Serpent Daughter – Snippet 39


Cal rode the coach without companions. Charlie Donelsen was meeting with Rupp and Bondí, organizing Bondí’s testimony before the Assembly. The Creole accountant had brought with him from New Orleans ledgers indicating regular cash infusions to the Chevalier of New Orleans, which he claimed came from the Emperor Thomas Penn. Unfortunately, there was nothing like a signed receipt, and Bondí’s own knowledge of the source of the cash came from his involvement with Etienne Ukwu’s war against the chevalier. Apparently, what Bondí and Etienne had done was not a violation of Imperial law, and Bondí was prepared to testify, even anxious to testify, but Donelsen and Rupp were trying to sculpt what Bondí actually said and gauge in advance how the Electors would receive such testimony. Similarly, Olanthes Kuta was preparing to give his testimony, as a witness to the Siege of Cahokia.

That left Cal to answer the summons alone.

Cal didn’t own a coach and didn’t want to waste money renting an entire coach, so it was a public conveyance and he held a single ticket. Women and men boarded and disembarked at every stop, across Pennsland and into the Ohio.

At the border, between Pittsburgh and Youngstown, in the middle of the afternoon, the coach stopped. A bristle-faced Imperial officer, some sort of revenuer, poked his head and shoulders into the coach and asked Cal for his passport. Cal provided the document — Logan Rupp had secured it for him before Cal had left Philadelphia — and the Revenue Man noted Cal’s name and details in a notebook.

Two women on the same coach, a Firstborn woman who had been traveling to see her daughter outside Youngstown, and a German woman who identified herself as a lay preacher for the Ministerium, failed to produce passports, and were ordered by the revenuer to get off the coach.

Cal listened.

“Fräulein, you will have to return to Pennsland by the next coach,” the revenuer was saying in a shrill, nasal voice that reminded Cal vaguely of Ezekiel Angleton. “And you, hetara, will need to produce a Trustworthiness Certificate.”

“I’m not your hetara. And I’ve never heard of a Trustworthiness Certificate.”

“You won’t need one in Pennsland. But due to the insurrectionist activities of the Swords of Wisdom and others, you won’t be allowed to travel between towns in the Ohio. And that includes a complete prohibition on entering any Free Imperial Town.”

“I don’t understand,” the woman said. “Who has these Trustworthiness Certificates? I’ve never broken the law, and no one told me I had to have a certificate to travel!”

“Since you are in the Ohio now,” the revenuer said, “and on the Imperial highway, and you don’t have a certificate, you are breaking Imperial law at this moment.”

“Can you issue me a certificate?”

“I don’t know if you’re trustworthy, do I?”

“Maybe I can pay,” the woman suggested. “Can I pay? I have a shilling here, it was going to pay my return ticket, but perhaps my daughter’s husband can pay for the ticket. Or I can walk home. But I need to see her, please, she’s close to giving birth and it’s a difficult pregnancy.”

“Are you trying to bribe me? You’re bribing me.”

There was a pause.

“Officer,” she said, “I just need to see my daughter. Please tell me whom to pay and how much so that I can do that.”

“That’s it! I’m taking you to see the magistrate, to swear out a complaint for attempted bribery of an Imperial officer.”

“Let go of me!”

Cal jumped from the coach. Standing on the strip of gravel alongside the Youngstown Pike, he stretched to his full height and let his right hand dangle by his side — near, but not too near, his tomahawk. In the crook of his left arm, he gently carried a long rifle. A few steps distant was a little wooden shack with only three walls, and a desk and chairs inside. A second Revenue Man watched from the desk, pen in hand and sitting next to an accounts book.

The German woman was gone. The Firstborn woman struggled to yank her arm from the two-handed grip of the Imperial tax collector. He was a head taller than she was and burly where she was slight, and he wore a leather jerkin and a steel bonnet.

The woman was dark and slight, and looked a little like Sarah.

“Unhand that woman!” Cal bellowed his best imitation of William Lee, barking commands to the drilling beastkind, and very nearly fell into a Cavalier accent.

The Revenue Man jumped, but then sneered at Cal. “On whose say-so, Reuben? Just because you have a passport, that don’t give you the right to order me around.”

“On the authority of the Elector Calhoun.” Cal unfolded the proxy letter, which he carried close to his skin, and showed it to the officer. “You can leave this woman alone, or you can come to the Assembly and explain to all the Electors why not.”

“You ain’t the Elector Calhoun,” the officer said, but he was shaking.

“No,” Cal said. “I’m his grandson. Iffen I’s the Elector, you’d be dead already.”

The revenuer took several steps back, toward the little shelter, and hooked his thumbs into his belt. “We can let her by this one time, I suppose. On account of the law is new, and she hasn’t had time to get her certificate. And a passport, which she ain’t got, either.”

“She’s travelin’ with me into Youngstown,” Cal said. “She’ll be travelin’ back, too, and iffen she’s on her own then, and not with me, I’ll expect you to show her the same consideration. Understood?”

The revenuer nodded and cleared his throat. “Get on then,” he called up to the coachman.

Cal held the door for the Firstborn woman and then boarded himself.

“I did not know,” she said. “I’m so sorry to have troubled you.”

“Only reason I knew was because I been livin’ with a lawyer,” Cal said. “It’s plumb stupid. Whole thing’s jest gone to stupid.”

“How will I get back?” She looked like Sarah, with dark, unruly hair and skin pale as china. Only this woman had two good ideas, both of them gray.

“Mebbe your daughter and your son-in-law can help,” Cal said. “Try taking a road that ain’t an Imperial Pike. Iffen you can’t find one, try writin’ me at this address.” He gave her the street and number in Philadelphia.

Two stops later, at a village whose name Cal didn’t catch, the woman disembarked.

Free Imperial Youngstown lay within its stone walls on the Mahoning River, embraced by the broad green arms of the Mahoning Valley. Calvin arrived in the middle of the night, alone on his coach but for the driver on top, and he saw the long, gentle ridges and walls and towers all alike as black shadows.

After a quick hailing and identification, the guardsmen at the wall allowed the coach in. Cal was prepared to show his passport again, but no one asked him, and moments later, the coach was rattling toward the town center.

The Blue Goose was a hotel two streets from the river. It was three stories tall, made of white boards, and had four chimneys. Balconies wrapped around three sides of the building, reminding Cal a little bit of his short time in New Orleans. The goose painted on the inn’s signboard had ears like a hound dog and hooves like a horse and looked altogether like the production of someone who had never seen a bird at all. The paint looked fresh.

In the common room stood several stuffed chairs, each holding a scruffy-looking man. They had holes in their coats and knives on their belts and Cal could smell them from across the room. They read news-papers and books by the light of oil lanterns; against one wall was a bookcase containing other reading material, and in a corner stood a table with glasses and a bottle of whisky. A woman with rounded corners and a smile like two cherries greeted Cal from a desk near the door.

“Would you like a room?”

“I would,” he admitted. “One night. Name’s Calhoun. Calvin Calhoun. Lessen you can tell me, is they a Mr. Andrew Calhoun here yet? I’s supposed to meet him.”

One of the scruffy men, a black-haired, big-eared fellow poring over a news-paper called The Vindicator, looked up from his reading and blinked. Cal nodded slightly, and Big Ears went back to his news.