A Free Man of Color - By Barbara Hambly

Chapter One

Had Cardinal Richelieu not assaulted the Mohican Princess, thrusting her up against the brick wall of the carriageway and forcing her mouth with his kisses, Benjamin January probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss later on.

Now, THERE's a story for the papers. January considered the tangle of satin and buckskin, the crimson of the prelate's robe nearly black in the darkness of the passageway save where the oil lamp that burned above the gate splashed it with gory color, the grip of the man's hand on the woman's buttocks and the way her dark braids surged over his tight-clenched arm. Certainly the American papers: Cardinal Richelieu Surprised with Leatherstocking's Sister. It was a common enough sight in the season of Mardi Gras, when the February dark fell early and the muddy streets of the old French town had been rioting since five o'clock with revelers-white, black, and colored, slave and free, French and American-bedizened in every variation of evening costume or fancy dress. God knew there were women enough yanking men off the high brick banquettes into doorways and carriage gates and public houses on Rue Royale and Rue Bourbon and all over the old quarter tonight. He wondered what Titian or Rembrandt would have made of the composition; he was turning politely to go when the woman screamed.

The fear in her voice made him swing around, just within the arch of the gate. The oil lamp's light must have fallen on his face, for when she screamed a second time, she cried his name.

"Monsieur Janvier!"

A stride took him to the grappling forms. He seized His Eminence by the shoulder and tossed him clear out of the carriageway, across the brick banquette, over the dark-glittering stream of the open gutter and into the oozy slops of Rue Ste.-Ann with a single throw-for January was a very big man-making sure to cry as he did so in his most jovial tones, "Why, Rufus, you old scamp, ain't nobody told you...?"

Timing was everything. He'd learned that as a child.

Even as his victim went staggering into the jostle of carriages, he was bounding after him, catching the man's arm in a firm grip and gasping, "Oh, my God, sir, I'm terribly sorry!" He managed to yank the enraged churchman out of the way before both could be run down by a stanhope full of extremely Cooperesque Indians. "I thought you were a friend of mine! My fault entirely!" Richelieu was pomegranate with rage and thrashing like a fish on a hook, but he was also a good half foot shorter than January's six-foot three-inch height and hadn't spent nine years carrying cadavers-and occasionally pianofortes-on a daily basis. "I do beg your pardon!"

January knew the man would hit him the moment he let go and knew also that he'd better not hit back.

He was correct. It wasn't much of a blow, and at least Richelieu wasn't carrying a cane, but as the scarlet-masked villain flounced back across the gutter and disappeared into the dark maw of the gate once more, January was surprised by his own anger. Rage rose through him like a fever heat as he tasted his own blood on his lip, burning worse than the sting of the blow, and for a time he could only stand in the gluey street, jostled on both sides by gaudy passersby, not trusting himself to follow.

I've been in Paris too long, he thought.

Or not long enough.

He picked up his high-crowned beaver hat, flicked the mud from it-it had fallen on the banquette, not in the gutter-and put it back on.

The last time he'd let a white man strike him, he'd been twenty-four. An American sailor on the docks had cuffed him with casual violence as he was boarding the boat to take him to Paris. He'd thought then, Never again.

He drew a long breath, steadying himself, willing the anger away as he had learned to will it as a child.

Welcome home.

Music drifted from the pale, pillared bulk of the Theatre d'Orleans immediately to his right, and a mingled chatter of talk through the carriageway to the courtyard of the Salle d'Orleans that had been his goal. The long windows of both buildings were open, despite the evening's wintry cool-not that New Orleans winters ever got much colder than a Normandy spring. That was something he'd missed, all these past sixteen years.

In the Theatre, the Children's Ball would just be finishing, the main subscription ball getting ready to begin. The restless, fairy radiance of the newfangled