“Did she give you any other information?” Nicholas pressed, annoyed he had to raise his voice to be heard over the squealing fiddle and the boisterous laughter of the men and women around him. “Is she still on the island?”
“Are we not speaking English, lad?” the guardian continued. “Do I need to be giving it to you in French, or—?”
A feminine shriek broke through the loud roll of deeper male voices. Nicholas spun, searching out the table he’d just left, only to find a serving girl frantically trying to pick up the pieces of several broken glasses that had smashed across their table. Another small figure in a navy coat helped mop up the liquid as it rushed over the edge onto the floor.
“You—you cow!” Sophia shouted, snatching a rag out of the flustered serving girl’s hand to mop down her front.
“An accident—so sorry—stumbled—” The poor girl could barely get a word out.
“Are you blind?” Sophia continued. “I’m the one with one eye!”
“Best of luck with that one,” he heard the guardian say, but by the time Nicholas turned back, the man was on the other side of the tavern, and a sea of bodies had filled the space between them. The wind caught the door and slammed it open as the guardian disappeared into the night. The Three Crowns proprietor was forced to abandon a tray of drinks to bolt it shut before the rain flooded in.
“What’s this about?” Nicholas asked, moving toward the table. Sophia dropped back into her seat, glowering as the serving girl swept up the last of the glass into her apron.
“Someone,” Sophia emphasized, as if that someone weren’t standing directly beside them, “decided to be a right and proper fool and waste perfectly good rum by making me bathe in it—”
Truthfully, the liquor had improved her smell.
“I’m not a fool!” The serving girl’s face reddened. “I was watching where I was going, sir, but something caught my foot!”
She stormed off before he could tell her it was all right. And, of course, Sophia only seemed further infuriated by her absence.
“What? She can’t take a hint of criticism?” she snapped, then yelled after her, “Stand up for yourself, you sodding—”
“Enough,” Nicholas said. “Let us have a look at the letter.”
Sophia crossed her arms over her chest, slumping back against her chair. “Hilarious. You couldn’t even let me hold on to it for a moment before you took it.”
“I don’t have time for your games,” he said. “Just give it to me.”
She returned his sharp look with a blank one. A cold prickling of unease raced down his spine.
“The letter,” he insisted, holding out his hand.
“I. Do. Not. Have. It.”
They stared at each other a moment more; Nicholas felt as though her gaze was slicing him to pieces as his mind raced. He stooped, searching the floor, the chairs, the area around them. The serving girl—no, he saw her kneeling, and surely she wouldn’t have hovered by the table if she’d just stolen something. She hadn’t swept it into her apron, either. He would have seen that. Which left—
The other man. The one who had wiped down the table.
“Where did the man go?” he said, spinning on his heel.
“What are you on about?” Sophia grumbled, pushing herself back up to her feet. As she spoke, he caught sight of the deep blue jacket he’d seen before, but the wide-brimmed hat did nothing to disguise the slight man’s distinct features. The Chinese man stood, watching them from the landing of the staircase leading to the private rooms above. Nicholas squinted through the tavern’s dim lighting and took a single, cautious step in his direction. A flicker of a movement, really, but the man bolted with all the ease and speed of a hare.
“Hell and damnation,” he groused. “You wait—”
Sophia slid a pistol he had never seen before out from under her jacket, aimed wide, and with a single, careless glance, fired in the general direction of the staircase. The ringing silence following her shot swung the attention of the room toward them. Pistols, knives, and the odd sword rang out and clattered as they were drawn. And with that small explosion of powder and spark, the fight Sophia had been looking for, the one she’d tried a dozen times to get from him, from the serving girl, from whoever so much as looked at her the wrong way, broke out in earnest.
One man, limbs clumsy with rum, elbowed another man in the back of the neck while trying to pull his own weapon out. With a strangled cry, that sailor swung his fist around, knocking the first clear across the nearest table, scattering cards, dice, food, and ale in every direction. The card players rose and charged into the nearest throng of gawking men, who were forced, of course, to push back lest they be trampled.
A sailor emerged from the fray, swinging a chair up from the floor, aiming at Sophia, who stood where she was, smirking.
Blind to it, he thought in horror, in that short instant before he bellowed, “On your left!”
Sophia’s hat flew off as she jerked around. Her foot rose instinctively, her aim true: the powerful kick landed directly on his bawbles. As the sailor crashed to the floor with a shriek, she relieved him of the chair and smashed it over his head.
The fiddle shrieked as the bow jumped off the strings. The fiddler himself dove to the floor, just in time to avoid a chair hurtling toward his head from a whiskey-soaked doxy trying to hit her rival across her rouge-smeared face.
One lone drunk seaman stood in the center of the chaos, eyes shut as he swayed around in some odd reel, holding out his rum bottle as if it were his dancing partner.
“Damn your eyes!” Nicholas hollered.
“I think you mean eye,” Sophia said, reloading the last of their powder into the pistol, pausing only to steal the half-empty rum bottle from the next table over when its occupant turned to the sprawling fight.
Nicholas shoved his way through the thrashing tangle of limbs, dodging to avoid a sword winging its way through the air. The proprietor climbed to the top of his counter, and, instead of stopping the fight with a well-timed shot into the room, leaped onto the back of the nearest man, tackling him to the floor with a loud cry.
Nicholas had seen more civilized tar-and-featherings than this.
He arrived at the stairs in time to see a man, while fleeing the fight, shove a doxy out of his way and send her tumbling in a mass of skirts down the stairs. He managed to catch her, narrowly preventing her from breaking her neck.