“Ah, Nikki, ain’t ye glad ye’re shift’s about done?” Mya laughed as she brought the soup ladle to her lips. “Been a long day, hasn’t it?”
“Aye,” Nicole agreed. If she put her plates into the sink quickly enough, maybe, just maybe, Mya would think that the splashing of the soapy water drowned out any further words she had to say.
“An’ ye’ve worked yer time an’ a half, today! Goodness, lass! Ye’re either a saint or ye think ye have a lot ter be repentin’ for, signin’ up fer that.”
“Mya, leave the lass alone,” grumbled Edward as he picked up the freshest serving of soup and bread. “Like ye’ve said, she’s worked time an’ a half fer today. Last thing she probably wants ter be doin’ is talkin’.”
Nicole let that go unanswered — it was easier to let Edward win the battle by attrition, as it were.
She knew why he leapt to her defense and kept Mya quiet — not that Mya wasn’t a good soul, but she did tend to talk. Edward and the rest of them were convinced that the reason she was so eager to work, to take on extra shifts, to keep going long after the sensible had stumbled home to bed, was because she needed the money. And Nicole did need the money her job brought in, just like every other working Sim. But she wasn’t only a missed day of work or a single accident way from the poorhouse or the whorehouse, as the rest of them seemed to think. She still had savings from the bag of silvers Jackie had slipped to her.
No, what Nicole craved was not mere money, but exhaustion. It was exhaustion that had gotten her to sleep those first few months after arriving in Albion. Then, she had settled in, made friends, made some sort of peace with this new life. And now … now that Roma was married, and Erin was busy with Wulf, she needed that exhaustion again to help her sleep.
It was either that or spend each night staring at the ceiling in tortured recognition of how alone she was. And the only other occupant of her cottage — the kitten that Roma had given to her — was not helping with that.
“Mya, is there anything else you need me to do before I leave?” Nicole asked after the plates were washed and dried and placed on the stack.
“Oh, ain’t ye a dear,” Mya crooned. “Well, if ye don’t mind, ye could go up an’ see if there’s anythin’ Sam’s needin’. Last night we almost ran out o’ ale, and Lord only knows what would happen after that!”
“Aye,” Nicole chortled. She made her way out of the crowded, smoke-filled kitchen and into the crowded, equally smoke-filled tavern.
There was no one with quite the powers of non-observation as a waitress that was going off duty. Customers might shout to her, shove their mugs into her path, bang on the table, but she saw none of it. All she had to do was dart through the room, lift her heavy skirts to trot up the stairs, and she would soon be into the delicious emptiness of the upstairs hallway. Nicole had realized that she had to time her exhaustion carefully — if she kept going for too long, she would not fall asleep immediately but instead stay awake until her body got over its second (third, fourth, fifth) wind.
So it was with relief that Nicole pushed open the door to the upstairs balcony, which was where they put set up the bar and tables in good weather. “Nicole!” called Sam.
The bartender’s given name was Samantha, but everyone called her Sam. It was how she had gotten the job, or so the lore of the Onion went. Master O’Neill had needed a barkeep, so the story went, and had asked his friends if they knew any likely takers for the post. Eventually word got back to him about a prodigy named Sam. So raving were the reviews of this young wizard of bottles and barrels that Master O’Neill had been only too eager to engage the youngster for a trial. And he had been surprised as anyone when a buxom blonde lass had shown up on his doorstep and introduced herself as Sam.
Still, Master O’Neill was nothing if not fair, and one glance at her … charms had convinced him she was worth a try. Maybe she would keep the drunks drooling too much to cause trouble, and seeing that keeping the drunks from causing trouble was the second principle duty of a bartender …
Well, Sam’s charms were certainly enough to keep some of the drunks occupied, as for the rest, Sam’s right hook (or the threat of it) took care of that. Sam had stayed.
But Sam was not alone on the balcony — not surprising, seeing as Sam was mistress of the alcohol and its power, untempered by food, to forget and make merry. What was surprising was that she very nearly was alone. There was only one young man with her, a young man who sipped at his tankard with the plodding determination of a man determined to drown his sorrows, one way or another.
Yet, all the same, he was still alert enough to turn when Sam called her name. His eyes went wide. And so did Nicole’s. Because the light was dim and chancy, but she thought — she thought —
But if that’s him, whatever happened to his hair? she wondered. And kicked herself for wondering. The young man — Milo — had only mentioned a mother, not a wife or a sweetheart. If he wasn’t with her often, well, that could well explain the hair; the dusty, grubby clothes; the overgrown beard … everything, really.
“What’d ye need, Nicole?” Sam asked, drawing Nicole back to the present.
Nicole felt her feet plodding to Sam before her mind could quite catch up. She wasn’t getting her second wind, was she? If she was, she’d never wear it off in time to get to sleep —
But it wasn’t that. Oh no. It was worse, much worse.
“Mya said I’m to cover the bar for you, so you can get a bit of a break,” Nicole heard herself say.
Sam’s eyes went wide. She looked at Nicole’s relatively slight frame, then at the bar, then at the … well, one customer. Sam’s disapproving frown morphed into more of a moue. “Honey, ye sure that’s what Mya said?”
“Oh, aye,” Nicole lied. “Well, she said I was to send up one of the menfolk if — if there seemed to be a lot of rough folks up here. But you won’t be any trouble, will you?” she asked, turning to the young man.
He blinked his impossibly blue eyes, then dropped them to his glass. He muttered something — too low to recognize the voice — but it sounded like, “No trouble.”
“See? I’ll be fine,” Nicole smiled.
Sam still narrowed her eyes. “Ye’ve been workin’ time an’ a half today, ain’t ye?”
“Yes, but — really! Sam, I’m fine.” No, she wasn’t, she was giddy, there were butterflies in her stomach and part of her wanted to giggle like a girl barely let out of the schoolroom. “Just take a break for yourself. A quarter of an hour. Enough time to get off your feet for a moment, visit the — the –”
“Fer Wright’s sake, sometimes I wonder about ye, Nik. Ye’d think ye’d never had ter say the word privy in yer life,” Sam shook her head.
Before she had come Albion … well, she really hadn’t. But now was not the time to share that information, if ever there was or could be such a time.
“But since ye insist …” Sam sidled away from her steadfast position behind the bar, and Nicole sidled into it with a grin. “If ye need any help, ye jest yell!”
Then Sam opened the door, stepped beyond it, and shut the door again. Nicole and … and … Milo? Whoever he was, they were alone.
And now that Sam was gone, she could study the young man’s face in more detail. Yes, it had to be him. That nose, those cheekbones — who else could it be? So what if it looked like his hair had been cut with a dull knife, the last time it had been cut at all? So what if he hadn’t shaved in days? So what if there was the faint odor of an unwashed body rising up from him now, whereas the time before Nicole had only been able to detect the faintest hint of lavender, as from clothes lain into a chest —
“So what’re you staring at?” the man mumbled over the rim of his tankard.
And his speech! Oh, he might forgo bathing and shaving and regular haircuts, but he couldn’t disguise that! He didn’t speak like a regular Onioner!
“Miss?” he asked.
“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, I just …” Nicole felt herself blushing and pulled her hair this way and that, trying to decide without so much a still pool of water — or clear ale, at this point she’d take even that — to help her know which style was the most flattering. “You remind me of someone I know,” she blurted out finally.
“Do I,” he replied. It did not even pretend to be a question.
“Oh, yes! He was a very nice young man! He — he wasn’t too forward or –”
She stopped, the breath hanging motionless in her throat. “Yes?” she whispered.
“You seem rather new at the whole bartending thing.”
“I’m very new at it!”
“So I’ll give you some advice.”
It was all Nicole could do to keep herself from leaning her elbows on the bar and bringing her face as close to his as he would allow.
“There are times,” he continued slowly, “when a man doesn’t want to talk. When he just wants to commune with his cup.”
Oh, it had to be Milo! There was no other fair-skinned, black-haired, blue-eyed young man who had come to the Onion and who would be able to properly use the word “commune” in a sentence!
“This is one of those times,” he said, plunking his tankard onto the bar.
“What ti–oh.” Meaning dawned. “I’m sorry,” Nicole murmured to the bottles and barrels.
The young man only grunted. Maybe he wasn’t Milo. Or — far more likely — he probably didn’t remember her, even if he was Milo. Yes, yes, that had to be it.
Nicole sighed and kept her eyes on the bottles and barrels — easier, that, than braving those blue eyes again.
And soon it came time for the young man to sigh the sort of sigh that exploded its exasperation into the air around it. “Would you stop that?”
She looked up. “Stop what?”
“Making me feel like I just kicked a puppy! Wright!”
“I — I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t, you know!” the young man continued. “All I did was say that I didn’t want talk. That’s all!”
“And you’re acting like it’s some sort of crime!” he snapped. “What are you, one of His Majesty’s torturers?”
Nicole gasped — even though she shouldn’t have, it was stupid, of course — but out of her mouth it came anyway. “King Arthur has torturers? I thought –”
“Who said anything about King Arthur?” the young man snarled. Then his thoughts caught up with him. “Oh.” He cradled his head in his hands. “Oh, Wright …”
“You — you thought you were in Glasonland for a moment there, didn’t you?” Nicole filled in nervously, mostly to keep the silence safely at bay.
The young man looked up at her with those blue eyes that were as dark as the sea after a storm. “Who told you I was from Glasonland?”
Nicole jumped. “I — I –”
“Who said it?!” he growled, half-rising from his stool.
“Your accent!” she squeaked, finally, not having the courage to tell him the truth: You, the first time we met.
“Oh,” he murmured, and slumped down again. He fingered his tankard, dragged it over, looked inside. He snorted. “I need another.”
“Yes — yes, sir! Coming right up!” Nicole ducked down behind the bar. “Er … which one?”
“Doesn’t really matter.”
Nicole grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a green bottle that struck her as being rather middle-of-the-road. She poured a draught out with a flourish — or, well, with as much of a flourish as she could manage without spilling anything.
“Here you go,” she grinned, pushing the tankard to the young man.
He took it with a grunt. He sipped with no emotion. And yet, so ingrained were Nicole’s cook’s instincts that she had to watch his face for any hint of pleasure or pain, even though she hadn’t made this drink, only poured it from a bottle.
He glared. “What?”
Nicole’s mouth moved up and down. “You — you do look an a-awful lot like this man I met,” she stammered.
He snorted. “Well, I’m not him. I’ve never been here before, so I can’t possibly be him. And I’ve never been to Reme, either, so don’t even ask that!”
Reme? She’d told Milo Carpenter that she was from Reme …
“How — how do you know I’m from Reme, sir?”
Nicole might have believed that he was not Milo if he had grunted into his tankard, “Your accent.” Or if he had only grunted. Or if he hadn’t reacted at all.
But the way he did react — jumping, blinking, staring at her for a moment, and then mumbling, “Your accent — yes, yes, your accent” — well, that did nothing to convince Nicole of his non-Miloness.
“Oh,” Nicole murmured. And like a child who could not leave the old family mastiff alone, but who had to keep poking — poking — poking, she asked, “You know a Reman accent?”
“You ever been to Glasonland?” he muttered.
“Then how do you know a Glasonlander accent?”
“We get a lot of Glasonlanders around these parts. Many of whom have never been to Albion before, so there’s no mitigating the accent.” She smiled. “Like you.”
“Yes. Like me.” He took another sip and sighed. “So much for not talking.”
This time, Nicole took the hint. A quick search under the bar found a rag that she could use to wipe the bar, and at least pretend to be doing something, if Milo didn’t want to talk.
But if it was Milo, why was he so desperate to pretend he had never met her before — had never even been to the Onion, or even Albion? Wouldn’t it have been enough to look at her, squint a bit, and say, “No, don’t remember you, sorry”? That would have been an end to the conversation.
To protest so much — to deny even having set foot into the country …
Nicole narrowed her eyes and watched him through veiled lashes. She had seen plenty of men who drank to forget, to remember, or just to have a good time here at the Onion. None of them drank like Milo did today. Hunched over the glass, hair hanging over his face, shoulders set. And yet he drank with his left hand, the right stationed near his belt, where a man would keep a knife. Nicole couldn’t see his legs, but her heart told her that if she could, the muscles would be coiled and set, ready to spring forth at a moment’s notice.
But where had she seen a man sit like that before, if not at the Onion? She must have seen it before; she would not remember it half so well if she had not —
Unless, of course — recognition thrilled through her, and hard on its heels came fear —
Sam strode through the door, shaking her head, and making both Nicole and Milo jump.
“Ye silly, daft girl!” Sam clucked her tongue. “Mya didn’t tell ye ter give me a break!”
“She — she didn’t?” Mya, Mya — what had Mya said?
“She told ye ter axe if I needed anythin’. That’s all! An’ I don’t.” Sam clucked her tongue again and patted Nicole’s shoulder. “Wright, but ye’re tired, ain’t ye? Go home an’ get some rest, before ye’re asleep on yer feet an’ not jest in yer head.”
But she wasn’t tired — she was humming, throbbing with energy, wide awake as she could ever be! Still, there was no arguing with Sam. “Aye, Sam. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Not until after ye’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, I hope,” Sam said, shooing Nicole forward. “Now git!”
Nicole got. But not before she paused at the foot of the bar. She had to say something — she couldn’t just let this moment pass by, saying nothing!
And so out came the first thing that popped into her head. “Good — farewell, Milo. It was nice seeing you again.”
She scuttled away as fast as she could, after that. Idiot! Letting on that she knew! And lying, to compound the mess! It hadn’t been that pleasant seeing him again, not when he’d spent most of the time berating her!
Her brain really must have been falling asleep. Maybe that second wind was over now. Maybe she would be able to walk home, undress and lay her head on the pillow without further ado, even after this odd encounter. Stranger things had happened, hadn’t they? Maybe —
There were footsteps behind her.
Nicole felt herself slowing, and she did not even have to look out of the corner of her eye before she murmured, “Milo?”
She was never quite sure how it happened — but a hand was on her shoulder, then her back was against the wall, then two storm-blue eyes were before her, ale-soaked breath washed over her face, and a voice whispered, “Who told you that name?”
“I — I –”
He didn’t hurt her. That was, perhaps, the most surprising part of all of it. Nicole had met her share of rough drunks. The regular drunks at the Onion might defend her, but usually things had to worsen a fair amount before what their eyes told them and what their boozed-soused brains could process finally managed to produce the conclusion that Nicole was in trouble. Nicole never walked away from those encounters with worse than a bruise or two, but on the other side of the coin, she never walked away from those encounters with less than a bruise or two, either.
Yet, this young man — Milo — would not even leave a bruise, not if things did not get worse. Nicole couldn’t move, it was true, but the hands on her shoulders wouldn’t leave a mark. Something was holding him back from hitting her as another drunk man might have done. Something that was more powerful than the fear that shook his arms and thundered behind his storm-dark eyes. And Nicole knew that fear, knew it for a powerful one. It was the fear that could wake her in the dead of night in a cold sweat, even after the most exhausting of days.
She must have been feeling a taste — but a taste — of it now, for though her lips were open, her mouth was parched and no sounds came out.
“Who was it?” he demanded again, letting go in his desperation. The fear, the same fear that made him sit like a soldier who expected attack at any moment, made his face quite savage.
And finally Nicole squeaked, “You did!”
He flinched as the recipient of a slap might. “I was never here.”
“I was never here! We never met! You don’t know me! And I’m not Milo Carpenter!”
Well, there was her confirmation, if she still needed it. “But –”
“No buts! You’ve got the wrong man, miss!”
“It’s all right,” she murmured. “I won’t tell anybody.”
“There’s nothing to tell!”
“Please don’t lie to me.”
His hands fell useless to his sides. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“So you admit you were?”
He narrowed his eyes. “No.”
“I told you I wouldn’t tell, though –”
“You might mean well, miss, or you might not,” he snarled, “but either way, there are ways to make a maid talk, whether she will or no.” His sneer turned into a full frown, and a sad one. “I’d rather not know I was responsible for a pretty maid getting to know those ways. So, no, I’m not Milo Carpenter.”
“But — but I could help you –”
“I doubt that.”
“I’ve been where you are,” she murmured, sidling closer to him.
“No, you haven’t.”
He froze. “Haunted?”
Milo narrowed his eyes and stared at her sidelong.
“Knowing — knowing there are others on your tail,” Nicole stammered. “Afraid to stay too long in one place. Afraid to look behind, certain every cloud of dust on the horizon is — is them catching up to you …”
“And the way you sat, at the bar. And even now. You hand is so close to your knife.” Nicole paused. “Well, maybe I don’t know that. I didn’t have a knife. Er. Not one that I could use …”
“You certainly don’t seem like the knife-wielding type,” he replied with what was almost a smile.
“So — so you see?” Nicole asked, tiptoeing closer to him, a much bigger smile plastered onto her face. “I’ve been there. I could help you. If — if you wanted.”
Milo’s almost smile turned into a grin. His hand moved to pull at his collar. Then, slowly, it moved closer. Nicole hiccupped a gasp. What was he going to do? Stroke her hair? Caress her face? Maybe even kiss her?
His hand dropped.
His hand flew up to cover her mouth, but gently. It dropped again. He sighed.
“What is it?” Nicole whispered.
“You’re a pretty girl,” he repeated. “And a sweet one. I’d hate to see a pretty, sweet girl get mixed up in this.”
And with one last smile, he left her standing in the middle of the corridor, stunned as if he’d slapped her.
Or kissed her.