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Queen of swords, p.26
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       Queen of Swords, p.26

           Sara Donati
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  Whatever it is that brings him so many loyal men, it is profitable. Lafitte’s auctions of smuggled slaves draw buyers from hundreds of miles around. He supplies the city with everything from soap milled in France to firearms.

  Honoré sits up. So that is what Noelle was trying to get at: Lafitte’s hidden supply of black powder and ammunition kept at Le Tonneau. The rumor is that there is enough stockpiled in Lafitte’s secret armory to blow up a thousand ships.

  Wyndham had been keenly interested in Le Tonneau, now that Honoré remembers. Once, Honoré had even taken him there.

  Chapter 61

  Rumors blew through the city, a windstorm of conjecture, wild fears and hopes. As the first week of the new year trudged by, tempers were strained to the breaking point and beyond. Funeral processions for fallen soldiers, no matter how humble, grew into huge ungainly affairs attended by hundreds, and the lamentations of the mourners rose up like a cloud over the city. An hour later, the rumor that Jackson was in the city would send those same people into a frenzy of cheers outside his headquarters.

  Hannah’s menfolk were gone more, and for longer periods. She saw her father and uncle every day for at least a short while; Ben she saw very little, and Luke even less. Men who had been out in the ciprière in the cold rain had little time for long discussions, Hannah explained to herself. Clémentine must shovel great amounts of hot food into him, and he needed fresh clothes and water to wash. He must spend time with Paul and Julia and the children, and then of course he needed his sleep. Her question for him would have to wait.

  When he was away she buried herself in work. The clinic suspended vaccinations until the battle for the city was decided, and dealt instead with a steady flow of patients. Soldiers with wounds small and large, broken bones, burns, infections, and the illnesses that were the burden of any army: dysentery, typhoid, measles, malaria. Hannah looked after men too sick to take note of the color of her skin; she worked in the surgery and apothecary; twice she was called to deliver babies for ladies who were normally attended by one of the medical doctors who had gone to the main field hospital for the duration.

  There was no sign of Honoré Poiterin or word about him. She saw Maman Zuzu a few times, and learned from her that Jacinthe was safe and would most likely recover. Once she went out to the Bayou St. John to visit with Amazilie, who had grown thinner and very drawn. It was not just the loss of Titine that weighed on her, but also the fact that her son had gone off to join the fighting. Tibère was serving with the Battalion of Free Men of Color, and she had not seen him since Christmas Day.

  Where there was so much misery and pain, Hannah told herself, it was truly the height of self-indulgence to be worried about something as trivial as a marriage proposal.

  She spent a good amount of time composing a letter to her stepmother in her head. Elizabeth would know what to do. If she had been here during Hannah’s very odd, very disturbing discussion with her father and uncle, Elizabeth would have taken control and…what? What would she have said?

  Here Hannah’s imagination refused to cooperate. A very bad sign indeed.

  In the late afternoon of the fifth of January, the richest men in the city evacuated their wives and children by means of Henry Shreve’s steamboat. Julia Savard would not go, but Rachel and Henry were entrusted to the care of Mrs. Livingston, who left New Orleans with her mother and daughter.

  Jennet came back to stay with the Savards, and brought the babies with her, much to Clémentine’s satisfaction. To Hannah’s relief Jennet seemed to have forgot entirely about Ben Savard, or at least, she had been warned away from the subject by Luke or more likely, to Hannah’s mind, her father-in-law.

  The mood in the city was more somber by the hour, and by the evening of the seventh, Hannah had begun to believe the rumors about the coming battle. She left the clinic and climbed the stairs to Ben’s apartment, trying not to hope that she would see him this evening. It had been almost two days, and she wanted the opportunity to talk to him before he went into battle. She knew too much of the possibilities to pretend to herself that there was no danger.

  No book could hold her attention, and so she lay sleepless, staring at the ceiling and trying to ignore the sound of artillery fire in the distance.

  At first she didn’t hear the scratching at the door. The people who sought her out here were more likely to knock or call out, and so she went to answer the door already alert and uncertain.

  Her visitor was a stranger, a young woman who had painted her face in a manner that left no question as to her chosen work. She wore a pink-and-brown paisley shawl over a low-cut gown, and what was either a fake mole on one breast or the beginning of a fearsome cancer.

  And her brow creased in confusion and no small amount of unhappiness at the sight of Hannah. She said, “Where’s Ben?”

  Hannah’s voice came rough with sleeplessness. “On patrol, with his company.”

  “I have a letter for him.”

  Hannah stepped aside. “Would you like to wait?”

  And then had to bite hard on the lining of her cheek to keep from laughing at the look on the younger woman’s face. Affront, surprise, uneasiness.

  “I’ve got to get back,” she said. And, with sudden energy: “I know you. I’ve seen you before.”

  “Is that so?” Hannah managed a small smile. “Have you come to the clinic to be vaccinated?”

  This suggestion was greeted with a hoot of laughter. “As if I’d let the likes of you stick me with a needle full of cow piss.”

  There was a moment’s silence in which the unapologetic examination of Hannah’s face continued. She was about to protest when the woman’s eyes widened.

  “I know,” she said, her tone triumphant. “You was the one who spent a week in Girl’s room, sick with the marsh fever. I saw you once or twice when I passed by. You look healthy enough now.”

  “I am healthy now,” Hannah said, disoriented. “Who is it who sent you?”

  “My mistress,” said the girl. “Mme. Soileau. She’s got a house on the other side of town.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “You don’t remember that week at all? My face don’t strike you familiar? I’m Nicole.”

  “I don’t recall you,” Hannah said. “But I remember Girl.”

  The woman’s expression sobered. “I miss Girl. The mistress sold her when she got sick.”

  “I know that,” Hannah said. She lifted her chin in the direction of the clinic. “She died here, of an obstruction in her bowel.”

  “Is that so?” Nicole had gone pale beneath her rouge. “Could be she’s better off. You hear stories about the planters who buy their slaves from the auction houses.”

  I’ve heard those stories, too, Hannah thought, but kept it to herself.

  “You said you have a letter—”

  “For Ben. I’m supposed to give it to him direct, but she didn’t say nothing about waiting half the night.”

  “I can give it to him,” Hannah offered.

  The girl gave an uneasy and doubtful shrug. “It’s important, the mistress says. You won’t read it?”

  “I won’t read it.” And then, against her better judgment: “How is it Ben knows your mistress?”

  “Oh, everybody knows Mme. Soileau,” Nicole said. “Every man, at least.” And she winked. She handed Hannah the letter, heavy paper folded and secured with a solid wax seal.

  “I’m trusting you, now,” she said.

  “I will deliver it,” said Hannah. “You can depend upon it.”

  Nicole’s perfume was still hanging in the air when Ben came through the door a half hour later, just as the cathedral bells were chiming eight o’clock. Hannah had lit candles and stoked the fire and she sat in the best chair near the hearth, an unread book in her lap and, on top of the book, the letter.

  Hannah stayed just where she was while he took off his weapons and set them carefully aside. Then he came to her directly and leaning over, kissed her on the forehead.

been a long while,” Hannah said.

  “I have,” he agreed. “Long enough that I was hoping for more of a greeting.”

  Hannah studied his face, and felt her resolve crumbling away. This was Ben Savard, who had given her every reason to trust him, who had saved her life. She loved him, that was clear to her now, and the oddest thing was that love made it all the harder to be fair.

  She said, “You had a visitor just a little while ago.”

  Ben shrugged off his wet cape and spread it out before the hearth. “A visitor.”

  “Yes. A young woman called Nicole. She brought you a letter from Mme. Soileau.”

  “Ah.” He sat down on a stool and took his time pulling off his moccasins. “So what does it say?”

  “It’s your letter,” Hannah said, her temper flaring. “I wouldn’t open it.”

  “But you look mad enough to throw it into the fire.”

  “I am not mad.”

  “No?” He held her gaze.

  “How is it you know Mme. Soileau?”

  “I don’t know her, the way you mean.” He grinned. “In the biblical sense. Don’t know any of her young women that way, either.”

  “You do business with her of another kind?”

  “I wouldn’t call it business,” Ben said. “Is this about Girl?”

  “Yes,” Hannah said. “Your Mme. Soileau—”

  “She’s not mine.”

  “—as much as murdered that young woman. Why would you have anything to do with her?”

  “You’re jumping to conclusions, chère. Open it up, read it to me before you decide I need tarring.”

  Hannah paused, trying to make sense of the things she was feeling. She held out the letter to him.

  “This is your business and none of mine. I needn’t involve myself.”

  Ben took the letter, letting his fingers trail over hers. His skin was still cold, and the shock of it ran up her arm. He looked irritated and Hannah thought: Good. At least we’re both mad.

  The wax seal gave a soft crack and he unfolded the single sheet. His eyes moved over the page, and then he handed it to her.

  “It’s your business, too,” he said. “But you’re right, you needn’t involve yourself.”

  The hand was firm and straight, the ink very black.

  He goes to Le Tonneau after midnight.

  Hannah looked at Ben. He was studying the fire, his face set in hard lines. He spoke without turning toward her.

  “Poiterin has been hiding out at Noelle Soileau’s place since the night his grand-mère died in the fire.”

  Hannah tried to make sense of the words. “And you knew where he was? Why didn’t—how could—” She broke off.

  “I didn’t tell you and I didn’t turn him in for a couple reasons,” said Ben. “Mostly because Noelle asked me to hold off. She had her own plans for the man.”

  Hannah took a deep breath. “We are talking about Honoré Poiterin, who put Jennet through such torture for so many months, who took Titine and sold her, who raped me.”

  “You think I could ever forget about that?” Ben gave her a long and very sober look.

  “No,” Hannah said. “But I don’t understand.”

  After a moment Ben said, “As much as he’s done to you, he’s done that and more to Noelle and her family.” He ran a hand over his eyes. “You met Valerie Maurepas in Pensacola?”

  It took a moment for Hannah to collect her thoughts. “Titine’s mother. Yes, I met her.”

  “When Noelle was sixteen or so—about Rachel’s age—she was taken off the street. By one of the slave traders of the sort who isn’t fussy about where his stock comes from, or how legal it is. Noelle was free, born to free parents, but that didn’t matter to him. He took her north and sold her to a planter in Virginia, and she’d be a slave to this day if she hadn’t got word to Valerie. Valerie hired a lawyer and got the papers together and they sued, and eventually Noelle got her freedom back. She was nineteen by that time, and those three years—they took a toll.”

  “I can see that they would,” Hannah said, her tone milder now. “You’re saying Noelle Soileau is connected somehow to Valerie Maurepas.”

  “Noelle may be without mercy when it comes to business, and if you’re waiting for me to explain how somebody with her history would hold slaves, well, then I have to disappoint you. I don’t understand it myself, but she’s not alone. There’s more than one dark-skinned slave holder in this part of the country. But I can tell you this about Noelle: To her own people she’s loyal unto death, and her great-aunt Valerie Maurepas and her cousin Titine are two of those people she counts as her own.” And to Hannah’s blank look: “You didn’t realize that Noelle is colored, did you? Most folks don’t, but she signs herself that way: Noelle Soileau, FWC.”

  Hannah said, “I should have thought to ask why Titine took me to that house, but I was too sick, and later I just—” She paused.

  “It was the one place in the city she knew you’d be safe, because she asked Noelle to take you in as a personal favor to her.”

  “My recollection,” Hannah said slowly, “is that rent was paid. And when the money was used up, I was thrown out.”

  “Mais yeah, rent was paid. She’s a businesswoman first and foremost. And then Titine got snatched up and stole away—”

  Hannah closed her eyes and opened them again. Of course. Of course that would send someone with Noelle Soileau’s history into a frenzy. “She must have been out of her mind with grief.”

  “Mostly it’s anger that moves Noelle,” Ben said. “But now you’ll see where it comes from. Titine got snatched up by Poiterin because of you and Jennet coming to New Orleans. Noelle put part of the blame on you. Maybe that seems unreasonable to you—”

  “But we are partly to blame,” Hannah said.

  “Even so, Noelle didn’t throw you out to die, not the way you think. She sent word to me, and I came to get you.”

  Hannah let the silence spin out while she thought it all through.

  She said, “There’s still Girl.”

  “Yes,” Ben said. “There’s Girl. I can’t make any excuses for that, and I won’t. But I can tell you that whatever ill you wished on Honoré Poiterin, it’s nothing compared to what Noelle has put him through.”

  “What did she do?” Hannah asked.

  “She called in Maman Zuzu.”

  Hannah stood and walked to the window. There was nothing to see in the courtyard except the darkened shape of the fountain. Without turning she said, “Tell me about this place he’s going tonight—”

  “Le Tonneau. On the other side of the river, a half mile or so south. Pretty well hid.”

  “Noelle arranged this.”

  “She’s been working on getting him out of the city, yes. It took some handling, from what I hear.”

  “And now it’s up to you to waylay him.”

  “I’m not going alone.”

  It all fit together, quite suddenly and with clarity. “My father.”

  “And your uncle and your brother,” said Ben. “Between the four of us, we’ll put paid to the whole business.”

  He was taking dry clothes down from the pegs on the wall. For a moment, Hannah watched him.

  “Why does he need to be out of the city? Why couldn’t you go take him out of her place?”

  Ben cast her a sidelong glance. “Because it can’t look like Noelle had anything to do with it. If there’s any suspicion of foul play on her part, the court will stop her from inheriting.”

  “Inheriting?” The word caught in Hannah’s throat.

  “Honoré Poiterin is as good as dead,” Ben said. “And Noelle Soileau is his wife.” He drew in a deep breath and let it go.

  “His legal wife.” It wasn’t a question, but Ben nodded.

  For a moment he seemed to be ready to tell her more, and then he shook his head. “I was hoping to spend the night, but I’ve got to go straightaway. Are you going to give me a kiss good-bye, or will I have to make do with a
few fond words?”

  Hannah went to him then. She put her hands on his chest and went up on tiptoe to kiss him.

  “Is it true about tomorrow, about the battle that’s coming?”

  “It’s true,” Ben said. He ran a hand over her hair. “I may not have time to come back here tonight. If that’s the case I’ll send somebody to fetch you to the field hospital. If you’re still willing.”

  “I’m willing,” Hannah said. There were other things she wanted and needed to say, but she couldn’t bear the idea of raising the questions she had for him and then having him leave before they had time to talk it all through.

  Instead she said, “You take care, Jean-Benoît Savard. You take good care. Don’t turn your back on Honoré Poiterin, or on the English army, either.”

  Jennet showed up at her door shortly after Ben had left.

  She said, “Can ye take Adam, please, afore I drop the puir wee thing on his heid.”

  “I was about to come find you,” Hannah said. “I didn’t want to wait for word alone.”

  The babies were quickly settled, side by side on Ben’s bed. Hannah stood for a moment considering the two of them, strong and healthy, full of promise. Adam, who had had such a difficult start, had been coddled and nursed to rounded surplus. His black hair curled prettily at his temples, and his skin glowed the shade of aged oak. He had a cleft in his chin that marked him as Honoré Poiterin’s child.

  Beside her Jennet said, “I will do right by this boy, I swear it.”

  Hannah thought of her brother, of her father and uncle and all the family at Lake in the Clouds who would have a hand in his raising and education. “We all will,” she said.

  “Weel now,” Jennet said, as if coming out of a trance. “We’ll no be sleeping this night, so here’s my plan. I’m going to brave Clémentine’s kitchen and bring back tea and whatever else I can find, and then we’ll sit together, the twa of us, and I’ll read the cards. And I’ve got a question or two that Ben couldna take the time to answer when he came to fetch Luke. Will ye tell me what ye ken?”

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