Jamie’s eyes bulged and his face went red.
“And he’s throwing in the maggots for free. And the guard,” I added hastily, shoving the port in front of him before he could speak. He seized the glass and downed it in a gulp.
“That wee grasper!” he said, when he could speak. “Ye didna sign anything, did ye?” he asked anxiously. I shook my head.
“I did tell him I thought you’d maybe want to bargain with him,” I offered meekly.
“Oh.” His color began to recede toward normal levels.
“I do want to,” I said, looking down at my hands, clasped together in my lap.
“Ye’d never said anything about wanting to write a book before, Auntie,” Ian said, curious.
“Well, I hadn’t really thought about it,” I said defensively. “And it would have been terribly difficult and expensive to do while we were living on the Ridge.”
Jamie muttered, “Expensive,” and poured another glass of port, which he drank more slowly, making occasional faces at the taste as he thought.
“Ye really want this, Sassenach?” he said at last, and at my nod, set down the glass with a sigh.
“All right,” he said with resignation. “But ye’re having a leather-bound special edition, too, wi’ gilded end pages. And five hundred copies. I mean, ye’ll want some to take back to America, won’t you?” he added, seeing my stunned look.
“Oh. Yes. I would like that.”
“Well, then.” He picked up the bell and rang for the maid. “Tell the young woman to take away this wretched stuff and bring some decent whisky. We’ll toast your book. And then I’ll go and speak to the wicked wee man.”
I HAD A FRESH QUIRE of good-quality paper. I had half a dozen sturdy goose quills, a silver penknife with which to sharpen them, and an inkwell provided by the hotel—rather battered but filled, the majordomo had assured me, with the very best iron-gall ink. Jamie and Ian had gone to France for a week, to look into various interesting leads given them by Madame Jeanne, leaving me to mind the general and commence my book. I had all the time and leisure I required.
I took a sheet of paper, pristine and creamy, placed it just so, and dipped my quill, excitement thrumming in my fingers.
I closed my eyes in reflex, then opened them again. Where ought I to begin?
Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop. The line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland drifted through my mind, and I smiled. Good advice, I supposed—but only if you happened to know where the beginning was, and I didn’t quite.
I twiddled the quill a bit, thinking.
Perhaps I should have an outline? That seemed sensible—and a little less daunting than starting straight in to write. I lowered the quill and held it poised above the paper for a moment, then picked it up again. An outline would have a beginning, too, wouldn’t it?
The ink was beginning to dry on the point. Rather crossly, I wiped it and was just about to dip it again, when the maid scratched discreetly at the door.
“Mrs. Fraser? There’s a gentleman downstairs, askin’ to see ye,” she said. From her air of respect, I supposed it couldn’t be Andy Bell. Besides, she likely would have said so if it was; everyone in Edinburgh knew Andy Bell.
“I’ll come down,” I said, rising. Perhaps my subconscious would come to some kind of conclusion regarding beginnings while I dealt with this gentleman, whomever he was.
Whomever he was, he was a gentleman, I saw that at once. He was also Percival Beauchamp.
“Mrs. Fraser,” he said, his face lighting with a smile as he turned at the sound of my step. “Your servant, madame.”
“Mr. Beauchamp,” I said, allowing him to take my hand and raise it to his lips. An elegant person of the time would doubtless have said something like, “I fear you take me at a disadvantage, sir,” with anything between haughtiness and flirtation. Not being an elegant person of the time, I merely said, “What are you doing here?”
Mr. Beauchamp, on the other hand, had any amount of elegance.
“Looking for you, dear lady,” he replied, and gave my hand a slight squeeze before releasing it. I repressed a reflexive urge to wipe it on my dress and nodded toward a pair of armchairs arranged by the window.
“Not that I’m not flattered,” I said, arranging my skirts. “But don’t you want my husband? Oh!” I said, another thought occurring. “Or did you want to consult me medically?”
His lips twitched as though he thought this an amusing notion, but he shook his head respectfully. “Your husband is in France—or so Jeanne LeGrand tells me. I came to speak to you.”
He lifted his smooth dark brows at that but didn’t answer at once, instead lifting a finger in a gesture to the hotel clerk to summon refreshment. I didn’t know if he was merely being polite or wanted the time to formulate his address, now that he’d seen me again. In any case, he took his time.
“I have a proposition for your husband, madame. I would have spoken with him,” he said, forestalling my question, “but he had left for France already when I learned he was in Edinburgh, and I, alas, must leave myself before he will return. I thought it better to speak directly with you, though, rather than to explain myself in a letter. There are things it’s wiser not to commit to writing, you know,” he added, with a sudden smile that made him very appealing.
“All right,” I said, settling myself. “Say on.”
I LIFTED THE GLASS of brandy and took a sip, then raised it and looked critically through it.
“No, it’s just brandy,” I said. “Not opium.”
“I beg your pardon?” He looked involuntarily into his own glass, just in case, and I laughed.
“I mean,” I clarified, “that good as it is, it’s not nearly good enough to make me believe a story like that.”
He didn’t take offense but tilted his head to one side.
“Can you think of any reason why I should invent such a tale?”
“No,” I admitted, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one, does it?”
“What I have told you is not impossible, is it?”
I considered that one for a moment.
“Not technically impossible,” I conceded. “But certainly implausible.”
“Have you ever seen an ostrich?” he asked, and, without inquiring, poured more brandy into my glass.
“You must admit that ostriches are frankly implausible,” he said. “But clearly not impossible.”
“One to you,” I conceded. “But I do think that Fergus being the lost heir to the Comte St. Germain’s fortune is slightly more implausible than an ostrich. Particularly if you consider the part about the marriage license. I mean … a lost legitimate heir? It is France we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
He laughed at that. His face had flushed with brandy and amusement, and I could see how very attractive he must have been in his youth. He wasn’t by any means bad-looking now, come to that.
“Do you mind my asking what you do for a living?” I asked curiously.
He was disconcerted by that and rubbed a hand over his jaw before answering, but met my eyes.
“I sleep with rich women,” he said, and his voice held a faint but disturbing trace of bitterness.
“Well, I do hope you aren’t regarding me in the light of a business opportunity. The gold-rimmed spectacles notwithstanding, I really haven’t got any money.”
He smiled and hid it in his brandy glass.
“No, but you would be a great deal more entertaining than the usual woman who does.”
“I’m flattered,” I said politely. We sipped brandy in silence for a bit, both thinking how to proceed. It was raining—naturally—and the patter of it on the street outside and the hiss of the fire beside us was soothing in the extreme. I felt oddly comfortable with him, but after all, I couldn’t spend all day here; I had a book to write.
“All right,” I said. “ Why have you told me this story? Wait—there are two parts to that. One, why tell me rather than Fergus himself? And two, what is your personal interest in the situation, assuming it is true?”
“I did try to tell Mr. Fraser—Fergus Fraser, that is,” he said slowly. “He declined to speak with me.”
“Oh!” I said, recalling something. “Was it you who tried to abduct him, in North Carolina?”
“No, it wasn’t,” he said promptly, and with every evidence of sincerity. “I did hear about the occasion, but I don’t know who his assailant was. More than likely, it was someone he had annoyed with his work.” He shrugged that off and continued. “As for my personal interest… that runs along with the reason for my telling your husband—because I’m telling you only as your husband is unavailable.”
“And that would be?”
He glanced quickly round to see that we were not overheard. No one was near us, but he still lowered his voice.
“I—and the interests I represent in France—wish the rebellion in America to succeed.”
I didn’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that, and I gawked at him.
“You expect me to believe you’re an American patriot?”
“Not at all,” he said. “I don’t care about politics in the slightest. I’m a man of business.” He eyed me assessingly. “Have you ever heard of a company called Hortalez et Cie?”
“It is ostensibly an importing and exporting business, run out of Spain. What it actually is is a facade for the purpose of funneling money to the Americans, without visibly involving the French government. We have so far moved many thousands through it, mostly to buy arms and ammunition. Madame LeGrand mentioned the company to your husband but without telling him what it was. She left it to me to decide whether to reveal the true nature of Hortalez to him.”
“You’re a French intelligence agent—is that what you’re telling me?” I said, the penny dropping at last.
“But you aren’t French, I don’t think,” I added, looking hard at him. “You’re English.”
“I was.” He looked away. “I am a citizen of France now.”
He fell silent, and I leaned back a little in my chair, watching him—and wondering. Wondering both how much of this was true and, in a more distant way, whether he might conceivably be an ancestor of mine. Beauchamp was not an uncommon name, and there was no great physical resemblance between us. His hands were long-fingered and graceful, like mine, but the fingers were shaped differently. The ears? His were somewhat large, though delicately shaped. I really had no idea what my own ears looked like, but assumed that if they were noticeably large, Jamie would have mentioned it at some point.
“What is it that you want?” I asked quietly at last, and he looked up.
“Tell your husband what I have told you, if you please, madame,” he said, quite serious for once. “And suggest to him that it is not only in the best interests of his foster son to pursue this matter—but very much in the interests of America.”
“How is that?”
He lifted one shoulder, slim and elegant.
“The Comte St. Germain had extensive land holdings in a part of America that is currently held by Great Britain. The French part of his estate—currently being squabbled over by a number of claimants—is extremely valuable. If Fergus Fraser can be proved to be Claudel Rakoczy—Rakoczy is the family name, you understand—and the heir to this fortune, he would be able to use it to help in financing the revolution. From what I know of him and his activities—and I know a good deal, by this time—I think he would be amenable to these aims. If the revolution is successful, then those who backed it would have substantial influence over whatever government is formed.”
“And you could stop sleeping with rich women for money?”
A wry smile spread over his face.
“Precisely.” He rose and bowed deeply to me. “A great pleasure to speak with you, madame.”
He had almost reached the door when I called after him.
“Yes?” He turned and looked back, a dark, slender man whose face was marked with humor—and with pain, I thought.
“Have you any children?”
He looked completely startled at that.
“I really don’t think so.”
“Oh,” I said. “I only wondered. Good day to you, sir.”
SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI
The Scottish Highlands
IT WAS A LONG WALK from the farmhouse at Balnain. As it was early January in Scotland, it was also wet and cold. Very wet. And very cold. No snow—and I rather wished there had been, as it might have discouraged Hugh Fraser’s insane notion—but it had been raining for days, in that dismal way that makes hearths smoke, and even clothes that have not been outside grow damp, and drives the chill so far into your bones that you think you’ll never be warm again.
I’d come to this conviction myself some hours ago, but the only alternative to continuing to slog through the rain and mud was to lie down and die, and I hadn’t quite reached that extremity. Yet.
The creaking of the wheels stopped abruptly, with that slushing sound that indicated they had sunk once more in the mud. Under his breath, Jamie said something grossly inappropriate to a funeral, and Ian smothered a laugh with a cough—which became real and went hoarsely on and on, sounding like the bark of a large, tired dog.
I took the flask of whisky out from under my cloak—I didn’t think something with that kind of alcohol content would freeze, but I wasn’t taking any chances—and handed it to Ian. He gulped, wheezed as though he’d been hit by a truck, coughed some more, and then handed the flask back, breathing hard, and nodded thanks. His nose was red and running.