Sophia rolled her eyes, moving ahead of him again. “Saints and losers, remember?”
And if Sophia truly was after the astrolabe for her own gain, as he was now doubly certain, then their weak truce would conclude and he would do anything in his power to keep it from her. Anything necessary.
“Being good on your word is a core tenet of honor,” he called.
“Honor.” She looked disgusted. “Good thing I don’t have much of the stuff left.”
NOON ARRIVED, BRINGING WITH IT A MISERABLE HEAT THAT sagged against him, and seemed unjust for October. They passed their walk back to the camp in blessed silence, Sophia stalking forward, Nicholas staying several steps behind, not just because he didn’t want to encourage any words between them, but because he knew that the white men and women they passed would expect it of a servant, a slave—Nicholas shook his head, rolled his shoulders back, as if he could fling it off. The charade sapped what little good mood he’d managed to eke out of the day. And an hour later, when they finally reached the deserted stretch of beach where they’d set up camp, the last lingering traces of goodwill between them evaporated altogether.
“Bloody hell!” Sophia snarled, and would have charged forward had Nicholas not gripped her by the collar of her tattered coat.
Their blankets had been carelessly thrown around, and the hammocks they’d stretched between palm trees had been dug up and left in tangled heaps. Their single cooking pot, the one he’d disguised among the lush greenery to collect rainwater, had been overturned, thereby catching nothing that they could boil and drink.
But it hadn’t been the storm that had turned the earth over and washed up what was left of their possessions for anyone to steal: it was a small figure sitting cross-legged in front of the rain-filled fire pit, eating the last few pieces of their jerky, playing with a light Sophia had insisted on bringing, despite the fact that it wouldn’t be invented until the next century.
“Drop that at once, sir!” Nicholas demanded.
The small man looked up, a piece of jerky dangling from his lips. His dark eyes were strikingly distinct. Two thick, dark brows were angled over them, as if someone had taken ink and thumbed the shapes across. A surprisingly delicate nose and high cheekbones were sunburned—the only flaw in otherwise clear, fair skin.
His mouth stretched into a shameless smile around the jerky clenched between his teeth. A weathered navy coat rustled as he brought a gloved hand up, fingers dancing in a little wave.
IT WAS SEVERAL OUTRAGED MOMENTS before Nicholas was able to collect himself enough to speak. “What is your name, sir? And what business do you have with us?”
The man cocked his head to the side, studying him. After a moment he answered, his voice higher than Nicholas might have expected, speaking a language he’d never heard before. The grating laughter, however, did not need translation.
Sophia answered, barking out a string of words in that same language, wiping the gleaming humor from the thief’s face. Nicholas released the grip he’d maintained on her coat, and watched as Sophia lunged toward the small man. He rolled back off the fallen palm tree he’d been perched on, dancing away from her reach again and again.
After everything she’d imbibed last night, he suspected Sophia had a headache pounding like the drums of hell, so frankly, he didn’t blame her for reaching into her coat for her pistol and taking aim.
The small man froze. Nicholas caught a hint of gold tucked into his belt—a knife, perhaps? The ceasefire, at least, gave him a moment to assess the risk: the man wore the attire of an Englishman, but the loose fabric of his shirtsleeves and breeches had been rolled and tucked at the ends to account for his diminutive stature.
“Put the flintlock down, n shén,” the man said.
Sophia lunged toward him, snarling. In two fluid moves, the man had Sophia disarmed and on her knees on the ground, looking stunned.
She growled and, undeterred, rose just enough to try to knock the man’s feet out from under him. He simply leaped back out of the way.
Something in the man’s face shifted, a feminine softening that arrived with a flurry of delighted, girlish laughter. Sophia seemed to realize their mistake the precise moment Nicholas did, and cut off her next attack, stiffening.
Not a man.
Nicholas cocked his head to the side, studying the thief again. He could see it now, of course; how blind and presumptuous he’d been, but the Three Crowns had been dark and his glimpse fleeting. The binding of linen wrapped around her chest peeked out from beneath the loose collar of her shirt.
Her focus shifted off Sophia’s face to meet his. “Remove your gaze, gŏu, or I will remove your eyes.”
“I know better than that,” he said, holding his own pistol steady. “I want the letter you stole.”
“Neither of your weapons are loaded,” the young woman said, flicking her fingers in their direction. “They are too light in your hands. Neither of you carry a powder flask. And…” She spared a glance around their pitiful campsite. “Could you afford such?”
“More than one way to use a gun,” Nicholas noted. “Would you like to discover how many?”
At that, a small smile curled her rosebud lips. “I suspect I know far more than you, bèn dàn.”
He tried to quell the tightening in his guts at the knifelike edge to her words.
“Who. Are. You,” Sophia managed to get out from between her gritted teeth.
The young woman removed her hat, dropping it to the sand with a look of disgust. She lifted her long black braid from where she had tucked it under her cloak, and then a heavy jade pendant, the length of one of Nicholas’s fingers. The image of the tree carved into it looked like an evergreen; it stood tall, arrow-like in shape. Its branches were not as full as several of the other family sigils, but still robust and proud.
Damn it all, he thought, feeling a weariness creep into him. And here he’d been hoping, however in vain, that the culprit would be a random thief, one without ties to their hidden world. Nicholas supposed he would never be so lucky.
“Hemlock…” he began.
“Did my grandfather send you?” Sophia interrupted.
The girl scowled. “I will never work for him. Not even if he were to offer a fair price for my services.”
A mercenary, then. He’d heard stories about them from Hall—members of the Jacaranda and Hemlock families who had refused to bow to Ironwood once he seized control of their travelers and guardians and absorbed them into his own clan. They offered their services to any traveler or guardian who could pay them. He’d always wondered about the kinds of jobs they took, assuming they were mostly occupied with tracking down wayward family members or lost possessions, or maybe even quietly making small changes to history that wouldn’t result in the timeline shifting.