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Excerpt 4 – THE FIERY CROSS – “Quicksilver”

Copyright 2001 Diana Gabaldon

To Jamie’s relief, the wedding went off with no further difficulties.  The ceremony–conducted in French–took place in Jocasta’s small sitting room upstairs, attended only by the bridal pair, the priest, himself and Claire as witnesses, and Brianna and her young man.  Jemmy had been present too, but scarcely counted, as he had slept through the service.

Duncan had been pale, but composed, and his aunt had spoken her vows in a firm voice, with no evidence of hesitation.  Brianna, recently wed herself and sentimental in consequence, had looked on with misty approbation, squeezing her lad’s arm tight, and Roger Mac looking down at her tender-eyed.  Even knowing what he did regarding the nature of this particular marriage, he had felt moved himself by the sacrament, and had lifted Claire’s fingers to his lips, brushing a brief kiss across them as the fat little priest intoned the blessing.

Then, the formalities concluded and the wedding contracts signed, they had all come down to join the guests at a lavish wedding-supper, under the light of torches that lined the terrace, their long flames streaming over tables that groaned with the abundance of River Run.

He took a glass of wine from one of the tables, and leaned back against the low terrace wall, feeling the tension of the day drain away down his spine.  One down, then.

The maid Betty was still out like a brained ox, but safe enough for the present.  No one else had been found poisoned, so it was likely she’d taken the stuff herself.  Auld Ninian and Barlow were both nearly as legless as the maid, and no threat to each other or anyone else.  And whatever Husband and his Regulators were up to, they were doing it at a safe distance.  Jamie felt pleasantly light, relieved of responsibility, and ready to turn his mind to recreation.

He raised his glass in automatic salute to [ ] and [ ], who wandered by, heads together in earnest discourse.  He had no wish for political conversation, though; he got up and turned aside, making his way through the crowds near the refreshment tables.

What he really wanted was his wife.  Early as it was, the sky was already dark, and a sense of reckless festivity was spreading over the house and terrace as the torches flamed high.  The air was cold, and with good wine pulsing through his blood, his hands recalled the warm touch of her under her skirt in the grove, soft and succulent as a split peach in his palm, sun-ripe and juicy.

He wanted her badly.

There.  At the end of the terrace, torchlight shining on the waves of her hair, where it swooped up under that ridiculous bit of lace.  His fingers twitched; once he got her alone, he’d take out her pins, one by one, and pile up her hair on her head with his hands, for the pleasure of letting it fall again, loose down her back.

She was laughing at something Lloyd Stanhope had said, a glass in her hand.  Her face was slightly flushed with wine and the sight of it gave him a pleasurable itch of anticipation.

Bedding her could be anything from tenderness to riot, but to take her when she was a bit the worse for drink was always a particular delight.

Intoxicated, she took less care for him than usual; abandoned and oblivious to all but her own pleasure, she would rake him, bite him–and beg him to serve her so, as well.  He loved the feeling of power in it, the tantalizing choice between joining her at once in animal lust, or of holding himself–for a time–in check, so as to drive her at his whim.

He sipped his own wine, savoring the rare pleasure of a decent vintage, and watched her covertly.  She was the center of a small knot of gentlemen, with whom she seemed to be enjoying a clash of wits.  A glass or two loosened her tongue and limbered her mind, as it did his.  A few glasses more, and her glow would turn to a molten heat.  It was early yet, and the real feasting barely started.

He caught her eye briefly on him, and smiled.  He held the goblet by its bowl and his fingers curved round the smooth glass.  His thumb moved across it slowly, as though it were her breast.  She saw, and understood.  She lowered her lashes in coquetry to him, and turned back to her conversation, color heightened.

The delightful paradox of having her in drink was, that having abandoned consciousness of him as anything save the agent of her own sensation, she would also cease to guard herself in any way, and thus lay entirely open to him.  He might tease and caress, or churn her like butter, leading her through frenzy to gasping limpness beneath him, lying at his mercy.

She was using her fan to good effect, opening her eyes wide over the edge of it, in feigned shock at something that sodomite Forbes had said.  He ran the tip of his tongue thoughtfully within the tender margin of his lower lip, tasting sweet silver blood in memory.  Mercy?  No, he would have none.

That decision made, he was turning his mind to the more practical problem of finding a spot sufficiently secluded to carry out this engaging agenda, but was interrupted by the advent of Mr. Lyon, looking sleek and full of himself.  He had been introduced, but knew little of the man.

“Mr. Fraser.  A word with you, sir?”

“Your servant, sir.”

He turned aside for a moment to set down his glass, a slight shift of his weight enough to effect discreet adjustment of his plaid, glad that he wasn’t wearing tight satin breeks like that fop, Wylie.  Indecent, he thought them, and grossly uncomfortable, forbye.  Why, a man would be risking slow emasculation in female company, if he were not a natural eunuch– and Wylie clearly wasn’t that, he thought grimly, for all his powder and patches.  A belted plaid, though, could hide a multitude of sins–or at the least, a dirk and pistol–let alone a random cockstand.

“Shall we walk a bit, Mr. Lyon?” he suggested, turning back.  If the man had such private business as his manner implied, they had best not stand here, where they might be interrupted at any moment by one of the wedding guests.

They strolled slowly to the end of the terrace, exchanging commonplaces with each other, and pleasantries with passersby, until they had gained the freedom of the yard, where they hesitated for a moment.

“The paddock, perhaps?”  Not waiting for Lyon’s nod of assent, Jamie turned toward the distant stableyard.  He wanted to see the Friesians again, in any case.

“I have heard much of you, Mr. Fraser,” Lyon began pleasantly, as they ambled toward the tall clock-tower of the stable-block.

“Have you, sir?  Well, and I trust not a great deal of it was to my discredit, then.”  He had heard a bit about Lyon; a dealer in what anyone would buy or sell–and maybe not just that bit too scrupulous regarding the provenance of his goods.  Rumor had it that he dealt in things less tangible than iron and paper on occasion, too–but that was only rumor.

Lyon laughed, showing teeth that were even enough, but badly stained with tobacco.

“Indeed not, Mr. Fraser.  Bar the slight impediment of your familial connections–which can scarcely be held to be your fault, though folk will make assumptions–I have heard none but the most glowing encomiums, both of your character and your accomplishments.”

A Dhia, Jamie thought, blackmail and butter, all in the first sentence.  Was it only that North Carolina was a backwater, and not worth the time of a more competent intriguer?  He smiled politely, with a murmur of modest dismissal, and waited to see what the blockheid wanted.

Not so much, at least to start.  The strength of Fraser’s militia regiment, and the names of the men.  That was interesting, he thought.  Lyon was not the Governor’s man, then, or he would have such information to hand.  Who was behind him, if anyone?  Not the Regulation, surely; the only one of them with a spare shilling to his name was Ninian Bell Hamilton, and if auld Ninian had wanted to know a thing, he would have come and asked, himself.

One of the rich planters from the coast, then?  Most aristocrats had an interest in the Colony that went no further than their pockets.

Which led to the logical conclusion that whoever Lyon’s intended market was thought they had something either to gain or to lose from the potential disaffections in the Colony.  Who might that be?

“Chisholm, McGillivray, Lindsay…” the man was saying reflectively.  “So the majority of your men are Scottish Highlanders.  The sons of earlier settlers, are they, or perhaps retired soldiers, like yourself, sir?”

“Oh, I should doubt that a soldier is ever truly retired, sir,” Jamie said, stooping to let one of the stable dogs smell his knuckles.  “Once a man has lived under arms, I suspect he is marked for life.  In fact I have heard it remarked that old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Lyon laughed immoderately at that, declaring it a fine epigram, was it his own?  Without stopping to hear the answer, he went on, clearly paddling into well-charted waters.

“I am pleased to hear such a sentiment expressed, Mr. Fraser.  His Majesty has always relied upon the stoutness of the  Highlanders, and their abilities as fighting men.  Did you or your neighbors perhaps serve with your cousin’s regiment?  The 78th Frasers acquitted themselves with great distinction during the recent conflict; I daresay the art of warfare runs in the blood, eh?”

That was a bald enough swipe.  Young Simon Fraser was not in fact his cousin, but his half-uncle, son of his grandfather.  It was as expiation of the old man’s treason and in an effort to retrieve the family fortunes and estates that Young Simon had raised two regiments for the Seven Years’ War–what Brianna persisted in calling the French and Indian Wars, as though Britain had had nothing to do with it.

Lyon was asking now whether Jamie had also sought to establish his credentials as a loyal soldier of the Crown, by taking commission with one of the Highland regiments?  He could scarcely believe the flat-footedness of the man.

“Ah, no.  I regret that I was unable to serve in such a capacity,” Jamie said.  “An indisposition from an earlier campaign, you understand?”  The minor indisposition of having been a prisoner of the Crown for several years after the Rising, though he did not mention that.  If Lyon didn’t know it already, there was no sense in telling him.

They had reached the paddock by now, and leaned comfortably upon the split-rail fence.  The horses had not yet been put away for the night; the big black creatures moved like shadows, their coats glossy in the dim torchlight.

“What strange horses, are they not?”  He interrupted Lyon’s disquisition on the evils of factionalism, watching them move in fascination.

It wasn’t just the enormously long, silky manes, rippling like water as they tossed their heads, nor yet the coal-black coats nor the springy arch of the neck, thicker and more muscular than Jocasta’s thoroughbreds.  Their bodies were thick as well, broad through chest, withers and barrel so that each one seemed almost blocky–and yet they moved as gracefully as any horse he had ever seen, adroit and light-footed, with a sense of playfulness and intelligence about them that made him want to climb the fence and make their acquaintance.

“Yes, it is a very old breed,” Lyon said, putting aside his inquisitiveness for the moment in order to watch.  “I’ve seen them before–in Germany.”

“Germany.  Ye will have traveled there a great deal?”

“Not so much.  I was there some years ago, though, and chanced to meet a kinsman of yours.  A wine merchant named Jared Fraser?”

Jamie felt a jolt of surprise, succeeded by a warm sense of pleasure at the mention of his cousin.

“Did ye indeed?  Aye, Jared is my father’s cousin.  I trust ye found him well.”

“Very well indeed.”  Lyon moved fractionally closer, settling himself on the fence, and Jamie realized that they had now reached the point of the man’s business, whatever that might be.  He drained the rest of the wine in his glass and set it down, prepared to listen.

“I understand that a…talent for liquor runs in the family, Mr. Fraser.”

He laughed, though he felt no great humor.

“A taste, perhaps, sir.  I couldna say, as to talent.”

“Couldn’t you?  Ah, well.  I am sure you are too modest, Mr. Fraser.  The quality of your whisky is well known, north of the Yadkin–down as far as the piedmont, in fact.”

“Ye flatter me, sir.”  He knew what was coming now, and settled himself to pretend attention.  It wouldn’t be the first time someone had suggested a partnership; he to provide the whisky, they to manage the distribution of it–to Cross Creek, to Wilmington–even as far as Charleston.  Lyon, it seemed, had grander schemes in mind.

The best aged stuff would go by boat up the Coast to Boston and Philadelphia, he suggested.  The raw whisky, though, could go across the Treaty Line, there to be delivered to the Cherokee villages, in return for hides and furs.  He had partners, who would provide…

Jamie listened in growing disapproval, then cut Lyon off abruptly.

“Aye.  I thank ye for your interest, sir, but I fear I havena anything like sufficient product for what ye suggest.  I make whisky only for my family’s use–and a few barrels beyond that, now and then, for local trade.  No more.”

Lyon grunted amiably.

“I am sure you could increase your production, Mr. Fraser, given your knowledge and skill.  If it were to be a matter of the materials…some arrangement could be made, I am sure…I can speak with the gentlemen who would be our partners in the enterprise, and–”

“No, sir.  I fear not.  If ye will excuse me…?”  He bowed abruptly, turned on his heel, and headed back toward the terrace, leaving Lyon in the dark.

He must ask Farquard Campbell about Lyon.  The man would bear watching. It was not that Jamie had any great objection to smuggling.  He did, however, have a great objection to being caught at it, and could think of few things more dangerous than a large-scale operation of the sort Lyon was suggesting, where he himself would be involved up to the neck, but have no control over the more dangerous parts of the process.

Aye, the thought of the money was attractive–but not so much as to blind him to the risks.  If he were to engage in such a trade, he would do it himself, perhaps with the aid of Fergus or Roger Mac–maybe old Arch Bug and Joe Wemyss–but no one else.  A great deal safer to keep it small, keep it private…though since Lyon had suggested the notion, perhaps it was worth a bit of thought.  Fergus was no farmer, that was sure; something must be found for him to do–and the Frenchman was well acquainted with the risky business, as they called it, from their time in Edinburgh…

He strolled back to the terrace, pondering, but the sight of his wife erased all thought of whisky from his mind.

Claire had left Stanhope and his cronies, and stood by the buffet table, looking over the delicacies on display with a faint frown upon her broad clear brow, as though puzzled by such surfeit.

He saw Gerald Forbes’s eyes rest on her, alight with speculation, and he moved at once by reflex, interposing himself neatly between his wife and the lawyer.  He felt the man’s eyes slap against his back, and smiled grimly to himself.  Mine, corbie, he thought to himself.

“Can ye not decide where to begin, Sassenach?”  He reached down and took the empty wine-glass from her hand, taking advantage of the movement to come close and press against her back, feeling the warmth of her through the linen of his shirt.

She laughed, and swayed back against him, leaning on his arm.  She smelt faintly of rice powder and warm skin, with the scent of rose-hips in her hair.

“I’m not even terribly hungry.  I was just counting the jellies and preserves.  There are thirty-seven different ones–unless I’ve missed my count.”

He spared a glance for the table, which did indeed hold a bewildering array of silver dishes, porcelain bowls, and wooden platters, groaning with more food than would feed a Highland village for a month.  He wasn’t hungry, either, though.  At least not for puddings and savouries.

“Well, Ulysses will have seen to that; he wouldna have my aunt’s hospitality put to shame.”

“No fear of that,” she assured him.  “Did you see the barbecue pit out back?  There are no fewer than three whole oxen roasting on spits out there, and at least a dozen pigs.  I didn’t even try to count the chickens and ducks and quails and pigeons and turkeys.  Do you think it’s just hospitality, or is your aunt meaning to make a show of what a good job Duncan’s done–showing off how profitable River Run is under his management, I mean?”

“I suppose she might,” he said, though privately he thought it unlikely that Jocasta’s motives were either so thoughtful or so generous in nature.  He considered that the lavishness of the present celebration was much more likely owing to her desire to wipe Farquard Campbell’s eye, overshadowing the fete he had held at his place in December, to celebrate his most recent marriage.

And speaking of marriage…

“Here, Sassenach.”  He deposited her empty glass on a passing tray borne by a servant, and took a full one in return, which he set in her hand.

“Oh, I’m not–” she began, but he forestalled her, taking another glass from the proffered tray and lifting it to her in salute.  Her cheeks flushed deeper, and her eyes glowed amber.

“To beauty,” he said softly, smiling.

[end section]

I felt pleasantly liquid inside, as though belly and limbs were filled with quicksilver.  It wasn’t all to do with the wine, though that was very good.  More the release of tension, after all the worries and conflicts of the day.

It had been a quiet, tender wedding, and while the evening’s celebration was likely to be noisy in the extreme–I had heard a number of the younger men plotting vulgar hilarities for the later festivities–I needn’t worry about any of that.  My own intent had been to enjoy the delightful supper that had been laid on, perhaps take a glass or two more of the excellent wine…and then find Jamie and go to investigate the romantic potential of the stone bench beneath the willows.

Jamie had appeared a trifle prematurely in the programme, insofar as I had not yet eaten anything, but I had no objection to rearranging my priorities.  There would be plenty of leftovers, after all.

The torchlight burnished him, making hair and brows and skin glow like copper.  The evening breeze had come up, flapping tableclothes and pulling the torch-flames into fiery tongues, and it nipped strands of hair from his queue and lashed them across his face.  He raised his glass, smiling at me across the rim.

“To beauty,” he said softly, then drank, not taking his eyes off me.

The quicksilver shifted, quivering through my hips and down the backs of my legs.

“To…ah…privacy,” I replied, with a slight lift of my own glass.  Feeling pleasantly reckless, I reached slowly up, and deliberately pulled the ornamented lace from my hair.  Half-unpinned, curls fell loose down my back, and I heard someone draw in his breath in shock behind me.

In front of me, Jamie’s face went suddenly blank, his eyes fixed on me like a hawk’s on a rabbit.  I lifted my glass, holding his eyes with mine, and drank, swallowing slowly as I drained it.  The scent of black grapes perfumed the inside of my head and the heat of the wine warmed my face, my throat, my breasts, my skin.  Jamie moved abruptly to take the empty glass from my hand, his fingers cold and hard on mine.

And then a voice spoke from the candle-lit French doors behind him.

“Mr. Fraser.”

We both started, and the glass fell between us, exploding into shards on the flags of the terrace.  Jamie whirled round, his left hand going by reflex to the hilt of his dirk.  Then it relaxed, as he saw the silhouetted figure, and he stepped back, mouth twisting in a wry grimace.

Philip Wylie stepped out into the torchlight.  His color was high enough to show through the powder, burning in hectic spots across his cheekbones.

“My friend Stanhope has proposed a table or two of whist this evening,” he said to Jamie, pointedly ignoring me.  “Will you not join us, Mr. Fraser?”

Jamie gave him a long, cool look, and I saw the damaged fingers of his right hand twitch, very slightly.  The pulse was throbbing at the side of his neck, but his voice was calm.

“At whist?”

“Yes.”  Wylie gave a thin smile, still sedulously avoiding looking at me.  “I hear you are a good hand at the cards, sir.”  He pursed his lips.  “Though of course, we do play for rather high stakes.  Perhaps you do not feel that you–”

“I shall be delighted,” Jamie said, in a tone of voice that made it perfectly clear that the only thing that would truly have delighted him was the prospect of cramming Philip Wylie’s teeth down his throat.

The teeth in question gleamed briefly.

“Ah.  Splendid.  I shall…look forward to the occasion.”

“Your servant, sir.”  Jamie bowed abruptly, then spun on his heel, seized my elbow, and strode off down the terrace, me decorously in tow.

I marched along, keeping step and keeping silence, until we were safely out of earshot.  The quicksilver had shot up out of my lower regions, and was rolling nervously up and down my spine, making me feel dangerously unstable.

“Are you quite out of your mind?” I inquired politely.  Receiving nothing but a brief snort in reply, I dug in my heels and pulled on his arm to make him stop.

“That was not a rhetorical question,” I said, rather more loudly.  “High-stakes whist?”

Jamie was indeed an excellent card-player.  He also knew most of the possible ways of cheating at cards.  However, whist was difficult if not impossible to cheat at, and Philip Wylie also had the reputation of an excellent player–as did Stanhope.  Beyond this, there remained the fact that Jamie didn’t happen to possess _any_ stakes, let alone high ones.

“Ye expect me to allow yon popinjay to trample my honor, and then insult me to my face?”  He swung round to face me, glaring.

“I’m sure he didn’t mean–” I began, but broke off.  It was quite apparent that if Wylie had not intended outright insult, he had meant it as a challenge–and to a Scot, the two were likely indistinguishable.

“But you don’t _have_ to do it!”

I would have had a much greater effect, had I been arguing with the brick wall of the kitchen garden.

“I do,” he said stiffly.   “I have my pride.”

I rubbed a hand over my face in exasperation.

“Yes, and Philip Wylie plainly knows it!  Heard the one about pride going before a fall, have you?”

“I havena the slightest intention of falling,” he assured me.  He glanced back at the French doors, where Wylie had disappeared, then back at me.  “Will ye give me your gold ring?”

My mouth fell open in shock.

“Will I…my ring?”  My fingers went involuntarily to my left hand, and the smooth gold of Frank’s wedding band.

He was watching me intently, eyes steady on mine.  The torches along the terrace had been lit; the dancing light caught him from the side, throwing the stubborn set of his bones into sharp relief, and lighting one eye with burning blue.

“I shall need a stake,” he said quietly.

“Bloody hell.”  I swung away from him, and stood staring off the edge of the terrace.  The torches on the lawn had been lit, too, and Perseus’s white marble buttocks glimmered through the dark.

“I willna lose it,” Jamie said behind me.  His hand rested on my shoulder, heavy through my lacy shawl.  “Or if I do–I shall redeem it.  I know ye…value it.”

I twitched my shoulder out from under his hand, and moved a few steps away.  My heart was pounding, and my face felt at once clammy and hot, as though I were about to faint.  The wine and quicksilver seemed to have curdled into a lumpy weight in my stomach.

He didn’t speak, or touch me; only stood there, waiting.

“The gold one,” I said at last, flatly.  “Frank’s ring.  Not the silver?”  Not his ring; not his mark of ownership.

“The gold is worth more,” he said, and then, after the briefest hesitation, added, “–in terms of money.”

“I know that.”  I turned round to face him.  The torch-flames fluttered in the wind and cast a moving light across his features that made them hard to read.

“I meant–hadn’t you better take both of them?”  My hands were cold; the gold ring came off easily; the silver was tighter, but I twisted it past my knuckle.  I took his hand and dropped the two rings clinking into his palm.

Then I turned and walked away.

[end section]