Queen of Swords

Page 1

March 1814

In the mornings she went walking while the men slept. First away from the settlement and along the cliffs that looked over the cove, then down the rough stairs carved into stone. She moved slowly, one hand spread on the rock face like a starfish while the other held her skirts.

For a while she studied the world: turtles sunning themselves on the rocks, restless seabirds, fish dull and sun-bright, quick and darting, languid, sinuous. The constant of the sea, and the horizon. When she could look no more, she turned and began the climb, lizards skittering at the sweep of her skirts. She felt lazy eyes on her back.

The guards had been lulled by the regularity of her habits into complacence. And why not? She could have been no more tied down had they used ropes and chains.

The path she walked ran along the forest that made up the heart of the island. Shadowy cool in the heat, buzzing with insects. Mastic trees so big that it took four men to circle the trunk, arms outstretched; fragrant cedar; stands of mahogany so dense that walking among them was to twist constantly one way and then another. Tamarinds, wild mangoes, other things she could not name.

How her father would have loved this place. Orchids like birds in flight hanging over the frayed stump of a palm tree. Parrots everywhere, flickerings of scarlet and emerald and cobalt blue overhead. She thought of her father often, spoke to him in her thoughts as she made her plans. Imagined his reactions, and made changes accordingly.

The forest gave way to the wet side of the island, mangroves on stilt roots in swamps alive with crickets, flies, great armies of ants and termites. The stink of green things rotting, thick on the tongue. She picked her way carefully, skirts tied into a knot, back straight.

No one was following her now. She was never sure why, if it was simple laziness, or fear of where she was going, or the certainty that she would be back. The lagoons went on for miles, and then more swamps, and finally there would be the sea.

She had loved the sea, once, and dreamed of living on a ship. Now she spent as much time as she could in this particular place, where she could be free of the sound of waves breaking on the cliffs and the scream of gulls.

The lagoon spread out before her in the dim light. She held her breath and waited. A ripple, another. The surface of the water moved and broke.

Hello. She whispered the word while the bulbous body in the water rolled and rolled. Then another appeared beside it, smaller: her child. Water sliding off gray-green skin, a rounded hip, the long curved line of back.

She stepped out of her shoes and into the cool grasp of the water, thought of swimming out to them. To play among the selkies, and learn their language so that she might ask them for shelter and sanctuary. For herself and her child.

Her hands rested on the great curve of her own belly. The life inside it flexed and turned, another swimmer in a silent sea.

Chapter 1

L’Île de Lamantins

French Antilles

August 1814

The island, beautiful and treacherous, drew in the love-struck and rewarded them with razor-sharp coral reefs, murderous breakwaters, and cliffs that no sane man would attempt.

Kit Wyndham was sane. Out of his depth, perhaps, but Major Christian Pelham Wyndham of the King’s Rangers was in command of all his senses, while Luke Scott was not.

“Major?”

The lieutenant hovered like a maiden aunt, stopping just short of wringing his hands. If given permission to speak, Hodge would say out loud what he had said too many times already: that they had no business here; that what Scott intended was madness.

Hodge was wrong about one thing: They did have business here, and crucial business at that. The only kind of business that could have forged this strange alliance between himself and the Scotts: They were after the same prey.

A fat moon hung in a clear night sky, sending the shadows of masts and rigging out to dance on the water. On the rail his own hands were drained of color, corpse gray.

He turned to assure his lieutenant that he would have no part in this night’s insanity. Let Scott take his band of mercenaries and storm Priest’s Town, and good luck to them one and all. Kit Wyndham had made a promise, and he would keep it: Now that their quarry was in sight, he would step back and let Scott lead.

Just behind Lieutenant Hodge stood Hannah Scott, dressed in men’s breeches and a leather jerkin over a rough shirt, her person hung about with weapons: a rifle on her back, pistols, a knife in a beaded sheath on a broad belt. She could heal or kill; he had seen her conjure miracles and blasphemies with equal ease. No mortal woman, he had called her to her face, and she had not corrected him with words.

The moonlight was kind to her, as the sun was kind. In the year since they had made their uneasy alliance he had seen her every day, and still the sight of her was startling. By the standards of Wyndham’s own kind, Luke Scott’s Mohawk half sister could not be called beautiful. Her skin was too dark, her hair too black, her mouth too generous for pale English blood. Below deep-set eyes the bosses of her cheeks cast shadows. Most damning of all, the expression in those eyes was far and away too intelligent. If her skin were as pale as cream, her mind would have isolated her; Englishmen did not know what to do with such a woman.

Even at this moment she knew exactly what he was thinking, the excuses he had been ready to offer, the rationalizations. If he voiced them she would simply tilt her head and look at him. She would call him no names, but he would hear them anyway.

“Major?” Lieutenant Hodge’s voice rose and wavered.

He said, “Fetch my weapons.” And: “Miss Scott, please tell your brother I will be joining the rescue party.”

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