Serpent Daughter – Snippet 13

“Doesn’t Cahokia have doctors?”

Chapter Three

At Sarah’s insistence, Cathy Filmer had been made one of the Ladies of Tendance, the seven women who were permitted to pass through the veil of the Temple of the Sun and enter into the presence of the Serpent Throne. One had to be clothed and anointed to enter — otherwise, the eunuchs and the other Ladies had warned Cathy repeatedly, the Serpent Herself would strike Cathy dead on the spot. Therefore, generally speaking, a Lady only entered the Holy of Holies when it was her day to do so, to refill oil lamps, to clean and polish with the special implements designed for the purpose, and, on festal days, to clothe the goddess.

Which meant clothing Sarah in sacred garb.

Cathy’s day was Sunday, but when she heard Sarah was injured, she quickly had herself clothed and oiled to enter Sarah’s presence and provide whatever support she could. Sarah lay murmuring in deliriums on the throne, so Cathy stood in the corner, hands folded and heart heavy.

The other Ladies of Tendance had had the same response, and all seven stood crowded about the sanctuary, or the upper end of the temple nave.

Three of them, of course, perfectly keeping their vows of silence.

Kodam Dolindas, the King of Tawa, also waited on Sarah. Kings, one of the eunuchs gave Cathy cattily to know, were allowed to pass through the veil at will. The King of Tawa wore no shoes, which Cathy took to be a sacred geas. Perhaps his being subject to such taboos was connected with his ability to pass into sacred space.

He also stepped into the sanctum as if he belonged there. When the Ladies of Tendance entered, they knelt first and touched their foreheads to the floor.

The King of Tawa was a magician. With Cathy and other Ladies watching, he stood beside the Serpent Throne for hours, singing songs with strange melodies over Sarah, resting his fingers gently on her bandaged eyes, and twice hushing her when her sleeping murmurs crossed into whimpering. During this time, the Ladies brought him wine and water as requested, and burned the incenses he asked for, and twice joined him in song, the three with vows of silence humming along.

The rain on the temple roof and the distant thunder, rolling in along the nave, provided an unsettling accompaniment.

A physician was sanctified at the door by lesser priestesses, attended by eunuchs, and brought forward. Not a Circulator, but a man Cathy had seen during the siege, a man who had studied physick in Memphis. He couldn’t pass through the veil, and the King of Tawa wouldn’t send Sarah out, so the healer stood on the steps outside and spoke with the king, whispering back and forth information about Sarah’s condition.

With a baffled and frightened expression on his face, the physician eventually retired.

Then the King of Tawa withdrew from the sanctum. He asked one of the Ladies — the youngest and freshest — to remain on watch, and invited the others to come with him. As he parted the veil so that he and the Ladies could leave, the seven flames of the Serpent Throne dimmed.

The Cathy Filmer of six months earlier would have felt dread at the sight of the throne acting of its volition. Cathy Filmer, Handmaid of the Virgin, Lady of Tendance of the Serpent Throne, bowed her head to acknowledge and revere the goddess’s act.

At the King’s request, Maltres Korinn convened a meeting in the council chamber of the Hall of Onandagos. Also at the King’s urging, Maltres invited the Ladies of Tendance.

Cathy sat with five other Ladies around a table, beneath a stained-glass window depicting the goddess’s tree of life, now awash with rain. Bill stood behind her, which made her feel more than a match for the Lady Alena and her cadre of eunuchs and her acolytes. Cathy was so distracted by Sarah’s illness that she almost forgot the fear and uncertainty that gnawed at her own heart.

She carried a letter, against her skin. The Earl of Johnsland had written it and sealed it, and it had been delivered by the earl’s emissary, Landon Chapel. The letter informed Cathy that Landon was her son, and that Landon himself did not know the fact, and gave it into her discretion to inform him or leave him in the dark, as she saw fit.

When she looked at the young man, she wasn’t surprised in the least; he resembled Cathy, with a little of the earl thrown in. She wasn’t fearful of Landon’s reaction, but she was terribly afraid to tell Bill. If she told him about her child, what else would she have to tell him? And would he cast her aside when she did?

Also standing were the Metropolitan Zadok Tarami, with his tall white eyebrows; the wizard Luman Walters, with dark, curly hair and spectacles; and the dark-skinned princeling of the plains, Gazelem Zomas. Maltres Korinn stood at the head of the table, leaning on his staff of office, with its iron horse’s head; tall, with cheeks pocked with childhood scars, and dressed in his habitual black, he brooded above them like a vulture. Beside Korinn stood the king.

“The queen is dying,” Kodam Dolindas said.

Zadok Tarami leaned forward, his face stricken with grief, and mumbled a prayer.

“Do not discount my queen yet, suh,” Bill said. “I have seen her defeat greater odds than any mere illness. She faced down the Chevalier of New Orleans, the Sorcerer Robert Hooke, and Simon Sword in a single encounter.”

Good, loyal Bill. Cathy’s knight, and Sarah’s.

The king nodded. “I do not discount her. I am astonished that she is alive at all, and I attribute it to personal reserves and sheer resilience. But she has broken her own body with her efforts.”

“What do you mean?” Cathy asked.

Dolindas smiled gently. “I can give you metaphors. She has burned her candle too fast, at both ends simultaneously and perhaps also in the middle. She has drawn too much water from the well. She had mined too deep and too fast.”

“A good metaphor clarifies,” Cathy said. “I don’t understand what you’re telling me.”

“Are you saying my queen has used up all her ability to perform magic?” Bill asked.

The king looked up at the circle of tree imagery above him; the light filtering through seemed to come to rest like a bird on the king’s face. “I mean that it is easy to think of magic as a spiritual and intellectual act, drawing on spiritual reserves,” he said, “and such a concept is not false. A spiritually rooted person makes a strong magician. And it is also true that the spirit and the mind and the body are connected, so that the energy channeled through the mind and spirit also marks its course across the body. The performance of magic brings fatigue, and can leave the magician ill. It weakens tissues and drains vitality, physically as well as spiritually.”

“Sarah has harmed herself,” Luman Walters said. “The acts she performed to save the rest of us — the ascent to the throne, the miracles of fertility, the sign of the flowering staff, the consecration of the Sunrise Mound, the flying rowboat, the confrontations with Cromwell, the opening of the gate of Eden — all of it. It was harming her all along, and now it is killing her.”

“This is bad news for the city and the kingdom,” Tarami said.

“And the empire,” Gazelem murmured.

“Harming her body, yes,” the king said. “Whether it is fair to say she harmed her self is an interesting question.”

“I am not interested in the philosophy of it,” Maltres Korinn said. “You have convened us because there is something that we can do for her.”

“Do not be so quick to disdain philosophy,” the King of Tawa said. “If we are to heal a thing, we must first properly identify and understand It. I do not know that there is a way to heal the queen’s body, but I believe that her self can be saved. And healed, and even exalted.”

“What of the earthquake?” Cathy asked.

Dolindas directed a penetrating gaze at her. “What of it?”

Cathy wasn’t entirely sure how to articulate her thought. And what would Sarah want, or permit, her to say? “Since her ascent, Her Majesty has strongly . . . identified with . . . the city. She is aware of what happens in the city, she feels the city as she feels her own body. Is it not possible that it is the earthquake that has injured her?”

“Perhaps it is a factor,” the King of Tawa said. “Perhaps her injury caused the earthquake, and her exaltation will prevent further quakes.”

Gazelem Zomas frowned.

“I am trying to be patient,” Bill growled, “but what you are saying sounds dangerously close to theology.”

“It’s not close to theology,” the king said. “It is theology. Sarah Penn will die. But the Queen of Cahokia may be raised to an angelic state, in which she may continue to give us guidance and assistance.”

Stunned silence.

“There is an anointing to the purpose,” the king said. “It is royal lore, part of the patrimony of the Ohioan kingdoms. You may have heard it by its name, the Serpent Daughter Anointing.”

The Lady Alena’s face tightened, giving her the appearance of deep concentration.