Serpent Daughter – Snippet 31
They sent tokens.
If it came to another battle, the queen would be assailed on two sides, and defended by an army of tokens.
The thought that one of Cahokia’s enemies was Simon Sword, the legendary bugbear of the Mississippi, continued to strike Schmidt as extraordinary.
And Cromwell? He and his lieutenant Robert Hooke had entered Cahokia and very nearly entered its sanctuary, before the golden light emerging from the temple had blown them to dust. But surely, he couldn’t be gone.
In the meantime, Thomas Penn’s instructions were clear: choke Cahokia’s trade. Raid its farms, stop inbound merchants, don’t let it build up a store. Cahokia could live on its abundant fruits and grains for the summer, but without trade, and with more and more mouths to feed, it would starve, come winter.
Armies were on their way.
So Schmidt blockaded the Mississippi River, just above the confluence with the Ohio. The heaviness of the spring rains meant that the river was widening, and the blockade required more and more of the boats at her disposal as time passed. Traffic between Youngstown and New Orleans could continue as usual — subject to increased taxes — but traffic north was not permitted. She similarly blocked the roads in the Ohio itself, so no traders overland could reach the Eldritch city.
She didn’t have the reach to block the Mississippi river to the north, either by sailing past Cahokia or by marching to the river overland. Her men took potshots at the Chicago German ships that sailed down, but the river was too wide for them to do much damage, so Chicago wheat and corn flowed into Cahokia.
She couldn’t stop traffic on the far side of the river, either, but there wasn’t much. Simon Sword had taken care of that.
Onacona Mohuntubby stepped into her tent, wet from the rain. At her request, the emperor had reassigned Mohuntubby from the Imperial Army to the Ohio Company, and specifically to her. He was a long-limbed Cherokee soldier with a high forehead and thick eyebrows. He was ambitious — she couldn’t prove it, but Schmidt believed he had killed the artillery commander assigned to besiege Cahokia at her side, a general named Sayle.
Sayle’s death had been convenient for Schmidt.
Now Mohuntubby saluted. “The Parletts are speaking.”
Schmidt set down the accounts book she was working at and stood. A communication through the Parletts meant a message from the emperor. She brushed past Mohuntubby to take the lead and crossed a short confusion of rain and wind to reach the Parlett’s tent. As she entered, the young man spoke, with a voice like windows shattering around a brick.
She took a seat on a lightweight camp bench, brushing water from her shoulders. Mohuntubby ordered out the two men under his watch who were standing guard, then stood in the doorway.
“Is My Lord President there?” she asked.
“I AM.” The voice coming from the boy continued to be the horrible shattered voice of Oliver Cromwell.
Schmidt and Mohuntubby met each other’s gaze and they both frowned. This was not how the Parletts’ communication link had previously functioned; in the past, the local Parlett had always imitated the voice and even the face of the distant person speaking. Unless Oliver Cromwell was pretending to be Thomas Penn, something had changed. “My Lord President, are you well?” Schmidt asked slowly. “You sound different.”
There was a hesitation, and then a laugh. “FASCINATING. I AM NO LONGER SPEAKING THROUGH THE . . . UNINHABITED PARLETT. INDEED, THAT YOUNG MAN IS ON HIS WAY TO YOU. LORD CROMWELL ASSURED ME THAT WE WOULD BE ABLE TO CONTINUE TO COMMUNICATE, HOWEVER, AND THAT APPEARS TO BE TRUE.”
“Who . . . is one of the Parletts inhabited?” she asked.
“THIS IS THE LORD PROTECTOR SPEAKING NOW. AFTER THE DESTRUCTION OF THE BODY I HAD TAKEN IN THE OHIO, I PLACED MYSELF INSIDE ONE OF THE PARLETT BODIES IN PHILADELPHIA.”
“So where is the . . . second uninhabited Parlett?” Schmidt asked.
“THOMAS AGAIN. I’VE SENT HIM TO YOU. TEMPLE FRANKLIN IS BRINGING HIM, ALONG WITH SEVERAL WAGONS OF PRISONERS.”
“NO. FRANKLIN WILL EXPLAIN HIS MISSION. YOU’RE TO HELP HIM, AS BEST YOU CAN, WITHOUT RELEASING YOUR FIST FROM THE THROAT OF CAHOKIA.”
“Do you not wish to explain to me now?”
“I BELIEVE WE HAVE BEEN SPIED UPON IN THESE COMMUNICATIONS.”
Schmidt rocked back in her seat. Spied upon by whom? “By the witch of Cahokia? She is said to have extraordinary vision.”
“PERHAPS. AND PERHAPS ALSO BY THE SERVANT WHO TENDED THE PARLETTS. AND PERHAPS BY OTHERS.”
Schmidt tried to remember who tended the Parletts at the Philadelphia end. “It was your valet, wasn’t it? A man with a German name? Gunther?”
“HIS NAME IS GOTTLIEB.”
“You’ve had him imprisoned, I take it. Or executed.”
“GOTTLIEB IS MAKING HIMSELF USEFUL ONE LAST TIME. WHEN HE REACHES YOU, I WANT YOU TO INTERROGATE HIM AND THEN DISPATCH HIM.”
This was what it was to be Sole Director of the Imperial Ohio Company. “I’ll make certain word doesn’t get back to anyone else at Horse Hall about his fate.”
“I’M GLAD WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER, DIRECTOR SCHMIDT.”
The Parlett’s chin collapsed onto his sternum, as if the effort of speaking had exhausted him. The conversation was over.
The child Absalom grew.
After the failed attempt to baptize him, he didn’t again attack Chigozie. The Merciful mostly avoided him.
Was it merciful on their part to avoid him, to lessen conflict?
Or was it an exquisite cruelty?
Either Kort or Ferpa was with Absalom nearly at all times, fishing and hunting to feed a hunger that seemed constant and insatiable. At one month old, Absalom took to eating the flesh of beasts. Woodchucks and gophers, wild dogs, bobcats, and birds of all kinds fell to his appetite.
“Will his taste ever turn to the flesh of men?” Chigozie whispered to Kort one day, watching the adolescent twelve-week-old who was seven feet tall tearing a deer to shreds with his hands and his beak.
“Children of Adam, like you?” Kort asked. “Children of the angels, like me?”
Chigozie put a hand on the big beastman’s arm. “You are as much a man as I am.”
“I fear his taste already turns to the blood of men,” Kort said. “I fear that his thoughts dwell on how men taste, and whether we forbid him the flesh of men because it is sweet, and he is not to be allowed this grace because we do not love him.”
“I fear to tell him this,” Kort continued, “because I do not believe he trusts me. I have tried to be a father to him, but I do not know how a father should behave, and neither does he. He fears me, perhaps, a little. I do not think he respects me. Nor does he respect Ferpa. I fear that if I forbid him the flesh of men, he will only desire to seek it out the more.”
Chigozie put his face into his hands.
“You say I am as much a man as you,” Kort rumbled. “Tell me something about the man that you are.”
Ferpa sat on the rocks above Absalom, watching him. She had helped him find the deer, but now she eyed him carefully, club in her hand. Did Absalom feel cared for, or caged?
“I have no secrets,” Chigozie said.
“Tell me about marriage.”
Chigozie looked at Kort’s face and found him gazing at Ferpa. The sight gave him a ridiculous amount of joy. “I am not married. But I approve of marriage, with all my heart.”
“With all your heart?”
“Yes. It is commitment for life to another person, as well as to something that is larger than either one of you. To the combination the two of you make.” Chigozie found himself remembering his father, in the last days of his life, but then also his mother, lying on her deathbed, and all the hours Etienne had spent at her side as she breathed her last. “And to the children you produce together, if you are so blessed.”
“The children,” Kort rumbled.
“And marital love is a mighty . . .” Chigozie searched for the right word, “a laboratory, a workshop . . .”
“A hunting ground,” Chigozie tried, “a field to labor in. The work a person does in marriage is discipleship that refines the soul.”
“Marriage can bring you closer to God.”
“God approves it?”
“If done with an honest heart, I believe so. We understand that Adam and Eve were married.”
“And if I wished to be married to Ferpa?” Kort continued.
“Have you asked her?” Chigozie said.
“I am asking you first.” Kort looked at Chigozie and the expression on his big, shaggy head might have been bashful. “I need the Shepherd to tell me what is permitted.”
“Yes,” Chigozie said. “I will gladly marry you. Now go ask Ferpa.”