Serpent Daughter – Snippet 42
Landon spat in the mud, a stream of phlegm and tears. “No.” He sniffed.
“Nor do I. Your choice of weapon, suh?”
“Bill!” A new voice pierced Bill’s consciousness, but it was far away. “Bill, please do not do this. Bill, I must tell you something!”
It was Cathy. Bill tried to reassure her with a smile — he might be old, but he was an experienced duelist, and could not lose, especially if Landon chose pistols. In his trembling rage and pain, he feared that his smile likely appeared more as a grimace.
“Pistols.” Landon straightened his back.
“Pistols it is,” Bill purred.
“Bill, please do not do this.” Cathy gripped Bill by the arm.
Bill glowered. “I do the young man a favor. I could kill him where he stands, having made that confession, and no one would think me in the wrong. He would die in shame, a criminal, a secret murderer. Instead, he atones for his wrong and he regains his honor, if not his innocence.”
Cathy was weeping. She tried to speak, and couldn’t.
“Do not fear for me, my thornless rose,” Bill said. He tried to use a gentle voice, but his words were halting and his breath short. “I cannot lose.”
“Bill,” she finally managed to say. “Landon is my son.”
“Landon Chapel is my son.”
“Bill, do you hear me? He’s my son, Bill. Please do not do this.”
Some part of Bill knew that he was surrounded by a crowd, and discussing matters that were deeply personal. But he felt too much pain and rage to think about that — pain and rage at Landon’s revelation, and now a sharp sense of betrayal at Cathy’s. He couldn’t think clearly. Had she wronged him?
“How?” he asked.
“He’s Earl Isham’s son,” Cathy said between shuddering cascades of tears. “I was young and foolish, and he was a dashing cavalry hero. The earl promised he would raise Landon and see him established, but I had to leave.”
“Your schoolteacher,” Bill mumbled. “Your first husband.”
“He was a tenant deeply in debt to the earl. He agreed to marry me and take me west, in exchange for the cancellation of his debts.”
Bill felt sick, and cold, and alone. Landon Chapel — Cathy’s son Landon — stared at his feet in the mud.
Good God, Bill’s son Landon, now.
Who had killed his son Charles.
In front of hundreds of staring eyes, he took his flask of cherry brandy from his pocket and took a drink. He felt as if he were standing outside of his body.
“There’s more, Bill.”
“More.” Bill laughed, and longed for numbness. “How can there be any more?”
“I killed him,” she said.
“Killed him?” Bill tried to focus. “Killed whom? Charles?”
“I killed my husband. He resented his fate and blamed it on me, so he beat me, and I killed him for it.”
Bill laughed out loud. “Hell’s bells, I care not a fig for your dead husband. Do you have any idea how many men I have killed? Because I do not!”
“You just married me.” Cathy sniffed. She was soaked, and her white dress was wrapped to her body like wet news-paper, her face as pink as a possum’s. “You’re not bothered that I killed my first husband?”
Bill looked from Cathy to Landon and back. “At this moment, I would welcome death.”
Cathy again burst into tears.
“None of this is her fault,” Landon said. “You are angry with me.” It was a gallant thing to say, and in another moment, Bill might have respected it.
“Shut up,” Bill said.
Could he still shoot Landon Chapel? Was the man really his son?
He felt that Landon was his son.
And he wanted to kill the man.
“You need sleep and quiet,” Luman Walters said. “You’ll think more clearly in the morning. Let me help you get some rest.” The wizard put his hand on Bill’s shoulder.
Bill shoved the wizard hard, hand in the center of the man’s chest. Walters staggered back and fell to the mud.
“Bill!” Maltres Korinn seized Bill’s left arm.
Bill punched him in the nose. The Vizier of Cahokia flew back and sprawled on the ground.
Bill turned and roared at the crowd. He wanted them to jeer at him, wanted them to strike him, and throw him down the mound. Instead, they stared at him. He couldn’t see their eyes. What were they thinking of him?
He roared again, with no words.
And then Sarah was standing before him.
She seemed indistinct. She stood in a cloud of golden light, and at the edges she seemed to bleed into the light herself. She was bandaged and disheveled, her black hair was tangled in a ball on her head, but she wore the Sevenfold Crown.
“Your Majesty,” Bill croaked. He fell to his knees.
“Bill.” Her voice sounded far away. “You’re wounded.”
“Hell’s bells, we are all wounded.”
“Bill, I cannot have you like this.”
“I resign my commission.” He felt numb.
“I refuse your resignation. I have no one else.”
Bill looked up at the faces staring down at him. Maltres Korinn had stood; his nose bled freely down his chin in the rain. Luman Walters continued to watch Bill warily from his seated position. The others mostly watched in shock and horror, as far as he could see; he was glad that the light was behind them, so he could not see their faces better.
“I understand, Your Majesty.” Bill stood.
“I need you whole, Sir William.”
“I believe I may no longer be Sir William,” he said.
“I need you, General.” A spot of blood appeared in the corner of Sarah’s eye, and then she disappeared. Where she had been standing, Bill now looked on the calm visage and the flower crown of the King of Talega.
Bill turned and walked down the mound. No one followed.
He trudged through the mud to the home where he’d been staying, the former city palace of Alzbieta Torias. Torias was a Cahokian priestess who had opposed Sarah, but then come around to serving her. How fitting, Bill thought as he saddled a horse. I once served her, and now am cast out as unfit.
He rode out through the Ohio Gate without a plan.
Cathy was in the sanctum with the kings of Talega and Talamatan when the King of Tawa arrived, hair soaked from his journey. It was the middle of the night, but she had come here after her wedding, because she had seen the phantom of Sarah bleed, and she needed to know how Sarah fared.
Was Cathy still married?
After the wedding, Bill had disappeared. He certainly had grounds for an annulment, if he wanted one. Or he could simply stay gone for years, as he had been forced to do to his wife Sally.
Had Sarah meant to cast him out? This was the other question Cathy urgently wanted answered, the other reason why she had rushed into the Temple. Having to dress and be anointed, she had arrived to find Ordres and Roland standing beside the Serpent Throne. Sarah lay unconscious.
“She strained herself,” Ordres had said. “Foolish.”
“But understandable,” Roland had answered.
Cathy had held back sobs then, and continued to hold them back, though she knew her face was red and she feared from moment to moment that a stray comment might set off her shattered emotions again. The ground shook beneath her feet, and she couldn’t be certain that she wasn’t just perceiving her own collapse.
Kodam Dolindas came through the veil and immediately took Sarah’s wrist in his hands, feeling for a heartbeat.
“I find myself with three kings and a sleeping child,” Cathy joked. “She lies on gold; where are the frankincense and myrrh?”
It was an impious joke, but Cathy was struggling with her sorrow and pain. Ordres and Kodam ignored her; Roland shot her a tiny smile of compassion.
“She has strained herself,” Dolindas said. “How did you allow it?”
“Have you met the Queen of Cahokia?” Roland asked. “No one allows her to do anything.”
“She acted in the heat of the moment,” Ordres said.
Kodam raised a hand. “I have heard.”
“How go the other preparations?” Roland asked.
“I have the robes. The oils and incense are being prepared. We must send for Adena and Koweta now. And Oranbega wants persuading.”
“He wants flattery is what you mean.” Roland snorted. “The spirit of the Lord, indeed.”
“Then I will speak with Korinn, and we will organize the most flattering embassy that we can send. If we do not . . .”
Ordres nodded. “We are virtually in open warfare with the emperor now, all of us. We cannot lose this champion.”
“To say nothing of the storms from Missouri,” Roland added.
Kodam Dolindas turned to Cathy. “I heard your tale, from several witnesses.”
“My current tale?” she asked ruefully. “Or the tale of how I came to be here?”
“Both,” he said. “I refer to the death of your first husband. This . . . creates a problem.”
“I am not worthy,” Cathy said.