The letter was dirty and folded, not surprising considering how far it had come. Ramsay was reluctant to break the seal because he had a strong suspicion what it would say. He was right.
The letter was addressed to Kai Douglas Ramsay and said tersely:
Time to stop playing around and come home, laddie boy. Your grandfather is dying. He may be swilling ale in Valhalla by the time you get this. You know the price you promised to pay for your footloose wandering. Now the bill has come due.
Of course it would be Signy who was writing him. Only islanders he'd known as a boy would call him Kai. Signy had become his grandfather's deputy as well as being the head schoolmistress in the islands. Ramsay smiled a little, remembering her as a knobby-kneed girl with a tongue that could flay a whale when she was in a critical mood. She was the younger sister of Gisela, his first and only love.
His smile faded. After laying the letter on his desk, he moved to the window and gazed out at the domes and minarets of Constantinople, which were visible above the walls that surrounded the British Embassy compound. He'd spent five years here, the longest time he'd lingered anywhere in his wandering years.
His official position was Under Secretary for Special Projects, a vague enough title to cover his various nefarious activities. With all the layers of history in Constantinople, he could spend a lifetime here and barely scratch the wonders of this city and this land.
It was hard to imagine a place more different from the far northern islands of his homeland. But Ramsay had always known his time here was limited. He might have stayed in Thorsay if Gisela hadn't died suddenly of a fever when he was finishing his studies at the University of Edinburgh. The pain was so numbing that he'd been unable to bear the thought of returning to the islands.
His grandfather, the wily old devil, had known how Ramsay would feel. After giving the news of Gisela's death, the laird had said that Ramsay could feed his wanderlust until his grandfather died or was near death. Then he must come home to assume his responsibilities as Laird of Thorsay.
Ramsay had seized on the proffered bargain, both because he couldn't imagine returning to Thorsay with Gisela gone and because he'd yearned to visit distant lands and study ancient ruins. He'd had a dozen years of that freedom and had managed not to get himself killed, though it had been a near-run thing more than once.
That led him to thoughts of a certain cellar in Portugal where he'd been held captive with four other men as they drank bad brandy and waited to be executed at dawn. But the five of them had worked together to escape and made a pact to meet up again after the war if they survived. Now Napoleon was gone for good, exiled to a bleak rock in the South Atlantic to rule over the seabirds, and perhaps that reunion would be possible.
How many of the men who had been in that cellar were still among the living? They'd all been leading risky lives. When Ramsay traveled through London on his way home, he could check for letters at Hatchard's Bookshop, which had been their chosen venue to exchange information.
Ramsay forced his wandering mind back to practical matters. Though he'd wished this day would never come, he'd been mentally preparing. It was time to make the long journey through the Mediterranean, west around the Iberian Peninsula, then north through the English Channel and North Sea to Thorsay.
The three island groups north of Scotland were due west of Norway, closer to Oslo than London. Orkney was visible, barely, from the northernmost coast of mainland Scotland. Thorsay lay beyond, and far-flung Shetland was most northerly. All three archipelagos were inhabited by tough, stubborn islanders whose first language was Norn, a Scandinavian dialect. Over the centuries, Gaelic-speaking Celts had also settled on the islands, and even a few English. No wonder the Thorseach, the people of his islands, were good with languages.