Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 01
Secrets of the Serpent Throne
by D.J. Butler
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
Sarah lay against the back wall of the long nave of the Temple of the Sun, gazing across a space that should have been veiled, at the naked Serpent Throne. She had a long Imperial dragoon’s wool coat pulled over her as a blanket against the chill night breeze wafting into the Temple through the open door.
It was night, and the Temple was dark. Sarah was here because she couldn’t sleep elsewhere, hadn’t been able to catch a moment’s sleep anywhere but atop the Great Mound since the moment she had seen her father’s goddess on the Sunrise Mound.
William Lee had told Sarah that her father occasionally slept in trees. Was it some experience like this that had caused him to do so?
Or was it a taboo he had chosen?
Sarah dozed in and out. When she was awake, her mortal eye saw nothing but gloom and shade. Through her Eye of Eve, though, she had visions.
She saw smoke and pollution. Something was wrong, she saw; not with the throne itself, but with how it had been treated. But beneath the mists of darkness, light shone. It was the brilliant blue light of the eternal Eden into which Sarah had briefly set foot, and yet it had a warm, golden glow, as well.
It reminded her also of the light she’d seen inhabiting the Serpent Mound above the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, where her father’s acorn, planted, had grown into a tree that was in some sense also her father himself.
The light was power.
Sarah had come far, leaving her childhood home in Appalachee at the word the monk Thalanes to search after the lost heritage of her father, and the stolen wealth of her mother. She had made her journey less for those things than for the sake of the kin she had learned she possessed–a brother and a sister she had never known.
She had found her brother. Her sister was still missing, though, and Sarah and her people were penned within the wall of her father’s city, Cahokia, by hostile Imperial forces. She had seen Eden, the land of her father’s goddess, but only barely set foot in it and had not mastered its power. That power now winked at Sarah tantalizingly through a veil of pollution and wrongdoing.
Sarah needed to get access to that power, if she and her people were going to survive.
The throne had an occupant. At least some moments, drifting in and out of troubled sleep, Sarah thought she saw a woman–the Woman–sitting on the throne. Was she smiling at Sarah?
But at other times, she seemed to see a second figure, standing behind the goddess: a tall, green, heron-headed man. Was she seeing the Heron King through her Eye of Eve, or in her dreams? He wasn’t consistently there, and Sarah’s uncertainty built up in her heart as dread.
The Heron King rested one hand on the Serpent Throne, and it seemed to Sarah that the hand sat also on the shoulder of the goddess. In his right hand, the Heron King held a sword.
The one Sarah had given him.
Had that been a mistake? With the Heronplow she had gained in return, she had rescued one of her two siblings, and she had, once, saved her father’s city from an incursion of rampaging beastkind
Was that enough? Did that make the trade worth it?
Uncertainty became fear, but Sarah was so exhausted that she continued to drift in and out of sleep, fear notwithstanding.
“Beloved.” The Heron King stretched forth his hand. “Beloved.”
He touched her shoulder.
Sarah shrank and cried out–
“Beloved, you’re dreaming”–
and woke up.
Pale light crept in through the Temple’s door. Sarah looked immediately to the throne, seeing the light and the pollution, but neither the goddess nor the Heron King.
“Beloved.” Maltres Korinn knelt beside her. He’d positioned himself carefully, so that the light shone on his face and revealed his identity. That face wore an expression of concern. “Forgive my touch, Beloved. You were crying out.”
“I ain’t made of glass.” Sarah shivered and sat up, pulling the coat up around her neck. “I can stand some handlin’. Iffen I had my choice, I’d rather you shake me than call me that title.”
Korinn didn’t take the bait, but she knew he wasn’t about to stop calling her Beloved.
“Beloved, the Handmaid Alzbieta told me you had disappeared from her home. The wardens and I have been looking for you.”
Sarah took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to force the fear and uncertainty out with the air. It didn’t work. “I can’t sleep there. I can’t sleep anywhere, except here. It’s the damnedest thing.”
“Or the most blessed.”
“You try it for a week, and then tell me that.”
Korinn nodded. “I’ll talk with Alzbieta. I believe there’s a solution.”
“Maltres,” she said, “how did you end up here? I don’t mean looking for me this morning, I mean, how did you end up as Regent-Minister?”
Maltres Korinn eased himself into a cross-legged sitting position. “I love this land. I love the city, too, though I long to be in my own brambles and groves in the north. But this is the city of my goddess, and it was the city of my king, and now it’s the city of my queen.”
“I ain’t queen yet.”
“In time. So when your father died, and a group of the city’s leaders asked me to take care of the city until a successor was chosen, I couldn’t say no.”
“Leaders, meaning the wealthy?”
“Some of them were wealthy. Others held important titles, like Royal Companion and Notary and Archivist. Or military rank–Jaleta Zorales was one of them.”
“It didn’t occur to you to use their support to just take the throne for yourself.”
“But that wasn’t what they asked me to do.”
Surrounded by Imperial troops and caught between a god of destruction and a cold-blooded necromancer, it touched Sarah’s heart to be reminded that there were still people in the world who acted out of duty, and for love. “I never hear you talk about a wife, or children.” Sarah softened her Appalachee twang, not wanting to sound hostile. “Does that mean you’re . . . you’re not the marrying kind?”
Korinn laughed. “It means that my wife died, and my children are grown or mostly-grown. They have lives of their own, and are not here in the city. But when I can get back to Na’avu, along with harvesting blackberries and cutting dead wood out of the forest, I will read with my daughters and ride with my sons and sit beside my wife’s grave to tell her of my adventures in the big city.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me.” Sarah rose creakily to her feet. “I guess that’s all the sleep I’m going to get tonight, though. Time to go fight the good fight.”
“Foxes have holes,” Etienne Ukwu said, “and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”
He spoke loudly, the opening words to a quick sermon. He stood atop a wooden crate he had placed on an angle on the boardwalk in the Vieux Carré, and he wore neither his black vest, with its Vodun patterns, nor his episcopal garb. He wore his black trousers and a simple white shirt. He counted on his reputation to tell people who he was.
His reputation, and the Brides.
The women in earshot noticed him first, turning to look at him as the Brides touched their souls and their bodies. The men took only moments longer.
Etienne had chosen this corner because there no gendarmes in sight. Still, they would hear of his appearance and they would come. He had to speak quickly.
“A keen-eared critic will say, ah, this Ukwu compares himself to Jesus, but no. I am not the Son of man, but only the son of a man, the son of a poor man who served this city. And I too have tried to serve the city, and look at me now. The fox of a chevalier has a hole. The vulture bishop, my former beadle, has a nest. And I, the son of your poor servant?”
A crowd was forming. There were nods and murmurs of agreement.
At the back of the mob, someone ran off–to fetch the constabulary, most likely. Etienne had only moments left.
“Do not give the robber what he demands!” Etienne shook his fist in the air, and several women fainted. “The only way to defeat this beast is to starve it!”
“Starve it!” someone yelled.
“No more taxes!” Etienne cried. “Justice for the bishop!”
“No more taxes!” the crowd roared.
“No more taxes!” he shouted one last time, then jumped down from the box. The gendarmes were coming.
As Etienne slipped down an alley to disappear, he thought he heard someone whistle a jaunty and familiar tune behind him.