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Queen of swords, p.12
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       Queen of Swords, p.12

           Sara Donati
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  She said, It was an honorable death. She did not say: It was a quick death or It was an easy death. Both of those things were true, but they meant nothing to him. He had died in battle with the Potawatomi, men he had hoped to win over to Tecumseh’s cause. He had failed, and then he had died. As Tecumseh failed, in the end. As they had all failed.

  He touched her forehead with two fingers. He said: It is not your time.

  A river of pain coursed through her bones and forced her up out of her body. She looked down at herself, and saw a woman who had been beaten. Her face so swollen and washed in blood that her own father would not know her. Bruises on her throat, and the impression of teeth like a half-moon on the slope of her shoulder. More bite marks on her breasts. A circle of cut rope on each wrist, so sunken into the flesh that it couldn’t fall away. Blood in a pool under the skin over the left ribs, blood on her belly and on her legs, like a skirt of red feathers. A bruise in the exact shape of a boot on her thigh.

  It is not my time. She said the words aloud.

  When she next opened her eyes—five minutes, five hours, five days later—a woman was standing over her. Yellow-Sapling, the Choctaw healer who came in the very early morning to sort through the herbs and medicines she kept in the little clinic, where it was warm and dry, and where it was meant to be safe. Hannah could not speak her name or even raise a hand, but she could be thankful that it was this strong woman who had come to her first. This Indian woman who had survived war and stayed behind to see to the others who had not. There were tears on her own cheeks, but Yellow-Sapling’s face was dry.

  She studied Hannah for a long moment, her expression placid but her eyes full of fire. Then she went away and came back with water. She dipped a clean rag into the water and then squeezed it so that the cool wet spread over Hannah’s lips and tongue and down her swollen throat. Yellow-Sapling chanted under her breath in her own language as she worked, her touch light and sure. There was a fire in the hearth—Hannah had no memory of it being lit—and the smell of herbs burning, and of tobacco thrown into the flames to honor the Great Spirit and ask his help.

  The rhythm of the song Yellow-Sapling was singing lulled Hannah to sleep, and when she woke again she was lying between clean sheets someplace else, someplace she recognized but couldn’t name. Paul and Julia Savard were bent over her, their mouths moving as they talked. Hannah wondered why her hearing had left her, and then she realized that the pounding of her own blood in her ears was deafening, and worse: She was full of fever, her body a vessel filled to the bursting with steam. A fever bigger than her broken bones and torn skin.

  The malaria had come to claim her again, and it bore her off before she could answer even one of their questions.

  They gathered in the small apartment on the topmost floor: Julia and Paul Savard, Jennet and Luke, and a man who was a stranger to all of them. He introduced himself as Captain Aloysius Urquhart of the U.S. Army, the liaison between the armed forces and the New Orleans constabulary.

  Jennet wanted nothing to do with Urquhart. She wanted Ben Savard, but he had been sent off on some mission to the west, and could not be reached. Ben Savard would not be satisfied with talk, as these men—her own husband, Hannah’s brother—seemed to be. Luke was as angry as Jennet had ever seen him, but still he stood here.

  With Julia sitting beside her, Jennet was able to control her own temper while the men talked of the law, and of customs, and what might be done. Urquhart was treating the attack on Hannah like a prank, as if Honoré Poiterin were a rude boy who had taken another man’s horse out for a run. The sound of his voice slid down her throat and filled her belly and festered there like a cancer.

  “…nothing much to be done without witnesses,” Urquhart was saying. When he spoke a mouthful of perfectly straight and white teeth flashed like knives between lips the incongruous red of strawberries. He was hatless, with long greasy hair and a mass of curling dull blond beard stained tobacco brown. One broad thumb, its nail the color of pitch, was curled loosely around the upright barrel of a long rifle in the casual way of a man who never put his gun away from him. He was from Kentucky, and Jennet had to pay attention to follow the unfamiliar rhythm of his English.

  Now she stood. Urquhart didn’t turn toward her, but she would not be silenced by his disapproval. She said, “We know who assaulted my sister-in-law, Captain. There is no doubt about that, not after his grandmother forced her way into Mrs. Livingston’s parlor yesterday afternoon.”

  Urquhart’s look was impatient. “Pardon me, ma’am, but I don’t see the connection there at all. If your sister-in-law were to wake up out of her fever sleep and give a positive identification, maybe we could do something—”

  Jennet interrupted him. “Then what about Leo? He came back here with Hannah last night, he might have seen Poiterin. Somebody must have seen him.”

  “If it was Poiterin,” said Urquhart again. “There were a lot of drunk men in the streets last night.”

  Jennet turned to Paul Savard. “Why is Leo not here?”

  “We can’t find him,” Paul Savard said. His color was poor, and there were new lines creasing his cheeks.

  “You’ll pardon me for pointing this out again,” Urquhart said, “but nobody was killed here. All we’ve got so far is an Indian woman who was beat.”

  Luke stepped between Jennet and the captain. Urquhart’s hand tightened on the rifle barrel.

  Luke said, “We’ve got a woman who was beaten within an inch of her life and repeatedly raped. Something will be done, by God.”

  Urquhart’s tone sharpened. “There are bigger problems to be dealt with right now than a Redbone woman being roughly handled.”

  Jennet pushed forward, jerking her arm free of Luke’s grasp. “Then I want Mme. Poiterin arrested for trespass and for her threats against me and my son. Mrs. Livingston was a witness to that; it happened in her own parlor. Will you ignore that, as well?”

  “Mrs. Livingston filed no complaint, as far as I know,” Urquhart said. “But I’ll go there now and see if she wants to make a statement. If she won’t, there’s nothing I can do.”

  He put the hat he had been holding in his left hand on his head, nodded, and walked out of the room.

  Jennet said, “If I had a gun I would shoot him.”

  “Good thing you’re unarmed then,” Luke said. “We’ve got enough trouble as it is.”

  Julia put a hand on Jennet’s arm. “I’m going back to sit with Hannah. Will you come, too?”

  “In a moment,” Jennet said. And then: “The only weapon we’ve got against Poiterin is the news Hannah brought us yesterday. He is spying for the British. If they don’t care about what he did to Hannah—” her voice cracked, and Julia’s hand on her arm tightened, “—they must care about that.”

  “Jennet—” Luke began, and she whirled toward him.

  “Don’t say it.”

  “I have to say it. We’ve got no evidence on Poiterin beyond Hannah’s word.”

  “We’ve got more than that,” Jennet said. “We’ve got Wyndham, who is somewhere in this city right now. Once he’s in custody he’ll give up Poiterin.”

  “You can’t know that,” Luke said. He looked as though he would be sick, with sweat on his brow in spite of the underheated room. He looked miserable, and it struck Jennet that she was punishing him because she could not strike out against Poiterin.

  She went to him and put her head against his chest, felt his arms come up around her while she wept out her anger and frustration. The door opened and closed beyond them and they were alone.

  When there were no more tears left, she took the handkerchief he offered and wiped her face, taking deep, shuddering breaths.

  “I promise you he won’t go unpunished,” Luke said quietly.

  “What are you going to do?” Jennet asked. Her head ached and her throat was raw and she was deeply weary, but she couldn’t clear her head of the image of Hannah.

  “I’m going to talk to Ben Savard,” Luke s
aid. “As soon as I can find him. In the meantime, Livingston has arranged for armed guards, here and at his house. You are not to step out onto the street without them, do you understand me?”

  Jennet managed a half smile. “I wish Poiterin would approach me,” she said. “I wish he were so rash. I would like to see him die.”

  Luke’s expression tightened. “Do not put yourself at risk,” he said. “For our son’s sake, Jennet, promise me you won’t go anywhere alone.”

  She gave him her promise, but Luke’s expression didn’t change at all. He didn’t trust her, and with good cause.

  Jennet moved through the next five days like a woman caught in a maze, unable to stop, always turning the same corners.

  The clinic was so overrun that Julia and Rachel both were pressed into full-time duty during the day, and so Jennet became Hannah’s nurse. Hannah, in the grip of a fever like a winding-sheet.

  Jennet bathed her with cool water laced with vinegar, fed her water and tea and the medicines Dr. Savard supplied, teaspoon by teaspoon. There were different salves for her many scrapes and cuts and seeping bruises. Dr. Savard showed Jennet how to change the dressings. The biggest danger was that there had been some damage to the lungs, and that she was bleeding internally. Jennet held her breath when she checked Hannah’s pulse, but by the third day when there was no sign of infection, she allowed herself to hope.

  Hannah must be bathed, and dosed with the medicines and teas Dr. Savard brought, and her dressings and soiled bedclothes changed. She must be given boiled water by the teaspoonful every hour, and after the first day, chicken broth as well. All the while she worked or sat next to Hannah, Jennet sang and read and told stories. The work was exhausting, but Jennet was more glad of it with every passing day.

  Now she went to fetch water and paused to look out of the courtyard. One of the armed guards on duty turned and bowed from the shoulders. They were simple men but good at their work. Three times a day they escorted her back to the Livingstons’ so she could see to her son’s needs, and then back to the clinic so she could see to her cousin’s. The Indian woman who had first found Hannah came to look after her while Jennet was gone. Yellow-Sapling was a somber woman who seemed to speak neither French nor English, but she was devoted to Hannah and brought medicines of her own with every visit. When Jennet came back the room smelled of herbs burning, and the air itself had taken on a new color.

  Jennet saw far more of the guards than she did of her husband, whose every minute was monopolized by Livingston. Luke came by the clinic at midday and again in the late afternoon, stayed long enough to tell Jennet his news and hear hers, to spend a few minutes by his sister’s bedside, and then he was gone again. It was eleven or later when he came to bed, and he often fell into an exhausted sleep before he was completely out of his clothes. At sunrise he was gone again, and Jennet was on her way to the clinic.

  On the sixth day, Jennet was changing the sweat-soaked bedding when she realized that Hannah’s eyes were open. She went very still while she composed her face and her voice.

  “Cousin,” she said calmly. “It’s me, it’s Jennet.”

  “I see you,” Hannah said. Her mouth, still swollen and bruised, barely moved, and her voice was hoarse.

  Jennet sat down heavily beside the bed. “You’ve had a—”

  “—relapse,” Hannah said. She closed her eyes, and drifted away into sleep.

  Jennet pressed her face into the damp bed linens and wept.

  When Luke came to the clinic on the rue Dauphine in the early evening, he found his sister sitting up in bed supported by bolsters, with young Henry Savard by her side. There was no sign of Jennet.

  Luke had been raised by a kind and loving grandmother, but Wee Iona had rarely hugged or coddled. Jennet was made of different stuff, and Luke realized that a great deal of her need for physical touch had rubbed off on him. He crouched down at the side of the bed and took his sister’s hand in his own, raised it to his mouth. His voice came rough.

  “It took you long enough,” he said, trying to smile.

  She looked at him somberly, this younger half sister who often seemed as old as Iona. There was nothing of pain or anger or confusion in her eyes. Most of her bruises were fading though there were still scabs on her throat and—Luke did not like to think of it—elsewhere.

  Hannah said, “You won’t be shut of me so easily.”

  Luke reached for the chair behind him, taking that moment to remind himself that Hannah would not be helped by displays of emotion. Henry was looking at him, chewing his lip as though the question he wanted to ask had to be kept back by brute force.

  “Hello, Henry,” said Luke. “Are you keeping my sister company?”

  The small head with its high brow bobbed eagerly. “Until Jennet comes back.” And in a rush: “Did you see Major General Jackson today?”

  “I did.”

  “Did he kill anybody?”

  “Not while I was watching,” Luke said. He put a hand over his sister’s where it lay on the bedcovers, fingers curled.

  “Did you see my uncle?”

  “No,” Luke said. “He’s still away on assignment.”

  “For Major General Jackson,” Henry reminded them.

  “Yes,” Luke said. “Henry, I need to talk to Hannah alone for a while.”

  The boy pushed out a resigned sigh. “Not about the war?”

  “No,” Luke said. “Nothing about the war.”

  The boy left, casting a glance behind him that was full of suspicion.

  Hannah said, “It was good to have him here. I almost feel myself again, listening to him chatter.”

  “Have you talked to Dr. Savard about your condition?”

  Hannah blinked. It was, Luke realized, because she was too stiff to nod.

  She said, “There is no permanent damage, and the fever is past. This relapse wouldn’t have lasted so long if it weren’t for—” The fingers under Luke’s hand attempted a flutter.

  “Your other injuries.”

  She blinked.

  “Ben Savard is out west, on the Sabine River. Disputed territory, claimed by Mexico and Louisiana both. I can’t find out what he was sent to do, but I can guess.”

  “So can I,” Hannah said. Her mouth quirked at the corner, but whether that was meant to be a smile, Luke couldn’t tell. He went on before she could respond.

  “There’s no sign of Wyndham, either, though I’ve been looking. Poiterin is with his regiment on the Chef Menteur road. He hasn’t come back to the city.”

  “Jennet told me,” Hannah said.

  There was a moment’s awkward silence, and then her hand turned under his and she grasped his fingers with some of her old strength.

  “You are not to blame yourself,” she said. “It is none of your fault.”

  “There’s only one person at fault here,” Luke said. “And he won’t go unpunished.”

  “There are two people at fault,” Hannah said. Her voice had begun to fade. “Whatever he is, his grandmother made him. You know that better than most.”

  “Yes,” Luke said. He thought again of his grandmother, who had been all the family he had known until he was fifteen. She was a formidable woman, too, but made from a different mold from Agnès Poiterin.

  “If Iona were here she’d know how to deal with Mme. Poiterin,” Luke said.

  “There are women like Wee Iona here in New Orleans,” Hannah said. “I know some of them.”

  “You’re healing fast,” Paul Savard said to Hannah the next morning. He smiled at Jennet, who stood on the other side of the bed. “Good nursing.”

  “A strong constitution,” Jennet said. “I can take credit for nothing more than bed baths and clean linen.”

  Hannah turned her head. The headache that had seemed yesterday like a new and permanent appendage had begun to recede after all.

  “You can take credit for a great deal more,” she said. “Unless it was somebody else telling stories about MacQuiddy and his wee fairy b

  Jennet looked drawn and pale, but she also looked satisfied. “I knew ye heard me. I knew it. Once or twice I even thought you were trying to laugh.”

  “You’ll have to write down this story for me,” Paul Savard said to Jennet. “It seems to have a strong medicinal value. Are you feeling well enough to get out of bed for a short while?”

  “I’d like to walk a bit.” Hannah saw Jennet’s expression darken. “Five minutes on my feet will do me no harm,” she said. “You can hold my elbow if you must.”

  “It’s not that,” Jennet said, flustered in a way that was nothing like her. “There’s someone here to see you.”

  Hannah looked between them. “No friend?”

  Paul cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t call him friend or enemy. His name is Captain Urquhart, with the U.S. Army. We called him in after you were found—”

  “I asked Mrs. Livingston to call the authorities. It was an error,” Jennet said tightly.

  “I’m not sure that it was,” said Dr. Savard. “But he’s here now and wants to take a statement from you.”

  “Urquhart is the liaison between the army and the local constables,” Jennet added, her tone clipped. “He has no interest in the problems of people like us.”

  “Like me,” Hannah corrected. Jennet nodded curtly.

  “Your first interview with him didn’t go well, I take it,” Hannah said. And to Paul: “I expect he won’t just go away. If he must see me, he can come in here. But give me a half hour with Jennet, first.”

  Jennet sat to one side like a prim and disapproving chaperone while Urquhart took a chair without being invited. He drew a notebook and a stub of a carpenter’s pencil from inside his jacket, and looked at Hannah expectantly. Hannah met his gaze and kept her expression blank.

  “If you could just relate the events of the night you were attacked.”

  He had amazingly white and healthy teeth, so perfect that they might have been taken for false, though the lack of clicks and whistles in his speech made that unlikely. Everything about the man seemed many shades too bright: ruddy cheeks, red mouth, the curling blond beard and the green pea stuck in it. His vivid coloring stood in stark contrast to his demeanor, which was sober to the point of severity.

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