“Er—” I said, mildly alarmed. “It isn’t what you think. I mean, your father and I—it’s really your uncle and I, I mean—” I was trying to figure out how to explain the situation to him without getting into even deeper waters, when he whirled on his heel and started for the door.
“Wait a minute,” I said. He stopped, but didn’t turn around. His well-scrubbed ears stood out like tiny wings, the morning light illuminating their delicate pinkness. “How old are you?” I asked.
He turned around to face me, with a certain painful dignity. “I’ll be fifteen in three weeks,” he said. The red was creeping up his cheeks again. “Dinna worry, I’m old enough to know—what sort of place this is, I mean.” He jerked his head toward me in an attempt at a courtly bow.
“Meaning no offense to ye, mistress. If Uncle Jamie—I mean, I—” he groped for suitable words, failed to find any, and finally blurted, “verra pleased to meet ye, mum!” turned and bolted through the door, which shut hard enough to rattle in its frame.
I fell back against the pillows, torn between amusement and alarm. I did wonder what the elder Ian was going to say to his son when they met—and vice versa. As long as I was wondering, I wondered what had brought the younger Ian here in search of Jamie. Evidently, he knew where his uncle was likely to be found; yet judging from his diffident attitude, he had never before ventured into the brothel.
Had he extracted the information from Geordie at the printshop? That seemed unlikely. And yet, if he hadn’t—then that meant he had learned of his uncle’s connection with this place from some other source. And the most likely source was Jamie himself.
But in that case, I reasoned, Jamie likely already knew that his nephew was in Edinburgh, so why pretend he hadn’t seen the boy? Ian was Jamie’s oldest friend; they had grown up together. If whatever Jamie was up to was worth the cost of deceiving his brother-in-law, it was something serious.
I had got no further with my musings, when there came another knock on the door.
“Come in,” I said, smoothing out the quilts in anticipation of the breakfast tray to be placed thereon.
When the door opened, I had directed my attention at a spot about five feet above the floor, where I expected the chambermaid’s head to materialize. Upon the last opening of the door, I had had to adjust my vision upward a foot, to accommodate the appearance of Young Ian. This time, I was obliged to drop it.
“What in the bloody hell are you doing here?” I demanded as the diminutive figure of Mr. Willoughby entered on hands and knees. I sat up and hastily tucked my feet underneath me, pulling not only sheet but quilts well up around my shoulders.
In answer, the Chinese advanced to within a foot of the bed, then let his head fall to the floor with a loud clunk. He raised it and repeated the process with great deliberation, making a horrid sound like a melon being cleaved with an ax.
“Stop that!” I exclaimed, as he prepared to do it a third time.
“Thousand apology,” he explained, sitting up on his heels and blinking at me. He was quite a bit the worse for wear, and the dark red mark where his forehead had smacked the floor didn’t add anything to his appearance. I trusted he didn’t mean he’d been going to hit his head on the floor a thousand times, but I wasn’t sure. He obviously had the hell of a hangover; for him to have attempted it even once was impressive.
“That’s quite all right,” I said, edging cautiously back against the wall. “There’s nothing to apologize for.”
“Yes, apology,” he insisted. “Tsei-mi saying wife. Lady being most honorable First Wife, not stinking whore.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said. “Tsei-mi? You mean Jamie? Jamie Fraser?”
The little man nodded, to the obvious detriment of his head. He clutched it with both hands and closed his eyes, which promptly disappeared into the creases of his cheeks.
“Tsei-mi,” he affirmed, eyes still closed. “Tsei-mi saying apology to most honored First Wife. Yi Tien Cho most humble servant.” He bowed deeply, still holding onto his head. “Yi Tien Cho,” he added, opening his eyes and tapping his chest to indicate that that was his name; in case I should be confusing him with any other humble servants in the vicinity.
“That’s quite all right,” I said. “Er, pleased to meet you.”
Evidently heartened by this, he slid bonelessly onto his face, prostrating himself before me.
“Yi Tien Cho lady’s servant,” he said. “First Wife please to walk on humble servant, if like.”
“Ha,” I said coldly. “I’ve heard about you. Walk on you, eh? Not bloody likely!”
A slit of gleaming black eye showed, and he giggled, so irrepressibly that I couldn’t help laughing myself. He sat up again, smoothing down the spikes of dirt-stiffened black hair that sprang, porcupine-like, from his skull.
“I wash First Wife’s feet?” he offered, grinning widely.
“Certainly not,” I said. “If you really want to do something helpful, go and tell someone to bring me breakfast. No, wait a minute,” I said, changing my mind. “First, tell me where you met Jamie. If you don’t mind,” I added, to be polite.
He sat back on his heels, head bobbing slightly. “Docks,” he said. “Two year ago. I come China, long way, no food. Hiding barrel,” he explained, reaching his arms in a circle, to demonstrate his means of transportation.
“Trade ship,” he nodded. “On docks here, stealing food. Stealing brandy one night, getting stinking drunk. Very cold to sleep; die soon, but Tsei-mi find.” He jabbed a thumb at his chest once more. “Tsei-mi’s humble servant. Humble servant First Wife.” He bowed to me, swaying alarmingly in the process, but came upright again without mishap.
“Brandy seems to be your downfall,” I observed. “I’m sorry I haven’t anything to give you for your head; I don’t have any medicines with me at the moment.”
“Oh, not worry,” he assured me. “I having healthy balls.”
“How nice for you,” I said, trying to decide whether he was gearing up for another attempt on my feet, or merely still too drunk to distinguish basic anatomy. Or perhaps there was some connection in Chinese philosophy, between the well-being of head and testicles? Just in case, I looked round for something that might be used as a weapon, in case he showed a disposition to begin burrowing under the bedclothes.
Instead, he reached into the depths of one baggy blue-silk sleeve and with the air of a conjuror, drew out a small white silk bag. He upended this, and two balls dropped out into his palm. They were larger than marbles and smaller than baseballs; about the size, in fact, of the average testicle. A good deal harder, though, being apparently made of some kind of polished stone, greenish in color.
“Healthy balls,” Mr. Willoughby explained, rolling them together in his palm. They made a pleasant clicking noise. “Streaked jade, from Canton,” he said. “Best kind of healthy balls.”
“Really?” I said, fascinated. “And they’re medicinal—good for you, that’s what you’re saying?”
He nodded vigorously, then stopped abruptly with a faint moan. After a pause, he spread out his hand, and rolled the balls to and fro, keeping them in movement with a dextrous circling of his fingers.
“All body one part; hand all parts,” he said. He poked a finger toward his open palm, touching delicately here and there between the smooth green spheres. “Head there, stomach there, liver there,” he said. “Balls make all good.”
“Well, I suppose they’re as portable as Alka-Seltzer,” I said. Possibly it was the reference to stomach that caused my own to emit a loud growl at this point.
“First Wife wanting food,” Mr. Willoughby observed shrewdly.
“Very astute of you,” I said. “Yes, I do want food. Do you suppose you could go and tell someone?”
He dumped the healthy balls back into their bag at once, and springing to his feet, bowed deeply.
“Humble servant go now,” he said, and went, crashing rather heavily into the door post on his way out.
This was becoming ridiculous, I thought. I harbored substantial doubt as to whether Mr. Willoughby’s visit would result in food; he’d be lucky to make it to the bottom of the stair without falling on his head, if I was any judge of his condition.
Rather than go on sitting here in the nude, receiving random deputations from the outside world, I thought it time to take steps. Rising and carefully wrapping a quilt around my body, I took a few, out into the corridor.
The upper floor seemed deserted. Aside from the room I had left, there were only two other doors up here. Glancing up, I could see unadorned rafters overhead. We were in the attic then; chances were that the other rooms here were occupied by servants, who were presumably now employed downstairs.
I could hear faint noises drifting up the stairwell. Something else drifted up, as well—the scent of frying sausage. A loud gustatory rumble informed me that my stomach hadn’t missed this, and furthermore, that my innards considered the consumption of one peanut butter sandwich and one bowl of soup in one twenty-four-hour period a wholly inadequate level of nutrition.
I tucked the ends of the quilt in, sarong-fashion, just above my br**sts, and picking up my trailing skirts, followed the scent of food downstairs.
The smell—and the clinking, clattering, sloshing noises of a number of people eating—were coming from a closed door on the first floor above ground level. I pushed it open, and found myself at the end of a long room equipped as a refectory.
The table was surrounded by twenty-odd women, a few gowned for day, but most of them in a state of dishabille that made my quilt modest by comparison. A woman near the end of the table caught sight of me hovering in the doorway, and beckoned, companionably sliding over to make room for me on the end of the long bench.
“You’ll be the new lass, aye?” she said, looking me over with interest. “You’re a wee bit older than Madame usually takes on—she likes ’em no more than five and twenty. You’re no bad at all, though,” she assured me hastily. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“Good skin and a pretty face,” observed the dark-haired lady across from us, sizing me up with the detached air of one appraising horseflesh. “And nice bubbies, what I can see.” She lifted her chin slightly, peering across the table at what could be seen of my cle**age.
“Madame doesna like us to take the kivvers off the beds,” my original acquaintance said reprovingly. “Ye should wear your shift, if ye havena something pretty to show yourself in yet.”
“Aye, be careful with the quilt,” advised the dark-haired girl, still scrutinizing me. “Madame’ll dock your wages, an’ ye get spots on the bedclothes.”
“What’s your name, my dearie?” A short, rather plump girl with a round, friendly face leaned past the dark girl’s elbow to smile at me. “Here we’re all chatterin’ at ye, and not welcomed ye proper at all. I’m Dorcas, this is Peggy”—she jerked a thumb at the dark-haired girl, then pointed across the table to the fair-haired woman beside me—“and that’s Mollie.”