Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 09

Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 09

“AND YOU HAVE THE EXPERIENCE, DIRECTOR SCHMIDT. LORD THOMAS BIDS ME TO TELL YOU THAT HE IS PLEASED. AND ALSO THAT . . . HE DOES NOT BELIEVE THE COMPANY TRULY NEEDS FIVE DIRECTORS.”

Notwithstanding Schmidt kept a calm face, though her heart leaped. “I understand.”

“DO YOU NEED ANYTHING ELSE FROM US AT THIS TIME?”

“No,” Schmidt said. Should she mention her connection with Robert Hooke, and his shuffling undead soldiers? “Nothing that can’t wait. I assume I can contact you through the Parletts at any time?”

“SOMEONE WILL ALWAYS BE LISTENING ON THIS END. PLEASE ARRANGE THE SAME ON YOUR SIDE.”

“Understood.” Schmidt turned to her own men. “Schäfer, Dadgayadoh–put the Parletts in a tent adjoining mine, and make sure they have all the necessaries. Food, clothing, cots and blankets . . . dolls, hoops, pull-horses, whatever they need. If you need to send marauders back through the lands we’ve sacked looking for toys we left behind, do so. I’ll want one of you with them at all times. If they start talking as they did just now . . . I want to know about it immediately. Captain Mohuntubby, I’ll leave it to you to provide for security.”

Shouts from the direction of the besieged city’s eastern gate caught her ear. She turned as the Cherokee officer and his men followed her two traders back toward camp. At the militia barricade over the eastern road milled a knot of people in robes that had once been white but had been stained gray and brown by winter and travel. A blue cordon of Imperial uniforms held back the knot, which seemed to be trying to make its way into the city.

Notwithstanding Schmidt approached the scene at her usual brisk pace.

She counted an even twelve robed travelers, all on foot, and all men. None of them younger than forty, by her guess. Eleven of them stood, leaning on walking sticks. Their backs were bent by fatigue, but the light of conviction burned in their eyes.

The twelfth knelt.

He had been kneeling for some time, by appearances. His robe had been torn to shreds by walking on his knees; the knees themselves were purple and covered with skin so thick and callused it they wouldn’t have looked out of place on a camel. His eyes were sunken into deep wells flanked by bony cheeks and gnarled brows; both ears and nose looked half again too large for their face. Long gray hair and a gray beard hung back over his shoulders, presumably so he wouldn’t pull his own face into the frozen mud by kneeling on the hairs of his chin.

Schmidt sighed.

She whistled sharply around her fingers as she stomped up, which was enough signal for the militiamen to clear a space for her. The mud-spattered apostles in white cleared a space opposing, and she abruptly found herself looking down at a filthy old man kneeling in the snow. All twelve men in white were unarmed.

“You don’t look dangerous,” she said. “If you’re hungry, I can arrange for you to get a meal.”

The old man laughed slowly. “I look like a beggar.” His eleven companions laughed with him.

“Yes,” Schmidt said flatly.

“I don’t want your crusts and pottage.” The old man pointed at the Treewall. Gray-caped shoulders and shining sallet helmets visible over the ramparts suggested Cahokian interest in the conversation. “I only want passage.”

“I am besieging the city.”

The old man raised his arms. “My name is Zadok, though most call me Metropolitan Tarami, or simply Father. Do I look like a threat to your siege?”

Schmidt hooked her thumbs into her broad leather belt. “Not all threats are visible. Who are you?”

At that moment, Robert Hooke arrived. The eleven standing men in white shrank from his presence; the militiamen, freed murderers, road agents, and rapists, by and large, grinned in appreciation.

He stinks of piety, the Lazar’s voice rang in Schmidt’s mind, but not of gramarye.

She had no way of knowing whether others could hear Hooke’s words, so she kept her nod discreet.

“I am the kingdom’s ranking priest,” Zadok Tarami said. “Or ranking secular priest, at least. I preside in the Basilica, and when they are Christian, I hear the confessions of the kings and queens of Cahokia.”

When they are Christian? Schmidt refrained from laughing out loud, thinking of the wild paganism of Cahokia’s temple. The serpent-tree behind the open veil, the star mosaics. “Does the Metropolitan of Cahokia ordinarily travel about on his knees, in winter? I understand the Moundbuilder kingdoms are impoverished in these sad times of revolt and Pacification, but I thought they could at least afford feet.”

“I return from pilgrimage,” the priest said. “I have come the entire road of the great Onandagos, from the borders of the Talligewi to the hill where the prophet finally pinned the serpent and stole its crown.”

“Your sense of geography is confused, cleric,” Schmidt said. “This is the flattest place on the continent.”

“God tells me that you will admit me. Your heart is touched, I can see.”

Schmidt frowned. “Did you travel the entire road on your knees?”

Tarami nodded. “I have seen all seven kingdoms. I have lain quartered twice on the crosses of the earth itself. I have done this not for myself, but begging heaven for its blessing upon my people.”

He can only hurt the serpent’s daughter, Hooke whispered into her mind. It does no harm to admit these fools. At the very least they are more Firstborn mouths to feed.

Unexpectedly, Schmidt found herself missing Luman Walters. Hooke’s advice rang true, but it bore a hard edge of arrogance. Also, it completely lacked the warmth and humor of her banter with Walters.

Whither had her Balaam gone? In the confusion of the beginning of the siege, Notwithstanding Schmidt hadn’t followed the magician’s movements. He might have gone upriver or down, or across the water into the Missouri, or even into the city itself, for all she knew.

She could ask Hooke, but Luman’s whereabouts seemed none of the Sorcerer’s business.

“You eleven,” she said, addressing the standing men. “I will give you your bowl of curds, and then you must leave. Take any road you like, but go away.” The men’s faces looked relieved; had they expected her to kill them on the spot?

“And I?” Zadok Tarami asked.

“No pottage for you,” she said. “But if the Cahokians will take you in, you are welcome to enter the city.”

#

Flanked by Alzbieta Torias and Cathy Filmer, Sarah looked down from the height of the Treewall. The soldiers in blue again retreated into their trenches–which also crawled, she knew, with dead abominations no less repulsive than Robert Hooke himself, though mute and rotting–or into their tents beyond, and a single figure in gray was left on the road.

Kneeling.

On his knees, he then continued his approach alone.

“Who is that?” Sarah raised the bandage from her Eye of Eve and saw the soul of the approaching man as the shining blue aura of one of the Firstborn, the children of Wisdom.

Only she now knew that Eve and Wisdom were the same person.

Or did she know that, after all?

The more she learned, the more the world seemed an insoluble enigma.

“That can only be one man.” Alzbieta’s voice was sharp. “He undertook a difficult journey, and I was beginning to be optimistic that it had killed him.”

“An enemy of yours?” Cathy’s voice was always cold when she spoke to Alzbieta.

“An enemy of Kyres Elytharias,” Alzbieta said.

Sarah looked quickly at the priestess and found honesty visible in her soul. “A pretender?”

Cathy laughed. “No, that would be Alzbieta Torias.”

“A priest. A rebel.” Alzbieta lowered her head humbly. “Your grandfather . . . your father’s father . . . became king at a very young age. He fell under the influence of certain thinkers, men who were powerful and . . . dissatisfied.”

“Dissatisfied how?” Sarah asked. If this was some would-be rival, at least he was approaching on his knees. She could have him shot easily, if she had good reason for doing so. “You alluded to this once, as we rode to Cahokia together. You said my father’s father tried to eradicate priesthoods and secrets.”

“Dissatisfied with the goddess. Dissatisfied with the constitution of the kingdom. Dissatisfied with the spiritual life of Cahokia. Dissatisfied with the way the tale of the great prophet-king Onandagos had always been told. Dissatisfied with the differences separating us from the Children of Eve.”

“These men were priests?” Sarah asked.

“Some of them, yes. Including the leading priests of the Basilica, which to this day continues to harbor and train more priests who think this way. But some were also wealthy men, men with land, men in the royal family. Philosophers. Poets. And there were influential men in the other six Sister Kingdoms who felt the same way. We were drawing closer to the Cavaliers and the Roundheads and the Ferdinandians and others in those days. Appalachee was becoming less a barrier and more a highway. The ghosts of the Kentuck were fading into oblivion. It seemed likely that some sort of close alliance was going to come to pass, and perhaps even union, and it was felt that our differences might stand in the way of that consummation.”

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