Playing With Fire

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On a sleepy street in the heart of Edinburgh, there lies a tea house that has been in business for over 100 years, despite the sign on the door always proclaiming it closed. It provides a haven for a specific type of traveler: one who journeys, not from place to place, but through time.

Generally, the travelers came and went, only occasionally staying in one of Imlach's guest rooms when they absolutely must. It had been some time since someone had stayed for as long as Rubén had. Not that Imlach could complain; the man kept to himself for the most part. Miss Lillian Holbright had provided him with a used chemistry kit and some of her old textbooks, which seemed to keep him occupied. When Rubén did venture from his room, it was either to travel with Lills and the Aihara brothers or to aimlessly explore the tea house in his oversized Victorian smoking jacket.

Today, Rubén had chosen the latter. His dark, heavy eyes listlessly scanned the bookshelf, taking in all titles of books he wanted to read but couldn't be bothered to pick up. Instead, he swished around the tea and cream in his cup (it was mainly cream), glancing out the window at the cobblestone streets outside. Within his reach was a chess set, and he mindlessly picked up a pawn and began to fidget with it in his hand.

For so long, every aspect of his life had been controlled by Bennett. He used to dream of all the things he would do once Bennett was dead. Yet now that he was finally free to do as he pleased, Rubén found himself frozen. The only time he did anything was when Lills dragged him on some adventure. She meant it as a kindness, and Rubén treasured those outings, but at the same time, they did little to improve the storm that was brewing inside his head. Was he no better than the wooden pawn in his hand, unable to act without someone pushing him around?

A finger tapped his shoulder, and Rubén jumped. The pawn slipped through his fingers and fell to the ground, hitting the Persian rug with a despondent thud. Spinning around, Rubén found Imlach standing behind him, a printed transmission in his hand.

Rubén snatched the paper from the old man and ran his hand through his curly hair, hopeful that Imlach could not sense how flustered he was (he could). The message was brief and in all caps:

RUBÉN
PLEASE MEET ME IN 1575 MADRID, SPAIN. I NEED YOUR HELP. FOLLOWING LEAD ON THIEF OF TIME, SPANISH IS RUSTIER THAN I THOUGHT. DARCY IS HERE TOO. IMLACH HAS CLOTHES YOU CAN USE. I HAVE INCLUDED COORDINATES ON THE BACK. THANK YOU.
LILLS

A jolt of lightning struck his heart. Spain! His Spain! Well, give or take a few hundred years, but still. Standing up straight, he turned to Imlach with a newfound eagerness. He held up the note triumphantly. "Imlach, fetch me these clothes she speaks of," he said. "I'm going home."

***

Madrid, Spain
Late October 1575

Lills leaned against the edge of a massive, meticulously carved fountain, her eyes searching the crowd for any sign of Rubén Castillo as she tried to look as un-British as possible. Apparently, her knowledge of Spanish history was just as rusty as her actual Spanish, because she had completely forgotten about the Anglo-Spanish war. In her defense, though, it never was formally declared, and there were so many other wars to keep track of. Still, as a drifter, Lills preferred to attract as little attention as possible.

Darcy didn't seem to care about that at all. She prattled on about her latest escapade involving the recovery and return of a jewelry box stolen by the Nazis. It was fascinating, but Lills' mind was already preoccupied with the research she had done on the so-called "thief of time." Finding anything on the subject was nearly impossible, even with the help of Imlach and her friend Nicholas. That just made her few discoveries all the more thrilling.

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