“Why, yes, Cecile. He is Charles de Beaumont, the Bishop of Évreux. But do you not recognize him? I believe Évreux is quite near your home, is it not?”
Feeling as if she were going to be violently ill, Lenobia said, “Yes, Sister. Yes, it is.”
As soon as Lenobia boarded the Minerva, she pulled the thick hood of her fur-lined cloak over her head. Forcing herself to ignore the distractions of the brightly painted deck and the bustling energy of everything from crates of flour, bags of salt, and barrels of cured meat, to horses being loaded, Lenobia ducked her chin and tried to disappear. Horses! There are horses coming with us, too? She wanted to stare around her and take it all in, but the rowboat had already begun its return trip to the docks, where it would be picking up their fellow traveler, the Bishop of Évreux. I must get below. I must not let the Bishop see me. Most of all, I must be brave … be brave … be brave …
“Cecile? Are you well?” Simonette was peering up into her hooded face, sounding so concerned that she drew Sister Marie Madeleine’s attention.
“Mademoiselle Cecile, is—”
“I am feeling a little ill, Sister,” Lenobia interrupted, trying to speak softly and not call any more attention to herself.
“Aye! ’Tis the way of it. Some people are sick from the moment they set foot on deck.” The man, striding toward them, voice booming, had a huge barrel chest and a florid, meaty face that contrasted dramatically with his dark blue coat and golden epaulets. “I am sorry to say it, but your reaction bodes ill for how you will fare during the voyage, mademoiselle. I can tell you that though I have lost passengers to the sea, I have never lost one to seasickness.”
“I—I think I will be better if I can get below,” Lenobia said quickly, hyperaware that with each moment the Bishop was getting closer and closer to boarding.
“Oh, poor Cecile,” Sister Marie Madeleine murmured. Then added, “Girls, this is our captain, Commodore William Cornwallis. He is a great patriot and will keep us quite safe during our long journey.”
“That is very kind of you to say, good Sister.” The Commodore motioned at a plainly dressed, young mulatto man who was standing nearby. “Martin, show the ladies to their quarters.”
“Merci beaucoup, Commodore,” said Sister Marie Madeleine.
“I hope to see you all at dinner this evening.” The big man gave Lenobia a little wink. “At least those of you with the stomach to attend! Excuse me, ladies.” He strode away, bellowing at a group of crew members who were struggling awkwardly with a large crate.
“Mademoiselles, madame, if you would follow me,” Martin said.
Lenobia was the first to fall in line behind the broad-shouldered form of Martin as he nimbly led them through a door in the rear of the deck and down a rather treacherously narrow stairwell that led to an almost equally narrow hallway branching to the left and right. Martin jerked his chin toward the left and Lenobia caught a glimpse of his strong, young profile. “That way is the crew quarters.” As he spoke there was a loud crashing sound and a high-pitched squeal coming from the direction in which his chin had pointed.
“Crew?” Lenobia couldn’t help asking with a lift of her brows, the familiar sound of an annoyed horse momentarily making her forget to be mute and invisible.
Martin looked down at her. A smile tilted the corners of his lips up and his eyes, which were an unusual light olive green, sparkled. Lenobia couldn’t tell whether the sparkle was humor, mischief, or sarcasm. He said, “Down the deck below the crews’ quarters be the cargo, and in the cargo there be the pair of grays Vincent Rillieux purchased for his carriage.”
“Grays?” Simonette asked, but she wasn’t peeking down the long hallway—she was peering with open curiosity at Martin.
“Horses,” Lenobia said.
“Percherons, a matched set of geldings,” Martin corrected. “Giant brutes. Not for ladies. Dark and damp it be in the cargo hold. No place for ladies or gentlemen proper,” he said, meeting Lenobia’s gaze with a frankness that surprised her before he turned to the right and continued to talk as he walked. “This way is your quarters. There be four rooms for you to divide up. The Commodore and any male passengers is above you.”
Simonette wrapped her arm through Lenobia’s and whispered in a rush, “I have never seen a mulatto before. I wonder if they are all so handsome as this one!”
“Sssh!” Lenobia hushed her just as Martin stopped before the first room that opened to the right off the narrow hallway.
“That will be all. Thank you, Martin.” Sister Marie Madeleine had caught up with them and gave Simonette a hard look as she dismissed the mulatto.
“Yes, Sister,” he said as he bowed to the nun and began back down the hallway.
“Excuse moi, Martin. Where and when do we dine with the Commodore?” Sister Marie Madeleine asked.
Martin paused in his retreat to answer. “Commodore’s table is where you have dinner, at seven o’clock each night. Prompt, madame. The Commodore, he insist on formal dress. Other meals be brought to you.” Though Martin’s tone had turned gruff, when his glance went to Lenobia she thought his expression was more filled with a shy curiosity than mean-spiritedness.
“Will we be the only guests at the Commodore’s dinner?” Lenobia asked.
“Surely he will include the Bishop in his invitation,” said Sister Marie Madeleine briskly.
“Oh, oui, the Bishop will attend. He also perform Mass. The Commodore is a proper Catholic, as are the crew, madame,” Martin assured her before disappearing from sight down the hallway.
This time, Lenobia did not have to pretend that she felt ill.
* * *
“No, no, truly. Please go without me. A little bread, cheese, and watered wine are all I need,” Lenobia assured Sister Marie Madeleine.
“Mademoiselle Cecile, would the company of the Commodore and the Bishop not take your mind off the upset of your stomach?” The nun frowned as she hesitated at the doorway with the other girls, all dressed and eager for their first dinner at the Commodore’s table.
“No!” Thinking of what would happen if the Bishop recognized her, Lenobia knew her face had gone pale. She gagged a little and pressed her hand to her mouth as if holding back the sickness. “I cannot even bear the thought of food. I should certainly embarrass myself with sickness if I attempted it.”
Sister Marie Madeleine sighed heavily. “Very well. Rest for this evening. I will bring you back some bread and cheese.”
“Thank you, Sister.”
“I am quite certain you will be yourself tomorrow,” Simonette called before Sister Marie Madeleine closed the door gently behind her.
Lenobia let out a long breath and tossed back the hood of her cloak along with her silver-blond hair. Not wasting any of her precious time alone, she dragged the large chest that was engraved in gold with CECILE MARSON DE LA TOUR D’AUVERGNE over to the far side of the room near the sleeping pallet she had chosen for herself. Lenobia positioned the trunk under one of the round portholes and then she climbed atop it, pulled the little brass hook that held the glass closed, and breathed deeply of the cool, moist air.
The thick trunk made her just tall enough to see out of the window. In awe, Lenobia gazed at the endless expanse of water. It was past dusk, but there was still enough light in the enormous sky for the waves to be illuminated. Lenobia didn’t think she’d ever seen anything as mesmerizing as the ocean at night. Her body swayed gracefully with the movement of the ship. Sick? Absolutely not!
“But I will pretend to be,” she whispered aloud to the ocean and the night. “Even if I must keep up the pretense for the full eight weeks of the voyage.”
Eight weeks! The thought of it was terrible. She had gasped in shock when the always-chattering Simonette had remarked how hard it was to believe they would be on this ship for eight whole weeks. Sister Marie Madeleine had given her a strange look, and Lenobia had quickly followed her gasp with a moan, and clutched her stomach.
“I must be more careful,” she told herself. “Of course the real Cecile would know that the voyage would take eight weeks. I must be smarter and braver—and most of all I must avoid the Bishop.”
She reluctantly closed the little window, stepped down, and opened the trunk. As she reached in to begin searching through the expensive silks and laces for a sleeping shift, she found a folded piece of paper lying atop the glittering mound. The name Cecile was written in her mother’s distinctively bold script. Lenobia’s hands shook only a little when she opened the letter and read:
You are betrothed to the Duc of Silegne’s youngest son, Thinton de Silegne. He is master of a large plantation one day’s ride north of New Orleans. I do not know if he is kind or handsome, only that he is young, rich, and comes from a fine family. I will pray with every sunrise that you find happiness and that your children know how fortunate they are to have such a brave woman as their mother.
Lenobia closed her eyes, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and clutched her mother’s letter. It was a sign that all would be well! She was going to marry a man who lived a day’s ride north of where the Bishop would be. Surely a large, rich plantation would have its own chapel. If it didn’t, Lenobia would make quite certain it soon would. All she had to do was avoid discovery until she left New Orleans.
It shouldn’t be so difficult, she told herself. For the past two years I have been avoiding the prying eyes of men. In comparison, eight more weeks is not long at all …
* * *
Much later, when Lenobia allowed herself to remember that fateful voyage, she considered the oddness of time, and how eight weeks could pass at such differing speeds.
The first two days had seemed interminable. Sister Marie Madeleine hovered around her, trying to tempt her to eat—which was a torture because Lenobia was absolutely ravenous and wanted to sink her teeth into the biscuits and hot sliced pork that the good nun kept offering her. Instead she nibbled on some hard bread and drank watered wine until her cheeks felt hot and her head was spinning.
Just after dawn of the third day, the ocean, which had been placid, changed utterly and became an angry gray entity that tossed the Minerva to and fro as if she were a twig. The Commodore made a grand show of coming to their rooms and assuring them that the squall was comparatively mild and, in actuality, fortuitous—that it was pushing them toward New Orleans at a much faster rate than was typical for this time of year.
Lenobia was pleased about that, but she thought it even more fortuitous that the rough seas caused more than half of her shipmates—including the poor, unfortunate Bishop—to become violently ill and to keep to their quarters. Lenobia felt bad for being relieved at so much sickness, but it certainly made the next ten days easier for her. And by the time the sea had become placid again, Lenobia’s pattern of preferring to keep to herself had been well established. Except for occasional bursts of Simonette’s irrepressible chattering, the other girls mostly left Lenobia to herself.
At first she’d thought she’d be lonely. Lenobia did miss her mother badly, but it was a surprise to her how much she enjoyed the solitude—the time alone with her thoughts. But that was just the first of her surprises. The truth was, until her secret was discovered, Lenobia had found happiness, and it was due to three things—sunrise and horses—and the young man she’d chanced upon because of them.
She’d found the way to the Percherons the same way she’d discovered how peaceful and private it was in the wee hours just before and during the rising of the sun—by finding the path least frequented by the rest of the people aboard.
None of the other girls ever left her sleeping pallet before the sun was well into the morning sky. Sister Marie Madeleine was always the first of the women awake. She rose when dawn’s light changed from pink to yellow, and went immediately to the little shrine she’d created for the Virgin Mary, lit one precious candle, and began praying. The nun also came to her altar mid-morning for Marian litanies, and to recite the Little Office of the Virgin before she went to bed, instructing the girls to pray with her. In truth, every morning the devout Sister prayed so fervently—eyes closed, counting her rosary beads by touch—that it was a simple thing to slip into or out of the room without disturbing her.
That was how it began—Lenobia’s pattern of waking before all the others and roaming silently around the ship, finding pockets of solitude and so much more beauty than she had ever imagined. She’d been going mad, stuck in that one room, hiding from the Bishop and pretending to be ill. Early one morning, when all the girls, even Sister Marie Madeleine, were sound asleep, she’d taken a chance and tiptoed from the chamber and into the hallway. The sea was rough—the squall just really setting in—but Lenobia had no trouble keeping to her feet. She enjoyed the pitch and roll of the Minerva. She also enjoyed the fact that the bad weather was keeping even many of the crew in their quarters.
Listening as hard as she could, Lenobia had moved from shadow to shadow, making her way up to a dark corner of the deck. There she’d stood near the railing and breathed great gulps of fresh air while she stared out at the water and the sky and the vast expanse of emptiness. She hadn’t been thinking anything—she’d just been feeling the freedom.
And then something amazing happened.
The sky had changed from coal and gray to blush and peach, primrose and saffron. The crystal waters magnified all those colors, and Lenobia had been captivated by the majesty of it. Yes, of course, she had often been awake at dawn at the château, but she’d always been busy. She’d never had time to sit and watch the lightening of the sky and the magickal lifting of the sun from a distant horizon.