Serpent Daughter – Snippet 23

“I cannot decide if you are the empire’s best bootlicker, or its worst.”

Chapter Five

“Virgo rises in the spring, yes,” Temple Franklin said. “But Virgo rises every spring. Surely, with the influence of Mars collected to your benefit . . .”

“Shut up, Franklin,” Thomas Penn said.

“Am I mistaken?”

“Virgo rises with the equinox, Temple. The equinox was six weeks ago. She is risen, so to speak. Shall I now wait until the next equinox, to see her setting?”

“I defer to Your Imperial Majesty.” Temple doffed his hat, a tall affair with a brim that curved up over Franklin’s ears. “You are Philadelphia’s great astrologer.”

“Now you’re being obsequious. And what is that godawful hat you’re wearing?”

The two men rode horseback to the Walnut Street Prison. Temple had suggested a coach, one built of thick oak, reinforced by spells of the wizards of the College. Thomas had insisted on being more visible to his people, and he waved to them now.

Someone in the crowd sang as Thomas and his Machiavel rode past.

Lord Tom went a-courtin’, he did ride

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

With a sword and a pistol by his side

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

Princesses came, one, two, three

To the lord of Philadelphi-ee

And the chairman of the Dutch Company

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

Others joined in. The song was a novelty, having sprung up in Philadelphia taverns the day after Thomas’s engagement to Julia Stuyvesant was announced. Thomas had been pleased until Temple Franklin admitted to having paid a poet to compose the song himself.

“Just don’t have the man killed to keep the secret,” Thomas had grumbled, and had thereafter pretended to be displeased. As he rode now, though, he tapped his own thigh in time with the music.

He rode ’til he reached the Hudson’s shore

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

And he swore that he would ride no more

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

Julia was the daughter fair

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

Of the very wealthiest Dutch meneer

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

The singers sang the name Julia as if the girl had been named by Pennslanders, rather than the YOO-lia of the Hudson River Republic. And Adriaan Stuyvesant was far from the wealthiest citizen of the Hudson River Republic, but his colleagues of the Dutch Ohio Company had been motivated enough by the thought of trade peace with Thomas’s Imperial Ohio Company to come up with a staggeringly good dowry.

“It’s a postilion hat, Thomas,” Franklin said.

“You look liked a damned coachman.”

“Yes, that’s why they call it a postilion hat. Postilions wore them once, but the gentle classes are wearing them now, as well. The hat is very au courant, I assure you.”

“And I suppose you must also wear the stock tie and the white gloves?”

The Lightning Bishop’s dissolute grandson smiled. “It is the height of fashion for a successful professional man in Philadelphia, or a man of landed wealth, to dress in a fashion indistinguishable from the fellow who drives his coach.”

“This is why you wished to ride in the carriage — so that the conveyance would complement your hat?” Thomas guffawed. “You planned to ride up front and crack the whip, did you?”

Miss Julia wore her dancing shoes

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

She’d dance whatever tune he’d choose

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

“Let the barrel organ and the squeeze-box play!”

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

“We’ll dance until the break of day!”

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

The details of the song were picaresque and charming. Thomas resolved to dance with Julia as soon as possible.

Temple Franklin smiled softly. “Your Majesty has advantages of personal beauty and grace that I, alas, do not. I am only attempting to make myself sufficiently presentable so as not to undercut the splendor of Your Majesty’s presence.”

“I cannot decide if you are the empire’s best bootlicker,” Thomas said, “or its worst. You are certainly its most incorrigible.”

“I am thoroughly committed to all my duties. But I was saying, I have taken steps to gather all the influence of Mercury that I can –“

“And I was telling you to shut up. Any man who has read his Picatrix knows that the faster planet produces the weaker effect. Therefore, Mars and Venus when applicable, yes, but Jupiter at all times.” Thomas cleared his throat. “Jupiter at all times.”

A black windowless coach waited a few lengths up the street from the prison’s steps. Despite the cool, moist air of the May morning, Thomas smelled a fetor when he came within fifty feet of the coach. Atop the coach hunched a tall man in a peaked black hat, maggot-white skin showing through multiple holes in his tattered brown cloak.

That was Ezekiel Angleton, or it was the Lazar that had once been Ezekiel.

Within the coach would be Oliver Cromwell, in his child body, stolen from one of the College’s Parletts. The Lord Protector still seemed to be able to hear everything said in the presence of any of the still-living Parlett brothers, here or in the Ohio, with Director Schmidt. Ezekiel had taken to acting like Cromwell’s body servant, driver, and personal guard.

Thomas had asked Angleton to invite the Lord Protector to join them here.

The warden was a thin man who stood curved forward like a question mark on the steps of the prison, wrapped in nankeen knee breeches and waistcoat under a coat of black velveteen that had been worn to a high polish. He wore a neat white perruque, a short and unelaborated nod to fashion. His solitary presence boded ill, Thomas feared. It meant the damned fellow was likely to want to talk.

“Captain,” Thomas said, “you and your men will wait here with the horses.

The crowd around the prison was thick — families who had heard that the Emperor Thomas would be releasing prisoners today, as acts of clemency for his imminent wedding. The Philadelphia Blues, the reconstituted company of dragoons who acted as Thomas’s bodyguard, pushed the crowd back from the steps and the front wall of Walnut Street. Thomas handed the captain his reins and approached the steps.

“Your Imperial Majesty.” The warden bowed low. His high forehead was bald over a hawklike nose, and iron-gray hair falling down three sides of his skull was gathered into a green ribbon at the nape of his neck.

Thomas had to make an effort to remember the man’s name. “Mr. Cavendish.”

“Lord Thomas,” the warden continued, “I have come to beg you, in the name of the memory of your illustrious ancestor William Penn, to remember the great traditions of this prison.”

Thomas nodded and tried to show patience with a smile. “Sleeping naked in a common room? Solitary confinement for the lucky few? Flogging for the obstinate?”

“The first Landholder abhorred executions,” Cavendish said. “Your grandfather built this prison to honor that sentiment and continue the Penn tradition of mercy.”

Thy grandfather,” Thomas said, chiding the warden for his slip.

Thy grandfather.” Cavendish blushed.

“Yes.” Thomas waved to the crowd of people waiting beyond the cordon of dragoons; they cheered. “I am here to continue the Penn tradition of mercy, myself. I shall be pardoning and releasing prisoners, and the people of Philadelphia know it.”

“Prisoners who have sufficient wealth,” Temple Franklin murmured.

“But thou hast also instructed me to build gallows,” Cavendish said.

Thomas nodded, letting his face grow solemn. “I shall be emptying out your prison today, warden.”

Angleton arrived. He moved with long, lurching steps, and black worms writhed in black gel around his eyes, which had gone completely white. Thomas nodded at the Lazar who had been his friend and servant at Harvard.

What dark path have you walked since, my Roundhead friend?

He didn’t have the stomach to ask what dark path he himself might be on.

Behind Ezekiel came Cromwell, in the pale dead flesh of a young boy.