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.
“Call me Li Min,” she said.
“I’ll call you Jackass if it suits me,” Sophia snapped. “Tell me what the hell you’re doing here before I take this knife and slice you from gullet to gut.”
Nicholas wondered briefly if it was his destiny to be surrounded by women possessing varying degrees of murderous intent.
The girl smiled. “This is no way to speak to one with whom you wish to do business.”
Sophia sucked in a sharp breath, filling the bellows of her chest to explode, but Nicholas was quicker on the draw. “We have no business with you beyond retrieving our letter. I don’t suppose you’ll be so kind as to offer any sort of explanation for why you took it? Who hired you to steal it?”
And why you are here, dangling it in front of us, if someone paid you to take it? Unless, of course, she was angling to dip into two different pots of profit, hoping he and Sophia would bribe her for a look.
“I never said I was hired,” Li Min said. “It is in my interest to know the business of the travelers I come across. Work is hard to find, you see, and occasionally I must look for it, rather than wait for it to come to me. Many Ironwoods have traveled here in recent months. But imagine my surprise to see a Linden guardian scuttling around the beaches like a little crab. And then you appeared to conduct your business….”
Unsure of whether or not he’d live to regret it, Nicholas lowered his pistol and returned it to its place at his side. Feeling steadier, he began to consider their situation in this new light.