“What have ye been doing, Sassenach?” Jamie inquired mildly, taking the tray of coffee cups and almond biscuits from the server. “Ye look—” He squinted at me, evidently searching for a term that would be accurate without causing me to pour scalding coffee on him.
“Somewhat indisposed,” Fergus said, taking up the sugar tongs. “Here, milady.” Without asking, he dropped three large lumps of brown sugar into my cup. “They say that drinking hot beverages will cool you,” he added helpfully.
“Well, it does make you sweat more,” I said, taking up my spoon. “But if the sweat doesn’t evaporate, it certainly won’t make you cooler.” I estimated the ambient humidity at roughly a thousand percent, but tipped a little of my sweetened coffee into the saucer and blew on it nonetheless. “As to what I’ve been doing, I was on my way to buy fish for supper. And what have you gentlemen been doing?”
Sitting down had made me feel a good bit steadier, and being flanked by Jamie and Fergus made the odd sense of threat I’d experienced in the street fade a bit. But thought of the anonymous letter on the step raised the hairs on the back of my neck, despite the heat.
Jamie and Fergus glanced at each other, and Fergus raised one shoulder.
“Reckoning our assets,” Jamie said. “And visiting warehouses and shipping captains.”
“Really?” The thought made my heart lift immediately. These sounded like the first concrete steps toward going home. “Have we got any assets to speak of?” Most of our available cash had gone to pay for horses, uniforms, weapons, food for Jamie’s men, and other war-related expenses. Theoretically, Congress would reimburse these expenses, but given everything General Arnold had told me about Congress, I rather thought we oughtn’t to hold our collective breath in anticipation.
“A bit,” Jamie said, smiling at me. He knew very well what I was thinking. “I’ve found a buyer for the gelding; four pounds.”
“That seems a good price,” I said uncertainly. “But . . . wouldn’t we need the horse, for travel?”
Before he could answer, the door opened and Germain came in, a bundle of broadsheets under one arm and a scowl on his face. The latter disappeared like the morning dew as he spotted us, though, and he came to hug me.
“Grand-mère! What are you doing in here? Maman said you went to buy fish.”
“Oh,” I said, suddenly guilty at thought of the laundry. “Yes. I am—er, I mean, I was just on my way. . . . Would you like a bite, Germain?” I offered him the plate of almond biscuits, and his eyes lighted up.
“One,” said Fergus firmly. Germain rolled his eyes at me but took a single biscuit, lifting it with two fingers in exaggerated delicacy.
“Papa,” he said, consuming the biscuit in two swift bites, “I think perhaps you should go home.”
Both of Fergus’s strongly marked black brows rose.
“Because,” Germain said, licking sugar from the corner of his mouth and eyeing the remaining biscuits, “Grannie Janet told Mr. Sorrel that if he didn’t leave off pestering Maman, she would stab him with the laundry fork. She might do it, too,” he added thoughtfully, dabbing a finger on the plate for crumbs.
Fergus growled. It quite startled me, as I hadn’t heard anything like that from him since he’d been a feral eight-year-old pickpocket in Paris.
“Who’s Mr. Sorrel?” Jamie asked, in a deceptively mild tone of voice.
“A tavern owner who passes by the shop on his way to and from his work and stops to buy a newspaper—and to ogle my wife,” Fergus said tersely. He pushed back his bench, and rose. “Excuse me, milady,” he said, bowing to me.
“Had I best come with ye?” Jamie asked, also pushing back from the table. Fergus shook his head, though, and put on his cocked hat.
“No. The man is a coward. One sight of me, and he will be gone.” His very white teeth showed in a sudden smile. “If your sister has not disposed of him already.”
He went out, leaving the biscuits at the mercy of Germain, who scooped them tidily into his pocket before going to the counter to deposit the new broadsheets, take away the much-read and coffee-spotted ones from yesterday, and collect his money from the proprietress.
“Whilst you were reckoning assets, did Fergus tell you how well he’s doing with the printing business?” I asked, pitching my voice low enough as not to reach Germain.
“He did.” Jamie passed a coffee cup under his nose and grimaced slightly. The beverage was nominally coffee—a few genuine beans had likely been included in the brew—but contained a high proportion of chicory and a few other ingredients. I picked a small fragment of charred acorn out of my saucer and added more sugar.
The printshop was in fact very profitable; the more so now, as Fergus’s chief competitor, a Loyalist, had left town with the departure of the British army.
“There are a good many expenses, though,” Jamie explained. “And some of those have increased since the army left.” Paper and ink were more difficult to obtain, with the army no longer protecting transport in and out of the city. And the increased danger of the public roads meant that fewer orders of printed books were shipped and, when they were, must either be insured or risk loss.
“And then there’s insurance on his premises, which is expensive,” Jamie added. He pinched his nose slightly, then drank his coffee in three large gulps. “Marsali doesna like paying that,” he said, gasping a little, “but Fergus kent what happened to my place in Edinburgh. And he told me a few things that Marsali doesna ken, too.”
“Such as?” I cast a wary eye at Germain, but he was engaged in what was plainly a saucy conversation with a serving girl at the counter. The girl was two or three years older than Germain but clearly amused by him.
“Oh, the odd threat from folk who dinna like something he’s printed or who have their noses put out o’ joint because he willna print something of theirs. Bit of sabotage, sometimes: his broadsheets stolen from coffeehouses and taverns and scattered in the street—though he said that’s got better since Mr. Dunphy left town.”
“Dunphy being the Loyalist printer?”
“Aye. Germain!” he called across the shop. “Have ye other places to visit today? Because if so, ye’d best get to them before your news goes stale.”
That made the few customers laugh, and Germain’s ears went somewhat pink. He gave his grandfather a measured look, but was wise enough not to say anything, and with a few last words to the counter girl, went out, slipping the small cake she’d given him into his pocket with a casual air.
“You don’t suppose he’s been picking pockets, do you?” I asked, observing the skill with which this maneuver was accomplished. Fergus had taught Germain a good many of his own techniques in that regard, not wanting the skills to be lost.
“God knows, but all the better if he leaves Philadelphia. He willna find so much scope for that particular talent in the mountains.” Jamie craned his neck to see out the window, watching Germain go down the street, then sat back, shaking his head.
“The main thing Fergus hasna told Marsali, though, is about yon French popinjay Wainwright.”
“What, the fashionable Percival?” I asked, mildly amused. “Is he still around?”
“Aye, he is. Persistent wee sodomite,” he observed dispassionately. “He wrote out a detailed account of what he claims is the story of Fergus’s parents, wi’ the conclusion that Fergus is the heir to some great estate in France. Fergus says if it had been a romantic novel, it would have been criticized as too implausible and nay publisher would touch it.” He grinned at the thought, but then sobered. “Still. Fergus says he hasna the slightest intent o’ having anything to do with the matter, as even if it were true, he doesna mean to be a pawn for someone else’s interests—and if it’s not true, still less.”
“Hmm.” I had taken to simply eating the sugar lumps by now, rather than mixing them into the problematical coffee, and crunched one between my back teeth. “Why is he keeping that from Marsali, though? She knows about Wainwright’s earlier approaches, doesn’t she?”
Jamie drummed his hand on the table in thought, and I watched in fascination; he had been accustomed for a great while to drumming the two stiff fingers of his right hand when thinking—the middle and ring finger, which had been badly broken, crudely reset, and frequently re-broken, owing to the clumsy way it stuck out. But I had finally amputated the ruined ring finger after he’d had half of it sliced off by a cavalry saber during the first battle of Saratoga. He still drummed his hand, though, as if the finger were still there, though now only the middle finger struck the tabletop.
“She does,” he said slowly. “But Fergus said that there began to be that odd wee bit of . . . something . . . in Wainwright’s importunities. No quite a threat—but just things like an observation that, of course, since Fergus is the heir to the Beauchamp estate—if he is, in fact—then Germain would inherit the title and land after him.”
“I can see that being offered as an inducement—but why is it a threat?”
He gave me a level look over the coffee debris.
“If Germain would inherit this estate—Wainwright’s principals dinna really need Fergus, now, do they?”
“Jesus H. . . . Really?” I said. “You—or, rather, Fergus thinks Wainwright and company might kill him and then use Germain to get hold of this property or whatever it is they have in mind?”
Jamie gave the ghost of a shrug.
“Fergus hasna lived as long as he has without having a sense of when someone means him harm. And if he thinks there’s summat amiss wi’ this Wainwright, I’m inclined to believe him. Besides,” he added fairly, “if it makes him more willing to leave Philadelphia and come south with us, I’m no going to persuade him he’s wrong.”
“Well, there’s that.” I looked dubiously at the dregs of my coffee and decided against it. “Speaking of Germain, though—or, rather, the children in general—that’s actually why I was looking for you.” And, in a few words, I described the ladybird note and its effect on Marsali.
Jamie’s thick auburn brows drew together, and his face took on a look that his enemies would have recognized. I had last seen it in the light of dawn on a North Carolina mountainside, when he had escorted me through woods and meadows, from one cold body to the next, to show me that the men who had hurt me were dead, to reassure me that they could not touch me.
“That was what made me . . . er . . . indisposed in the street,” I said, rather apologetically. “It just seemed so . . . evil. But a sort of delicate evil, if you know what I mean. It—rather gave me a turn.” The dead had their own means of making you remember them, but I felt nothing at the memory of his vengeance beyond a remote sense of relief and an even remoter sense of awe at the supernatural beauty of carnage in such a setting.
“I do know,” he said softly, and tapped his missing finger on the table. “And I should like to see that note.”
“To see whether the handwriting looks like that in Percy Wainwright’s letter, Sassenach,” he said, pushing back from the table and handing me my hat. “Are ye ready?”
THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH
I HAD BOUGHT A striped bass nearly as long as my arm, along with a mess of crayfish and a gunnysack of oysters from the estuary, and the kitchen smelled delightfully of fresh bread and fish stew. This was a good thing, as stew can always be stretched, and Ian and Rachel, with Rollo in tow, had drifted into the printshop just before supper, so visibly in the throes of wedded bliss that it made one smile—and occasionally blush—to look at them.
Jenny did smile, and I saw her thin shoulders relax a little, seeing Ian’s radiant face. I gave the stew a quick stir and came over to stand behind her as she sat by the fire, laying my hands on those shoulders and kneading them gently. I knew bloody well what a day’s laundry felt like in the muscles.
She heaved a long, blissful sigh and bent her head to allow me to get my thumbs on her neck.
“D’ye think our wee Quaker lass is wi’ child yet?” she murmured to me. Rachel was across the room, chatting with the younger children and very easy with them—though her eyes kept turning to Ian, who was looking at something Fergus had taken out of a drawer in the sideboard.
“They’ve been married barely a month,” I whispered back, though I looked carefully at Rachel.
“It doesna take that long,” Jenny said. “And plainly the lad kens his job. Look at her.” Her shoulders quivered slightly with a suppressed laugh.
“A fine thing for a mother to be thinking about her son,” I said under my breath, though I could neither keep the amusement out of my own voice nor say she was wrong. Rachel glowed in the magic light of mingled dusk and hearth fire, and her eyes rested on the lines of Ian’s back, even as she admired Félicité’s new rag doll.
“He takes after his father,” Jenny said, and made a little “hmph” in her throat—still amused, but with a faint tinge of . . . longing? My own eyes went to Jamie, who had come to join Fergus and Ian by the sideboard. Still here, thank God. Tall and graceful, the soft light making shadows in the folds of his shirt as he moved, a fugitive gleam from the long straight bridge of his nose, the auburn wave of his hair. Still mine. Thank God.
“Come cut the bread, Joanie!” Marsali called. “Henri-Christian, stop playin’ with that dog and fetch the butter, aye? And, Félicité, put your heid outside and call Germain.” The distant sound of boys’ voices came from the street, shouts punctuated by the occasional thud of a ball against the front wall of the shop. “And tell those wee heathens I said if they break a windowpane, their fathers will hear about it!”