A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 92

   

She sank down on the bed, hot from the exercise, and watched the last of the flaming color fade from the sky.

Had he been ordained, as he wanted so much? He had been worried about the question of predestination, not sure that he could take the Holy Orders he desired, if he were not able to subscribe wholeheartedly to that notion—well, she called it a notion; to Presbyterians, it was dogma. She smiled wryly, thinking of Hiram Crombie.

Ian had told her about Crombie earnestly attempting to explain the doctrine of predestination to the Cherokee. Most of them had listened politely, then ignored him. Bird’s wife, Penstemon, though, had been interested by the argument, and followed Crombie about during the day, playfully pushing him, then crying out, ‘Did your God know I would do that? How could he know that—I didn’t know I would do that!’, or in more thoughtful mood, trying to get him to explain how the idea of predestination might work in terms of gambling—like most of the Indians, Penstemon would bet on almost anything.

She thought Penstemon had probably had a lot to do with the shortness of Crombie’s initial visit to the Indians. She had to give him credit, though: he’d gone back. And back again. He believed in what he was doing.

As did Roger. Damn, she thought wearily, there he was again, those soft moss-green eyes of his dark with thought, running a finger slowly down the bridge of his nose.

“Does it really matter?” she’d said at last, tiring of the discussion of predestination, and privately pleased that Catholics weren’t required to believe any such thing and were content to let God work in mysterious ways. “Doesn’t it matter more that you can help people, that you can offer comfort?”

They’d been in bed, the candle extinguished, talking by the glow of the hearth. She could feel the shift of his body as he moved, his hand playing with a strand of her hair as he considered.

“I don’t know,” he’d said at last. He’d smiled a little then, looking up at her.

“Do ye not think any time-traveler must be a bit of a theologian, though?”

She’d taken a deep, martyred breath, and he’d laughed then, and let it go, kissing her instead and descending to far earthier matters.

He’d been right, though. No one who had traveled through the stones could help asking it: why me? And who would answer that question, if not God?

Why me? And the ones who didn’t make it—why them? She felt a small chill, thinking of those. The anonymous bodies, listed in Geillis Duncan’s notebook; Donner’s companions, dead on arrival. And speaking of Geillis Duncan . . . the thought came to her suddenly; the witch had died here, out of her own time.

Putting metaphysics aside and looking at the matter purely in terms of science—and it must have a scientific basis, she argued stubbornly, it wasn’t magic, no matter what Geilie Duncan had thought—the laws of thermodynamics held that neither mass nor energy could be created nor destroyed. Only changed.

Changed how, though? Did movement through time constitute change? A mosquito whined past her ear, and she flapped her hand to drive it away.

You could go both ways; they knew that for a fact. The obvious implication—which neither Roger nor her mother had mentioned, so perhaps they hadn’t seen it—was that one could go into the future from a starting point, rather than only into the past and back.

So perhaps if someone traveled to the past and died there, as Geillis Duncan and Otter-Tooth had both demonstrably done . . . perhaps that must be balanced by someone traveling to the future and dying there?

She closed her eyes, unable—or unwilling—to follow that train of thought any further. Far in the distance, she heard the sound of the surf, pounding on the sand, and thought of the slave ship. Then she realized that the smell of it was here, and rising suddenly, went to the window. She could just see the far end of the path that led to the house; as she watched, a big man in a dark-blue coat and hat stumped rapidly out of the trees, followed by two others, shabbily dressed. Sailors, she thought, seeing the roll of their gait.

This must be Captain Jackson, then, come to conduct his business with Bonnet.

“Oh, Josh,” she said out loud, and had to sit down on the bed, a wave of faintness washing over her.

Who had it been? One of the Saint Theresas—Theresa of Avila? Who’d said in exasperation to God, “Well, if this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!”

SHE HAD FALLEN asleep hinking of Roger. She waked in the morning thinking of the baby.

For once, the nausea and the odd sense of dislocation were absent. All she felt was a deep peace, and a sense of . . . curiosity?

Are you there? she thought, hands across her womb. Nothing so definite as an answer; but knowledge was there, as sure as the beating of her own heart.

Good, she thought, and fell asleep again.

Noises from below awakened her sometime later. She sat up suddenly, hearing loud voices raised, then swayed, feeling faint, and lay down again. The nausea had returned, but if she closed her eyes and kept very still, it lay dormant, like a sleeping snake.

The voices continued, rising and falling, with the occasional loud thud for punctuation, as though a fist had struck a wall or table. After a few minutes, though, the voices ceased, and she heard nothing further until light footsteps came to her door. The lock rattled, and Phaedre came in, with a tray of food.

She sat up, trying not to breathe; the smell of anything fried . . .

“What’s going on down there?” she asked.

Phaedre pulled a face.

“That Emmanuel, he’s not best pleased with they Fulani women. Ibo, they think twins are bad, bad luck—any woman bear twins, she take them out in the forest, leave them there to die. Emmanuel want to send the Fulani off with Captain Jackson first thing, get them out the house, but Mr. Bonnet, he say he waiting on the gentlemen from the Indies, get a lots better price.”

“Gentlemen from the Indies—what gentlemen?”

Phaedre lifted her shoulders.

“I ain’t knowing. Gentlemen he think he sell things to. Sugar planters, I reckon. You eat that; I be back later.”

Phaedre turned to go, but Brianna suddenly called after her.

“Wait! You didn’t tell me yesterday—who took you from River Run?”

The girl turned back, looking reluctant.

“Mr. Ulysses.”

“Ulysses?” Brianna said, disbelieving. Phaedre heard the doubt in her voice, and gave her a flat, angry look.

“What, you don’t believe me?”

“No, no,” Brianna hastily assured her. “I do believe you. Only—why?”

Phaedre breathed in deeply through her nose.

“Because I am one damn stupid nigger,” she said bitterly. “My mama told me, she say never, ever cross Ulysses. But did I listen?”

“Cross him,” Brianna said warily. “How did you cross him?” She gestured to the bed, inviting Phaedre to sit down. The girl hesitated for a moment, but then did, smoothing a hand over the white cloth tied round her head, over and over, while she searched for words.

“Mr. Duncan,” she said at last, and her face softened a little. “He a nice, nice man. You know he never been with a woman? He got kicked by a horse when he young, hurt his balls, think he can’t do nothing that way.”

Brianna nodded; she’d heard something of Duncan’s trouble from her mother.

“Well,” Phaedre said with a sigh. “He wrong about that.” She glanced at Brianna, to see how she might take this admission. “He wasn’t meaning no harm, and nor was I. It just—happened.” She shrugged. “But Ulysses, he find it out; he find out every single thing goes on at River Run, sooner or later. Maybe one of the girls told him, maybe some other way, but he knew. And he told me that ain’t right, I put a stop to it this minute.”

“But you didn’t?” Brianna guessed.

Phaedre shook her head slowly, lips pushed out.

“Told him I’d stop when Mr. Duncan didn’t want to no more—not his business. See, I thought Mr. Duncan, he the master. Ain’t true, though; Ulysses be the master at River Run.”

“So he—he took you away—sold you?—to stop you sleeping with Duncan?” Why would he care? she wondered. Was he afraid Jocasta would discover the affair and be hurt?

“No, he sell me because I told him if he don’t leave me and Mr. Duncan be, then I tell about him and Miss Jo.”

“Him and . . .” Brianna blinked, not believing what she was hearing. Phaedre looked at her, and gave a small, ironic smile.

“He share Miss Jo’s bed these twenty years and more. Since before Old Master die, my mama said. Every slave there knows it; ain’t one stupid enough to say so to his face, ’cept me.”

Brianna knew she was gaping like a goldfish, but couldn’t help it. A hundred tiny things she’d seen at River Run, myriad small intimacies between her aunt and the butler, suddenly took on new significance. No wonder her aunt had gone to such lengths to get him back after the death of Lieutenant Wolff. And no wonder, either, that Ulysses had taken instant action. Phaedre might have been believed, or not; the mere accusation would have destroyed him.

Phaedre sighed, and rubbed a hand over her face.

“He ain’t waste no time. That very night, he and Mr. Jones come take me from my bed, wrap me up tight in a blanket, and carry me away in a wagon. Mr. Jones, he say he ain’t no slaver, but he do it as a favor for Mr. Ulysses. So he don’t keep me; he take me way downriver, though, sell me in Wilmington to a man what owns an ordinary. That’s not too bad, but then a couple months later, Mr. Jones comes and takes me back—Wilmington’s not far enough away to suit Ulysses. So he give me to Mr. Butler, and Mr. Butler, he take me to Edenton.”

She looked down, pleating the quilt between long, graceful fingers. Her lips were tight, and her face slightly flushed. Brianna forbore to ask what she had done for Butler in Edenton, thinking that she had likely been employed in a brothel.

“And . . . er . . . Stephen Bonnet found you there?” she hazarded.

Phaedre nodded, not looking up.

“Won me in a card game,” she said succinctly. She stood up. “I got to go; I had me enough of crossing black men—ain’t risking no more beatings from that Emmanuel.”

Brianna was beginning to emerge from the shock of hearing about Ulysses and her aunt. A sudden thought occurred to her, and she jumped out of bed, hurrying to catch Phaedre before she reached the door.

“Wait, wait! Just one more thing—do you—do the slaves at River Run—know anything about the gold?”

“What, in Old Master’s tomb? Surely.” Phaedre’s face expressed a cynical surprise that there could be any doubt about it. “Ain’t nobody touch it, though. Everybody know there a curse on it.”

“Do you know anything about its disappearing?”

Phaedre’s face went blank.

“Disappearing?”

“Oh, wait—no, you wouldn’t know; you . . . left, long before it disappeared. I just wondered, you know, whether maybe Ulysses had something to do with that.”

Phaedre shook her head.

“I don’t know nothing about that. But I ain’t put one thing past Ulysses, curse or no.” There was a sound of heavy footsteps on the stair, and she paled. Without a word or gesture of farewell, she slipped out the door and closed it; Brianna heard the frantic fumbling of the key on the other side, and then the click of the closing lock.

EMMANUEL, silent as a lizard, brought her a dress in the afternoon. It was too short by a good bit, and too tight in the bosom, but a heavy blue watered silk, and well-made. It had plainly been worn before; there were sweat stains on it and it smelled—of fear, she thought, repressing a shudder as she struggled into it.

She was sweating herself as Emmanuel led her downstairs, though a pleasant breeze swept through the open windows, stirring the curtains. The house was very simple, for the most part, with bare wooden floors and little more than stools and bed frames by way of furniture. The room downstairs to which Emmanuel showed her was such a contrast that it might have belonged to a different house entirely.

Rich Turkey rugs covered the floor in a overlapping riot of color, and the furniture, while of several different styles, was all heavy and elaborate, carved wood and silk upholstery. Silver and crystal glittered from every available surface, and a chandelier—much too large for the room—hung with crystal pendants sprayed the room with tiny rainbows. It was a pirate’s idea of a rich man’s room—lavish abundance, displayed with no sense of style or taste.

The rich man seated by the window appeared not to mind his surroundings, though. A thin man in a wig, with a prominent Adam’s apple, he looked to be in his thirties, though his skin was lined and yellowed by some tropical disease. He glanced sharply at the door as she entered, then rose to his feet.

Bonnet had been entertaining his guest; there were glasses and a decanter on the table, and the smell of brandy was sweet and heavy in the air. Brianna felt her stomach shift queasily, and wondered what they’d do if she were to vomit on the Turkey rug.

“There ye are, darlin’,” Bonnet said, coming to take her by the hand. She pulled it away from him, but he affected not to notice, and instead pushed her toward the thin man, a hand in the small of her back. “Come and make your bob to Mr. Howard, sweetheart.”

She drew herself to her full height—she was a good four inches taller than Mr. Howard, whose eyes widened at sight of her—and glowered down at him.

“I am being held against my will, Mr. Howard. My husband and my father will—ow!” Bonnet had gripped her wrist and twisted it, hard.

“Lovely, is she not?” he said conversationally, as though she had not spoken.

“Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Very tall, though . . .” Howard walked round her, examining her dubiously. “And red hair, Mr. Bonnet? I do really prefer blond.”

“Oh, do you indeed, you little pissant!” she snapped, in spite of Bonnet’s grip on her arm. “Where do you get off, preferring things?” With a wrench, she pulled away from Bonnet and rounded on Howard.

“Now, look,” she said, trying to sound reasonable—he was blinking at her in a faintly bewildered fashion— “I am a woman of good—of excellent—family, and I have been kidnapped. My father’s name is James Fraser, my husband is Roger MacKenzie, and my aunt is Mrs. Hector Cameron, of River Run Plantation.”

“Is she really of good family?” Howard addressed this question to Bonnet, appearing to be more interested.

Bonnet bowed slightly in affirmation.

“Oh, indeed she is, sir. The finest blood!”

“Hmmm. And good health, I see.” Howard had resumed his examination, leaning close to peer at her. “Has she bred before?”

“Aye, sir, a healthy son.”

“Good teeth?” Howard rose on his toes, looking inquisitive, and Bonnet obligingly yanked one arm behind her back to hold her still, then took a handful of her hair and jerked her head back, making her gasp.

Howard took her chin in one hand and pried at the corner of her mouth with the other, poking experimentally at her molars.

“Very nice,” he said approvingly. “And I will say the skin is very fine. But—”

She jerked her chin out of his grasp, and bit down as hard as she could on Howard’s thumb, feeling the meat of it shift and tear between her molars with a sudden copper taste of blood.

He shrieked and struck at her; she let go and dodged, enough so his hand glanced off her cheek. Bonnet let go, and she took two fast steps back and fetched up hard against the wall.

“She’s bitten me thumb off, the bitch!” Eyes watering in agony, Mr. Howard swayed to and fro, cradling his wounded hand against his chest. Fury flooded his face and he lunged toward her, free hand drawn back, but Bonnet seized him by the wrist and pulled him aside.

“Now then, sir,” he said. “I cannot allow ye to damage her, sure. She’s not yours yet, is she?”

“I don’t care if she’s mine or not,” Howard cried, face suffused with blood. “I’ll beat her to death!”

“Oh, no, surely ye don’t mean that, Mr. Howard,” Bonnet said, his voice jovially soothing. “A cruel waste that would be. Leave her to me, will ye, then?” Not waiting for an answer, he pulled Brianna after him, dragging her stumbling across the room, and thrust her toward the silent factotum, who had waited motionless by the door through the conversation.

“Take her out, Manny, and teach her her manners, will ye? And gag her before ye bring her back.”

Emmanuel didn’t smile, but a faint light seemed to burn in the black depths of his pupilless eyes. His fingers dug between the bones of her wrist and she gasped with pain, jerking in a vain attempt to free herself. With a single quick movement, the Ibo whirled her round and twisted up her arm behind her back, bending her half forward. Sharp pain shot up her arm as she felt her shoulder tendons begin to part. He pulled harder and a dark wave passed over her vision. Through it, she heard Bonnet’s voice calling out behind them as Emmanuel propelled her through the door.

“Not in the face, mind, Manny, and no permanent marks.”

HOWARD’S VOICE had quite lost its choked note of fury. It was still choked, but with something more like awe.

“My God,” he said. “Oh, my God.”

“A charmin’ sight, is it not?” Bonnet agreed cordially.

“Charming,” Howard echoed. “Oh—the most charming thing I believe I have ever seen. Such a shade! Might I—” The hunger in his voice was evident, and Brianna felt the vibration of his footstep on the carpet, a split second before his hands clamped tight on her buttocks. She screamed behind the gag, but she was bent hard across the table, with the edge cutting into her diaphragm, and the sound came out as no more than a grunt. Howard laughed joyfully, and let go.

“Oh, look,” he said, sounding enchanted. “Look, do you see? The most perfect print of my hands—so white on the crimson . . . she is so hot . . . oh, it’s fading. Let me just—”

She clenched her legs tight together and stiffened as he fondled her nak*d privates, but then his touch was gone, and Bonnet had taken his hand off her neck, and was pulling his customer away from her.

“Ah, now, that’s enough, sir. After all, she’s not your property—not yet.” Bonnet’s tone was jovial, but firm. Howard’s response was immediately to offer a sum that made her gasp behind the gag, but Bonnet only laughed.

“That’s generous, sir, so it is, but ’twouldn’t be fair on my other customers, would it, to be takin’ your offer without letting them make their own? No, sir, I do appreciate it, but I mean to auction this one; I’m afraid ye’ll needs be waiting on the day.”

Howard was disposed to protest, to offer more—he was most urgently in earnest, he protested that he could not wait, was ravished by desire, a great deal too warm to abide delay . . . but Bonnet only demurred, and in a few moments had ushered him out of the room. Brianna heard his voice protesting, dying away as Emmanuel removed him.

She had stood up as soon as Bonnet took his hand off her neck, wriggling madly to shake her skirts down. Emmanuel had tied her hands behind her back, as well as gagging her. If he hadn’t, she would have tried to kill Stephen Bonnet with her bare hands.

This thought must have been visible on her face, for Bonnet glanced at her, looked again, and laughed.

“Ye did amazing well, darlin’,” he said, and leaning over, negligently pulled the gag down from her mouth. “That man will empty his purse for the chance to get his hands on your arse again.”

“You God damn . . . you—” She shook with rage, and with the futility of finding any epithet that came close to being strong enough. “I will f**king kill you!”

He laughed again.

“Oh, now, sweetheart. For a sore arse? Consider it a repayment—in part—for my left ball.” He chucked her under the chin, and went toward the table where the tray with the decanters stood. “Ye’ve earned a drink. Brandy or porter?”

She ignored the offer, trying to keep her rage in check. Her cheeks flamed with furious blood, and so did her outraged bottom.

“What do you mean, ‘auction’?” she demanded.

“I should think that clear enough, sweetheart. Ye’ve heard the word, sure.” Bonnet gave her a glance of mild amusement, and pouring himself a tot of brandy, drank it off in two swallows. “Hah.” He exhaled, blinking, and shook his head.

“Hoo. I’ve two more customers in the market for someone like you, darlin’. They’ll be here tomorrow or next day to be having a look. Then I’ll ask for bids, and ye’ll be off to the Indies by Friday, I expect.”

He spoke casually, without the slightest hint of jeering. That, more than anything, made her insides waver. She was a matter of business, a piece of merchandise. To him, and to his goddamned bloody customers, too—Mr. Howard had made that clear. It didn’t matter what she said; they weren’t at all interested in who she was or what she might want.

Bonnet was watching her face, his pale green eyes assessing. He was interested, she realized, and her insides curled up into a knot.

“What did ye use on her, Manny?” he asked.

“A wooden spoon,” the manservant said indifferently. “You said no marks.”

Bonnet nodded, thoughtful.

“Nothing permanent, I said,” he corrected. “We’ll leave her as she is for Mr. Ricasoli, I think, but Mr. Houvener . . . well, we’ll wait and see.”

Emmanuel merely nodded, but his eyes rested on Brianna with sudden interest. Her stomach everted itself neatly and she vomited, absolutely ruining the fine silk dress.

THE SOUND OF high-pitched whinnying reached her; wild horses, rioting down the beach. If this were a romance novel, she thought grimly, she’d make a rope from the bedclothes, let herself down from the window, find the horse herd, and, by exercising her mystical skills with horses, persuade one of them to carry her to safety.

As it was, there were no bedclothes—only a ratty mattress made of ticking stuffed with sea grass—and as for getting within a mile of wild horses . . . She would have given a lot for Gideon, and felt tears prickle at thought of him.

“Oh, now you are losing your mind,” she said aloud, wiping her eyes. “Crying over a horse.” Especially that horse. That was so much better than thinking of Roger, though—or Jem. No, she absolutely could not think about Jemmy, nor the possibility of his growing up without her, without knowing why she had abandoned him. Or the new one . . . and what life might be like for the child of a slave.

But she was thinking of them, and the thought was enough to overcome her momentary despair.

All right, then. She was getting out of here. Preferably before Mr. Ricasoli and Mr. Houvener, whoever they were, turned up. For the thousandth time, she moved restlessly around the room, forcing herself to move slowly, look at what was there.

Damn little, and what there was, stoutly built, was the discouraging answer. She’d been given food, water for washing, a linen towel, and a hairbrush with which to tidy herself. She picked it up, assessing its potential as a weapon, then threw it down again.

The chimney stack rose through this room, but there was no open hearth. She thumped the bricks experimentally, and pried at the mortar with the end of the spoon they’d given her to eat with. She found one place where the mortar was cracked enough to pry, but a quarter of an hour’s trying managed to dislodge only a few inches of mortar; the brick itself stayed firmly in place. Given a month or so, that might be worth a try—though the chances of someone her size managing to squeeze up an eighteenth-century flue . . .

It was getting up to rain; she heard the excited rattle of the palmetto leaves as the wind came through, sharp with the smell of rain. It was not quite sunset, but the clouds had darkened the sky so the room seemed dim. She had no candle; no one expected her to read or sew.

She threw her weight against the bars of the window for the dozenth time, and for the dozenth time found them solidly set and unyielding. Again, in a month, she might contrive to sharpen the spoon’s end by grinding it against the chimney bricks, then use it as a chisel to chip away enough of the frame to dislodge one or two bars. But she didn’t have a month.

They’d taken away the fouled dress, and left her in shift and stays. Well, that was something. She pulled off the stays, and by picking at the ends of the stitching, extracted the busk—a flat, twelve-inch strip of ivory that ran from sternum to navel. A better weapon than a hairbrush, she thought. She took it over to the chimney, and began to rasp the end against the brick, sharpening its point.

Could she stab someone with it? Oh, yes, she thought fiercely. And please let it be Emmanuel.

108

DAMN TALL

ROGER WAITED IN THE COVER of the thick bayberry bushes near the shore; a little way beyond, Ian and Jamie lay likewise in wait.

The second ship had arrived in the morning, coming to anchor a fastidious distance beyond the slaver. Sloshing nets over the side of Roarke’s ship in the guise of fishermen, they had been able to watch as first the captain of the slaver went ashore, and then, an hour later, a boat from the second ship was lowered and rowed ashore, with two men—and a small chest—in it.

“A gentleman,” Claire had reported, scanning them through the telescope. “Wig, nicely dressed. The other man’s a servant of some kind—is the gentleman one of Bonnet’s customers, do you think?”

“I do,” Jamie had said, watching the boat pull to the shore. “Take us a bit to the north, if ye please, Mr. Roarke; we’ll go ashore.”

The three of them had landed half a mile from the beach and worked their way down through the wood, then took up their positions in the shrubbery and settled down to wait. The sun was hot, but so close to the shore, there was a fresh breeze, and it was not uncomfortable in the shade, bar the insects. For the hundredth time, Roger brushed away something crawling on his neck.

The waiting was making him jumpy. His skin itched with salt, and the scent of the tidal forest, with its peculiar mix of aromatic pine and distant seaweed, the crunch of shell and needle beneath his feet, brought back to him in vivid detail the day he had killed Lillington.

He had gone then—as now—with the intent of killing Stephen Bonnet. But the elusive pirate had been warned, and an ambush laid. It had been by the will of God—and the skill of Jamie Fraser—that he hadn’t left his own carcass in a similar forest, bones scattered by wild pigs, bleaching among the gleam of dry needles and the white of empty shells.

His throat was tight again, but he couldn’t shout or sing to loosen it.

He should pray, he thought, but could not. Even the constant litany that had echoed through his heart since the night he had learned she was gone—Lord, that she might be safe—even that small petition had somehow dried up. His present thought—Lord, that I might kill him—he couldn’t voice that, even to himself.

The deliberate intent and desire to murder—surely he couldn’t expect such a prayer to be heard.

For a moment, he envied Jamie and Ian their faith in gods of wrath and vengeance. While Roarke and Moses had brought the fishing boat in, he had heard Jamie murmur to Claire and take her hands in his. And heard her then bless him in the Gaelic, with the invocation to Michael of the red domain, the blessing of a warrior on his way to battle.

Ian had merely sat, cross-legged and silent, watching the shore draw nearer, his face remote. If he prayed, there was no telling to whom. When they landed, though, he had paused on the bank of one of the myriad inlets, and scooping up mud in his fingers, had carefully painted his face, drawing a line from forehead to chin, then four parallel streaks across his left cheek, a thick dark circle around his right eye. It was remarkably unsettling.

Loading...