Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 24
“CapitÃ !” Miqui was only a moment after her, hurling the steel toward the top of the wall. “You have killed the trees!”
The grapples caught and both smugglers began to climb. The riverbank mud on Montse’s boots made footholds trickier, but really this was a climb to be accomplished by arm strength. She dragged herself up cursing, knees and toes banging against the bark of the wall. Green leaves fell about her thickly, striking her in the face and threatening her grip.
Miquel whistled, the cheerful bastard.
Halfway up the wall, the leaf-fall ended and she began shouting. It was a calculated risk. Would she attract Imperial fire? Perhaps, but she hoped that the darkness, and the strange wall of black flame would spoil their shots. But she worried that if she simply vaulted over the top of the palisade wall without warning, she’d end her days impaled on a Cahokian spear.
“SÃ³c amiga!” she shouted. “Je suis une amie! Ich bin eine Freundin! Abu m enyi! I am a friend!” The words stole her breath and slowed her progress, but when she reached the end of her scant repertoire, she started it again from the beginning.”
Miqui joined her as best he could. “Friend! Freund! Amigo!”
Steel Ophidian-style sallet helmets peeped through the branches at the top of the wall. The black fire gleamed dully on the metal, and also on the metal of what Montse took to be musket barrels.
“Friend!” she shouted.
Her rope went suddenly taut. Her feet lost their purchase on the wall and she slipped, catching herself only after sliding down several feet and burning the skin of her hands. Only a lifetime of clinging to ratlines in Gulf storms kept her from losing her grip entirely and falling.
Below her, something with a head like the rhinoceros she had once seen in a private garden in Miami, only covered with fur, leaped upward, climbing the rope.
Stupid. She should have pulled it up with her.
Hooking one booted toe around the rope to stabilize herself, Montse grabbed the hilt of her saber–
The shot came from beside her, rather than from above.
The rhino-headed beastman lost his grip and fell back.
Bang! Bang! Further shots came, but these were from the Imperial trenches, rather than Miquel or the defenders.
“Go!” Miquel shouted. “Climb!”
He slid down past her, and she resumed her upward progress. In his hand, she saw the flash of steel as the young sailor pulled a knife. Her rope tautened again and shook, as the rhino began again to climb–
and then Miqui cut the line, and the rhino fell.
“Go!” Miquel shouted. “Go!”
Her hands and her guts both torturing her, Montse flung herself up the wall. She heard shouting in Ophidian–of which she only knew a few words–and braced herself to be shot from above, but the attack never came.
More gunfire came from the Imperial trench, but then Montse was into the branches. She released the rope, and as blood flowed into her hands again she felt the burning of her abraded skin more intensely.
She stopped on the lower branches and reached out a hand for Miquel.
The boy pulled himself up to within reach, gripped a branch and then took Montse’s arm.
Miquel fell, losing his grip. Montse jammed one boot into the crotch of a branch and pulled her sailor toward herself, but he was heavier than she was. She hit the branch behind her, heard a loud crack, and then she and Miqui began to slide.
“Help!” She flung an arm over another branch, trying to wrap her elbow around the wood and stop her motion, but her arm slide along the limb, and she and Miqui rolled toward the edge–
below, she saw the snarling rhino face–
would she even survive the fall?–
and then hands caught her from above. Two men grabbed her by the shoulders of her coat. Two more grabbed Miquel, by one leg and one arm, and the crew of four rescuers dragged the two Catalans up and over the top of the palisade, dropping them gently on the wooden walkway on the other side. “GrÃ cies,” Montse said. “Thank you.”
Then her rescuers stepped back and she saw what they were.
Farther away on the walkway stood men in the silver helmets the Cahokians favored, leaning on spears or holding muskets in the crooks of their arms. But the four who had rescued Montse all had animal features. The one who stood closest and now grinned at her had the head and upper body of a coyote, and wore a pair of pistols in holsters hanging from bandoliers over each shoulder.
“Keep your hands away from your weapons,” the coyote said.
“I’m a friend,” Montse said.
“I heard you the first time.” The beastman grinned. “My queen will know for sure. Until then, you’re my prisoner.”
Montse didn’t resist as the beastman stripped her sword and her pistols, and disarmed Miquel.
“And my friend?” she pressed. “The boy? Do you have healers?”
“We’ll look to his wound,” the coyote said, looking over the wall. He seemed distracted and surprised by the wall of flames. “In due time.”
Sarah sat at a table in the Hall of Onandagos, beneath the stained-glass images of tall vines. The last time she’d been in this room, she’d been the second of Alzbieta Torias, who had been one of the candidates for the city’s goddess to choose as the next king or queen.
This time, she sat at the table and no one objected.
The other former candidates weren’t present. The landowner Voldrich and the poisoner Gazelem Zomas were the two about whose whereabouts she knew nothing. The Lady Alena seemed to have fallen into line, and the two military women were both now working with Sir William.
Confirming and learning such details was the purpose of the meeting. Cahokia had continued to be governed as it had been before, lightly, and by Maltres Korinn (as Vizier now rather than as Regent-Minister of the Serpent Throne, though it wasn’t clear to Sarah that either position was very clearly defined).
It was time for Sarah to exercise a little control. And to do that, she needed to get a clearer picture of what the pieces were, and how they worked.
Around the table were Maltres Korinn, Alzbieta Torias, William Lee, the Polite Sherem, and Cathy Filmer. In the door stood Yedera the Podebradan and outside it were several of Alzbieta’s warriors.
“I don’t want his arrival to surprise anyone.” Sarah pointed at the one unoccupied seat as she started the meeting. “I’ve invited Zadok Tarami.”
Sir William snorted and the Duke of Na’avu looked dubious, but Alzbieta nodded. “It’s a wise move, Beloved. Show his followers that you respect him . . . and them.”
“Is it so wise, though?” Cathy asked. “Maybe he shouldn’t be invited to all the meetings. Maybe we shouldn’t say anything in front of him that can be used against you, Your Majesty.”
“In what capacity are you here, Mrs. Filmer?” Alzbieta Torias asked. “Sir William leads our combined army. Maltres has been head of the civil government for years, and–forgive me, Maltres, if I give away secrets–is a well-connected Freemason. Sherem is connected with the wizards of Cahokia, in their various groups. I represent the Handmaids of the Virgin, and even Metropolitan Tarami’s presence makes sense to me, representing as he does the priests of the Basilica and those who worship only with them. But what constituency do you represent?”
Sarah knew by now that Cathy’s perfectly still expression concealed rage.
“She represents me,” Sarah said. “Cathy is here precisely because she is not connected to any of Cahokia’s groups. She is here to be my second soul.”
Cathy smiled faintly, and nodded.
“I’m inclined to agree with . . . Cathy, Your Majesty,” Sir William said.
Maltres inclined forward across the table. “How are you feeling, Sir William?”
Sarah expected a droll quip or a fiery rebuff. Instead, Sir William seemed to shrink into himself. “Your question is reasonable. I apologize for the state in which you saw me on the ramparts the other day, suh. I was not myself.”
“And you are yourself now?”
Sir William fixed the Vizier with a steely green eye. “Yes I am.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Sarah said. “I need each of you to operate at full power and to be available to me at all times.”
There was a round of general nodding.
“Beloved,” Maltres Korinn said. “Might we begin by articulating the basis on which we are here?”
“We are the government of the kingdom,” Cathy said.
“Yes,” Maltres agreed. “Let us only be clear about it. Sarah is the Beloved of Wisdom, First Handmaid of the goddess of Cahokia. Everyone in the city knows that.”
“That is not what everyone in the city knows.” Zadok Tarami spoke from the door. With a subtle show of her teeth, Yedera let him in.
“You weren’t in the city,” Alzbieta Torias said. “You didn’t feel it.”
Zadok Tarami took the empty seat. “By your account, you weren’t, either. You were in a place I do not believe to exist, a magical land called Unfallen Eden, in which Adam’s tragic decision was never made, and all the children of the primeval demon serpent Lilith worship her in happiness, surrounded by buzzing bees and purring lions.”
Alzbieta shook her head. “Say rather that essential portion of Eden that was not affected by Adam’s choice, where the goddess has always remained and will always remain, undiminished by the necessary echoes of her in this mortal world.”