“A nice contradiction, that; but it suits ye, Sassenach.”
“It does?” I said, startled.
He nodded, never taking his eyes off my face. I could see him studying me closely, and wondered self-consciously what I must look like, flushed from lovemaking, with my hair in wild disorder.
“Ye havena been lovelier, Sassenach,” he said, smile growing wider as I reached up to smooth my hair. He caught my hand, and kissed it gently. “Leave your curls be.
“No,” he said, holding my hands trapped while he looked me over, “no, a knife is verra much what you are, now I think of it. A clever-worked scabbard, and most gorgeous to see, Sassenach”—he traced the line of my lips with a finger, provoking a smile—“but tempered steel for a core…and a wicked sharp edge, I do think.”
“Wicked?” I said, surprised.
“Not heartless, I don’t mean,” he assured me. His eyes rested on my face, intent and curious. A smile touched his lips. “No, never that. But you can be ruthless strong, Sassenach, when the need is on ye.”
I smiled, a little wryly. “I can,” I said.
“I have seen that in ye before, aye?” His voice grew softer and his grasp on my hand tightened. “But now I think ye have it much more than when ye were younger. You’ll have needed it often since, no?”
I realized quite suddenly why he saw so clearly what Frank had never seen at all.
“You have it too,” I said. “And you’ve needed it. Often.” Unconsciously, my fingers touched the jagged scar that crossed his middle finger, twisting the distal joints.
“I have wondered,” he said, so low I could scarcely hear him. “Wondered often, if I could call that edge to my service, and sheathe it safe again. For I have seen a great many men grow hard in that calling, and their steel decay to dull iron. And I have wondered often, was I master in my soul, or did I become the slave of my own blade?
“I have thought again and again,” he went on, looking down at our linked hands…“that I had drawn my blade too often, and spent so long in the service of strife that I wasna fit any longer for human intercourse.”
My lips twitched with the urge to make a remark, but I bit them instead. He saw it, and smiled, a little wryly.
“I didna think I should ever laugh again in a woman’s bed, Sassenach,” he said. “Or even come to a woman, save as a brute, blind with need.” A note of bitterness came into his voice.
I lifted his hand, and kissed the small scar on the back of it.
“I can’t see you as a brute,” I said. I meant it lightly, but his face softened as he looked at me, and he answered seriously.
“I know that, Sassenach. And it is that ye canna see me so that gives me hope. For I am—and know it—and yet perhaps…” He trailed off, watching me intently.
“You have that—the strength. Ye have it, and your soul as well. So perhaps my own may be saved.”
I had no notion what to say to this, and said nothing for a while, but only held his hand, caressing the twisted fingers and the large, hard knuckles. It was a warrior’s hand—but he was not a warrior, now.
I turned the hand over and smoothed it on my knee, palm up. Slowly, I traced the deep lines and rising hillocks, and the tiny letter “C” at the base of his thumb; the brand that marked him mine.
“I knew an old lady in the Highlands once, who said the lines in your hand don’t predict your life; they reflect it.”
“Is that so, then?” His fingers twitched slightly, but his palm lay still and open.
“I don’t know. She said you’re born with the lines of your hand—with a life—but then the lines change, with the things you do, and the person you are.” I knew nothing about palmistry, but I could see one deep line that ran from wrist to midpalm, forking several times.
“I think that might be the one they call a life-line,” I said. “See all the forks? I suppose that would mean you’d changed your life a lot, made a lot of choices.”
He snorted briefly, but with amusement rather than derision.
“Oh, aye? Well, that’s safe enough to say.” He peered into his palm, leaning over my knee. “I suppose the first fork would be when I met Jack Randall, and the second when I wed you—see, they’re close together, there.”
“So they are.” I ran my finger slowly along the line, making his fingers twitch slightly as it tickled. “And Culloden maybe would be another?”
“Perhaps.” But he did not wish to talk of Culloden. His own finger moved on. “And when I went to prison, and came back again, and came to Edinburgh.”
“And became a printer.” I stopped and looked up at him, brows raised. “How on earth did you come to be a printer? It’s the last thing I would have thought of.”
“Oh, that.” His mouth widened in a smile. “Well—it was an accident, aye?”
To start with he had only been looking for a business that would help to conceal and facilitate the smuggling. Possessed of a sizable sum from a recent profitable venture, he had determined to purchase a business whose normal operations involved a large wagon and team of horses, and some discreet premises that could be used for the temporary storage of goods in transit.
Carting suggested itself, but was rejected precisely because the operations of that business made its practitioners subject to more or less constant scrutiny from the Customs. Likewise, the ownership of a tavern or inn, while superficially desirable because of the large quantities of supplies brought in, was too vulnerable in its legitimate operation to hide an illegitimate one; tax collectors and Customs agents hung about taverns like fleas on a fat dog.
“I thought of printing, when I went to a place to have some notices made up,” he explained. “As I was waiting to put in my order, I saw the wagon come rumbling up, all loaded wi’ boxes of paper and casks of alcohol for the ink powder, and I thought, by God, that’s it! For excisemen would never be troubling a place like that.”
It was only after purchasing the shop in Carfax Close, hiring Geordie to run the press, and actually beginning to fill orders for posters, pamphlets, folios, and books, that the other possibilities of his new business had occurred to him.
“It was a man named Tom Gage,” he explained. He loosed his hand from my grasp, growing eager in the telling, gesturing and rubbing his hands through his hair as he talked, disheveling himself with enthusiasm.
“He brought in small orders for this or that—innocent stuff, all of it—but often, and stayed to talk over it, taking trouble to talk to me as well as to Geordie, though he must have seen I knew less about the business than he did himself.”
He smiled at me wryly.
“I didna ken much about printing, Sassenach, but I do ken men.”
It was obvious that Gage was exploring the sympathies of Alexander Malcolm; hearing the faint sibilance of Jamie’s Highland speech, he had prodded delicately, mentioning this acquaintance and that whose Jacobite sympathies had led them into trouble after the Rising, picking up the threads of mutual acquaintance, skillfully directing the conversation, stalking his prey. Until at last, the amused prey had bluntly told him to bring what he wanted made; no King’s man would hear of it.
“And he trusted you.” It wasn’t a question; the only man who had ever trusted Jamie Fraser in error was Charles Stuart—and in that case, the error was Jamie’s.
“He did.” And so an association was begun, strictly business in the beginning, but deepening into friendship as time went on. Jamie had printed all the materials generated by Gage’s small group of radical political writers—from publicly acknowledged articles to anonymous broadsheets and pamphlets filled with material incriminating enough to get the authors summarily jailed or hanged.
“We’d go to the tavern down the street and talk, after the printing was done. I met a few of Tom’s friends, and finally Tom said I should write a small piece myself. I laughed and told him that with my hand, by the time I’d penned anything that could be read, we’d all be dead—of old age, not hanging.
“I was standing by the press as we were talking, setting the type wi’ my left hand, not even thinking. He just stared at me, and then he started to laugh. He pointed at the tray, and at my hand, and went on laughing, ’til he had to sit down on the floor to stop.”
He stretched out his arms in front of him, flexing his hands and studying them dispassionately. He curled one hand into a fist and bent it slowly up toward his face, making the muscles of his arm ripple and swell under the linen.
“I’m hale enough,” he said. “And with luck, may be so for a good many years yet—but not forever, Sassenach. I ha’ fought wi’ sword and dirk many times, but to every warrior comes the day when his strength will fail him.” He shook his head and stretched out a hand toward his coat, which lay on the floor.
“I took these, that day wi’ Tom Gage, to remind me of it,” he said.
He took my hand and put into it the things he had taken from his pocket. They were cool, and hard to the touch, small heavy oblongs of lead. I didn’t need to feel the incised ends to know what the letters on the type slugs were.
“Q.E.D.,” I said.
“The English took my sword and dirk away,” he said softly. His finger touched the slugs that lay in my palm. “But Tom Gage put a weapon into my hands again, and I think I shall not lay it down.”
We walked arm in arm down the cobbled slope of the Royal Mile at a quarter to five, suffused with a glow engendered by several bowls of well-peppered oyster stew and a bottle of wine, shared at intervals during our “private communications.”
The city glowed all around us, as though sharing our happiness. Edinburgh lay under a haze that would soon thicken to rain again, but for now, the light of the setting sun hung gold and pink and red in the clouds, and shone in the wet patina of the cobbled street, so that the gray stones of the buildings softened and streamed with reflected light, echoing the glow that warmed my cheeks and shone in Jamie’s eyes when he looked at me.
Drifting down the street in this state of softheaded self-absorption, it was several minutes before I noticed anything amiss. A man, impatient of our meandering progress, stepped briskly around us, and then came to a dead stop just in front of me, making me trip on the wet stones and throw a shoe.
He flung up his head and stared skyward for a moment, then hurried off down the street, not running, but walking as fast as he could go.
“What’s the matter with him?” I said, stooping to retrieve my shoe. Suddenly I noticed that all around us, folk were stopping, staring up, and then starting to rush down the street.
“What do you think—?” I began, but when I turned to Jamie, he too was staring intently upward. I looked up, too, and it took only a moment to see that the red glow in the clouds above was a good deal deeper than the general color of the sunset sky, and seemed to flicker in an uneasy fashion most uncharacteristic of sunsets.