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Queen of swords, p.2
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       Queen of Swords, p.2

           Sara Donati

  “It’s been a good while since you last came to see us, Mr. Moore,” she said as she shuffled the cards, slowly, carefully. “A long voyage, then?”

  He looked about himself nervously, one eyelid fluttering. Fear cut through the drunken fog. “Aye. Long enough, missus. Long enough.”

  She had misjudged the timing, and put him on his guard.

  The Three of Swords. The Six of Cups. The Moon.

  His gaze shifted to the table in the far corner, where men sat bent over their game. The one he feared was not looking in this direction, but that meant nothing at all.

  He’s got eyes in the back of his head, does Dégre.

  She had heard men say such things too often to count. The man they called the Priest, or more rarely, Dégre—the man who owned this place and claimed the island itself—was a legend, a force as inevitable and ungovernable as the winds. None of the hard men who frequented L’Île de Lamantins would cross him.

  Jennet had crossed him, and she lived still. Because in the year since she had begun traveling with him, she had come to understand the way his mind worked. She had planned very carefully, and moved fast when the time came, and she had succeeded. She was alive not because she had got the best of Dégre, but because he had plans for her that promised more satisfaction than a quick death dealt out in the anger of the moment.

  The Priest was watching her now, as she turned over cards and talked about them. He might be thinking about nothing more than what he would eat for his supper, or of changing his shirt, or there could be something very different brewing there.

  It worried Moore, but Jennet was beyond fear. Dégre had already robbed her of everything of value.

  “The Moon,” she said to Moore. “It shows itself often when you come to hear your cards read, sir. The moon is a guiding image for you, I think.”

  “Aye,” he agreed, his small features bunched together in an attempt to convey sincerity. “And remind me then, Lady Jennet, what does it mean, the Moon card?”

  “Inconstancy. Are you inconstant in your temperament, Mr. Moore?”

  It was too much for him in his current state. He blinked at her owlishly, his mouth jerking at one corner as he tried to push himself up from the table, a puppet with tangled strings. Jennet gathered her cards together, waiting patiently for him to find his tongue and make it do his bidding. Later, it would be the expression on Moore’s face she recalled first when she thought about this night.

  As he opened his mouth, the sound of a dozen rifles firing together tore the world in two. Moore fell forward onto the table, blood gushing from his mouth.

  Jennet dropped to her knees and then pressed her face to the floor. The room was filled with screams and gunsmoke and tumbling bodies, glass shattering and the wind, rising suddenly; she heard it howling and howling as the idea presented itself, very clearly: She was about to die, and she had brought it upon herself. The next volley would find her, and she would die here on this filthy floor in this hell-begotten place and she would never see him again, never in this life.

  A man was standing over her. Dégre, his face lost in shadow and still she saw his eyes, wild with rage. Blood dripping from his scalp onto his shoulder, running down his arm. He held out a hand to her, and it simply…fell apart in a mist of blood and flesh.

  He stood for a moment looking at the raw meat that was his hand, baffled, it seemed by his expression, at this turn of events.

  And then Luke was there, pressing a pistol to Dégre’s temple.

  “Ah,” the false priest said calmly. “Scott. Come to claim the leftovers, eh?”

  To Kit Wyndham it looked as though Dégre smiled, even as Scott’s pistol kicked and fired. The Priest’s knees folded, and he fell.

  Lady Jennet was falling, too, collapsing so slowly that when Scott caught her it looked as though they were practicing a new dance step. His head came up and turned, his gaze raking over the destruction they had wrought.

  “Hannah,” he said, holding out the woman. “Hannah, help me.”

  In less than an hour it was all sorted: a dozen dead men piled up and rolled from the porch like so much driftwood. The ones who had been in the rooms off to the side with the women, all prisoners now, had been divided into groups. Some of them were digging graves; the rest were marched down to the cove.

  Overhead the early morning sky was darkening, and a rough breeze made the palms sway.

  One of the women yawned. There was a splatter of blood on her skirt and her eyes were dull with weariness, but she raised her face to the sky and smiled. Another woman sat with her feet swinging, leaning toward one of Scott’s men. His posture as he bent his head toward her was as obvious as a flag. Soldiers were as predictable as horses in their needs.

  Kit rubbed the grit and gunpowder from his face and listened to what was going on in the corner where Scott crouched next to his half sister, the two of them a wall between the room and the woman.

  Lady Jennet had come out of her faint and was weeping in Hannah’s arms, weeping as a woman weeps when she has lost the thing she loves most in the world.

  “Jennet,” Hannah said, her tone firm but not harsh. “Jennet, calm yourself. You’re safe now. You are safe.”

  Scott looked away. To Hannah he said, “I’ll go search the other rooms.”

  “No,” Jennet said. Her head came up with a jerk. “No, don’t leave me. Luke, don’t go.”

  What a gift that was to him. Scott couldn’t hide his relief.

  “We have to be away,” he said to her, cupping her head in one hand. “Jennet, do you know where he kept the letters?”

  She blinked, fresh tears coursing over her reddened face. “Letters?”

  Hannah sent Scott a sidelong glance, one that told him to keep his silence. In a gentle voice she said, “The letters Dégre stole from you. The ones he threatened you with. We can’t leave them where someone else might find them. Where are they, Jennet?”

  “The letters,” Jennet said. “Those letters. I burned them months ago.”

  Scott made a sound that came up from his gut, as if he had been punched.

  Hannah said, “The letters are destroyed? You burned them?”

  “Aye, and he beat me bloody for it.” She might have been talking about a new hat, for all the emotion in her voice.

  “He beat you.” Scott’s tone, so carefully modulated, took on a new tone, an underlying tremor. “Is that how the child died? He got a child on you and beat it out of you in a fury?”

  She seemed to wake up at that, confusion giving way to understanding and then, more quickly, anger. A brightness came into her eyes, and Kit recognized her then as her father’s daughter.

  Wyndham had first met Lady Jennet at the dinner table of the garrison commander at Île aux Noix, introduced to him only as a missionary’s widow working among the wounded prisoners. Then he had not seen her for who she was: a daughter of the fourth Earl of Carryck, and sister to the fifth of the line. She had taken pains to hide her connections, but now her bloodlines were etched on her face. In spite of all she had seen and done in this war, or maybe because of it.

  She righted herself and looked at Scott, who was meant to be her husband, who had spent a year looking for her.

  She said, “Not his child, Luke. Yours. Our son. And he’s not dead. I know he’s not.”

  Scott’s face went very still as her voice came stronger.

  “I gave birth to him right there, in that room. A month ago he was smuggled away. I bribed them, and the captain took him away, because he wasn’t safe here. He wasn’t safe.”

  All the color had drained out of Scott’s face, all tension out of his body; he swayed and bent forward over his knees, his head hanging low.

  “Oh, Christ,” he said softly. “Oh, merciful Christ.” Spasms ran through him so that his shoulders jerked. “Where?”

  Jennet reached out a hand as if she thought he might collapse under her touch.

  “A town called Pensacola, in Spanish Florida.” She stro
ked his hair, and then he raised his face to her and he did collapse and she opened her arms to catch him, arms that circled closed.

  Hannah had turned away, and Kit caught her gaze. She walked out onto the porch, and he followed her.

  She said, “He’ll want to question the men who were taken prisoner.”

  “I can do that.” Kit rubbed his eyes. “I’ll go do it now.”

  “Most of them are off the Badger,” she said. “They probably won’t know anything about the boy.”

  “Probably not,” Kit agreed. He didn’t want to look at her. From her tone he knew what she was feeling, and he knew, too, how little she would welcome his intrusion. “But I’ll find out for sure. You’ll talk to the women?”

  He turned to leave her and felt her hand on his wrist. Paused, and waited.

  She said, “Thank you.”

  It was the most he would allow himself to expect.

  There were injuries among the men. Not many, and none very serious, but enough to distract Hannah while Jennet and Luke talked.

  She took off her weapons and put them aside, tried to clear her head of the last hour and the lingering stink of gunpowder. There were splinters to be drawn and burns that needed salving, and one of the men had taken a knife wound to the cheek.

  When she let herself remember why they were here, she looked up to see that Luke and Jennet were gone, and the door to the room she had pointed out to him was closed.

  The men had seen it, too. They got up, one by one, and wandered out toward the settlement.

  Hannah thought of Wyndham, gone off to question prisoners. A man in search of a miracle. He would bring it back to offer to her on an outstretched hand, his quiet self-mockery held in front of him like a shield.

  Chapter 4

  “Luke,” Jennet said. “Major Wyndham is in love with your sister, I hope you realize.”

  They stood at the rail of the schooner Patience. All around them the ship was in the turmoil that went with the last hour before sailing, a great rush of boxes and barrels and trunks marched up the causeway and into the bowels of the ship, like a calf being fatted for slaughter. The noise was such that Jennet had to raise her voice to be heard, but she kept her eyes on Kit Wyndham, who paced the wharf below them. He had given up leather jerkin and homespun for the dark green coat and silver lace of the King’s Rangers; the sun glinted on his buttons and epaulettes and sparked the blue of his eyes. He was waiting for Hannah. They were all waiting for Hannah.

  “I don’t know if love is the issue, in this case.” Luke covered her hand on the rail with his own. “Certainly he’s infatuated.”

  In the full August sun Luke’s own hair had worked almost white, while his skin had gone an even middle brown. There were deep lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, but when he looked at her she still saw the seventeen-year-old boy he had been when he first came to Carryck, so many years ago.

  “He’s in love,” Jennet said. “If he were not, he would be on his way back to Canada at this very minute. I am sorry for them.”

  Luke made a noise that meant he was sorry, too, or would be, if other matters hadn’t had such a hold on his attention. News of the war was everywhere, and while it had put the British who swarmed over these islands in a grand mood to hear that their army had burned Washington to the ground, the Bonners took it in with sober detachment. Now Luke watched sailors carrying a gunboat out of the warren of boat works, his expression severe and distant. He was wondering how much the war in the Gulf of Mexico would hinder their own journey.

  Jennet touched his arm and watched him try to find the thread of the conversation: Wyndham, who was in love with his sister but must leave her. He said, “You mustn’t forget that Kit isn’t a free agent. And he has a fiancée at home in Canada.”

  “I’m not the one with the faulty memory,” Jennet said. “Truth be told, he doesn’t want to leave Hannah. No matter what noises he makes about having enough of detached duty.”

  Luke bent his head to her and spoke directly into the shell of her ear. “Why don’t we go below where we can discuss this in private?”

  At that, Jennet laughed. It sounded nervous to her own ear, as if she were a young girl unaccustomed to flirtation. Luke heard it, too; she saw that in the veiled expression just before he turned his face away.

  Very soon they would have to put words to the things they had not yet had the courage to discuss, an idea that unsettled Jennet greatly.

  “There’s Hannah,” Luke said. “I was starting to worry.”

  The wagon that stopped below them on the wharf was crowded with baskets and boxes. Hannah was involved in a discussion with the driver, a tall black man who seemed surprised at the number of coins she had put in his hand.

  “More of her bits and pieces,” Luke said. “I’ll see that her things are stowed properly.”

  Wyndham had already started in that direction, but Jennet didn’t try to stop Luke from leaving. She did try to stop her own sigh of relief, and failed.

  From the privacy of Luke’s cabin—her cabin, too, now that they were wed, and what a strange idea that was—Jennet watched Port-au-Prince grow smaller. From this distance the town looked like a magical place, sapphire and emerald, gold and blinding white where the sun touched thick whitewashed walls. Around it the fields stretched out—coffee, sugarcane, cotton, indigo—and above it rose mountain ridges that ran the length of the island.

  Once she would have loved this place, and the idea of exploring all of it, mountains and hidden glens and savannahs. Now the Patience—how poorly named was this ship—could not move fast enough to suit Jennet.

  Seven days they had spent here, seven wasted days when she must submit to doctors’ examinations and interviews with the authorities, when all she really needed was to be moving west. But no one would hear of them rushing away, most especially not Luke’s mother.

  Giselle Somerville Lacoeur, once of Montreal, took charge of Jennet and no one—not her son, or her husband, or even the governor himself—dared to interfere. Age had not mellowed Luke’s mother.

  As a girl Jennet had loved Giselle and admired her, but now she found she had very little to say to this Mme. Lacoeur. For her part, Giselle did not seem to mind Jennet’s impatience, nor was she swayed by her moods. Giselle was far too involved with making sure that the steady stream of seamstresses and milliners and mantua makers did their best work, and speedily. She would have her new daughter-in-law properly outfitted before she sailed. There was no excuse for sloppiness, she told Jennet. No matter how dire the situation.

  The Lacoeur home was spacious and cool, standing as it did in a great sea of palm trees at the crest of a hill. The veranda that circled the house was wide and deeply shadowed, with comfortable chairs and chaise longues piled with pillows. Jennet spent most of her time dozing there, though she never put foot on the marble terraces that ran down to the sea.

  On Jennet’s third morning in Hayti, Giselle found her asleep when she should have been in her rooms, where the seamstresses were waiting.

  “You may need to apply to the authorities anywhere from Pensacola to Mobile to New Orleans,” Giselle said. “You may have to dine with governors and generals and bankers. The clothes you wear will speak more loudly of your resources and connections than any letter of introduction.”

  “I am so sleepy,” Jennet said.

  Giselle was unsympathetic. “No sane man would go into battle without the proper weapons, and neither must you. This is a war you are embarking on, Jennet, and the prize is your son. You must be ready for a long fight.”

  It was something they never spoke about directly, the fact that getting to Pensacola was only the beginning of the problems. They might not be able to get away again, if the war began in earnest along the Gulf coast—and Luke and all the rest of the male population of the island seemed to think that was exactly what was likely to happen. That would mean waiting, or traveling overland through territory that they didn’t know and that might be hostile. They wo
uld need every advantage they could claim.

  And so Jennet stood still while others draped her in the light silks and gauzes dictated by the climate; while the women talked about color and embroidery, hats and stockings and stacked heels. They discussed the fashions in Paris and London, and the peculiarities of Americans. Her own thoughts moved in a very different direction. While they gossiped, she made long lists of questions to ask Giselle’s husband.

  Anton Lacoeur was a sharp, doe-eyed man with a head for numbers and a talent for trade that had made him many fortunes. To Jennet’s surprise, he had been the one who seemed to best understand what would make her time in Port-au-Prince bearable. He drew up lists of names, men who might be of help to them, others they should avoid at all costs; he wrote letters of introduction and drafts on banks; he brought them maps and charts.

  When he came to the end of his own knowledge, he invited others to his home. Naval officers and army engineers, merchants and traders and others whose business practices were best left unexamined, but who knew the Gulf well enough to talk for hours of tides and treacherous marshes, swamps, bayous. They spoke of pirates and profiteers and smugglers, things that would have delighted Jennet as a girl—things that would have delighted her even a year ago—but now left her only vaguely uneasy. Luke took charge in these conversations, and Jennet was glad to leave it all to him.

  It was Anton who brought Luke and the man called Bardi together. Bardi, who had lost his ship in mysterious circumstances and needed a way back to the Gulf through the British blockade. He was presented to them as untrustworthy, a man without morals or scruples but one who knew the area where they were going as well as any man alive. It was worth his own life to stay out of both American and British hands.

  “Pay him well and never take your eyes off him,” Anton had said. “And he’ll get you to Pensacola or wherever else you need to be, and then be shut of him.”

  While Jennet’s time was divided between Giselle and her husband, Hannah was free to seek out other women, dark-skinned women who watched and listened but rarely spoke to white people of what they knew. These were women who worked in the kitchens and laundries and nurseries, and from them she collected names whispered in throaty Creole French.

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