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Under the Sign of Mars

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René turned the letter over in his hands, smoothing the familiar signature under his fingers. The phrases flitted through his mind without settling, and every word seemed to bear a double meaning. But no, the Earl had never been devious. He wrote simply as he meant it: that he wished to improve the fortunes of an old friend, though it was delicately phrased to suggest that René would be doing the favor.

He was roused from his abstraction by his wife touching his shoulder. “My husband, what makes you frown so? Is there bad news?”

René shook his head quickly. He found he had folded the letter closed without conscious intention, though there was surely no reason why Amelia should not see it. “Not at all,” he answered. “I was only thinking. Please sit down, Amelia. There is something I would like to discuss with you.” As Amelia settled herself on the couch beside him, he continued, “Have I spoken to you of the Earl of Warwick?”

“You have said that you served with him in Holland, in the army of our future King William.”

“Yes. He was appointed the governor of New York and Massachusetts some years before we met, and left for the colonies to carry out his duties. He writes to me now, suggesting that I come to Boston and become his secretary.”

“That is a position of great trust,” Amelia said slowly. “He must recall you favorably.”

René looked away. “It seems so.” Overcoming his strange reluctance, he passed the letter to his wife. “Here, read it for yourself.”

She skimmed though the letter, murmuring phrases half-aloud. “‘If you have not forgotten our old friendship . . . I am badly in need of a man I can rely on . . .' Oh! ‘I hear that you have married. I am certain she is very beautiful, and as noble-hearted as yourself.’” Amelia smiled. “He seems to be a charming gentleman. What was he like when you knew him in the army?”

How to answer such a question? René found himself at a loss for words. There were certain things, after all, that a man did not tell his wife. “I did not like him, the first time we met.” He fell silent, remembering.

René first met the governor while defending a fort in Holland against the French. He was called to the garrison commander’s office to find the commander and several other officers in conversation with a man he did not know, whose accent marked him as a native of England. The stranger had a ruddy, handsome face framed by blond hair. His clothes were finely made, a ring adorned his finger, and he moved with the air of one accustomed to command.

René stood at attention and saluted. “Sir.”

“Good, Munier. The Earl of Warwick has offered his services here. He has letters from the Stadtholder. You are to give him a tour of the fort and its defenses.”

“Yes, sir.”

“He’s a reliable man,” the commander added as an aside to the Earl. The stranger simply nodded. René took the opportunity to glance quickly at the foreign Earl. René disliked the man’s arrogant bearing but had to admit that he wore a sword as if he knew how to use it, and his trim frame showed he had not lived an entirely sedentary life. René took his new charge in tow and began leading him through the narrow corridors of the fort.

The man’s gaze on René was intense, and René tensed, bracing himself for intrusive questions. The men at the fort knew him by now, but there was still the occasional stranger who stared too long at his tightly curled black hair and his skin a shade darker than the others. But the Earl only nodded gravely and motioned him to proceed. René led the way to the battlements and began pointing out the various defensive features of the fort.

The Earl listened attentively, but when René turned back to him, he found the Englishman looking out over the town and the surrounding countryside. “A beautiful land,” the Earl said simply. “I can see why men would die to keep her free.”

“Did you come here to fight the French in order to defend freedom?” René realized that his tone was brusquer than he intended. He wondered if he should apologize, but the Englishman only looked at him gravely.

“In a sense.” The Earl rested his hand against the solid stone of the wall as if testing it. “I have seen civil war tear my country apart, and brave men die hideously for their faith. I will not take up my sword against King James, but I cannot serve him either. And so I am here – where a brave man may fight with honor.” He smiled suddenly. “That is why I am here. And you?”

“My mother’s parents were slaves on San Domingo,” René said recklessly. “I have no reason to love the French.”

He looked away under the pretense of examining a cannon’s housing, not certain he wished to see the Englishman’s expression at this revelation. But the earl said merely, “Surely God has planted the desire for freedom in all men’s hearts.”

“But your opinion of him must have changed,” Amelia prompted, when the silence began to stretch.

“Not long after he arrived, he led a scouting expedition. We were ambushed, and one of the men took a bullet through the leg. The soldier could not walk. He told the Earl to leave him, but he refused. He half-carried the man to safety himself, even when the balls were whistling around him. And I – He was never cautious. I thought he needed someone by his side to be careful for him.” The Earl had gone to the battlefield as lightly as if it were a masked ball, and always led his men from the front. He was too careless of his personal safety – a bad trait in an officer. At first it exasperated René, but he was eventually won over to reluctant admiration.

Amelia leaned forward, intent on the story. “And then?”

And then –

No one noticed two more soldiers in a town joyous with victory. “It’s only temporary, of course,” René said as they left a tavern where anyone in uniform was plied with free drinks. “King Louis won’t give up so easily. With France’s superior resources, I –”

“Enough!” the Earl declared, throwing his arms wide. “Enough time to worry about that tomorrow. Would you spoil a grand victory with sour words?”

“It is prudent for a soldier to plan ahead,” René protested. “If the French rallied and attacked the town tonight –”

“As your superior officer, I order you to be silent,” Richard proclaimed. “You are to celebrate tonight, as everyone else is doing.” He swung around to face René. The movement unbalanced him, and he staggered a little.

René quickly caught his arm to steady him. “You’re drunk.”

“I am only a little drunk,” Richard said with dignity. “And you, my friend, are not nearly drunk enough, if you can still reason of strategy.” He slung his arm over René ’s shoulders and led him, half-laughing and half-expostulating, to the next tavern.

Once inside, Richard released René and went to secure them a table. Oddly, René still seemed to feel the press of Richard’s arm against his shoulders and Richard’s warmth against his side. The only table still free was wedged into a corner and half-hidden behind some projecting beams, giving the illusion of privacy despite the din from the other patrons. René drank his wine slowly. He found himself studying Richard’s hands on the table. One finger wore a jeweled ring. A nobleman’s hands, and yet René knew their strength. The long fingers would be calloused from wielding musket and sword . . .

“What is troubling you?” Richard asked quietly. René started, dislodged from his thoughts. “You were sunk in a reverie, and you heaved a deep sigh just now.”

“Did I?” René returned, embarrassed.

“Is it still the thought of the French?”

René shook his head. “No, I –” He hesitated.

“Shall I tell you what you were thinking of, my friend?”

“You cannot,” said René with certainty, momentarily grateful that he did not share his friend’s English complexion which would have betrayed itself with a blush.

Richard leaned forward, studying René intently. “Perhaps you were thinking . . . of a woman?”

“No such thing,” René protested quickly. A mistake, as he realized a moment later; he had no answer if Richard asked him what he had been thinking of. He could hardly confess he had been thinking of touching Richard’s hands.

Richard’s eyes brightened. His hair clung to his forehead in the tavern’s heat, and his cheeks were flushed from wine. Altogether too distracting, René thought.

“I too was thinking,” Richard said in a low voice. “And – not of a woman.”

René felt something brush his thigh and looked up in startled surmise. Yes, Richard’s hand was hidden under the table – and caressing René’s leg. He swallowed, feeling himself becoming aroused. Prudence demanded that he put a stop to this. Richard leaned across the table toward René. Their mouths were inches apart. Surely Richard was not rash enough to kiss him in a crowded tavern? He found his lips parting. “Not here,” René said quickly.

“Upstairs?” Richard murmured. René nodded slowly. Richard gave a victorious smile and went to negotiate with the host for a room.

René had barely bolted the door behind them when he found himself seized in a firm embrace and his mouth claimed in an ardent kiss. He seemed to have lost his prudence somewhere, he thought dazedly. Perhaps at the bottom of the last cup of wine. Abandoning caution, he returned the kiss fiercely, pressing his body against Richard’s.

“I’ve wanted . . .” Richard gasped between kisses. “From the first time I saw you –”

René responded, but not in words. Eventually they found their way to the bed.

“We became friends, of a sort.” René stood abruptly and walked a few steps to retrieve the envelope from the Earl's letter, which he had left on a nearby table. "Until King James noticed his absence from Court and commanded the Earl to return to England. It would not have been safe to ignore such a summons." His composure restored, he turned back to face Amelia. “But the matter at hand is America, not Holland. Consider well, Amelia, whether you could be content to leave England for the colonies, and whether it is best for our son. I will give it thought as well.”

The sky was grey and drizzling rain when René and his wife disembarked in Boston, and the harbor was a dark choppy swell. René held Amelia’s arm protectively. She had been ill on the voyage and was still too pale. The nurse carrying their child stood behind them; she was trying to keep the boy protected from the rain, but the sooner they got inside, the better.

He was anticipated by a boy who ran up to them; the rain had soaked the feather on his hat, which drooped sadly, but apparently had not dampened his spirits. “Mr. Munier, sir?”

“Yes?” René responded with surprise.

The boy grinned cheerfully. “I thought so. The governor gave me a good description. I almost thought he’d ask me to paint your portrait. Come with me.” He bounced on his feet. “The Earl sent his own coach, and I was to find you and meet you and Madame – which I did,” he ended triumphantly.

René glanced where the boy was pointing. There indeed was a coach with the governor’s arms painted on the side, a black chevron between three birds. Overwhelmed, he could only stammer his thanks.

“I forgot to tell you, my name is Oscar. I’m the governor’s page. The governor said I was to tell you,” Oscar frowned in concentration, “that he cannot be here to welcome you himself because unavoidable business detains him in New York, but he should be back within the week. And he hopes you will make yourselves at home, and --”

Amelia stifled a cough. Oscar was instantly repentant. “Come out of the rain, madam. I forgot what this weather is like when you’re not used to it.” The boy chivvied them toward the waiting vehicle.

They were settled inside, and the coach lurched into motion. “Is this usual weather for Boston?” René asked, to make conversation.

“This is nothing, sir,” Oscar returned cheerfully. “You should see the rain we get in November. And in winter, there are snowdrifts six feet high!”

René looked at the boy suspiciously. “That seems unlikely.”

“It’s true,” Oscar protested with an air of injured innocence.

René sighed and leaned back against the cushions. He would question a reliable adult when he had the chance. “Tell me what has happened recently in Boston.” Oscar was more than happy to regale them with his store of news and gossip. René let the words flow over him, storing details that seemed important for later investigation.

At last something caught his attention. “What? Someone tried to shoot the governor?”

“One faction was very angry over the pardoning of the two Dutchmen,” Oscar answered blithely, “so I think it was one of them. Or someone in their pay.”

“Has the criminal been caught?”

“The governor laughed it off,” Oscar said cheerfully. “He said that if God did not mean him to die by a bullet in Holland, it would not happen on a street in Boston.”

“But that is—” René broke off, glancing at Amelia. She seemed to be drowsing, her eyes closed and her head thrown back. But he did not wish to risk alarming her. He would seek the truth later. The governor must be kept safe, with his cooperation or otherwise.

It seemed Oscar’s duties did not end when they arrived at the house their agent had purchased for them, for he determinedly followed them inside. “When the governor first came here, they put him in a house with a leaking roof, and it was months before he could get it fixed,” Oscar chattered. “But this house is in good repair – the governor looked it over himself. There’s one thing I have to show you,” he added over his shoulder, leading them through the rooms.

René entered the room after the page and felt the fatigue of travel fall away. There on the wall was a full-length portrait of the Earl, looking outward with a grave expression. Oscar seemed as delighted as a conjurer after a successful trick. “The governor was determined to be here to welcome you, one way or another,” the boy proclaimed. “He thought it might not be ready in time, but it was – and here it is.”

“Is it like him?” Amelia asked René. She went up to examine the portrait more closely.

“The features are like his,” René said after a time. “But it is too stiff. The Earl was never so solemn.”

René and Amelia called on the governor shortly after his return from New York.

“My dear René. How good it is to see you!” The governor clasped René’s hand warmly but without lingering. René did not know if he was relieved or sorry.

The Earl bowed gracefully over Amelia’s hand. “And you, madam, will put all the colonial beauties to shame.” Amelia murmured her thanks.

“Your timing is excellent,” the Earl continued cheerfully. “I have finally resolved a nasty business, and I am pleased that you’re here to see the end of it. May I invite you to the festivities this evening at the gallows-field?”

Amelia gasped. “Surely you are jesting, sir!”

“Your husband only, madam. I would not risk your health on such a night as this is likely to be. But I am entirely serious. I have been seeking this outcome for a long time. Two innocent men were put to death and buried shamefully at the foot of the gallows. I used my influence with the king to help secure their pardon. It is time to rebury them, at last, in consecrated ground.” René heard the passion for justice in the governor’s voice. This is why I followed him, he thought. This is why I –
“Do you mean to be there yourself, sir?”

“Of course. The people of this colony must see that I support it.”

“I think it unwise, sir,” René said slowly.

“How so? Surely you’re not superstitious?”

“The boy Oscar mentioned some unrest in the colony –“

“Nothing to worry about,” Richard replied firmly. “There are some who disagree with my decisions, and have said so, but that is only to be expected among free men. The Dutch colonists are much more reasonable,” he added thoughtfully. “Some of the English colonists who have been here longer than I viewed me as something of an interloper. They may call me a tyrant,” he said with a laugh, “but that is better by far than being one. No, my conscience is clear on that score.”

With Amelia present, René did not press the issue, but he resolved to take it up with the governor at his earliest convenience.

The night was a blustery one; sheets of rain poured down and the torches kept being blown out by gusts of wind. The funeral procession was supposed to assemble at ten, but the church bell was striking midnight before everything was finally in order. René shuddered to hear the melancholy sound in the shadow of the gallows.

Richard seemed to be everywhere; with a greeting for one man, an encouraging word for another, and firm orders to resolve the confusion that seemed inevitable when a large crowd of people assembled together. At last the procession started. René fell into place at Richard’s side as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Whether in daylight or darkness, calm or storm, he knew there was no place he would rather be.