Jamie sat down on the bed next to me, taking my hand in his.
“I’ve not seen Young Ian since I sent him home wi’ Fergus six months ago,” he said. He was beginning to look as worried as Ian. “You’re sure he said he was coming to me?”
“Well, he hasna got any other uncles that I know of,” Ian said, rather acerbically. He tossed back the rest of the brandy and set the cup down.
“Fergus?” I interrupted. “Is Fergus all right, then?” I felt a surge of joy at the mention of the French orphan whom Jamie had once hired in Paris as a pickpocket, and brought back to Scotland as a servant lad.
Distracted from his thoughts, Jamie looked down at me.
“Oh, aye, Fergus is a bonny man now. A bit changed, of course.” A shadow seemed to cross his face, but it cleared as he smiled, pressing my hand. “He’ll be fair daft at seein’ you once more, Sassenach.”
Uninterested in Fergus, Ian had risen and was pacing back and forth across the polished plank floor.
“He didna take a horse,” he muttered. “So he’d have nothing anyone would rob him for.” He swung round to Jamie. “How did ye come, last time ye brought the lad here? By the land round the Firth, or did ye cross by boat?”
Jamie rubbed his chin, frowning as he thought. “I didna come to Lallybroch for him. He and Fergus crossed through the Carryarrick Pass and met me just above Loch Laggan. Then we came down through Struan and Weem and…aye, now I remember. We didna want to cross the Campbell lands, so we came to the east, and crossed the Forth at Donibristle.”
“D’ye think he’d do that again?” Ian asked. “If it’s the only way he knows?”
Jamie shook his head doubtfully. “He might. But he kens the coast is dangerous.”
Ian resumed his pacing, hands clasped behind his back. “I beat him ’til he could barely stand, let alone sit, the last time he ran off,” Ian said, shaking his head. His lips were tight, and I gathered that Young Ian was perhaps rather a trial to his father. “Ye’d think the wee fool would think better o’ such tricks, aye?”
Jamie snorted, but not without sympathy.
“Did a thrashing ever stop you from doing anything you’d set your mind on?”
Ian stopped his pacing and sat down on the stool again, sighing.
“No,” he said frankly, “but I expect it was some relief to my father.” His face cracked into a reluctant smile, as Jamie laughed.
“He’ll be all right,” Jamie declared confidently. He stood up and let the towel drop to the floor as he reached for his breeches. “I’ll go and put about the word for him. If he’s in Edinburgh, we’ll hear of it by nightfall.”
Ian cast a glance at me in the bed, and stood up hastily.
“I’ll go wi’ ye.”
I thought I saw a shadow of doubt flicker across Jamie’s face, but then he nodded and pulled the shirt over his head.
“All right,” he said, as his head popped through the slit. He frowned at me.
“I’m afraid ye’ll have to stay here, Sassenach,” he said.
“I suppose I will,” I said dryly. “Seeing that I haven’t any clothes.” The maid who brought our supper had removed my dress, and no replacement had as yet appeared.
Ian’s feathery brows shot up to his hairline, but Jamie merely nodded.
“I’ll tell Jeanne on the way out,” he said. He frowned slightly, thinking. “It may be some time, Sassenach. There are things—well, I’ve business to take care of.” He squeezed my hand, his expression softening as he looked at me.
“I dinna want to leave ye,” he said softly. “But I must. You’ll stay here until I come again?”
“Don’t worry,” I assured him, waving a hand at the linen towel he had just discarded. “I’m not likely to go anywhere in that.”
The thud of their feet retreated down the hall and faded into the sounds of the stirring house. The brothel was rising, late and languid by the stern Scottish standards of Edinburgh. Below me I could hear the occasional slow muffled thump, the clatter of shutters thrust open nearby, a cry of “Gardyloo!” and a second later, the splash of slops flung out to land on the street far below.
Voices somewhere far down the hall, a brief inaudible exchange, and the closing of a door. The building itself seemed to stretch and sigh, with a creaking of timbers and a squeaking of stairs, and a sudden puff of coal-smelling warm air came out from the back of the cold hearth, the exhalation of a fire lit on some lower floor, sharing my chimney.
I relaxed into the pillows, feeling drowsy and heavily content. I was slightly and pleasantly sore in several unaccustomed places, and while I had been reluctant to see Jamie go, there was no denying that it was nice to be alone for a bit to mull things over.
I felt much like one who has been handed a sealed casket containing a long-lost treasure. I could feel the satisfying weight and the shape of it, and know the great joy of its possession, but still did not know exactly what was contained therein.
I was dying to know everything he had done and said and thought and been, through all the days between us. I had of course known that if he had survived Culloden, he would have a life—and knowing what I did of Jamie Fraser, it was unlikely to be a simple one. But knowing that, and being confronted with the reality of it, were two different things.
He had been fixed in my memory for so long, glowing but static, like an insect frozen in amber. And then had come Roger’s brief historical sightings, like peeks through a keyhole; separate pictures like punctuations, alterations; adjustments of memory, each showing the dragonfly’s wings raised or lowered at a different angle, like the single frames of a motion picture. Now time had begun to run again for us, and the dragonfly was in flight before me, flickering from place to place, so I saw little more yet than the glitter of its wings.
There were so many questions neither of us had had a chance to ask yet—what of his family at Lallybroch, his sister Jenny and her children? Obviously Ian was alive, and well, wooden leg notwithstanding—but had the rest of the family and the tenants of the estate survived the destruction of the Highlands? If they had, why was Jamie here in Edinburgh?
And if they were alive—what would we tell them about my sudden reappearance? I bit my lip, wondering whether there was any explanation—short of the truth—which might make sense. It might depend on what Jamie had told them when I disappeared after Culloden; there had seemed no need to concoct a reason for my vanishing at the time; it would simply be assumed that I had perished in the aftermath of the Rising, one more of the nameless corpses lying starved on the rocks or slaughtered in a leafless glen.
Well, we’d manage that when we came to it, I supposed. I was more curious just now about the extent and the danger of Jamie’s less legitimate activities. Smuggling and sedition, was it? I was aware that smuggling was nearly as honorable a profession in the Scottish Highlands as cattle-stealing had been twenty years before, and might be conducted with relatively little risk. Sedition was something else, and seemed like an occupation of dubious safety for a convicted ex-Jacobite traitor.
That, I supposed, was the reason for his assumed name—or one reason, at any rate. Disturbed and excited as I had been when we arrived at the brothel the night before, I had noticed that Madame Jeanne referred to him by his own name. So presumably he smuggled under his own identity, but carried out his publishing activities—legal and illegal—as Alex Malcolm.
I had seen, heard and felt enough, during the all too brief hours of the night, to be fairly sure that the Jamie Fraser I had known still existed. How many other men he might be now remained to be seen.
There was a tentative rap at the door, interrupting my thoughts. Breakfast, I thought, and not before time. I was ravenous.
“Come in,” I called, and sat up in bed, pulling up the pillows to lean against.
The door opened very slowly, and after quite a long pause, a head poked its way through the opening, much in the manner of a snail emerging from its shell after a hailstorm.
It was topped with an ill-cut shag of dark brown hair so thick that the cropped edges stuck out like a shelf above a pair of large ears. The face beneath was long and bony; rather pleasantly homely, save for a pair of beautiful brown eyes, soft and huge as a deer’s, that rested on me with a mingled expression of interest and hesitancy.
The head and I regarded each other for a moment.
“Are you Mr. Malcolm’s…woman?” it asked.
“I suppose you could say so,” I replied cautiously. This was obviously not the chambermaid with my breakfast. Neither was it likely to be one of the other employees of the establishment, being evidently male, though very young. He seemed vaguely familiar, though I was sure I hadn’t seen him before. I pulled the sheet a bit higher over my br**sts. “And who are you?” I inquired.
The head thought this over for some time, and finally answered, with equal caution, “Ian Murray.”
“Ian Murray?” I shot up straight, rescuing the sheet at the last moment. “Come in here,” I said peremptorily. “If you’re who I think you are, why aren’t you where you’re supposed to be, and what are you doing here?” The face looked rather alarmed, and showed signs of withdrawal.
“Stop!” I called, and put a leg out of bed to pursue him. The big brown eyes widened at the sight of my bare limb, and he froze. “Come in, I said.”
Slowly, I withdrew the leg beneath the quilts, and equally slowly, he followed it into the room.
He was tall and gangly as a fledgling stork, with perhaps nine stone spread sparsely over a six-foot frame. Now that I knew who he was, the resemblance to his father was clear. He had his mother’s pale skin, though, which blushed furiously red as it occurred to him suddenly that he was standing next to a bed containing a naked woman.
“I…er…was looking for my…for Mr. Malcolm, I mean,” he murmured, staring fixedly at the floorboards by his feet.
“If you mean your uncle Jamie, he’s not here,” I said.
“No. No, I suppose not.” He seemed unable to think of anything to add to this, but remained staring at the floor, one foot twisted awkwardly to the side, as though he were about to draw it up under him, like the wading bird he so much resembled.
“Do ye ken where…” he began, lifting his eyes, then, as he caught a glimpse of me, lowered them, blushed again and fell silent.
“He’s looking for you,” I said. “With your father,” I added. “They left here not half an hour ago.”
His head snapped up on its skinny neck, goggling.
“My father?” he gasped. “My father was here? Ye know him?”
“Why, yes,” I said, without thinking. “I’ve known Ian for quite a long time.”
He might be Jamie’s nephew, but he hadn’t Jamie’s trick of inscrutability. Everything he thought showed on his face, and I could easily trace the progression of his expressions. Raw shock at learning of his father’s presence in Edinburgh, then a sort of awestruck horror at the revelation of his father’s long-standing acquaintance with what appeared to be a woman of a certain occupation, and finally the beginnings of angry absorption, as the young man began an immediate revision of his opinions of his father’s character.