Perfection

Delilah Thorn and Dane Rook, agents of the Union working together again, are now on an assignment as dangerous as the reptiles in Louisiana’s bayous. They’ve been sent there to find out why the state seems to be distancing itself from the rest of the Western Confederacy.

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Baton Rouge is the most alien place agent Delilah Thorn has ever been. Everything from the local cuisine to the alligators to the French-speaking populace works to keep her off-balance. Thorn is surrounded by potential enemies, a religion she does not understand, and deceit. Can she succeed in sorting through the conflicting information to understand why Louisiana has begun closing its death camps and has started to forge its own way independent of the rest of the Confederacy?

Dane Rook has finally been cleared to go into the field full-time. Though it means time away from his personal life, he is excited to get back to what he does best, this time in a place he’s never before visited: Louisiana. He is to be back-up to his old partner, Delilah Thorn. But forces conspire to keep them apart and his mission appears to be over before it even begins.

The bayous hold many secrets, and their waters are deep and dark. Can Rook find Thorn, and together, can they determine who is friend, who is foe, and do their part to support those trying to bring Louisiana out of the darkness?

THORN

The governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge was one of those antebellum homes that was held together with baling wire and chewing gum. Or, it would have been, if chewing gum were something one could acquire in Louisiana. The Western Confederacy was the poorest nation on the continent, and it could afford to import very little. Its tobacco, seafood, and cotton industries helped somewhat, but without a good way to get the goods to markets in the German, British, or Japanese Empires, many goods that could otherwise have been exported rotted on the docks.

Since Ambassador Pritchard was out fishing with the mayor of New Orleans today, and Governor LeCroix was absent, the second floor of the mansion contained merely Delilah Thorn and Lois Levallier, the governor’s secretary. Lois was hardly a chatterbox to begin with, but she certainly did not gossip or confide in Thorn, a foreigner. Thorn had become quite familiar with the upper class white woman style of freezing others out of their social circle when she’d been in Atlanta. Here in Baton Rouge, the social stigma of being different, in any way, was even worse, and Thorn had committed the sin of being both from another country, and being unashamed of it.

If Lois had even an inkling that Thorn were actually a Yankee, someone so deranged and degraded that she would barely qualify as human, she’d probably faint from shock. Thorn had sometimes imagined what it would be like to walk up to Lois and admit her bosses were in New York and see if she could actually induce Lois to shriek, faint, or even jump out the window, but she had restrained herself. Imagining the scene was fun; actually doing it in person would not be, since it would ruin her cover and probably cost her her life.

She didn’t mind the social repercussions of being from another country. Her job wasn’t to make friends; it was to find out what Governor LeCroix was up to regarding the death camps in Louisiana. The Underground Railroad, with some help from the Free States and the British Empire, had been destroying as many camps as possible, or doing its best to make them impossible to run by convincing people not to work there, or to pull up the train tracks that ran closest to the camps so people couldn’t be transported all the way in windowless rail cars. When people saw hundreds of half-dead people being dragged out of the cars to be loaded onto trucks instead, they could no longer deny the truth of the camps near their towns.

Some didn’t care, of course. Others approved. But Thorn had been surprised at the number of people who had begun to protest their government’s actions. The few white allies of the Underground Railroad had recruited others, or had recruited themselves by showing up to train depots or the camps to tear down fences, block the passage of trains, or even, on occasion, shoot someone.

The violence had been sporadic and unwelcome. The President of the Confederacy, along with the governors of Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, had found excuses to mobilize their military units to suppress protests in towns where violence had happened.

Thorn would have liked to do more about the camps directly, but that wasn’t her assignment. She got up from her desk and walked down the hall to the small room where the governor’s staff ate lunch. Lois was drinking her chicory coffee and eating a small meal of greens and pork. One thing Thorn had almost immediately adopted once in Louisiana had been the cuisine. One of the things she had not adopted was the habit of drinking hot coffee in the middle of a miserably hot afternoon. She felt overheated enough.

Greens were a new favorite of Thorn’s, as were local staples like crab and crawfish. It was only when the cuisine got to gumbo that she’d, so far, failed to develop any enthusiasm. Okra was simply too…exotic. By which she meant slimy.

Lois smiled her pasted-on fake smile, the same one she greeted Thorn with every day. “Good morning, Miss Danielle.” Her dark blond hair was limp with sweat even though she had pulled it back tightly to keep it from hanging in her face. Wisps had escaped the bun, though, and that, combined with the flush of her cheeks, managed to give Lois the air of someone who, despite fighting the effects of the heat, had succumbed anyway.

Thorn was posing as an aide named Danielle Ashbury in the staff of the Free States’ Ambassador to Louisiana, Reginald Pritchard. This was the first joint Free States-Union mission, and Thorn felt the pressure of making it go well. The Free States, formerly the Eastern Confederacy, was made up of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Up until two years ago, they and the Union had had nothing to do with each other. That was changing. The Union had placed an ambassador in Atlanta and now this joint spying enterprise had been initiated. Maybe one day soon, the border would even be open enough for people to travel from one country to the other.

So far, Thorn felt she had succeeded in pulling off being Miss Danielle.

Thorn smiled broadly in the same wide and insincere smile she had been practicing since she’d arrived, and nodded. “Good morning to you, Miss Lois. Those greens from your own garden?” The attribution “Miss” was something she was still trying to accept without embarrassment, and she felt strange using it herself, but she wasn’t going to let people like Lois be superficially friendly with her without being superficially friendly in return.

Thorn had learned early on everyone in Baton Rouge liked to brag on their home garden. This was about as foreign a concept as Thorn had ever encountered. Few people in the Union raised gardens, and no one she knew personally in the Free States did, either. Yet here, everyone had to supplement their diet with whatever they could grow at home. Food scarcity was a problem in the Confederacy, even in the capital cities.

Lois nodded. “The greens are growing real good. Real good. Maybe because Jubal shot all the rabbits that were eating them up last year. They made a great stew.”

Thorn hoped she looked appropriately impressed rather than appalled. Shooting guns within the city limits, much less killing the local wildlife in order to cook it on one’s stove, was simply something she had not encountered in the Union, or even during her tenure as a quasi-ambassador in Atlanta. The casualness of an armed populace and the importance of being self-sufficient in terms of acquiring vegetables and meat for your family was still something that felt entirely alien.

She was sure the stew had been tasty, though. One thing every woman in Baton Rouge seemed to know how to do was cook well.

“I’m sure they did,” she said in her cultivated Atlantan accent.

“I’m heading home in a bit,” said Lois. “Sammy’s been sick and Miss Bridget can only watch him until around two. You’ll be okay here by yourself?”

It was phrased as a question, and Thorn nodded, though she thought she was supposed to take the question more as a warning. You’ll be here all alone, foreigner. She wasn’t sure why that was supposed to be something that frightened her, but Lois had made it clear that being alone in the governor’s mansion was something a Free States’ woman really ought to avoid.

She supposed it was a warning that any locals who didn’t appreciate the Free States having a woman in the governor’s mansion, even if she were only an aide, would feel free to come by and teach her a lesson. The men of the Confederacy were quite comfortable with managing women and minorities with violence. All men, not just those with the police or military. What had always struck Thorn as odd was that the authorities appeared to approve of this random violence committed by citizens.

Well, if some local jackass thought to come here this afternoon to rough Thorn up, he’d get a surprise. Thorn had started out her undercover career without much knowledge of weapons or fighting, apart from being able to shoot a pistol at a target with moderate accuracy. These days, she could shoot almost anything, and fight. She wasn’t an expert at hand-to-hand combat, but she’d learned enough to take care of herself under most circumstances.

“I’ll be just fine,” she said, pasting on an even-wider smile. “It’ll be me and the mosquitoes. Could you direct me to a place to find a lotion or herb concoction to help repel them? They’re driving me crazy and I’m covered in bites.”

“Bellman’s down the street has some stuff,” said Lois.

Thorn shrugged. The staff at Bellman’s had been outright hostile to someone who didn’t sound local. But Thorn was, in any case, more interested in learning about the back alleys of Baton Rouge, not the more official businesses. “I’ve been there. They don’t seem to have what I need. They mentioned there might be other places to go, but wouldn’t direct me to any.”

Lois stared at her for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Try the Madame’s place. Just across the street, in the back of the yellow building. There’s a crooked door with no markings but a splash of red painted above it. Go in there, ask for what you need.”

That was more like what Thorn wanted to hear. She’d been cooling her heels too long in the office without opportunity to really explore the city or learn why Louisiana was doing things differently from the rest of the Confederacy these days. To understand Baton Rouge, she needed to understand more about the local population and their eccentricities.

“I appreciate the directions,” said Thorn. “I’m sure I’d never have found it on my own.”

“Atlanta must be very different,” said Lois.

Thorn smiled. Lois probably hadn’t been farther from Baton Rouge than twenty or thirty miles in her life with the sole exception of going to New Orleans, which it seemed most Baton Rouge citizens did at least once in their lives. She’d more than likely never set foot outside Louisiana.

“People are the same everywhere,” said Thorn with a smile. “But shops do have signage, and licenses, and are regulated by the government. A shop off the street with no markings wouldn’t be allowed.”

“This is Louisiana,” said Lois, as if that explained everything.

“So it is,” said Thorn evenly. “I’ll stop by there in a bit. I suppose the shop is open in the afternoons.”

Lois shrugged. “They’re open when they’re open. I don’t know when that might be.”

That was the answer Thorn had expected. She had not yet determined any rhyme or reason for when governmental offices, businesses, schools, churches, and other institutions were open or not. Every day was a holiday to someone, it seemed, and no one much cared to keep track of them all.

Thorn walked back to her office, and stared out the window at the street. Baton Rouge had few paved roads, but at least the street outside the governor’s mansion rated that luxury. Most of the people who walked by wore hats to ward off the sun. A sole police officer stood in front of the mansion; he appeared to be dozing on his feet.

Security here in Baton Rouge was non-existent, even by Atlantan standards. It was the twenty-first century elsewhere, but here, it might as well have been the nineteenth still. In the Union, there would be surveillance cameras on every office and focused on every corridor, with guards, retinal scans, and badge identification scanners nearly everywhere. Even in the Free States, there would have been cameras on at least the entrances to government buildings and multiple police officers and other security outside the governor’s residence.

But here, security cameras didn’t exist. Closed circuit television wasn’t even a dream. Lois had probably never even heard of retinal scanners or biometric technology. The single telephone line worked well enough, but it only went to Lois’ desk. This afternoon while Lois was out, there would simply be no one to pick up any calls.

It wasn’t just the lack of technology that made Lois, and the other people Thorn had met here in Baton Rouge, seem alien. It was also that they didn’t even seem curious about such things. If people like Lois wanted to have more than they did, they kept it to themselves.

Soon enough, Lois went down the creaky wooden staircase to the first floor. Thorn watched the other woman walk down the oak- and myrtle-lined street. Lois nodded to every white person she passed and studiously ignored everyone else.

Thorn left the window and went down the hall to the governor’s office. She opened the door slowly, surprised, as always, that it was not locked. Security here depended more on social expectation and the threat of violence from the police than locks and surveillance.

Thorn had been taking any opportunity she could find to get into the governor’s office and begin going through whatever files she could find there.

The files on governor LeCroix’s desk contained routine paperwork that did not interest Thorn. As she was leaving, she spotted a wadded-up piece of paper back in the corner, peeking out from behind the trash can. The governor had tried to throw something away and had missed.

It was probably unimportant, but Thorn was curious. She scooped up the paper and took it back to Pritchard’s office. If LeCroix had thrown it away, he wouldn’t be looking for it, so there was no reason to put it back where she’d found it.

She flattened out the note. It read simply We know. Next to that was a crude sketch of a man hanging from a noose.

Thorn shuddered. This was a threat, apparently on the governor’s life. But who would want to kill LeCroix, and why? What was it that they knew?

Someone was plotting violence. How could she figure out who it was, and what their goals were? This was just the sort of thing the Union needed her to find out.

Thorn folded the paper and slipped it into her shoe. Tonight, she’d see what she could find out about LeCroix and who his main enemies might be. It might be that the Union would approve of whoever was plotting against the life of a Confederate governor, but on the other hand, they might not. She wouldn’t know until she could figure out who was threatening LeCroix and why. Then she’d be able to make a report and possibly take action.

Thorn went back to the ambassador’s window and watched the street again for a while, but then decided it would be best to continue her exploration of Baton Rouge. She went down the stairs and headed toward the shop Lois had recommended.

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.

 

Darkness didn’t fall quickly in Baton Rouge in the summer. Thorn waited impatiently in her small apartment in a building just down the street from the governor’s mansion. The ambassador had a large suite in an antebellum building a short distance away, but as an aide, Thorn had rated a mere room in another ancient antebellum home. The room was painted a sickening light pink that turned purple at dusk, and looked more violet at night. Thorn weren’t sure if it had originally been darker, or if this were the intended color. She would have liked to have thought no one would use this color on purpose.

Her one window faced west, so it caught the setting sun and overlooked the street. Since she was on the third floor of the building and there was no ledge or fire escape, she kept the window open all the time in order to encourage any air movement at all. The result was that she had to share the room with the mosquitoes, biting flies, and any other horrible winged insect that chose to zip inside. Thorn had originally been worried about contracting malaria or one of the other endemic mosquito-borne diseases of Louisiana, even though she had received every vaccine the Union and the Free States had available. But not every disease had a vaccine. She told herself she wasn’t risking disease by leaving her windows open any more than she was by wandering around outside or being in the governor’s mansion with the windows open. There was simply no way to avoid being bitten, so she tried to think about disease as little as possible.

Her room included a hotplate upon which she heated canned foods. Next to that was a small cabinet where she kept her canned goods and whatever other food she was able to acquire. These days, that included a few things like fresh bread, ocean fish, and, best of all, German chocolate. The stores in Baton Rouge were able to stock a few more exotic things now, which had raised eyebrows in the Free States and the Union. The Germans had been interested in an alliance with the Confederacy for some time, and the relationship seemed to be deepening.

The main economic connection between the Germans and the Confederacy was the access the Germans now had to the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. That deal had been made with the president of the Confederacy, who, at the time, had had the support of the governors of Arkansas and Alabama, both of whom had been afraid that Louisiana and Mississippi would edge them out of any monetary benefits if the Germans had signed deals with the individual states.

As far as Thorn could see, and as far as the intelligence she had been supplied with before this mission was concerned, the Germans had been providing cash in return for access to the oil, but those profits hadn’t really started flowing yet. The Germans were claiming it was more expensive than they’d thought to erect the drilling platforms and to ship all the supplies and personnel in from Europe.

For whatever reason, so far the oil deal did not seem to be benefitting the Confederacy beyond lining the pockets of a few individuals such as the president.

The other result of having more contact with the German Empire was having Germans in the city. So far, Thorn had seen three, but had only met one. Johann Stahl was something like an ambassador, though his official title was consultant. The only official German ambassador was in Birmingham with the Confederate president, despite the fact most power in the Confederacy was held by governors.

Thorn ate her canned beans and the cornbread she’d picked up at the market on the way home and watched the street. Next to the governor’s mansion was the Museum of Louisiana History, which had been intended to show the rich and glorious history of the state. Thorn had gone through it on several occasions, but had been unaccountably disappointed when the post-War section turned out to be the smallest. Antebellum Louisiana was much more prominently described and lauded.

Thorn supposed there simply hadn’t been much to brag about in the one hundred and fifty-five years since the Jefferson-Davis Accords put an end to the War. Which was sad. At home in the Union, museums had a tendency to show the opposite: antebellum history, with the exception of the Revolution, was generally skimmed over, and modern achievements given large rooms stuffed with thousands of artifacts every Federal citizen was encouraged to find inspiring and praiseworthy. Which was sad in its own right: Union museums downplayed, or even ignored, slavery and the genocides of the indigenous peoples. Only uplifting displays showing the United States as a beacon of hope and truth and moral certainty to the rest of the world were allowed.

In their own ways, the museums were more similar than different. Those that had curated their collections had only wanted to show their history in the best light. For Louisiana, that meant an antebellum history. For the Union, that meant the late nineteenth century onward.

As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, Thorn saw movement behind the museum. A wiry black man in a drab janitor’s outfit and hat sauntered toward the street, keeping his eyes on the ground. He turned away from the governor’s mansion and made his way back home. Or at least, that’s what anyone else on the street should assume. But this man was Thorn’s domestic partner, Mayfield Porter. She’d been thrilled when they’d been able to pull this assignment together, even though she knew it would be dangerous and that she and Porter would be unable to meet openly.

Thorn put down the remains of her dinner and picked up the small sack of groceries she had acquired for Porter. Supplying him with food served two purposes: on the practical side, the black neighborhoods were even more poorly stocked than the white neighborhoods, so food was generally scarce and Porter needed to supplement his diet whenever possible, but also it gave her an excuse should anyone discover them together. White women bringing charity to black neighborhoods was considered the mark of a well-bred woman who knew her Christian duty, so saying she had food for a black family who had once worked for a distant relation of hers was all Thorn really needed to explain a meeting between herself and Porter.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. If they were alone after dark, even the excuse of charity would be suspect. But since Thorn’s accent and her identification papers marked her as a foreigner, she could hopefully get away with it. Everyone in the Confederacy knew that those in the Eastern States had odd habits.

Pritchard knew what she was doing and was prepared to back her up if necessary. “In Georgia, we can hardly tell our women not to go out after dark; they do as they please,” he’d say. Or, at least, he’d said he would say that if necessary. Thorn wasn’t sure how much she could trust Pritchard, who seemed to be a solid career diplomat without too much prejudice against either blacks or Yankees. Or someone who was both, like Porter.

She hoped she’d never put Pritchard’s order to protect her identity to the test. The Union and the Free States were still officially staring across a barbed-wire border at each other, just as they had been for over a hundred years. Unofficially, relations were beginning to warm up. This joint exercise in the governor’s mansion was just one of the first examples of international cooperation. Thorn had no desire to do anything to jeopardize that.

Thorn started off walking down the street toward the nearest all-black neighborhood. Porter was renting out a small shack from Miss Valerie, an old woman who had been part of the local Underground Railroad unit until she’d broken a hip. Now she could barely get around and Porter paid for his room, and his privacy, by doing whatever tasks Miss Valerie needed to have done. He’d repaired things around her home, trimmed the grass and weeds away from the house, cooked her dinner on occasion when her hip pained her too much for her to walk, and procured her whatever food he could find at the market.

Thorn was sure Miss Valerie knew she was visiting Porter, and staying for hours, but that Miss Valerie was pretending not to know. Whatever happened in her shed, she could honestly say later, she hadn’t been a party to it, or hadn’t been asked to approve of it. Or had even been certain anything untoward was happening at all. Mr. Porter was a nice young man, after all, who helped her out and who never made any trouble with the neighbors, and that had been all she’d been looking for in a boarder.

Miss Valerie was as safe a collaborator as it was possible to have. After all, if she really wished to, she could have gone to the local sheriff and told him all about the Underground Railroad, named the members she knew in the local depot, and turned in Porter and Thorn as spies.

Thorn was certain Miss Valerie would not do that, though. To the Underground Railroad, a sheriff was nearly as terrible a thing as a Yankee. Someone who could be hated without acknowledging they were actually a fellow human being. Someone so caught up in Satan’s lies that you could justifiably shun them, or even kill them, without provocation.

Thorn crossed the plank bridge that crossed one of the sluggish canals that connected various waterways around the city. Now she was in one of the neighborhoods where the black citizens of the city were required to live. Thorn hadn’t been told that she couldn’t go live there herself, but clearly, no self-respecting white woman would live in a black neighborhood, so she hadn’t tried it, as much as she wanted to, not only to be with Porter, but to see what trouble she could stir up. She didn’t care what people thought about her, and the consequences of living across the canal would be interesting, to be sure, but it might also backfire onto Pritchard or the poorer people of the parish.

She smiled to herself. Three years ago, she was sitting in a cubicle in the Citadel in lower Manhattan, studying for a test that would help her get a different, and slightly better, cubicle job. Then she’d been tapped to go undercover, and from there she’d never worked in a cubicle again. Her life had been completely upended in a way she’d never expected or asked for, and yet, she was happier than she’d ever been.

Thorn had discovered an affinity for work in the field. Instead of being one of thousands upholding security in the Union, she was one of the few people the Union trusted to go into the Confederacy and accomplish her mission goals. This was much more important work than she’d ever been trusted with previously, and she desperately wanted to live up to the expectations of her superiors.

Thorn kept a careful eye on who was out in the dirt streets, but as usual, the neighborhood was nearly deserted. A white woman walking down the street was enough to have women call their children inside, and for men to watch her suspiciously from their fishing shacks or from around the corners of their ramshackle dwellings.

Thorn took the path toward Miss Valerie’s house, swinging her sack of produce. No doubt Porter was sharing with the people in the area, not only because helping them was the right thing to do, but also to help buy their silence. Thorn didn’t expect anyone to keep quiet about her presence if the sheriff physically came out and asked about her, but she had no fears about someone running to the sheriff on their own.

She walked around Miss Valerie’s house toward the shack. Porter had left the door open. Thorn went inside and, as soon she shut the door, Porter’s arms closed in around her shoulders. He smelled like resin and paint from his day’s labors.

Thorn could only sneak away a couple of times a week or else she’d have too much suspicion on herself. So she appreciated every moment she could steal to be with Porter.

Hugging someone while holding a bag of groceries didn’t work out well for long, however. The two broke apart with a kiss and Porter took the bag from Thorn to put it on the small table that sat beside the shed door. “Thanks,” he said. “Miss Bettany’s son is sick and she quit her job to take care of him. Everyone’s trying to get her extra food.”

Thorn nodded. She’d intended for him to use most of the food himself, but knowing him, he’d give it all away. His face was more hollow than she remembered, and his skin a slightly paler version of the nut-brown it normally was. Her heart ached to see the toll this assignment was taking on him physically.

His slightly crooked smile hadn’t changed, or the kindness in his brown eyes. Thorn ran her fingers lightly over the few scars he carried on his face from a childhood accident, re-memorizing his face and his voice to tide her over until the next time they could meet.

“You need to take care of yourself, too,” she said imperiously. “It won’t do us any good if you get sick.”

He smiled and enveloped her in another hug. “I’m fine. Others need it more than me, anyway. It’s just good to see you again.”

Thorn let it go. Porter wasn’t going to change, and honestly, she didn’t want him to. His concern for others was part of what had attracted her to him in the first place. That and his quick wit, his intelligence, and his ability to blend in with others on his undercover assignments until even she barely recognized him sometimes. She had never thought about herself as being in a relationship, but after meeting Porter, she had not wanted anything else but to be with him. When they were together, she felt a deep sense of happiness she’d never experienced before. She only wished they could be together more than they were, though she knew she should be grateful they were even on assignment together.

Porter was a lot better in the field than she, but it was harder for a black man than it was for a white woman to get around town without arousing suspicion, so he was a janitor, and she was on the ambassador’s staff. His cover story was that he had come to Baton Rouge from New Orleans, where jobs were even harder to come by than in the capital. That explained why he was a stranger, and why he had no family to bunk with, and why he needed the janitorial job at the museum so badly. So far as Thorn was aware, no one Porter had given that story to had shown any incredulity. It was simple and believable.

Thorn frowned. Something in the shed made her feel uncomfortable.

Porter noticed. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Thorn looked around, but the few bits of furniture and Porter’s meager possessions hadn’t changed since she’d been here last. “Is something different?”

“Oh,” said Porter. He pointed at the back corner. “There’s some kind of bundle of herbs back there that Miss Valerie sent over. She said to put it there and leave it alone. I figured it was to keep bugs out.”

Thorn realized that what had bothered her was the smell. Whatever was in the bundle in the corner reeked of the kind of herbs being burned in the shop she’d visited earlier.

“Be careful of that stuff,” said Thorn. “I was in a shop with stuff that smelled like that earlier today and I think it gave me hallucinations. Shadows flitting around, stuff like that.”

Porter smiled, but nodded. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Some of my coworkers wear amulets or put tonics on their skin, and they smell similar. Haven’t seen anything untoward yet, though.”

Thorn just nodded. Surely not every combination of herbs would induce hallucinations. Some were no doubt good for simple things like keeping roaches out of a shack. The roaches here were horrendously big, even larger than the ones in Atlanta, and that was saying something. Southern insects made the northern ones look like they weren’t even trying.

“Anything new?” asked Porter, changing the subject. He sat down on his cot, and Thorn sat down next to him. The cot had been built of leftover lumber and looked rickety as hell, but was extremely solid. Thorn had once tried to move it away from the wall when she was afraid it was going to get wet from a heavy downpour that threatened to come through the shed’s thin roof, and she had been unable to budge it. At least something in the shed was solid.

“Yes,” said Thorn. She leaned against him, and pulled out the paper she’d retrieved from the governor’s office. “LeCroix threw this away, but missed the trash can. I spotted it on the floor, which is why I took it: it’s not likely that he’ll miss it. He’ll just assume the janitor carted it off when he came to empty the container.”

Porter took the paper, unfolded it, and stared at it a moment.

“Looks like someone is threatening LeCroix’s life,” Thorn said. “But why?”

Porter nodded. “Could be. Or maybe he killed someone and is trying to cover it up? The person hanging in the noose is white, and normally, the whites here don’t take too kindly to people killing their own. Probably not even the governor can get away with that forever.”

Thorn thought about that a moment. “Maybe. I hadn’t thought about that before.”

“In either case, we should figure out the nature of this threat,” said Porter. “Birmingham is getting more bold these days.”

Thorn nodded. The Confederacy had always preferred to keep most of the power in the hands of the governors rather than in Birmingham with the president. Some Confederate presidents had been mere figureheads; others had learned how to play the governors off of each other to get what they wanted even from a poor political position.

The new president, Silas Bradenton, seemed to want to change that. He was more autocratic than other Confederate presidents. So far, to the Free States, and to the Union, he wasn’t having much success except in Alabama, where his brother-in-law was governor. The governors of Arkansas and Mississippi seemed content to ignore him as they had ignored previous presidents. But Louisiana was different. LeCroix appeared to be moving away from Birmingham. He hadn’t done anything too overt yet, but he was clearly impatient with Bradenton’s power grab and had decided to oppose the man as much as possible.

Thorn figured the governors of Arkansas and Mississippi were just waiting to see who won, if a face-off between LeCroix and Bradenton ever occurred. Then they could support whomever seemed to be the winner.

“We’ll just have to keep our eyes open,” said Porter. “There’s always a chance Bradenton might not be behind this, but if he isn’t, who is?”

“Everyone?” asked Thorn with a small laugh. “But enough talk.” She leaned over to give him a kiss, and was gratified by the alacrity with which he returned it. They might only be able to meet a couple of times a week, but they could make the most out of every moment.