Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 30
A hound with wolfish features and a thick leather collar planted itself at the side of Stoach’s horse and growled, as if in punctuation.
An angry mutter ran through the Merciful. Kort raised a hand and they fell silent.
“What does submit mean?” Chigozie asked.
Captain Stoach replaced his hat on his head. “In a more peaceful time, it would merely mean agree to pay taxes. One fifth of all your produce. We would begin by taking one fifth of what you now possess.”
Chigozie stroked his chin. “That seems a little high. Though you might find the fifth part of what we currently possess to be disappointingly little.”
“Understand that what you produce includes your young. If you submit to Zomas, we will begin by taking one in five of you to work in our slave camps.”
A beastman with the upper body of an ape shrieked in protest. Kort spun and thrust his heavy face close into the space of his fellow, roaring a dull roar that left no room for disagreement.
Despite Kort’s bellow, the beastkind shifted back and forth from one foot or hoof to another and grumbled. But Chigozie didn’t want to provoke an open battle. The riders would simply shoot his people.
“I see,” he said. “Since we live in a less peaceful time, does that mean you will leave us all our possessions and all our people?”
Captain Stoach shook his head. “We will return tomorrow. If you are still here, we will take one fifth of you into slavery. We are reasonable, and we’ll let you choose. We’ll send the brutes, the idiots, those with the broadest shoulders and the tiniest brains into the slave camps to work the fields and the mines.
“The rest of you will join the Host of the White Towers. You will serve Zomas in this conflict that now overtakes us.”
“We are peaceful people,” Chigozie said.
Naares Stoach let his gaze wander over the Merciful. “You may be peaceful, but I think you could be terribly effective in combat. Since we battle to fight off rampaging beasts on our land, the Lord of the White Towers will be especially satisfied to have fighters such as you in his service. And consider that it would mean dependable food, and warm places to sleep, and pay.”
“And death,” Kort rumbled. “And murder. We have no use for your pay.”
“Don’t be so quick to decide,” Stoach said. “Have you been to Memphis, or New Orleans? Many enticing things can be had for money, even when the coin is iron rather than silver.”
“We’re not warriors, Captain,” Chigozie said. “We’re peaceful people. We’re just looking for a place to be left alone.”
“Then tomorrow morning, you’d better not be here. I’m a merciful man, but I’m willing to kill.”
The Firstborn had treated Miqui’s wound, pulling the bullet from his thigh and then stopping the bleeding with a linen bandage heavy and thick yellow salve. The boy lay on a flat wooden cot hanging from a wall in the same cell as Montserrat, sleeping.
She eased up the edge of his bandage to peek at the wound; it was clotting and didn’t look angry. The Ophidian healers knew what they were doing.
Montse looked up from the wound to see Kyres Elytharias.
No, not Kyres, though the girl standing outside her cell looked like Hannah’s husband. She had his face and his thin build, but she was smaller, and the expression in her one visible eye was like the stab of a dagger. Her other eye lay beneath a strip of cloth.
This had to be one of the other two children.
“My name is Sarah Penn.” The girl held an iron key ring in her hand, and she was alone. “I guess maybe you know that.”
She slipped the bandage from her head, revealing her other eye. It was white as ice, and reminded Montse of the eye of a wild animal, or a bird of prey.
“I would have known you from a mile away,” Montse said. “You have your mother’s fire behind your father’s face.”
“Sir William says I should trust you, Montserrat Ferrer i Quintana. He says you’re of an old noble house.”
Montse nodded. “My family has earned respect. if not always wealth. Please call me Montse. I loved your parents dearly.”
Sarah paused long before her next words. “Especially my mother.”
Montse’s heartbeat was loud in her own ears. She nodded, and looked away.
“Sir William also says you’re a smuggler, a pirate, and a positive magnet for scandal.”
Montse chuckled, the dry laugh rasping in her throat. “But more to the point, your mother entrusted me with the care of your sister at her birth. Hannah Penn trusted me, so you can do the same.”
Sarah unlocked the door and stepped into the cell with the two Catalans. She gazed on Miqui for a few moments. “He’ll recover.”
“I think so,” Montse agreed.
“I grew up in the mountains of Appalachee,” Sarah said. “Thalanes placed me with Iron Andy Calhoun, who raised me as his daughter.”
“You were watched over by good men.”
“My brother Nathaniel was not so lucky. His foster father was the Earl of Johnsland, whose madness began at about the time he took Nathaniel into his care.”
“Ah.” Montse smiled slightly. “The Elector of the Birds. Thank you for telling me this. I saw you all at birth, and many times I have wondered.”
Sarah nodded. “I can see your honesty and your loyalty.”
“A vision that clear is a powerful gift.”
“My father only gave powerful gifts. I think you knew him.”
“Your father gave powerful gifts,” Montse agreed. “I did not place your sister Margarida–excuse me, Margaret–into the care of another. I kept her. She came into life a princess, but she has lived as a smuggler and a wharf rat, a crew member of La Verge Caníbal, a notorious evader of stamp duties, bearer of illicit goods, and sometimes raider of the bounty of the Imperial treasury, or the treasury of the Chevalier of New Orleans.”
“And a carrier of wanted persons.”
Sarah fell silent and studied Montse’s face. Was there something she wanted to ask?
What did she know?
“Perhaps it was your father who gave Margarida her most extraordinary gift,” Montse said tentatively.
Sarah reacted with a short look of surprise that she immediately smothered.
“You can see,” Montse said. “Your brother?”
“He can hear. Which . . . has had surprising consequences.”
Consequences? “Your sister has queer hair. It had never been cut, because when I tried to cut it in her childhood, she complained. Loudly. Later, when she consented to letting me cut it, her hair broke the scissors, unless they were made of the strongest steel. It is a curly mass of hair, long and sprouting in all directions like a fern, and tangled into a ball on top of her head.”
“The gift of magical hair is . . . not what I expected,” Sarah admitted.
“When she is angry, and when she feels fear, that hair stands on end. And then she has the strength and the endurance and the hardiness of twenty men.”
Sarah nodded slowly. Something was coming together for her. “But she isn’t with you now.”
“The Chevalier of New Orleans took us prisoner.” Montse felt her face color with shame as she told of her defeat, even in so few words as this. “He hid her from me, I don’t know where. I attempted to rescue her and failed. And the chevalier sent me to you with a strange message.”
“Yes?” Sarah’s face was impassive.
“I am the embassy you were expecting. He offers the gift of your sister’s life.” Montse hesitated. “May I ask what he means?”
“He means he would marry me and dominate me, own my lands in the east and despoil my father’s kingdom, and in exchange he would set my sister free.”
“You cannot give in.”
Sarah’s laugh began slowly, but quickly became sharp and loud, a cackle. In the splitting sound of her laughter and her vision, she suddenly reminded Montse of Cega Sofía, the blind seeress murdered by the gendarmes of the chevalier. “Oh hell, no, Montse. Oh hell, no.”