Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 04
“I was there.” Bill took a sip of the wine, tasting it more this time and regretting the fact. “You can go to hell.”
“But Kyres and I were friends. I served him, after my fashion.”
Bill wasn’t sure whether to be feel offended, curious, or friendly. He resolved his uncertainty by grunting.
“You were injured in the battle.” Zomas nodded at Bill’s crutches on the floor.
“I’ve been injured in more than one. I fear my legs have finally lost the power to recuperate.”
“You must be in great pain.” Gazelem Zomas furrowed his brow in a compassionate expression. “I’m very sorry for that. I doubt Mimir’s Well has enough wine in it to ease your suffering even for an hour.”
Bill grunted again. “I intend to test that proposition. I shall tell you what I learn.”
“What if I could offer you another solution?”
Bill’s heart leaped at the thought. “I hadn’t heard that Zomas was famous for its healing magics.”
“We aren’t,” Zomas admitted with a faint smile. “We’re famous for our thoroughly creoled population, and for our hounds, and for being the biggest market for Comanche slavers raiding Texia and New Spain, for guarding the overland route to New Muscovy, and for the standing bounties we pay on beastkind. But I myself am, among other things, an apothecary. What do you know of the Paracelsian Tincture?” He produced a small glass bottle full of a dark liquid from under his tunic.
“Laudanum? That it is costly, and I have no money. That it is given to hysterical women, of which I am not one.” Bill eyed the bottle. Laudanum eased coughing and diarrhea, and for that reason was sometimes given to the small children of the New Orleans wealthy, but it also relieved pain.
“It is also given to wounded soldiers, of which you are one, sir.” Zomas set the bottle on the table between them. “And I am wealthy enough, and grateful enough, that I will give this to you as a gift.”
Bill looked at the bottle without touching it. “How do you profit from the gift?”
“Ah, direct. A soldier’s vice.” Zomas smiled. “But you’re right. Sarah has defeated me, and all seven claimants putting themselves forward at the solstice in hopes of becoming the goddess’s Beloved. But Sarah needs help still, if she is to free the city from the Imperial chokehold.”
“You hope that if you help her, she will help you?”
“Help you what?” Bill asked.
“Help me win the right to return home.”
Bill’s legs stabbed him; he had little interest in the details of the man’s exile, at least at the moment. “I have heard that some soldiers come to depend on the tincture.”
Zomas nodded. “As other men come to depend on liquor or coffee. All things in moderation, Captain. If I were you, I would not plan on taking the drops my entire life, but only until the siege is lifted and a better medicine can be found. Or until a healer more talented than our queen can come to your assistance.”
Was Gazelem Zomas’s offer much different from Bill’s own plan? He had come to the Well hoping to get drunk on whisky, and when that plan had failed, had set about trying to achieve the same thing with watered-down wine.
Surely, if he used the Paracelsian Tincture sparingly, the bottle would last him a long time and be no more dangerous than wine.
“I think you’ll find that a drop or two of the solution
will cause the suffering to go away,” Zomas said. “Or if not, it will
cause you to no longer be troubled by the pain.”
“God’s teeth, suh, that sounds like the same thing to me.” Bill took the bottle and glared at it, tiny and dark in his big hand. “What do I do?”
“It has a bitter taste,” Zomas told him. “And in large quantities it can kill. You put only a single drop into a drink, say, that glass of wine. If one drop doesn’t give you relief, try a second.”
Bill had enough experience of apothecaries to know they never properly accounted for a man’s size when recommending a dosage. He carefully poured three drops into the wine glass. Without looking at Zomas to see the man’s reaction, he drained the cup. Then he closed his eyes.
“Give it a minute,” he heard Zomas say.
Bill took a deep breath. The aftertaste of the laudanum on his tongue was bitter and vegetable, though there was also a pleasing touch of brandy. He inhaled again and felt the tincture’s fumes burn in his nasal cavity and the back of his throat.
He felt light-headed, as if he were floating.
“I can still feel the ache in my legs.” His voice sounded far away. “But it is lessened. It no longer feels urgent.”
“You may be tempted to try walking without the crutches,” Zomas said. “Don’t surrender to that temptation. Precisely because you don’t feel the pain, you can do more damage to your body by pushing it too far. Try to enjoy the blessing of Paracelsus without attracting his curse.”
“If that doesn’t describe all of life in a single sentence, I don’t know what does.” Bill opened his eyes and saw Zomas smiling at him. “Thank you. Will you share a glass of watered-down wine with me, as a small expression of my gratitude?”
“It is I who am grateful to you, Captain,” Zomas said. “However, I will happily share a glass of wine as an expression of mutual respect.”
Bill raised a hand to summon the serving-boy again. He determinedly ignored Chikaak, who stared from the Well’s doorway.
When the wine came, he put the Paracelsian Tincture away in his coat to resist the urge to add a few drops to his drink.
“You are not young,” Temple Franklin said.
The two men sat in Thomas’s carriage, outside an immense stone house, glittering with light.
“I’m not old,” Thomas shot back. “And if I’m old, you’re older.”
“Yes,” Temple agreed. “Which is why I’m so very concerned to generate heirs. If I do not marry and have heirs before I die, my bastard nieces and nephews with whom I am at war will inherit my vast wealth and undo my works. They will squander it on their strange Cahokian goddess rather than on feeding the poor and building highways in my name and in the name of my illustrious ancestor. My empire will not hold together, but will fall apart, to exist as separate little fiefs or be swallowed up by the New Spanish or cut to pieces by the Free Horse Peoples. I have done so much in life, and it must not be undone!”
“You bastard,” Thomas said drily. “How long is the list?”
“Seven women who wish to meet the dashing Lord Thomas.”
“That’s one way to think of it. Or seven fathers who hope to trade their daughters for family advancement.”
“It won’t do to be idealistic or squeamish about this. Very few people are able to live the romance of a Hannah Penn in this world.”
“Including Hannah, at the end.” Thomas remembered for a moment the bloodied, dying face of his sister, and forced it from his mind. “I’m far from squeamish, Temple.”
“Good.” Temple pushed open the carriage door and eased himself out onto the cobblestones between two waiting footmen. “Then let us go ravish some maidens.”
He must ignore the attractions of their persons, Thomas knew. Even the power of the ladies’ families was only a secondary consideration, as were many kinds of wealth–land, for instance, or illiquid shares in a joint-stock company.
What he needed was ready cash, and a steady source would be preferable to a large pile. Though best of all would be both, combined.
It was time for another payment to the cutthroat Chevalier of New Orleans. Now of all times, Thomas did not want the circumstances of the death of Kyres Elytharias coming to light, and his own cash resources were strained by the costs of raising an Imperial army to march into Cahokia. The increased tariffs the Electors had approved would eventually defray some of the heightened expense, but they had only just begun to be collected, and any raised tax pushed some citizens at the margin into tax evasion and other forms of lawlessness.
Franklin knew all of it.
Franklin stepped aside to wait as Thomas straightened his cravat and then rattled his Mars-sealed dress saber once in its scabbard for luck. Then the counselor followed Thomas through the wide front door. The building was the Philadelphia house of one of the great cattle-driving grandees of Ferdinandia and New Spain, His Excellency Felipe Albanez, Marqués de Miami. Cattle was a business that generally consumed as much cash as it generated, and in bad years more, which made the Marqués’s daughter Alejandra an unlikely candidate even if she had been pretty. Unsightly Dago clabbernapper that she was, she–
“Buenas tardes, Señor Thomas!”
Thomas leaped aside as the very lady he had been contemplating thrust herself into his view, and very nearly into his embrace.