Martin raised his bloody hand and held it, palm out, like a shield.
“You asked who protect this girl? I answer you—I do. The spell is cast. I seal it with my blood. You don’ have no power here.”
The priest’s eyes were filled with hatred, his voice malicious. “Your blood spell may lend you power here, but you will not have power where we are going. There you are only a black man trying to stand against a white man. I will win … I will win … I will win…” The Bishop muttered the words over and over as he left the cargo hold, still clutching his chest.
As soon as he was gone, Martin pulled Lenobia into his arms and held her while she trembled. He stroked her hair and murmured small, wordless sounds to soothe her. When her fear had ebbed enough, Lenobia moved from his arms and ripped a strip of cotton from her chemise to bind his hand. She didn’t speak while she was bandaging him. It was only when she was finished that she clasped his wounded hand within both of hers and looked up into his eyes asking, “That thing you said—that spell you cast—is it true? Will it really work?”
“Oh, it work, cherie,” he said. “Work enough to keep him from you on this ship. But this man, he filled with great evil. You know he cause the fire that killed the holy woman?”
Lenobia nodded. “Yes, I know it.”
“His bakas—it strong; it evil. I bind him with tenfold pain, but come a time maybe when he think having you worth the pain. And he right. In the world we go to he have the power, not me.”
“But you stopped him!”
Martin nodded. “I can fight him with my maman’s magick, but I don’ fight white men and their law he can bring against me.”
“Then you have to leave New Orleans. Get far away, where he cannot hurt you.”
Martin smiled. “Oui, cherie, avec tu.”
“With me?” Lenobia stared at him for a moment, worry for him foremost in her mind. Then she realized what he had said and she felt as if the dawn had risen within her. “With me! We will be together.”
Martin pulled her into his arms again and held her close. “It is what made my magick so strong, cherie, this love I have for you. It fills my blood and makes my heart to beat. Now my vow you have in return. I will always love you—only you, Lenobia.”
Lenobia pressed her face to his chest and this time when she wept, her tears were of happiness.
It was that evening, March 21, 1788, as the sun was an orange globe settling into the water, that the Minerva sailed into the port of New Orleans.
It was also that evening that Lenobia began to cough.
She started feeling ill just after she returned to her quarters. At first she thought it was that she hated leaving Martin, and that the room that had seemed a sanctuary when Sister Marie Madeleine had been there now felt more like a prison. Lenobia could not make herself eat breakfast. By the time the excited shout of “Land! I see land!” was ringing across the ship and the girls were hesitantly emerging from their rooms to huddle together on the deck, staring at the growing mass of land before them, Lenobia was feeling flushed and had to muffle her coughs in her sleeve.
“Mademoiselles, I would not usually have you disembark in darkness, but because of the recent tragedy with Sister Marie Madeleine, I believe it is best that you are landed and safely within the Ursuline convent as soon as is possible.” The Commodore made the pronouncement to the girls on deck. “I know the Abbess. I will go to her immediately and tell her of the loss of the Sister, and announce to her that you will be coming ashore tonight. Please take only your small casquettes with you. I will have the rest of your things delivered to the convent.” He bowed and headed to the side of the deck from which the rowboat would be lowered.
In her feverish state, it seemed her mother’s voice returned to Lenobia, admonishing her not to call it a word that sounded so much like casket. Lenobia moved slowly belowdecks with the rest of the girls, feeling eerily like the voice from the past was an omen of the future.
No! She shook off the melancholy she was feeling. I have a slight ague. I will think of Martin. He is making plans for us to leave New Orleans and go west, where we will be together—forever.
It was that thought that propelled her forward as she settled, shivering and coughing, in the small boat with the other girls. Once she was seated between Simonette and Colette, a young girl with long, dark hair, Lenobia looked around listlessly, trying to summon the energy to complete her journey. Her gaze passed over the rowers and olive eyes caught hers, telegraphing strength and love.
She must have made a sound of happy surprise, because Simonette asked, “What is it, Lenobia?”
Feeling renewed, Lenobia smiled at the girl. “I am happy that our long voyage is over, and eager to begin the next chapter of my life.”
“You sound so certain it will be good,” Simonette said.
“I am. I believe the next part of my life will be the very best,” Lenobia responded, loud enough for her voice to carry to Martin.
The rowboat rocked as the last passenger joined them, saying, “I am quite certain it will be.”
The strength she’d found in Martin’s presence turned to fear and loathing as the Bishop settled into a seat so close to her that his purple robes, blowing in the warm, humid air, almost touched her skirts. There he sat, silent and staring.
Lenobia pulled her cloak closer to her and looked away, focusing on not allowing her gaze to turn to Martin while she ignored the Bishop. She breathed deeply of the muddy, earthy aroma of the port where river met sea, hoping the warm, moist air and the scent of land would soothe her cough.
It did not.
The Abbess, Sister Marie Therese, was a tall, thin woman who Lenobia thought looked oddly crowlike standing on the dock with her dark habit blowing around her. While the Commodore helped the Bishop exit the boat, the Abbess and two nuns who were pale faced and looked as though they had been weeping, helped the crew members pass the girls from the rowboat to the dock, saying, “Come, mademoiselles. You need rest and peace after the horror of what happened to our good Sister. Both await you at our convent.”
When it was her turn to climb onto the dock, she felt the strength of familiar hands on hers, and he whispered, “Be brave, ma cherie. I will come for you.” Lenobia’s touch lingered in Martin’s for as long as she dared, and then she took the nun’s hand. She did not look back at Martin, but instead tried to muffle her cough and blend in with the group of girls.
When they were all onshore, the Abbess bowed her head slightly to the Bishop and the Commodore and said, “Merci beaucoup for delivering my charges unto me. I shall take them from here and will shortly place them safely into the hands of their husbands.”
“Not all of them.” The Bishop’s voice was like a whip, but the Abbess hardly raised a brow at him when she responded. “Yes, Bishop, all of them. The Commodore has already explained to me the unfortunate mistake in the identity of one of the girls. That does not make her any less my charge—it simply changes the choice of husband for her.”
Lenobia couldn’t squelch the wet cough that racked her. The Bishop glanced sharply at her, but when he spoke his voice had taken on a smooth, charming tone. His expression was not angry or threatening—it was only concerned.
“I am afraid that the errant girl has become infected with something other than the sins of her mother. Do you truly want her contagion in your convent?”
The Abbess moved to stand beside Lenobia. She touched her face, lifting her chin and looking into her eyes. Lenobia tried to smile at her, but she simply felt too ill, too overwhelmed. And she was trying desperately and unsuccessfully not to cough. The nun smoothed back the silver hair from Lenobia’s damp brow and murmured, “It has been a difficult journey for you, has it not, child?” Then she turned to face the Bishop. “And what would you have me do, Bishop? Not show her Christian charity at all and leave her on the dock?”
Lenobia watched his eyes flash with anger, but he tempered his rage, responding, “Of course not, Sister. Of course not. I am simply concerned for the greater good of the convent.”
“That is quite considerate of you, Father. As the Commodore must return to his ship, perhaps you would show us further consideration by escorting our small group to the convent. I would like to say we are perfectly safe on the streets of our fair city, but that would not be entirely honest of me.”
The Bishop bowed his head and smiled. “It would be a great honor for me to escort you.”
“Merci beaucoup, Father,” the Abbess said. She then motioned for the girls to follow her, saying, “Come, children, allons-y.”
Lenobia moved away with the group, trying to keep to the middle of the pack of girls, though she felt the Bishop’s eyes staying with her, following her, coveting her. She wanted to look for Martin, but was afraid to draw attention to him. As they walked away from the dock, she heard the sound of the rowboat’s oars striking the water and knew he must be returning to the Minerva.
Please come for me soon, Martin! Please! Lenobia sent a silent plea into the night. And then she turned her entire concentration to putting one foot before the other and trying to breathe between coughing fits.
The walk to the convent took on a nightmare quality that eerily mirrored Lenobia’s carriage ride from the château to Le Havre. There was no mist, but there was darkness and smells and sounds that were oddly familiar—French voices, beautiful filigreed ironwork galleries flanked by floating curtains through which crystal chandeliers twinkled—mixed with the strange sound of English spoken in a cadence that reminded her of Martin’s musical accent. The foreign scents of spice and silty earth were tinged with the sweet, buttery aroma of fried beignets.
With each step, Lenobia felt herself getting weaker and weaker.
“Lenobia, come on—stay with us!”
Lenobia blinked through the sweat that had been running down her brow and into her eyes to see that Simonette had paused at the rear of the group to call to her.
How have I gotten so far behind them? Lenobia tried to hurry. Tried to catch up, but there was something in front of her—something small and furred that she stumbled over, almost falling to the cobblestoned street.
A strong, cool touch took her elbow, righting her, and Lenobia looked up into eyes blue as a spring sky and a face so beautiful she thought it otherworldly, especially as it was decorated with a tattoo pattern that was featherlike and intricate.
“My apology, daughter,” the woman said, smiling an apology. “My cat often goes where he will. He has tripped up many who are healthier and stronger than you.”
“I am stronger than I look,” Lenobia heard herself rasping.
“It pleases me to hear you say so,” the woman said before loosing Lenobia’s elbow and walking away with a large gray tabby cat following her, tail twitching as if in irritation. As she passed the group of girls, she glanced at the head nun and bowed her head respectfully, saying, “Bonsoir, Abbess.”
“Bonsoir, Priestess,” the nun responded smoothly.
“That creature is a vampyre!” the Bishop exclaimed as the beautiful woman pulled up the hood of her black velvet cloak and faded into the shadows.
“Oui, indeed she is,” said the Abbess.
Even through her illness Lenobia felt a start of surprise. She had heard of vampyres, of course, and knew there was a stronghold of them not far from Paris, but the village of Auvergne had none of them, nor had the Château de Navarre ever hosted a group of them, as some of the bolder, richer nobility occasionally did. Lenobia wished, fleetingly, that she had taken a longer look at the vampyre. Then the Bishop’s voice intruded on her wishes.
“You suffer them to walk among you?”
The Abbess’s serene look did not change. “There are many different types of people who come and go through New Orleans, Father. It is an entry point to a vast new world. You will become accustomed to our ways in due time. As to vampyres, I hear they are considering establishing a House of Night here.”
“Certainly the city would not allow such a thing,” the Bishop said.
“It is well known that where there is a House of Night, there is also beauty and civilization. That is something the fathers of this city would appreciate.”
“You sound as if you approve.”
“I approve of education. Each House of Night, at its heart, is a school.”
“How do you know so much about vampyres, Abbess?” asked Simonette. Then she looked startled at her own question and added, “I do not mean disrespect by asking such a thing.”
“Such a thing is normal curiosity,” the Abbess responded with a kind smile. “My older sister was Marked and Changed to vampyre when I was just a child. She still visits my parents’ home near Paris.”
“Blasphemy,” the Bishop muttered darkly.
“Some say so, some say so,” the Abbess said, shrugging dismissively. Lenobia’s next coughing spell pulled the nun’s attention from the Bishop. “Child, I do not believe you are well enough to walk the rest of the way to the convent.”
“I am sorry, Sister. I will be better if I rest for a moment.” Unexpectedly, at that moment Lenobia’s legs became like water and she dropped to her bottom in the middle of the street.
“Father! Bring her here, quickly,” the nun ordered.
Lenobia cringed at the Bishop’s touch, but he only smiled and with one strong movement, bent and lifted her into his arms as if she were a child. Then he followed the nun into the long, narrow stables that connected two vividly painted homes, both with elaborate galleries that stretched the length of their second stories.