg Marigny, but what he really did was fence stolen and smuggled goods. His team of enforcers and leg-breakers almost amounted to a rival gang to Etienne. Eoin’s jacket was made of costly black leather, but from the bulges at several corners, Etienne guessed the Irishman had metal plates sewed into the garment. Were the plates to deflect physical blows?
The final member of the City Council was Holahta Hopaii, a Choctaw tribal leader. Hopaii’s plain white shirt and gray waistcoat and trousers made him look like a shopkeeper, but Etienne understood he was viewed in his tribe as a prophet. His people were numerous north of the city, and his membership on the Council was an attempt to keep the Choctaw from joining the Catalans and the Igbo in the lucrative smuggling trade.
Membership on the City Council had always been, in effect, a bribe. The chevalier neutralized potential rivals by paying them a stipend to do nothing. Those of the council members whose businesses were less than fully legitimate also gained a patina of respectability behind which to shelter their operations. The chevalier in turn gained a different veneer — a façade of democratic accountability. Since his was an inherited title, and inheritance alone made him a landowner and an Elector, a City Council voted into office, even if only taxpayers were allowed to vote, gave necessary vent to demands for elected government, such as the Hudson River Republicans boasted.
Most of the Councilors ran unopposed. Candidates who ran against the chevalier inevitably lost, however enthusiastic the public might appear for them.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Etienne said, “I have come to give you purpose.”
“We have purpose,” Van Dijk sputtered. “We govern the city.”
Onyinye laughed, a short, sharp bark. “There is someone in this city who will believe that ridiculous lie, Thijs. Not this man.”
“I had the impression that one of my fellow councilors had called this meeting,” Eoin said. “If I was mistaken, I’ll just head back to the Duke of Ormond. I’ve customers to see to.”
“How safe do you feel, Eoin?” Etienne asked.
To his left and behind him stood August Planchet, the beadle. To his right, Monsieur Bondí. Both were doing an admirable job of holding still. Armand at the door kept out several bodyguards, as well as any others who might come along. The deep scimitar-inflicted gash in Armand’s side was healing nicely, but his facial expression hadn’t varied from grim resolution since the day of the cathedral attack.
The meeting’s timing — midnight — made a casual passerby unlikely.
“Fairly safe, I s’pose,” Eoin said coolly. “I’ve lads enough, if ye mean to threaten me.”
Etienne raised his empty hands in a show of peaceful intentions. “We’re all threatened here.”
“I was sorry to hear of your father’s death,” Van Dijk said. “He was a powerful preacher. And I attended your funeral mass; you’re coming along nicely as a priest, yourself.”
“Though you were a somewhat unexpected choice on the part of the Synod,” Onyinye said.
Hopaii laughed. “An unexpected choice is not necessarily a bad choice.”
“I could not agree more,” Etienne said, “with both of you. And I’ve come today to propose another unexpected choice.”