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Queen of swords, p.3
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       Queen of Swords, p.3

           Sara Donati

  And then, finally, this morning Jennet found herself in front of a priest in a small Catholic church. He was an ancient Frenchman with a wobbling voice and kind eyes and he had married them and blessed them and wished them a speedy journey and quick recovery of their son.

  In the few moments before they left to board the Patience, Giselle raised the subject of the boy. “Luke was taken from me at birth, remember,” she said. “It was many years before I saw him again. You will be more fortunate.” In a conspiratorial tone she added, “When you find the boy, bring him back here so I can see to his education.”

  But the truth was, Giselle didn’t believe her grandson was alive; none of them did. It was so clearly written on their faces. Poor Jennet has been through a great deal, that look said. Humor her, for the time being.

  It was uncharitable of her, but she could not help thinking such things, not even of Luke. He would do everything in his power, but in his heart, Jennet was sure, he had already given up on the boy. She held it against him, and didn’t know how to stop.

  Now they were married, and that was a good thing. The very best thing, something she had wanted for as long as she could remember, to have Luke as her husband. She had left Scotland not yet thirty years old, a widow of only a few months, to come looking for him.

  Jennet pressed her trembling hands together, and wondered how long she could keep herself from weeping.

  “Luke sent me down to see after you,” Hannah said in the open hatchway, and just that simply the battle was lost. Jennet turned to her cousin with tears streaming down her face, and then collapsed into her outstretched arms.

  They sat together on the edge of the bed for a long time while Jennet wept and Hannah waited, quiet and patient. Hannah was wearing the only gown she had allowed Giselle to order for her, figured Indian muslin over rose-colored silk. She had put it on for the wedding ceremony and left it on while she ran all her last-minute errands; there was a smudge of soot on her hem and a pulled thread in the lace at the neckline. She smelled of spices and something bittersweet, of sunlight and clean sweat, and under all that was another smell, salty and sharp; she smelled of Kit Wyndham. It was none of Jennet’s business, not really, and it made her weep all the more, her tears wetting the bodice of celery green silk drugget with its elaborate embroidery. Her wedding gown.

  Men’s feet drummed on the deck in response to whistles and shouts, sails creaked and caught the wind so that the ship shivered and danced like an eager dog on a line. Jennet let herself be rocked.

  Hannah had lost a son. She would never see him again in this life, and that thought brought Jennet up short. She pressed the back of her hands to her streaming eyes and tried to regain control of her voice.

  “Not now,” Hannah said. “Not unless you’re ready.”

  “I am,” Jennet said. “I think I am.”

  “Then tell me.”

  She couldn’t tell, not everything. Not yet. But Jennet would start, and hope that half the story would be enough.

  The words came slowly at first, forced up out of her throat and mouth like bloody clots. She talked of the day Dégre had taken her from Île aux Noix, the ship that had been waiting, the men on the ship. How they circled around her, delighted with the promise of diversion over the course of a dull voyage south. The dissatisfaction when Dégre made it clear that she was not to be marked. Lady Jennet was an asset first and foremost, and her value was not to be compromised.

  Eventually prudence gave way to the sea and the monotony of the wind and the rum, and the bolder of the men began to approach her. There were many things they could do to amuse themselves that would leave no mark, at least none that others could see. They talked about this in her hearing, as they might talk of slaughtering one of the pigs that lived in a pen on deck while they rubbed knuckles over its bristled skull.

  It was too easy to imagine. She would be passed from man to man, and each of them would use her in his own way, casually or angrily or with a whispering kind of thankfulness.

  Dégre, who never showed any interest in taking her, watched and said nothing. Jennet understood that he was leaving it up to her: She must find a way to save herself.

  “Have you ever stabbed a man in the throat?” Her voice was steady, but her hands trembled.

  Hannah shook her head.

  “It’s like standing under a waterfall,” Jennet said. “I was covered with blood.” And then: “I don’t regret it. The others left me alone after that.”

  Because I stank of blood, she might have said. And it amused Dégre to refuse me water to wash. As long as I live, I will dream of the flies.

  Instead, Jennet told the story of the day she had given birth, the long hours in a hot room where lizards clung to the walls and birds screamed in the trees.

  “But he was perfect,” Jennet said. “Perfect in form, and healthy, and so much like Luke, the shape of his eyes and his fingers and toes and the way his hair grows here.” She touched the crown of her own head. “He was perfect. He is perfect, and he must be alive, or what was it all for?”

  There it was, the question like a thorn struck through the heart. The question she had never dared put to Luke.

  Hannah smoothed Jennet’s hair away from her hot face. Her black eyes were without any expression that Jennet could read. She might say, The boy is dead and you know it or The boy must be alive because we wish it so.

  She said, “Jennet, listen to me well. You and Luke must hold each other up. Don’t turn away from him, not now, especially not now. You must trust that he can bear what you have to say. The things you cannot say to me, that you think you cannot say to anyone. Do you hear me?”

  It was the best advice Hannah had to offer, and Jennet wanted no part of it. Her cousin must have seen that in her face, because her own expression sharpened.

  Hannah said, “Do you know what I regret most? The things I didn’t say to Strikes-the-Sky. The morning I saw him last, the things I should have said. Don’t make the same mistake.”

  Jennet nodded, and shuddered, and nodded again. “Send him to me, would you?”

  When Luke came a half hour later, there was a fine beading of sweat on his forehead. Jennet had a sudden picture in her mind of Hannah speaking to him, a finger raised in admonition. It made her smile. He smiled back at her.

  In his hands he carried a tray with bread and fruit and cheese, and under his arm a bottle of wine. He put these things down on the small table under the porthole and then turned to her like a man awaiting sentencing. “It’s not much, as wedding suppers go.”

  Jennet held out her hand. “It’s not the food I care about. Come sit by me,” she said. And then: “Do you remember the night you came to me with the pennyroyal ointment, when I went to sleep in the hay barn?”

  “You were sulking, and so I seduced you into a better mood.”

  Jennet laughed, because he meant her to. “If you care to remember it that way.”

  He touched her face. “I remember the promises we made, under the waterfall.”

  She reached up and kissed him, felt his surprise and his delight and his caution, too, and so she kissed him again, putting her hands on his face and pulling him down to her.

  He held back for a moment, and then he relaxed against her with a sound that came up from his belly. Jennet pressed her forehead against his and closed her eyes. She said, “I was never raped. I want you to know that.”

  She felt the words work on him, the way they dug into his mind and then, more slowly, moved through him, muscle by muscle. His arms went limp and then tightened so that she gasped.

  “It wouldn’t have mattered,” he said. His gaze was steady, though his tone had coarsened a little.

  “I might have been,” Jennet said. “But I killed the first man who tried. I stabbed him, and after that the others left me alone.” She would have gone on, but he pulled away to look in her face.

  “But that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

  “I’m not ashamed of it,” Jennet sai

  “Were you punished?”

  “No,” Jennet said. “It amused Dégre, to—the whole episode amused him. I would do it again, and without hesitation.”

  “Of course you would,” he said, his mouth touching hers. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

  And then he kissed her, his mouth intent: And here was the surprise, that there were still such kisses to be had in the world, from a man like this one. Who could make her remember desire, and feel it again, that twist and pulse deep in the belly, the knowledge that it was there all along through all the months she had come to see herself as not an empty vessel, but a broken one. His voice was deep and rough and there was a trembling there, one that matched her own.

  “Let me remind you,” he said. “Let me show you.”

  It was ten days since he had come to Priest’s Town to save her. He had slept beside her chastely, and held her when she wept, and comforted her as a brother comforts a grieving sister, and through all that Jennet had sensed him waiting and wanting, his body impatient for her but kept in check. She wondered how she could ever give him the things he deserved, the touch he wanted.

  She turned to meet him, tasted salt on his skin and tears, and made herself a promise she wanted to keep, but could not be sure of, not yet.

  Chapter 8

  Hannah heard Jennet’s voice first, and realized that she had been outwitted. She picked up her skirts and trotted around the corner of the kitchen building into a small, well-kept garden alive with butterflies. In the middle of it, four women sat in the shade of an arbor heavy with flowering vines. Between Jennet and Titine sat an elderly woman with the bearing of a queen and the inquisitive, alert look of a girl of ten. She might be called a free woman of color by Preston and others like him, but to Hannah’s eye she seemed white. Beside her sat another, older woman, this one far darker of complexion but no less alert. One of her eyes had gone the milky color of marble, and the hands in her lap were so swollen at the joints that they seemed hardly human.

  Among these women Jennet’s head of blond curls looked almost doll-like, but the stare she sent Hannah was pure defiance.

  Hannah forced herself to smile as she approached. It was true that Jennet was pale, but the hands wrapped around the bowl of milk were steady, and the shadows under her eyes were no worse than Hannah’s own. More than that, Hannah had the sense that these women were well aware of Jennet’s condition and could be trusted to watch her closely.

  “My sister-in-law Hannah,” Jennet said. “I was wondering when you’d come to find me. Let me introduce you. This lady is Mme. Valerie Maurepas, Titine’s mother. And that is Gaetane, Madame’s servant. They have a great deal to tell us.”

  It was clearly Gaetane’s role to tell stories, and she was very good at it, though she allowed Titine and her mother to add the occasional comment or detail.

  Hannah had the idea that it had always been this way, since the day Archange Poiterin had bought a cottage on the rue Dauphine and installed Valerie there with two slaves of her own to look after her, one of whom was a twenty-year-old Gaetane. Together they had been expelled from that same cottage, and together they had come to Pensacola to live with Valerie’s only daughter.

  Titine had not inherited her mother’s legendary looks, and because her father had made no provisions for her in his will, she had accepted the position as Andrew Preston’s housekeeper, and perhaps more. Hannah had the idea that Mr. Preston would require some kind of payment for taking in two old black women who could be of little practical use in his household.

  Gaetane, it was very clear, disliked Pensacola and wanted nothing more than to go back to New Orleans, but she would not leave her mistress even if she had the means to do so. No doubt she would have escorted Valerie Maurepas to hell, if solely to make sure the devil showed her the courtesy she deserved. And Gaetane had quite a lot to say about Honoré Poiterin. Some of it was amusing, and all of it was alarming.

  “Everybody know Michie Honoré, the same way everybody know the gator and the gar. I like the gator better, me, M. Caïmon. Câlice! We got one back there in the ciprière long as two men standing one on top of the other.” She looked toward the tangle of green that started beyond a pasture where a few horses grazed in the shade of a stand of cypress trees. “Old M. Caïmon don’t make no bones ’bout what he want, and don’t pretend to be something he ain’t.”

  Hannah thought for a moment. “What does Honoré Poiterin want?”

  The three women looked briefly at one another, and then Mme. Valerie answered in an elegant, musical, and quite old-fashioned English. “Honoré cares about two things. The first is amusing himself. The second is pleasing his grand-mère Agnès, because she controls the money he requires to amuse himself.”

  Gaetane sniffed loudly. With one small, red-painted clog she crushed a yellow jacket crawling over the cobbles.

  Hannah said, “Is it Agnès Poiterin’s idea or her grandson’s to try to claim my nephew as their own?”

  Mme. Valerie crossed her hands on her lap. “That is a very good question, but there is no simple answer. My guess would be that once Agnès saw the boy, she decided she wanted to keep him, and Honoré went along with it.”

  “Mme. Agnès, she like pretties, her,” Gaetane said. “And that boy of yours the prettiest child I ever seen in all my long years.”

  Jennet jerked and righted herself. “You’ve seen him? You’ve seen my son?”

  “Mais yeah, we see your boy, your Nathaniel,” said Gaetane. She pronounced it in the French way, Nah-taan-i-el. “See him just about every day. Jacinthe, she bring him by here and sit right there where you are, madame, with the boy in her lap while she pass the time with us. The boy got a smile like his papa’s, like your man’s.”

  Jennet stood, hands pressed to her mouth, and then sat again.

  Titine said, “I would have told you, but you were so unwell when you arrived.”

  “Jacinthe is his nurse?” Hannah asked.

  “Mais yeah.” Gaetane rocked her whole body from side to side in approval. “She got sweet milk, Jacinthe, and a good heart. Deserve better than that devil Honoré, that for sure.”

  Titine said, “The boy is well taken care of with Jacinthe, Madame Scott.”

  Hannah saw the sharp look Titine’s mother sent her. She said, “You disagree, madame?”

  “I have no quarrel with Jacinthe, but it’s not the girl who will have the raising of the boy. It’s Honoré’s grand-mère.” She seemed to come to some conclusion, because she held up a hand to quiet Gaetane.

  “Honoré might have turned out differently, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Agnès raised him in her own image. I wouldn’t put a good dog in her care, much less a boy. You had best go straight to New Orleans, and do what you must to get your son back. If you’re fortunate Honoré will be away on business and you’ll find a way around Agnès.”

  “And how do we do that? Can you tell me?” Jennet’s voice was steady but she was trembling.

  “If I knew how to get the best of Agnès Poiterin I would not be here,” said the older woman. “I would be where I belong in my cottage on the rue Dauphine, in New Orleans—where you must go, without delay.”

  The hour in the garden had drained Jennet of the little strength she had, and she retired to her bed without argument. She allowed Hannah to wipe her face and throat with a cloth dipped in water sweetened with cloves and mint.

  “Tomorrow,” Jennet said.

  Hannah hesitated, and then nodded. “Tomorrow, yes.”

  “You’ll arrange it with Luke?”

  “If you like. If I must.” It was an invitation, but Jennet turned her face to the wall. Hannah was about to leave her when Jennet spoke again, her voice clogged with unshed tears.

  “I can only fight one battle at a time,” she said.

  Hannah sat again. “You aren’t at war with Luke.”

  “No.” Each breath Jennet produced was short and harsh. “Of course not.”

  Jennet sle
pt fitfully for much of the day, starting up out of dreams to find herself drenched in sweat. It was dim in the chamber and crossed by breezes that felt good against the dampness of her skin. Often someone was sitting beside the bed, Hannah or Titine or another young woman with skin the color of molasses who held a baby to her breast. The smell of her milk filled the air, and it made Jennet’s own breasts ache.

  She dreamed that her brother Simon was sitting beside her bed. He had died long ago as a young boy, but in her dream he was a man grown, with a shock of red hair and a deep voice he used to tell her news of home. I watch over them, he said. I watch you all. She dreamed of Honoré Poiterin, his laughing smile and the flash of an earring against black hair. A young man of some talents and many sins, who feared nothing and demanded everything. She dreamed of Moore’s face across the table, his mouth forming the question When will I get me a good wife? While the white scar on his forehead twisted like a snake against red flushed skin. When he showed himself next he was reciting the marriage rites with the exaggerated care of a man who has drunk too deep.

  Deus Israel conjungat vos in matrimonium et ipse sit vobiscum qui misertus est duobus unicis…

  Jennet woke fully and finally in the last of the evening light at the sound of the door shutting and a step on the floorboards.

  She said, “You needn’t sit here with me all day.”

  “I’ve brought supper.” Luke’s voice, steady and calm, his tone unremarkable. Jennet opened her eyes and saw him sitting beside her. He had spent the day in the sun and his skin still glowed with it.

  A beautiful boy, him, with a smile like his papa’s, like your man’s.

  He helped her sit up and arranged the pillows for her back, sat by and watched her drink the tisane Hannah had sent up with the dinner tray, and smiled when she pulled a face at its bitterness. While she spooned soup Luke did the same, telling her between swallows about his day. The repairs to the Patience were moving along and she would be ready to sail tomorrow, if nothing else went wrong; he had hired a crew member to replace Bardi, a free man of color out of Mobile who could get them past the British and American navies to New Orleans by a back route.

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