Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 23)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(23)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“Yes,” she said at last, her voice remote. She blinked once and looked at him, her gaze still sharp, but no longer burning. “Your father always said you were the cleverest of the boys.” This wasn’t said in a complimentary tone. “As for ‘was once a prominent Jacobite’—there is no ‘was’ about it, John. Believe me, once a Papist, always a Papist.”

He forbore pointing out that “Papist” and “Jacobite” were not invariably the same thing. When politics entered the room, principle often flew out the window. While most Papists had indeed supported the Stuart cause, there were not a few Protestants who had as well, either from personal opportunism or from a sincere conviction that James Stuart was the divinely appointed sovereign of Great Britain, his religion notwithstanding.

“So you did receive a page from that journal,” he said, making it a statement, rather than a question. “May I see it?”

“I burnt it.”

“What for?” He all but barked at her, and she blinked again, startled. She eyed him then, obviously choosing her words.

“Because,” she said evenly, “I did not wish to keep it. Have you heard the expression, John, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’? What’s past is past, and I shan’t cling to its remnants.”

He struggled for a moment against the impulse to say something regrettable—but then his eye fell upon the miniature on her dressing table. It had stood there since the day Gerard Grey had given it to her, and it was years since John Grey had ceased to notice it. Noticing it now, he was taken aback to see just how much the portrait resembled the image he saw in his shaving mirror. His father had been darker in coloring, but otherwise…So much for his mother’s chance of forgetting the past, then, even if she wanted to.

“Really, Mother,” he said mildly, “you are the most atrocious liar. What are you afraid of?”

“What? What the devil do you mean by that?” she exclaimed indignantly. She didn’t curse often, and he invariably found it amusing when she did, but he suppressed his smile.

“I mean,” he said patiently, gesturing at the miniature, “that if you wish to convince the world that you have lost all thought for my father, you ought to remove that from sight. And when you tell people you have destroyed something,” he added, nodding at her secretary, “you ought not to glance at the place where you’ve hidden it.”

She opened her mouth, but found nothing to say, and closed it again. She looked at him, eyes narrowed.

“If you don’t want that journal page,” he said, “I do.”

“No,” she said at once.

“Does it contain something so dangerous, then? Have you shown it to Hal?” Despite himself, a tinge of anger was creeping into his words. “I’m no longer twelve, Mother.”

She looked at him for a long moment, the oddest expression of regret flitting across her face.

“More’s the pity,” she said. Her shoulders sagged then, and she bowed her head and turned away, rubbing two fingers between her brows.

“I’ll think about it, John,” she said. “More, I can’t promise you. Now leave me, do; I’ve a dreadful headache.”

“Liar,” he said again, but without heat. “I’ll send your maid, shall I?”

“Please.”

He went out, then, but at the door turned back and stuck his head through.

“Mother?”

“Yes?”

“If you wish to convince someone that you aren’t afraid—look them in the eye. Good night.”

Percy Wainwright, it transpired, had never so much as touched a sword, let alone used one with violent intent. In order to remedy this shocking lack, he agreed amiably enough, upon his return from Bath, to go with Grey and Melton to their usual weekly practice, for the purpose of basic instruction.

The salle des armes favored by the Greys was in Monmouth Street, a small, dingy building wedged between a pawnbroker’s and a mercer’s shop near St. Giles, and run by a small Sicilian gentleman whose skill with the blade was surpassed only by the individuality of his idiom.

“Gets you fat-fat,” Signor Berculi said without preamble, rudely poking Hal in his very flat stomach. “No practice, two weeks! Some pidocchio do the business on you, stick a rapier up you fat arse.”

Hal, quite accustomed to Signor Berculi, ignored this pleasantry and introduced Mr. Wainwright as a new addition to the family and to the regiment.

The Signor circled Percy, shaking his head and biting his finger in dismay. Percy looked mildly apprehensive, but the glance he shot Grey was filled with amusement.

“So old, so old!” Signor Berculi mourned, halting in front of Percy and prodding him critically in the upper arm. He waved a small, callused hand at Grey. “That one, sword in cradle. You? Pah!” He spat, shook himself violently, then crossed himself.

“Come,” he said, resigned, and seized Percy by the sleeve. “You lunge. No stick you foot, all right?”

While Percy was rapidly stripped to his shirt and breeches, given a battered rapier with no point, and set to lunging, the Greys stripped for action.

“En garde.” Hal fell naturally into his stance, knee bent, rapier forward, the side of his body turned toward Grey, left hand held gracefully up behind his head.

“J’ai regardé.” Grey tapped his blade lightly against Hal’s, and held it crossed. Signor Berculi, circling them with beady eyes narrowed for flaws in form, shouted, “Commencez!” and they began.

It was an exhibition of form to begin with, neither man seeking actual advantage but only an opening in which to try a coupé or passe avant, circling slowly as their muscles loosened.

Grey saw Percy’s eyes upon them, interested, until Signor Berculi spotted his distraction and drove him back to his lunging with a bark.

He breathed deep, intoxicated by the smell of sweat, old and fresh, the metal tang of the swords, and the rub of the hilt on the heel of his hand. He loved to fight with the rapier; it was so light, he was barely conscious of it as anything more than an extension of his body.

He and his brother were evenly matched physically, being of a height, with Hal having a few pounds the advantage in weight, and Grey perhaps an inch more in reach. Despite this evident equality—and the fact that Hal was a fine swordsman—Grey knew himself to be better.

He seldom demonstrated that knowledge in their practice bouts, knowing equally well that Hal hated to lose and would be in bad temper if he did. Now, though, he found himself pressing, ever so slightly, and realized with a glance at Percy and a small tingling of his flesh that he meant to win today, no matter what the consequence.

“Have you any further news of the conspirators?” Grey asked, as much in order to distract his brother as from curiosity.

Hal met his thrust with a strong riposte, beat, and went for a thrust in quarte, which failed.

“They go to trial this week,” he said briefly.

“I have”—a beat, beat back, feint in prime, and he touched Hal’s shoulder, barely, and smiled—“have not seen mention of it in the papers.”

“You will.” Grunting, Hal lunged, and he barely turned aside in time.

“They”—Hal was beginning to breathe hard by now, and the words emerged in brief bursts—“decided to—do as I said—they would.”

“To suppress the political aspects of the case?” Grey was still breathing easily. “Say ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.’”

“She sells—sea shells—by the frigging seashore! Damn your eyes!” A fusillade of beats and a vicious thrust that missed his chest so narrowly that Grey felt the blade glide along his shirtfront.

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, Peter Piper picked a peck of pippled pickers, Peter P—” Laughing—and beginning to gasp himself—he left off, and fought.

Beat, beat, feint, a half skip back as Hal’s point lunged past his face, another, Hal was leaning too far forward—no, he’d caught himself, jumped back in the nick of time as Grey’s blade came up. A lunge in tierce, in tierce again without let, and dust flew up from the stamp of his foot on the boards.

Hal had caught what he was about; he could feel Hal’s thoughts as though they were inside his own head, feel the edge of astonished annoyance change, anger rising, then the jerk as Hal caught himself, forced himself to restraint, to something colder and more cautious.

Grey himself had no such restraint. He was happily off his head, drunk with the lust of fighting. His body felt like oiled rope, tensile and slippery, and he was taking dangerous chances, completely confident that he could elude Hal’s point, regardless. He saw an opening, dropped into a flattened lunge with a yell, and his buttoned point struck Hal’s thigh and skidded across the fabric of his breeches.

“Jesus!” said Hal, and swung at his head.

He ducked, laughing, and popped up like a jack-in-the-box, grabbing the point of his rapier so the blade bowed between his hands, then let go and snapped it off Hal’s, making the metal ring and the sword jump in Hal’s hand.

He heard Berculi swear in Italian, but had no attention to spare. Hal was fighting back in earnest now, beating at his blade fit to break them both. He skipped in at once, his arm running up Hal’s and taking him by surprise, so they ended in embrace, sword arms linked and blades entangled, bodies pressed together.

He grinned at Hal, baring his teeth, and saw the spark leap in his brother’s eye. He was faster, though, and the first to jerk loose, leaving Hal for an instant off balance. He dropped by instinct into a perfect Passata-sotto, and his button pressed against Hal’s throat.

“Touché,” he said softly.

Hal’s hands fell away, his rapier dangling, and he stood for a moment, chest heaving for breath, before he nodded.

“Je me rends,” he said gruffly. I yield.

Grey took away his point and bowed to his brother, but his eyes were on Percy. Percy had left off his lunging altogether in order to watch, and stood against the wall, eyes wide in shock and what Grey hoped was admiration.

Signor Berculi had snatched off his wig and was kneading it with excitement.

“You!” he said, brandishing the object in Grey’s face. “Never you do that! Is no proper that what you do! You insano! But good,” he added, standing back a little and surveying Grey from head to toe as though he had never seen him before. He nodded, pursing his lips judiciously. “Very good.”

Hal was rubbing his head and neck with a towel. He was flushed, but for a wonder, seemed amused rather than angry.

“What brought that on?” he asked.

“Showing off for the new brother,” Grey replied flippantly, with a casual wave at Percy. He wiped a sleeve across his jaw. He was soaked; his shirt and breeches stuck to him, and his muscles jumped and quivered. “Want another go?”

Hal gave him a look.

“Oh, I think not,” he said. “I’ve a meeting.” He looked at Percy, and tossed the rapier to him. “Here, you have a go, Wainwright. I’ve taken the edge off him for you.”