Serpent Daughter – Snippet 22
“General.” Landon’s voice dropped in pitch and slowed down. “General Lee, you know that I am a man of Johnsland.”
“As am I.” Bill nodded proudly. Was Landon Chapel now going to tell him about his son Charles?
Landon was silent.
“Am I correct to think that you were raised alongside Her Majesty’s brother, Nathaniel?” Bill prodded the younger man.
“You are.” Landon gulped and nodded. “And it was you who saved him at birth from the Emperor Thomas, carrying him to the Earl. I saw the miraculous milk rag from which the boy nursed — the earl had kept it ever since.”
“I don’t know that the rag is miraculous,” Bill said, “so much as magical. My old friend Thalanes was a hell of a magician, including in a pitched battle, but even he would balk to think of himself as a saint.”
The thought of Thalanes’s face painted onto votive candles or tiled into a mosaic behind a devotional altar, though, made Bill smile. Perhaps one day he would endow a chapel, and at least place therein a monument to his friend.
“And also . . .” Landon hesitated. “And also, I know that you fought a duel with the Earl’s son.”
“Richard.” Bill sighed. “Hell’s bells. I did not want to kill him.”
“You had to choose between two loyalties,” Landon said. “It was a knightly dilemma, and you had to either serve Kyres Elytharias or respect the Earl. You chose Kyres. Earl Isham respects that, however many years of . . . discomfiture it caused him.”
“Say madness, rather. A soldier should speak clearly.”
“Yes, General, he was mad. We were a laughing stock.” Landon Chapel’s face twisted into a grimace. Chapel was the surname of a bastard — whose child was Landon Chapel? It would be someone of worth in Johnsland. Chapel himself might know, but it was not polite to ask. “At the hearing of a cuckoo’s cry, my ears fill with the hateful ballads that were sung of him. But Nathaniel Chapel . . . that is, Nathaniel Penn . . . healed him. Completely. You might say magically, but I would not hesitate to pronounce it a miracle.” Chapel’s face shone.
“Yes. I would like to meet Her Majesty’s brother again.” Bill frowned. Sarah hadn’t been able to heal Bill’s legs completely — would Nathaniel be able to accomplish such a feat? But a man who could heal madness might be fundamentally different from a physician who could straighten shattered legs. “Perhaps I acted out of loyalty. But also, I acted out of fear. Perhaps with a wiser head, I might have been able to serve both my lords, and avoid an unnecessary death. Instead, I killed a young man who did not deserve it, and I spent fifteen years — sixteen, now — separated from my wife Sally, my two daughters, and my son.”
“I should tell you, suh,” Landon said, “that Sally is no more.”
“No?” Bill found himself surprisingly affected, perhaps because he was already in the grip of emotion. “Tell me, how did she die?”
“Illness, I think, some years ago. As a child, I knew who she was.”
Bill sighed. “I thank you. You have relieved me of a significant burden. I feared I might be about to make myself a bigamist, whatever the lawyers say. And my children?”
“I believe that at least one of your daughters has married and moved away.”
Landon hesitated. “Charles . . . had his commission.”
“Of course, he did.” Bill’s chest ached. “And is a damned fine officer, I’d wager my soul.”
Tears pooled in Bill’s eyes. It seemed manlier to him to let them run down his face than to dab at them like a lady, so he allowed them to flow.
After a minute of silence, Landon Chapel cleared this throat. “I’ll look into the name of the town, then, General.” Were there tears in his voice, too?
“Yes, suh,” Bill said.
Landon Chapel rode away into the wind and rain, and Bill found himself thinking of the young man as a son.
Gazelem became aware that he was being followed when he was crossing one of Cahokia’s great plazas.
All his life, he’d lived with the possibility of assassins and spies. As a young man, he’d developed habits that had protected him since: he made his own food, he didn’t drink from open bottles of wine, and he carried various purgatives and antidotes on his person; he’d become an expert in the effects of plant and mineral decoctions that healed and harmed, he never walked the same route twice, he deliberately circled back on his own tracks at least once on any journey, and more.
Who would be following Gazelem now? The wardens of Maltres Korinn again?
But no, he thought the Vizier had learned to trust him, and besides, the Vizier and his men were too busy finding homes for refugees and bringing food to those who had suffered from earthquakes.
The wind and lightning had let up, though the air was still damp with drizzling rain, and brown water pooled in every depression of the city. Circling back on his own tracks in a plaza now, he saw that he was being followed. The other man might be Zoman, with bright blond hair, dusky skin, and a broad nose that together suggested some sort of Creole origin. Also, he wore the wooden breastplate lacquered red, along with a steel sallet helmet, and Gazelem came up behind him as the man was trying to follow Gazelem through an elbow created by the shop tents of a couple of German provisioners.
He noted the sword hanging in its scabbard from the man’s belt, and then he pressed the point of his long, thin dagger against the man’s black tunic, angling its blade to reach up and underneath the breastplate. At the same time, he put his left hand on the other man’s shoulder, to hold him in place to get leverage if he needed to take.
“Hey, hetar,” he whispered. “You must be just about the clumsiest assassin that’s ever come after me. You’re so awkward, I’d feel bad killing you, so let’s walk down to the wharf together, and put you on a boat.”
“Going where?” the other man asked, in Zoman-accented Ophidian.
“Home, I assume,” Gazelem said. “But really, I don’t care.”
“Home is gone,” the man said.
Gazelem wiped water from his face. “Zomas?”
“Gone. Its people dead or refugees. Some of them must be here.”
Gazelem had seen refugees from his homeland. He’d done what he could to help them, but none of them had said that his city, his fathers’ city, had been destroyed. “When?”
“Two months ago. More. I saw it fall.”
“And didn’t die defending it?” Gazelem sat. “Once, Zomas had warriors worthy of her.”
“I saw it from afar. I was returning from a . . . raid General Varem had sent me on.”
“You’re not here to kill me?”
The blond man turned slowly. The black-crowned cuckoo painted on his breastplate was scratched and grooved, but not obliterated. The man bore wounds on his face and his arms that hadn’t yet healed, and had the lines of a thousand miles in his face. He smiled, then knelt. “Gazelem Zomas,” he said. “I am Captain Naares Stoach. I served the Lord of the White Towers while they stood, and I swear on all my dead that I haven’t come to harm you. To my knowledge, you’re the last surviving member of the royal house of Zomas. You might be the last surviving descendant of Onandagos through the male line. I have come to serve you.”
Gazelem stepped back and put away his knife.
“There is nothing left to serve,” he said. “If Zomas is gone, perhaps we can gather her people. If we can bring all the survivors here under the nose of the rampaging Simon Sword, then perhaps we can persuade Queen Sarah Elytharias to take them all in. I have lost friends and good servants in the recent siege, so there is room in my household if you would join me. Perhaps we can at least build a memorial of Zomas here, that will do her honor.”
Naares Stoach nodded. “And what if there were a power that could be turned against Simon Sword?”
Gazelem frowned. Had Stoach been reading his thoughts? “What kind of power would that be?”
“A power that comes from the Heron King himself. The only power to which Simon Sword is truly vulnerable.” Naares Stoach smiled. “The son of the Heron King has been born.”