He was tired; so tired of the Ironwoods, of travelers, of all the meddling in the lives of innocent people and the hardship they suffered over the greed and demands of his kind. He was inclined to say Ironwood could take the blasted astrolabe to hell with him, if it weren’t for the damage he knew Ironwood could do to Nicholas’s own time.
“I made a promise,” was all he said.
“Promises are for saints and losers. Most of the time we can’t even keep the ones we make to ourselves.”
He gave her a sour look from beneath the brim of his hat. “You and I are entirely different people.”
“You don’t say!” Sophia scoffed. “At least be man enough to admit that what you really, truly want is to find Etta.”
More than my next heartbeat. But it was like swimming out to sea in the rain; no matter where he went, he could not avoid the cold drench of truth. Etta would want him to finish what they’d begun by finding the astrolabe.
And leave her to die?
His right hand curled at his side, and he could almost catch the memory of what it had felt like to have her hand tucked there.
And that was it. That calm certainty in knowing her as he knew himself. There was no point to any of this if Etta didn’t survive; the future didn’t belong to him, it had belonged to her, and had always been tied to her dreams. He wanted that success and celebration for her, the chance for her to resolve the unfinished yearnings in her heart. Everything good in this life was her or meant for her.
At the time, it had felt like an inevitability that they would collide, even in the face of such insurmountable odds. Each time something had blocked their path, it had only served to feed that necessity of staying together. Now and then, though, when he stared into the fire at night, or stole a moment to himself, a passing doubt caught him in its snare. They were both so very, very stubborn. So determined to strike back at the rules of life, the way their situation had confined him, that he worried they had only come together purely as an act of rebellion.
But then her face would find him, as fierce as the moment he’d first clapped eyes on her. When his hands were dry and chapped, he recalled the softness of her skin. When the world shivered at the approaching winter, he recalled the warmth of being beside her. When he felt the sneering judgment of the eyes around him, he recalled the invincibility she’d instilled in him with her belief.
And the doubts, they would recede as quietly as they came, leaving a peace as vast as the deep, dark ocean. Nicholas believed they could find that place she had spoken of, the time that was meant for the two of them. He had to believe that.
It was weeks since she’d been orphaned. If she had survived her wound and found help, as he hoped she had, Etta was strong enough to keep surviving and begin finding her way back to Damascus. Perhaps they’d meet each other halfway and continue what they’d begun, rewrite the rules of this life.
Sophia pressed on. “Go find her, sail off into your sunset, and leave me to…”
“To…?” he prompted when she did not continue, already knowing the answer. Leave me to find the astrolabe alone. Oh; he stifled the bitter laugh before it could emerge. She would cherish the opportunity to remove him from the playing field; to not have any obstruction between her and whatever she was planning.
Instead of answering, Sophia turned her gaze back out to the tents and stalls and argued, “What about Rose Linden’s promise to meet you here? Aren’t you sick of sitting here and twiddling your thumbs, waiting for Mummy to tell us what to do? If you want us to find Etta, if that will perk you up and get you back on the trail of finding the astrolabe, then we’ll start by looking for her. It’ll be a risk, knowing Grandfather could get to those Thorns first, but I guess we’ll have to take it. The price we pay for you being so revoltingly lovesick.”
He studied her carefully, frowning. Being compassionate was at odds with her natural disposition, and she was so entirely resistant to niceties that he couldn’t stop the trickle of suspicion inside him—that she was arguing this point for more than what she was letting him see.
“He doesn’t necessarily know what happened—” Nicholas started.
“Don’t be ridiculous. By now, he knows what’s happened. We have the small advantage of him being more interested in finding those Thorns than finding us, and we need to use it. So, ticktock. Let’s go.”
As loath as he was to concede it, she did have a point. Over the last few days, it had become clear to him that he was the only one willing to play this game with any decency, and he’d begun to wonder if decency was merely the trade of fools.
“Where do we begin to look for her?” Nicholas heard himself ask. “How do we go about ascertaining the last common year without turning to another traveler?”
Any Ironwood or Ironwood ally would immediately report them to the old man for the reward. Without Rose’s information, searching for Etta would feel like a dead reckoning. He did not enjoy navigating a ship blindly, and the same could be said of his life.
“We go find Remus and Fitzhugh Jacaranda, like I’ve been telling you,” Sophia said. “Grandfather gave them the worst posting imaginable when they came crawling back into the fold after they betrayed him and joined the Thorns. I would bet anything there’s no love lost between them and Grandfather, and they might be willing to share what they know for a price. Or you can just tell them your tragic tale, let slip a manly, heroic tear.”
Pity. Wonderful. His patience finally slipped its leash. “If they have such a terrible, remote posting, who’s to say they’ll even have heard about the shift in the timeline?”
“If they haven’t heard anything, they’ll be able to point us to someone who might know. It won’t be a wasted trip either way.”
Nicholas released a harsh breath through his nose, considering this.
Sophia, possibly for the first time in her life, was being reasonable. They were losing time. He was bloody well tired of Rose’s games. If the Jacarandas could aid in making quick work of finding Etta, then that was the way forward. If they couldn’t help him, at least he could console himself with the knowledge that he was actually moving forward, that he’d broken out of the gaol of inaction in which Rose had locked him.
“All right,” he said, relenting. “We will try it your way, then. If nothing comes of searching for Etta, then…we’ll proceed with finding the astrolabe on our own. I promise you.”