Witchy Winter – Snippet 19

“Today an old woman on the street offered to heal my gout by application of one of the new Philadelphia shillings,” Temple said, looking up at his Emperor.

“An old shilling wouldn’t work, would it?” Thomas said pointedly. “It isn’t the coin that heals, but the image of the living Emperor. I’m pleased to know that in this one respect, at least, the Electors cannot stop me from blessing my realm.”

“As I was pleased to see public feeling for the Emperor’s power so strong.”

“Thank you for having the decency not to be openly fondling an actress in my box when I arrived.” Thomas was only slightly out of breath despite the climb; his insistence on staying in the saddle as much as possible and his light eating habits rewarded him with vigor and strong lungs.

William Temple Franklin, by contrast, positively sagged over the arms of his seat.

“You are not a man who scruples to fondle an actress when she presents herself, Lord Thomas,” Temple said.

“In private, no. Indeed, an appropriate fondling may be seen as a beneficence, not to mention the fact that the ladies of Philadelphia have come to expect it. But the public scruples, Mr. Franklin. The public scruples.”

Thomas stepped to the railing to look at the packed theater seats below. Deliberately below, rather than at the other boxes. The seating was full, and Thomas waved and smiled benevolently at the floor before turning a polite smile to the occupants of the balconies. The neat blond-headed cheese-parers visiting from New Amsterdam and the full mustachios of Baltimore planters wagged together as the play-goers in those boxes bowed deferentially.

“Ah, do I not know it! And therefore am I not a bishop, nor was my father before me, for an accident of birth beyond my control.”

“Your father was so attached to the idea of priesthood that in the end he wasn’t particular about which god he served. As for you, I could have you made a bishop,” Thomas said. “I could git you bishopped, as they say in Appalachee. I have several bishoprics in my gift, and if they happen to be currently occupied, no matter: an inconvenient bishop can always be got out of the way. How do you feel about Newark? The challenge is less your bastardy than the aforementioned actresses.”

“Because the public much prefers a bishop who fondles young actors.”

Thomas suppressed a chuckle. “Discretion in either case, sir. Discretion in either case.”

“Naturally, Lord Thomas. And therefore I wait for you here alone. Do you see an actress in your box?”

“I do not.” Thomas sat. “And yet somehow, I detect the strong scent of an actress’s perfume.”

“Outrageous, Lord Thomas. That the actresses should wear so much perfume that you can scent it in their dressing room from here, three stories above.”

“Interesting that you should know where their dressing room is located, sir.”

“One supposes in the wings, for ready access to the boards. One only supposes. Although perhaps it is not their scent that is so extraordinary, but your faculties of scenting. Were you a tracker in the war with the Spanish, Lord Thomas?”

“I was a hero. Hadn’t you heard? And therefore all the nubile ladies of Philadelphia, along with half its matrons, throw themselves under my feet. It is only Imperial decorum that restrains me.”

“Or perhaps His Imperial Majesty is detecting my own toilet water. I have had it sent all the way from Cologne. However much the Caliphate has set back the art of painting in the Old World, it hasn’t worsened their skills with scent.”

“I understand that Napoleon doesn’t permit plays in Paris.”

“It’s the mullahs, sir. Like portrait painting, drama is a wicked art inasmuch as it imperfectly and therefore sinfully represents God’s greatest creation, man, so the more traditional of the mullahs persuaded Napoleon to end public displays. Also, French theater exposed actresses to the view of men.”

“What, was all French theater nude? Heavens, why did I waste my youth on the frontier?”

“No, Lord Thomas, it exposed their physiognomies. But fear not! I have sufficient experience of Paris that if you should wish to travel there and see Molière performed in his original tongue and land, I know of several, ahem, private houses where such plays are still performed, and Lord Thomas might see actresses in all their bare-faced glory.”

“Am I to understand from your throat-clearing that these private houses are bordellos?”

“In the right quarters, Lord Thomas, even the mussulmans of Napoleon’s Paris scruple at very little.”

A clatter of hard-soled shoes brought the theater manager onto the stage and under the proscenium arch. Ushers snuffed tapers, bringing darkness to the seating floor.

“Remind me of this fellow’s name,” Thomas said.

“Elias Brackenham,” Temple Franklin answered immediately. “Laudanum addict. Twice a bankrupt, largely because of his fondness for the poppy.”

“Safe?” Thomas asked, surprised.

“I supply his habit.”

“Welcome, all!” Elias Brackenham flourished both hands as if summoning the audience up from the floorboards. “Two brief announcements before tonight’s production begins. The first is that the Imperial Players have become unexpectedly unavailable. Therefore, Franklin’s Players shall be performing tonight, an original stage play in prose and verse called The Walking Purchase.”

The applause was polite, rather than enthusiastic. Perhaps Thomas wasn’t the only one who had never heard of this play.

“And second, though he has strictly enjoined me to keep it a secret, the gods of the theater command me to tell you that the additional expense of hiring a second troupe has been entirely borne by His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor Thomas Penn.”

The applause this time had energy to it. Thomas stood again and waved benevolently, especially at those seated on the floor below.

“Well done, Thomas,” Temple murmured. “That’s what money is for.”

Brackenham scooted off the stage.

The curtain rose on the façade of a building, behind which hung a canvas painted with forest and a night sky. The façade was a reasonable simulacrum of the Slate Roof House, William Penn’s original home and seat of government, until John Penn had begun construction on Horse Hall. The Slate Roof House still existed; Thomas had been born there, as had his sister Hannah. As his own children would be, once Thomas got around to finding a bride.

Hannah had died there.

Thomas found he was gripping the arms of his chair with such force that his fingers hurt. He inhaled deeply and tried not to think of his sister’s face, bloodied and twisted as she finally died.

Really, once Thomas brought peace to the empire, and appropriate glory to his own name, the right bride should be easy to find. She would come to him.

The night sky images were surprisingly accurate and showed the circumpolar region; the Big and Little Bear, the Dragon, the two Thrones.

A scene began to play out slowly on the stage, involving some actors dressed as Lenni Lenape and others as Englishmen. The one English character without a periwig would be William Penn, sometimes called Friend William or Simple Will, Thomas’s ancestor and the first Landholder.

A man with painted face, skin dyed dark and head shaven, wearing a feather headdress, stepped forward to address the audience.

“I believe I’ve seen that fellow before,” Temple Franklin said. “Only he was dressed as John the Baptist and he stood munching carob beans on the back of a wagon filled with sand.”

“What else should I be doing with my money?” Thomas asked mildly. “Since you have a view, that is.”

“My comment wasn’t sarcastic.” Franklin looked at him sharply. “Use your money to buy loyalty. Buy guns, when you need them. And buy Electors, whenever you can get them.”

Franklin didn’t know about the payments Thomas made to the Chevalier of New Orleans, but the conversation was drifting perilously close to that point. Thomas changed the subject. “You haven’t yet discovered the location of the other two children.”

“My men work on it. It’s only an assumption that one of the children was taken by Lee or went with that sapphic Catalan thief.”

“Smuggler. But since the first was taken and hidden by Thalanes, it seems a good guess.”

The actor dressed as an Indian droned on in blank verse, enthusing his way melodramatically through a prologue.

“The inference is probable. But remember, Thalanes didn’t hide the first child with a Cetean monk, or among the Firstborn. He didn’t take her to his own people. Instead, he put her with Andrew Calhoun.”

“Irritating old bastard,” Thomas muttered.

“You should have let me go after that one, rather than send the preacher.”