As much as he had, in the privacy of his own heart, toyed with the idea of playing the selfish bastard and disappearing from this story, his whole soul railed against the dishonor of it. Once the astrolabe was found and destroyed, and Etta’s future mended, he would be happy to leave Ironwood to his hell of knowing he’d never have it.
But more than honor, more than responsibility, was Etta. Finding her, helping her, sorting this disaster out with her, the way they were meant to. His partner.
He would finish this, and make his own life, as he’d always intended. The traveler’s world had never belonged to him. He’d never been granted access to its secrets, or allowed to explore its depth. He’d never been anything other than a servant.
Even Etta’s future had been like a distant star to him; he’d marveled at what she’d told him of its progress and wars and discoveries, but it had remained too far away for him to seize, to hold in his heart as something truly real, not wild fiction. Never mind something he could lay claim to. But whether or not they’d go there, or find a home elsewhere, he wanted to restore that world she had known and loved.
The merrymaking in the tavern was occasionally punctuated by the bang of the door, battered both by the force of the storm’s winds and the poor wayward souls who stumbled in for shelter. Nicholas returned his gaze to that spot, waiting for the telltale flash of golden hair, the pale blue eyes.
“Can you at least make yourself useful and dispose of the degenerate in the corner?” Sophia grumbled, crossing her arms on the table and resting her head on them. “If he keeps staring at me, I’m going to start charging him by the minute.”
Nicholas blinked, swinging his gaze around to each corner in turn, then back at the girl in front of him. “What the devil are you talking about?”
The scorn rose from her like a tide of fire as Sophia sat up from her slouch, nodding toward the far side of the tavern, at a table in their direct line of sight. A man sat there, dressed in a dark cloak, a cocked hat jammed down over his wet wig, as if prepared to bolt out into the storm again at the first opportunity. Catching Nicholas’s gaze, he quickly turned back to stare at his pint, his fingers rapidly drumming on the table. It was only then that Nicholas noticed the sigil of the familiar tree stitched in gold thread on the back of his glove.
Something that had been clenched inside his gut finally relaxed. The derelict man was a Linden. A guardian, if he had to guess.
Or an Ironwood trying to lure us out.
No—the past month had made him suspicious, perhaps beyond reason. An Ironwood would have confronted them directly. While his father’s family suffered from a drought of subtlety, they were gifted with a rare love of lethality. Still, he felt for the knife he’d slid into the inside pocket of his jacket all the same.
“Stay here,” Nicholas said.
But of course Sophia followed him on stumbling, drunken feet. The man still didn’t look up as Nicholas and Sophia sat down in his table’s empty chairs.
“Those are taken,” the man grunted out. “Waiting fer company.”
“I believe it’s already arrived, sir,” Nicholas said. “We seem to have a mutual friend.”
“Do we now?” The man turned his pewter pint around in his hands. Turned it again. And again. And again. Until, finally, Sophia’s hand shot out and slammed down over it, beating Nicholas to it by a sliver of a second.
“Test my patience further tonight,” she bit out. “I dare you.”
The man recoiled at her crisp tone, blinking as he looked at her face—her eye patch—closely. “That a costume you’ve got, luv, or just…”
Nicholas cleared his throat, drawing the man off that dangerous path. “We were waiting for…someone else.”
The man’s skin looked as if it had been left beside a fire to dry out for several hours too long. It was a familiar texture to Nicholas, one that marked years of working by or on the sea. The man’s green eyes flickered across the room as he reached up to tug his hat off and his wig forward.
The man confirmed it as he said, “Saw some…let’s say I saw some faces I usually try to keep clear of. Scouring the beaches and town real close and the like. Gives a man some second thoughts about helping a lady out.”
“Can’t be too careful,” Nicholas agreed. “Where is this lady?”
The man ignored him, continuing in his tetchy way: “Said there’d only be one of you. You seem to fit.” His gaze shifted toward Sophia. “Don’t know about this one here.”
Sophia narrowed her eye.
“She’s an associate of mine,” Nicholas said, trying to move the conversation along. He could understand the necessity of secrecy, but each second that passed without searching for the astrolabe was a second too long. “Are you to take us to this lady, then?”
The man took a deep drink of his pint, coughing as he shook his head. With one more furtive glance around, his hand disappeared into his cloak. Nicholas’s own fingers jabbed inside his jacket again, curling around the hilt of his blade.
But instead of a pistol or knife, the man pulled out a folded sheet of parchment and set it on the table. Nicholas glanced down at the red wax seal, the sigil of the Linden family stamped into it, then back up at the man. Sophia snatched it up, turning it over and shaking the folded parchment as if expecting poison to trickle out.
“Our…flower,” the man said, emphasizing the word, “had other business to attend to. And now I’ve repaid her favor, and I’ll be off to see to my own—”
“Favor?” Sophia repeated, the ale making her even more brazen than usual. “Aren’t you supposed to be a guardian?”
The man pushed himself back from the table. “Used to be, before another family killed nearly the whole lot of them. Now I do as I please. Which, in this moment, is leaving.”
Nicholas stood at the moment the Linden guardian did, dogging him through the thick crowds until he was close enough to grab his arm. “What other business did she have? We’ve been waiting for her—”
The guardian wrenched his arm out of Nicholas’s grip, bumping into the back of another tavern patron. Ale sloshed over the edge of the pint and onto Nicholas’s shoes. “Do I look like the sort Rose Linden would tell her bleeding secrets to?”
Actually, given his rumpled state and the rather impressive scarring around his neck, which could only have come from surviving a hanging, he seemed like the exact sort.