Long before the foundations of New Orleans were laid, the river existed as a legend and a rumor. It was the monster to the west, just beyond the next hill, stand of trees, prairie, horizon. It was the mother of all waters, the torrent that flowed out of the garden to touch the desolate earth. It flowed through the Indian imagination as it flows through the American mind, through music and literature, carrying the shipwreck and the bloated body of the fool who went missing after a party on the levee. The river starts as a stream in Minnesota and picks up volume as it heads south, meandering through the country—“It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world,” Mark Twain writes in Life on the Mississippi, “since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five”—before shattering into a network of bayous, swamps, and estuaries below New Orleans. This is the delta, and it’s a mess. For generations, sailors could not find a reliable channel to follow into the river, as the mouth of the Mississippi constantly silted up with debris from the north. “The river annually empties four hundred and six million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico,” writes Twain. “This mud, solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hundred and forty-one feet high.” Simply put, the country is vomiting its innards into the Gulf.
The mouth of the Mississippi appeared on Spanish maps years before it had been seen by a white man. I’m thinking of a particular map: Tabula Terra Nova, drawn in the early 1500s. This is one of the first renderings of the world as it would come to be known: two hemispheres—Occident, Orient. America is a shapeless mass, the Tropic of Capricorn cleaving the New World in two. Due west of Ethiopia, adrift in Oceanus Occidentalis, the southern hemisphere is crowded with the names of settlements. But a generation after Columbus, North America is punctuated by few landmarks, the river among them. It emerges from beyond the left border of the map and branches as it touches the sea. It was drawn before the voyages of Ponce de León, meaning it had not been seen by the mapmaker, or by anyone who might have spoken to the mapmaker.
The Mississippi was navigated by white men in 1519. So here’s the first tall ship, with its sails and steel-plated men, cruising the archipelago of grass islands. The ship was captained by Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, famous in Seville, an explorer who returned home with miraculous tales of the New World. He traveled twenty miles up the Mississippi that first trip. He said he had seen a city on a hill beside the river, and in that city little men, pygmies, covered in golden ornament. Pineda, killed by Indians on a later voyage, left behind the first accurate map of America’s Gulf Coast—a scrawl, like something written on a cocktail napkin after the second drink.
Luis de Moscoso was the first European to see the future site of New Orleans, a strip of land between the Mississippi and the great salt estuary later named for the French minister of the marine Louis Phélypeaux, count of Pontchartrain. He was a member of de Soto’s last expedition. This trip was later recalled as a delirium, a terror: the men marching in armored ranks through the swamp, the sun beating down, the stink of the marsh, the misery of the waste places. They searched out the natives, killed whomever they met, then took notes on each killing. (As John Wayne says in Red River, “I’ll read over him in the morning.”) In March 1541, the party, which began with six hundred men and two hundred horses, was attacked by Chickasaw Indians. Horses slaughtered, Spaniards killed. Those who escaped did so by running. De Soto died on a raft in the river, which is perfect, a consecration, his flesh devoured by catfish with black eyes and long whiskers. Moscoso led what was left of the party south. It was from this vantage point—on rafts in the river—that Moscoso and a dozen others saw the swell of land that would become New Orleans. It was the summer of 1543.
The site was not visited again for over a hundred years, and then by Robert de La Salle. The French explorer traveled the length of the Mississippi, planting a cross near what is now Jackson Square in 1682. The city foundations were laid in 1719 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, a diplomat charged with establishing a town near the mouth of the Mississippi, which was to give Paris control of the interior. In his diary, Bienville said the site was selected for its natural advantages. At ten feet above sea level, it seemed unlikely to flood. In this, the founder set the general pattern of municipal leadership: totally confident and completely wrong. The waters inundated the city, then just wooden stakes and foundation holes, less than a year after the cornerstone had been laid. The outline of the town was already visible: a parallelogram, which is just a drunken square, four thousand feet along the river, its ass protruding one thousand eight hundred feet into the swamp country that continued to Lake Pontchartrain.
This was divided into sixty-six three-hundred-square-foot lots, which, covered in houses, hotels, stores, and such, would eventually be known as the French Quarter. A parade ground was set aside on the riverfront: Jackson Square. The early years of the city were just disaster after disaster: hurricanes, floods, Indian attacks, outbreaks. In 1735, the city was set upon by wild dogs. Yellow fever and cholera rampaged through the beginning of the last century. In 1905, the windows of the French Quarter were shuttered, the streets filled with funeral processions, the horse-drawn hearse carrying victims of yellow jack to the Saint Louis Cemeteries beyond the ramparts. According to historians, the jazz funeral is probably a remnant of that plague year, when burials were so frequent that turning the dour processions into a parade was a means of survival, the march to the ground being a dirge because death is terrible and great, the march back to town being a parade because life is greater still.
As soon as there were streets, they were lined with whorehouses. The early inhabitants were a ragged crew of gamblers, vagabonds, criminals, and drunks. The first women were prostitutes sent to pacify the ne’er-do-wells. In 1724, Bienville enacted the infamous Code Noir, which called for the expulsion of all Protestants and Jews, but this order was largely ignored. In fact, if you were a Jew in North America in the eighteenth century, you would have had a hard time finding a better place. In 1788, the city, then under Spanish rule, burned down and was rebuilt, which is why the French Quarter looks less French than Spanish. Only two original French buildings survive. One of these, at 632 Dumaine Street, is markedly different from the others—blank-faced with few windows, oblong, closed off, shuttered, lonely, strange. The French retook control in 1803, holding it just long enough to sell the entire territory to the United States. New Orleans was a small city, ten thousand or so people crowded into streets lined with beaneries, each an imitation of a grander establishment in the French capitals of the West Indies, such as Santo Domingo, which themselves were filled with imitations of Paris.
The United States took over on December 20, 1803. William Claiborne was Louisiana’s first American governor—that’s why his name is on everything. As the years went by, New Orleans, which experts believed would be normalized by an influx of Americans, only became more exotic. By the mid-1800s, its population was a hodgepodge: there were descendants of the French who first settled on the land; there were descendants of the Spanish who had ruled a generation later; there were descendants of the French who moved in when Quebec fell to the British (because they came from Acadia in Canada, they came to be known as Cajuns); there were Americans who came in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, farmers and rivermen from Kentucky; there were French nationals who came when the slaves rose in Santo Domingo, driving out colonial property owners; there were others who emigrated from this or that island when the wrong nation came to power—French speakers from Cuba, Dutch from Curaçao. New Orleans was a big drain, pulling in the debris of the river and ocean trade, with great forests and lumber mills to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Cuba, Jamaica, the Spanish Main.
Once upon a time, men in New Orleans carried charts that classified the product of every conceivable coupling:
black + white = mulatto
mulatto + white = quadroon
quadroon + white = octoroon
octoroon + white = quinteroon
mulatto + black = griffe
Indian + white = mestizo
And so on . . .
By the mid-1800s, the city was known for its quadroon balls, opulent affairs where local dandies went stag to dance halls on St. Philip Street and watched through opera glasses as young women of mixed race, the offspring, usually, of a white father and a half-black mother, were marched across the floor in extravagant gowns. When the moment was right, a man selected a quadroon. Dolled her up. Established her in luxury in a house in a section of the city set aside for the purpose. Loved her. Impregnated her. A Duke from Saxe-Weimar, Germany, who attended a ball described the quadroons as “almost entirely white: from their skin no one would detect their origin; nay many of them have as fair a complexion as many of the haughty creole females.” A quadroon, once established, was referred to as a placée. She took her man’s name, as did her children. In this way, the wealthy men of New Orleans could lead a double life, one above ground with a white wife and white children, the other subterranean with quadroon placées and octoroon children. The practice continued till the Civil War, in the wake of which racial distinctions hardened. No more balls. No more secret families. Most of the quadroons (who, after generations of intermarriage, were more white than most white people in the city) went north, where they vanished into the fabric of America.
The city owed its importance to the river. The Mississippi was the first American superhighway, Huckleberry Finn the first American road novel. The wealth of the farms and forests, the factories and mills, everything west of the Alleghenies—all of it floated down the river. New Orleans was the city at the end of the run, where the produce was counted, tagged, stacked, and shipped. The life of the city was the waterfront, the docks, the boats. The first were pirogues or canoes, fashioned, Indian-style, from tree trunks. These were followed by keelboats, mackinaws, flatboats, scows, the grandest of them three hundred feet long and as tall as a house. There were barges known as arks; broadhorns, or Kentucky flats; and ferries, called sleds, with roofs and passenger cabins. Before steam power, the challenge was getting back upriver—to Cairo, to Saint Louis. After the flatboats were unloaded in New Orleans, they were broken into pieces and sold as scrap wood. For years, the sidewalks of the French Quarter were made from the debris of the riverboats. The crews then walked home—a trip through wild country that took months. When he was young, Abraham Lincoln made the trip from Illinois to New Orleans by raft. It was in the course of this journey that he first saw slaves, sold in the French Quarter markets.
It was a rough life on the river, a story by Robert Louis Stevenson or Jack London. The crews slept on the decks of the boats, months in the open, watching the shore—punishing in its sameness—drift by at two or three miles an hour. The men were unshaven and dirty; they washed in the river but were never clean. They were bare-chested all summer or donned brogans studded with spikes. In the winter, when the temperature dropped below freezing, they wore fur so fresh it had claws. There was always a card game going, men hunched over a deck, betting by firelight: faro, poker, blackjack, seven-up. They subsisted on bread and meat set before them in communal pans twice a day. They were drunk all the time. They referred to their whiskey as “good old Nongela,” as it was distilled on the banks of the Monongahela River. These men were tall and short, fat and thin, fair skinned and swarthy, the same sorts who once filled the galleys of Roman ships. It was a male society, where the rivermen constantly fought to establish position. Each boat had a champion, a man who bloodied all the others. He wore a red turkey feather in his hat, which told the world, I’m the baddest motherfucker on the Mississippi. At night, when the ships tied up at the landings, crews intermingled. When the holder of a red feather came across another red-feather holder, a circle formed and a battle commenced. The names of the great fighters live on: Mike Fink, the toughest man on the Ohio; Bill Sedley, who whipped everyone on the Mississippi then went mad in New Orleans, killing two people in a dive bar before fleeing into the Indian Territory.
It’s a culture lampooned in Huckleberry Finn when two flatboat toughs circle each other while sharing their bona fides. In this passage you have, in nascent form, the best of the blues and hip-hop, as well as the trash talk of Muhammad Ali:
Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!—Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen!—and lay low and hold your breath, for I’m bout to turn myself loose!
For men on the river, every trip ended in New Orleans. That is where they were paid and spent what they were paid. It was the goal, the place they would finally drive out the boredom of all those weeks on the water. It was the adventures accumulated in the course of all those sprees that turned New Orleans into a party town. All those tchotchkes (the nipple-shaped shot glass), T-shirts (what drinking problem? i get drunk and fall down. no problem.), and stories (“and the funny thing is, I don’t even remember driving home, but there was the car, in the middle of the lawn”) started on the keelboats, where the deckhands shouted as the spires came into view. Even in the 1800s, rivermen referred to New Orleans as the City of Sin. The culture of the docks spilled into the streets and became one aspect of the town. The violent mood in the dives, the Mardi Gras of stoned outsiders filling the squares and driving the locals indoors, the way the town can seem like two towns—the one seen by the drunken conventioneer who gets in a fight on Bourbon Street; the other seen by the native, secret and protected—was established during the first river boom, when the keelboats crowded the water bank to bank, and the deckhands took their restless ennui as a cause to raise hell in the Vieux Carré.
Any river city whose wealth is concentrated and dispersed on ships is going to be lousy with pirates. New Orleans attracted them from its earliest days. The geography invites it. A dozen miles outside of town, the land gives way to swamp, bayou, bay. Lake Pontchartrain, north of the French Quarter, dumps into Lake Borgne, which dumps into the Mississippi Sound, which is protected from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands. If you designed a seascape for piracy, this would be it. There were big islands—Grand Terre, Grand Island—in the sound, but also lonely outcroppings where the sea grass waved and the earth vanished if you stepped on it. There were islands covered with dwarf oaks and Spanish moss, a screen from outsiders. There were groves in the water, trunks rising from the waves. There were low-lying islands that disappeared in flood tide. There were inlets and swamps and landmarks that served as rendezvous points for pirates, the most notorious being the temple, a mountain of clam shells that had dominated a barrier outcrop as long as even the oldest Indian could remember. There were channels between islands, some deep enough to float a ship, some so shallow only a raft could get through. If being chased by a British man-of-war, a pirogue-riding pirate could vanish into a narrow, weed-bedecked channel, then emerge into a lost bay. The entire area was a tangle: reefs, storms, sea surges, tides, roots, alligators, shells, catfish, and turtles as old as the world. Turn around twice and you’re lost forever.
Old Spanish maps identify it as Barataria. The origins of the name are mysterious. Some say it comes from part two of Don Quixote, in which Sancho Panza is appointed governor of an island called Barataria, a name that rings mock heroic in the original. It echoes the Spanish word barato, which means “cheap.” In other words, Barataria is Bargainland, a Filene’s Basement for the pirate set, where all items have just fallen off the back of a truck. The bayous were a smuggler’s paradise, where good deals could always be found. Over time, Barataria became the subconscious of the city, New Orleans reflected in a dark mirror, a refuge for all those who’d been driven out or had chosen to live beyond the law. Thieves hid stolen goods there, fugitives vanished into the weeds. There was a permanent population of runaway slaves. It was a warehouse where the criminal inventory was stored. (Blackbeard took refuge in Barataria in 1718, drifted and dreamed as bounty hunters searched in vain.) It grew alongside the city. The bigger the warehouses on Tchoupitoulas, the better the business in the bay.
By the 1800s, Barataria was attracting buccaneers. It was everything a pirate wanted: far away yet close at hand, convenient, within reach of shipping lanes that carried the wealth of the New World. The men who lived there were not pirates in the traditional sense—they were privateers. In strong boxes they carried letters of marquesses, documents that deputized them into foreign navies, giving them the right to prey on ships flagged by enemy nations. In the age of Napoleon, everyone was at war with someone, making these letters easy to come by. The most notorious privateers were Frenchmen chased out of Santo Domingo or Cuba, sailors who preyed on Spanish galleons. Such men—many burned with hatred for Spain—could secure letters from a half dozen countries, but most sailed under the flag of Colombia, where Simón Bolívar was in revolt.
Barataria boomed in 1808 when the American Congress banned the importation of African slaves. From then on, all slaves would be bred (terrible verb) domestically. This was done partly to curb the nation’s addiction to slavery and partly to protect America from foreign ideologies, the notions of freedom and revolt that might, accidentally, in the way of cholera, be imported from a state like Haiti. But there were many in the South who preferred African-raised slaves for reasons that strike us as obscene: because they were more docile, stronger, darker; because, uncorrupted by America, they worked harder.
It’s not unlike what happened in America during Prohibition. Here was a group of criminals—gangsters in one case, buccaneers in the other—who were disorganized, small time, in it for a quick score. And here was a business, legitimate and thriving one minute, then, with the stroke of a pen, turned over to crooks. Anyone who partook in the African slave trade was now an outlaw. In this way, an above-board business became the provenance of pirates. Men who might have otherwise reformed or faded away—many of the gangsters of New York were on their way out, too, before Prohibition—now had a big-time industry to run. Soon after the law’s passage, privateers began preying on slow, fat-bellied ships heading for Cuba. They attacked, then carried the human cargo back to Bargainland. This meant serious money: sable coats, silk eye patches, a diamond stud for each ear. The result was more pirates, more pirate ships, more pirate guns, more pirate violence. It was a gang war like the gang war between Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Who will control the North Side? Who will control Barataria? It was hurting business. Planters and merchants were afraid to go to the bayous to make a purchase. This was a moment that demanded a leader, a strongman who could bring order to the pirate islands.
A shouted hail interrupted the pair dueling in Brother Fray’s book. Slamming the splayed covers shut, I smothered the leather binding in the folds of my skirts.
The similarly ragged sailor who’d bellowed “Hello?” and now wobbled upon a listing dinghy, however, didn’t seem to notice. He clung to a broken mast where the tatters of a sail hung limp and waved.
“Please, I need your help!”
I peeked over my shoulder and the driftwood lining my hiding spot. Crab grasses gave way to wind-battered shrubs but the rest of the dull gray beach and the wharf beyond remained empty. Amber rays of dusk warmed the boot prints left on the hard trodden crimp of earth coiling from the wooden planks to Reyvi’s guarded gate. The sound of merchants’ hawking, wagon wheels thumping, and craftsmen closing up their shops tumbled over the town’s stubby parapets, each telling of the end to a busy market day. Above the noises and dank walls, evergreens coated the cove’s steep hillsides, their tips soaring higher than the monastery’s squared towers and dwarfing the tiny windows overlooking every soul.
The young sailor aboard the dinghy, though, had no one to speak to but me.
Standing, I tucked the book into my belt’s pouch and neared the lapping waves. “The docks are that way.”
A weak grin crept onto his lips and his squint shifted from open air to where I pointed at the wharf. “They may be, Miss, but I have a treasure to find, and if you help me, I share it with you.”
I put my hands on what amounted to my hips and dug my bare toes into the waterline’s damp sand. “You’ve come to the wrong place for treasure.”
He leaned forward, hand grasp tight onto the mast. “Isn’t this Montange?”
“Yes,” I said, “but you’re on the edge of the kingdom, at the port of Reyvi.”
His jaw firmed and he skimmed the town behind me, searching it seemed for whatever it was he wanted. Something in his wiry frame stiffened and my heart quickened with the possibility he might be more than a drifter on a wayward quest.
“You really think there’s treasure here?”
“There has to be.” Using the mast as a brace, the young man collected a line of rope and flung the end in my direction. “Pull me in and I’ll explain.”
The line landed at my toes, the braid thicker than my ankles. Hauling in a stranger seemed better than dumping chamber pots or scrubbing the monastery’s floors, so with a rub of my hands, I hefted the end and tugged as best I could.
The current drew the young man into the shallows more than I did. He hopped out, sinking to the hem of a stained shirt, and with his shoulder added to my effort, we had the dinghy beached. Breathless, he fumbled along the pitted rail, perched on the port side, and hung his head. The winds brought his salty tang into my nose and I backed out of arms reach.
“What about this treasure?”
He snickered. “You’re a single-minded young lady.”
“I’m no lady.”
“No, I suppose not. You start with questions rather than introductions.” He wiped his hand on the thigh of his wet slacks and offered it to me. “Lionel Redvale.”
He cocked his head, his brown eyes streaked with red swimming around where I stood. “You know your history?”
“I hear a lot of stories.” I inched closer and lowered my voice. “Are you really one of the Redvales?”
“Would you believe my tale any more than the others you’ve heard?”
“I suppose not.”
He smiled. I imagined the bunch in his cheeks and stubbly frame to white teeth surpassed those of the towns’ eligible noblemen, the ones the merchants’ daughters tittered over after services. Lionel’s smell, however, kept me well clear of swooning over that kind of romantic twaddle.
“If you had proof I might reconsider.” Spreading my stance, I held out my palm.
Lionel clucked his tongue. “First I need a name.”
The monks called me Child, the townsfolk a nuisance, the girls and older boys a handful of slurs still rattling in my skull. I settled on the name I could hear cooing in the nicer of my dreams even when sea swells slopped cold, briny water onto the deck and white froth drowned everyone I remembered. “Eva.”
Catching my hand, Lionel shook as if we’d finished trading in the market square. “A pleasure to meet you, Eva.”
I squirreled free from his callous grip and stepped back out of arms reach. “Your proof?”
Tipping off the dinghy, Lionel rolled his shoulders. His back popped when he twisted at the waist, and with a grunt, he reached into the boat and slung a weather-beaten satchel across his chest. Flipping the top flap open, he rummaged and withdrew a silver amulet the size of my hand. He cupped the edge, dirty fingers surrounding the dome of crystal set at the center. Dusky light shattered in the stone’s facets, creating shards of topaz and peach.
The rays drew me closer. “Is that part of the treasure?”
His sigh carried more annoyance than fatigue. “No.”
Lionel brought the amulet close to his face. His breath fogged the crystal, and after wiping, squinting, and tilting his hand, he snarled and slumped onto the dinghy’s edge, the amulet hidden by white knuckles. He scrubbed at his eyes, grinding so deep I worried he might pop them from his head.
I settled at the dinghy’s rounded bow. “What’s wrong?”
“I need to find someone who can read.”
“If I could see straight.” He sought me out again, his brown eyes veined with scarlet webs, then gazed at the shore, the town, the trees. “I took a blow to the head a few nights back. Since then, everything’s been blurry. Doubled.” He peered at the amulet and stroked his thumb across the crystal. The squeaking stopped and he returned to the town. “Reyvi’s Monastery has a library, doesn’t it?”
The book in my pouch felt suddenly heavy. I bit my lip and nodded before I remembered his troubled vision. “I think so.”
“You think so?”
I watched my fingernail carve into the dinghy’s rail. “I know it does.”
“Would you take me there?”
“One of the monks could read for me.”
“But I could.” My fingertip caught on a splinter. I stuffed the bleeding slice into my mouth and wished I could stem my blurt as easily.
Lionel squinted at me. “You can read?”
Even if he couldn’t see right, doubt flickered on Lionel’s face. A hot flush washed through me and I tugged out Brother Fray’s book. Opening to the first page, the one with the calligraphic title, I held the small tome up to Lionel’s nose.
“The Odyssey of Heline and the Knights of Asteria.”
He reached for the pages, but I yanked the book away before he could take it from me. Flipping to chapter three, I started reading where I’d left off.
“Roland ducked beneath Sir Purent’s strike and tumbled over the cobblestones. The slash on his arm burned as he snatched his fallen dirk and sprang to his feet. Purent sneered. “Can’t even keep your sword, can you boy?” Even from the tip, Roland recognized his father’s blade bursting through the gap between Sir Purent’s breastplate and palette. The knight’s blood sprayed, marring his white surcoat. Purent dropped to his knees, mouth gaping, eyes dulling. He fell forward, revealing Heline, the bloodied sword steady in her hands. Roland towered over the dead knight. “No one needs a sword—”
“When one has friends.” Lionel chuckled, but his laugh seemed sad.
I closed the book and even the waves quieted as his gaze drifted into the wet sand. When he spoke again, he whispered.
“We used to pretend, my brothers and I. They always made me be Uri.”
He didn’t seem much like a squire, too scrawny for all the heavy lifting and too confident to be bullied. His redden gaze wandered back to me.
“I bet you’d like to be Heline?”
“No,” I ran my stung finger around the leather cover, “I’d be Yucille.”
“Roland’s thieving little friend?” He waggled a finger at the book. “I suppose that might be more in character if that’s any indication of your skills.”
I tucked Brother Fray’s book into my pouch. “I always bring them back.”
“I’m sure you do, but never mind all that.” Pivoting from the dinghy, Lionel knelt before me and held out the amulet. The crystal snared the sunlight, the rays drawing me in again. “Inside the stone there should be an arrow, then a letter or short word, sometimes a picture.”
“The arrow’s going that way.” Without taking my eye off the gold shard with the diamond tip, I pointed into town. Beneath the arrow, copper flecks swirled. “It says circle, and there’s a mortar and pestle.”
Lionel tipped the amulet to himself, then grunted with understanding. “An apothecary.”
“Will they be able to fix your eyes?”
“My eyes will fix themselves,” he gazed the way I had pointed, “this will fix my heart.”
I scanned his face then his chest. “What’s wrong with your heart?”
“Nothing a little treasure hunting can’t fix.” He swiveled back to me, the sad smile back on his lips. “There can’t be more than one apothecary in Reyvi?”
“Just the Old Rake’s place.”
“Do you know the way?”
“Sure I do, but there’s no treasure at his shop.”
Lionel bounced the amulet in his hand. “This has guided me so far, I’ll trust it a little further.”
“You could just go to the wharf, through the gates. Whoever’s on guard could show you.”
“I’d rather keep this between us for right now.”
I shrugged and when he rose, took Lionel’s hand. We walked side by side along the beach, and then single file up the side trail my bare feet and foxes looking to fish had made. I veered off before we reached the path linking gate and wharf, and followed a tributary around the walls. Feather-topped reeds brushed against my arms and mud squelched through my toes.
Lionel touched my shoulder. “You’re not going to the gate?”
“I know a better way.”
He pat the top of my head, his fingertips lingering on the part of my braids like Brother Fray‘s hand on his cane. “Lead on, Yucille.”
I grinned at him, but I didn’t think he saw by the concentration on his face. Taking his hand off my head, I kept my pace slow and mouth shut, sensing the need for quiet so the fellows guarding the walls didn’t spy where we skulked.
I smelled the sewer before it came into view, and Lionel sniffed with distaste. “I should have guessed.”
“Don’t worry, there’s a ledge.”
We reached the opening and I stepped down. “Careful,” I said, guiding him onto the strip of brick lining the gulley, “and keep your head low.” Starting inward, I pinched my nose. “It’s not a long walk if you want to hold your breath.”
“As you like.”
I pretended I didn’t hear Lionel’s gag when we entered the sewer. Shadows and stench surrounded us. Brick chipped beneath his heavier tread and plunked into the sludge, but fortunately for him, the opening for the first set of drainpipes came before he retched.
A shove at the stone I’d pried loose months earlier allowed fresh air into the sewer. Lionel made my climb up the shaft easier with a boost. I hugged the outer wall of the Mead’s tailoring shop while he wiggled himself through the hole before leading to the alley’s entrance.
Lionel scooted behind me as the bells at the monastery tolled, and peered over my head although I didn’t think he could make much of the few carts passing through the back square. “Evening services?”
“More like dinner.” My stomach gurgled and I scrubbed my belly. “The Rakes should be out of their shop at least.”
Taking his hand again, I pulled Lionel through the cobbled lanes. I kept us in the shadows and away from homes where candlelight would wink on plates and cups, and roasts or pots would be warmed at hearths. Decorated signs of shops closed up for the evening swung in the growing onshore breezes, making hinges groan.
The sign for Rake’s apothecary appeared at the corner of Fountain Square, the mortar and pestle in need of a fresh coat. Like the other shops and stores, lights flickered and voices murmured in the second story but darkness filled the front windows.
Lionel bent to my ear and whispered, “Take me around back.”
I did as he asked, warning of dumps from chamber pots and rotting piles left in the alley separating the Rakes from the neighboring butcher’s pen. The apothecary’s garden pressed against the town’s outer wall, the rows of fenced greens tingeing the evening with the smell of grass, mint, and wet earth. A lift of gate’s latch let us inside, our footsteps on the flagstone path as quiet as the mice I left crumbs for in the monastery’s kitchen.
The back door, however, proved locked when I tried the knob.
After a second jiggle, Lionel nudged me aside. “Leave this to me.”
He retrieved a thin spike the length of my forearm from his satchel. A poke in the lock, thrust, and turn made something inside snap. We stilled when the voices upstairs died, but they bantered on again after a round of nervous laughter and a jibe about jumping at ghosts.
“You should stay here, Eva.”
“So you can stumble in the dark?”
With a stern look I doubted he could make out, I shoved past Lionel and into the apothecary. He followed me, closed the door behind him, and towered at my shoulder. I squinted at the gloomy shelves with their labeled bottles and tins.
“What are we looking for?”
“An oak leaf and boar.”
“The Redvale crest?”
He seemed serious and I dutifully searched the shelves I could reach, investigated the selling counter, the table where the sick could be examined, the brewing station with its signature mortars, and the hearth with its rack of cast iron pots.
Lionel wandered among the tables and chairs, guiding himself with a hand on the rounded wood, woven backrests, or the rim of stools. He seemed drawn, perhaps like the arrow in his amulet, and I traipsed after him when he made his way into the storage closets.
Stopped by a door with a barred window, he did the same trick on the lock. Creaks came again from upstairs but Lionel didn’t wait this time. He didn’t even close the door when he padded inside.
I scrunched against the doorjamb, but the stairs leading up to the second story remained empty. Behind me, Lionel grunted and shoved at crates or barrels, and I nearly leapt from my skin when he whispered my name.
“Help me move these.”
He’d already spun an echoing barrel out of one corner. At his beckoning, I tugged the burlap bags of rye aside and cleared smaller canisters from the nook while he managed another tapped cask. He swept his foot across the exposed stone, then knelt and ran his fingers around the edges. Squatting beside him, I brushed the dust and grime away.
“What do you see, Eva?”
“A leaf,” I twisted my head, then my body about, allowing in the hallway’s dim light and putting the carving right side up, “and a boar!”
Lionel grinned and with his spike, began carving into the mortar. Like my entryway to the sewers, this stone had been meant to be removed. After a few stabs and chips, Lionel abandoned his spike for his fingers. With a hiss, he lifted the stone free and slithered into the hole.
“What are you doing in here?”
I bolted upright and hoped Lionel would have the good sense to stay in the hole he’d uncovered. When the tip of a rusted spear neared my nose, though, I wanted to hop down into the dark with him. The spear trembled in the younger Rake’s hands and he appeared far less cocky without his friends or any of the merchants’ daughters to impress.
I lifted both hands to show my empty palms. “I was just looking around.”
His father filled the doorway, a dagger drawn and at his side. “Who is it, boy?”
Young Rake set the butt of his spear onto the ground and snorted. “That orphan from the monastery.”
Old Rake jerked his son back, his fatted face flush with anger, his cheeks puffed like Brother Fray when he’d discovered a book I hadn’t returned in time. “I hear you’re a thieving little thing.”
My hands felt stained by the loaves and hot pies I’d snatched when I’d first been left behind. My rear heated with memories of being caught by matrons and servants. I lifted my chin though, knowing this time I’d done nothing wrong, and hadn’t, really, for months now.
“Maybe once, sir. But that was before the monks took me in. I don’t do that anymore.”
Old Rake huffed. “Then why are you breaking into my storage closet?”
“She’s helping me.”
I glanced at Lionel who rose out of the hole, and stood among the ring of barrels and crates. He managed to stare straight enough I didn’t think the Rakes would notice the lack of focus in his eyes.
Old Rake snorted, a gruffer mimic of his son. “And who the hell are you?”
Lionel raised his left hand. A ruby glinted on the ring now encircling his middle finger. The white coating of dust made the carved oak leaf and boar seal shine.
Old Rake blanched, then dropped to a knee and sputtered. “It can’t be.”
After a querulous glance at his father, Young Rake bowed as well.
Lionel stepped free of the clutter and I gaped at him anew. “You really are a Redvale?”
He grinned in close enough to my direction before turning to the two whose eyes clung to the floor. “Rise, please.”
“But sire.” Old Rake’s fat lips stuttered while his son helped him to his feet. Sweat dribbled down the sides of his face and he braced himself on a barrel. “What are you doing here? In my storage room.” His eyes grew wide. “Not that you’re not welcome. You can have whatever you like. If you don’t find what you need—”
Lionel held up his ringed hand, the Ruby of Redvale ceasing Old Rake’s flustered rambling. “I found what I need but I could use your help in another way.”
“Certainly sire, anything I can do. I can get the town—”
“No!” Lionel neared. “I must keep my presence here quiet. No one can know.”
“Of course, sire.” Old Rake’s nod infected his son, their assents blurring into one another as their heads bobbed.
“Good.” Lionel drew a steadier breath and lowered his voice. “Do you know something that can clear vision? Stop someone from seeing double?”
Old Rake’s face wrinkled in thought. He began murmuring while Young Rake dithered and turned the spear in his hands as if to wring water from a bit of cloth.
I kept quiet, hoping Lionel or the Rakes would forget to send me off to pots, to scrubbing floors, to the quiet consistency of the monks.
After drumming fingers on his lips, Old Rake brightened. “Yes, Yes, YES! This way.” He spun and darted from the closet, spewing orders his son dashed to fulfill.
Lionel rested against the doorjamb. “Thank you, Eva.”
I peered at my dirtied toes. “I guess you don’t need me anymore.”
“Nonsense.” He set a hand on my shoulder, the golden band cold even through the fabric of my dress. “Where would Roland have ended up without the resourceful Yucille?”
I eyed the carved ruby. “But you found your treasure.”
Lionel nudged my chin, tipping my gaze away from the telltale jewel. “The hunt, little Eva, has only just begun.”
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