But the doxies and their customers upstairs had seen him, so surely…
He stilled, turning back toward the harbor. Would he make for a ship? If he was an Ironwood, not just some enterprising opportunist looking for possible targets for theft, he’d try to catch the first ship out. The more Nicholas turned over the thought of investigating that area, the sounder it seemed. Information traveled like flies between sailors, and surely someone of the man’s ethnicity wouldn’t have evaded their notice. Someone might know where he was staying, and if he had any plans of sailing out of port within the next few days.
Damn your eyes, Rose, he thought, not for the first time. You couldn’t have come yourself and saved us the trouble?
Sophia had charged forward as his steps slowed; a good three lengths ahead, she turned back. “Did your mind suddenly go on holiday? Let’s move. I’m ready for this hellish cat and mouse game to be over.”
“You continue on,” he told her. “I’m going to follow another lead—”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than she came stomping back toward him, sending muddy water shooting up around her already-soaking shoes and splattering him in the face. “What lead is this?” she pressed. “Or have we started redefining ‘lead’ as ‘wild guess’?”
He took a deep breath for patience, and parceled out his words carefully, so as not to reveal anything she might be able to use herself. It would be like handing her the knife she’d later jam into his spine. “I’m headed to the bay, to see if anyone might have information on our thief.”
“Fine,” she grumbled, turning in that direction. “We’ll make it quick.”
He shook his head. “You go back to the beach, get some rest—”
“I have to say,” she interrupted, her small, pale hands curling at her sides as her stare burned into the side of his face, “I have no idea how Linden tolerated traveling with you. A few hours into our special partnership and I wanted to push you out a window.”
Nicholas was surprised by how hard, how fast, fury gripped him. Exhaustion, hunger, frustration—he could make any excuse he liked, but the truth was, she’d touched the one sore on his heart that was still raw. “Utter her name again. Test my resolve, ma’am, please.”
Sophia glowered. “I meant, I don’t know how she could stand this game of evasion and stupid, masculine pride you seem so fond of: stay here, go back, don’t move, go on ahead. You’re not my governess, and I’m not one of the men on your stupid bloody ship, so stop ordering me around. Try to leave me out of this—try to leave me behind—one more time, and I will actually shoot you. In a delicate area.”
“Do I need to remind you,” he said, hating how quickly she seemed to be able to get his temper rolling on stormy waves, “that you got so deep into your cups last evening that instead of being reasonable and maintaining our disguise, you fired a pistol, and fired it badly, inside of a crowded tavern? That just yesterday, you harassed and abused a British regular because you ‘disliked the way he looked at you’ and nearly got us thrown into a rank gaol?”
“Would have been an improvement over where we’ve been sleeping,” she grumbled.
She will never respect me, he thought, sick with hate. She will always see me as nothing.
“One day they will name a plague for you,” he said.
“Hopefully a particularly nasty one,” she answered. “A girl can dream.”
“From the beginning, you treated me no better than a rat,” he continued, ignoring her smirk. “Do you want to know how Etta tolerated me? Because we were partners, because we trusted each other, and because she was capable of taking care of herself. You seem to have appointed yourself to the task of getting us both killed. And while you might consider yourself to be expendable, I need to confirm she survived your treachery.”
Nicholas braced himself for her inevitable snide comment, the smirking condescension she seemed to favor.
Instead, Sophia busied herself by removing her hat, unknotting the small scrap of leather she’d used to secure her short braid. Her hands worked through her hair, mussing the weave in silence. They fell in line with the men stumbling bleary- and beady-eyed out of the inns and taverns, the wreckage of the previous night’s frivolities. Some at least were making an attempt to tuck their shirts back into their breeches. Still, Nicholas shook his head. Captain Hall would have knocked each of them in turn off his ship if they’d reported back in such a state.
Hall. He’d sent word that he was alive and mostly well, but had yet to receive a response. And he likely would not until they returned to port. Nicholas didn’t resist the small echo of longing for the thought of boarding a ship and disappearing into the horizon—for the simplicity of that life, and how quickly it would welcome him back.
Someone began to whistle, a high, bawdy tavern tune that made the men around him chuckle. All at once, seemingly without him knowing, the port city had shaken off the night. Crimson coats dotted the streets, the prim uniforms and gleaming buttons only looking primmer in contrast to their surroundings. Wagons moaned and rattled with the weight of cargo being drawn up and down the path, coming or going, just like the residents of the island. The green palms and underbrush looked as if they had been painted by the sun, glowing with pleasure in the heat, the way they only did after a hearty storm. The old fort stood above it all like a four-pointed star to the west, high walls winking as the light glanced off its wet gray stones.
“Just go,” Sophia said, nodding toward the ships in the bay. “You want an out, you’ve got—two—three—four chances out there.”
“What are you on about?” he asked, batting away how bloody unnerving it was that she’d traced his line of thought. “Are you still drunk?”
“Only observant,” she sang.
“Whatever you think you know, I assure you, you do not.”
“I know you’ve wasted our time here. I know you don’t truly care about the astrolabe, just the first girl who turned her big blue doe eyes on you.”
“That’s not true,” he insisted. “And can a deer even have blue eyes?”
“Then what are we still doing here?” Sophia challenged, hands planted on her hips. “Are you hoping that if we wait long enough, the woman might find her daughter and bring her here to you? We don’t need information about the last common year. It’s irrelevant. If the Thorns have the astrolabe, they’re traveling with it, and finding them is our best bet for finding it. But you haven’t even considered that, have you?”