Witchy Winter – Snippet 26

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Witchy Winter – Snippet 26

“I just don’t see what I have to dread from the chevalier.” Kennedie stood, his coat falling about him with a soft clank. “He pays me. He knows there’ll be smugglin’ and theft, and his people will need someone to sell those items. He leaves me in business, and we both prosper.”

Etienne squinted. “If he would kill a defenseless old man, Eoin, why would he not kill you?”

“I s’pose because I’ll avoid the mistake of standin’ up in public to call him a thief and a murderer. I s’pose because I’ll continue to provide his people a service they need, and support him as Chevalier of New Orleans.”

Etienne considered. “You tell him what you buy. That’s why he pays you. If you’re the biggest fence in town, he keeps you on the payroll, and then he always knows what’s happening in the black market.”

“That’s only a rumor,” DuBois said.

“Also, not especially polite to say it in public,” Onyinye added.

“This isn’t public.” Eoin Kennedie laughed. “And I’ll admit it, yes, I tell his man what I buy. Most of it, anyway. Not everything. And I’m not the biggest fence in town, Etienne. That would be you.”

Etienne dragged a sixth chair from the audience’s space up to the dais and dropped himself into it. “I have been trying to master the Christian virtues, since taking orders. Humility is not the most natural of them to me, but you make it more difficult when you say such flattering things.”

“They say the chevalier is ill,” the Irishman continued. “Death’s door, as I heard it. Was that your doin’, Ukwu?”

Etienne kept a carefully composed straight face. “You wish to flatter me even more.”

Eoin laughed and sat back down. He moved gingerly, like man with back trouble. Maybe it was the weight of the plates in his jacket, though Kennedie had fought Jackson alongside the Lafittes, and was known to have taken wounds.

Onyinye looked at Etienne out of the corners of her eyes. “The Christian virtue of chastity comes more naturally to you, I hear,” she said. “Chastity of a sort.”

“Of a sort.” Etienne settled back into his chair and took a cigarette from his pocket. Striking a Lucifer match, he lit the tobacco and sucked through the first wisps of smoke. Tobacco tended to keep the Brides placated. “I would not appeal only to your fear, of course. You are all natural leaders of this city, and that is why the chevalier has bought you.”

“Bought us?” Van Dijk snorted indignantly.

“Forgive me.” Etienne nodded. “I mean, why he is happy to see you continue your tenure on the City Council.”

“Van Dijk is correct,” DuBois said. “I am not bought. I’m merely rented.”

The quip landed in silence.

Hopaii laughed first, a long wheeze that shattered into short gasps. Onyinye followed, and then the rest couldn’t resist.

“Very well,” Van Dijk said. “Tell us what you have in mind.”

“The quarterly tax returns will be before you for approval next week.” Etienne took a long drag. The returns were a report generated by Louisiana’s customs and tax authorities, and they summarized the revenue collected by the city’s taxation apparatus. The money was already in the coffers of the chevalier, either in the form of coins in his Palais or in the form of credits at some of the larger counting houses in the city.

But the chevalier wasn’t supposed to be able to spend the money until the Council had approved the returns.

Which it always did, without question.

“Ye cannot possibly mean we should disapprove of the returns,” Kennedie said. “What would be the point? The man has the cash already.”

“If you now disapprove the returns over questions having to do with the accounting, and other behavior of the city’s secular ruler, later you can recommend that the tax and customs men stand down from collecting revenues due.”

“Which they won’t do,” DuBois said, “since the chevalier pays them.”

“But later still,” Hopaii said, “we can invite the people of New Orleans to cease paying taxes.”

“And when he cuts off our money?” Van Dijk asked. “Are we prepared to suffer that loss?”

Etienne gestured at August Planchet and Monsieur Bondí. “The parish will replace any lost sums, as a public act of support for our civil leaders in this dark time.”

Planchet cleared his throat. “The parish is prepared to replace one hundred percent of your salaries the moment they are withdrawn.”

“Over what are we to challenge the chevalier?” Onyinye asked. “If you think we should review the returns and declare some irregularity in the sums, I think you gravely overestimate the appetite most people have for accounting.”

“The question,” Etienne said slowly, “is what is being done with that money? What are the citizens of New Orleans to make of the fact that their chevalier uses the money he squeezes from them, on every bolt of cloth and every mouthful of rum, to murder their beloved bishop?”

He stood, removed a short stack of broadsheets from inside his coat, and set one in front of each Councilor.

~ INNOCENT BLOOD CRIES FROM THE GROUND ~

Your bishop is dead! He did not ascend in a CHARIOT OF FIRE, as might be expected of a man of such sanctity, but was struck down by villains. VILLAINS, I cry, for can you doubt that a man willing to ASSASSINATE a priest at the very altar — though he be an Imperial officer — can you doubt that a scoundrel so foul-hearted and bold must rest upon the aid of accomplices?

We all know it, and none dares speak. WHO GAVE AID to this blackguard? Whose men supported the murderers at the scene of the crime at the heart of our city, as witnessed by many? None but THE CHEVALIER, Gaspard Le Moyne! People of New Orleans, is this the Lordship and Leadership you crave? Is this how you, as free people, expect to be treated? Is this the Elector you wish to choose our very Emperor?

Every sou you put into the hands of a customs officer became a lead ball in the bloodied body of our priest! Down with the house Le Moyne! Down with the Chevalier! The murdered innocent cries for justice from the grave!

— Publius —

##

“I can’t say I like this much.” Cal spat into the crisp autumn leaves, trying to eject the fear from his chest.

“None of us does,” Bill agreed. “But Jake makes a terrific point.”

Bill sat astride his horse, an Andalusian gray they had captured from the Philadelphia Blues. He couldn’t walk without support, and they’d come a couple of miles west from Irra-Zostim, almost to the banks of the Mississippi.

Sarah rode a horse between Bill and Calvin. Cathy had remained at Irra-Zostim with the Firstborn — almost like a hostage, a token of good faith that Sarah and the rest of her party would return — and Jake himself, who had raised the issue they were about to test, had stayed with Uris and Sarah’s mixed-species fighting force.

“Ferpa,” Sarah said, “you deserve some explanation.”

Ferpa, a seven-foot tall woman with the head of a horned cow, including a massive spread of horns, snorted but held her position, arms at her side, club at the ready. Her drilling with Jake and Bill was showing.

“I know you’re loyal,” Sarah said. “I trust your word, and it doesn’t need to be tested. What requires testing is the arcane binding of the oath. The spell by which you were bound, along with your own free will. We want to see what happens when we expose you to silver.”

Ferpa made no response.

“She understands, right?” Cal asked.

“She understands,” Bill said. “She is a soldier, and she is waiting for her orders.”

“Am I right to believe that silver ordinarily has no special effect on beastfolk?” Sarah asked.

“That’s correct,” Ferpa said. She dragged out her last syllable in a basso rumble that sounded like the lowing of a cow. “I have often handled silver.”

“Calvin is going to touch you with silver.” As Sarah explained, she slipped the bandage from her witchy eye, revealing the piercing white iris. The orange sun, low in the west over the Great Green Wood, cast its light into that iris and gave it the appearance of gold. “He will touch you, and perhaps he’ll even cut your skin, but he doesn’t wish to harm you. He’s doing my bidding. I’ll watch your aura to see what happens.”

Cal dismounted and drew two silver knives. One was a workmanlike dagger the Chevalier of New Orleans armed some of his men with, when they faced magical foes. The other was a letter opener Chigozie Ukwu, son of the dead Bishop of New Orleans, had given Sarah and her friends as a gift.

Ferpa regarded Cal coolly, and he found himself wishing he knew how to read the expression on a cow’s face.

“Whatever happens in the next few minutes,” Bill said, “your oath as a soldier requires you to conceal it from the other members of your troop.”

“Understood,” Ferpa grunted. “I’m protecting Her Majesty on an important scouting mission, chosen because I’m valuable and a fierce warrior, and not because I’m disposable.”

Ouch. “You ain’t disposable,” Cal said, conscious that he was nearly a foot shorter than the beastwife. “You speak English, for one thing.”

“And it’s true that you’re protecting me on an important scouting mission,” Sarah said. “It’s a magical kind of scouting. We must know what may happen if we were to engage, for instance, with the chevalier and his silver-armed men again.”

Ferpa nodded. “I’m ready. Do it, Calhoun.”

“It’d be easier iffen you set down that club,” Cal said. Also, that would reduce the chances that an enraged Ferpa immediately pounded him to paste.

Ferpa dropped her club into the leaves.

“Lord hates a man as won’t poke a giant when pokin’ is what’s called for,” Cal muttered. He crossed the two silver blades in a cruciform shape and pressed then both against Ferpa’s upper breast.

The stink of burning flesh immediately filled his nostrils. Cal flinched and would have pulled away, but Ferpa grabbed his wrists and pulled him closer.

“For . . . Her Majesty,” Ferpa grunted.

Sarah watched closely. Cal felt positively impaled by her gaze, pinned together with the beastwife warrior like two bugs on a card.

Beneath the silver blades, Cal saw red welts rise on the warrior’s flesh. Skin chapped and split, and blood flowed. “This ain’t supposed to happen.”

“Jake was right,” Bill said. “Hell’s bells.”

“It’s the oath,” Sarah said. “The silver burns away at its substance, but the magic of the oath repairs itself. The war between the blades and the oath burns at her mortal flesh.”

“I b’lieve the oath is holdin’,” Cal said.

“But if Ferpa were to be shot?” Bill asked. “If a bullet were to pierce her skin? Or a silver spearhead were to sink itself into her flesh to drink her blood?”

“We must know,” Sarah agreed.

Cal hesitated.

“Do it.” Ferpa dragged Calvin closer, and the blades dug into her skin in the same cruciform shape. Cal cringed, trying to turn the blades to avoiding cutting too deep, but Ferpa worked against him, drawing him closer and twisting the knives into her own body.

“Pull them out!” Sarah snapped.

Cal tugged, but the blades were stuck. He looked up into Ferpa’s face — the impassive expression was gone, and in her eyes Cal saw fear, horror, and hatred.

“Now!” Sarah yelled.

Cal tugged, but could not pull the blades out.

“Calvin!”

Ferpa hurled Cal away. He crashed through a dogwood, narrowly managing to avoid the trunk but losing more skin than he’d have liked to the clawing leafless branches. He hit the ground hard. His ears ringing, he stared at his hands, finding that they were covered in blood and that he still held the letter opener.

But not the knife.

“Rrrrrraaaooooorggh!” Ferpa bellowed and staggered back, slapping at her own torso. Blood flew from her fingers, and Cal saw the dagger’s hilt protruding from her chest.

Bill pushed his horse forward, putting it between the injured beastwife and Sarah. Quicker than Cal’s eye could follow, one of the Cavalier’s horse pistols jumped into his hand, cocked and pointing at Ferpa.

“Ferpa!” Sarah called. “Ferpa!”

Ferpa wailed, finally ripping the silver dagger from her breast and slamming it to the ground. Bending quickly, she scooped up her club and raised it with both hands over her head, charging to smash Calvin —

“Pax!” Sarah shouted.

Ferpa paused. The silhouette of her enormous knotted club head hung over Calvin in the setting sun.

“Ferpa,” Sarah said. “Your oath holds. I see it.”

Bloody spittle fell from Ferpa’s thick, rubbery lips. She swayed, eyes glaring at Cal. If she swung, his skull would crack like an eggshell.

“You’re wounded,” Sarah said, calling over Bill’s shoulder. “You’re surprised. So am I. But don’t harm Calvin Calhoun, by your oath.”

“Rrrrrraaaooooooooorggh!” Ferpa slammed the club to the ground. It struck beside Calvin’s head, tearing out some of his hair. He raised his arms in a pointless attempt at defense — and then Ferpa turned and fled, crashing through the brittle autumn trees.

Silence fell over the three left behind. Cal collapsed back onto the earth, heart pounding.

“Now we know,” Bill said.

“Her oath held,” Sarah said sadly. “But she very nearly killed Calvin, anyway.”

“Thanks for noticin’.” Cal climbed to his feet and dug through the leaves looking for the other silver blade.

“Jake was right.”

“Do you feel better knowing?” Bill asked.

“In recent weeks, Sir William, I find that the more I know, the less happy I am. That doesn’t mean I’d rather know less.”

 

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