Serpent Daughter – Snippet 20
The next nearest boat was still a minute out, and it was a canoe.
Montse turned to face the oncoming beastkind. Her pistols were loaded, and she stood side to side with Miquel and a handful of Cahokian marines. “Load!” she shouted.
“Aye, aye, Capità!” A few of the marines followed her instruction — the others aimed already-loaded weapons forward.
Maybe as many as twenty people huddled in the water behind Montse and her men. An old man holding a hayfork pressed himself to her side and stationed himself with his fork pointing at the beastmen.
“Where are you from?” Montse asked. “Missouri?”
“Beyond Missouri.” His voice cracked with fatigue. “Zomas.”
Montse had a much better idea of the geography of places that bordered the sea, or major rivers, than of landlocked cities. She had heard of Zomas, mostly in connection with the slave trade. “That’s an Eldritch city? Inland?”
He nodded. “Destroyed eight weeks ago, by the Heron King. Her people have been fleeing on foot, first through the snow, and now in the mud. We have been hunted by the beastkind at every step, and our numbers have been reduced from the population of a mighty capital to enough people to fill, perhaps, a town. We are dispossessed, starving, and desperate. And we are but the first.”
Montse nodded grimly. “Welcome to Cahokia.”
The beastkind charged.
Etienne Ukwu found himself thinking of the Appalachee Queen of Cahokia often.
It seemed clear that she was indeed the queen. He’d received her messengers to that effect, a week after the rising of the basilisks over Bishopsbridge. He’d sent her congratulations and had notice of the fact published in both the Picayune Gazette and the Pontchartrain Herald. In those notices, he had been careful to refer to himself as the Bishop of New Orleans, and not to claim the title of chevalier.
Additional verses to “Le Sou de l’Evêque” had sprouted out of the Mississippi mud the very date of the announcements, verses in which Sarah made war alongside Etienne. There was even a verse about the basilisks, although it left out all the most astonishing parts of that encounter — the Brides, Etienne’s mother, the strange space underground with Sarah and her magician — and reduced the event to a joint spell to summon flying snakes.
Eggbert Bailey also made no attempt to claim the title of chevalier; he called himself General, the title, Etienne knew, that Andrew Jackson had used when he had laid siege unsuccessfully to New Orleans. His men called Bailey the Midnight Captain, for his habit of prowling the city at all hours, or sometimes, less respectfully, the Midnight Creeper.
New Orleans had no chevalier.
Etienne didn’t know the Philadelphia Compact well, but he had learned his Elector Songs as a boy, and he thought that the empire had no right to interfere in deciding who the Electors were, other than in the case of barring them for misbehavior, or other extreme possibilities. It was up to Louisiana to decide who the Chevalier of New Orleans was, and for that person to present himself to the Electoral Assembly.
But that Appalachee rube Etienne had met in his casino had commenced impeachment proceedings against both the Emperor Thomas and the chevalier. Monsieur Bondí had been summoned to Philadelphia to confer with Electors. In theory, he might be called to testify, over his repeated objection that he would never in this life do such a thing. However, he was willing to tell Electors how to find the evidence of malfeasance they were looking for.
As a result, Bondí was away from New Orleans. Therefore, Etienne spent more time with the City Council, that now included him and Eggbert, along with Onyinye Diokpo, Renan DuBois, Holahta Hopaii, and Eoin Kennedie. Eggbert headed the city’s military and law enforcement operations, the others administered the city as, in theory, they should have been doing under the Chevalier le Moyne, and Etienne, in name, was the city’s spiritual prince. He preached and administered mass in the Place d’Armes, in sight of the new cathedral just beginning to rise on the foundations of the old one.
In fact, Etienne gave all the others leadership, and sometimes command.
The entire city of New Orleans was now, whether it knew it or not, bent on avenging the murder of Bishop Chinwe Philippe Ukwu. Though so far, Etienne’s nocturnal invocations of the mystères had not, as far as he could tell, struck down his enemy.
Really, Etienne should have been chevalier. In practice, maybe now he was. But he had followed the paths that had been laid out before him, and they had made him bishop instead. He had become bishop to undertake to avenge his father’s murder on the Chevalier le Moyne.
He must now defeat the Spanish in the field to complete that vengeance.
And then . . . Thomas Penn? But Penn seemed far away, and embroiled in his own struggles. Including a struggle with Sarah Elytharias, Queen of Cahokia, and Etienne’s strangest and also most sympathetic ally.
Etienne and Eggbert rode to Bishopsbridge to examine the city’s defenses. It was not routine — Etienne avoided routine because he feared assassins — but the Mississippi was a key defense that kept the Spanish out of New Orleans, and Bishopsbridge one of the key vulnerabilities.
Achebe Chibundu, the Igbo fighter who sometimes wrestled under the name Lusipher Charpile, rode silently with them. He had become expert at maintaining an invisible station just out of Etienne’s sight, and at leaping to intervene at the slightest threat.
Attack by sea was also a possibility. Jean and Pierre Lafitte and a naval militia of Catalan and Igbo smugglers gave Etienne and Eggbert regular reports on their activities sinking Spanish ships, and setting fire to Spanish ships in ports that were too close to New Orleans. The occasional Spanish ship that slipped past the Lafittes was blasted to pieces by the guns of Fort St. Philip and Fort St. Henri. Fort St. Henri, on the far shore of the Mississippi, was protected from Spanish investment by its swamps, which not only bogged down approach and rendered the work of sappers impossible, but also swarmed with basilisks. The small garrison in Fort St. Henri could only be supplied by small unmanned boats, dragged across the river from her sister fort by means of pulleys.
Upstream of the two forts, a pair of chain booms stretched across the Mississippi and anchored to sunken hulks provided an additional line of defense, one that had not yet even been reached.
The basilisks had not returned to sleep. They had hatched in astonishing numbers and awakened early and were far more active than usual, rendering the lower Mississippi more dangerous than it had been in decades, more dangerous than it had been since the original le Moyne and de Bienville leadership of the city had come down to the river with smoke and fire, and smothered or burned every winged serpent they could find. Stories from that time spoke of the stench of scorched and rotting flesh, and a jungle that bloomed the following spring on the nurturing flesh of the basilisks.
And now the serpents defended the city. They ignored Etienne, but any other person, friend or foe to New Orleans, was in grave danger if he attempted to cross the river.
And when winter came, and the snakes returned to their long sleep?
After the rising of the basilisks, at Etienne’s direction, Bishopsbridge had been converted into a fortress, with a thick-walled wooden barbican at the near end. Eggbert’s forces manned the fortress, keeping an eye on movement on the western shore as well as on the river itself.
The general and the bishop surveyed the men — a motley assortment of New Orleans inhabitants, men of all nations and fiercely loyal to each other and to their adopted city — confirmed their morale, and checked their supply of food and ammunition. Etienne pronounced a blessing over them.
Then the two men rose halfway across Bishopsbridge, Achebe Chibundu at their shoulders. Before them, the swarm of snakes parted, given passage.
“Jackson was your leader and your hero,” Etienne said to Eggbert. “What were you to Jackson?”
“An aide-de-camp,” the Midnight Captain said. “Nothing more.”
“Would you have been made a Prince of the Mississippi, when Jackson had himself crowned?” The words were strange and slightly ludicrous, but Etienne meant the question seriously, and tried not to smile. “Or the Baron of Baton Rouge, or something?”
“I don’t think so,” Eggbert Bailey said. “Jackson never promised me such things, and I rarely felt I truly understood his actions.”
“I can understand his actions easily enough,” Etienne said. “Ambition, lust for power, lust for the flesh and for wealth, a desire to grind the faces of your fellow man, pride — these are the ordinary accouterments of the soul. It is the exceptional man who, having the opportunity, would choose not to conquer New Orleans.”
They rode back toward the city walls.