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Queen of swords, p.22
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       Queen of Swords, p.22

           Sara Donati
 
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  “Of course you would,” said Hannah, and: “Of course you cannot,” said Henry’s mother and father in unison.

  “I don’t understand what went wrong,” Rachel said. “The British seemed so formidable.”

  “They are formidable,” said her stepfather. “But they also suffered from the sin of hubris.”

  Henry’s face contorted as he tried to make sense of the word. “Do you mean they’re too big for their britches?”

  “Yes,” said Paul Savard. “That’s exactly what I mean. They underestimated an enemy, which is the height of foolishness. I only hope they go on as they started.”

  “That would serve us well,” Luke agreed. “But they’re waiting for a new commanding officer.”

  “Let’s hope he’s no more competent than the one he’s replacing,” said Rachel.

  “Do you know who it is?” asked Julia.

  Luke paused, and then he answered. “The information that we have from the prisoners of war isn’t reliable.”

  “And?” said Paul Savard. “What name have they given?”

  “Pakenham,” Luke said.

  Hannah saw Dr. Savard’s surprise give way to disquiet. “Wellington’s brother-in-law? Salamanca?”

  “Yes,” said Luke. Now everyone was paying attention, looking from Paul to Luke and back again, waiting for some explanation. After a moment’s hesitation Luke said, “Most of the regulars and the dragoons are still at de la Ronde’s to keep an eye on the enemy.”

  That was little comfort, but it seemed enough to soothe Rachel, who went back to her food with a sigh.

  Her stepfather exchanged a long look with Luke. “Well, then,” he said. “I expect there’s no joy in the British camp today, after such a pitiful showing as they provided last night.”

  Hannah caught Luke’s eye, and wasn’t much comforted by the doubt she saw there.

  The weather was fine, and so after dinner they went for a walk, Hannah and Jennet and Luke. Rachel and Henry joined them, the boy hopping like a flea in his excitement, ever hopeful for more news of last night’s battle, now that his mother wasn’t there to interfere. They left Adam with Julia and Paul, who intended a quiet afternoon of reading between visits to the clinic, and took Nathaniel, who sat tucked into the crook of his father’s arm, surveying the world like a small emperor wrapped in shawls, his cheeks pink with cold.

  Jennet was glad to be out-of-doors, glad of the sun and the clear cool air and the fact that they were together and healthy. For the moment, at least, she could pretend there was no war and nothing wrong in the world.

  She thought of the letter she had been writing to her mother and brother, and resolved to add more to it this evening: the good news there was to share, and what it was like to be in New Orleans on Christmas Eve less than twenty-four hours since Jackson had led them to victory in their first battle with the British.

  The street vendors were out in full force among the crowds, selling pralines and gingerbread and cake, pickled peppers and eggs. An elderly man with no teeth at all fed the fire beneath a great pot of simmering punch, while a younger man with eyes the exact same shade of green filled a tin cup which could be emptied for a coin.

  Henry said, “Oh, I remember that punch.”

  “As if Mother would let you near it.” Rachel laughed.

  Luke bought a cupful and drank it down. He flushed a deep red as he handed the cup back and the vendor winked at him.

  “Two more of those and you’d have to carry me home,” he said.

  News of Jackson’s activity was to be had on every corner where militiamen stood together. Apparently most of their number had been held back at the Rodriguez Canal to strengthen entrenchments along its line from the river to the ciprière and to assist the engineers, who were to cut the levee in front of Chalmette’s plantation and flood the plain between the two armies.

  “Little good it will do with the river so low,” she heard one man say to another.

  “It can’t hurt,” said his companion.

  Generally the militia seemed to be in good spirits and determined to make the most of the free afternoon before they returned to the Chalmette plantation to take up the backbreaking work that would keep them busy through Christmas Day.

  “I plan to report back this evening,” Luke said, as though Jennet had asked the question aloud.

  There was a set to his jaw that she recognized. She could argue with him now in public and lose, or argue with him later in private and lose. She decided that she didn’t care to ruin their walk, and kept her thoughts to herself.

  They stopped to watch a pantomime done by men in colorful papier-mâché half masks in a rapid Creole French that had the crowd howling with laughter. Rachel listened only for a moment before dragging a disappointed Henry away, and then consoled him by buying him a piece of candied ginger.

  By the time they had worked their way to the river, young Nathaniel’s good mood had begun to sour. Jennet judged that in another half hour he would be howling for the breast, and was about to announce the need to start back when they were overtaken by a river of men streaming down from the Levee Road.

  “More militia,” said Luke. “Just arrived, and look, half of them don’t even have a musket.”

  In the last hour Jennet had managed to banish the idea of the war to some point far away, much further than the seven miles to the British encampment. But here it was again, come to claim her attention: men newly arrived and ready to fight. Most of them, it looked to Jennet, more in need of a meal and clothing than they were of weapons. They wore ragged hunting shirts and deerskin leggings and a variety of hats, from old tricornes to fur caps. Rough men who would not complain about the hard conditions at the Rodriquez Canal. In passing, she wondered how they would like being handed shovels and set to work alongside slaves.

  Henry said, “Look, that man is wearing a whole raccoon on his head,” and Jennet laughed out loud because she must. The baby produced a deep belly laugh out of simple camaraderie.

  The river of men flowed by and past them, and they continued up onto the Levee Road where they could see the traffic on the river, crowded even now with every kind of boat. The keelboats that had brought the militiamen down the long length of the river rocked and fought against their mooring ropes. They would be broken up for firewood or building lumber. To Jennet’s Scots sensibilities it seemed a sinful waste of wood, but in the United States trees were as plentiful and everlasting as the clouds in the sky.

  Jennet was standing between Hannah and Luke and she felt them both tense at the same moment that she caught sight of two last men jumping from a keelboat to the dock. Then Hannah bolted, running like a girl, and Luke’s face split into a smile.

  He turned the baby in the direction of the keelboat and pointed. “There,” he said. “There comes the grandfather you were named for, and your great-uncle Runs-from-Bears.”

  Nathaniel Bonner had been born in the endless forests of New-York State in the fourth year of the nine-year war between the French and the British for possession of the North American continent. Which made him, to Jennet’s reckoning, fifty-six years old. Though she had never asked Runs-from-Bears how old he was—he was far too imposing a figure to bother with such things—she believed the two men to be of an age. Though it was true that one was a full-blood Kahnyen’kehàka of the Turtle Clan and the other of pure Scots extraction, the two men had been cast from the same mold. They looked nothing like the men of Carryck in their dress or even in the way they held their weapons, but the sight of them gave her a sense of homecoming.

  Henry made a small, choked sound. Jennet had forgot about the boy and his sister for a long moment, but turned now to see their expressions. For once Henry was stunned into silence. Rachel was trying harder to look nonchalant, and failing completely. No one had thought to tell them about Runs-from-Bears, and now Jennet remembered what she had felt on first seeing him. He had very black eyes that never seemed to blink; the dark skin stretched tight over heavy cheekbones w
as pox-scarred, and a line of tattoos stretched over the bridge of his nose to his temples. Silver earrings dangled from his ears, and there were feathers braided into his hair, which was still full black. He looked nothing like the Indians Jennet had seen in New Orleans or Pensacola. And then there was the matter of his weapons. Both men were armed with rifles, pistols, knives, tomahawks, and war clubs.

  “No cause for concern,” Jennet said to Henry. “You’ll see, they’re the kindest men ever put on earth.”

  Henry said, “Will he let me touch his tomahawk?”

  Rachel started to answer him, but Jennet shook her head at the girl. She said, “You’ll have to ask him.”

  Henry glanced up at her, his eyes wide. “He speaks English?”

  “He does,” Jennet said. “Now I must go say hello, and then I’ll introduce you.”

  As a girl Hannah had been given to tears, a weakness she had disliked and schooled out of herself as she grew into womanhood. She had done such a thorough job of it that even at times tears would have been a blessing she found she could not call them forth. She had buried her son with dry eyes and steady hands, kissed his cold cheek one last time and turned away for the long walk home.

  But with her father, here on the Levee Road in New Orleans on a chill Christmas afternoon, she found she was a daughter first. She stood in front of her father, trembling, and when he put his arms around her she collapsed against him as though she were not more than thirty years, hardened by loss and desperation and pain.

  Against her hair he said, “Daughter, it is good to see you.”

  Hannah had no words of her own, and so she stood and listened as he spoke to her in her own language, the language of the Wolf Longhouse of the Kahnyen’kehàka, the language that bound them together as surely as blood. She came to realize that her uncle was standing very close, his hand on her shoulder, and Hannah turned a little from her father to look into his face, this uncle she had loved all her life. As a young girl she had hoped to marry him, and then he had married her aunt and that was almost as good, because it meant he would live with them at Lake in the Clouds. Runs-from-Bears, who understood when other adults did not, who took her out tracking and listened to her stories and who now was here, because she was in need. He had come to help, they had both come to help. Hannah realized that her cheeks were wet, and that her eyes stung, and that she had remembered, finally, how to weep.

  Chapter 49

  The holidays were good for business, but war was even better: Every room in Noelle Soileau’s establishment was occupied. She herself had given up her room and was sleeping on the divan in her office; the slaves had been turned out to sleep in the stable with the animals.

  Mme. Soileau made the rounds of the parlor, filled to bursting with men who waited their turn to climb the stairs. At home wives and children would be waiting to start the Christmas Eve festivities. She knew many of those women by name and reputation, and they knew her, too, though they did not meet her eye when they passed on the street.

  Most of her clients had been coming here for years and many of those had a favorite girl, and were willing to wait until she was available. They waited in comfort, drinking smuggled brandy and talking among themselves. About the war, of course. Always about the war.

  There were half a dozen officers in uniform scattered throughout the room. A young man in navy blue held up a hand to get her attention and she went to him, leaning over to give him a view of her cleavage and jewels and the full effect of her perfume. A man of this age, denied release for many days, needed little encouragement to wait his turn, but it did no harm to remind him why he was here.

  His mouth worked as if he had lost the habit of language. “How much longer, do you think, madame?” He was speaking French, or trying to, with horrid results.

  Noelle considered. The young man was on the verge of passing out, which would mean she had wasted precious space on him. She glanced up at Peter, an able assistant who could read her thoughts quite easily after twenty years. Peter nodded.

  This particular officer would find that the next available girl considered him the most intriguing and irresistible of men. His money would find its way into Peter’s palm before he climbed the stairs. If he collapsed before he could take what it had bought him, that would be his loss.

  Really, she needed more girls. She needed more of everything, from brandy—difficult to get now that Lafitte and his kind had joined the fighting and were neglecting their usual clients’ needs—to beds.

  She glanced up the stairs to the landing, where Nicole was taking leave of a regular client. Her gown hung open at the front to reveal the shadowy lines of breast and belly and thigh. Nicole saw herself observed, and retreated back into the room that she called her own. Each of the regular girls had a room, outfitted with good furniture and bed linen that was changed often. It was these niceties that kept regular clients like the elderly judge now descending the stairs coming back.

  He stopped in front of her and bowed from the shoulders.

  “Mme. Soileau. How good to see you again.”

  As if they met at church every week. Some of the older men liked to keep up the charade.

  “Sir, shall we have the pleasure of seeing you again this week?” With all formality and condescension, as he required for his own peace of mind.

  Behind their spectacles, the bright brown eyes moved through the parlor, took note of men standing because they had nowhere to sit.

  “Perhaps,” he said. “When you are not quite so busy.”

  Noelle inclined her head in acknowledgment of the gentle rebuke.

  She must have more space. If she could not renegotiate rental terms with her one permanent guest, she would have to put him out. It was the opportunity she had been anticipating for years, and now she felt her heartbeat quicken. The exchange would require a certain kind of cunning, a good deal of luck, and brandy.

  She cast a glance at Peter, who would supervise in her absence, and went up the stairs.

  Honoré Poiterin lay on the brocade-covered divan before the hearth in Noelle Soileau’s best room—her own room, though few realized that fact—a bottle of brandy in one hand, a glass in the other, and his gaze fixed on the bit of the street he could see through the windows.

  The door of the tavern called the Cock and Hen opened and disgorged three men, all in uniform, all unsteady on their feet from drink. Celebrating Christmas in the time-honored fashion by escaping the family for more genial company. One of the men was Philippe Espinoza, a planter with a passion for dice but no head for arithmetic. Honoré had spent many happy evenings with Espinoza, and would have gladly joined him tonight. But Wyndham had sold him out to Jackson, and it would mean hanging if he showed his face in New Orleans.

  He would have to stay just where he was until the British took the city.

  The only time he ever ventured out was very late at night, in a hooded cape. A calculated risk he took, for fear of simply losing his mind from boredom.

  Now he was tempted to sleep, warmed by the fire and the brandy and the meal he had been served by Noelle Soileau herself. No one else was allowed in this room. There were spies everywhere, as he knew very well. Noelle Soileau herself was a gamble, but a fairly safe one. She knew the value of a bird in the hand, especially one who had just inherited a large family fortune that included two plantations, numerous houses and other real estate, warehouses of cane and cotton stuffed to the rafters, and investments in every lucrative business in a five-hundred-mile radius. After the British took the city there would be more land, and perhaps even enough money to settle his gambling debts.

  Unless, of course, the Americans prevailed. It was a thought he did not often entertain. In that case he would have to flee, and once he was safely away he would have to liquidate everything through his lawyers. He could live a comfortable life in the islands, but the arrangements were complex enough to give a man a headache.

  He still had the ship he had taken from Bonner in Pensacola, hidden awa
y in a safe harbor thirty miles away. It would be easy enough to pick up a crew, then sail to the Antilles. Now that Dégre was gone from Priest’s Town, he could imagine making it his headquarters. There was a fortune to be made in slave running, and the life suited him.

  But of course none of this would be necessary. The Americans had no chance against Wellington’s army, and New Orleans would change hands again. Better the English than the Americans.

  Honoré didn’t realize he had dozed off until he heard the door open. He sprang up from the divan as he grabbed for his pistol.

  Noelle went very still, one brow raised in censure.

  “ ’Stie d’tabernac,” he said. “You gave me a fright.”

  Noelle inclined her head, as close as she would come to an apology.

  Honoré reached for the glass which had rolled off, dribbling brandy over the fine carpet, and picked up the brandy bottle to fill it again. When he had taken a swallow he looked at Noelle, who still stood near the door.

  She was an unappetizing sight, far too thin and with a hard mouth and harder eyes, her hair dyed a deep and objectionable red. He preferred darker complexions, and younger women. Honoré had gone without release for too long, but he was not so desperate as to contemplate using Noelle Soileau.

  He said, “News of the war?”

  “No.” She went to the windows and looked out to the street. “I need this room,” she said. “I have to ask you to go.”

  His laughter gave way to a cough. “If you want to raise the rent I won’t refuse you.”

  “I want the room,” she said, glancing at him over her shoulder.

  Honoré rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. “Or what?”

  She lifted a shoulder and let it drop. He waited for what would come next, her real demand. She delivered it in the same cool tone.

  “You will need a widow,” she said. “To see to your family’s holdings once they hang you.”

 
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