The Preacher's Apprentice
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“Brother Fuller, I wonder if you might lend me your countenance this morning.”

Herman finished drying his face with a towel, and caught Samuel Winter’s eye in the piece of polished metal the caravan used for a mirror. The reverend's eyes were crinkling a bit at the edges, his broad-brimmed hat tilted up in the wan predawn light. A good sign - Winter in an expansive mood was more pliable and less apt to sermonize.

“It’s my honor as always to accompany you, Brother Winter. Only let me fetch my coat.”

Though Samuel Winter's own hue, through a quirk of genetics, was as pale as a cloud in a summer sky, his features proclaimed his African ancestry. This combination was useful in drawing a crowd and holding their attention. News of Winter's arrival brought the curious as well as the penitent to the revival tent, regardless of who lived there. In many other situations, however, it put the senior preacher at something of a disadvantage despite his personal gravitas.

By contrast, Herman had a way with words, an air of barely restrained menace, and was unambiguously white. His own understanding of who constituted the superior race was based on an entirely different set of measurements, and he exploited his advantages ruthlessly. Keeping the caravan’s costs down in humdrum transactions like wrangling with city clerks and buying supplies added up to more money they could spend on making the services more interesting. They were almost flush enough to buy a bigger tent.

Traffic on the avenue was sparse and businesslike at this hour, mostly carts bearing perishable goods from the farms to the south towards the center of the town. Everyone seemed determined to be cheerful, to plow all their memories of the war into the soil, as the soil itself had already swallowed the blood and the ashes. The creak of wheels and the plodding of draft animals blended in with the songs of distant birds.

“I must say, Herman, your message on the miracle of the loaves and fishes has become quite the crowd pleaser.”

“All to the glory of the Lord.”

Winter smiled, but his glance was shrewd. “There are times I wonder, my young friend, if your ambition to see how many bodies you can pack into that tent is drowning out the still, small voice of our Savior in your heart.”

“A hungry mind is a distracted mind, Brother. And the more sheep we bring into the fold, the more who may have ears to hear the gospel of truth,” he replied, mouth running on reflex while his mind raced to catch up. This was a new topic. He wondered what Winter was getting at. In their previous discussions, he’d always warmed to Herman’s enthusiasm for concocting new tweaks and innovations to the service.

"I don't doubt your energy, or your ability. My concern at this moment is with the peace of your spirit, with understanding the motivation that led you to the Lord's service." His shrug was eloquent. "Unlike many of those who travel with me, you had other options. And this seems a propitious time to inquire…"

There was a long pause. Herman chewed on his lip and waited it out. He couldn’t spin a counter-argument until he understood what he’d done that the preacher found troublesome.

“Forgive me if I intrude on a delicate matter. But it seems to me your dreams have been less troubled of late.”

Herman’s eyebrows shot up, and almost without realizing it he let out his breath in a long, slow whistle. That was definitely new.

For long months after joining Brother Winter, he’d been too caught up in learning the ropes of his fast-paced new life to think about much else. And, Herman admitted to himself, he’d been too self-conscious at first to even approach his most pressing problem. The night Herman had left home, his older brother Aloysius had used the flesh-carving talents that ran in their family to wrap a snakelike coil of Herman's own skin around his neck, and had used it as a choke collar to torment the younger boy.

Herman had been conceived with a continental acquaintance - an ordinary man, whose name no one ever saw fit to tell him - at their mother's husband's funeral. Outliving her mate had put Madame Fuller in a decadent, festive mood. In the eyes of the mundane world, the boy was legitimate: the last child of the senior Mr. Fuller, who had died in a tragic hunting accident. But it was known among their own secretive community that Madame Fuller had flouted custom and gone outside their carefully curated bloodlines to flaunt her own power. She had survived the attack by a rival clan that had claimed her husband's life, and those who had opposed her were now her cultivars. This meant Herman had inherited considerably less talent in sensing and shaping the hidden potential of living flesh than either of his siblings, and no one outside his immediate family would condescend to teach him.

The sheet of canvas separating his tent from that of the next man had seemed far too thin, his own ability so paltry there was no chance he could work on it quickly. Or painlessly. Once he grew confident enough to try, he came to understand Mother’s draconian insistence on cleanliness in fleshcraft in a whole new light. The “snake” was fed from one of the major arteries in his neck, and working on it himself, in the dark, by touch, would have been much messier without a set of reflexes honed by years of terror. The caravan did their laundry communally. Herman had employed considerable ingenuity to be able to wash the one rag he dared to sacrifice to the task without calling anyone else’s attention to the suspiciously large amounts of blood.

The bigger problem was that it wanted, for lack of a better word, to remain in place. His brother Aloysius was older, had had more lessons and was, damn him, full-blooded. He could make the thing get up and dance with a stern glare and a wave of his elegant hand. Herman, however, needed peace and quiet and total concentration to fumble his way into the power. He would start at the narrow tip every time, tugging the delicate, questing tendrils up bit by bit, careful to break as few as possible. If they broke, they bled. If they touched his skin elsewhere, they sank in and clung. And long days of traveling, breaking camp, setting up camp, doing chores, preaching sermons and sitting through endless discussions of a god whose flesh none of them had actually tasted left him too worn out for more than a brief struggle.

It had taken him the better part of a year to reach the night where he’d peeled it up, stretched it out to its full length, and laid it flat down the center of his chest. In poor light he could almost pass it off as a scar. The next day, he had surreptitiously tossed the fraying, bloody rag into the morning campfire. Watching it burn had been one of the happiest moments of his life. And truthfully, in the weeks since, he had slept deeply and dreamed not at all.

He hadn’t realized Winter had heard him, had interpreted Herman’s tears of pain and frustration as the groanings of a troubled soul. The other young men in the crew tended to be awake in the small hours wrestling an entirely different sort of snake, though they had (for the most part) learned to be quiet about it.

“The decision to leave my family was not an easy one,” he said, feeling out the implications as he spoke. Risky to tell too much truth, or too little. “The evils of avarice, the temptations of the flesh - I wanted to make a clean break, to set my feet on a more righteous path. But my heart was conflicted.”

“Even if your absence did not leave them in want, you know that you are still your brother’s keeper.” Winter sighed, clasping his hands behind his back. “And to wonder whether your calling is true, or you have merely run from your responsibilities? That is a heavy burden for any man's heart to bear.”

“My brother was my keeper,” Herman growled, surprising himself with his vehemence. “If I had stayed, I would have been his puppet. Marching to his tune.” He shook his head. “The only roads worth taking lead away from that place.”

The town had grown denser and more bustling around them as they walked. Winter stopped on the shallow wooden steps that led up to the courthouse. “King Daniel descended into the den of the lions. And they did him no harm, for the Lord was with him.”

Herman closed his eyes, deliberately willing his fists to unclench. “Brother,” he said after a moment, ”your faith is greater than mine.”


The permit fee was reasonable for a change. Even better, the chatty city clerk had been more than happy to give him tips on which local grocers, wainwrights and farriers would gouge them the least. After a short stop at the postal service counter to pick up the twine-wrapped bundle of the caravan’s mail, Herman strolled back to the lobby with a spring in his step.

To his surprise, he found Winter deep in conversation with a dapper stranger who looked to be in his mid twenties. He had an English face, a Virginia accent, and a hat and suit in the height of New York fashion that would have set them back the price of another three new wagons.

Herman liked him instantly and instantly distrusted the feeling. A man he perceived as a kindred spirit was no one you wanted to turn your back on.

"Brother Fuller, I trust our business went well?"

"Can't complain."

Winter chuckled. "A wise decision. I've been pleased to make the acquaintance of Mr. Carter here. Mr. Carter, Herman Fuller, my apprentice and right hand man."

"Mr. Fuller, delighted to meet you, sir." He extended a hand to Herman. "Hezekiah Carter, at your service. Zeke to my friends. I was just telling the reverend that I consider this meeting fortuitous in the extreme."

Herman shook hands absently, trusting his nose to pick up on the subtext. Under the urbane exterior, Zeke was a man who'd been at the long frayed edge of his patience. "How might our humble traveling church be able to assist you, Brother Carter?"

“Straight to the point.” He flashed a disarming smile. “My uncle’s business recently acquired the manufacturing and distribution rights to a new kind of electric loud-speaking device. We had a small demonstration all set up for the next town hall meeting, but - well. Some, ah, internal rivalries on the city council seem to have slammed the door on us at the last moment. My uncle wanted a test of the device under field conditions, with a dash of local publicity, and may I say he is a man who values results.”

“And what will it cost us to help you produce these results?” There’d been genuine fear in that bit about his uncle, Herman judged. Maybe this wasn’t some hotshot grifter.

Winter frowned, and seemed about to object, but Carter broke in.

“No, no, that’s an entirely fair question, I’d have asked the same. We expect a short speech on the wonderful new equipment on loan from Carter Premium Acquisitions, and for the loud-speaker to be used throughout the night’s service.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Assurance that the device works as expected under field conditions, and publicity which might attract potential buyers. Not,” he glanced apologetically at the reverend, “that the workaday worshippers at a migratory revival tent are our usual class of customer. Tomorrow’s town hall meeting was to have had some local attendees of considerable influence. But you draw a crowd, you’re highly public, you’re all I can get in a pinch and I’m due back at the home office in two weeks.”

“I’m inclined to accept this generous offer,” Winter said firmly. Herman acknowledged this with a slight nod; it was Winter's operation and his call. “It seems a wholesome and beneficial addition to our evening, and we’d be doing our neighbor a kindness in his hour of need.”

"That's magnificent news, reverend. You have my gratitude. I'll alert my assistants at once."

"If you're willing, Brother Winter, I'd like to go along with Zeke to see this loud-speaker myself, and consult with him on how to arrange it for best advantage," Herman said, sorting out the mail as he spoke. If there was more going on here than met the eye, he didn't intend to let Carter out of his sight if he could help it.

All of a sudden he froze, staring down at the mail in his hands as if it had just grown fangs and bit him. There, among invoices and advertisements and letters from grateful attendees was an envelope that looked utterly out of place - the heavy cream paper, his name written out "c/o Brother Winter's Revival Caravan of Hope and Mercy." The familiar looping calligraphy.

Mother.

Herman recovered rapidly enough, he hoped, to avoid notice. But he barely heard his mentor's agreeable reply as he turned to toss the advertisements in a dustbin, slipping the letter into an inside pocket, body shielding the movement.

How had she found him? Why had she bothered, after all this time, to look? She'd been fond of him, of course, as the living symbol of her own ascendance to the head of the family. Which had in turn precipitated her rise to pre-eminence in the shrunken circle of American practitioners of Nälkä who'd survived the Civil War. But he'd never actually been of use to her, nor had there been much hope that this would change. Aloysius, besides his otherworldly talents, had a healthy amount of ambition and ruthless cunning, and Lucretia was so far above him they'd stopped bothering to test each other. Herman could not for the life of him imagine what Mother wanted, yet it might be worse than fatal to refuse her.

Carter grinned at him again, riffling through a few letters of his own as they exited the courthouse. His speculative gaze promised aggravating questions. Whatever the other man thought was the cause of Herman's unease, it apparently amused him. At least someone was amused.

He did not have time for this right now. That letter had probably been in the mail for months - he could wait a few days to read it. Miles away from here. In private. Inwardly, Herman began to curse in every language he knew.


Cousin Zeke,

Sorry to have sent you out on a wild goose chase like this. If you're reading this you're better than halfway home, and it looks like you'll have to do quality testing on the way back rather than use the labs here. Father says to run this through the front company. As far as the men in our department can tell from the documents we got, this one will work as advertised. Father needs tangible proof before he can even suggest it to the other partners for his upcoming project.

The Fairfax city council are small fry; I did what I could with them but this area doesn't have much of interest for us. We've heard Mitterling will be there, though - get to him if you can. Rumor has it his mechanical innovations are something out of the common way. I'd rather get him thinking it's his own idea to work for us before Father does something rash. Reliable engineers are hard to come by, and if this loud-speaker doesn't work, Marshall's boys are likely to pay this lot a visit. It would be best to have a replacement lined up beforehand.

I've sent copies of everything I've got that might help you. Keep it close, and be careful. The whole reason Mitterling's relocating is he's had a rash of thefts and vandalism at his previous workshop. My best guess, based on local intelligence, is he used to be of a more orthodox disposition and his former friends consider him a heretic.

Hope to see you soon, and in the best of health (for both of us),

Justus Carter

Today, in the itinerary Justus had sent, was marked down for making a series of calls to what passed for influential men in the area. Hezekiah had planned to discuss the upcoming town hall meeting with them, impress them with the firm's majesty and omnipresence, and feel them out for potential purchases. The apprentice preacher who'd attached himself to Zeke like a surly, glowering lamprey only underscored how badly this trip had already gone wrong. Now he was mentally revising his list with a hatchet as the two of them strode down the lane to his rented lodgings.

The overlap between "men uncle Ruprecht would be interested in seeing walk into his office looking to make a purchase" and "men who would attend evening services at a traveling revival tent with a mass of filthy laborers" was virtually nonexistent. His uncle would be furious. Then again, uncle Ruprecht seemed to spend his life in alternating (and occasionally simultaneous) states of apoplectic fury and withering sarcasm, which impressed his wealthy clients and drove his staff to heights of terrified genius.

This whole madcap enterprise, from start to finish, was nothing more than Carter overreaching his responsibilities within the firm. Zeke knew it. His harried cousin Justus knew it, and furthermore knew better than to write it down. It was impossible to imagine Darke not knowing it. Half the reason his uncle was driving them so hard on this was that he had to present a fait accompli or risk reprisals from the other partners.

Zeke reflected, with growing ebullience, that as long as he followed the spirit as well as the letter of his instructions, none of the resulting debacle would be his fault. If the worst came of it, why, it would have come no matter what he did. He'd been put in an impossible situation. The only proper response to an impossible situation was to improvise.

He turned to his traveling companion.

"After we've inspected the gear, would you mind delaying our departure for a few hours? I have some business associates in town whom I absolutely must call upon today."

Fuller cocked his head, apparently taken aback. Perhaps he had expected a different question. "And I'm supposed to wait with your assistants until you return?"

"If you prefer, but I was very much hoping you would be willing to accompany me. Advertise both our wares in concert, as it were."

The young preacher looked adorable when he was at a loss for words. Zeke almost swooned. But no, this was a religious fellow, best not to ask. Not right away at least. He wondered if he had a sister.

"I'm game," Fuller replied, smile tugging at the side of his mouth. "Let us go forth to spread the gospels of the Lord and Carter Premium Acquisitions."

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