Serpent Daughter – Snippet 21

Bailey shook his big, shaggy head. “No, that’s not it. Jackson was ambitious, but his faithfulness was bigger than his ambition, and he knew the most important thing about ambition.”

Etienne looked and Bailey and smiled. “Tell me the most important thing about ambition.”

Eggbert chuckled. “You laugh, because you’re thinking, this fellow showed no ambition at all until my accountant found him, deemed him corruptible, and used him to organize a revolt.”

“I laugh because I find wisdom in unexpected places,” Etienne said. “It’s a laugh of delight. I don’t believe you are corruptible, Eggbert Bailey — I believe you were biding your time until the right opportunity came along.”

“That is correct.”

“So tell me the most important thing one should know about ambition.”

Eggbert Bailey drew himself up straight in his saddle and threw back his chest. He was resplendent in his uniform, which was still the uniform of the chevalier, blue with the gold fleur-de-lis, repurposed to be the livery of the city rather than the livery of its former nobleman. Bailey’s stature added weight to his words, which he spoke slowly and for dramatic effect. “To be ambitious is a correct principle. To seek to better one’s self is desirable. But the only true way to better one’s self is to better those around you. The truly ambitious man raises his fellows, so that in doing so, his own influence becomes greater over a kingdom that is more powerful and more extensive. And the first and most constant pursuit of power in which such an ambitious man must engage, is the pursuit of power over one’s self. Self-discipline, generosity, and ambition — properly understood — ride farthest when they ride hand in hand.”

Etienne stared.

“You cannot persuade me otherwise,” Bailey said. “I have thought long on this subject.”

“I do not wish to persuade you otherwise,” Etienne said. “I am considering whether I should make this the subject of my next sermon, or invite you to speak on the subject yourself. You have impressive charisma.”

“Surely, there are better things to think on than my thoughts.” Bailey shrank to normal size as he spoke.

“As bishop, I have to speak often. Ambition would be far from the most trivial thing I have spoken about.”

The walls of the city were in view, rising above the Spanish moss–draped oaks and the cypress trees.

“Jackson was ambitious, and disciplined,” Eggbert Bailey said, “and he did not come here to make himself a despot.”

“What, then?” Etienne asked.

“I do not know.” Eggbert frowned and shook his head. “Only that a great crisis is coming. He spoke often of Franklin’s dream, as if that were somehow key to this crisis, or perhaps was a dream of the crisis itself. And somehow, New Orleans was key to the coming events, and had to be taken from the chevalier.”

“Could he not have asked the chevalier to cooperate in managing the coming disaster?” Etienne asked. “Or paid the man? If you seek a corruptible person, you’ll find few more despicable examples than Gaspard le Moyne.”

“I believe Jackson did approach him, and was rebuffed.” Eggbert Bailey shrugged.

“And you don’t know what the crisis is?” Etienne asked. “The invasion of the Spanish? The rampaging of the beastkind? Perhaps even the rise of the basilisks?”

“I do not know,” Eggbert Bailey said.

They rode into the city of New Orleans, Etienne deep in thought.


General William Lee gazed at the muddy ribbon of the Wabash River from the low height of an old mound, surrounded by water on three sides. His horse muttered a protest against the uncertain footing of the rain-hammered slope, and Bill eased the animal back a length. “Tell me again what they call this place, suh,” he said to Landon Chapel.

Bill tried to remain mounted as much as he possibly could; his shattered legs would hold him only with pain, leaving him able to run a very short distance, or stand with walking canes. But mounted, he was the man he had always been.

Chapel fidgeted, even mounted. He was brave enough, and could ride and shoot, but the man fidgeted. He was handsome, with long brown hair that required no perruque to hide it and reminded Bill of someone, though he could not have said who; but Landon was also young. Bill hoped his own son Charles had more self-possession. Charles would be older. Charles must be riding with the Earl, defending the borders of Johnsland. Bill had written letters to inquire after Charles’s health, but after years of writing similar letters and never receiving a single answer, he was accustomed to silence.

More than once, he had wanted to ask his three hundred Johnsland riders if any of them knew Charles, but it seemed indecorous. In time, he would learn how Charles fared.

“Waayaah-tenonki is the Indian name,” Chapel said. “I think the French call it Ouiatenon. I do not know whether the Wigglies have their own name for it.”

Bill nodded and watched the trees on the far side. The sound of shooting was distant. The bulk of Bill’s forces were at his back, but a raiding party of riders, including most of the men from Johnsland, chased Imperials to drive them back.

“Send someone to the village up the road,” Bill ordered. “I’ll want to use the Firstborn name of the place in my report to Her Majesty.”

“Yes, General.” There was a brief silence. “Will we be defending the Wabash?”

Bill felt happy to receive the question. At Cathy’s urging, he had appointed the young man to be his aide, though Chapel had expressed several times a preference to be fighting. Bill would like to be teaching his protégé something worthwhile, but found he had no head for saying anything systematic about war and its prosecution. A question from Chapel gave him the chance to say something discrete, and hopefully wise.

“It is a mistake to conceive of a river as a wall,” Bill said. “Unless your opponent is fashioned from crêpe paper and therefore unable to swim and terrified to board a boat, it is much more clarifying to regard a river as a highway. We may make some desultory defense at places such as this, which are easy fords for Tommy Penn’s conscripts, but the empire can easily fell some of those trees on the west bank and fashions rafts or bridges anyplace along this river it wishes.” Bill frowned, unsettled at the thought. “It bears remembering that our enemy’s commander, or at least one of them, is a Director of the Imperial Ohio Company who has spent her entire adult life in a canoe.”

Chapel looked up at the iron-gray storm clouds. “If it rains enough, the rivers may become more effective barriers. At least to artillery.”

“If it rains enough, you and I shall become superfluous, and the navies shall enter the valley to fight.” Bill barked at his own jest.

“It’s a shame we have no high ground to defend,” Chapel offered.

“True,” Bill acknowledged. “Her Majesty’s kingdom may be the flattest land on this continent. Nevertheless, that is the land that we shall defend, when the Imperials receive enough reinforcements to turn around and march in our direction again, as they must inevitably do. As we have no wall, we must consider alternatives.”

“Mounted raiders,” Landon said immediately. “Horsemen who can strike the sides and rear of the advancing army.”

“Spoken like a true man of Johnsland.” Bill smiled his approval. “Yes. Horsemen and any other rapid skirmishers we can field.” He wished he still had his platoon of beastkind — for all their noisy, stinking peculiarities, they had been fierce, fast, and loyal.

Only in their death had Oliver Cromwell turned them.

“If the river is a road, then we must control it,” Landon Chapel added. “If we do, then we can land skirmishers at the Imperials’ backs.”

Bill nodded. “And if we do not, then they may choke us off from our sources of food. Our Chicago Germans may prove to be vital in this regard, though I also find myself quite glad of our Catalan admiral. In a land as flat as this, movement will be key. And our lines of supply.”

“Perhaps we can fortify some of the . . . Firstborn . . . towns,” Landon suggested. “With artillery and cavalry, a fortified town at an important crossroads might significantly delay the Imperial forces. Many of the Moundbuilder towns are surrounded by banks of earth, which are already a good beginning to fortifications.”

“You make excellent suggestions, suh.” Bill’s legs ached, and he wanted to dose himself with the Paracelsian Tincture that the Zoman princeling Gazelem supplied him with. He must be careful, though — he knew that each time he used the drops, the tincture itself would whisper to him, suggesting that he shorten the period that passed before his next dose. He limited himself to one dose daily, after he had eaten his afternoon meal. “In every case, the particularities of the battle and the terrain shall govern. We shall attempt to choose the place and time of battle, and always outnumber our foe, and take him by surprise.”