Serpent Daughter – Snippet 24

The warden frowned. “You’ve come to free them all?” Then realization spread across his face like a sudden dawn. “No. Those you don’t free, you will hang.”

Yaas. As a first step.

Ezekiel Angleton’s voice broke into Thomas’s mind like the crackle of dried leaves, or the snapping of an autumn bonfire.

The warden straightened his back, rising from a question mark into an exclamation point. “Then I must tender my resignation immediately.”

“You didn’t build the gallows, I take it,” Franklin said.

Never mind, Ezekiel said.

Would the Lord Protector insist that the designated men die? And if so, would he insist that Thomas himself do the deed?

“But you have arranged the wagons?” Thomas asked Franklin.

“Naturally.” Franklin smiled.

“A canal would be convenient,” Thomas said. “Once we’ve finished the sewers, we should think about building canals to send boat traffic west.”

“Noted.” Franklin bowed.

“You may resign,” Thomas said to the warden, “but do not leave. When I am done here, the Walnut Street Prison will have at least one occupant.”

Cavendish’s pale complexion grew gray, but he bowed and said nothing.

“Surely,” Franklin said, “the good warden has assembled the prisoners who are to be released. As an act of mercy.”

The warden nodded. “They stand waiting within the doors.” He hesitated. “Shall I bring them out?”

Temple Franklin adjusted his absurd hat and smiled at Thomas. “Perhaps the emperor would like to address the rejoicing families.”

“Fewer words are better in these situations, I think,” Thomas said.

Franklin bowed his head. “The magnanimity of the deed will speak almost entirely for itself. Almost.”

“I’ll release the men when you’re ready,” Cavendish said.

Temple Franklin smiled blandly. “The ninety-seven men. I’ll be counting them carefully.”

Thomas climbed the steps halfway and turned to face the crowd. Behind and above him rose the prison’s bell tower with its narrow cupola. To either side of him, stone guardhouses framed the steps and connected them with the walled-in prison yard below. The crowd had grown during the course of his ride, and the dragoons held back perhaps as many as a thousand Philadelphia burghers, along with their wives and children, along Walnut Street. Smoke drifted across the mass of people, bearing with it the smell of bread and bacon, and a low sun in the east cast long shadows.

He heard Ezekiel’s voice again in his mind: Ani magbir et hakol. Since no one else reacted, Thomas guessed the words were only for him. Since they were in a language other than English — and in good Roundhead tradition, he had always known Ezekiel to perform his castings in Hebrew — he assumed Ezekiel was performing some act of gramarye.

He smiled at his former fellow student. Ezekiel smiled back, revealing teeth that were long, yellow, and pointed, like the teeth of a hound, sprouting from gums so red that his mouth appeared to be full of blood. The Yankee had pinched a corner of his cloak into a cone, and was holding the cone near his mouth.

Thomas managed not to shudder, and addressed the crowd.

“Neighbors,” he said, and his voice boomed at an unnaturally loud volume. Ezekiel’s work? “Citizens of the Empire of the New World. Fellow dwellers on the great Penn Land Grant, and beneficiaries of the broad-minded generosity of William Penn.”

The crowd cheered. Too many words already, but Thomas felt he had to officially give a reason for his largesse.

“I am to be wed.” More cheering. “In consideration of my nuptials, I am today releasing ninety-seven inmates of Walnut Street Prison. Every man released is pardoned of all prior crimes. Let us welcome them back into our society with open arms.”

The crowd cheered a final, sustained time, and some of them broke out into more verses of the wedding ballad:

The fairies raised an urchin queen

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

The ugliest you’ve ever seen

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

The beastkind rampage in the west

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

With all that racket, Tom can’t rest

Sing-song, Mississippi, Ohio

Cavendish had retreated to the double doors at the top of the stairs. He now opened them, and men emerged. Cavendish had at least followed Thomas’s instruction that the men were to be fed well for the three days prior to their release, and bathed this morning. They blinked at their freedom, and some walked as if they were drunk, but they rushed forward, deloused and scrubbed, into the arms of women and children. The sound of joyous weeping warmed Thomas’s heart — this was why the empire needed a strong ruler, so that freedom and health, not to mention functioning sewers and canals, could be rained down upon its deserving peoples.

Thomas retreated from the crowd without ceremony, into the prison, and found Cromwell, Angleton, Franklin, and the warden waiting for him. “There is a gate in the back, I presume,” he said to Cavendish. “I would hate to disrupt the celebrating families with the sight of less-fortunate prisoners being sent off to a different fate.”

“There is.” Cavendish’s voice was bitter. Crossing through the central hall of the prison building, he pointed out through the yard. The prison was shaped like the letter U, surrounding a central yard on three sides. On the fourth side, opposite the prison’s front door, was a high stone wall. Set into the center of the wall, piercing it through a thick barbican tower, was a gateway.

“The wagons are ready when you are,” Franklin said.

“Have you segregated out the Children of Eve?” Thomas asked.

Cavendish’s shoulders slumped. “I have done everything you . . . thou asked, except build the gallows.”

Cromwell laughed, a sound like crockery exploding.

Commanded,” Thomas said. “I did not ask anything, I commanded it.”

Cavendish nodded.

“Give your signals,” Thomas said, gesturing to both Cavendish and Franklin.

He stood watching the yard below through a wide glass window. The gate opened and thirteen long prison wagons rolled in, driven and accompanied by keepers in Imperial blue. The prison’s staff brought out a long line of prisoners, who were loaded into the wagons, where they leaned against iron bars or huddled on straw that would soon become filthy. Many gazed up at Thomas, but few looked at him for long.

He, on the other hand, forced himself to stare at them. These were sacrifices he was making, and they would not be the only sacrifices. He must make them — he had no choice — but the honest way, the noble way to make sacrifices was to acknowledge and accept the cost.

He tried to look at each face separately, for at least a moment.

When the wagons were full and locked, Thomas and his retinue descended into the yard. The morning sun was fully in the sky now, turning the moist air into a thick, unpleasant stew, rich with the scent of sweat and tooth decay. The Walnut Street jailors stood in disarray around the wagons, slouching, picking their teeth, and grinning.

“Do we need these men?” Thomas asked the Lord Protector. The jailors stared in awe at the sight of their emperor talking with a naked boy.

We do not.

Thomas nodded. “Men,” he said, “the Walnut Street Prison is closed, at least for now. If you lack employment, I invite you to seek it with the Imperial Army, or with the Imperial Ohio Company, both of whom need experienced, hard workers to carry out the Pacification of the Ohio, as well as the continued struggle against the Cahokian upstart. But whatever you do, you must leave the prison grounds. Now.”

They left.

Cavendish remained. “I assume I am not dismissed.”

“You are not.” Thomas turned to the Lord Protector. “There is no gallows.” He wanted to suggest waiting, but he doubted Cromwell would accept that suggestions. “I am, however, wearing my sword.”