He stood looking sternly down until Germain had reached the floor below, marking his displeasure by skipping the last few rungs and landing with a loud thud.
Jamie sighed, straightened up, and stretched himself gingerly, groaning a little.
“God knows where we’ll sleep tonight, Sassenach,” he remarked, glancing at our rude couch as he sat down for me to finish clubbing his hair. “For the sake of my back, I hope it’s a bit softer than this.” He grinned at me suddenly. “Did ye sleep well?”
“Never better,” I assured him, smoothing out the ribbon. In fact, I ached in almost every place it was possible to ache, save perhaps the top of my head. For that matter, I’d barely slept, and neither had he; we’d passed the hours of darkness in slow and wordless exploration, finding again each other’s body . . . and, toward dawn, had touched each other’s soul again. I touched the back of his neck now, gently, and his hand rose to mine. I felt simultaneously wonderful and wretched, and didn’t know from moment to moment which feeling was uppermost.
“When will we leave?”
“As soon as ye put your stockings on, Sassenach. And tidy your hair. And do up your buttons,” he added, turning and catching sight of my excessive décolletage. “Here, I’ll do that.”
“I’ll need my medicine box,” I said, going cross-eyed as I watched his nimble fingers flicking down my chest.
“I brought it,” he assured me, and frowned a bit, eyes intent on a recalcitrant button. “It’s a bonny bit of furniture. I expect his lordship bought it for ye?”
“He did.” I hesitated a moment, rather wishing he had said “John” rather than “his lordship.” I also wished I knew where John was—and that he was all right. But this didn’t seem the moment to say any of those things.
Jamie leaned forward and kissed the top of my breast, his breath warm on my skin.
“I dinna ken whether I’ll have a bed at all tonight,” he said, straightening up. “But whether it’s feathers or straw, promise ye’ll share it with me?”
“Always,” I said, and, picking up my cloak, shook it out, swirled it round my shoulders, and smiled bravely at him. “Let’s go, then.”
JENNY HAD SENT my medicine chest from Chestnut Street and with it the large parcel of herbs from Kingsessing, which had been delivered there the night before. With the forethought of a Scottish housewife, she’d also included a pound of oatmeal, a twist of salt, a package of bacon, four apples, and six clean handkerchiefs. Also a neat roll of fabric with a brief note, which read:
Dear Sister Claire,
You appear to own nothing suitable in which to go to war. I suggest you borrow Marsali’s printing apron for the time being, and here are two of my flannel petticoats and the simplest things Mrs. Figg could find amongst your wardrobe.
Take care of my brother, and tell him his stockings need darning, because he won’t notice until he’s worn holes in the heel and given himself blisters.
“And just how is it that you own something suitable in which to go to war?” I asked, eyeing Jamie in his indigo splendor. His uniform appeared to be complete, from coat with epaulets and a brigadier general’s insignia to buff waistcoat and cream silk stockings. Tall and straight, with auburn hair neatly clubbed and ribboned in black, he distinctly drew the eye.
He drew his chin back and looked down his nose at himself.
“Well, the sark and smallclothes were mine already; I had them when I came from Scotland. But when I came back to Philadelphia to find ye yesterday, I found Jenny first, and I told her about General Washington and asked her would she see to it. So she took my measurements and found a tailor and his son who do uniforms and browbeat them into working all night to make the coat and waistcoat—poor wretches,” he added, gingerly pulling a loose thread from the edge of his cuff. “How is it that ye don’t, Sassenach? Did his lordship think it unseemly for ye to doctor folk and make ye burn your working clothes?”
This was said with the sort of jesting tone that’s meant to suggest perfect innocence on the part of the speaker while making it perfectly apparent that malice is intended. “I don’t say that I’ll no make a fuss about it later.” I looked pointedly at the medical chest John had given me, then back at him, narrowing my eyes ever so slightly.
“No,” I said, with great casualness. “I spilled vitriol on them, making— making ether.” The memory made my hands shake slightly, and I had to set down the cup of nettle tea I was drinking.
“Jesus, Sassenach.” Jamie spoke under his breath—Félicité and Joan were kneeling at his feet, arguing with each other as they busily burnished his brass shoe buckles—but he met my eyes over their heads, appalled. “Tell me ye werena doing that drunk.”
I took a deep breath, at once reliving the experience and trying not to. Standing in the hot, semi-dark shed behind the house, the rounded glass slick in my sweating hands . . . then the flying liquid—it had barely missed my face—and the sickly smell and magically widening, smoking holes that burned straight through my heavy canvas apron and the skirt beneath. I hadn’t really cared at the time whether I lived or died—until it looked as though I was going to die in the next few seconds. That made rather a difference. It hadn’t convinced me not to commit suicide—but the shock of the near accident did make me think more carefully about how. Slitting one’s wrists was one thing; dying in slow, disfiguring agony was another.
“No, I wasn’t,” I said, and, taking up the cup, managed a deliberate mouthful. “I—it was a hot day. My hands were sweating, and the flask slipped.”
He closed his eyes briefly, all too clearly envisioning the scene himself, then reached across Félicité’s sleek dark head to cup my cheek.
“Dinna be doing that again, aye?” he said softly. “Don’t make it anymore.”
To be honest, the thought of making ether again made my palms sweat. It wasn’t chemically difficult, but it was terribly dangerous. One wrong move, a little too much vitriol, a few degrees of heat too much . . . And Jamie knew as well as I did just how explosive the stuff was. I could see the memory of flames in his eyes, the Big House going up around us. I swallowed.
“I don’t want to,” I said honestly. “But—without it, Jamie, I can’t do things that I can do with it. If I hadn’t had it, Aidan would be dead—so would John’s nephew Henry.”
He compressed his lips and looked as though he considered that Henry Grey might be disposable—but he was fond of little Aidan McCallum Higgins, whose appendix I’d removed on the Ridge with the assistance of my first batch of ether.
“Grannie has to help people feel better, Grand-père,” Joanie said reproachfully, rising from her spot at Jamie’s feet and frowning up at him. “It’s her callin’, Mam says. She can’t just not.”
“I ken that fine,” he assured her. “But she needna blow herself to kingdom come doing it. After all, who’s going to look after all the sick folk, if your grannie’s lying about in pieces?”
Félicité and Joanie both thought that image hilarious; I was less amused, but didn’t say anything further until they’d taken their rags and vinegar back to the kitchen. We were left in the sleeping part of the living quarters, assembling our bags and bundles for departure, and momentarily alone.
“You said you were afraid,” I said quietly, eyes on the spools of coarse thread and twists of silk floss I was stowing in a wooden box with several suture needles. “But that won’t stop you doing what you think you have to do, will it? I’m afraid for you—and that certainly won’t stop you, either.” I was careful to speak without bitterness, but he was as sensitive to tones of voice this morning as I was.
He paused for a moment, regarding his shining shoe buckles, then lifted his head and looked at me straight.
“Do ye think that because ye’ve told me the Rebels will win, I am free to walk away?”
“I—no.” I slid the box lid shut with a snick, not looking at it. I couldn’t look away from him. His face was still, but his eyes held mine, intent. “I know you have to. I know it’s part of what you are. You can’t stand aside and still be what you are. That was more or less my point, about—”
He interrupted me, stepping forward and seizing me by the wrist.
“And what is it that ye think I am, Sassenach?”
“A bloody man, that’s what!” I pulled loose and turned away, but he put a hand on my shoulder and turned me back to face him.
“Aye, I am a bloody man,” he said, and the faintest trace of rue touched his mouth, but his eyes were blue and steady.
“Ye’ve made your peace with what I am, ye think—but I think ye dinna ken what that means. To be what I am doesna mean only that I’ll spill my own blood when I must. It means I must sacrifice other men to the ends of my own cause—not only those I kill as enemies, but those I hold as friends . . . or as kin.”
His hand dropped away, and the tension left his shoulders. He turned toward the door, saying, “Come when ye’re ready, Sassenach.”
I STOOD THERE for an instant, blinking, then ran after him, leaving my half-packed bag behind.
“Jamie!” He was standing in the printshop, Henri-Christian in his arms, bidding goodbye to the girls and Marsali. Germain was nowhere in sight, doubtless sulking. Jamie looked up, startled, then smiled at me.
“I wasna going to leave ye behind, Sassenach. And I didna mean to hurry ye, either. Do ye—”
“I know. I just—I have to tell you something.”
All the little heads turned toward me like a nestful of baby birds, soft pink mouths open in curiosity. It occurred to me that I might better have waited until we were on the road, but it had seemed urgent that I tell him now—not only to relieve his anxieties, but to make him know I did understand.
“It’s William,” I blurted, and Jamie’s face clouded for an instant, like a breathed-on mirror. Yes, I had understood.
“Come to me, a bhalaich,” Marsali said, taking Henri-Christian from Jamie and setting him on the floor. “Oof! Ye weigh more than I do, wee man! Come away now, lassies, Grandda isn’t going just yet. Help me fetch out Grannie’s things.”
The children obediently scampered off behind her, though still looking back at us in frustrated curiosity. Children hate secrets, unless they’re the ones keeping them. I glanced after them, then turned back to Jamie.
“I didn’t know if they knew about William. I suppose Marsali and Fergus do, since—”
“Since Jenny told them. Aye, they do.” He rolled his eyes in brief resignation, then fixed them on my face. “What is it, Sassenach?”
“He can’t fight,” I said, letting out a half-held breath. “It doesn’t matter what the British army is about to do. William was paroled after Saratoga—he’s a conventioner. You know about the Convention army?”
“I do.” He took my hand and squeezed it. “Ye mean he’s not allowed to take up arms unless he’s been exchanged—and he hasn’t been, is that it?”
“That’s it. Nobody can be exchanged, until the King and the Congress come to some agreement about it.”
His face was suddenly vivid with relief, and I was relieved to see it.
“John’s been trying to have him exchanged for months, but there isn’t any way of doing it.” I dismissed Congress and the King with a wave of my free hand and smiled up at him. “You won’t have to face him on a battlefield.”
“Taing do Dhia,” he said, closing his eyes for an instant. “I’ve been thinking for days—when I wasna fretting about you, Sassenach—” he added, opening his eyes and looking down his nose at me, “—the third time’s the charm. And that would be an evil charm indeed.”
“Third time?” I said. “What do you—would you let go my fingers? They’ve gone numb.”
“Oh,” he said. He kissed them gently and let go. “Aye, sorry, Sassenach. I meant—I’ve shot at the lad twice in his life so far and missed him by no more than an inch each time. If it should happen again—ye canna always tell, in battle, and accidents do happen. I was dreaming, during the night, and . . . och, nay matter.” He waved off the dreams and turned away, but I put a hand on his arm to stop him. I knew his dreams—and I’d heard him moan the night before, fighting them.
“Culloden?” I said softly. “Has it come back again?” I actually hoped it was Culloden—and not Wentworth. He woke from the Wentworth dreams sweating and rigid and couldn’t bear to be touched. Last night, he hadn’t waked, but had jerked and moaned until I’d got my arms around him and he quieted, trembling in his sleep, head butted hard into my chest.
He shrugged a little and touched my face.
“It’s never left, Sassenach,” he said, just as softly. “It never will. But I sleep easier by your side.”
JUST FOR THE FUN OF IT
IT WAS A PERFECTLY ordinary red-brick building. Modest—no pediments, no carved stone lintels—but solid. Ian looked at it warily. The home of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the weightiest meeting of the Society of Friends in the Americas. Aye, very solid.
“Will this be like the Vatican?” he asked Rachel. “Or more like an archbishop’s palace?”
“Does it look like any sort of palace to thee?” She spoke normally, but he could see the pulse beat quick in the soft spot just beneath her ear.
“It looks like a bank,” he said, and that made her laugh. She cut it short, though, glancing over her shoulder as though afraid someone might come out and scold her for it.