The landlord remaining deaf as an adder, the seaman had soon left the tavern, with Young Ian right behind him.
“I thought as how maybe it would be good to know who he was, and what he meant,” the lad explained, blinking.
“Ye might have thought to leave word wi’ the publican for Wally,” Jamie said. “Still, that’s neither here nor there. Where did he go?”
Down the road at a brisk walk, but not so brisk that a healthy boy could not follow at a careful distance. An accomplished walker, the seaman had made his way into Edinburgh, a distance of some five miles, in less than an hour, and arrived at last at the Green Owl tavern, followed by Young Ian, near wilted with thirst from the walk.
I started at the name, but didn’t say anything, not wanting to interrupt the story.
“It was terrible crowded,” the lad reported. “Something happened in the morning, and everyone was talking of it—but they shut up whenever they saw me. Anyway, it was the same there.” He paused to cough and clear his throat. “The seaman ordered drink—brandy—then asked the landlord was he acquainted wi’ a supplier of brandy named Jamie Roy or Jamie Fraser.”
“Did he, then?” Jamie murmured. His gaze was intent on his nephew, but I could see the thoughts working behind his high forehead, making a small crease between his thick brows.
The man had gone methodically from tavern to tavern, dogged by his faithful shadow, and in each establishment had ordered brandy and repeated his question.
“He must have a rare head, to be drinkin’ that much brandy,” Ian remarked.
Young Ian shook his head. “He didna drink it. He only smelt it.”
His father clicked his tongue at such a scandalous waste of good spirit, but Jamie’s red brows climbed still higher.
“Did he taste any of it?” he asked sharply.
“Aye. At the Dog and Gun, and again at the Blue Boar. He had nay more than a wee taste, though, and then left the glass untouched. He didna drink at all at the other places, and we went to five o’ them, before…” He trailed off, and took another drink.
Jamie’s face underwent an astonishing transformation. From an expression of frowning puzzlement, his face went completely blank, and then resolved itself into an expression of revelation.
“Is that so, now,” he said softly to himself. “Indeed.” His attention came back to his nephew. “And then what happened, lad?”
Young Ian was beginning to look unhappy again. He gulped, the tremor visible all the way down his skinny neck.
“Well, it was a terrible long way from Kerse to Edinburgh,” he began, “and a terrible dry walk, too…”
His father and uncle exchanged jaundiced glances.
“Ye drank too much,” Jamie said, resigned.
“Well, I didna ken he was going to so many taverns, now, did I?” Young Ian cried in self-defense, going pink in the ears.
“No, of course not, lad,” Jamie said kindly, smothering the beginning of Ian’s more censorious remarks. “How long did ye last?”
Until midway down the Royal Mile, it turned out, where Young Ian, overcome by the cumulation of early rising, a five-mile walk, and the effects of something like two quarts of ale, had dozed off in a corner, waking an hour later to find his quarry long gone.
“So I came here,” he explained. “I thought as how Uncle Jamie should know about it. But he wasna here.” The boy glanced at me, and his ears grew still pinker.
“And just why did ye think he should be here?” Ian favored his offspring with a gimlet eye, which then swiveled to his brother-in-law. The simmering anger Ian had been holding in check since the morning suddenly erupted. “The filthy gall of ye, Jamie Fraser, takin’ my son to a bawdy house!”
“A fine one you are to talk, Da!” Young Ian was on his feet, swaying a bit, but with his big, bony hands clenched at his sides.
“Me? And what d’ye mean by that, ye wee gomerel?” Ian cried, his eyes going wide with outrage.
“I mean you’re a damned hypocrite!” his son shouted hoarsely. “Preachin’ to me and Michael about purity and keepin’ to one woman, and all the time ye’re slinkin’ about the city, sniffin’ after whores!”
“What?” Ian’s face had gone entirely purple. I looked in some alarm to Jamie, who appeared to be finding something funny in the present situation.
“You’re a…a…goddamned whited sepulchre!” Young Ian came up with the simile triumphantly, then paused as though trying to think of another to equal it. His mouth opened, though nothing emerged but a soft belch.
“That boy is rather drunk,” I said to Jamie.
He picked up the decanter of porter, eyed the level within, and set it down.
“You’re right,” he said. “I should ha’ noticed sooner, but it’s hard to tell, scorched as he is.”
The elder Ian wasn’t drunk, but his expression strongly resembled his offspring’s, what with the suffused countenance, popping eyes, and straining neck cords.
“What the bloody, stinking hell d’ye mean by that, ye whelp?” he shouted. He moved menacingly toward Young Ian, who took an involuntary step backward and sat down quite suddenly as his calves met the edge of the sofa.
“Her,” he said, startled into monosyllables. He pointed at me, to make it clear. “Her! You deceivin’ my Mam wi’ this filthy whore, that’s what I mean!”
Ian fetched his son a clout over the ear that knocked him sprawling on the sofa.
“Ye great clot!” he said, scandalized. “A fine way to speak o’ your auntie Claire, to say nothing o’ me and your Mam!”
“Aunt?” Young Ian gawped at me from the cushions, looking so like a nestling begging for food that I burst out laughing despite myself.
“You left before I could introduce myself this morning,” I said.
“But you’re dead,” he said stupidly.
“Not yet,” I assured him. “Unless I’ve caught pneumonia from sitting here in a damp dress.”
His eyes had grown perfectly round as he stared at me. Now a fugitive gleam of excitement came into them.
“Some o’ the auld women at Lallybroch say ye were a wisewoman—a white lady, or maybe even a fairy. When Uncle Jamie came home from Culloden without ye, they said as how ye’d maybe gone back to the fairies, where ye maybe came from. Is that true? D’ye live in a dun?”
I exchanged a glance with Jamie, who rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
“No,” I said. “I…er, I…”
“She escaped to France after Culloden,” Ian broke in suddenly, with great firmness. “She thought your uncle Jamie was killed in the battle, so she went to her kin in France. She’d been one of Prince Tearlach’s particular friends—she couldna come back to Scotland after the war without puttin’ herself in sore danger. But then she heard of your uncle, and as soon as she kent that her husband wasna deid after all, she took ship at once and came to find him.”
Young Ian’s mouth hung open slightly. So did mine.
“Er, yes,” I said, closing it. “That’s what happened.”
The lad turned large, shining eyes from me to his uncle.
“So ye’ve come back to him,” he said happily. “God, that’s romantic!”
The tension of the moment was broken. Ian hesitated, but his eyes softened as he looked from Jamie to me.
“Aye,” he said, and smiled reluctantly. “Aye, I suppose it is.”
“I didna expect to be doing this for him for a good two or three years yet,” Jamie remarked, holding his nephew’s head with an expert hand as Young Ian retched painfully into the spittoon I was holding.
“Aye, well, he’s always been forward,” Ian answered resignedly. “Learnt to walk before he could stand, and was forever tumblin’ into the fire or the washpot or the pigpen or the cowbyre.” He patted the skinny, heaving back. “There, lad, let it come.”
A little more, and the lad was deposited in a wilted heap on the sofa, there to recover from the effects of smoke, emotion, and too much porter under the censoriously mingled gaze of uncle and father.
“Where’s that damn tea I sent for?” Jamie reached impatiently for the bell, but I stopped him. The brothel’s domestic arrangements were evidently still disarranged from the excitements of the morning.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I’ll go down and fetch it.” I scooped up the spittoon and carried it out with me at arm’s length, hearing Ian say behind me, in a reasonable tone of voice, “Look, fool—”
I found my way to the kitchen with no difficulty, and obtained the necessary supplies. I hoped Jamie and Ian would give the boy a few minutes’ respite; not only for his own sake, but so that I would miss nothing of his story.
I had clearly missed something; when I returned to the small sitting room, an air of constraint hung over the room like a cloud, and Young Ian glanced up and then quickly away to avoid my eye. Jamie was his usual imperturbable self, but the elder Ian looked almost as flushed and uneasy as his son. He hurried forward to take the tray from me, murmuring thanks, but would not meet my eye.
I raised one eyebrow at Jamie, who gave me a slight smile and a shrug. I shrugged back and picked up one of the bowls on the tray.
“Bread and milk,” I said, handing it to Young Ian, who at once looked happier.
“Hot tea,” I said, handing the pot to his father.
“Whisky,” I said, handing the bottle to Jamie, “and cold tea for the burns.” I whisked the lid off the last bowl, in which a number of napkins were soaking in cold tea.
“Cold tea?” Jamie’s ruddy brows lifted. “Did the cook have no butter?”
“You don’t put butter on burns,” I told him. “Aloe juice, or the juice of a plantain or plantago, but the cook didn’t have any of that. Cold tea is the best we could manage.”
I poulticed Young Ian’s blistered hands and forearms and blotted his scarlet face gently with the tea-soaked napkins while Jamie and Ian did the honors with teapot and whisky bottle, after which we all sat down, somewhat restored, to hear the rest of Ian’s story.
“Well,” he began, “I walked about the city for a bit, tryin’ to think what best to do. And finally my head cleared a bit, and I reasoned that if the man I’d been following was goin’ from tavern to tavern down the High Street, if I went to the other end and started up the street, I could maybe find him that way.”
“That was a bright thought,” Jamie said, and Ian nodded approvingly, the frown lifting a bit from his face. “Did ye find him?”
Young Ian nodded, slurping a bit. “I did, then.”
Running down the Royal Mile nearly to the Palace of Holyrood at the foot, he had toiled his way painstakingly up the street, stopping at each tavern to inquire for the man with the pigtail and one eye. There was no word of his quarry anywhere below the Canongate, and he was beginning to despair of his idea, when suddenly he had seen the man himself, sitting in the taproom of the Holyrood Brewery.