Serpent Daughter – Snippet 25
The strange child-man body that carried the Lord Protector within it looked frail and short, but the voice that came out was an aural attack. Thou shalt not require thy sword, my son. I have a wedding gift for thee.
Thomas nodded, unsure whether he should feel dread or relief. “Direct me.”
Kneel. Give me thy hands.
Thomas did as instructed. Cavendish stepped back, breathing hard. Temple Franklin showed admirable self-control, but he watched closely. Ezekiel Angleton grinned like a wolf.
The Lord Protector took Thomas’s hands. He pressed his thumbs into the center of Thomas’s palms, and the pressure went immediately from firm to painful. Thomas gritted his teeth and didn’t cry out.
I give thee first this warning, my son. Thy banns are published, thy bride cometh. Thou mayest touch her to lie with her. Do not touch her otherwise.
Thomas bowed his head, stunned. He felt no loss at the instruction not to touch Julia Stuyvesant — his wedding was a political and financial arrangement, and not a love match — but he felt confusion. What was happening?
Thy touch shall be death, the Lord Protector continued. To all. From this moment on.
The Lord Protector’s forefingers and thumbs abruptly pierced Thomas’s hands, sinking physically into his flesh. Thomas grunted, feeling a sensation of burning or acid, but didn’t move. When Cromwell stepped back, there was a small hole, half an inch across and blackened all around the edges, drilled through each of Thomas’s palms. Thomas could see the gravel of the prison yard through his own hands.
He rose to his feet. Feeling that his will was forced, but feeling no despair in that, he turned to face the prison’s warden.
Cavendish dropped in turn to his knees. “Your Imperial Majesty,” he said. “Lord Thomas. Please. Please, I beg thee.”
The men in the prison wagons, and the men in Imperial uniform who were to drive them west, stared.
Thomas reached forward with a trembling hand. He felt as if he were reaching forward to touch the consecrated host, or perhaps extending his hand to grip a lightning rod in the middle of an electrical storm, and his hand shook.
He wrapped his fingers around Cavendish’s throat and squeezed.
The flesh where he grabbed the prison warden immediately turned black. Spidery lines of black, like cracks, or veins, spread out from where Thomas touched the man, and all his color seemed to be drawn into those black lines and then disappear. As the last color drained from the warden’s face, his eyes turned milky white and his body slumped in death.
And Thomas felt alive.
Alive and strong.
An awed silence fell over the yard. Thomas broke it by casting Cavendish’s corpse to the ground with a thud.
“If Cavendish had family,” he said to Temple Franklin, “let’s give his widow a pension.”
Franklin nodded. “I will have it done.”
“After all, we are cash-rich again. And I’m going to need to borrow those gloves of yours.” Thomas turned to face Oliver Cromwell. “First, I shall deal with all the Children of the Serpent who are still in the prison.”
You will find them delicious and nourishing, the Lord Protector said into his mind. And so will I.
The Treewall flourished. This was no surprise; it had sprouted into verdant growth again on the day of the equinox, when Sarah Elytharias had entered the walled city of Eden in that strange space that was and also was not within the Temple of the Sun atop Cahokia’s Great Mound, and Luman Walters had almost entered with her.
He did not regret his choice to remain outside. Something — he believed it was Cahokia’s goddess — had given Luman the gift of gramarye that day. He believed that he would not have received the gift, if he had tried to enter Eden without an invitation.
He took the gramarye as a gift, and as a message.
You too, Luman, can be approved by the powers of Heaven. You are imperfect, and you are not yet standing in the center.
But you can be approved.
The Treewall had survived the earthquake on the day of the queen’s collapse, and two further earthquakes since. Each quake cracked the wall, but the wall knit itself together again afterward.
A mighty enough tremor, it was clear, might shatter the wall entirely.
In addition to the Treewall, the Gun Trees flourished. There were twelve of them, arrayed in a semicircle on Cahokia’s landward side, and each held an enormous cannon high above the ground, gripped within its very trunk. The guns had each been named after one of the apostles, and the trees had acquired the names of the guns in turn. A week after the repulsion of the Imperial besiegers, the first intrepid pair of Cahokian lovers had picnicked in the branches of the apostolic cannon trees.
A third set of trees had sprouted, not on the morning of the equinox, but late that same day, and they were scattered around the city. Some had grown up within the holes pounded through the Treewall by Imperial cannons, and Luman — and others — had at first taken them to be the Treewall’s attempt to repair itself. And indeed those trees had sprouted, and within days the regrowing Treewall itself, weaving into the branches of the new growth, filled in the gaps in the Treewall as if they had never existed.
But the new trees sprouting elsewhere around the city did not grow into the Treewall, or come to resemble it. Instead, they sprouted separately and grew within days into full-sized trees. They were strange trees in appearance, with white bark and leaves of such pale green that the leaves, too, appeared white from a distance. Their trunks were thin, and remained smooth and branchless until seven or eight feet above the ground, at which point they sprouted broad, leafy branches that reminded Luman of nothing so much as palm branches. The Cahokians had named them Ashtares.
They smelled sweet, of citrus and cinnamon.
The thickest stands of Ashtares grew about the height of the Great Mound itself.
He stood on a wet morning in May beside one particular Ashtar. It grew in an avenue, between a spot where Imperial guns had breached the Treewall, and the Great Mound. Luman could think of no reason why the spot should be significant, and no reason why this tree in particular should speak to him.
But it did.
He brushed the smooth, wet bole with his fingertips. He knew no braucher or Memphite incantation that would tell him anything, but he had brought a dowsing rod with him. He’d carved his name into the split hazel rod and sung appropriate psalms over it as he’d created the instrument, and now he was prepared to ask it questions.
Foot traffic passed, and donkeys, and the occasional cart, sloshing through puddles. He didn’t love the idea of someone eavesdropping, but then again, he didn’t love the idea of creeping out at night to attempt this divination. It seemed too much like skullduggery, and he wanted to be done with that sort of trade.
And he definitely wanted to attempt this divination in the presence of the Ashtar in question.
He pressed his divining rod gently against the tree’s trunk, massaging both bits of wood up and down until he couldn’t feel the difference, and the two seemed to have become a single tree. He incanted the rodsman’s psalms over them as he did so.
For good measure, he essayed a bit of gramarye at the same time: “Virgam facio,” he murmured over the rod. “Virgam ex arbore facio.“
Curious how similar the words virga, rod, and virgo, virgin, were.
He walked in a circle around the tree, and then he began to ask the rod questions.
“Am I Sarah Calhoun?”
“Is this the month of December?”
“Is my name Luman Walters?”
The rod bobbed.
“Is this particular Ashtar connected with me somehow?”
The rod bobbed, but that was such a broad question that it was nearly useless. All it confirmed was that Luman wasn’t imagining things.