Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 05

“Lady Alejandra! I have not seen you since your quinceañera, and you are even more lovely than I remembered!” This was literally true, inasmuch as a thick plaster covered all three of the birthmarks Alejandra bore on her face. Nevertheless, they were striking enough for Thomas vividly to recall their locations, and the plaster did nothing to ameliorate a nose that resembled nothing so much as an oversized bobbin.

“And you are so vital! On behalf of all the ladies of the Empire, I must beg you to reveal your secret, Lord Thomas–you do not appear half your age!”

Thomas tried not to furrow his brow. “And how old do I appear, then, Doña Alejandra?”

“Not more than thirty!” she cried, trilling an exuberant R that would have been the pride of Madrid.

Not more than thirty? Half his age? How old did she take him for? Focus on the cash, Thomas reminded himself. There is no room here for your vanity. Felipe was powerful enough to be a fit ally and father-in-law, an Elector as well as possessor of some sort of title under Napoleon’s Spanish puppets. How much cash did he have?

“You are too kind,” he said. “How fare the herds, my lady?”

Alejandra made a sour face that thrust her cylindrical nose downward. “The winter has been only ordinarily bad, of course, but this rampaging of the beastkind has interrupted the transport of beef to important markets. My father says that they shall eat cheap beefsteak in Knoxville this spring, and expensive pork in Chicago! Praise God, he always has more land he can sell!”

“Praise God!” Thomas agreed, with the biggest smile he could muster. “Would that God granted your father a herd of pigs to match the size of his wealth in beef!” He swung easily into a ninety-degree pivot, and a long step that would take him out of the Hidalga’s clutches.

Franklin swooped down on him and clung to his shoulder like a sorcerer’s bat familiar. “That was one,” Temple said. “How did you find her?”

“She’s cash-poor and she’s too honest to hide it. What are you thinking?”

“That there are only so many decent choices.”

“You cannot quote one of your grandfather’s tiresome sermons at me and say ‘beggars can’t be choosers.’ I’m not a beggar, I’m the Emperor.”

“Yes, but what you have asked for is a woman who is connected with both cash and Electoral votes.”

“More importantly, the cash.”

“Still, that is a small field, and the winner may not be as impressive in her person as you would wish.”

“Let us see the other horses, Temple. But no more ambushes, I beg you. No, I command you. There is a gazing pavilion in the garden behind the house. I shall conceal myself there; if asked, say I am contemplating difficult issues of state. Bring the ladies out one at a time to meet me. Do not send one until I have sent back her predecessor.”

“I could have brought them to you at Horse Hall on such terms.”

“Yes, but now the Marqués will be able to say that I attended his soirée. And others will remember having seen me. Besides, Venus is strong for me tonight, and what better place to capture the influence of Venus than at a ball?” In answer to Temple’s slight disapproving cluck, he added: “I am wearing my Town Coat, Temple. This is hardly more dangerous than attending the theater.”

The pavilion was what some were beginning to call a gazebo, though Thomas hated the new-fangled word for its macaronick Latinity. It was a wooden pavilion encircled by inward-facing benches, creating a space for lounging on a summer evening. The Marqués, anticipating guests’ expectations or perhaps hoping to show off the large magnolias of his garden, imposing even in the leafless winter, had had a brazier heaped with burning wood placed beside the pavilion.

Thomas stood in the pavilion, at the edge of the circle of light and heat, and waited. When the women began to come to him, he counted down.

Six was plain, but scholarly. Her Cavalier father in Henricia–or as some called it, pining for England’s last Stuart king, Carolina–had trained her in the Classics and left her utterly without preference as to gods. She launched a rapid series of apothegms at godar and bishops alike, in which Thomas joined with great amusement until she inadvertently reminded him that her father’s vast fields were planted with tobacco, cotton, and maize. She lauded the fertility of the river-bottom soil, the size of the cotton bolls and the natural juiciness of the tobacco leaves, but Thomas’s answering smile was completely formal.

No cash.

Five was an Ottawa princess. At least, she was a princess in Thomas’s imagination, and when she told him of her love of dancing and swimming, her lithe physique informed his imagination vividly. Her people’s wealth was in furs: beaver, hare, marten, and fisher. Thomas knew well that a shipload of New World furs brought to market in London, or even in Philadelphia, could make a man’s fortune.

He also knew that the business was risky, both on the supply side, which could be physically dangerous as well as subject to the vagaries of climate, and on the demand side, which was enslaved to the whims of fashion. And he knew that his own Imperial Ohio Company was already driving down the price of furs with the huge volume of beaver pelts it was currently bringing to market.

The best reason to marry Five would be to induce her people to stop bringing their furs to market. While that would help Thomas by driving up the price of Company fur, it would impoverish the Ottawas. With visions of divorce and war against a confederation of cheated Algonks, he sent her back.

Four was a younger sister of the King of Oranbega. Her Firstborn features were softened with an obvious strain of hearty blonde German, and she brought with her a queer three-stringed guitar, no longer than her forearm, flat, and fretted diatonically. When she had finished singing a lilting ballad about the love of some queen who died as her realm was flooded by the sea, she reminded Thomas of her land’s wealth in coal and salt deposits, as well as its famously fertile soil.

But it was no good. Thomas would have the wealth of Oranbega in any case, by the relentless working of the Pacification. And the shade of William Penn had insisted he show no mercy to the Firstborn. Could Thomas hope for success in ruling his grandfather’s empire if he began by traducing his grandfather’s will?

When Thomas shook his head and invited her to go back into the house, the Firstborn princess boldly pressed her body against his and lifted her lips in the most elemental of pleas for grace.

But Thomas was fixed of purpose. He was gentle as he steered the young woman back toward the ball.

Three was an Igbo woman from Birmingham. She disavowed that she had any connection with the Lord Mayor there–who Thomas thought was the Elector, though that was a vote that was often cast by proxy. While lovely, she was the oldest of the seven, and also the calmest. She smiled, recited a lengthy poem in Igbo when asked, and talked about how much she missed the weather on the Gulf coast. When Thomas grew tired of equivocation and directly asked her about her family’s wealth, she would only admit to owning a fishing boat.

By this time, Thomas had grown short-tempered. “Very well, then!” he snapped. “Enjoy the remainder of the ball!”

She smiled as she left.

At the door, Thomas met Temple Franklin. “What were you thinking?” he demanded. “She says she doesn’t even know the Elector!”

“You said cash was more important!” The spectacles quivering on the tip of Franklin’s nose made him look as if he were about to fall over under the force of Thomas’s irritation.

“What cash?” Thomas snorted. “The woman owns a boat!”

“A boat?” Temple guffawed. “That’s what she said to you?”

Thomas waited for Temple’s rolling belly-laugh to end.

“That woman,” Franklin finally explained, “is John Hancock’s sole trading partner in Birmingham.”

“She’s a smuggler?”

“A very wealthy one.”

“Who either didn’t want to admit it, or isn’t interested in an alliance with me.”

Temple arched his eyebrows. “Shall I bring her back?”

“No,” Thomas said quickly. “I was impolite, and she is uninterested. Bringing her back will only compound the offense by making me look stupid as well. Bring out the next lady.”

Thomas instantly knew Two was Acadian from her growled Rs and pure vowel sounds. She was a cousin of La Fayette and her father was a banker. She claimed a talent for language, and without further provocation launched into a monolog that would have been at home among the workmen of Babel, shifting language every three sentences as she recounted her travels to London, Paris, and elsewhere with her father. Thomas followed her through English, French, and German with satisfaction, and then endured five minutes of gibberish that nearly left him unconscious.

He had finally convinced himself that he could tolerate this woman as a wife, especially if she would agree to stay in Quebec most of the year, when she concluded her oration on the delighted note that her father would be so pleased to see her make an alliance with the Penns, especially with the capitalization problems his banks had had in the last few years.