Serpent Daughter – Snippet 37
“I’ll tell you who can,” Roland said. “The man — or woman — who takes that rod and this one and uses them at the crosses of the earth to try to still tremors.”
“When you say ‘uses them,'” Sarah probed, “do you have any idea how to do that?”
Ordres shook his head. “The Reconciliations says it was a prayer.”
“Funny thing,” Sarah said, “it seems to me I’m constantly getting by on a prayer. And I suppose you’re also telling me that, to find out what’s behind that door . . . or who . . . I’m going to have to go through it someday.”
“On the contrary,” Ordres said, “you’re the one telling us.”
The Franklin was dead. Or if not dead, then he wasn’t answering any of Gottlieb Voigt’s signals to him; not the note in the dead drop in the Walnut Street Theater, not the colored smoke from the chimney of Horse Hall, not the advertisement in the news-paper advertising an estate sale at a nonexistent address in Cambry.
Gottlieb had done his duty. He had taken wounds for the Conventicle, both to his pride, which he had had to mortify repeatedly and constantly over his years of service to Thomas Penn, and to his body, as when the Franklin himself had impaled Gottlieb, in order to make good his escape. Gottlieb still limped, though only slightly.
He also had cash. The Conventicle didn’t pay — one served the Conventicle because one had had Franklin’s vision, which Gottlieb had done as a young man, fresh out of the Comenian School. Working as Thomas’s body servant didn’t pay, either. But slowly stealing Thomas’s surplus silverware over time and stashing the money in a bank account under a false name had left Gottlieb enough money to travel to any corner of the world he could imagine. That cash was mostly in the form of bank notes, tucked into a money belt on Gottlieb’s person.
He had two things on his person that he hoped might prove more important than cash. He had them by theft as well, only in this case, theft from the Conventicle, thefts he had been able to carry out because he had had the good fortune to be in the service of Thomas Penn, and therefore he had quickly come into contact with Isaiah Wilkes. He had only realized late that Wilkes was the Franklin himself, but he had known from the beginning that the man was highly-ranked. Gottlieb was a believer in Franklin’s vision, but he had a dim view of other men, and he had long feared there might come a day when he was abandoned to his fate. Against that day, he had stolen two things from Isaiah Wilkes. One was a thick bead of the green paste that induced hallucinations. Not stolen, but learned, were the words to be recited and sung into the ears of one who took the paste; without the words and the melody, the vision might not result.
Gottlieb had been able to both steal the paste and learn the chant because his long trustworthiness had eventually resulted in his being chosen to help administer the vision to new recruits. And Gottlieb also had a list of names, stolen from an initiation meeting he’d attended. The names were code names, but they came with cities, and Gottlieb had recognized some of the faces at the meetings, so he’d deciphered a significant number of their identities.
What would he do with it? Blackmail seemed a possibility. Or could he sell the list? He didn’t think Thomas would spare Gottlieb’s life for the list — Thomas was not a merciful man — but perhaps if Gottlieb were out of his reach, the emperor would be willing to pay for the names.
Gottlieb had to flee, not because he had been caught stealing, but because he had been discovered. He had killed the Parlett boy — it was unpleasant and messy, and all the training the Conventicle had given him with dagger, pistol, poison, and garotte hadn’t made it any less so. He’d done it because he had heard Thomas and Temple Franklin discussing sending one of the Parletts to the Missouri, to speak with the Heron King, and he had hoped that killing one of the boys would result in all their deaths. Then he’d bloodied his own nose and lain on the floor to make himself appear one of the victims of an attack.
But then the dead Parlett boy had reappeared at Thomas’s side, talking, apparently hosting the ghost of either William Penn or Oliver Cromwell or both. And Thomas, who had certainly never been affectionate with Gottlieb, had grown cold.
And now Thomas was sending Gottlieb to the frontier. It could only be to kill Gottlieb, but to do so away from Horse Hall and Philadelphia. Thomas knew he had killed the Parlett boy — did Franklin know? Was Franklin going to kill him? Why not arrest Gottlieb and torture him instead? Did Thomas suspect that Gottlieb was a member of the Conventicle? From his interactions with the Franklin, he must surely understand that the Conventicle existed.
In addition to worrying about an executioner sent by Thomas, Gottlieb realized that he was also a liability to the Conventicle. Because Thomas might arrest and torture Gottlieb, the Conventicle could not afford to let Gottlieb live.
Which was why Gottlieb had repeatedly tried to contact the Franklin. He had wanted to negotiate, to make an offer to retire permanently. He would leave Christendom entirely, flee to Istanbul or Paris or some Africk port. But to no avail.
Or was the Franklin alive, and just ignoring Gottlieb?
But he didn’t think so. Isaiah Wilkes was a man who responded. He was, moreover, a man who liked to use his own hands and be involved in resolving any crisis. If he was not answering, it was because he could not answer.
But if Wilkes was dead — or in a dungeon in Philadelphia, or gone — then there was another alternative to flight and death.
Gottlieb did not know the full structure of the Conventicle. He believed Wilkes did, or had, and possibly Wilkes alone. How to discover the levers of power, and put himself in a position to become the Franklin?
As head of the Conventicle, he could be hidden from Thomas, and as safe as a person could be, who was still in the New World. And as the Franklin, he could continue to serve the cause he still believed in, the defeat of Simon Sword. And taking leadership of the Conventicle would mean not only survival, but also power and influence, and the ability to enjoy some of the wealth he had stolen from Thomas.
Gottlieb smiled on the ride west atop the prison wagon, fingering his dagger and his strangling cord and his poison tablets, and considering the possibilities.
He was in Koweta lands, at a town called Dayton, in a bend in the Miami River, when one of the muleskinners told Gottlieb a friend was looking for him.
“What’s my friend’s name?” He and the driver were unloading trunks from the top of the prison wagon. The prisoners would sleep in the wagon, under rat-eaten wool blankets and huddling together for warmth, but Temple Franklin and Gottlieb and some of the drivers would sleep in beds.
The muleskinner, a rail-thin man with a scar that split one cheek and nostril with a bright pink cleft, shrugged. “Tall feller, some kinda uniform.”
A soldier? A lawman of some sort? “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“Might a been Cherokee. Dark, high forehead.” The muleskinner jerked a thumb in the direction of the tavern behind him, which bore on its signboard an image of George Washington, crucified. “He was in the common room, there.”
The Parlett boy in his care stared at Gottlieb with wide eyes. Was someone watching through another Parlett, in the western Ohio or in Philadelphia? Had this boy himself possibly told Thomas, intentionally or in his idiot-magician manner, of Gottlieb’s guilt?
If Gottlieb acted, he would have to assume that Thomas saw everything he did, if not through the Parlett boy, then through the reporting of Temple Franklin. Any act now that was inconsistent with his duties as Thomas’s body servant — likely even anything as simple as walking away from the Parlett child to find this person who was looking for him — was irrevocable.