Serpent Daughter – Snippet 38
Was he prepared to make his leap?
“Mr. Franklin,” he called.
Temple Franklin groaned as he levered himself down from the top of a prison wagon. He gripped iron-bar handles set into the sides of the vehicle, and hissed at a prisoner who stretched a dirty hand with ragged nails toward him.
“I am not yet interested in having my coat cleaned, Gottlieb,” Franklin grunted, striking the ground with both feet. “Rest assured, I will tell you when I am, and I will also credit you this evening with another round of very flattering groveling.”
“Forgive me, I was hoping you could watch the Parlett boy for a moment. I have an urgent matter of hygiene to attend to.”
“Do not mistake fashionable neatness for what is necessary for the organism,” Franklin grumbled. “There are no ladies present.”
Gottlieb laughed. In other circumstances, he’d have fawned upon Franklin at greater length, but he imagined vividly that he could feel the point of a dagger pressing into his back, so he abandoned his trunk and scurried around the side of the inn.
A leaning outhouse stood in the mud behind the building, a few steps from the forest, but Gottlieb ignored it and pressed himself against the inn’s wall. Creeping to the lone glass window, scattering a line of ducks as he went, he peered inside, and saw the man the muleskinner had referenced — he was tall, dressed like a soldier, and armed, with saber, pistol, and rifle. If it came to an open fight, the other man had the advantages of better weapons and a longer reach.
Gottlieb could not let it come to an open fight.
He could grab a horse from the stable and flee, but Gottlieb was no great rider. Best to seize the initiative here and now.
He opened the back door to the common room and entered. The other man was fixed on watching through the windows, and didn’t hear Gottlieb approach, stepping softly among the farmers and herdsmen and muleskinners who were settling in to a tankard of beer and a tin plate of beef stew.
“Are you looking for three brothers, by any chance?” Gottlieb murmured.
The man jerked about, and Gottlieb saw that he had his hand on the hilt of a long belt knife. The surprise on the man’s face quickly smoothed over. “I have two brothers. We each came from a different mother and father.”
Lying, two-faced brother. He had come to kill Gottlieb. Gottlieb smiled warmly; years of licking Thomas’s boots was better training than any the Conventicle provided for being false-faced. “Such brothers would be a marvel to remember until the end of days.”
They clasped hands.
“I have important intelligence,” Gottlieb whispered. The man had come to kill him, so Gottlieb must do whatever he could to push back the moment of reckoning and create space in which he could act. “I had intended to use a dead drop in Talamatan, but this is urgent. Did you notice the young man I am traveling with?”
The taller man glanced out the window at the Parlett boy. “Is he someone of importance?”
Gottlieb nodded. “Is it safe to talk here?”
The other man’s eyes darted about the inn’s common room. “Clearly not. There’s a small wood outside.”
Gottlieb led the way. He deliberately turned his back on the other man. It would avoid arousing suspicion; at the same time, if Gottlieb had successfully aroused the other fellow’s curiosity, he wouldn’t stab Gottlieb in the back. Still, Gottlieb felt sweat trickle down his spine as he walked out into the cool, humid evening again.
“Not too close to the outhouse,” the other man said. “Someone might be in there.”
“Do you take me for a fool?” Gottlieb asked in his most vacuous voice. “My name is Gottlieb Voigt.”
Gottlieb stalked through mud to a tangle of redbud and butternut trees, still dotted with a few fading pink and yellow blossoms. “The thing about that young man,” he said over his shoulder, “is that he’s an arcane communication device.”
Across the river, he saw lights. But he heard and saw no one who could possibly witness what he was about to do.
“What’s it doing out here in the Ohio?” Mohuntubby asked.
What’s it doing out here in the Ohio?
Why would Mohuntubby wonder that the Parlett boy should be in Ohio, unless he had reason to believe the boy was elsewhere?
Mohuntubby knew exactly what the Parlett boy was, and was surprised to see him not at Horse Hall. Mohuntubby was playing stupid, he knew more than he was saying. Mohuntubby was trying to trick Gottlieb.
“The emperor.” Gottlieb kept walking. “Horse Hall has another such device, but this is going –“
He deliberately stepped toe down, driving the point of his own shoe into the mud. This made it easy for him to stagger and slip onto one knee.
“Mist!” he cursed, and slipped a dagger into his right hand. He raised his left, as if trying to get his balance. Onacona Mohuntubby grabbed Gottleib’s left arm to steady him. Gottlieb stood, firm and balanced on his left foot but dragging his right to make a loud sucking noise as he turned — and slashed Mohuntubby across the belly.
Mohuntubby fell to the ground. In the evening shadow, Gottlieb could still make out the astonished expression on the fellow’s face, but then the Conventicle man pulled his pistol and aimed it at Gottlieb.
“Slippery bastard,” Mohuntubby hissed.
“Two-faced liar,” Gottlieb spat. “You came here to kill me.”
“You were discovered. I came here to give you the opportunity to kill yourself. That was your oath, Voigt.”
“What if I can serve the Conventicle and Franklin’s vision better by living?”
“That’s not your decision to make.” Mohuntubby shuddered. The bloodstain spreading across his stomach and chest was dark and enormous.
“You recognized the Parletts,” Gottlieb said. “You’ve come from the camp of Notwithstanding Schmidt.”
“Go to hell.” Mohuntubby raised his pistol.
“If you shoot me, we’re both exposed.” Gottlieb smiled.
Mohuntubby’s pistol wobbled.
“You’re dying,” Gottlieb said. “If you die, I bury you. The Conventicle has lost one man, doubtless a good man, but that is all. If we both die out here, questions get asked. Why did an Imperial soldier, assigned to the bodyguard of Imperial Ohio Company Director Schmidt, fight a duel to the mutual death with the body servant of the Emperor Thomas?”
“Or,” Onacona Mohuntubby said, “I kill you and I live.” He pointed his pistol at Gottlieb’s chest and squeezed the trigger.
“Mud in your firing pan, I expect,” Gottlieb said. “Bad luck. Do you want to try again?”
“That’s it, then.” Gottlieb smiled his condolences. “Would you like me to stand here and watch as you bleed out, or shall I end it for you?”
Mohuntubby grabbed for his knife. Gottlieb stepped forward in the same moment and stomped with the wooden heel of his shoe on the inside of the other man’s elbow. Mohuntubby gasped, and with his left hand he grabbed Gottlieb, nails clawing, fingers groping for the body servant’s eyes.
Gottlieb dropped to one knee again, this time cracking Mohuntubby’s sternum with his weight, and then stabbing his dagger into the other man’s throat.
Mohuntubby died twitching and gurgling.
When his opponent was finally still, Gottlieb stood up. His own arms shook — he’d killed the Parlett boy in Horse Hall, but that young man had barely been able to resist. It had been a long time since Gottlieb Voigt had fought someone capable of striking back. He looked around; the inn continued its previous soft bustle. In the quiet of the evening, he could hear the moaning of prisoners in the wagons on the far side of the building.
Gottlieb didn’t want to draw attention to the Conventicle. He stripped off Mohuntubby’s army coat, too big for Gottlieb, but warm, and set it aside. He took the man’s pistol and shooting accouterments, and knife as well, and his boots. Then he dragged Onacona Mohuntubby’s body to the latrine; lifting the neatly hinged seat, he slid the body slowly inside.
Mohuntubby’s boots fit better than his coat did. Gottlieb filled his new coat pockets with his new pistol and knife, checked to be sure that his money belt was in position, cleaned and sheathed his dagger, and then turned and walked away from the inn in a straight line.