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Chapter 2

Thorn hesitated before pulling open the crooked door to the shop. Even from outside, the place reeked of tobacco smoke and sage. Lois had definitely directed her to one of those hole-in-the-wall places a person could pick up tonics, love potions, lotions, or amulets to protect against, well, whatever people in Baton Rouge thought they needed protection from. Thorn looked forward to learning more about how the city worked. Thorn pulled the door all the way open and stepped inside.

The shop was dark, the only lighting coming in from around the poorly-hung door, a few cracks in the walls, and several large candles on shrines set around the walls. Each shrine contained items of different colors; what they all had in common appeared to be bottles of rum. Clumps of drying grasses and leaves hung from the ceiling rafters. The wall spaces in between the shrines contained shelves of candles, candlesticks, small dolls, and plain wooden boxes marked with symbols.

Thorn’s curiosity pushed her to take a closer look at all of it, including the shrines, but the steely gaze given her by the one other person in the store stopped her.

The other person was a teenaged girl with her wavy hair pulled tight back behind her head. Her hair and skin were a reddish brown; no doubt she had both black and native ancestors. That wasn’t uncommon in Louisiana. The short briefing Thorn had received had included a few facts about the French, Indian, and black populations that had settled the state. Even more than the other Western Confederacy states, Louisiana had journeyed through the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, largely independent of any outside forces. Maybe it was the French heritage. Maybe it was the swampy terrain. But Louisiana was the odd duck of the Confederacy. It did not resemble the small sections of Arkansas and Alabama she had seen.

“What you need?” asked the girl. Her irises were so black, Thorn couldn’t spot her pupils, which was slightly unnerving. She wore multiple strings of black, white, and purple beads around her neck; some were even fixed into her hair. The purple dress she wore was simple and faded.

Her accent was one of the odd sing-song versions of English Thorn had been listening to in the streets of the city since she’d arrived. The people in the governor’s office, where she was currently undercover, spoke with a long, slow drawl that always made Thorn think they sounded like they had just woken up from sleep. Everyone else Thorn met spoke in a dialect that incorporated a lot of French, and more than likely, a few Indian or even African words. Most of it was completely incomprehensible to Thorn, which she found frustrating, but she was trying to learn at least a few words and phrases. Anything could be helpful to know if she had to go on the run. When you were undercover, going on the run was always a distinct possibility. Best to be prepared.

“The mosquitoes are bad here,” said Thorn in her best Atlantan accent.

The girl just kept looking at Thorn.

“What can I do to get the mosquitoes to leave me alone?” Thorn asked. “Do you have anything like that?”

“Plenty of stuff here for mosquitos,” said the girl. “Both to keep them away, and treat bites. But I can’t tell you which one might be best. You wait here.” The girl sighed and got up slowly. She peered around a curtain that seemed to divide this room from one further back in the building, though it was difficult to tell in the hazy gloom of the shop.

Thorn tried to listen to what the girl said, but she was not speaking English. Sometimes, it seemed to Thorn that everyone here spoke French. It had only been recently she’d noticed that people spoke several dialects of French. The French Thorn had heard when Lois spoke to her husband was different from the version she heard now in this shop, which actually sounded more like the French she had heard from Governor LeCroix.

So, while she had first theorized that the white population of Baton Rouge spoke a different French from the black population, she had concluded after a few weeks that the difference was between those raised in the city, like LeCroix and this girl, and those raised in more rural areas, like Lois and her husband. She suspected the governor could move easily between dialects, as he had never seemed to be at a loss when Lois spoke to him in French, but how many people knew both dialects was a puzzle Thorn had not yet sorted out.

The girl stood aside and a matronly woman shuffled into the room. She was shorter than Thorn, her hair a hazy gray, and her skin so black it seemed to have a bluish tinge. Her eyes were milky white and stared sightlessly straight ahead. She wore a shapeless white dress with a bit of lace around the neck and hem. The only jewelry she wore was a small silver pin on the left chest of the dress. Thorn couldn’t see the design, but the pin looked like the medal of the Virgin Mary that Lois wore around her neck on holy days. The figure on the medal looked different, but Thorn had no idea who it might represent; she hadn’t been raised in any particular religion and still found most of the versions she’d been exposed to more confusing than comforting.

The woman said something. This French sounded more guttural, as if some of the vocabulary weren’t French at all. Though Thorn’s Union soul was occasionally irritated by the various dialects of French she’d encountered in Baton Rouge—why did there have to be so many?—her natural curiosity about languages had been piqued more often than not. Still, she hadn’t learned more than a few pat phrases.

The girl, eyes cast down at her feet, said, “Madame Bois D’Arc wishes to know why you are here.”

Thorn was taken aback. Couldn’t the girl have told the woman what Thorn had just said?

“Well, the mosquito bites are keeping me up at night,” she said. “They itch so much I can’t hardly stand it. Miss Lois from the governor’s office recommended I come here.”

The woman walked unsteadily toward Thorn, who held her ground, even though the woman seemed to be pushing a wall of…of something out in front of her. It was as if the air got thicker and heavier and smelled more like death the closer the woman got to Thorn. Thorn desperately wanted to back away from the woman, and the air of malice that seemed to accompany her, but she didn’t. She wasn’t going to be bullied by a feeling.

Strange shadows appeared to flit around the room. Damn it, the herbs burning on the shrines probably contained hallucinogenic properties. Thorn would not be surprised. The people in Baton Rouge spoke of spirits and magic and burned incense, lit candles, and sprinkled potions on themselves, their loved ones, and their surroundings in the same way most people talked of the weather or their hobbies. Thorn had long expected to start seeing odd things considering the amount of talk about such swirled around her. She had absolutely no doubt that some of the things in the shop could make one see things that the locals would credit to visions brought by spirits.

When the old woman stood in front of Thorn, she stopped, leaned forward, and sniffed loudly. She cocked her head and made an odd gesture with her left hand while mumbling. The girl, who was still standing back against the wall with her eyes downcast, said. “Madame Bois D’Arc says the lotion won’t work on you. You’re not from here.”

Thorn guessed the odd gesture was a way to ward off evil. Had Lois also been regarded as someone bringing evil into the shop, or was Thorn just lucky?

“That’s right,” said Thorn, doing her best to ignore the menace and the creepy moving shadows. “I’m Danielle Ashbury. I came here to be on the staff of Ambassador Pritchard from Atlanta.”

“You lie,” hissed the old woman, quite clearly, in English.

“I…what?” asked Thorn.

The woman put a gnarled hand in the center of Thorn’s chest. Her skin was so hot, Thorn felt it almost like a brand, even through her shirt. “Your blood isn’t from here,” said the woman. “The spirits don’t recognize you.”

Thorn was confused. What did spirits have to do with a cream or lotion that would alleviate the misery from mosquito bites? Still, she filed that information away; every crumb could be useful at some point.

“Spirits? I thought all I’d need would be some herbs.”

“Herbs have no power without the spirits,” said the old woman. “And the spirits do not know you. Your blood is not like ours.”

A dark shadow seemed to pull itself together at the back of the shop. The shadow appeared to be wearing a tall hat and to lean rather jauntily against the doorframe. Thorn’s eyes widened. The feeling of menace from the old woman was eclipsed by the sense of danger emanating from the shadow in the doorway. Thorn balled her hands into fists and refused to turn and run from it. She was not going to be bullied by a hallucination. The burning herbs around the room had to be at fault for fooling her senses.

“Spirits know who’s of the blood,” said the old woman. “Not you.” She leaned in close. Her breath smelled of chicory coffee. “You hide yourself, Daughter of Ohio,” she whispered so softly Thorn wasn’t even sure she heard correctly. “The spirits know.”

Thorn’s knees nearly collapsed under her. No one except the ambassador himself knew she was only pretending to be from the Free States, that she was a Union plant on his staff.

“I’m on the staff of the Free States’ ambassador to Louisiana,” said Thorn evenly, being extra careful to keep her adopted accent in place. “That’s not a lie.”

“No, it’s not,” said the woman dismissively with a deep chuckle that chilled Thorn’s blood. Goosebumps raised along both arms and her neck. She fought the instinct to back away from this woman and get out of the shop. Every nerve in her body seemed to be yelling at her to run. “Still, Little Miss, I’ve got nothing here that will help you.” The woman’s accent was so different from what Thorn was used to hearing that it took her a few moments to assimilate everything the woman had said.

“Where should I go, then?”

The woman shrugged. “Somewhere else. I just tell you, watch out for those who would trick you from traveling the path laid before you. M’su Diable is sure to find you if you wander off.” The woman turned and hobbled away, passing right through the shadow in the doorway, which did not move as the woman went by and through it. The girl never raised her eyes, even after the woman had disappeared behind the curtain into the back room.

Thorn suppressed a shudder. How had the woman known she was a spy, and not just a member of the ambassador’s staff? What had her odd last statement meant?

Thorn turned and left the shop, relieved to be back outside in the bright sunlight. She felt as if the sun’s rays were washing away whatever darkness had begun to cling to her inside the shop.

She shook her head to clear it. The outré atmosphere of the place had played on her imagination, or the smoke from the burning herbs on the shrine, but that was over now.

As much as she had disliked Atlanta, Thorn missed it dearly now. This place, with its alligators and shops of magical items and French-speaking people suspicious of foreigners, was intriguing, but also unnerving. For the first time in her life, she felt truly adrift, trapped in a place where her understanding of how the world worked simply didn’t fit. Louisiana was different, almost as if it were another world entirely.

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