Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 32

Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 32

“Your thugs are dead.” Etienne pressed the tip of his blade against Planchet’s belly. “I tell you this to take away your last slivers of hope and to truly blacken your final moments with despair. No rescuer is coming for you, August. I am going to kill you.”

August Planchet squealed like a piglet. Suffocation alone had nearly rendered him unconscious.

“Consider the honor, though. You are being killed by the Bishop of New Orleans.”

Etienne cut horizontally across the former beadle’s belly, a wide slash from hip to hip. His second crossed the first, from navel to sternum, and August Planchet’s life splashed out of his body.

Etienne threw Planchet to the ground, dropping the table on top of him to hide him. Etienne had killed the man, but he took no pleasure in it.

Planchet kicked twice, made a burbling sound, and died.

Etienne walked to the table where Planchet’s two thugs lay slumped forward, dead of poison. Sitting out of the beadle’s view, they had died unnoticed as well as unmourned. Beyond them, the bartender met Etienne’s gaze and nodded. He was Igbo, rather under average height, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.

Etienne wiped the blood from his knife meticulously on the relatively clean shirtsleeve of one of the dead men, then resheathed it.

He heard a thumping sound from the corner where he’d been sitting. Turning, he saw a wooden panel of the wall repeatedly opening and slamming into August Planchet’s corpse and table on top of it. Monsieur Bondí was trying to exit the secret passage where he’d been hiding.

“Push harder, Monsieur Bondí!” Etienne called. The Brides sang through every sinew, making his limbs tingle. “It’s only a dead man blocking your path!”

Cursing and grumbling, Bondí threw his shoulder into it and knocked the door open. He stepped over Planchet’s corpse cautiously, pointing his scattergun at the dead man.

“The plan was that I would shoot him,” Bondí said. “I wanted to shoot him.”

“I remember,” Etienne said. “Only as we spoke, he said such infuriating things that I found myself missing my days of breaking legs and I decided that I wanted to do it myself. Did you know, my family name ukwu can mean big in Igbo, but it can also mean leg? It depends how you say it. I was Stephen Leg, who collected late interest payments by breaking the debtor’s leg. I have never truly ceased being that man.”

“August Planchet was a disgrace to the noble profession of accounting.” Bondí frowned. “I looked forward to removing the stain from our honor. I regarded it as my duty.”

“You may tell your numerically able brothers that you have removed the smirch from your collective escutcheon,” Etienne said. “I don’t need the credit. And anyway, even in the Vieux Carré, the boom of a blunderbuss doesn’t go unnoticed. We have saved Onyinye the trouble of having to explain the shooting to her neighbors.”

Onyinye Diokpo herself, who had come in from the tavern’s kitchen, spoke. “I wouldn’t worry about that, Etienne. My neighbors don’t bother to explain their gunshots to me. But if nothing else, you have certainly reminded me that within the bishop there still lives a man capable of a stabbing, when the occasion calls for it.” Her gray hair was hidden beneath a golden silk scarf, which was brilliantly set off against a bright purple tunic, embroidered with fantastical birds.

“Is that a good thing or a bad?” Etienne asked.

Onyinye shrugged. “It’s a moment of clarity.”

“Etienne,” Monsieur Bondí said. “We could use the cash.”

“We all could,” Onyinye said. “Our businesses are being squeezed by the chevalier’s gendarmes–all our businesses the chevalier knows about, in any case.”

Etienne sat to think. “Could I have a glass of wine, Onyinye?” he asked. “Or better still, rum. Preferably without poison.”

“Are you capable of being killed by poison, houngan?” She poured a large tumbler of black rum. “Or does the maryaj-loa protect you from such a death?”

“I try not to test my Brides’ limits,” Etienne said.

“Afraid to injure yourself in the experimentation?”

“Perhaps.” Etienne took a gulp of the rum. “Or perhaps, when my time comes, I want my death to be a surprise.”

“It could be a trick,” Bondí suggested.

“If so, it was not August Planchet’s trick. I don’t think the beadle was a man to risk his own life.” Etienne thought of the glitter in the man’s eyes, the greed larding his voice like lust. “Planchet was sincere. He believes there is a Memphite barge carrying gold down the river to the chevalier. He thought we would capture it, and give him half for the information.”

“Greedy bastard,” Bondí said. “And stupid. He should have known the finder asks for ten percent. Twenty at most.”

Etienne nodded. “Do you know, I think I might even have been open to such an offer. I respect a man who can repent almost as much as I respect a man who can accurately gauge his own price. Perhaps there is a Christian within me yet.”

“What do we do about this information, then?” Onyinye asked.

“We investigate. The docks are the most corrupt part of New Orleans–and that makes them the best part. Bondí?”

The Creole nodded. “I’ll see if I can identify that barge. What do we do about Planchet himself?”

“His Grace came to an unfortunate end while strolling in the Vieux Carré, as many have before him. The pious will interpret this as God’s punishment upon a man who was willing to steal a holy office that did not belong to him.”

“And the impious?”

“They will likely conclude on their own that I am responsible for Planchet’s death. If they don’t, you may give the appropriate wink and nod to give them the idea.”

“So that half the city thinks you’re a saint, and the other half thinks you’re the devil.”

“It was ever thus in New Orleans.”

#

New Amsterdam was a city of docks.

Nathaniel knew the Dutch port was one of the great cities of the Empire–greater by far than Fort Nassau, the capital of the Hudson River Republic–but in his head, he had envisioned a city with paved streets and stone towers.

New Amsterdam had stone buildings, squat and crenellated, with arrow slit windows or no windows at all on the ground floor, and on higher levels the windows were covered with iron grates.

“That’s a bank,” Jacob Hop said, noticing his gaze. “Or the counting house of a joint-stock company, or a wealthy family.”

But most of the city’s buildings were brick or wood. Close to the river, the streets too were of brick, though within only a few streets, that brick disappeared, to be replaced by muddy snow.

Muddy snow lay heaped in piles about a circular church within shouting distance of the docks. The center of the building rose to a bell tower, also circular, with a pointed cap of a rooftop. Before the church stood a bronze statue of a man wearing a long perruque, with one hand on his hip and the other holding a rolled-up scroll.

“John Watts.” Jake nodded at the statue. “After we signed the Compact, we were careful to send one English-speaking Elector to Philadelphia. I guess we didn’t want to seem too foreign.”

Nathaniel didn’t have a great sense of the place’s geography, but New Amsterdam straddled several islands at the mouth of the Hudson River, and entering the city was like approaching a hedgehog–first you had to make it through the spines. The shores of the city bristled with docks and the docks swarmed with traffic. Sweating men of every description loaded and unloaded ships on the docks and carried the unloaded goods into the next layer of the city, which was a belt of warehouses.

These were tall, mostly wooden, and windowless. They had wide doors to allow wagons to drive right inside, and armed men stood at every one of them. New Amsterdam had no defensive wall, but it still had men on its ramparts, after a fashion.

Beyond the warehouses were the banks and counting-houses. If the counting-houses had armed men, they were inside and discreetly out of sight.

Beyond the counting houses, the island rose up in hills toward wooded parks and meadows. Intermittent boardwalks lined streets of tall, narrow stone houses with wrought iron fences. Carriages and riders passed up and down the long streets, not giving a second glance at Jacob, who was, however travel-stained, one of them–

but staring at Nathaniel.

“Could you reverse your hat?” Jacob asked. “Only until we get through the city?”

“This is the only way it fits,” Nathaniel said.

Jacob shook his head. “Your skull looks very ordinary to me. I don’t know why the hat should only fit backward. I think maybe you don’t know how to wear a hat.”

Nathaniel couldn’t tell him that he had to wear the hat this way. The part of him that could cross the star-lit plain forced him to wear his hat backward and his coat inside out.

Makwa. His bear-self, his bear-shadow, the part that stayed behind to protect his body. Makwa gave shape to his skull and body.

“And that’s not to mention the travesty of my coat.” Nathaniel shrugged. “I’m just not as fashionable as you, I guess.”

Jacob Hop laughed. “Okay, I deserved that. What does the acorn tell us now?”

Nathaniel took the box from his breast pocket and held the acorn in his palm. It rolled to indicate a northerly route, toward the forested hills dominating the upper part of the island. “We must be close.”

“Ja, on the island, I think. But unless we want to try to find her in the darkness, we should stop.”

Nathaniel squinted at the scudding gray clouds overhead, growing dark with the arrival of sunset, and thought about the frozen feeling in his toes. “There are inns and taverns by the docks, behind us. Are there inns on the roads ahead?”

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