Queen of Swords, p.11Sara Donati
There was a soft knock at the door and the nursemaid came in for the baby. She was a woman of at least forty, with a round, pleasant face the color of molasses and eyes the exact same shade. With a deep laugh she scooped the baby from the floor and parted him from what was left of the toast. He responded by grabbing onto her nose and launching into a loud and impassioned speech.
“You two are getting along very well,” Jennet said. “Thank you very much for your kind attentions, Jeanne.”
The nursemaid looked surprised at being thanked, and she ducked her head. “Such a strong boy, so handsome. He demands admiration, and I supply it.”
Rachel got up to follow Jeanne out. “What shall I tell the housekeeper about your gown?”
“It’s not as though I have a dozen to choose from,” Jennet said, thinking very briefly of the beautiful gowns that had been made for her at Giselle’s insistence, now sitting in a trunk in Mme. Poiterin’s house, never to be retrieved. She could feel no real regret for the lost finery. The three simple gowns Julia Savard had found for her were all she needed or wanted.
“Certainly,” Jennet said. “Whatever you think will suit best.”
It wasn’t until the early afternoon that Mrs. Livingston returned home, and then she disappeared into the back of the house to consult with her housekeeper.
Jennet retired to the lady’s small but elegant drawing room to wait. She found it impossible to sit still with a book, and so she went to retrieve her tarot cards from the basket of things that had been delivered from the rue Dauphine, and began to lay them out on a table by the window that looked over the rear garden.
The noise in the hall was the first indication that something was wrong. She heard the butler’s alarmed voice, and the unmistakable sound of a cane on the polished wood floors. The door opened abruptly.
The butler’s name was William. He had come with Edward Livingston from New-York, a spare, quiet, dignified free man of color with exacting manners. Now he was agitated, and barely in command of his emotions.
Alarmed, Jennet rose, but before she could think to ask what might be wrong, she saw for herself. A pulse began to hammer at her temples and wrists and elbows.
“You will let me pass,” said Mme. Poiterin in heavily accented English. “Or I will buy you from your master just to have the pleasure of watching the flesh being whipped from your bones.”
“He is no slave,” Jennet said, her voice catching in her throat. “William, please fetch your mistress.”
“Indeed,” said Mme. Poiterin. “Fetch her so that I can tell her what I think of people who hide runaway lunatics and abducted children.”
“Fetch Mrs. Livingston now,” Jennet said. A great calm had come over her, a detachment so complete that she seemed to be watching the scene from outside her own body.
Jennet held her ground as the old lady thumped across the room. Her face was red with exertion and choler, and one small fist in its black kid glove was pressed against her bosom.
“I’ve come for my great-grandson,” she said, in French. “Produce him immediately and perhaps the law will go gently with you.”
“You have no great-grandson here,” Jennet said. “My son is none of your blood.”
Jennet was not tall, but Mme. Poiterin was shorter still, a small hill of beaded black brocade topped with an elaborate construction of black lace and wool in the shape of a stovepipe. Jennet thought of it belching smoke, and she found herself smiling. Unadvisedly.
Mme. Poiterin was small, but she was surprisingly strong and very quick. Her slap made Jennet stagger.
“How dare you laugh at me! You should be cowering in shame and fear.”
“Madame!” Mrs. Livingston stood in the door of the drawing room with William behind her. “What do you mean, forcing your way into my home and assaulting my guest? Have you taken leave of your good sense?”
“The constables are on their way,” said Mme. Poiterin. “They will arrest this—this woman for the assault on my slave and the stealing away of my grandson’s child.”
“They will do no such thing,” said Mrs. Livingston sharply. “You are not yourself, madame, or you would not intrude into a private home without invitation. You must leave immediately, or I will have you arrested for trespass.”
For one moment Mme. Poiterin’s mouth made a small, pale circle in her face. “You may forget who you are, madame, but I do not. I remember you on your knees taking up my hem, when you hadn’t two coins to rub together. You would not dare have me arrested.”
Jennet had to admire Mrs. Livingston’s ability to remain calm—to maintain her regal bearing—in the face of such provocation. She merely shook her head, and spoke very quietly. “I would dare that much, and more. What my husband will do, I can only imagine. Do you think the first families will stand behind you when they hear about this outrageous behavior?”
The old lady’s hand tightened its grip on her cane, and it seemed to Jennet that her color climbed even higher. “You are hardly the person to judge what the first families will do, as you have never belonged and will never belong. I tire of this. Give me the boy, and I will go.”
Jennet pulled herself up to her full height and walked to the middle of the room, where she was positioned between Mrs. Livingston and Mme. Poiterin. “I never bore your grandson a child. The boy is mine and my husband’s.”
The whole of Mme. Poiterin’s face, powder white and round as a penny, trembled. “That is a lie.”
Anger was an odd thing, Jennet realized. It could come like a flare, throwing everything into stark relief. Now she felt a click in her mind, like the snapping of fingers. Blood rushed up her neck and down her arms to her hands and immediately ebbed, leaving her trembling in a white anger. The image of her father came to her, and his voice: It is better to dwell in the wilderness than with a contentious and angry woman.
“Get out,” Jennet said. She felt the anger gathering in her throat, pushing up and up, but her voice sounded oddly calm to her own ears.
In the soft folds of the old lady’s cheek, a muscle twitched. “You ill-bred slut,” she said. “I know all about you. You dare to deny me?”
“Madame,” said Mrs. Livingston. “I suggest you spare yourself further embarrassment—”
“I have recourse,” Mme. Poiterin said. Her mouth jerked as if she might spit in Jennet’s direction. “I can report to the authorities what I know to be true. She”—she pointed at Jennet—“and the whore-master she calls a husband are spies. They are spies, do you hear me? My grandson has proof. They will hang, and then the boy will be returned to his rightful place with me.”
Jennet’s skin felt too tight on her face, as if it would suddenly split and a new Jennet—one capable of terrible things, her father’s daughter—would push out into the light. She bore down on her anger, for her son’s sake.
“Madame,” she said slowly. “My husband and I are not spies, and never have been. But if they hang men for piracy and theft and murder, then your grandson will hang, when I give evidence against him. Shall I tell you what I know about his dealings? Then you can decide if you care to go to the authorities with your stories.”
The old lady pressed a hand to her chest. “I don’t have to listen to this.”
“No?” Jennet said. There was a knock at the door, and men’s voices raised in concern. “Then let me tell the constables what I have seen with my own eyes. Mrs. Livingston, please, open the door.”
It was dark by the time Hannah made ready to leave. Luke only relented on his intention to walk her back to the rue Dauphine when he saw that Leo was waiting with a lantern.
“Julia must have sent him back for me,” Hannah said. “She went ahead home with Rachel a good while ago.”
Luke said, “We’ll never be able to repay them.”
It was what he always said when they spoke of the Savards. Hannah knew that their dependency on people who were as good as strangers to Luke was a
Leo, never cheerful, always suspicious, was more dour than usual this evening. Hannah wondered if he might really be worried about their safety, given the fact that the streets were full of men who had been drinking Major General Jackson’s health all day long, shopkeepers and clerks and fishermen intermingling with Kentucky riflemen and the militia. But the rue Royale was well lit, and there were constables on most corners, and she and Leo didn’t have very far to go.
She pulled the hood of her cape so that her face was more hidden, out of simple good sense and also to calm Leo. She said, “You were a great help to me in the clinic today. Thank you.”
He threw her a sidelong glance and nodded. Hannah, overcome with the full force of the last twenty-four hours, couldn’t find the energy to work any harder for Leo’s smile, and so they walked along in silence. At the gate that led into the courtyard behind the little clinic, Leo paused. He said, “I’m going to see my mother.”
Surprised, Hannah turned. He held the lantern so that his face was in the dark, but she still had the sense of his eyes, very large and overly bright. He had never before mentioned his family.
“Is she unwell? Does she need help?”
“That’s why I’m going,” Leo said. “To find out.” He thrust the lantern at Hannah and ran off, disappearing into the dark so quickly and completely that he seemed to have simply melted away.
There was something wrong. That thought was still forming itself in her head when she felt a sharp prodding at the small of her back. The muzzle of a gun.
“Don’t turn around,” said the voice behind her. “It is only a musket, but still, it would make short work of your backbone.”
Hannah took a very deep breath and let it out. “What do you want?”
The musket prodded again, more forcefully. “To start with, some privacy. Your Redbone Clinic will serve, I think.”
The thoughts tumbling through Hannah’s mind were too bright and quick to grab. A question presented itself: Am I going to die? Is he going to kill me? And the answer: Very likely yes.
Strikes-the-Sky had talked sometimes about what it was like to go into battle. How the world seemed to shrink down and vision to expand, so that there was no room for thought or words of any kind, no sense of mortality beyond a calm understanding that he was walking into the shadowlands and might never turn back. Now Hannah understood what he meant when he said that to go into battle was to stop feeling.
The shutters were closed tight, so that the little clinic looked like a long, dark cave lit only by the lantern. The few things that would serve as weapons were out of her reach: at one end of the room, in a box on a shelf, the simple surgical tools lent to her by Paul Savard; at the other end, a neat pile of firewood.
She could throw the lantern down and start a fire, but the idea of being in this closed space while it burned brought back memories long buried, and she hesitated too long.
“Put the lantern on the table there, and sit on the stool.”
Hannah did as she was directed. The urge to ask questions was strong, but stronger still was the sense of her father, who would volunteer nothing in a situation like this. Not a word, not a tremor.
Honoré Poiterin came into the lantern light to look into her face, and found nothing there at all. At her shoulder she sensed her father, and his approval.
Poiterin wore a long, dark cloak and a hat pulled down low on his brow. There was a deep shadow of beard on his cheeks, and a crusting scab at the corner of his mouth. He vibrated with tension, but it did not feel like anger to Hannah. She would have preferred anger to the cold appraisal and eyes empty of everything that would have made him human.
She understood that he had used Leo, hurt Leo’s mother or threatened to hurt her, laid this trap. That meant that he knew where she had been, where Jennet was. Maybe he had followed Luke after they saw each other early in the day; maybe his grandmother had got word to him. He wasn’t in uniform, which must mean something, but what?
Poiterin pulled off his gloves one finger at a time, watching her closely, his eyes narrowed. He had tucked the musket into a wide belt at his waist, just next to a knife sheath of tooled leather.
“So,” he said in a conversational tone.
Hannah caught the flicker of intent in his eyes but too late. The blow knocked her from the stool. In the part of her mind that remained detached she analyzed the pain in her cheekbone and left shoulder, noted that nothing had broken. She rolled herself into a ball as the first kick came, and it connected with her hip.
Poiterin leaned down and grabbed her by the hair, pulled her upright, and levered her onto the stool, where she sat holding her nerveless arm.
“So,” he said again. He was looking at her intently. “You are Luke Scott’s half-breed sister, is that right?”
Hannah’s voice creaked. She struggled to control her breathing. “Yes.”
He nodded. “You were with him on the Isle of the Manatees, when he rescued the slut he calls his wife from Dégre?”
Hannah nodded. “Yes.”
“You call yourself a doctor.”
It wasn’t a question, and Hannah didn’t answer it. She watched him pace back and forth, in and out of the lantern light.
“I’ve seen you before,” he said. “But I never made the connection. She was hiding here with the Savards the whole time, waiting for Scott.”
Hannah kept still.
He stopped. “And now they’re both under Livingston’s protection.”
She was braced for the next blow, curling around herself as she was hurled to the floor. With her head tucked in the kicks fell on her back and legs. There was a sound a rib made as it cracked, like a walnut shell stepped on by a heavy man’s boot.
This time he dragged her to the cot nearest the cold hearth. Near enough to grab a piece of wood, one she could use to cave in his head. But his grip on her right arm was crippling, and her left arm was still numb and useless.
Poiterin stood over her. “They aren’t looking for you,” he said. “Savard thinks you’re still at the Livingstons’, so there will be no rescue for you this night.”
Hannah heard herself cough. Pain flared in her ribs, along her spine, in her pelvis. She coughed again, and then she forced herself to look at Poiterin, who stood over her.
He said, “Say something or I’ll cut out your tongue.”
Hannah tasted blood as she tried to work her mouth. Her voice came finally, in a whisper. “What do you want?”
“What do you think I want?” He leaned over to speak into her face, his words sharp and wet. “What would any man want in my position? Satisfaction. Revenge. Vengeance. The slut made a fool of me in front of the whole city. In front of my grandmother. Someone must pay. You, I think.” He smiled and brushed Hannah’s hair away from her face. It took every bit of strength she had to allow his touch without stiffening or shuddering.
“Tomorrow,” he said, fisting his hand in her hair. “Tomorrow they will look at you and understand that it isn’t wise to cross me. A lesson Scott should have learned long ago.”
Hannah thought of Ben Savard, of his smile as he bent over her, the smell of him. The look in his eyes when he spoke of killing Poiterin, the plain fact of his intention, and the satisfaction it would afford. As Poiterin used his knife to cut her clothes from her body, as he ripped strips from her skirt and used them to tie her wrists to the frame of the cot, Hannah focused on that image of Ben Savard. A terrible sadness came over her, a sense of loss and her own stupidity.
Poiterin talked. Through the hours of the night, he spoke to her, sometimes in English, more often in French.
“I don’t intend to kill you,” he told her again and again in a conversational tone. There was a swipe of blood on his face, not his own.
“I want you to tell them about this. I want you to tell ever
Sometimes her mind simply shut him out, refused to allow his words meaning beyond an inhuman hiss.
He seemed to be at ease, sure of himself, unworried about time or interruption. He would pace back and forth across the room, and in the light of the failing lantern Honoré Poiterin looked to Hannah like the devil the O’seronni priests talked about when they came to her grandmother’s village. Wild-haired, bloodied, ranting.
Sometimes he used his fists, and when he tired of that, he found other ways to amuse himself.
Hannah turned her mind inward and sang.
I am Walks-Ahead of the Wolf Clan of the Kahnyen’kehàka, the Keepers of the Eastern Door of the Haudenosaunee Nation. We are the People of the Longhouse.
I am the daughter of Sings-from-Books, whose voice I still hear. I am the granddaughter of Falling-Day, whose touch I still feel. I am the great-granddaughter of Made-of-Bones, who was clan mother of the Wolf for five hundred moons. I am the great-great-granddaughter of Hawk-Woman, who killed an O’seronni chief with her own hands and fed his heart to her sons, in the time when we were still many, and strong.
She sang her death song to herself, and when she paused, she heard her ancestors speaking back to her.
You are strong, Hawk-Woman told her. You are stronger than the O’seronni devil. And: You don’t belong here with us. Not yet. Not yet.
At first light Hannah opened her eyes and understood that she was still alive, and alone.
Time drifted. There were faces: her father, her grandfather, her grandmothers, her stepmother, beloved Curiosity, who might be waiting for her in the shadowlands.
Strikes-the-Sky came and sat beside her. There was white in his hair that hadn’t been there when she last saw him.
It’s not three years since you died, she said to him. Does time pass so quickly in the shadowlands?
He touched the jagged wound left in his throat by a Potawatomi arrow and frowned, as if she made too much of it; as if it were no more concern to him than a blackfly bite.
Queen of Swords by Sara Donati / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes