Serpent Daughter – Snippet 29


In a grove of trees on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Nathaniel settled into a cross-legged sitting position and pulled his drum into his lap. Margaret gripped a low-hanging dead limb of one of the elm trees and yanked it off. With efficient motions, she stripped the limb down to a heavy, spiky club, and swung it once around her head.

“Will you leave your shadow-bear?” she asked.

At the sight of his sister, Nathaniel felt a warm feeling in his chest. He had come a long way from being the neglected foster child of the Earl of Johnsland — the voices he heard no longer tortured him, the constant shriek of the world had resolved into the harmony of the spheres, his falling sickness had completely stopped, and he had gained extraordinary powers of travel and healing. He had also lost his ability to hold knives and ride flesh and blood horses, and his hat now only fit backward, while his hand-me-down coat only fit inside out.

But most of all, Nathaniel had gained a family.

“Shadow-bear, I like that.” He smiled. “I don’t really control Makwa — when I go to the starlit plain, Makwa comes here.”

Margaret frowned. “Does that mean that while you’re here, he’s on the starlit plain?”

Nathaniel laughed, delighted. “I guess maybe it does. I don’t know.”

Margaret — his sister spoke with a Catalan accent, but had accepted the English version of her name — swung her club again. She smiled, but it was a ferocious expression, all teeth.

Nathaniel sang:

I ride upon four horses, to heaven I ride

To seek to heal my uncle, I must learn to hide

From my familiar spirits, down deep inside

I seek the land of spirits, to heaven I ride

He rose up the seven steps to the plain, where he found himself seated upon his horse-drum beneath a wheeling night sky of great beauty, smelling unearthly, fruited spices on a warm breeze.

He listened first, for the sound of the ally he had sent northward. Hearing the steady tread of the man’s walk, and a song under his breath, he turned to the task at hand.

He rode west. The paths under the night sky were never familiar, but the directions were, and Nathaniel’s horse rode like the wind. He flew over mountain ranges and along rivers, past fields of weeping spirits and tar pits that wanted to suck him and his horse in.

He reached the place where his two familiar spirits waited. It was the starlit-plain version of a building he’d never seen in real life, a library at a country palace called Irra-Zostim, that belonged to his father’s family. Cahokians — his father’s people — called their libraries palaces of life, and Nathaniel had taken to calling this structure on the starlit plain his Palace of Spirit.

Nathaniel dismounted at the door of the Palace of Spirit, and his horse became the drum slung across his shoulder. Isaiah Wilkes and Jacob Hop stood in the door, smiling.

~I heard you.~ Isaiah Wilkes looked as he had in life, a tall man with long dark hair and gray eyes, with a physique that was rangy and athletic. Wilkes was a master of the tools of spies — secret ciphers, occult networks, and, importantly, disguise. ~The practice is paying off, I could hear you rise to the plain. It gave me time to return.~

~I heard your hoofbeats.~ Jacob Hop was short, blond haired and blue eyed. In death as in life, Hop was constantly fiddling with a pack of Franklin’s Tarocks. ~This is getting easier.~

~It is,~ Nathaniel agreed. ~Thank you for meeting me here.~

~I was watching the Heron King,~ Wilkes said. ~He has smashed Zomas, and his marauders pursue the tattered remnants of Zomas’s people across the Missouri and out into the Great Plains.~

~I was in New Orleans,~ Hop offered. ~Your sister’s gift of the basilisks keeps New Orleans free of the chevalier and his Spanish allies, for now. Though beastkind rage against the city’s northern walls, and bereaved Zomans will soon be knocking at her doors. Also, I was learning Welsh.~

Nathaniel nodded. Sarah likely knew these things — she saw events far from her throne in Cahokia — but he would visit to mention them to her.

~I need help,~ he said to Wilkes. ~I want to disguise myself and Margaret.~

~You should disguise her as twenty armed men and a nine-pound cannon,~ Jacob Hop said. ~That way, when she goes into combat and completely devastates the enemy, her victory will not disrupt her deception.~

Isaiah Wilkes looked thoughtful. ~How can we help?~

~I’ve been pondering this,~ Nathaniel said. ~At first, I thought you might teach me how to put disguises on myself and on Margaret. But I think I have a better way. I think I want you to ride back with me on my horse.~

~Will that work?~ Wilkes asked.

Nathaniel shrugged.

~I will mind the store,~ Hop said. ~Hold down the fort. What do you say about a library? I will straighten the books? Only there are no books, only writing on the floor. I will read the letters, then.~

~I hope you are coming with me,~ Nathaniel said. ~I think it will help my disguise if I’m not speaking English.~

Hop’s face brightened. ~What shall we speak, then? Deutsch? Français? Igbo? Cymraeg?~

~You speak Igbo?~

~I can learn it.~

~I think Dutch, for now. It will be easiest to try this with you both at your most comfortable. And Julia Stuyvesant has come to Philadelphia with an entourage, everyone is talking about that for miles around the city, so there are many Dutch-speaking people around the emperor’s palace. Plus, Margaret already speaks really good Dutch.~

~Horse Hall?~ Wilkes’s interest sharpened visibly. ~What are you trying to do?~

~Find Lord Thomas,~ Nathaniel said. ~At first.~

~And kill the bastard?~ Wilkes asked.

~Heal him,~ Hop said. ~Nathaniel is a great healer.~

Wilkes nodded.

Nathaniel grinned. ~Are you ready?~

Both spirits nodded. Nathaniel struck his drum — which instantly leapt from the palace and became a horse, pulling him along with it — and he in turn pulled both familiar spirits with him. They all fit, comfortably, and Nathaniel rode back across the starlit plain, singing:

I ride upon four horses, through heaven I ride

I bear two noble allies, whose skills I’ve tried

We’ll share a single bone-hoard, a single hide

I seek the land of mortals, through heaven I ride

He descended the seven steps in a single bound, the fourfold horse that was his mount slamming back into its physical form in the mortal world, a drum made of horsehide. He had descended from his ecstatic state many times now; he had also risen to the plain pulling another person with him. What he did differently this time was wrap an arm around both men and hug them tight as he descended, pulling them with him, drawing their chests into his chest, their faces into his face, their limbs into his limbs.

Then he opened his eyes and saw Margaret scowling at him.

“Something’s different about you,” she said.

“Did you have to defend me against many foes while I was unconscious?” Nathaniel asked.

Margaret shrugged. “Three. Made short work of them. Then there was a talking animal that called itself Der Wunderbär, but your friend Makwa taught it to fly, only it was a trick, because he didn’t teach it to stop. Der Wunderbär took off, couldn’t stop, and flew right out of here. Easy enough.”

Nathaniel laughed. “Hold on one moment.”

He listened. With his gifted ear, he heard the quivering tones of the cosmos, and also voices.

~May my saplings grow in peace to be mighty elms.~

~Water cools, water cools.~

~I am always alone.~

The earth was full of spirits: spirits of the dead, spirits of animals and plants and the natural world, spirits Nathaniel couldn’t always identify. With his gifted ear, the one cosmic ogres had pounded an acorn-shaped bit of quartz into, Nathaniel could hear them.

That sense of hearing was the source, ultimately, of all his abilities.

He shut out the sounds of brook and elm and listened deeper. He listened within himself.

~I’m here, Nathaniel,~ he heard Isaiah Wilkes say.

~Ik ook,~ Jacob Hop said. ~That means me too.~

Nathaniel smiled at his sister. “I’m the same, I think. But I’ve brought back friends.”

“Jacob Hop?”

Nathaniel stepped aside within his soul, giving space to the Dutchman. “Ja natuurlijk,” his own mouth said. “Hoe gaat het met jouw, Margarida?

“Margaret,” she said back. “Het gaat goed.”

~Your experiment worked,~ Isaiah Wilkes said inside Nathaniel.

“I do feel your presence,” Nathaniel said to the two men. He stood up, shifting his drum to his shoulder, and took several steps. “I feel your weight. I wouldn’t want to carry you like this all the time.”

Margaret stared in fascination. There was a shadow of a second expression on her face . . . what was it? Annoyance? Envy? Anger?

~Time to get you two into good disguises,~ Isaiah Wilkes said.