The strange ship bobs on the waves of an endless ocean. Above there are no clouds, only a sky without stars and the quiescent tendrils of the Watcher. The ship is small enough that I can operate it, yet still large and threatening. The sail curves back like the fin of a titanic shark, and the prow points out like a jagged spear. We cleave through the tide like a knife through flesh, carried ever forward by an inescapable current.
Slowly, the morose surroundings change. Small vortices imply the presence of other flows. I need to hurry. More and more, my own current narrows and I catch glimpses of others. Other constructs, other actors. We are all led forward on a collision course with our knowledge and more importantly, our consent. A conflict is coming to a close. The final pieces are almost in position. Yet something is wrong. On my path there is an impossibility.
A wreck, rotten and flimsy but still very much a danger.
The ship must not change course and I know what must be done. There will be no more delay, no more obstacles. At the end of the path stands my birthright, the status that I was denied twice before by fate and casual cruelty. This time, I will not be stopped. Those who stand before me expect a fight, I will give them a war.
The dream’s warning does not fall on uncaring ears. In the following days and in preparation of my confrontation with Sullivan, I go through a flurry of measures and projects. Merritt proves herself to be a resourceful woman, just as I expected, and she wormed her way into Marquette’s respectable society by attending the tea parties that were beyond my reach. Her networking has already borne fruit, though the most curious consequence is that between the two of us we have finished mapping Marquette’s index of male sexual prowess. Quite the eye-opener. Between preparations, the necessary work and my training, the nights pass quickly.
April 25th, 1832
“Miss Lethe, come in, come in.”
The mayor’s office is luxuriously decorated in an honest attempt to equal the pomp and respectability of his Eastern counterparts. The stink of brandy and tobacco almost masks the musk of sweat and coal, though the effort is somewhat wasted by the ever-growing pile of slag I can spot from the window behind him. Sometimes, I think that this byproduct of coal mining may one day become the State’s highest elevation. The man himself stares at me from beyond his desk, with the simulated expression of someone who knows he will have to refuse a request and does not want a scene. His mask falls when his second guest follows in my steps. Without a word, we sit down and I introduce my companion.
“Sir, this is Jason Mac Mahon, a marshal from the state of Pennsylvania. He came to lodge at my establishment and I wanted to use the opportunity of our meeting to introduce the two of you, and hope we can put an end to this regrettable affair before any rumor starts to spread.”
The mayor, who has his fingers in far too many pies, blanches visibly and I allow myself a minute smile before Mac Mahon dispels his fear.
The Marshal is a gruff man in a travel-worn duster. His scruffy chops and moustaches have been awkwardly waxed for the occasion, but what really attracts the eyes are the scars. From cheeks to knuckles, the marshal bears on his body the marks of quite a few tussles and is clearly still standing. He is amusingly awkward with a bowler hat clenched between his rough hands.
“Right, good evening Mr. mayor sir. As the lady said, probably just a misunderstanding, but if it’s not, well…”
“Out with it man, what is it?”
“It’s about one of your deputies, Mr. John Graham. See, I got this here warrant for a John Graham from Philadelphia regarding an assault charge.”
“Are you telling me that one of our own officers is wanted? Unthinkable.”
“There is a drawing of him, see if you recognize him.”
Mac Mahon removes a folded poster from an inner pocket and gives it to the mayor whose eyes widen. Yes, it appears our dear judge who still refuses to hire local on fear of them being corrupted has a criminal in his employ. Our gazes meet, and I wink.
Later that night.
The man I summoned walks with hesitation down the empty street, the collar of his green jacket pulled up to ward off the constant drizzle. He steps with fear and his eyes dart left and right over dark corners as if expecting an ambush. At this time of the night, the warehouse district is empty and desolate. The rickety buildings inspire little confidence in a respectable member of society.
His face shows relief when he spots me, standing within the yellow nimbus of lantern light like an oasis in the darkness. His comfort is short-lived when he notices my companion.
No one does “looming” quite like John. His presence towers so much that he might as well be a geographical feature, one that can break an adult skull on demand. My guest falters and I smile innocently before the yellow-livered fool attempts to run away. My time is precious. My greeting sounds hollow in the deserted alley.
“Mr. Collins, thank you so much for joining me. I am delighted to see you.”
He stops five steps away from us.
“Look, Miss Lethe, if that concerns my obligation, I promise I will repay you fully by…”
My ‘come-hither’ gesture interrupts him. We are having a conversation, not a screaming match. I will not tolerate disrespect from the likes of him.
The imbecile hesitates and somewhere within John’s peculiar brain, the realization that someone is disobeying me expands like the puddle of blood from a slit artery. My bodyguard stands straighter and from this single gesture, conveys a promise of imminent violence. His prodigious spine pops under the strain of warming muscles and he slowly caresses his monstrous hands. He’s such a good lad.
Feeling the mood, Collins steps closer and swallows his saliva with some difficulty. I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down with middling interest. He smells appetizing but also, weak. I fed yesterday from a rowdy patron, no need to indulge just yet. Let’s get this over with.
“Collins. I will grant you a delay before I collect your debt. It will even be interest-free. In return, you will do something for me. Trust me, it will be to your advantage…”
The fumoir at the back of the town hall is packed tonight, and the divide between two camps could not have been more obvious to anyone with a hint of social grace. Marquette’s most influential members sit in the first circle of comfortable leather chairs while others, including myself, linger at the edge, still present but not quite as influential. The air is heavy with the blueish smoke of cigar as tensions run high, and quite a few of the bottles are already empty. Judge Sullivan sits opposite me, surrounded by a posse of Marquette’s most fanatical and self-righteous idiots. I notice with pleasure that the number is lower than a week before, a sure sign that the most recent scandal stained his previously immaculate image. The judge hired no locals under the pretext of avoiding corrupting influence and behold, one of his deputies was wanted! Truly, the man knows no shame, favoring criminal outsiders over our brave local lads. And the timing could not be worse! Just a day before the big meeting, to have a marshal drag his cuffed subordinate through the main street, for everyone to see. How very unfortunate for him.
Our eyes meet, and I blink. What? I am the very soul of innocence.
“The session is open. The honorable mayor has the floor.”
“Thank you, thank you. Gentlemen, we have much to discuss today. Without further ado, I will now proceed with our first order of business, the injunction brought forward by the honorable judge Sullivan. As you know, it is our duty and burden to oversee our community and guide it on the right path. Although the lesser races are no less deserving of our benevolent counsel, it remains our right to protect our wives and children from any depravity that they may be exposed to. Starting May the first, our community will no longer welcome in its midst neither people of color nor vagrants. Our city is safe.”
The statement is welcomed by polite applause which I do not join. Sullivan stares at me like a hawk, waiting for me to make my move. This only shows his lack of understanding. I have never talked in public for the simple reason that I am a woman, and that is enough for some to dismiss me. I very much prefer a puppet to dance for me and take the limelight. This is much more expedient.
“With that said, our nation is still a land of opportunity and we must find it in our heart to leave to others the chance that was offered to us to better our lot. Freedom and the pursuit of happiness should be extended to all regardless of their nature, and this is with great pleasure that I will now allow Mr. Collins to bring forward his proposal. For those of you who are new here, Mr. Collins owns Collins Construction and he has been a pillar of our community for more than a decade.”
More polite applause. Collins stands up and brushes imaginary dust from his elegant ensemble. He clears his throat then starts with the mellifluous voice of the consummate salesman.
“Gentlemen, good evening. It is my honor and privilege to address you today. For thirteen long years I have been part of this community. I have seen it grow, struggle and prosper. Through years of abundance and years of famine we have endured, and now we are finally taking the first step towards becoming a real city, to rival those our forefathers founded when this country was in its infancy. Like all entities, we will face growing pain, but as the leaders of Marquette it is our sacred duty to manage them as well as we can, so God help us.”
A few amen echo around us. I am rather proud of that touching religious moment. Hear this God? The daughter you abandoned still pays homage through her servant. I mean, representative.
“A population increase needs to be handled properly. For the first time in our history, we must plan our growth with vision and purpose rather than organically. That is why I propose that we open a new section of town reserved for the other races, so that they too may strive for fortune amongst their brethren. A new district for them, distinct yet with the same amenities.”
Agitated whispers fill the room at the mention of such an ambitious project, and it doesn’t take long for another notable to object.
“And who do you propose will pay for all of this?” asks a loud voice. The newcomer is twirling his massive mustache with an obvious air of doubt. That’s my good friend Andrews, my main supplier of beef and poultry for all my businesses.
“Thank you for asking, I would not waste this assembly’s precious time without an actionable plan. I, and the group of concerned citizens, have purchased the lands around the Smith residence, and we have sent a generous offer to them as well. We will fund the creation of this new district in its entirety, all for the benefit of Marquette. The only thing we require is your blessing before we proceed with construction, and that this new area be exempted from the ban.”
A wave of approving nods spreads over the assembly. Since it solves their issue without costing them a penny, most of them would be inclined to agree. I still made sure to test the water beforehand. You never know, with mortals. They get obsessed over the most innocuous of things. Like mutilation.
“And another thing. I am sure that many of you work with citizens and freemen of Kentucky down South. Some of them may even have come across Gentleman Bennings who married a black woman. Now, I don’t want to discuss his proclivities, but when he comes to town, should I tell him his spouse isn’t welcome? A man of his stature and wealth? What about other travelers and freemen? Must they camp outside the city? Should we deny ourselves business because of inflexibility?”
A series of nay sounds throughout the room. Sullivan has turned scarlet, because he knows where this is going. Anymore and he will be foaming at the mouth.
“This measure is designed to keep out undesirables, not endanger our livelihood. That is why I propose that we allow foreign visitors access to one inn so that they may stay while they conduct their business. I nominate the Dream as the most convenient location.”
A few members look my way, mostly those who were not warned. Sullivan scowls with fury. He raises his hand indicating his wish to intervene. Collins ignores him.
“With this measure, we will be ready to face the consequences of the implementation of this measure with confidence…”
The speech goes on with more details and the obligatory embellishments. I school my expression into one of polite attention and pretend I do not notice the reddening judge. Before the vote is cast, he gets his time.
“Gentlemen. Is a law a law, if it doesn’t apply to everyone?”
Andrews coughs loudly while a few angry whispers echo at the back. The word hypocrite may have been uttered. Sullivan scowls even more but he does not relent. He rambles for ten minutes on civic duty and the importance of the strict application of rules. ‘Fiat Justicia, ruat caelum!’ and all that. I watch with amused fascination as he loses the attention of even his most stalwart supporters, by repeating himself. Is this what a political wreck looks like? How can he not see the obvious? This is not the way the game is played. You do not get people to your side during the meeting. All relevant negotiations are conducted beforehand behind closed doors, in smoke-filled receiving rooms. A real politician would have understood this, what am I saying, a real politician would have seen it coming from a mile away and killed the proposal before it was submitted. The game is already over.
Before long, the ballot is cast. The mayor counts the votes himself and comes up with the final result.
“The motion is accepted by seventeen votes in favor and five against.”
For Sullivan, this is the last straw. He stands up in fury and walks in the middle of the room under more than a few disapproving glances.
“I have had enough of this!”
“Judge Sullivan, you do not have the floor, please sit down.”
The mayor’s warning falls on deaf ears. The judge is too incensed to listen. His voice rises to a sharp crescendo as he starts with the emphatic voice of the Baptist preacher.
“Don’t you see? This is your divine test. The lord is offering you a chance to repent, to abandon your wicked ways and get back into his graces. For too long this town has glorified sin and villainy, with wanton women selling their bodies with the tacit approval of all. No more, I say, no more. Pray and reconsider.”
I cower like the poor, unfairly slandered Lady I am. Oh, this is just too perfect. He is ruining the little credit the latest scandal left him with instead of biding his time. What a glorious declaration. Yes, dear judge, please insult everyone some more.
“Sir, I think you should sit down,” adds one of his supporters pointedly, “now.”
Sullivan’s expression turns stricken, but instead of answering, he stomps away under the disapproving gaze of the entire assembly. Perfect, just perfect. My victory is complete, and I did not have to move a muscle, nor to intone a single word. Ah, Sinead, I wish you were here to see this. You would say this is a play for children, but it is still a masterful one.
I hide my saddened expression behind a fan and receive more than a few sympathetic comments in the ensuing confusion. Even those that oppose me normally look aghast as their champion of justice just up and left after this final stain on their reputation. Ah, if only he could exile himself out of scorn, and then I could pursue and eat him! But alas, that would be too risky. Disappearing notables are always a pain to handle.
After a few moments, calm returns and the meeting resumes. The next order of business is of direct interest to me, and it is put forward by the mayor with my unspoken support.
“There are rumors that native tribes under the command of one ruffian named Black Hawk are marching on land that was rightfully ceded to us under the treaty of Saint Louis. We must be able to defend ourselves should they attack. That is why, I propose that we fund a militia capable of defending us against all dangers…”
A few questions follow, mostly on funding, but most of the men present agree that the prospect of armed poor white men is slightly less terrifying than that of Indian raiders, and so the Marquette militia is officially founded. Its new leader is nominated as well, a veteran of the previous war by the name of Wallace who enjoys buxom blondes and poker just a bit too much. Just as planned. As for how they will be armed, I am currently a shareholder of a Massachusetts arms manufactory that will, I am sure, make a reasonable offer. Thanks, Isaac.
The meeting ends and as I leave, there are already groups gathering to discuss what should be done about poor Sullivan. It seems like the air of the countryside just doesn’t agree with him. Probably all that coal in the air. I head back to the Dream with John in tow doing my best not to whistle.
Half an hour later, Dream’s meeting room.
“So I would call that a complete success. Now we only need to secure an armory and powder reserve for fast access, and I will make sure Wallace is under control. Merritt I’m counting on you for the armory, search around the warehouse district.”
The mage leaves with a pile of documents while Nami plays with a serrated knife, twisting it between her fingers with acrobatic dexterity. I can tell that something is on her mind.
“I would not call tonight a complete success.”
“Because in four days, I will be forbidden from walking the streets of this city. Quite the inconvenience, don’t you think?”
I am surprised, as well as a bit worried. Is she offended?
“I did not think it would bother you. Should I have opposed the measure?”
“You are pragmatic Ariane, and that is a good thing, but your sensibility is already slipping as a result. Amongst your followers, how many are affected?”
“Hm. Oscar, King, Russel, the Creek brothers…”
“And two maids and one kitchen staff. Do you think they see this as a complete success? I doubt it. You acted as you thought best. I am sure that the new district you have planned will not be the den of poverty it could have been without you, and it will increase your power and control over this place. You did not cause the misery you are feeding from, but they will resent it and you must not forget.”
I consider her words in silence. I did not, in fact, consider the victims. I never do, and this time I should have. I call Nami my friend and did not even consider her comfort.
“You’re mad at me?”
“No Ariane, this is nothing new to me. I was getting rusty with rooftop travelling anyway. I merely wanted to remind you to be careful around mortals. They are always so emotional, and forgetting this would be harmful to your interests.”
“Don’t make this face sweetling, I won’t bite. Unless you want me to? Perhaps you need a little punishment…”
“Noooo back off!”