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Running the Snake

Will Shaxpur stood before the queen, trying not to look at her breasts. This was difficult, as they were bare, painted bright blue, and court custom dictated he raise his eyes no higher than her knees, where (she being a lady of advanced years) they happened to be resting, like a pair of elderly robins.

He twisted his hat in his hands. “I can’t imagine how it happened, ma’am.”

“Can’t you?” The Living Boudicca, Andraste Twdwr, high queen of Greater Brithan, leaned back. “We find that hard to believe. You were defrocked for imagining, as we have heard.” She nodded at her chief druid, Volsinghome.

Volsinghome smiled balefully. “Expelled, madam. For having the temerity to imagine he could improve the sacred texts.”

“It was only the hymns,” said Will. “I made them scan. And, er, adjusted the imagery a little.”

“And, having blasphemed, you were sent from the sacred island in disgrace, and now you damn your soul by persuading weak-minded fools to abandon our ancient gods—” Volsinghome’s tirade was cut short as the queen raised her hand.

“We will thank you to remember, little druid, that it has pleased us to welcome strangers and their faiths. And if it pleases us, it pleases our gods.” She fixed her gimlet stare on Will once more. “Now, boy. Tell me how it was my son-in-law was found dead in the temple of Glycon.”

He had been working Temple Street, minding the horses of wealthy worshippers. Will found that a smile and a bow as he handed back the reins might earn him a thrown copper. However, a smile, a bow, and an apt quotation from Homer—or Catullus, or the Mahabharata, or the Avesta, depending on the place from which the patron had emigrated—got him silver at least, and the patrons remembered him. Now and again patrons gathered around and challenged him to other tricks of memory, and of course he could recite as much as they wanted of anything he knew.

Busker economies being precarious at best, his fellows on the street had suffered from the competition. One afternoon, after holding a crowd spellbound with the Thebaid, Will was gleefully scooping coins from the pavement into his hat when he encountered four pairs of feet planted across the remainder of his earnings. He looked up, and his heart sank.

There stood Wat the Fire-eater, and Bran the Juggler, and Empidocles who did sleight-of-hand tricks, and most notably there stood Soumaoro the African Balladeer, who was seven feet tall and wore a model of Cleopatra’s barge in his wild hair. When singing, he would sway his head in such a manner that the barge rocked to and fro, exactly as though it sailed black foaming seas, to such striking effect that until lately he had been the top earner in the street.

“You. Shaxpur,” he said. “We hear there are lots of people who appreciate poetry on the other side of the river. We think you should go there.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of Southwark. Will blinked up at him.

“Why, certainly, gentlemen,” he said, knowing better than to argue. “If you’ll just step to one side so I can collect the rest of the take, I’ll be on my way.”

“Take what you have and go,” said Bran, smacking one of his juggling clubs against his thigh with a meaningful look. He picked up a silver drachma with his toes, flipped it into the air, and caught it with his free hand. “We’ll collect the rest.”

“Look, I earned that—” said Will, and broke off as he saw the dagger in Wat’s hand.

“You know, I don’t think you’ve ever paid dues to the Guild of Street Entertainers,” said Soumaoro. “Druid. How many weeks has he been peddling his act on our street, boys?”

Will was calculating his chances of escape when the Fates threw him a crust. A pair of arms encircled him from behind and a voice, heavily accented, screamed next to his ear: “Beware! This man is touched by all the gods! He has been chosen for a momentous destiny!”

Will turned his head and looked into the shawl-draped face of a fat man. He had wild bulging eyes and an immense mustache. The man screamed again. “Momentous destiny, I said! Leave the money, my friend!”

“Fortunate mortal!” chimed in a second voice. Will swiveled his eyes and saw another man to his left, young, tall, and handsome, with a mane of fair hair. “Beloved of the gods!”

“And who might you be?” said Soumaoro, scowling.

“Why, friend, this is Scorilo, the famed Dacian soothsayer,” said the tall youth. Will meanwhile felt himself being dragged backward by the fat man, and the youth stepped in front of them. “Look! Riches!” He held up a fistful of coins and opened his hand. As the members of the Guild of Street Entertainers scrambled for the money, Will’s rescuers hurried him away.

In a sad-looking Roman taverna, over bowls of wine, they had made him their offer.

“We are victims of religious persecution,” explained Alazon, the youth.

“We fled the crushing grip of Caesarion-imposed Mithraic monotheism to the pantheistic sanctuary of your green and pleasant land, so graciously offered by your beautiful Queen of Queens,” said Scorilo.

“We’ve been watching you for days now,” said Alazon. “Look, we said to each other, here’s an educated Brithon! Knows the classics by heart, speaks eight languages fluently, lovely speaking voice.”

“Yet, incredibly, he seems to be down on his luck!” said Scorilo. “How, we asked ourselves, can this possibly be?”

Briefly, Will related the series of misunderstandings that had gotten him booted out of the druid seminary at Mona, which did, in fact, amount to more than a few rewritten hymns. When he had finished, his new friends looked at each other and smiled.

“Mocking the bards, faking divine possession, and poaching! Can it be you haven’t a great deal of respect for the gods?” said Scorilo.

“That might be the case,” said Will sourly. “Yet see, gentlemen, the wages of impiety. I’m as talented a man as you’ll find in a long summer’s day; I can pull your tooth, cure your fever, paint your likeness, sit in judgment on your small claims, sing you all the lays of old Rome, foretell the hour of your death, and recite a solemn prayer over your ashy bones. And, thanks to that unwise moment of levity at High Bard Amaethon’s expense, I now scramble to earn my bread in the gutter.”

“What if impiety could be made to pay?” inquired Scorilo, with a coy leer.

“What if, indeed? I’m listening.”

“Well then!” Scorilo leaned across the table. “My colleague and I operated a profitable concern in Pergamum, before Caesarion XXIII sent in his priests. Given the nature of our business, it seemed like a good time to relocate.”

“And the nature of your business was—?”

“Soothsaying, what else?” said Alazon. “Divinations, relaying messages from the dead, that sort of thing. Scorilo’s a true prophet! Runs in the family. His great-great-several-times-great-grandfather was the one who persuaded Julius Caesar to stay home, the day Mark Antony was assassinated.”

“We like to think of ourselves as purveyors of consolation,” said Scorilo. “Now, your cosmopolitan London seems a perfect place to set up shop. Unfortunately, we are strangers. We would benefit by having a native-born partner in our enterprise to advise us concerning local laws, customs, and so forth. You might be that partner.”

“Could you be a little more explicit about the enterprise?”

“A time-honored dodge known in the trade as running the snake,” said Scorilo. “Introducing to an unenlightened populace the profitable worship of the great god Glycon.”

“And who would Glycon be?” inquired Will.

Alazon smiled. From under his cloak he drew a small basket with a lid, and opening it he drew forth a tiny snake. He set it on the table. “Say hello, Glycon.”

“Hello,” said Glycon.

Will gaped at it, until he remembered Enoch the Ventriloquist, who used to ply Temple Street with his talking dog. He grinned. “Tell me more,” he said.

There were a few former residences of Roman gods down at the eastern end of Temple Street. Of late years, with the increasing turmoil on the continent, the Roman immigrant population had increased; but they tended to worship at a pantheon over in Knightsbridge nowadays. Therefore the owner of the old shrine to Apollo was happy to sell it at any price, given that the roof leaked and the foundation had cracked. He pocketed the money Will paid him and went his way chuckling. Will and his associates moved in and made their preparations.

The busy hour of the morning had just come to Watling Street when, seemingly from midair, a naked youth appeared in the middle of the street. He frothed at the mouth, he pranced and tossed his wild hair, he cried out in an unknown language. Ordinarily no Londoner would have looked twice at him—there were plenty of naked madmen in Brithan—but this madman was so extraordinarily well endowed, and his wild hair so abundant, that not a few matrons forgot about shopping and stared, rapt. Tradesmen and idlers followed suit, and soon there was a crowd.

As crowds will, they followed him down Watling to Temple Street, where he mounted the steps of the old shrine to Apollo and stood straight. Raising his arms above his head, he began to speak coherently. Will, who had discreetly joined the crowd, prepared to translate for him; but a Greek oil merchant beat him to it.

“He’s telling us a new god is born!” he said. “He says, uh, we’re three-times-blessed. He says the great god  . . . Glycon, son of Asklepios, grandson of Apollo, has come to live among us. In this very temple. And  . . . he himself is the god’s priest.”

“He does look like Apollo,” said an elderly wine merchant.

Alazon, for it was he, sprang down from the steps and scrabbled in the mud at the base of the temple’s foundation. With a triumphant cry, he held aloft a goose egg. Running back up the steps with it, he broke it open and stared a moment into the shell; then held up the little snake that had been hidden inside, coiling and twisting on his fingers as the morning sunlight warmed it.

The crowd murmured. Will shouted, “It’s a miracle!”

“Yes!” cried Scorilo, from the other side of the crowd. “A miracle!”

The crowd took up the cry and repeated it. Scorilo began to froth at the mouth and shriek, babbling; Will slipped a piece of soapwort root into his mouth and, chewing briskly, produced a fine lather; then he ran to the steps, where he proceeded to fall as in a frenzy and deliver the same message in eight languages, one after another:

“The god speaks! He bids you return here tomorrow at the same hour! He will have an important message for you then, but now he is weary from his journey into this world and would rest!”

This impressed the crowd to no end, for Will was clearly a native-born Brithon. Alazon turned and, with a graceful flash of his buttocks, bore the snake godling into the depths of the old shrine.

It was a much bigger crowd the next day, and accordingly a much bigger snake was produced for them—a python purchased from a Bharati sailor, so docile and well-trained, it would submit to wearing a false head made of painted canvas, with a human face and flowing wig. Alazon, whose body had been colored gold with a liberal application of turmeric rubbed into his skin, sat on the high dais in the shadowed rear of the temple, with the snake twined about his body.

Will and Scorilo, divinely chosen acolytes, admitted the curious throng. When the temple was full they closed the street doors, which threw the place into stygian gloom; one dim oil lamp flickered above the dais, so it was almost impossible to see the snake clearly. Yet it was plain he was a living creature, as the flamelight winked now and then on a slowly moving coil.

“Good people!” Will raised his hands. “Behold how Great Glycon has grown, in one day! Soon he will be able to speak to you directly. Until that time he has appointed us to make his intentions known. True son of Asklepios, he comes to heal and to advise you with gifts of prophecy. Pleasing to him are votive offerings of gold and silver. Great Glycon accepts all currencies in any denomination.”

“And I, his prophet, carry messages!” Scorilo sprang up beside the dais. He had circled his eyes with soot, so as to make their stare even more startling, and he swept the crowd with his wide gaze. His voice echoed like rolling thunder. “Hear me! Great Glycon says there is a man here who has committed infidelities! If he is to avoid detection, he must purify himself in the sacred waters of Glycon’s pool and make an offering of gold! Yes! You! Great Glycon knows your name!

“Great Glycon says further that there is a woman here who wishes to conceive a child! If she will come in private to the sanctuary at nightfall, with an offering of silver, Great Glycon will ease her sorrows. Yes! You, dear lady! And the man who has received a troublesome letter recently  . . . and the man whose son is not sufficiently respectful  . . . and you, the woman whose daughter loves an unsuitable young man!

“Great Glycon has counsel for each of you. Do not wait, but come soon to make offerings!”

The golden stream began to flow that very night, and in a matter of six months Will was richer than he’d ever been in his life.

Scorilo had improvised suitably general prophecies to keep people coming in until they had enough cash to remodel the temple. The back wall had been knocked out and a sanctum sanctorum built beyond, even more dimly lit. There Great Glycon was installed, or rather the articulated puppet-head Will built for him, wonderfully realistic if seen in the dim light of the temple and from a respectful distance. There were besides yards and yards of snake body, painted canvas stuffed out with bombast, which could be made to move by various means.

Several steam-operated devices were installed, old stage tricks to miraculously open the inner sanctum’s doors or provide a battery of awe-inspiring sound effects. The scummed-over reflecting pool at the rear of the temple precinct was cleaned out and stocked with water lilies and Cathay carp.

“And we ought to build a dormitory back there,” said Will, one night as they sat around a table, opening sealed prayers to Glycon.

“Dormitory? What for?” Alazon held the blade of his knife in the lamp flame, then slid it under the wax seal and popped it off intact. Will looked at him in surprise.

“So that supplicants can sleep back there and have their dreams interpreted next morning,” he said. “That’s how it was done in the temples of Asklepios. You’re a Greek! Surely you knew that.”

Alazon shrugged. “He was obliged to leave his native land at an early age, to escape the tyranny of the One True Faith,” Scorilo explained. “So his knowledge of the old Olympians is necessarily imperfect. It’s not a bad idea, though, my learned colleague. ‘Dream interpretation available with a slightly higher donation! Enjoy a spiritually refreshing night as Glycon’s guest!’”

Alazon, reading the prayer he had opened, snickered. “Listen to this one. ‘O Great Glycon, I am subjected to ridicule by my wife and business associates because of my baldness. Please grant that my hair grows again and I will offer you a golden ring set with a perfect amethyst.’”

“Poor bastard,” said Will ruefully. He took the scroll without reading it—indeed he could not read, but had memorized its request—and re-affixed the seal. “What’s the name on this one?”

“Geoffrix Thorkettle.”

“We’re getting a lot of Brithons as converts now,” said Scorilo. “Your druids aren’t going to be happy about that, eh? Do we need to offer them a bribe?”

Will shrugged. “We might. They’ll hate us anyway, but there’s nothing they can do. Not as long as Andraste’s on the throne.”

“Gods save the queen!” said Scorilo.

Will, standing before Glycon’s sanctuary, swayed slightly and put his hand to his forehead.

“The god speaks to me . . . he has a message for . . . for Geoffrix Thorkettle!”

“Oi!” A man wearing a hood raised his head and pushed his way to the front of the crowd. Will put out his hand and Scorilo gave him the appropriate scroll.

“Here is your still-sealed petition, its contents known only to yourself and divine Glycon,” Will intoned. He gave the scroll to Master Thorkettle. “Divine Glycon says: ‘Mortal, bear patiently what the gods have seen fit to inflict. Caesar himself suffered your state without complaint, and him the gods favored to father pharaohs.’ Praise Glycon!”

“Thanks be to Great Glycon,” said the man, looking dejected.

“And now . . . ” Will summoned the next name from his memory. “The Divine One informs me—” He broke off, hearing the shouts and seeing the crowd surge to avoid the oncoming chariot. Four milk-white mares drew it, led by a man in the royal livery who shouted:

“Way there! Way for the most puissant Princess Arnemetia Dudasmede! Her consort, Anextiomarus, earl of Gloucester! Her son, Vellocatus!”

“What the hell?” said Scorilo out of the side of his mouth, and in Greek.

“It’s the queen’s second daughter,” replied Will in the same wise. “Quick! Go tell Alazon. She’ll want to talk to the god himself.”

The chariot pulled up before the temple steps. Glycon’s supplicants cleared a path for the princess, falling to their knees as she ascended; Will himself dropped to his knees, fists clenched until he heard the faint thump that meant that Alazon had scrambled into the compartment under Glycon’s sanctuary and thrust his arm up the god’s neck.

“Welcome, gracious Princess! Welcome, noble princes to the sanctuary of Divine Glycon!” Will prostrated himself.

“You may rise,” said Princess Arnemetia, with a wave of her hand. Being only a princess, she was not obliged to go naked or paint herself blue, nor had she her mother’s flaming hair; she was a sallow brunette. Her son, a sullen-looking teenager, had inherited her looks and a clubfoot besides. The prince consort was a florid man in early middle age, puffing slightly from climbing the stairs. Heart disease, Will thought, studying him with a druidic eye. Aloud he said:

“How may we priests of Glycon serve, madam?”

“We would consult the god on the matter of our husband’s health,” said the princess. “And some few matters concerning our own interest.”

“Please step within,” said Will, bowing them into the temple. He shut the doors behind them and presented them to Scorilo. “This humble servant of the god will lead you in prayers first. Complimentary holy water, brother Scorilo, of course.”

“Of course,” said Scorilo, rummaging in his purse for coins to feed the vending machines. Will backed out of the royal presences and then ran like a hare behind the drapes concealing the inner sanctum. He paused long enough to make certain Alazon had lit the boilers under the mechanisms, and then scrambled under Glycon’s lair. Spotting Alazon’s feet, he crawled close enough to whisper:

“It’s Princess Arnemetia. The husband’s the earl of Gloucester. He’s got progressive heart failure, or I miss my guess. Tell him to drink willow-bark tea for breakfast, hawthorn leaf tea before bed. Got it? And the son’s with them, and he’s got a clubfoot and is known to have seizures, so—”

“Tell them it’s a gift of the gods because Caesar and Alexander had them,” said Alazon, ducking his head to wink at Will. “Got it. Do I tell her she’s going to inherit the throne?”

“No! We could hang for that. Stay away from anything to do with the succession. Just, you know, imply great things will happen and her name will live forever and so on.”

“And she’s . . . ”

“Arnemetia!”

“Right.”

Will backed out of the crawlspace, got to his feet, and ran back just as the unearthly note sounded that signified the show was about to start. He stepped from behind the curtain into the outer sanctum, where Scorilo was praying with his hands raised and the royal family lip-syncing in an attempt to follow. The sanctuary curtains parted, as if drawn by unseen hands.

“Our prayers have been heard!” yelled Scorilo, falling to his knees.

The great doors swung open of themselves, and there, within a sort of booth, rose Great Glycon. He blinked his startlingly lifelike eyes. He opened his mouth.

“Welcome, royal Arnemetia, beloved of the gods!”

“We are made,” said Alazon smugly, counting out the day’s take. “A royal patron. It’s all nectar from here.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Will. “It all depends on whether or not the princess outlives her sister. Berecyntia, the older one.”

“Which one’s going to get the throne when the old lady dies, eh?” said Scorilo.

“The older one, of course,” said Alazon, but Will shook his head.

“We don’t always follow primogeniture here. The princesses may engage in single combat to decide who gets the throne. More likely they’ll make their consorts fight.”

“But the throne will pass to the nasty boy in any case, eh?” said Scorilo.

“No,” said Will. “There’s Damara, the third sister. She’s still at school. And anyway the boy’s damaged goods; he can’t sit on the throne. It’s our law.”

“Groups of threes!” Scorilo drew his shawl over his head. “That’s bad, women in threes. Three Fates. Three Hecates. I feel a foreboding in the cosmic ether.”

“That’s the fish you had for lunch,” said Alazon, and bit a gold piece.

With royal favor, Glycon had become more than just another new god; he became fashionable. Courtiers, at least those of Princess Arnemetia’s party, had flocked to the temple in droves. Alazon had found himself with a dozen or so very young admirers of both genders, who were eager to jump into bed with Glycon’s high priest. His attention to their needs spiritual and temporal had left Will and Scorilo to see to running the temple, and unfortunately Scorilo had developed a taste for Brithish cider.

So it was primarily Will who had overseen the miracle cures, sitting up at night as supplicants slept in the rear of the temple around the new statue of the god. It was Will who had bowed in the earl of Gloucester, arriving for a private slumber session with the god; it was Will who had made up a sumptuous pallet for Anextiomarus, and dimmed the sanctuary lights, and bid him pleasant dreams. It was Will who sat in the rear chamber, going over the earl’s symptoms (indigestion, toothache, generalized joint pain) in his mind, composing a prescription that could be plausibly worked into the interpretation of whatever dreams the earl would have reported in the morning.

Though of course he hadn’t reported any, because when Will crept out into the sanctuary at first light, the earl had been lying there stone dead, grinning, with a stonily erect penis and two immense fang marks in his arm.

“Were you aware,” said Volsinghome, “that when we autopsied him, we found the distance between the wounds was exactly the distance between the canine teeth of a man? And has not your god a man’s head?”

“But Great Glycon is a nice god,” said Will desperately. “Why would he kill one of his worshippers? Especially a royal one?”

“Fool! How can you pretend to know what foreign gods will do? They cannot be trusted! They have overrun this island with their filthy foreign ways—” Volsinghome’s spittle began to fly. The Living Boudicca looked sidelong at him, and sighed.

“Volsinghome, you may retire. We would speak with this man alone.”

Glaring, the high druid stalked from the room. The queen turned back to Will. “Listen carefully, priest. We know well our son-in-law was murdered, and by no gods. But you must prove it. You say you were awake in the anteroom by the sanctuary the night long. Did you hear nothing suspicious? Did you leave the antechamber at any time?”

Will drew on every memory trick the druids had beaten into him on Mona. The night replayed itself for him, at high speed and in perfect detail. “Only once, ma’am. And that was only to see that all was well with the earl.”

“Why?”

“Because I heard . . . ” Will’s eyes widened. “Because he cried out. And there was a splash; I thought he might have gone sleepwalking and stepped in the fish pool.”

“Had he?”

“No. He was sitting up in his bed, rubbing his arm. He lay down again without speaking to me. Then he began to laugh. I thought he’d had a funny dream. I went back into the antechamber. A little later I heard him coughing. I would have gone out again, but it stopped.”

“Which arm was he rubbing?”

“The right one,” said Will.

“Which was the arm that was wounded, my druids tell me.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Will hung his head, imagining the noose already around his neck. “That must have been when he was bitten. But I saw nothing when I looked out, I swear.”

“He laughed, you say.” The queen looked opaque, unsmiling. Her hand clenched a moment on her spear. “And you use the word bitten. Do you truly think something bit him?”

“Well—no, ma’am.” Will dared to look up. “At least, not Glycon, because—”

“Because Glycon is a clever puppet,” said the Living Boudicca. “Tush, man, did you think we hadn’t already found out as much?”

Will fell to his knees. “Oh, great Queen, be merciful. We never meant to mock the gods! Only to make money.”

She waved him to rise, impatiently. “Which is an honest desire, compared to what some men lust after. Little man, you have our protection, as far as we may give it. Volsinghome and his party will make political capital of this death, if they can; they will incite the people to fear foreign gods. They cannot see that it is in our interest to shelter fellow polytheists.”

“Your Majesty is indeed a loving and merciful great mother,” said Will, heart pounding.

“No; Volsinghome is a fool,” said the queen. “Caesarion converts with the sword, and his one-God priests are ruthless in suppressing any thought they do not approve. What happens then? The best minds of the east flee his empire in droves. Because we offer them refuge, they bring us their skills, their inventions. If rogues like your accomplices come with them, it makes no odds; our nation grows rich all the same.

“Perhaps Volsinghome fears that foreign gods are stronger than our own, in which case we don’t think much of his faith,” she added, with a fearsome sneer. “Perhaps he simply dislikes seeing brown faces in the marketplace, or smelling strange spices in the air. Ha! We will not shape our state to suit his delicate nerves. We absorbed his Saxon race and remained Brithan; these hordes too we shall gather in.

“And therefore we have made our decision. We shall announce that it was a man, and no god, who killed the earl.” She pointed her spear at Will. “But you must furnish us with some plausible proof of murder. What made the splash you heard, little Master Shaxpur?”

Scorilo and Alazon were packing frantically when he returned.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Down to the river at midnight,” said Alazon. “We steal a boat, we go over to Gaul. Coming with us?”

“No,” said Will. “I had an audience with the queen.” He looked around the sanctuary, thinking hard. “Has anybody been out to feed the fish this morning?”

“What?” Alazon turned to stare at him.

“It’s all this rain,” said Scorilo, with a groan. “Makes their brains mildew. Where are you going?” For Will had turned and run out to the pool in the rear of the temple precinct. They followed him.

“Oh! Look at that!” cried Scorilo, falling to his knees in dismay. “It’s an omen! A terrible omen!”

“Damn!” said Alazon. “Those fish cost a fortune!”

For all the red carp in the pool were now floating belly up, quite dead. Will was pacing along the edge of the pool, peering down into the water. He went into the antechamber long enough to fetch a pair of tongs from its fireplace; coming back he knelt on the pool’s coping and, using the tongs, carefully pushed aside the lily pads to look beneath. “Ah,” he said.

“What have you found?” Alazon ran to his side.

“The murder weapon, I think,” said Will. Using the tongs, he drew out a long slender object. It was a tin novelty backscratcher in the shape of an arm and flexed hand, the sort that tourists brought back in hundreds from Cornwall every summer. This one had a twist of thick wire wrapped around the hand, the two sharp ends bent downward. Will pulled his sleeve down to cover his hand and picked it up, swinging it experimentally. It punched two neat holes in the surface of a lily pad, just like fang marks.

Will peered at the wire points again. They were discolored.

The murderer had clearly scaled the rear precinct wall, which was not especially high, and left in the same manner. The following day a body was found floating in the Thames, a thin and ragged man with a cut throat. Oddly, he had not been robbed; he had a golden guinea in his purse.

The verdict on both the beggar and the earl was murder by persons unknown.

Standing at the late earl’s pyre, as Scorilo chanted hastily improvised funeral rites, Will watched the royal family and wondered just how much was known. Princess Arnemetia and her son looked daggers across the flames at Princess Berecyntia and her husband, the earl of Kent, where they stood by Volsinghome. All three were smirking, making no effort to conceal their glee. The queen looked on, impassive, her eyes hooded.

Oddly enough, the temple of Glycon grew more crowded than before. Princess Arnemetia was loud in her unshaken faith. Young Vellocatus let it be known he had spent all his pocket money on most puissant curses, and such a touching act of filial piety was sure to bring his father’s murderers to justice. Before a packed audience of courtiers and celebrity chasers, they knelt together without Glycon’s sanctum and prayed for justice. The great god, stammering a little, was heard to promise that death would swiftly find the wretched sinners who had dared to defame him.

“You have an awful lot of murderers in this country, do you know that?” complained Scorilo. Will, who had been composing a new prayer to Glycon as Guardian of Innocent Lambs, looked up, startled.

“What?”

“And your cider gives a man a damnable headache too,” said Scorilo, dropping down on the bench beside him and fanning himself. It was two days to Lammas, hot sticky weather. “All I wanted were some anodyne powders for this hangover. Hermes the Egyptian had a nice little apothecary shop in Silver Street. Had, notice I said. Somebody laid him out beside his mummies last night. The place is all closed off and the street wardens won’t let anybody in. What am I to do about my headache, eh?”

“Willow-bark tea,” said Will, leaning back again. “You can get it anywhere.” He was about to close his eyes so he could concentrate on composition when his attention was drawn by the royal messenger, ascending the steps of the temple. “Oh, shite—”

“Priests of Glycon!” The royal messenger brandished his spear. “The Living Boudicca commands the presence of Master Shaxpur!”

Volsinghome was just emerging from the audience chamber as Will was ushered in. He wasn’t smiling now; in fact he looked at Will with something like fear as he hurried past him.

Nor was the queen smiling as she received Will. Andraste Twdwr seemed to have aged twenty years in the month since he’d seen her. She looked at him bleakly and said: “You are a clever little man. I wonder if you are clever enough to solve another murder?”

The royal messenger and a brace of royal guards escorted him to the mansion of Princess Berecyntia. Grim-faced street wardens blocked the door, but as they stood aside to let Will enter, there was fear in their eyes too. He was marched in through the house and out to the back garden, which sloped down to the Thames. There was a big pavilion there, its screened windows standing open. In the pavilion was a bed, lately slept in but empty now.

“The princess and her lord took their rest here last night, as was their custom in summer’s heat,” said the royal messenger. “The servants slept in the house. None of them heard anything untoward. At daybreak the earl’s valet came out to wake his master, and found him gone, nor was the princess to be seen.”

Will was opening his mouth to suggest they had simply gone swimming when he saw the track on the floor of the pavilion, clear in a layer of summer dust. It circled the bed, a strange looping sprawl of a print full of smaller marks . . . scales? It looked something like the track a snake would leave, but a snake of monstrous size.

“Was it your god devoured them, priest of Glycon?” demanded the valet, who had followed the guards out to the garden.

“No,” said Will steadily. “But we were meant to think so.” He squatted to look more closely at the curious print. Here and there beside its length was a little parallel track, not continuous, a thin dragging mark such as might be made by a twig. In some places it paralleled the left side of the main print; in some places it was on the right. Will tugged at his beard, studying the print a moment longer.

He rose and looked at the bed itself. Not a drop of blood, but the bed-clothes were in wild disarray: sheets flung aside, pillows here and there, the blanket wadded up on one side of the bed. But nothing on the floor. Nothing to obscure the scuffed print. Will bent down and looked again at the print’s pattern. It reminded him of something . . . he crouched farther and peered under the bed. Gingerly he reached under and pulled close what he saw there, and stared at it a moment.

It was a scaled and stubby thing, like a mummified hand with black claws. A brown bone protruded from one end.

Will stood up abruptly. “You have been charged to help me solve this murder, haven’t you?” he said to the royal messenger.

“I have. You agree it’s murder, then?”

“Most foul,” said Will. “Take me to Silver Street, if you please.”

It was early afternoon when he was once again admitted to the presence of the Living Boudicca. He bowed low. She regarded him with a flinty stare.

“We see we were not mistaken in our judgment of you,” she said, in a hoarse voice.

“You have been told, then, ma’am.”

“We have. Both of them in a fresh-dug grave in Hampstead. Not a mark on the bodies to show how they died, but the strangest thing: they shared their grave with a stuffed crocodile. A three-legged one, no less.”

Will nodded. “And now I must grieve you further.”

She shrugged. “We may sorrow, but we doubt we will be surprised. What have you to tell us?”

Will wondered how best to break the news. “You may have heard, ma’am, that the crocodile was stolen from an apothecary’s in Silver Street.”

“We had. They murdered the poor devil for it, it seems.”

“So it seems. He did not die quietly; there would appear to have been a fight. His jars of mummy-dust and his curative powders were knocked over and broken. His murderers left tracks in the dust. There were three of them; two men, both barefoot, and a boy, shod. And the boy’s shoes—”

“Showed that he had a clubbed foot,” said the queen.

“Yes,” said Will. “And the crocodile was taken to drag along the floor of the pavilion, to make it look as though a great snake had been there.”

A long silence followed. “We expect his mother put him up to it,” said the queen at last. “Though he’s poisonous enough to have had the idea on his own.”

Will cleared his throat. “There was also evidence, in the shop, that one of the men cut his foot on a broken jar. If the servants’ feet are examined—”

“Yes. We take your meaning. You have done well, Master Shaxpur.”

“I am sorry, ma’am.”

“We don’t know that we are,” said the Living Boudicca, tapping her fingers on the haft of her spear. “Berecyntia was a murderess. Just as well she was stopped before she made a habit of it.”

“Ma’am?”

“Shall we tell you how we became queen, little man?” Andraste Twdwr looked him in the eye. The unaccustomed familiarity unnerved Will, for her gaze was like a spear, but he met it steadily. “I was young, and in those days fair; my sister Genupa was much older, and not so fair. As the years drew on and she bore no children to her husband, she came to envy me my state. Our aunt Magaidh was queen then, growing old.

“Genupa’s husband lusted after me. The gods know I didn’t want the man; but Genupa caught him trying to kiss me, at a drunken banquet, and she went mad. She challenged me.

“Aunt Magaidh gave us weapons and bid us fight it out. Poor Genupa was no fighter; she rushed at me, screaming, and fending her off I wounded her in the shoulder with my spear’s point. She came at me and I blocked again, and again, and so we circled each other, as Aunt Magaidh looked on in silence.

“Genupa began to laugh. She laughed, and staggered as though she was drunk. She shouted at me, hateful things, but happily, as though I were crawling in the dust at her feet. At last she tripped on the haft of her own spear and fell sprawling. I stood back and waited for her to rise, but she never rose. I heard her choking and ran to turn her over. She was past rising; she died then and there, grinning like a skull.

“I stood, weeping. I looked at the point of my spear and saw the poison smeared there, and my aunt said: ‘She was old and barren, and not so clever as you. This granted her an honorable death. And now there will be no dispute over the succession.’

“My aunt died not long after. I inherited her throne and the secret of the poison. It’s rare potent stuff, brewed in the east, reserved for kings. It kills quickly and painlessly. The victim experiences euphoria. You will remember how Arnemetia’s husband laughed, that night, after he’d been wounded. To say nothing of his other symptoms.” The queen smiled bitterly. “I have never kept it; I detest poisoners. But Berecyntia obtained some easily enough, from Caesarion’s ambassador. I made her confess as much.

“Well, well. What to do now, Master Shaxpur? We have no doubt it will be proved that Arnemetia had her sister killed. And there is the matter of the poor little Egyptian apothecary. Who answers for his blood?”

“That is not for me to say, Majesty,” said Will, bowing his head.

“Quite so.” The queen stared into space. “We must bear it alone. It’s one thing to kill off a mere consort; another thing entirely to kill your own sister. We will hand her over to the druids, she and the boy. It is good for the people to see that no one is above our justice.” She looked down at Will. “But we fear Great Glycon has been the cause of too much trouble. We think it were best your friends pack up their puppet and seek their fortunes over in Gaul. You, however, must remain here.”

“I, Majesty?” Will began to sweat.

“Even you.” The queen looked at him critically. “You are not a fool; your wit pleases us. You must not end your days telling fortunes in Gaul. We have another fate in mind for you.”

A veiled girl entered the room then, and drew back when she saw Will.

“Come in, girl,” said the Living Boudicca. “We sent for you an hour since.”

“I was reading,” said the girl, a little sullenly. “And may speak to no man.”

“The case is altered, child,” said the queen. “Holy Modron can do with one less nun in Her service. You will be queen after us, now, and this man will be your consort. Look upon him.”

Affronted, the girl raised her veil and glared at Will. He was already breathless from shock, and now he gasped. Princess Damara was young and fair as her mother had been once, with the same coppery hair. Her eyes, however, were green as the sea. She regarded him steadily a moment, before shrugging.

“He’s handsome enough. I don’t mind about his hair. Still, you can’t mean to marry me to a commoner?”

“Of course not,” said her mother. “That’s easily fixed. What say you, Master Shaxpur, to an earldom? Oxford, we think. Yes. Ought to suit you nicely.”

 

Originally published in Sideways In Crime, edited by Lou Anders.

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ISSUE 128, May 2017

writers of the future
 

galactic empires
 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kage Baker

One of the most prolific new writers to appear in the late '90s, the late Kage Baker made her first sale in 1997, with "Noble Mold," the first of her long sequence of sly and compelling stories of the adventures and misadventures of the time-traveling agents of the Company. Her Company novels include, In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game, The Life of the World to Come, The Machine's Child, Sons of Heaven, and Not Less Than Gods. Her other books include fantasy novels The Anvil of the World, The House of the Stag, and The Bird on the River, science fiction novel The Empress of Mars, YA novel The Hotel Under the Sand, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key, about some of the real pirates of the Caribbean. Her many stories were collected in Black Projects, White Knights, Mother Aegypt and Other Stories, The Children of the Company, Dark Mondays, and Gods and Pawns. Her posthumously published books include Neil Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, Neil Gwynne's On Land and Sea (with Kathleen Barholomew), and a collection, In the Company of Thieves. Baker died, tragically young, in 2010.

WEBSITE

www.kagebaker.com

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