Witchy Winter – Snippet 20

“I didn’t send the preacher. I was simply unable to stop him. I sent Berkeley and the Blues, and little help they were.”

“For all we know now,” Temple continued, picking up the earlier thread, “Ferrer i Quintana did take one of the children, and delivered it to a cloister of Acadian beguines.”

“So what do you do?”

“We look. We have men on the gulf and on the Mississippi, searching for the smuggler. We have rewards posted for information about her. And of course, the Blues who survived the debacle on the Serpent Mound and were picked up by the company all report seeing William Lee. He’s been in New Orleans for at least a decade, so we’re looking there for evidence of one of the children.”

“You should look in Johnsland,” Thomas suggested. “His military adventures had made him quite a favorite there.”

Temple nodded. “The fact that he’as been in New Orleans all these years rather than in the Chesapeake suggests possibly that he is unable to return to Johnsland . . . that he is outlawed or unwelcome. Or possibly it could suggest that he deliberately avoids the place in order not to draw attention to something that is there. In any case, I have agents in Johnsland looking now.”

“You’ll have heard the song, of course,” Thomas said.

Temple raised his eyebrows.

Thomas sang:

Johnsland ladies have sharpened beaks

Say nothing but “caw!” when they’re asked to speak

Johnsland ladies have sharpened beaks

Earl Isham sings coo coo, coo coo

Earl Isham sings coo coo

Johnsland ladies all sit on eggs

Naught but feathers to cover their legs

Johnsland ladies all sit on eggs

Earl Isham sings coo coo, coo coo

Earl Isham sings coo coo

“I didn’t know that one,” Temple admitted.

“So much for your intelligence network.”

“He was a great falconer once, you know.”

“In the chambers of his own mind, perhaps he is a falconer still. But I’ve been led to believe that instead he has become the falcon. In any case, these seem like easy questions,” Thomas said. “And yet there are two children at large.”

“Brother Onas!” the prologue called. “Brother Onas, do you hear me?”

Thomas wouldn’t have noticed the line, except that he happened to turn his head at that moment and saw the actor standing at the edge of the stage, arms spread wide, face upturned and facing . . . Thomas.

As was most of the crowd.

“Damn me if they aren’t expecting you to answer,” Franklin said softly.

“I’m not in the play,” Thomas whispered.

“Lord Thomas,” Temple chuckled. “You are the play.”

“Brother Onas!”

Thomas stood. Brother Onas was an old name that sometimes referred to his ancestor William Penn. The actor playing Penn now knelt in front of the Indian, as if he were receiving communion, while the Indian faced up to Thomas.

As staging, as drama, it was satisfying. Mortal Penn knelt. Thomas was Penn Transcendent, invoked to participate in this scene, whatever it was.

He wished he’d been paying attention. Still, he assumed the Jupiter pose of his Horse Hall portrait, at the same time resting his hand on the hilt of his Mars-sealed saber to hint at his powers of conquest.

“I am here!” he called.

The audience applauded, but the actor didn’t move.

“Brother Onas!” he called again. “Do you hear me?”

“I hear you!” Thomas cried. The feeling that all eyes were on him was beginning to fade from a sensation of merited love to the feeling that he was pinned to a card, as if by some spirits-stinking member of the Pennsland Philosophical Society.

“Brother Onas!” the actor declaimed again —


Thomas felt punched in the chest. He stepped backward, struck the seat with the back of his knees, and fell to the floor.

“Lie still!” Temple Franklin dropped to the floor beside him with a thump that shook dust from the carpet. The spymaster looked over his shoulder at the theater’s ceiling.

“Did you see who shot me?”

“No.” Franklin didn’t seem rushed or troubled.

“You’re quite calm about this.”

“No one will shoot you now. And I believe your bodyguard will apprehend the shooter momentarily, if they haven’t already.”

Thomas looked down at his chest. His ribs hurt where he’d been struck, but the fabric of the Town Coat was whole, and he wasn’t bleeding. Probing at his ribs with his fingers, he winced, then found a hard lump in his coat pocket. He put his fingers into the pocket . . . and found the bullet.

“Clever trick, that,” Temple grunted, dragging himself up to hands and knees.

“This is another thing I’ve been doing with my money. Protecting myself.”

“I know. Keep doing it.” Temple sniffed the air. “Do you smell fire?”

“With you practically lying on top of me, I mostly smell your toilet water. Which is definitely not the lady’s perfume I smelled coming into the booth.”

“Fire.” Franklin frowned. “There’s not supposed to be a fire.”

Supposed to be?

Temple crawled to the box’s curtain and poked his head through. Smoke billowed out.

“Fire!” Temple coughed.

“Fire!” someone yelled in the theater below.

Thomas heard the rattle of a sudden stampede of people. He crept to the low wall and banister separating him from the theater and peered over it. In a box opposite, he saw two of his dragoons wrestling a pale, thin man to the floor. Raising himself slightly, he saw the crowd fleeing for the exits.

“The dragoons have captured someone,” he reported.

Franklin reemerged from the curtain. “The stairs are blocked. The dragoons are arresting Oloas Kalanites, a young Ophidian gentleman attached to the Prince of Tawa.”

“You said you didn’t see –” Thomas caught himself. “You arranged this.”

“Of course I did. You weren’t in danger.”

“You’re winning me sympathy.”

“And resentment and suspicion for the Ophidians.”

“Don’t you think I would have preferred to know in advance?”

“Yes.” Franklin looked Thomas in the eye, both of them on all fours. “But you are a terrible liar, Thomas. I planned on you getting shot, and then looking the impervious hero because you are the impervious hero. If you thought you had to act the part of the impervious hero . . . well, just trust me.”

“And the fire?”

Franklin dragged himself ponderously to his feet, coughing. “I didn’t plan the fire. That troubles me.”

The actor dressed like an Indian had a rope in hand and rushed across the stage. The far end of the rope was anchored somewhere out of sight above the stage, and the actor threw the rope over his shoulder, gripped the proscenium arch with both hands and began to climb. The arch was ornately carved, an explosion of galloping horses and clashing swordsmen, so there was plenty to grip.

“Lord Thomas!” the actor called. “Are you harmed?”

Smoke billowed out from behind Thomas, causing to cough ferociously. “I’m fine, dammit. Just glad you’ve stopped calling me Onas!”

“Yes.” The actor’s eyes were fixed on picking hand- and foot-holds, but Thomas thought he smiled. “Well, that was the play. And I think tonight’s performance has been canceled.”

The actor was tall and thin, with the kind of long muscles that made a skinny man stronger than he appeared. He climbed easily, and within moments was stretching from the proscenium to grab the balustrade of Thomas’s theater box.

Thomas heard dragoons shouting at the bottom of the stairs.

“Your Imperial Majesty, you must take this rope,” the actor said.

“The hell I must!” Thomas dragged Temple Franklin forward. “This man goes down with the rope. I’ll climb.”

Franklin tried to argue, but his words collapsed into dry coughing each time. The actor threw a leg over the banister and sat astride it as on a horse, quickly knotting a bowline around Franklin’s chest.

“Will it hold him?” Thomas asked.

“I protest,” Temple said weakly.

The theater box’s curtain burst into flame. Thomas seized Temple Franklin by one side of his coat and the actor seized him by the other, and together they threw Temple over the edge.

Franklin swung in a straight line for the center of the stage. Rushing with his feet just inches off the floor, he then crashed right into the center of the painted scenery representing Horse Hall. The wooden palace façade collapsed back into the stars and Franklin bounced back the other way, stopping when two actors in periwigs grabbed him by the shoulders, hanging on him and snapping the rope.

“Can you climb?” the actor asked, extending a hand.

“I can jump,” Thomas said, and he did.