Witchy Winter – Snippet 05

They were all beautiful.

Each kiss fed his loa brides. Each kiss restored a little of the energy he had lost.

Sweat poured down Etienne’s skin beneath the heavy chasuble and stole. His nostrils filled with the spiced scent of women eager for him.

The Brides.

The Brides and, under their invisible and irresistible influence, the women of the congregation.

He felt light-headed, and leaned against a pillar.

Far back in the nave of the St. Louis Cathedral, Etienne saw men coming for him.

Beware, my son.

At the tingle he felt in his mother’s locket, Etienne became alert. He looked closer at the men. They were tall and lean, not with the underfed emaciation of beggars but with the fighting muscle of leopards. They dressed strangely, even for New Orleans, in padded pourpoints that covered them from neck to wrist, and then dropped halfway to their knees. They wore silk scarves wrapped around their heads, concealing their faces but for their eyes. Long beards emerged from the folds of the scarves to tumble down their quilted chests.

At their waists, they carried curved swords.

To go armed in New Orleans was no particular distinction. It was the unarmed person who was extraordinary. But these men looked foreign, like fighters of the Old World in centuries past. They looked like warriors of the Caliphate. What mussulman would come to pay respects at the funeral rites of a dead Christian bishop?

And what funeral-goer would walk with such a blaze of determination in his eyes?

He counted three of them, coming up the nave.

A quick look at the side chapel told Etienne that that door too was blocked by two such men.

There would be men in the back, too. He was trapped.

Etienne had brought his own men in only limited numbers. After all, they had the casino to operate and protect, for those who might choose to mourn the bishop’s passing by playing a hand of faro. And Etienne didn’t think he had enemies who would be so brazen as to strike at him here, in the crowd.

Disgruntled members of the Synod? Unlikely.

Chigozie? Impossible.

The Chevalier of New Orleans. It had to be him. Maybe the chevalier anticipated Etienne’s arcane assassination attempt, or maybe he simply saw naked ambition in Etienne’s anointing as bishop and moved to cut off a threat.

He dared not escape through the crypt — to do so with all these witnesses would give away the existence of that very useful passage.

He turned to the Brides. First, he put the gede loa locket into a pocket in the shirt beneath his chasuble, feeling its tingle transfer from his palm to his side; his mother had arranged his maryaj-loa, as a mambo herself and as his mother, but that was no reason for her to see the Brides in action.

Etienne’s mother had raised him with a sense of good manners.

“Ezili Freda,” Etienne murmured, leaning to kiss a parishioner. She was a short woman, stocky and blonde, possibly a cheese-paring Republican or a German. He kissed her cheek and didn’t let her go, drawing her instead to his side.

He felt her heat against him, and it was comforting.

She smiled. “Pax vobiscum.”

“Ezili Danto.” Etienne kissed another woman, dark-haired and well-dressed, perhaps an Italian or a Spaniard. Tears had burrowed long wet streaks in what had been elaborate make-up. He drew her to his other side, feeling the fire of her body, too.

She smiled and clung to him. “Pax vobiscum.”

“Bring them to me, my Brides,” Etienne whispered. “Bring them all to me.”

A sound like a low moan rushed through the cathedral. Women who were already moving toward Etienne to give their new young bishop the kiss of peace moved faster. Women who had been grieving at the coffin, or whispering beneath the cathedral’s stone pillars to share their loss, turned and joined the throng.

“Pax vobiscum, pax vobiscum.”

Etienne felt the ecstatic charge of the Brides’ action shiver through his limbs. He would know none of these women carnally; he was married to the Brides, and they were the most jealous of women. But every woman in the cathedral, he knew, wanted him at that moment. If he did not prevent it, they would fall in love with him. Some would go away convinced they had become his lovers, and carry secret smiles in the corners of their mouths for weeks.

They would all obey him, at least to a point.

The women surged toward him.

Etienne couldn’t control the Brides. They weren’t his to command, any more than his mother was. They were goddesses, and he was their exclusive husband. But as any husband could do, he was able to invite their presence. He was able to court them, flirt with them, tease them until they took him.

Already trembling from the funeral liturgy, they took him now.

Etienne sagged, quivering, into the arms of the two women holding him. Others joined them and he kissed every face he could see. Kisses on cheeks became kisses on lips, and Etienne had to wrap his chasuble tightly about him to keep it from hungry hands. The women surging around him from all sides pushed him to his feet again.

The four approaching men half-drew scimitars and then re-sheathed them as a river of women flowed past them. The women jostled the mussulman fighters, knocking two of them down and earning a shouted curse.

The women didn’t slow down.

“Pax vobiscum! Pax vobiscum!”

“I’m weak,” Etienne said, kissing a dark woman with long, curly hair. “Will you help me outside for a breath of fresh air?”

They carried him. He was strong and young, having come up in Bishop de Bienville’s mob as a sticks and stones man — it had amused the pox-ridden old bishop that righteous Father Ukwu’s son wanted to learn the criminal trades. It might have amused him less to know that Etienne would win the fight to succeed him as criminal underlord of the Vieux Carré.

It would have amused him much less to know that he would eventually also follow him as bishop, and would use that office to perform acts of Vodun magic. The bishop had been a cheerful sinner, but he’d been a cheerful Christian sinner.

Weaker muscles and looser joints than Etienne’s might have been torn apart by the pack of women. Like a pride of lionesses with a wounded deer, they dragged him toward the side door of the cathedral, tossing men aside as they went.

The two scarf-wrapped warriors stood in the door, others having moved aside or been moved. Armand lay on the stone floor behind them, clutching his side to stanch a strong flow of blood and glowering furiously. Etienne had insisted that his men not wear pistols to the cathedral for this service, and Armand had paid the price. Both warriors had drawn scimitars.

They had bested Armand, unarmed as he was.

Against the women, they never stood a chance.

Accelerating and howling, the women struck the two swordsmen like a storm. Several took wounds, but then the scimitars were in the hands of the women, and the warriors lay on the floor, taking kick after kick to the face and stomach.

“Pax vobiscum! Pax vobiscum!”

The whirlwind of loa-maddened femininity swept Armand into its protective embrace, and then Etienne and his bodyguard were outside, standing on the cobbles in front of the Polites’ palace. Running toward them from the dueling ground came a dozen of Etienne’s men in white shirts and black waistcoats, holding knives and pistols.

In the doorway, the two battered mussulman fighters dragged themselves to their feet and stared. Four others joined them from behind. Two made as if to charge, but the tallest restrained them, a hand on the shoulder of each.

“Thank you, my daughters,” Etienne said. He kissed each woman again, retreating into the arms of his men with the wounded Armand, and waving farewell to his stunned attackers.

“Pax vobiscum.”