That confirmed her suspicion, at least. Some change must have been made to the timeline that orphaned all the travelers born after that time. Etta closed her eyes. Took a steadying breath through her nose.
“What changed—oh, you mean the timeline? Judging by the party they neglected to invite me to, the timeline’s shifted the way they were hoping it would. The dimwits running this joint said something about Russia losing but winning. Drunken nonsense. Why we’re still in scenic post-earthquake San Francisco is anyone’s guess, though. Stay with these people long enough and, believe me, they’ll show you the armpit of every century.”
“You haven’t even tried asking them, have you?” Etta asked, unimpressed. “What year?”
His look was lightly scolding. “I told you. 1906.”
She swallowed her noise of irritation. “No, I mean, what year was it in Texas?”
“I’m not entirely sure I should say—”
Etta lunged forward, barely catching the words burning the tip of her tongue before they had the chance to singe him. He wasn’t going to keep the last common year from her—that was the only way she could figure out how to retrace her steps to Damascus, and to Palmyra.
“Oh ho—!” He stood and backed away from her. “You’ve got that wild look in your eyes like you did just before you bopped me on the nose. Believe me, they’ve removed everything that can be used as a weapon.”
Etta looked down at the glass in her hand, then back at him, one brow arching. “I’ve gotten pretty creative over the past few weeks. I think I can handle one minor Ironwood.”
“Minor?” he shot back, his voice wavering between incredulity and outrage. “Don’t you know who I am?”
“No. You were so busy congratulating yourself, you never got around to making introductions,” Etta said. “Though I take it you know who I am?”
“Everyone knows who you are,” he muttered, sounding annoyed. “How far I’ve fallen that I actually have to introduce myself.”
He placed one arm behind his back and the other across his waist, giving her a mocking little bow. “Julian Ironwood, at your service.”
HER DISBELIEF MUST HAVE BEEN SPLASHED ACROSS HER FACE, because his smile shifted, becoming sardonic. Clearly not the reaction he had been expecting.
Julian Ironwood? Etta let out a small, lifeless laugh. Time travel had already presented a number of brain-bending possibilities—meeting an eighteen-year-old version of the violin instructor she’d known from the moment she was born, to name only one. But, surprise, experiences like that didn’t make it any easier to come face-to-face with the dead. Etta tried to keep her expression neutral, knowing that staring at him in horror was going to raise some flags in his mind.
Nicholas had warned her repeatedly about the dangers of telling anyone their fate, that knowing how and when they would die could affect the choices a person made, and potentially, the timeline. Alice had given her an out, had specifically asked her not to say, but now…
The guilt felt familiar as it pooled in her heart. Etta bit her lip. It was just…what were the chances of meeting Nicholas’s brother, and here, of all places? And why hadn’t Nicholas mentioned that Julian had been held at some point by the Thorns?
“Either my adorably sadistic grandfather has done something terrible to you, or you’re about to inform me that I’ve died by—rather stupidly, if I say so myself—falling off a mountain,” he said. “Those seem to be the only two reactions I get these days.”
“You—” Etta sputtered, whirling back around. “I didn’t mean to—it’s just—”
“Calm down, will you? You’re going to give yourself the vapors for no good reason,” he said. “As you can see, I am not dead.”
“Wait…” she began, coming closer to better study his face. His eyes were the same icy shade of blue as Cyrus’s, and she could detect, under the scruff and grin, the same high cheekbones and long, straight nose that age had tempered on the old man’s face. Julian also seemed to have the Ironwood affinity for grappling for control of every conversation, no matter how short.
“You’re alive,” Etta finally managed to get out. “You…you didn’t die after all?”
He grinned, enjoying the conversation, and motioned down to his body. “Still in one piece. The luck of the devil, as old Grandpops used to say. Rather odd, that, considering he is the devil—”
“What happened?” she interrupted.
He gave her an infuriating grin. “Tell me what you think happened.”
Etta, with patience she had no idea she possessed, managed to tamp down her temper long enough to say, “There was a storm….You slipped on the path leading up to the monastery, Taktsang Palphug—”
“Did Grandpops really give the world that much detail?” Julian asked, flattening his hair with his hand. “He’s usually so quick to defend the family’s honor, but I guess even he couldn’t resist making me sound like a right idiot.”
There was a sharp undercurrent to the words that seemed at odds with his jocular tone. Etta studied him again—the slouching posture, the unkempt clothes, the glint in his eyes she’d originally taken as mischief—and wondered which side of him was the truth, and which he’d simply made a home in.
“I thought he would have…” He kept pacing, but this time turned his eyes to the floor. “Did he…I never heard anything about a memorial or the like…?”
Etta’s brows rose. “I don’t know. I’m assuming.”
“It’s not that it matters to me,” he said quickly, shaping the words in the air with his hands, “but it’s sort of…anticlimactic to disappear into a puff of snow and mist. A chap wants to know that—you know, actually, it doesn’t matter. None of it really matters.”
“Stop—stop pacing, you’re making me nervous,” Etta said. “Can you stand still for one second and actually explain this to me?”
He popped himself up onto the corner of the grand desk, folding his hands in his lap. Within seconds, his bare feet were swinging, drumming against the leg of it, and Etta realized she’d asked for the impossible. Not only did he not shut up, he couldn’t seem to burn off enough energy to stop moving.