Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 25

“Priests.” Sir William leaned toward Cathy and Sarah barely heard him. “Shoot me now.”

“What I have been told by my congregants,” Tarami shot back, “was that at the rising of the sun on the solstice they felt a powerful feeling of love and wellbeing directed toward Sarah Elytharias.”

“There you have it,” Maltres said.

“I believe God has chosen her,” Tarami said. “I believe He chose her in answer to my prayers and the prayers of the thousands of others who have begged for relief from the Pacification. I am honored to be included in this council, and I will do my best to help Sarah achieve God’s purpose for her.”

“And if I believe I am meant to become queen?” Sarah asked him.

“One can be chosen by God and fail. Our Lord himself chose Judas Iscariot.” He looked at her with unblinking eyes. “My fellows and I will be happy to instruct you and advise you. Traditionally, the Metropolitan of Cahokia has crowned the land’s kings.”

Meaning, Tarami thought he had a veto right.

“That is only the public coronation,” Alzbieta said. “The second coronation takes place within the Temple of the Sun and is necessary for a person to truly take the throne.”

“Last I heard, you and your sisters didn’t even know in what the so-called second coronation consisted.” Tarami’s smile was warm and benevolent. “As much as we may hope for the blessed revelation of such a thing, for now, the coronation within the Basilica is all there is.”

“Thank you for these competing views,” Sarah said, cutting Alzbieta off. “This is precisely why I invited you all into this council. If you all agreed, your advice would not be useful to me.”

Tarami smiled.

“Here is the situation as I see it,” Sarah said. “Those who were with me know that the Goddess chose me as Her Beloved.”

“Amen,” Alzbieta, Maltres, and Sherem said together.

She continued. “I am therefore titular head of an order of priestesses I scarcely understand. Also, all the Firstborn in the city at that time felt . . . something. That feeling is the basis on which I govern. I may have rivals, either among former claimants to the throne or from quarters as yet unseen. One thing I intend to do is consolidate my power by quickly accomplishing my coronation.”

“There may be other reasons my Beloved would wish to take the Serpent Throne,” Alzbieta said.

“Mmm,” Tarami murmured. “Didn’t John tell us that ‘Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world’?”

Sarah ignored the tension between her priestess and her priest. “I want to hear about the state of the city. I need you to teach me about Cahokia. And I want to hear about the claimants under the presentation. But there’s something more urgent than that.”

“The food supply is secure,” Maltres said. “We harvested every grain, seed, melon, squash, fruit, and legume we could find in the bounty the goddess sent us.”

Zadok Tarami opened his mouth, but Sir William fairly leaped over the table to jab a finger at him. “Don’t say it, suh. We all know what you think, and we’ll take it as said. Do not waste my queen’s time.”

Tarami smiled and sank back into his chair. “Forgive me. I’m an old man and a debater of many years’ experience. It’s hard for a leopard to change his spots.”

“I too am resisting old spots,” Sir William told him. “Only I believe my spots were considerably more violent than yours.”

“What happened this morning?” Maltres looked about the table at all the participants as he asked, but his gaze came to rest on Sarah.

They all knew what he meant, and they all knew he was asking her. In the early morning, before dawn, the abundance of plants that had sprouted in the thoroughfares and plazas of Cahokia had entirely wilted. By midday, when they’d come together for this conference, the plants had begun to rot where they stood.

“The foliage and buds of a new crop of fruits and nuts fell from the Treewall,” Sir William said.

Sarah nodded. “I would have guessed as much. I will tell you what I know, and what I guess.

“I was awakened before dawn with a feeling of intense pain. It was if all the blood in my veins had been sucked out in one moment, and I was instantly parched to dust. I sneaked out and climbed the wall–“

“You shouldn’t get ahead of your bodyguard like that,” Maltres said sternly.

Sarah laughed. “Iron Andy Calhoun is the best man between New Orleans and Philadelphia, and he couldn’t keep me penned. You’re welcome to try, Maltres Korinn, but you’re going to have to get up really early in the morning.”

Maltres and Alzbieta both looked embarrassed. They shouldn’t feel that way; Sarah had used an oculos obscuro incantation, and there was nothing they could have done to stop her.

“You were on the wall,” Sir William said. “Chikaak told me he smelled you, and I doubted him.”

Sarah didn’t love to hear that she had been smelled, but she let it pass. “A mighty spell has been cast in the Imperial camp.”

Zadok turned his head sharply. “Walters?”

“No. Robert Hooke, I think. I recognize his . . . visual stink, so to speak.” How much could she really tell them about the spell that forced her to kill Thalanes, that nearly killed Sarah and her brother Nathaniel both, the vortex of groping hands in a sea of amber death? “I think I know the enchantment he has worked. We’re trapped inside a spell of his, a spell that kills.”

“The whole city is trapped?” Tarami asked.

Sarah nodded.

Sherem sighed. “I . . . fear I may know the spell of which you speak.”

Sarah hadn’t expected help, but she was happy to accept it. “Will it . . . kill people?”

The Polite was slow to answer. “Maybe. Perhaps eventually? Perhaps it will close in and become more potent? Perhaps if the Sorcerer can channel additional power into it?”

“That’s a lot of perhapses,” Sir William growled. “If a subaltern offered me that many maybes, I’d break him down to a corporal, if not worse.”

“This is gramarye.” Sherem shrugged. “Not bricklaying. Perhaps the spell will do nothing. Perhaps we will merely starve to death, when the supplies run out.”

“At least the goddess has given us more time.” Sarah shot a warning look at Tarami, and he said nothing. “Maltres, I’ll need to know how much.”

“There are many variables,” he said. “I’ll give you my best estimate.”

“I am grateful for the fruits and nuts,” Bill murmured. “But I would have been more grateful for behemoth.”

Alzbieta Torias laughed. “To fight our battle for us, you mean?”

Bill frowned. “No, to eat. Behemoth means many cattle.”

“Behemoth is a monster.” Tarami glared at both Bill and Alzbieta.

“And yet that is now what I remember from Harmonszoon,” Bill muttered. “He behemoth is beeves, I would swear to it.”

“How are we doing on getting messengers out?” Sarah asked Maltres.

Maltres Korinn frowned. “Poorly. My men are being intercepted by the Imperials.”

“Is that just bad luck?” Sarah frowned.

“Maybe,” Korinn said. “Or maybe it’s because the Imperial web is strong and thrown wide. And I am hesitant to send men out the Mississippi Gate. It seems certain death. We’ll continue to try.”

“I think for now I can forego a detailed description of city functionaries,” Sarah said. “And I reckon we’ve all heard enough for today on the differences between the Temple Handmaids and the Basilica gang.”

“We do more than operate the Basilica,” Zadok Tarami said. “We run multiple charitable organizations and two schools.”

“And we curate a large library,” Alzbieta said.

Sarah nodded. “Understood. And I urgently want to know more about the arcane resources we may have at our disposal. But most urgently, I want to make sure we have something resembling an army coming together.” She looked at Sir William and was gratified to see that he didn’t flinch. “Joleta Zorales and Valia Sharelas. Are they with us? I think I could stand a rebellion of poets, but I want the cannons pointing away from me.”

The Cavalier cleared his throat. “Zorales commands Your Majesty’s artillery. The majority of the soldiers under her command are former Pitchers. They are also largely women and Firstborn, and I understand they are particularly enthusiastic for Your Majesty’s cause.”

Even Tarami laughed at that.

Sir William continued. “Valia Sharelas has also agreed to serve Your Majesty. With Your Majesty’s permission, I should like to offer her the second position after myself, with the appropriate rank. She is acting in that capacity already.”

“Of course. And our forces?”

“It is a small army,” Sir William said. “Barely fit for the defense of a city, and certainly unfit for sallying forth to attack a larger enemy. We have artillery for the walls. Most of the wealthy families of the city have contributed some of all of their retinues. Along with the wardens and the beastkind, we are drilling the new recruits. Thank Heaven that, for the moment, the forces outside the walls are nearly as motley as ours.”

Sarah breathed a sigh, if not of relief, exactly, then of a slight lowering of the tension that knotted up her spine.

“Still, to break this siege, we will need more forces than we presently have at our disposal. And one more thing, Your Majesty,” Sir William added. “We have taken two prisoners this morning, climbing the western wall.”

Sarah frowned. “Beastkind?”

Sir William chuckled. “Pirates, as it happens. And I think you should see them.”