“Thought I’d save ye the trouble, Mac Dubh.” Quinn sounded amused, damn him!
“Dinna be calling me Mac Dubh.”
“I know ye’ve a tender conscience, so ye have. Another minute and I’d have had him taken care of and tucked away safe down the well. Ye’d have no call to worry yourself.”
“Oh, aye? And what then? Did ye mean to tell me, or just give it out that he’d changed his mind and gone off on foot?”
“Oh, I’d have told you, sure. What d’ye take me for, Mac Dubh?”
There was a moment of marked silence.
“What d’ye owe him?” Quinn demanded, breaking it. “Him or his brother? The swarthy-johns have imprisoned ye, enslaved ye! Taken your land, killed your kin and your comrades—”
“After saving my life, aye.” Fraser’s voice had grown dry; he was losing the edge of his anger, Grey thought, and wondered whether that was a good thing.
He wasn’t really concerned that Quinn would talk Fraser round; he knew Fraser’s innate stubbornness much too well. He was a trifle worried that Fraser might not talk the Irishman round, though—he didn’t fancy lying sleepless night after night, expecting a knife in the back or his throat cut at any moment. He felt in the pocket of his coat for the small brass powder horn he carried … just in case.
Fraser gave a deep, exasperated sigh.
“Look ye,” he said, in a low, firm voice. “I’ve given my word in this. If ye dare to dishonor me by killing the Englishman, I tell ye flat, Quinn—it’ll be you joining him at the bottom of a well.”
Well, that was some relief. Fraser might or might not want him dead—certainly he had, at various points of their acquaintance with each other—but he wasn’t willing to have him assassinated. Grey supposed he should be affronted by the implication that it was only Fraser’s fear of dishonor or Hal that was keeping Grey alive, but under the circumstances …
Quinn muttered something sulky that Grey didn’t catch, but his submission was clear. Grey didn’t let go of the powder horn but didn’t take it out of his pocket, either; his thumb rubbed back and forth, restless on the line of engraving round the rim.
Acta non verba, it said: action, not words. The breeze had changed direction, and he could no longer hear clearly. Mumbling, disconnected words, and he edged a little closer, pressing near the dank stones of the wall.
“… he’s in the way of our business.” Those words came clear, and Grey stopped abruptly. He was still clutching the powder horn in his pocket.
“You and I have nay business. I’ve told ye that a dozen times.”
“Ye think so, do ye?” Quinn’s voice was rising; he was striving for the effect of anger, Grey thought with interest, but was not truly angry. “It’s the business of every true Catholic, every true man!”
“Ye’ll gang your own way, Quinn, and I shallna hinder ye. But I’ve my own business to see to, and ye’ll not stand in my way, either. D’ye hear me?”
Quinn snorted, but had obviously heard.
“Oidhche mhath,” Fraser said quietly, and Grey heard footsteps come in his direction. He pressed flat against the tower, hoping that the Scot would not pass downwind of him; he harbored a sudden irrational conviction that Fraser could smell his sweat—for despite the cool of the night, drops ran tickling down his ribs and matted the hair to the back of his neck—and would hunt him like a Highland stag.
But Fraser sheered off and went into the tower, muttering under his breath in the Scottish sort of Gaelic, and a moment later Grey heard splashing sounds. Presumably Fraser dashing water in his face to cool his anger.
He heard nothing from the other direction and could not see Quinn among the shadows. Perhaps the man had gone off to settle his own pique or was simply sitting there brooding. In any case, he seized the opportunity to peel himself off the wall and make his way back to his sleeping place, lest either of the irascible Gaels come looking for him.
Only as he approached the dark puddle of his discarded cloak did he become aware that he was still clutching the pistol in one hand, the other still clenched, aching, round the powder horn in his pocket. Letting go, he put away the pistol and sat down, rubbing his thumb across the palm of his hand, where he could clearly feel the word “Acta” embossed in the flesh.
HE LAY AWAKE until dawn, watching the hazy stars fade from the sky, but no one disturbed him. His thoughts, though, were another matter.
He clung to the minor reassurance provided by his recollection that Jamie Fraser had tried to prevent Quinn from accompanying them—and that he, Grey, had airily overridden his objections. That meant that whatever Quinn had in mind, Fraser presumably was not part of it.
But he knows what it is. And had refrained from telling Grey about it. But that might be innocent, if Fraser hadn’t expected Quinn to attack Grey.
“He’s in the way of our business,” the Irishman had said, apparently meaning Grey himself. What the devil was the “business,” and how was his presence an interference with it?
Well, there were clues. Quinn’s reference to “every true Catholic, every true man,” for instance. That had the smell of Jacobitism about it. And while the Stuarts’ cause had been decisively crushed in the Highlands fifteen years before, Grey did know that there were sputtering plots still smoldering in Ireland—all over the Continent, for that matter: France, Italy, Spain … One of them now and then erupted into brief flame before being stamped out, but it had been a year or two since he’d heard of anything active.
Thomas Lally came suddenly to mind, as did what Minnie had said about that bloody verse. A white rose, the Jacobite symbol. Fraser hadn’t mentioned the white rose, nor had Lally. And Lally had been one of Charles Stuart’s officers before going off to involve himself with the French. What had Lally and Fraser said to each other in those brief sentences of stilted Erse?
Grey closed his eyes briefly in dismay. More bloody Jacobites? Would they never give up?
By what Fraser said, he had met Quinn in London. So much for Hal’s insistence that Fraser be treated as a gentleman and not a prisoner, allowed to walk out freely as he liked!
“Serve you right if that Irish blackguard had cut my throat,” he muttered to his absent brother.
Still, this was beside the point. The important thing, he reminded himself, was that Jamie didn’t want him dead—a warming thought—and had stopped Quinn from killing him.
Would that continue to be the case, if he spoke directly to Fraser about the matter?
As he saw it, he had only two alternatives: say nothing, watch them, and do his best never to sleep … or talk to Jamie Fraser. He scratched his chest meditatively. He could go one night without sleep, possibly two. That would bring them within reach of Siverly. But he didn’t wish to face Gerald Siverly exhausted and fuzzy-minded.
While Fraser’s reasons for not allowing Quinn to kill him were neither personal nor flattering, another point was that he plainly wanted nothing to do with what Quinn intended—but Quinn needed or wanted Fraser to be involved with it.
The air about him was still black-dark, but it had shifted, rising in some way, the night beginning to lift, restless to depart. At some distance, he heard the small sounds of a man waking: a cough, the clearing of a throat, a soft groan as gravity made its fresh demands. He couldn’t tell which man it was, but both of them would doubtless make their presence known as soon as it was light, looking for breakfast.
If Quinn suspected anything, he might well try to kill Grey regardless of Jamie’s threat. Just how well did the Irishman know Jamie? Grey wondered. Anyone who knew him well would take him at his word—but someone who didn’t might not.
Quinn did know him, though. He’d called him “Mac Dubh.” That’s what the prisoners at Ardsmuir had called Fraser; Grey had heard it often enough that he’d asked one of the Gaelic-speaking orderlies what it meant. “Son of the Black One,” he’d been told, in a matter-of-fact way. He’d wondered at the time whether this was a satanic reference of some sort, but it didn’t seem so, from his informant’s attitude. Perhaps it was a literal reference to some aspect of Fraser’s father’s character or appearance, and he spared an instant to wonder what Fraser’s father had been like.
The horses were drowsing under the tower wall; one of them released a long, rumbling fart and another shook its head, mane flapping. Now the birds were at it, tentative chirps from the distant hedgerows.
He’d talk to Fraser.
AFTER SOME THOUGHT, Grey decided that directness was the simplest way of obtaining privacy.
“Mr. Quinn,” he said pleasantly, when the Irishman came back from his morning ablutions, water droplets shining in his curls. “I need to discuss various aspects of our business with Mr. Fraser before we arrive at Athlone. Would you do me the favor of riding on? We shall follow shortly and catch you up before noon.”
The Irishman looked startled and glanced quickly at Jamie, who gave no indication that this was an out-of-the-way request, then looked back to Grey and nodded awkwardly.
Grey thought that Quinn was not a particularly experienced intrigant and hoped he had even less experience as an assassin. On the other hand, it wasn’t necessarily a job requiring skill. More, of course, if your victim was forewarned. He smiled at Quinn, who looked taken aback.
Breakfast was even more cursory than supper had been, though Jamie toasted two pieces of bread with cheese between, so that the cheese melted, something Grey hadn’t seen before but thought very tasty. Quinn mounted up without comment afterward and headed back to the road.
Grey sat on a moss-covered rock, watching until the Irishman had got well away, then swiveled back to face Fraser, who was tidily rolling up a pair of stockings into a ball.
“I woke up last night,” he said without preamble.
Fraser stuffed the stockings into his portmanteau and reached for the heel of bread, which followed the stockings.
“Did you,” he said, not looking up.
“Yes. One question—does Mr. Quinn know the nature of our business with Siverly?”
Fraser hesitated a moment before answering.
“Probably not.” He looked up, eyes a startlingly deep blue. “If he does, he didna hear it from me.”
“Where the devil else might he have heard it?” Grey demanded, and Fraser glared at him.
“From your brother’s servants, I imagine. That’s where he learned that ye had business in Ireland and that I was to go with ye.”
Grey blinked, but it was all too likely. He’d sent Tom Byrd often enough to extract information from other people’s servants.
“How did he come to be in London?”
Fraser’s eyes narrowed, but he answered.
“He followed me, when your brother had me taken from Helwater. And if ye want to know how he came to be at Helwater, ye’ll need to ask him, because I don’t know.”
Grey raised one brow; if Fraser didn’t know, he probably could make a damned good guess, but it wasn’t necessary to go into that. Not now, at least.
Fraser stood up suddenly and, picking up the portmanteau, went to saddle his horse. Grey followed.
They made their way back to the road; Quinn was well out of sight. It was a beautiful morning, with the birds whose tentative chirpings had greeted the dawn now gone mad, swooping to and fro overhead and whooping out of the meadows in riotous flocks, flushed by their passage. The road was wide enough to ride side by side, and they continued in that fashion for a quarter of an hour or so before Grey spoke again.
“Will you swear to me that Quinn’s matter does not threaten either our intent with regard to Major Siverly or the safety of England?”
Fraser gave him a sidelong glance. “No,” he said bluntly.
Grey wouldn’t have believed any other answer, but the bluntness—and its implications—gave him a mild shock. “Which is it?” he asked after a moment. “Or is it both?”
Fraser inhaled strongly through his nose, like a man much tried.
“Quinn’s affairs are his own, Colonel. If he has secrets, they are not mine to share.”
Grey gave a short laugh. “That’s nicely phrased,” he said. “Do you imply that you are in ignorance of Quinn’s aims? Or that you know what he’s up to but your sense of honor prevents your telling me?”
“Take your choice.” Fraser’s lips thinned, and his eyes stayed fixed on the road ahead.
They rode in silence for a bit. The lush green of the countryside was monotonous and soothing but was having little effect on Grey’s temper.
“I suppose it is frivolous to point out that assisting the king’s enemies—even by inaction—is treason,” he remarked eventually.
“It is not frivolous to point out that I am a convicted traitor,” Fraser replied evenly. “Are there judicial degrees of that crime? Is it additive? Because when they tried me, all they said was ‘treason’ before putting a rope around my neck.”
“A rope … but you were not sentenced to hanging, were you?” It was certainly possible; a good many Jacobites had been executed, but a good many more had had their sentences commuted to transportation or imprisonment.
“No.” Fraser’s color was already high, from sun and wind. It became noticeably deeper. For a moment, Grey thought that was all he meant to say on the matter, but after another moment the words burst out of him, as though he could not contain them.
“They marched me—us—from Inverness to Ardsmuir. With ropes about our necks, to show that our lives were forfeit, given back to us only by the generosity”—he choked, actually choked, on the word, and shook his head, clearing his throat with violence—“the generosity of the king.”