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New Paris Benjamin Franklin crouched low on hands and knees, pressing his face toward the ash gray soil. The forest surrounding him chirped, clicked, and hummed lazily in the soggy noontime heat.
A sudden rattling in the branches made him look up, for the forest had proven deceptive, these last few months. Sleepy it might be, but it dreamed of panther, Indian ambush, rattlesnake, and the corpse of Benjamin Franklin.
But it was only a flight of green parakeets, settling into a live oak. For the moment, the forest was not trying to kill Franklin. A Spaniard, this forest: disdaining to do much of anything between noon and three o’clock. So this was a good time to pry at the land’s secrets. Franklin knelt a little lower, wishing the Coweta hadn’t taken his hand lens when they tried to torture him to death. He needed it now. He continued his work with squinting eyes, sat up briefly, scribbled in his book, then peered back at the dirt.
When he heard the footsteps behind him, it was too late. Or would have been, if it hadn’t been a friend.
“Reading our futures there, Sir Wizard?”
Franklin didn’t turn. “Hello, Voltaire,” he said, the belated tingle of alarm fading. “They fascinate me. Look at them.”
The Frenchman crouched beside him, his long arms folded on narrow knees, a merry grin on a face that was mostly pointed chin. “I take it you mean the ants?” he said.
“Of course. See here, how they form a train to supply their city? I followed this one back—it goes to the corpse of an opossum, some twenty yards in that direction. For ants, that would be a distance of leagues, I should think. And here—these that so fiercely guard the citadel when I threaten it. Like guards or warriors.”
“By ‘citadel’ I assume you mean this little mound of earth.”
“Yes. But, again, if you give an ant the stature of a man, how impressive does his mound become?”
“Modestly so if size is the only quality you note. Even so, it would be only a very large, uneven, unlovely mound of earth. Nothing to be compared to, say, the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel.”
“The ants do not build to impress you, my friend. Given our relative proportions, which would have more space for living and working? This mound, with its tight-packed tunnels, or the Sistine Chapel, with its vaulted ceilings—space mostly wasted in vain grandeur? The ant’s eye is all toward efficiency.”
“Ah. They are perhaps German, then, or English. There are no French ants, I suppose?”
“Butterflies I suppose to be French,” Franklin replied good- naturedly. “Fireflies and lacewings.”
“Would that you were right.” The philosopher sighed. “But it was no horde of butterflies that laid waste Europe, no lacewing that left that hole where once London was.”
“No, I suppose not,” Franklin said absently. He bent to watch two ants meet. They seemed to exchange information of some sort, then scurried off purposefully.
“No empty greetings or pleasantries, I’ll wager,” Franklin murmured, “no small comments. It’s all business with them. The food is there, danger is here, the south tunnel needs repair.”
“You admire them, then?”
Franklin looked up at last, his brow furrowed slightly. “They interest me. Each time we stop, I try to find one of their cities, and indeed they are everywhere. It is not so much to say, I think, that below our feet, scarcely noticed, is an empire we are all but unaware of. Seen from the right prospect, the world could be said to be ruled by ants.”
“Yes? And yet now that you have brought them to my notice, I could destroy their great city there. I could bring this outpost of empire to naught.”
Franklin dusted his hands on his breeches and stood. “Four days ago we passed over ground still smoking. Everything green was burned, and all four-footed things had either fled or succumbed. I found ant cities there scorched black by what must have been terrific heat—and yet they were there. Knock down a mound, and it will be refurbished in the space of a day or two. And then there are the million cities elsewhere, scattered over all the world. For all our greater size and knowledge, I can think of no way we could destroy the race of ants, not utterly.”
“Now I see your studies have a more than theoretical bent,” Voltaire said. “Who do you liken to the ants—mankind or the malakim?”
The very word still sent a tremor through Franklin. He wished his old mentor, Sir Isaac, had named them differently—from the Latin or Greek rather than from the Hebrew. The latter held too much of the fear and fire of the Old Testament.
But then, the malakim were fear and fire.
“We are their ants, I think,” Franklin replied, “living beneath their heels, usually unnoticed. Occasionally we notice them—and worship them as gods, angels, or devils. And occasionally they notice us in turn and grind us beneath their heels.”
“But never all of us, no more than we could grind out all the ants. Is that what you’re saying?”
“They’ve failed until now. But we haven’t learned the trick of setting the ants against each other, to pit one city against another and send warriors to the deepest chambers of their catacombs. But the malakim seem to have perfected the science of turning man against man. There are men happily inventing more ways for those aetheric devils to kill us every day.”
Voltaire nodded. “The malakim seem quite determined to exterminate us. More determined than I should be to destroy the kingdom of ants.”
“Perhaps if you had been stung enough, you would have a different opinion. I’ve heard that in the Amazon, there are ants that march as an army and can strip clean a living man in a few heartbeats.”
“The ants turning the tables and destroying the man? Would that we could be such ants, then, so we might pick clean the bones of our unseen enemy,” Voltaire commented. “For—”
“God’s sake, are you two at it again?”
Franklin and Voltaire turned to face the new speaker, a handsome fellow with flowing auburn hair, dressed in buckskin breeches and the shabby remains of a burgundy justaucorps.
Robert Nairne leaned against a tree, folding his arms. “The world is all at war, with the angels themselves against us. We wander starvin’ in the wilderness, blood-lusty Indians at our heels, and you fellows are talkin philosophy t’ worms an’ such.”
Franklin shrugged and grinned. “The mind is an insatiate master—it demands substance even when the belly has none.”
“My poor brain has enough to chew on, trying to figure ways to help us come through this alive,” Robert commented dryly.
“And right well you do at it,” Franklin said cheerfully. “But between you, Captain McPherson and his rangers, and Don Pedro’s braves, that’s all well covered, I trust. I don’t know how to follow a trail or find fresh water, and you’ve seen me hunt! I’m best used thinking of our higher problems.”
“So, have the crawlies told you how to defeat all the armies arrayed against us, with our thirty-odd stout fellows?”
“They certainly give me ideas,” Franklin replied, feeling a bit defensive despite his oddly buoyant mood. After all, Robert was right: any sober and sincere thought proved their situation to be a few leagues south of hopeless. And yet . . . yes, Franklin was hopeful. There was no problem that human ingenuity could not resolve. How could dwelling on the negative help them?
Or worrying—say, about his wife, Lenka.
That thought must have changed his expression.
“What?” Robert asked.
“I was just wondering how the war is going. How Lenka is.”
“She was well, when I left her,” Voltaire said.
“I thought I charged you with keeping an eye on her,” Franklin said.
“She’s quite a woman, your wife. She can look after herself. You were the one who needed rescuing—we were all agreed on that.” He paused. “She did feel you neglected her by leaving her behind.”
“I nearly got her killed once. I thought it was safer for her to stay back there. I hope I wasn’t wrong.”
“If I had a woman like that, I would let her make her own decisions.”
That stung a little, and Franklin felt a sharp reply in his throat, but he swallowed it down. He wouldn’t let his worry and shame speak for him.
“What’s done is done. When we reach New Paris, God willing, we will find an aetherschreiber to replace the one the Coweta took from us, and I shall discover how she fares. Until then, I try not to worry. Hope is better tonic than despair.”
Robert nodded agreement. Then his gaze went past Franklin, and he suddenly drew the pistol at his belt, perhaps forgetting he had neither powder nor shot.
Franklin turned to follow his friend’s determined and worried stare, and saw that the forest was a lighter sleeper than he had hoped.
Franklin, Robert, and Voltaire stood on a small, grassy field, surrounded by mixed cane, brush, and a few lone oaks fringing a forest of enormous pine. Franklin saw the sun glint off steel, and his vision adjusted. In the tall cane crouched men, at least six of them, possibly many more. Indians, the long barrels of their muskets level to the ground, aimed at Franklin and his companions. And these fellows, Franklin was willing to bet, were well supplied with powder.
“What do we do?” he whispered.
“Nothing, if they want us dead,” Robert replied. “They have us fair.”
“Are they Cowetas? Would they follow us this far?”
“They might. But there is no lack of Indians in this country. They come out of the earth, like this damned cane.”
“Or your ants,” Voltaire added.
“Perhaps we should call for our companions,” Franklin said.
“You wandered some distance from them in your scientific curiosity,” Robert said grimly.
“You’re the ambassador,” Voltaire suggested. “Parley with them.”
“Ah. Yes.” Franklin licked his dry lips. “Well, I suppose they know we’re here already. Robert, put away your weapon. It’s useless anyway.”
“They don’t know that.”
“They know you can kill no more than one of them, and probably not that at this range with that popper. Put it away.”
Robert did so reluctantly.
Ben stood a little straighter, showing his empty hands.
“Hello there!” he called. “Who do I have the pleasure of addressing? I am Benjamin Franklin, appointed representative of South Carolina, and I am on a mission of peace and diplomacy.”
There followed a nerve-racking pause but finally a shout came back from the thicket.
“Parlez-vous français? Je ne parle pas anglais.”
“Oui, un petit peu,” Franklin replied. “Je m’appelle Benjamin Franklin, de Carolina Sud—”
“You are in Louisiana,” the fellow replied, still in French. “That is very far from Carolina.”
“I’ve come to treat with the French king,” Franklin replied. “I have the papers to prove it.”
Another hesitation, and then the voice said, “Come forward, you.” Franklin could see the man now, gesturing with his hand. He wore a blue French coat, but his features looked Indian.
“I’m coming,” Franklin replied.
“Hold there, Señor Franklin!”
Another man had emerged from behind them—also an Indian—a silver crucifix bobbing at his throat, a rapier hanging jauntily at his side, and barbaric tattoos decorating his exposed flesh.
“Don Pedro!” Franklin exclaimed gladly.
“The same,” the Apalachee chieftain replied. He jerked his head toward the Indians in the brush. “What do those skulking scoundrels want?”
“I’m not sure,” Franklin admitted. “They speak French.”
“Yes?” The Apalachee cleared his throat and called out in that language. “I am Don Pedro Salazar de Ivitachuca, prince and Nikowatka of Apalachee. Stop hiding, you rascals, and face me like a man.”
“There are but four of you,” the man in the woods replied. “Lay your arms on the ground or suffer the consequences.”
“You should take your own advice,” Don Pedro replied, and snapped his fingers.
Suddenly, on all sides, the forest began to move as Apalachee warriors seemed to appear magically from behind every tree.
“Much as we despise it,” Don Pedro called, “the Apalachee, too, can skulk. And now, my friend, it is you who are surrounded and outnumbered.”
Another long pause, and then the French-speaker stood. “The French king will mislike this behavior on his own lands.”
“Take us to him, then,” Franklin called back. “That is all we ever desired. Won’t you come shake my hand and let us have peace between us? What sense for this warlike behavior, when we are not at war?”
“In these days, everyone is at war,” the man replied. “But I am coming.”
He emerged from the forest a moment later. Seeing him more closely, Franklin guessed he was half Indian, for his features owed strongly to the European. He wore a silver gorget at his throat and carried an officer’s smallsword. Beneath his blue coat, his flesh was bare, save for the flap of a loincloth.
“I am Henri Koy Penigault,” he said, when he drew near, “captain of the king’s march guard and war captain of the Mobila. Stand your men down, and I will escort you to New Paris.”
Franklin clasped his hand. “Captain Penigault, it is a great pleasure. We feared you were Coweta, for they have been trying to murder us since before the last new moon.”
“Well, we have that in common at least.” Penigault grinned. “An enemy of the Coweta might be a friend of mine. Shall we meet and smoke together?”
Franklin remembered the last time he had smoked the pipe of peace, how near he had come to losing the meal in his belly. But at the moment, his belly was quite empty.
“I would be delighted,” he lied.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Posted March 4, 2013
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Posted May 14, 2010
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Posted September 22, 2010
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Posted January 23, 2009
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