Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 31
“Gather up all our gramarists.
It’s time we made a decent counterattack.”
“You carry two pistols,” Etienne pointed out.
August Planchet smiled. One of the weapons was literally in his hand, and though it wasn’t pointed at Etienne, it only needed to be raised an inch or two to aim at his chest. The second lay on the table, roughly pointed in Etienne’s direction. “You are troubled by the thought of a bishop who is armed? Ironic.”
Etienne waved a hand in dismissal. “Not at all. Only I believed the customary weapon of the clergyman was the stiletto, or perhaps the garrote. You are teaching me many interesting things, Your Grace.”
The two men sat at a warped table in the corner of a tavern called Le Charles Cronea, in the Vieux Carré. Etienne didn’t remember who Charles Cronea was–an obscure hero in the war against the Spanish, perhaps, or–judging from the state of disrepair of the building, maybe a pirate. A struggling fire filled the greasy air with smoke; Planchet’s two bodyguards, hired thugs from the same class of men as Bad Bill, though without his history of rank, sat two tables away and glared at Etienne over their cups of cheap wine.
Monsieur Bondí was doing an admirable job of keeping quiet.
Planchet also sipped wine from a cup. Etienne sucked at a pickled hot pepper, feeling it stoke the fires within him.
“I have more things to teach you, Your Grace.” The former beadle’s eyes glittered.
“St. Paul never envisioned two such bishops as these, did he?” The thought amused Etienne, whatever the tentmaker of Benjamin would have thought.
“St. Paul?” Planchet frowned.
“‘Not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker,'” Etienne said, quoting Paul’s Epistle to Titus. He left out not given to filthy lucre, thinking it would be slightly too pointed, but then gestured at the common room with a sweep of his arm. “A lover of hospitality, though.”
Planchet growled. “You sound like your father.”
“Hectoring, you mean?” Etienne laughed. “Preachy? You’re right, I have no ground to stand on in moral matters. I am the most inconstant of men. But you, Your Grace? Tell me what brings us together at this midnight hour and in this seedy place.”
“You think to prick me,” Planchet said.
“If it offends you that I address you as bishop, I will stop.”
“No, that’s not it. That–between you and me, knowing men of the world–is mere humor. No, you call yourself inconstant.”
“Then I prick myself, don’t I?” Etienne bit into the pepper and enjoyed the feeling of chilled lightning on his tongue.
Planchet shook his head. “You call me inconstant, but only because you don’t know me. You think my jumps from being the beadle to the bishopric to a willingness to betray the chevalier make one jump too many. You think me a weather-cock, a man of no principle.”
“On the contrary,” Etienne said, “I have always believed you to be the most constant of men.”
“I am reassured.” Planchet’s tone was petulant.
Etienne continued. “What you love is your own wealth. When the office afforded you plentiful opportunity to embezzle, you were a diligent and diligently corrupt beadle. When it paid you more to be an honest beadle in my service, you did that. When becoming bishop paid better still, you took up the miter and chasuble.”
“Yes,” August Planchet said. “Exactly. I am predictable.”
“I should have seen your betrayals coming.”
“I think there can only be one reason you’ve asked to meet me, one reason why we had to over-dignify this pissoir with the presence of two anointed bishops in the middle of the night, one reason why you so urgently wish me to know that you have things to tell me. You have learned something, August Planchet, and you believe it will make you wealthy.”
“Clever,” Planchet said. “And correct.”
“I have been a gambler, a collector of debts, a gangster, and a priest in two traditions,” Etienne told him. “I can usually read a man. Tell me, Planchet. What is it?”
Planchet licked his lips. “How do I know you won’t cut me out?”
Etienne spread his hands. “I find that, on whichever side of the law a man stands, he convinces others to work with him by being trustworthy himself. If I were to betray associates lightly, they would in the future be reluctant to transact with me. A petty criminal or an amateur can be a man without shame or a code, but self-interest compels the great criminal to act with honor. Don’t you find the same?”
Planchet nodded slowly.
“And I have learned that it’s much the same with priests.”
Planchet’s laugh turned into a chuckle. “Very well, then. Yes. The chevalier is already taking the bishopric’s money and mine. He commands me to live on a pittance, and says that my stipend will be increased later.”
“The bishop shouldn’t receive a stipend from the chevalier.” Etienne frowned. “The businesses and investments of the bishopric should support the bishop, and generate a surplus for charitable works.”
“Yes, but he takes that money. And I have no soldiers, no troops to counter his. As bishop, you had this advantage of me.”
“I see you’re in a grievous situation,” Etienne acknowledged. “Have you considered taking to the pulpit to reprimand the chevalier? Call him to repentance?” With this question, Etienne was indeed needling Planchet. The mass of believers in New Orleans was with Etienne, not with the parish’s former beadle.
Planchet didn’t notice the barb. “That didn’t work well for your father,” the former beadle pointed out, “and he was a much better orator than I am.”
“I don’t know,” Etienne mused. “My men tell me your sermons are improving. They particularly enjoyed learning that Jesus ate with publicans, and therefore, as the city’s chief publican, the Chevalier of New Orleans deserves to be eaten.”
“Deserves to be invited to our table! Would be invited by our Lord Jesus, were He among us!”
“Ah. That makes better sense.”
“You’re toying with me.” Planchet set his pistol on the table and took the cup of wine in both hands. “I deserve it, I know.”
“Forgive my pettiness. Please continue. What did you wish to tell me?”
“I have learned of a great sum of money our chevalier receives from the emperor on a regular basis.”
Etienne considered this. “Do you mean a subsidy? Is the chevalier paid to maintain the port or dredge the river? Or keep the Texians in their place?”
“I mean that the emperor personally pays the chevalier every quarter a sum that is not transferred through bank balances, but is moved in cash.”
Etienne had wondered how the chevalier continued to recruit and train gendarmes. He acted as if he expected to continue to be flush with cash, even as the city’s stamp duties, taxes, tolls, and tariffs received all dwindled–either because city residents refused to pay them, out of outrage for the chevalier’s murder of the former Bishop Ukwu, or because Etienne’s men intercepted the payments before the chevalier received them.
Why would the emperor personally pay the chevalier? They weren’t family.
“I’m still perplexed about the nature of this payment,” Etienne said.
“As am I. But it is a secret payment, and I think it may be in the nature of a bribe.”
Curious. A bribe to do what? Could this have something to do with the recent presence of the Appalachee witch Sarah Penn in New Orleans? Was the chevalier being paid to attempt to capture her? Was it possible the chevalier had been paid to kill Etienne’s father? “I would think such information would be known only to very few people,” Etienne said.
“It’s known to the chevalier.” Planchet sneered. “And in his cups, the chevalier is a man who boasts.”
Etienne took another pepper. “Did the chevalier in his cups give you any further details? I am thinking about the timing of the payment, the nature of it? A letter of credit or an endorsed deposit order will not be easily intercepted.”
“The chevalier was not so indiscreet. But I am not entirely without resources, especially with regards to the movement of money.” August Planchet’s eyes twinkled. “The chevalier and the emperor are both men of the ancient world in their hearts, mistrustful of banks and the men who run them. The money comes hidden inside a cargo of coal, in the form of gold ingots. It is carried by Memphite barge.”
Etienne stroked his chin. “What sort of division between us were you imagining?”
“Half each.” Planchet smiled. “Naturally, I will wait until the night the barge arrives to tell you any more details. You must have men ready.”
“Where will you go, afterward? You will need to flee the chevalier’s wrath.”
“New Amsterdam, I think. Or Paris. Some place where a man with money is respected. A place where the good life can be purchased.”
August Planchet smiled, a weedy, corrupt snicker on his breath. Etienne took that as his signal–the man had nothing more to tell him.
Standing suddenly, Etienne raised the table with him. Cup and pistols flew aside, and the last Etienne saw of Planchet’s face, the former beadle was gasping in surprise. Etienne pushed the table forward with his shoulder, pinning Planchet’s head and chest to the wall behind him–
and leaving his belly exposed.
Etienne took his time pulling his knife from his sheath. “You see, Monsieur Beadle, the mistake that you made. You acted the petty criminal when you should have risen to be a great one. You treated me as if you’d never need me to trust you again, and now you see that a little trust between you and me might have accomplished impressive things. Tonight, it might have saved your life.”
“Mmurmph!” The former beadle squirmed behind the table, arms and legs thrashing ineffectively. Etienne was much the bigger, younger, and stronger man; moreover, he was fortified by the chilis and by the susurrus of the Brides, while the beadle-bishop was weakened by wine.