Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 78

   

“There was no time to run, or to think,” he said. He had let go my hand by now, and his fingers twisted together upon his knee. “I reached out for the first thing to hand and threw it.”

The first thing to hand had been the lead-dipper, the long-handled copper ladle used to pour molten lead from the melting pot into the casting molds. The forge had been still alight, though well-banked, and while the melting pot held no more than a small puddle, the scalding drops of lead had flown from the dipper into the seaman’s face.

“God, how he screamed!” A strong shudder ran through Young Ian’s slender frame, and I came round the end of the sofa to sit next to him and take both his hands.

The seaman had reeled backward, clawing at his face, and upset the small forge, knocking live coals everywhere.

“That was what started the fire,” the boy said. “I tried to beat it out, but it caught the edge of the fresh paper, and all of a sudden, something went whoosh! in my face, and it was as though the whole room was alight.”

“The barrels of ink, I suppose,” Jamie said, as though to himself. “The powder’s dissolved in alcohol.”

The sliding piles of flaming paper fell between Young Ian and the back door, a wall of flame that billowed black smoke and threatened to collapse upon him. The seaman, blinded and screaming like a banshee, had been on his hands and knees between the boy and the door into the front room of the printshop and safety.

“I—I couldna bear to touch him, to push him out o’ the way,” he said, shuddering again.

Losing his head completely, he had run up the stairs instead, but then found himself trapped as the flames, racing through the back room and drawing up the stair like a chimney, rapidly filled the upper room with blinding smoke.

“Did ye not think to climb out the trapdoor onto the roof?” Jamie asked.

Young Ian shook his head miserably. “I didna ken it was there.”

“Why was it there?” I asked curiously.

Jamie gave me the flicker of a smile. “In case of need. It’s a foolish fox has but one exit to his bolthole. Though I must say, it wasna fire I was thinking of when I had it made.” He shook his head, ridding himself of the distraction.

“But ye think the man didna escape the fire?” he asked.

“I dinna see how he could,” Young Ian answered, beginning to sniffle again. “And if he’s dead, then I killed him. I couldna tell Da I was a m-mur—mur—” He was crying again, too hard to get the word out.

“You’re no a murderer, Ian,” Jamie said firmly. He patted his nephew’s shaking shoulder. “Stop now, it’s all right—ye havena done wrong, laddie. Ye haven’t, d’ye hear?”

The boy gulped and nodded, but couldn’t stop crying or shaking. At last I put my arms around him, turned him and pulled his head down onto my shoulder, patting his back and making the sort of small soothing noises one makes to little children.

He felt very odd in my arms; nearly as big as a full-grown man, but with fine, light bones, and so little flesh on them that it was like holding a skeleton. He was talking into the depths of my bosom, his voice so disjointed by emotion and muffled by fabric that it was difficult to make out the words.

“…mortal sin…” he seemed to be saying, “…damned to hell…couldna tell Da…afraid…canna go home ever…”

Jamie raised his brows at me, but I only shrugged helplessly, smoothing the thick, bushy hair on the back of the boy’s head. At last Jamie leaned forward, took him firmly by the shoulders and sat him up.

“Look ye, Ian,” he said. “No, look—look at me!”

By dint of supreme effort, the boy straightened his drooping neck and fixed brimming, red-rimmed eyes on his uncle’s face.

“Now then.” Jamie took hold of his nephew’s hands and squeezed them lightly. “First—it’s no a sin to kill a man that’s trying to kill you. The Church allows ye to kill if ye must, in defense of yourself, your family, or your country. So ye havena committed mortal sin, and you’re no damned.”

“I’m not?” Young Ian sniffed mightily, and mopped at his face with a sleeve.

“No, you’re not.” Jamie let the hint of a smile show in his eyes. “We’ll go together and call on Father Hayes in the morning, and ye’ll make your confession and be absolved then, but he’ll tell ye the same as I have.”

“Oh.” The syllable held profound relief, and Young Ian’s scrawny shoulders rose perceptibly, as though a burden had rolled off of them.

Jamie patted his nephew’s knee again. “For the second thing, ye needna fear telling your father.”

“No?” Young Ian had accepted Jamie’s word on the state of his soul without hesitation, but sounded profoundly dubious about this secular opinion.

“Well, I’ll not say he’ll no be upset,” Jamie added fairly. “In fact, I expect it will turn the rest of his hair white on the spot. But he’ll understand. He isna going to cast ye out or disown ye, if that’s what you’re scairt of.”

“You think he’ll understand?” Young Ian looked at Jamie with eyes in which hope battled with doubt. “I—I didna think he…has my Da ever killed a man?” he asked suddenly.

Jamie blinked, taken aback by the question. “Well,” he said slowly, “I suppose—I mean, he’s fought in battle, but I—to tell ye the truth, Ian, I dinna ken.” He looked a little helplessly at his nephew.

“It’s no the sort of thing men talk much about, aye? Except sometimes soldiers, when they’re deep in drink.”

Young Ian nodded, absorbing this, and sniffed again, with a horrid gurgling noise. Jamie, groping hastily in his sleeve for a handkerchief, looked up suddenly, struck by a thought.

“That’s why ye said ye must tell me, but not your Da? Because ye knew I’ve killed men before?”

His nephew nodded, searching Jamie’s face with troubled, trusting eyes. “Aye. I thought…I thought ye’d know what to do.”

“Ah.” Jamie drew a deep breath, and exchanged a glance with me. “Well…” His shoulders braced and broadened, and I could see him accept the burden Young Ian had laid down. He sighed.

“What ye do,” he said, “is first to ask yourself if ye had a choice. You didn’t, so put your mind at ease. Then ye go to confession, if ye can; if not, say a good Act of Contrition—that’s good enough, when it’s no a mortal sin. Ye harbor no fault, mind,” he said earnestly, “but the contrition is because ye greatly regret the necessity that fell on ye. It does sometimes, and there’s no preventing it.

“And then say a prayer for the soul of the one you’ve killed,” he went on, “that he may find rest, and not haunt ye. Ye ken the prayer called Soul Peace? Use that one, if ye have leisure to think of it. In a battle, when there is no time, use Soul Leading—‘Be this soul on Thine arm, O Christ, Thou King of the City of Heaven, Amen.’”

“Be this soul on Thine arm, O Christ, Thou King of the City of Heaven, Amen,” Young Ian repeated under his breath. He nodded slowly. “Aye, all right. And then?”

Jamie reached out and touched his nephew’s cheek with great gentleness. “Then ye live with it, laddie,” he said softly. “That’s all.”

28

VIRTUE’S GUARDIAN

“You think the man Young Ian followed has something to do with Sir Percival’s warning?” I lifted a cover on the supper tray that had just been delivered and sniffed appreciatively; it seemed a very long time since Moubray’s stew.

Jamie nodded, picking up a sort of hot stuffed roll.

“I should be surprised if he had not,” he said dryly. “While there’s likely more than one man willing to do me harm, I canna think it likely that gangs o’ them are roaming about Edinburgh.” He took a bite and chewed industriously, shaking his head.

“Nay, that’s clear enough, and nothing to be greatly worrit over.”

“It’s not?” I took a small bite of my own roll, then a bigger one. “This is delicious. What is it?”

Jamie lowered the roll he had been about to take a bite of, and squinted at it. “Pigeon minced wi’ truffles,” he said, and stuffed it into his mouth whole.

“No,” he said, and paused to swallow. “No,” he said again, more clearly. “That’s likely just a matter of a rival smuggler. There are two gangs that I’ve had a wee bit of difficulty with now and then.” He waved a hand, scattering crumbs, and reached for another roll.

“The way the man behaved—smellin’ the brandy, but seldom tasting it—he may be a dégustateur de vin; someone that can tell from a sniff where a wine was made, and from a taste, which year it was bottled. A verra valuable fellow,” he added thoughtfully, “and a choice hound to set on my trail.”

Wine had come along with the supper. I poured out a glass and passed it under my own nose.

“He could track you—you, personally—through the brandy?” I asked curiously.

“More or less. You’ll remember my cousin Jared?”

“Of course I do. You mean he’s still alive?” After the slaughter of Culloden and the erosions of its aftermath, it was wonderfully heartening to hear that Jared, a wealthy Scottish émigré with a prosperous wine business in Paris, was still among the quick, and not the dead.

“I expect they’ll have to head him up in a cask and toss him into the Seine to get rid of him,” Jamie said, teeth gleaming white in his soot-stained countenance. “Aye, he’s not only alive, but enjoying it. Where d’ye think I get the French brandy I bring into Scotland?”

The obvious answer was “France,” but I refrained from saying so. “Jared, I suppose?” I said instead.

Jamie nodded, mouth full of another roll. “Hey!” He leaned forward and snatched the plate out from under the tentative reach of Young Ian’s skinny fingers. “You’re no supposed to be eating rich stuff like that when your wame’s curdled,” he said, frowning and chewing. He swallowed and licked his lips. “I’ll call for more bread and milk for ye.”

“But Uncle,” said Young Ian, looking longingly at the savory rolls. “I’m awfully hungry.” Purged by confession, the boy had recovered his spirits considerably, and evidently, his appetite as well.

Jamie looked at his nephew and sighed. “Aye well. Ye swear you’re no going to vomit on me?”

“No, Uncle,” Young Ian said meekly.

“All right, then.” Jamie shoved the plate in the boy’s direction, and returned to his explanation.

“Jared sends me mostly the second-quality bottling from his own vineyards in the Moselle, keepin’ the first quality for sale in France, where they can tell the difference.”

“So the stuff you bring into Scotland is identifiable?”

He shrugged, reaching for the wine. “Only to a nez, a dégustateur, that is. But the fact is, that wee Ian here saw the man taste the wine at the Dog and Gun and at the Blue Boar, and those are the two taverns on the High Street that buy brandy from me exclusively. Several others buy from me, but from others as well.

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