Serpent Daughter – Snippet 41

“Sleep, little creature. Sleep and dream no more.”

Chapter Nine

“Therefore,” Zadok Tarami said, “one must not marry frivolously or with a double mind, but as a solemn, if joyous, act of will.”

The priest stood at the top of three steps in the Basilica of Cahokia, wrapped in his clerical plumage. Bill wore a new coat of Cahokian gray. It was neatly pressed, its buttons glittered, and the newly dyed gray shone like Bill’s blacked boots. Bill would have had a hard time saying what Cathy was wearing; he couldn’t take his eyes from her face. How was it that she only looked younger, while he was falling apart?

He stood without a cane, and both legs ached.

“I do hope you know,” Bill mumbled to the officiating priest, “that my doubts about you are long resolved. And I hope that you, too, can let bygones be bygones.”

“Shhh, Bill,” Cathy murmured.

The Basilica was full, as Cathy deserved. In addition to the priestesses of her sept, rows of soldiers sat straight-backed in dress uniform in the pews. Jaleta Zorales, commander of Cahokia’s artillery, was there. Maltres Korinn was in attendance as well, and Gazelem Zomas and Luman Walters and two Firstborn kings. Yedera the Podebradan had declined to leave her position of door guard at the Temple of the Sun. Sarah could not leave the throne, but had promised Cathy that she would be watching, anyway. Ambassadors attended from Chicago and Memphis and Appalachee and the Gulf coast, making Bill feel slightly self-conscious. Even the Earl of Johnsland was represented by young Landon Chapel, somewhere in the nave. Bill’s exile had been lifted; but for his responsibilities in Cahokia, he could be in his Johnsland home.

A faint smile crept onto the Metropolitan’s face. “William Johnston Lee and Catherine Filmer now come to be joined in holy matrimony. If any here can show just cause why they may not be married, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace.”

Bill heard a muffled cry from the back. Turning in the shoulders, he looked for the source of the disturbance and could see nothing.

Tarami gazed for another few moments at the seated crowd, his face never losing its dignity. Then he turned to Bill and Cathy. “I charge you both, before this throne, from which no secret can be hid, that if either of you knows any reason why you may not be lawfully married, you now confess it.”

“I know of none,” Bill said. He was grateful to Landon Chapel for removing the one doubt that had plagued him. Bill’s daughters still lived; he would like to bring Cathy with him when he went to Johnsland to look for them.

“None.” Cathy smiled.

Zadok Tarami nodded. “William, do you take this woman to be your wife, to love, honor, comfort and keep, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”

“Catherine, do you take this man to be your husband, to love, honor, comfort and keep, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”

There was more ceremony, with prayers and a brief lecture, but from the moment Cathy Filmer said “I do,” Bill lost track of time. An angel choir might have burst through the ceiling to sing his name with trumpets, and he would have missed it. He looked on Cathy’s face and thought of the many hours they’d spent together in New Orleans, and on the road, and in Cahokia. He had felt bonded to this woman long before he had felt free to admit it, and shouldering the bond of matrimony felt to Bill more like casting off a shackle, of doubt and uncertainty and cowardice.

It felt like a homecoming.

Then he was stumbling out into the stormy gray light. Perhaps even Simon Sword assented to his marriage, he thought with numb humor; though the clouds roiled above, the rain had paused.

He shook hands and Cathy kissed cheeks. Somehow, they transferred to the Hall of Onandagos, into its reception chamber. There Bill and Cathy danced the circle, danced the square, and even, somewhat scandalously, danced the waltz, her chest pressed against his and her sweet breath in his nostrils.

When the entire company had dissolved into dance, lubricated by casks of cider and the pumpkin moonshine the Firstborn called shikaram, Bill begged to be excused for a moment. Cathy squeezed his hand and let him go; she was engrossed in a conversation with the King of Talamatan about the king’s struggles with Chicago.

Bill’s thighs hurt. He felt as if he were being shot in both legs simultaneously, with each step. He had been very disciplined, limiting himself to sips from his laudanum-tinged cherry cordial only when absolutely necessary, but now a sip, or several sips, felt necessary. He slipped out the doors of the chamber, and then out of the Hall of Onandagos.

He stood at the top of the mound, looking down at the city lights below. The rain had started again, and its windy smell crashed into Bill’s nostrils, driving out the odors of pumpkin and perfume. He took a gulp from his cordial and put the bottle back in his pocket, beside the smaller glass bottle of laudanum; merely anticipating the imminent relief gave its own solace, and he took a deep breath.

Landon Chapel crashed into him. He stank of shikaram and whisky, and he wrapped his arms around Bill’s shoulder as if he were clinging to a rock to avoid drowning.

“Hell’s bells, Landon,” Bill said. “It is early for you to be this drunk.”

“I started this morning.” Landon vomited, but Bill managed to swivel the young man’s head away from him in time to avoid soiling Bill’s new uniform.

“Well, suh,” Bill drawled, “inasmuch as it is the traditional service of a wedding celebrant to become inebriated so as to express joy with the bride and groom, I thank you for your signal gift.”

“Captain,” Landon said. “General.”

“I’ll appoint a detail to take you back to your quarters.”

“I killed him.”

Bill would have ignored Landon’s words as the ordinary rambling of a man in his cups, but Landon stared at Bill with desperate fire in his eyes.

He wrapped his arm around Landon’s chest to steady him. “Whom did you kill?”

Landon sobbed. “Charles.”

Bill’s heart froze. He took a shaky breath. “Charles? Charles who?”

“I tried to tell you. I tried to tell you before, and I tried to stop the wedding.”

Bill threw Landon to the ground. “Charles who, damn your eyes?” he roared.

Lightning flashed. A crowd had gathered in the doorway, staring. Soldiers in gray, and other guests in finery. Were they not interfering because of Bill’s rank, or because he was the bridegroom? Good, let them stand back. Bill scowled at the crowd.

“Your son,” Landon sobbed, dragging himself up onto all fours. “Your son Charles Lee.”

Bill stopped in his tracks and struggled for breath.

“He was my friend,” Landon said.

“Don’t tell me he was your friend!” Bill bellowed. “Tell me about his death, you worm!”

“I shot him.” Landon bowed his head and covered his face with his hands.

“Faster, damn you! Was it in a duel? Was it an accident?”

“Bill.” The voice was so soft, Bill almost didn’t hear it. “Bill, this might be a conversation better held elsewhere.”

Bill turned to see Luman Walters and Maltres Korinn. They approached him with their arms wide, palms forward. It was a placating gesture, as if he were a child throwing a fit.

“Go to hell!” he spat. His vision spun.

Landon stood. He held his sword in his hands, in front of him, still in its scabbard. “He challenged me to a duel. Because . . . because I had hurt someone. And I knew that I couldn’t beat him, and I was scared.”

“Scared?” Bill shook. “You were scared?”

“So I shot him in the head. Before the duel.”

Bill’s fists were curled so tight that he felt his nails break the skin of his palms. For years he had imagined Charles winning his commission, riding in parades, leading charges, winning the hearts of women, having sons of his own to carry on the mighty Lee name.

Bill would see none of that.

And Bill’s name would die with him.

“I didn’t plan it,” Landon gasped. “It all happened so fast, and I made a terrible mistake. I’ve been trying to tell you.”

Bill felt as if he were a tiny rider, perched atop a raging beast he could not control. “A mistake, suh? A mistake is when you use your salad fork to eat your beef. A mistake is when you address a bishop as Your Excellency instead of Your Grace. A mistake is when you tie your horse with two half hitches rather than a clove.”

Landon stood, his head still bowed.

You have murdered my son!

Landon held out his sword, hilt pointed toward Bill. “I owe you my life,” the younger man blubbered. “Take it.”

“Oh, hell no,” Bill growled. “Not like that. No instant relief from pain for you. I will kill you, Landon Chapel. I will kill you as my son Charles would have killed you. We duel tomorrow at dawn. Do you have a second, suh?”