Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 19
“Enough,” Sarah said. “Accepted.” Her eye caught the light of the oil lamp as she spoke, and something completely unexpected nearly made her choke on her own words: within the oil-fed flame crouched a salamander. She had seen such a flaming lizard at the feet of the Mother of All Living, in Her Eden. Were there salamanders in every fire, and she simply hadn’t noticed before? Or only special fires, the fires in the Temple of the Sun? Was she seeing the salamander now because she was the Beloved? Did the salamander bring her a message? As Sarah spoke words of acceptance and mercy, the salamander danced as if for joy. “You are forgiven,” she managed to say.
Alena continued. “I humbly ask–“
“Wait.” Sarah turned to the eunuch. “What about you?“
“Me?” The eunuch’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “I am but a mouthpiece.”
“No,” Sarah said. “Sometimes, you’re pretty clearly a mouth. Are you a mouth with nothing to say for itself?”
“I–I–I also, I beg forgiveness.”
“Remember one thing, eunuch.” Sarah raised a warning finger.
The mouthpiece stared. “What’s that?”
“I can make ’em grow back.”
Now the eunuch did fall to the floor, groveling. Sarah was happy to let him cower.
“Beloved,” Lady Alena said softly. “I humbly ask to reinstate my former vow of silence.”
“Tell me what you do,” Sarah said. “Your sacred duties.”
“With my sept, I attend the throne. I dust it, I light the lamps.”
“If the veil were closed, you would be allowed behind it?”
Lady Alena nodded. “I and I alone, on the day of my tendance. The day also known as Monday. And because I am allowed behind the veil, in certain circumstances, I . . . dress the goddess.”
She looked at Sarah piercingly for a moment, and then looked away.
“She means you,” said a voice that was bass and yet feminine. “She would dress you at the four corners of the year, if they happened to fall on her cohort’s day.”
Sarah looked into the oil lamp and realized that the salamander was speaking to her.
None of the other people in the room responded to the voice.
“I understand.” Sarah kept an eye on the salamander to gauge its reaction. She also reached through the orb into the Mississippi’s ley and drew mana from it, filling her words with energy and destiny. “Lady Alena, this land is riven by enough dissension and threatened by more than sufficient foes. May the priesthood of the goddess be strong, stable, and powerful, and a force for the healing of ills rather than for inflicting them.
“I restore all things to you.
“Your oath, for good and ill, binds you again.
“You resume your responsibilities and your authorities all as formerly. Between you and me, there is peace. If there is any cause for strife between you and me, you will come to me promptly to resolve it. Understood?”
Alena knelt and touched her forehead to Sarah’s bare feet. The salamander leaped in a graceful circle inside the fire.
“By our lives and by the life of the goddess,” the eunuch said. “We so swear.”
Sarah hadn’t intended to make this an oath. After her experience with Alzbieta and the beastkind, she wanted to avoid the swearing of oaths. But so be it.
She reached down with her free hand and raised the Lady Alena up. Tears streamed down the older woman’s cheeks and she smiled.
“Lord Thomas, the Parletts are speaking!”
Thomas barely heard the words. Philadelphia’s network of brick-lined sewer tunnels, built by John Penn and the old Lightning Bishop, had become inadequate, and it was up to Thomas to find a solution for the pools of fetid wastewater now settling into filthy ice in three Philadelphia crossroads. He stood at a table in his personal library, with a stack of papers and a heart full of doubts.
He pored over plans the Imperial Engineering Corps had delivered to him, plans which required the construction of a pumping station at a hill called Faire Mount. This looked like a considerably more expensive proposition than the alternative proposal, which involved the Imperial College of Magic constructing something that would allegedly strain all the filth from the waste water. On the other hand, Thomas was nervous that any solution to the city’s cloacal problem that depended on a wizard could be fickle, subject to dispelling by the interference of a rival wizard, or simply too good to be true. And what if a stray shilling were to come in contact with the proposed runic inscriptions?
But to build the pumping station and the expanded tunnel system would require money. His mines and farms didn’t generate enough.
Why could people not see that if they simply gave him the power, he could make their lives better?
Why, especially, could the stubborn Electors not see it?
“Lord Thomas, the Parletts are the children who put us in contact with Director Schmidt.”
Thomas shook off his reverie. His valet Gottlieb stood holding the door open, an urgent expression on his face.
“Ah.” Thomas set down the plans and followed Gottlieb, who led him up a nearby staircase toward the usually-vacant rooms in Horse Hall where the Parlett boys had been housed. “Temple wishes me to see his device.”
“I understand it’s more than that,” Gottlieb said. “I believe there is news.”
“Either unusually good or bad,” Thomas said, “or Temple would handle it himself and inform me later, to make all the Empire’s great accomplishments sound like minor feats he nonchalantly accomplished without assistance.”
Gottlieb had no comment.
The two Philadelphia Parletts lived in two adjoining chambers, a bedroom behind a sitting room. They stood in their identical blue uniforms (made from a single roll of felt, Temple had assured him proudly, which appeared to be part of the web of connections that kept the Parletts constantly in contact with each other), backs straight and mouths turned down at the corners. They appeared to be mimicking a jowly person, and they spoke to Temple Franklin.
Temple sat in one of several upholstered chairs that faced the Parletts. He looked tired.
“Is it Sayle?” Thomas asked, deliberately adopting a flippant tone. “He is defeated, or he has lost his way entirely and found himself in Georgia instead. Though that doesn’t look like an imitation of Sayle’s face.”
“THIS IS DIRECTOR SCHMIDT, MY LORD PRESIDENT,” the Parletts said. “I HAVE SEEN NO SIGN OF SAYLE YET, BUT I DIDN’T EXPECT HIM THIS EARLY. THERE IS A DEVELOPMENT IN THE CITY OF CAHOKIA.”
“I expect you to handle all developments until Sayle arrives. Frankly, given how long we’ve been starving the Ohio already, I expect you may well resolve the siege before Sayle gets there, in which case you’ll go from being the commander in chief of the besieging forces directly to acting as the leader of the civil government.”
“I WOULD HAVE SAID THE SAME. HOWEVER, WE HAD INDICATIONS YESTERDAY THAT CAHOKIA HAD DISCOVERED A NEW AND UNORTHODOX FOOD SOURCE. I HAVE CHOSEN NOT TO REACH OUT TO YOU UNTIL I WAS ABLE TO GET INFORMATION FROM SPIES ON THE INSIDE, TO DETERMINE THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM.”
“What are you talking about?” Thomas laughed. “It’s an entire city. Unless they’ve corralled half their own people into slaughtering pens to feed the other half, how can they possibly have any food source large enough to be relevant?”
“TEN DAYS AGO, THE TREEWALL OF CAHOKIA SPROUTED LEAVES. YESTERDAY, IT SPROUTED FRUIT AS WELL. WE LOST A MAN IN THE PROCESS, BUT WE MANAGED TO OBTAIN SOME OF THE FRUIT–PERSIMMONS AND ALMONDS. EDIBLE.”
Thomas put his face in his hands. He would never expand Philadelphia’s overtaxed waste water system. He would die of old age bogged down in the impossible task of trying to dig a fifteen-year-old girl out of her tree-fort, while Philadelphia slowly sank beneath an ever-expanding lake of shit.
“MY LORD PRESIDENT?”
“I’m still here.”
“IT’S WORSE. TODAY A SPY WE HAVE INSIDE THE CITY REPORTED THAT IT WASN’T ONLY THE TREEWALL THAT BLOOMED. IT WAS THE WHOLE CITY. IT GREW NEW TREES AND CROPS. ALL THE SPACE WITHIN THE WALLS BECAME A SINGLE ENORMOUS GARDEN, WE’RE TOLD. THE CITY HAS SPENT AN ENTIRE DAY HARVESTING FOOD, AND THE TREES AND BUSHES AND GRAINS LOOK LIKE THEY’LL GROW MORE.”