Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

Page 54

Longstreet put back his head and surveyed Grey carefully, his eyes alive with ironic intelligence, still bright in his drawn face. Slowly, he shook his head.

“Had I met you in a dark alley, perhaps. H-had we met in a duel, certainly.” He paused to breathe. “But you came…to me as a patient.” He coughed again, and tapped his chest.

“Do no…harm,” he wheezed, and closed his eyes.

The housekeeper, who had been standing silently in the shadows of the hall, came in, not looking at Grey. She went to Longstreet, knelt beside him, and smoothed the hair from his face, her touch tender. Longstreet did not open his eyes, but put up a hand, slowly, and laid it over hers.

Grey had dismissed the coach, not knowing how long his interview might take. It would be easy enough to find a cab, but he chose to walk, scarcely knowing which path he took.

His mind was a stew of revelation, shock, conjecture—and frustration. Beneath it all was a substratum of grief—for his father, for his mother, for Hal. His own grief seemed inconsequent, and yet magnified by all he now knew of his family’s past.

The pressure in his chest made it painful to breathe, but he didn’t worry about the remaining shrapnel; only stopped now and then when his breath grew too short to continue. At length, he found himself on the shore of the Thames, where he found an overturned dory and sat on it, the journal tucked under his coat, watching the brown water swirl past, lapping up the shore as the tide came in. He let his thoughts go, exhausted, and his mind emptied, little by little.

Spatters of rain passed over him, but toward sunset, the clouds overhead began to thin and drift apart.

A conclusion is simply the point at which you give up thinking. He gave up, and as he rose stiffly to his feet, found that a conclusion had indeed formed itself in his mind, much as a pearl forms inside an oyster.

He had been confessor to Longstreet. It was time he sought his own.

Chapter 32

The Path of Honor

I did as you asked, Lord John,” Dunsany said, his voice lowered, as though someone might overhear—though they were quite alone in the library.

“As I—oh!” Grey recollected, belatedly, his request that James Fraser might be afforded the opportunity to write letters. “I thank you, sir. Was there…any result from the experiment, do you know?”

Dunsany nodded, his narrow brow furrowed in concern.

“He did send a number of letters—ten in all, I believe. As you specified, I did not open them”—his expression indicated that he thought this a grave mistake—“but I did take note of the directions upon them. Three were sent to a place in the Highlands, to a Mrs. Murray, two to Rome, and the remainder to France. I kept a list of the names….” He fumbled with the drawer of his desk, but Grey stopped him with a gesture.

“I thank you, sir. Perhaps later. Did he receive any reply to these missives?”

“Yes, several.” Dunsany seemed expectant, but Grey only nodded, without asking for details.

The question of hidden Jacobites, which had once seemed so vital, was eclipsed. What had his mother said? Let the past bury its dead. It had to, he supposed; the present was all he could deal with.

He went on conversing with Dunsany, expressing interest in the affairs of Helwater, and later, listening to the county gossip of Lady Dunsany and Isobel, but without actually noticing any of it. He did see that relations seemed to have healed between Lord and Lady Dunsany; they sat close together at teatime, and their hands touched now and then over the bread and butter.

“How does your grandson fare?” Grey inquired at one point, hearing wailing overhead.

“Oh, wonderfully well,” Lord Dunsany assured him, beaming.

“He’s teething, poor lad,” Lady Dunsany said, though not seeming distressed at her grandson’s pain. “He’s such a comfort to us.”

“He has six teeth, Lord John!” Isobel told him, with the manner of one imparting vital and exciting intelligence.

“Indeed?” he said politely. “I am staggered.”

He thought the meal would never end, but it did, and he was at last allowed to escape to his room. He did not stop there, though, but went quietly down the back stair and out. To the stable.

One of the other grooms was working in the paddock, but Grey sent him away with a brief sign. He didn’t care whether anyone thought his desire to speak to Jamie Fraser in private was peculiar—and the other grooms were accustomed to it, in any case.

Fraser was pitching hay into the mangers, and barely glanced at Grey when he entered the stable.

“I shall be finished in a moment,” he said. “Ye wish to hear about the letters, I suppose.”

“No,” Grey said. “Not that. Not now, in any case.”

Fraser glanced sharply at him, but at Grey’s motion to continue, shrugged and went on with his task, returning when all the mangers were filled.

“Will you speak with me, as man to man?” Grey asked, without preamble.

Fraser looked startled, but considered for a moment, and nodded.

“I will,” he said warily, and it occurred to Grey that he thought Grey had come to speak of Geneva.

“It is a matter of my own affairs,” Grey said, “not yours.”

“Indeed.” Fraser was still guarded, but the wariness in his eyes relaxed. “What affairs are these, sir? And why me?”

“Why you.” Grey sighed, and sitting down on a stool, indicated that Fraser should do the same. “Because, Mr. Fraser, you are an honest man, and I trust that you will give me an honest opinion. And because, God damn it, you are the only person in this world to whom I can speak frankly.”

Fraser’s look of wariness returned, but he sat down, leaned his pitchfork against the wall, and said only, “Speak, then.”

He had rehearsed the words a hundred times on the journey from London, rendering the tale as succinctly as possible. No need for details, and he gave none. No doorknobs.

“And that is my dilemma,” he ended. “I am the only witness. Without my testimony, he will not be convicted, nor condemned. If I lie before the court-martial, that is the end of my own honor. If I do not—it will be the end of his life or freedom.”

To speak so openly was an overwhelming relief, and Grey remembered, with a pang, that the same feeling had come to him when he told Percy the story of his father’s death. To talk in this way did more good than hours of thinking; laying out the pieces of the matter for Fraser made the choice clear in his own mind.

Fraser had listened closely throughout this recital, ruddy brows drawn in a slight frown. Now he looked at the ground, still frowning.

“This man is your brother, your kin,” he said finally. “But kin by law, not blood. Have ye feeling for him, beyond the obligation of kin? Kindness? Love?” There was no marked emphasis on the last word; Grey thought Fraser meant only the love that existed within family.

Grey rose from his seat and strode restlessly up and down.

“Not love,” he said finally. “And not kindness.” There was some of both left, yes, but in the end neither of these would compel him sufficiently.

“Will it be honor, then?” Fraser said quietly. He stood up, silhouetted by the lantern light.

“Yes,” Grey said. “But what is the path of honor, here?”

Fraser shrugged slightly, and Grey saw the glint of his red hair, caught by a stray beam of light that struck down from a chink in the boards of the loft overhead.

“What is honor for me may not be honor for you, Major,” he said. “For me—for us—our honor is our family. I could not see a close kinsman condemned, no matter his crime. Mind,” he added, lifting one brow, “infamous crime would be dealt with. But by the man’s chief, by his own kin—not by a court.”

Grey stood still, and let the jumbled pieces fall.

“I see,” he said slowly, and did. Grey understood now what Fraser meant by honor. In the end, it was simple, and the relief of reaching the decision overwhelmed his realization of the difficulties still to be faced.

“It is honor—but not the honor of my reputation. The end of it,” Grey said slowly, seeing it at last, “is that I cannot in honor see him hanged for a crime whose guilt I share—and from whose consequences I am escaped by chance alone.”

Fraser stiffened slightly. “A crime whose guilt ye share.” His voice was careful, realization—and distaste—clear in the words. He stopped, clearly not wishing to say more, but he could scarcely leave the matter there.

“This man. He is not only your stepbrother, but…your…” He groped for a word. “Your catamite?”

“He was my lover, yes.” The words should have been tinged with bitterness, but were not. Sadness, yes, but most of all, relief at the admission.

Fraser made a brief sound of contempt, though, and Grey turned upon him, reckless.

“You do not believe that men can love one another?”

“No,” Fraser said bluntly. “I do not.” His mouth compressed for an instant, and then he added, as though honesty compelled him, “Not in that fashion, at least. The love of brothers, of kin—aye, of course. Or of soldiers. We have—spoken of that.”

“Sparta? Yes.” Grey smiled without humor. They had fought the battle of Thermopylae one night, in his quarters at Ardsmuir Prison, using salt cellars, dice, and cuff buttons on a map scrawled with charcoal on the top of his desk. It had been one of their evenings of friendship.

“The love of Leonidas for his men, they for each other as warriors. Aye, that’s real enough. But to—to…use a man in such fashion…” He made a gesture of repudiation.

“Think so, do you?” Grey’s blood was already high; he felt it hot in his chest. “You’ve read Plato, I know. And scholar that you are, I would suppose that you’ve heard of the Sacred Band of Thebes. Perhaps?”

Fraser’s face went tight, and in spite of the dim light, Grey saw the color rise in him, as well.

“I have,” he said shortly.

“Lovers,” Grey said, realizing suddenly that he was gloriously angry. “All soldiers. All lovers. Each man and his beloved. Who would desert his beloved, or fail him in the hour of danger?” He gave Fraser stare for stare. “And what do you say to that, Mr. Fraser?”

The Scot’s eyes had gone quite black.

“What I would say,” he said, counting out the words like coins, “is that only men who lack the ability to possess a woman—or cowards who fear them—must resort to such feeble indecencies to relieve their lust. And to hear ye speak of honor in the same breath…Since ye ask, it curdles my wame. And what, my lord, d’ye say to that?”

“I say that I do not speak of the indecencies of lust—and if you wish to speak of such things, allow me to note that I have seen much grosser indecencies inflicted upon women by men, and so have you. We have both fought with armies. I said ‘love.’ And what do you think love is, then, that it is reserved only to men who are drawn to women?”

The color stood out in patches across Fraser’s cheekbones.

“I have loved my wife beyond life itself, and know that love for a gift of God. Ye dare to say to me that the feelings of a—a—pervert who cannot deal with women as a man, but minces about and preys upon helpless boys—that this is love?”

“You accuse me of preying upon boys?” Grey’s fingers curled, just short of his dagger hilt. “I tell you, sir, were you armed, you would answer for that, here and now!”

Fraser inhaled through his nose, seeming to swell with it. “Draw on me and be damned,” he said contemptuously. “Armed or no, ye canna master me.”

“You think not? I tell you,” Grey said, and fought so hard to control the fury in his voice that it emerged as no more than a whisper, “I tell you, sir—were I to take you to my bed—I could make you scream. And by God, I would do it.”

Later, he would try to recall what had happened then. Had he moved, reflex and training cutting through the fog of rage that blinded him? Or had Fraser moved, some shred of reason altering his aim in the same split second in which he swung his fist?

Hard as he tried, no answer came. He remembered nothing but the shock of impact as Fraser’s fist struck the boards an inch from his head, and the sob of breath, hot on his face. There had been a sense of presence, of a body close to his, and the impression of some irresistible doom.

Then he was outside, gulping air as though he were drowning, staggering blind in the glare of the setting sun. He had no balance, no bearings; stumbled and put out a hand for anchor, grasped some piece of farm equipment.

His vision cleared, eyes watering—but he saw neither the paddock, the wagon whose wheel he grasped, nor the house and lawns beyond. What he saw was Fraser’s face. When he had said that—what demon had given him that thought, those words? I could make you scream.

Oh, Christ, oh, Christ. Someone had.

A feeling welled up in him like the bursting of blood vessels deep within his belly. Liquid and terrible, it filled him within moments, swelling far beyond his power to contain it. He must vomit, or—

He ripped at his flies, gasping. A moment, two, of desperate fisting, and it all came out of him. Remorse and longing, rage and lust—and other things that he could put no name to under torture—all of it ran like quicksilver down his spine, between his legs, and erupted in gouts that drained him like a punctured wine sack.

His legs had no strength. He sank to his knees and knelt there, swaying, eyes closed. He knew nothing but the sense of a terrible relief.

In minutes—or hours—he became aware of the sun, a dark red blur in the blackness of his closed lids. A moment later, he realized that he was kneeling in the puddled dirt of the yard, forehead pressed to a wagon wheel, his breeches loose and his member still tightly clutched in his hand.

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