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Queen of swords, p.8
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       Queen of Swords, p.8

           Sara Donati

  Leo said, “We understand you well enough, but it’s hard to trust somebody who talks like you. Who doesn’t talk like us.”

  Hannah understood very well what he was trying to tell her: Many people, including Leo himself, had not yet made up their minds about her.

  A timid knock at the door made them both turn in that direction. Leo was across the room before Hannah could move a step. He opened the door and Hannah saw a young boy, his dark face wet with rain. He caught Hannah’s eye and then looked down at his own feet while he said a few hushed words to Leo. There were some questions and answers, and then Leo closed the door in the boy’s face.

  Hannah said, “What is it?”

  “Do you know somebody named Titine? A free woman of color?” His expression was uneasy.

  “Yes,” Hannah said. She gathered her thoughts, or tried to. She realized, with some disquiet, that she hadn’t given Titine a thought in days. Titine, who had disappeared, and possibly died, trying to be of help to the Bonners.

  “The boy says that this Titine’s aunt has got word of her. The aunt is the housekeeper at the Maison Verde on the Bayou St. John, and she’s wondering if you’d come. And bring your doctor’s bag.”


  “He’s waiting to show you the way. But you can’t go. It’ll be dark soon, and Ben isn’t here.”

  Very calmly Hannah said, “Was the message for Ben?”

  Leo scowled at her. “You can’t go alone. You don’t know the way.”

  “I’ll ride,” Hannah said. “I can take the boy up on the saddle with me.”

  “You have no boots.”

  “Boots?” Hannah looked down at the clogs on her feet, and thought of her stepmother, Elizabeth Middleton Bonner, who had earned the name Bone-in-her-Back from the Kahnyen’kehàka, for her strong will and sense of justice, and for her bravery. Hannah’s father had given her another name, Boots. For her one indulgence, the love of pretty footwear. Leo could not know it, but to remind Hannah of her stepmother at this moment was only to steel her resolve. She said, “Will you go to the stable for me, or should I do that myself?”

  Leo’s usual obstinate expression faded. Hannah could almost read his mind, and in some small way she understood and even liked the boy for his caution and the way he assumed responsibility for her welfare. But there was no time to shepherd him through his doubt, and so she went back to the long table where she prepared medications and hurriedly gathered the things she might need, medicines and salves and instruments she had once carried in a leather bag, but now tied into a large square of linen that she could tear into bandages if the need arose.

  “Your cloak is still wet.”

  That was certainly true. For a moment Hannah considered going up to the apartment to get more suitable clothes, and then she remembered Jennet and Luke as she had last seen them. Jennet, who was already on the verge of falling apart. Luke must find a way to calm Jennet, though he had a bump on his head. Luke would feel obliged to come with her, though the Poiterins lived on the Bayou St. John and for him to come face-to-face with Honoré at this point would be a disaster.

  She would not be put off, but neither could she go out unprepared. She needed warmer clothes, boots, money, a weapon.

  As she went out Leo said, “I have to go to the clinic to see Dr. Savard.”

  Hannah gave him a grim smile. “I’m on my way to see him myself. Come along, if you like.”

  Paul Savard did not much like her plan, but he didn’t try to stop her, either, and for that Hannah was thankful. Instead he gave her a pistol and a knife in a beaded sheath, a small leather bag of ammunition, another of powder, and the last, the heaviest, of coin. Leo watched all this, at first surprised and then barely able to contain his disapproval. He made a number of pointed comments under his breath, dire predictions and promises, dark certainties.

  Paul finally said to him, “A smart man knows when it is time to stand out of the way of a strong woman. I could tell you stories about Hannah—” He broke off with a smile, and turned around to pick up a book. Its stained leather binding and sprung spine said that it had seen hard use and a number of mishaps in the apothecary, and even before she could read the words embossed she guessed what they would say: Seats and Causes of Disease Investigated by Means of Anatomy. The doctor began to leaf through the pages, not reading so much as looking for familiar landmarks.

  Paul Savard was known to quote Morgagni in all kinds of professional discussions, but what bearing he could have on the present situation was beyond Hannah. She was about to say as much when he found what he was looking for and pulled out something that had been lodged between the pages.

  He held up a small piece of discolored paper. The handwriting was clean and strong but the ink had faded with time, and still Hannah recognized it immediately. She sent Paul Savard a startled look and he returned a Gallic, one-shouldered shrug as he handed the note to Leo.

  “My wife tells me you are an excellent reader,” he said. “Read it aloud.”

  Leo began, stumbling a little with the English. “A man needs medical help. If you will attend to him, be outside the almshouse kitchen door at three this afternoon.”

  “How did you come by that?” Hannah asked, unsettled and moved by the vivid memories those few words could pull forth.

  “What does it mean?” Leo asked.

  To Hannah, Paul Savard said: “That’s a long story.”

  Hannah met his gaze directly and when she saw that she could not move him, she said, “I must go, the boy is waiting.”

  The doctor inclined his head. “Of course. Leo, see that Hannah sets off and then come back here and I’ll tell you the story. Unless she would like to tell you herself, tomorrow?”

  She took the time to wonder what Paul Savard was trying to accomplish, and then she shook her head. “You must suit yourself,” she said. “As you always do.”

  The messenger seemed greatly relieved to see Hannah come out of the courtyard on horseback, and he took her hand and climbed up behind her without a moment’s hesitation. Through chattering teeth he told her his name was Michel. Hannah sent Leo back into the little clinic to get a dry blanket to wrap around the boy, and then with his arms around her waist they set off. She was aware of Leo watching from the window, his expression disapproving and wistful both.

  Now and then Michel gave directions in short sentences, taking them down one street and then another, until finally they were on the path that paralleled Marigny’s canal. This was the lesser-used road, the longer way to the Bayou St. John, but Hannah could think of many reasons to avoid the main byway, and so she urged the mare to a jolting trot at the same moment that the sky split open. The sleet turned into an icy deluge, and the mare whinnied her disapproval.

  The temptation was to break into a canter, but the road was unknown to her and the combination of the dusk and fog called for caution. Beyond that, Hannah had been raised by men who spent a good amount of time traveling through the endless forests, and she knew the importance of paying attention in strange territory.

  The path ran between the canal on one side and the beginnings of the swamp on the other. The smell of the canal was strong in the air despite the rain. Rotting fish and waterweeds and dung. A half dozen mules stood at the open half door of a stable, waiting to be let in after a day of treading the towpath, oblivious to the rain. Shacks and small cabins straggled along the way, weathered board walls festooned with fishing nets and lines. The tools of men who made their living on the swamp were everywhere: crates and barrels and wooden tubs, flat-bottomed boats dragged onto land and turned over to show scarred underbellies, piles of fish bone. A pack of dogs watched them passing from a shadowy corner, and Hannah was glad of the pistol she had tucked into her belt.

  In the open door of a cabin that seemed filled with smoke, a man with a pinched face was skinning an alligator carcass that looked to be twice his own length. Inside her deep hood Hannah was glad that he didn’t try to talk to her. If he knew the boy who
rode behind her there was nothing of recognition to see in his face.

  The land changed suddenly from swamp to the cultivated fields of a large plantation, acres of cut sugarcane and, just visible in the distance, a cluster of cabins around a larger house. Michel saw her looking.

  “Michie Fauchier’s place,” he said, pointing in one direction, and then in the other: “Michie Dejan.”

  The swamp closed in again and then opened suddenly where the canal joined the bayou. The rain had faded away to a despondent drizzle by the time they turned west to follow the waterway to the settlement. There was no one to be seen out-of-doors, which was a great relief. Hannah was just about to ask Michel to point out Maison Verde when the boy gave a great wiggle and slid off the saddle. He looked up at her and pointed to the nearest house, and then ran off.

  Uneasy now, and thinking of Leo’s warnings, Hannah hesitated. She remembered that a stranger had come by the little clinic to see her today, a white man; she wondered now which of the houses on the bayou belonged to the Poiterins. She had two choices: to trust the boy, or to turn the horse around and go back to the city.

  She walked the mare around the main house to a small cluster of buildings: stable, barn, kitchen, others she could not put a name to. The door of the kitchen building opened and a woman beckoned to her. She was strongly built and tall, wrapped in a white apron that seemed to glow in the growing dark. She gestured again, and called a word over her shoulder. Michel came running, his mouth still full of food.

  “Amazilie says to come right in, you shouldn’t be out here where anybody could see you. I’ll look after the horse.”

  Hannah had understood that for herself, but still she hesitated. There was a tingling in her hands, and her mouth had gone dry. Something was about to change; she knew that without a doubt. Whether it would be for the good or bad was unclear, but what she did know, with certain dread, was that it would start here and now. She slid off the horse and started toward the woman in the doorway.

  Luke woke early in the evening from a deep sleep and sat up, disoriented and sweat drenched.

  The dream was gone. Nothing to hold on to beyond a sense of something very wrong, someone in trouble. It was a familiar dream, one he had been living with since the day Jennet had been taken away from him. He rubbed his eyes and drew a deep and shuddering breath.

  Beside him she was deeply asleep. Beneath the covers she was naked, a thought that made his flesh stir. He would have liked to look at her while she was quiet like this, but the room was chilly and he was not a boy, after all. He didn’t have to indulge every urge. He was repeating this to himself when he realized that he was not the only one who was awake.

  The baby was lying on his side in his cot, his wide eyes fixed on Luke. He looked content, his round cheeks flushed with color. Luke wondered if the boy was capable of curiosity about this man who had appeared out of nowhere. A man who took liberties with his person and, no doubt more troubling, with his mother’s. But there was nothing of fear in the small face, and so Luke got out of bed as quietly as he could manage, and dressed.

  Then he stood over the cot and considered. He had little experience with infants, and remembered only vaguely things he had heard over the years. Luke remembered that his grandmother had had great success in quieting unsettled infants by wrapping them firmly in warm flannel and then rocking them, but this boy stood, sturdy and curious, and wanted something other than quiet cuddling.

  Luke leaned over and picked up the boy, gingerly, carefully, and tucked him into the crook of his arm. He smelled of his mother’s milk and his own soggy linen, and of something that was unfamiliar to Luke and was most likely simply himself.

  “Let’s go find some tea, you and me.” He glanced at Jennet, who had not moved an inch. “Leave your mother to catch her breath.”

  The boy lifted his fist to his mouth and began to mouth it.

  “At least until you can’t wait any longer,” Luke amended.

  Luke knocked lightly on the parlor door, where he found Julia and Paul Savard sitting alone at the table over a simple supper of bread and cold pork and tea. Julia would have got up from her place to see to the baby had not Clémentine come in with more water. She scooped him up like a gold coin found on the street, and bore her prize off to his bath and clean linen.

  Luke decided to dispense with social niceties and put his concerns out plain. He said, “After the scene we had this morning I don’t know what I should do first, thank you or apologize. Jennet is—” He paused, not quite sure what to say, beyond the fact that he needed help.

  Julia Savard seemed to have been expecting this. “Jennet has been through a great deal. For a very long time her survival depended on her ability to dispense with all emotion, and now that you are reunited—she is awash. You must take her behavior now as what it is: evidence that she loves and trusts you above all others.”

  Paul said, “You must forgive my wife. She hasn’t lost the habit of plain speech.”

  “And I never shall,” Julia said. “Though I hope I haven’t distressed you.”

  “No,” said Luke. “I think surprise is closer to the truth. I hadn’t seen it that way, but it makes sense.” He cleared his throat. “Since we’re talking plain, I’ve got something else to say. We can’t set off for home just yet, but maybe we can get out of your way, at least. If you knew of a small house we could rent for the next few weeks.”

  Paul Savard glanced at his wife and raised an eyebrow; his expression said clearly that they had been discussing something, and that Paul had been proved right. Julia’s mouth set itself in a resolute line, and that line turned into a smile that could only be called grim.

  Julia said, “Could we please put the subject of your lodging aside for the moment? We have an idea to share with you. One that may solve most of your problem.”

  Paul leaned toward his wife. “Julia, you must leave him room to disagree with you.”

  “Of course he may disagree with me,” Julia said, though her tone said he would not.

  “Now I’m curious,” Luke said. “What is it?”

  Paul said, “You know of Edward Livingston?”

  That was a name well known in New-York as well as New Orleans, and Luke said so. “Prominent family, successful lawyer. There was some kind of scandal before he left Manhattan. He’s been here for a good while.”

  “He came in ’04. As a lawyer he’s without equal, and few can match him for his business sense.”

  “Or aggressiveness,” Julia added.

  Paul nodded his agreement. “He’s the most prominent figure in the American community. His influence reaches as far as Washington and London and Paris, and he’s connected to everybody and everything here, starting with the governor and the leading Creole families.”

  “And the Baratarians,” said Julia.

  “He’s connected to your family as well,” Luke said. “Your daughter gave me the family history this morning.”

  Julia looked a little embarrassed, but before she could say anything Luke went on.

  “I like Rachel,” he said, with complete sincerity. “She reminds me a little of Jennet at sixteen. Eager to fling herself out into the world, no worries about the cost.”

  “That is our Rachel,” Julia agreed.

  Paul made a small humming noise in his throat. “The point is, we’re connected to Livingston through Julia’s first marriage, and he’s connected to everybody else. And here’s another point: His secretary has resigned suddenly due to ill health.” And then: “I see you understand my thinking. I’d like to introduce you to Livingston and recommend you as a replacement. A temporary replacement, of course, though we needn’t mention that to start with. You have all the business experience and skills, you speak English and French fluently, and you’re American. Or at least you’re enough of an American to satisfy him.”

  Luke tried to sort through the questions that had presented themselves. “I’m not sure what advantage there’d be in the arrangement, but I can
see one problem. I’m bound to run across Poiterin if I’m out in the city day by day.”

  “Yes, you are,” Julia said. “But if Edward Livingston takes your part, and you are presented as his trusted colleague and employee, Poiterin won’t be able to touch you.”

  “Not in public he won’t,” Paul added.

  Julia went on. “You’ll be free to act on your own behalf while you’re working for Livingston.”

  “And what of Jennet?” Luke said. “What do I say if Poiterin approaches me about Jennet and the boy?”

  “We have talked that through,” Paul Savard said. “And it seems to us that you have to turn the tables on him. Produce papers to prove your marriage—you do have your marriage lines? We’ll introduce you and Jennet to Livingston and his wife at the same time.”

  “With your son,” said Julia. “Louisa will be besotted with him.”

  “Tell them the story of Jennet’s abduction, and then Poiterin must back off,” Paul Savard said. “He can’t afford to have his name linked to the men who were responsible. His reputation here is shady as it is, and he must tread carefully if he doesn’t want to be exposed completely.”

  “Though by rights he should be arrested and tried,” Julia said. No doubt she knew that Poiterin was involved with the illegal importation of slaves, something that would be anathema to any Quaker.

  “And his grandmother?” Luke said.

  “She hates Americans,” Paul said. “But I don’t believe she’d be willing to take on Livingston, though that’s something we have to ask him about.”

  “Nor will she put Honoré at risk,” Julia said. “She’ll forfeit claim to your son rather than do that.”

  Luke was struck by how simple and elegant this plan was, but he also knew more of Honoré Poiterin than these two good people did. He said, “I have seen Poiterin’s work firsthand. He has no conscience. He has killed innocent men out of nothing more than the desire to demonstrate that he can do as he likes. He will strike out at us if the opportunity presents itself. You’ll be a target, too, even after we’re gone. We’ve already put you in enough danger.”

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