Rose had always known it would be a matter of time before Ironwood came back to stamp out the last of her family, but she wasn’t like all of those Jacaranda or Hemlock children who had let Ironwood take them in after their own parents gave in, or were executed.
How sad for them, she thought, that they had grown up without any thorns with which to protect themselves.
One day she would take everything from Cyrus Ironwood. She would demolish his throne of hours and his crown of days. She would find him and finish what her mama and papa had started. But tonight Rose would only follow this monster through the shadows.
Because someone would need to tell Grandpapa where Ironwood had hidden the bodies.
ETTA WOKE TO THE RUMBLING call of thunder, her body wrapped in ribbons of fire.
Her mind launched into sharp awareness. The skin was burning off her bones, peeling back to expose every tender nerve and vein to pure, unflinching agony. She choked as she inhaled, her lungs too tight to bring in more than a small gasp of air. She knew she wasn’t in water—the ground was stiff and ragged beneath her—but the instinctive flare of panic, the way her body felt heavy as stone as it jerked, felt like drowning.
Etta turned her head to the side and tried to cough up the dust that filled her mouth. The small movement sent a fresh ripple of pain through her shoulder, down her ribs, and then back up her spine.
Fractured pieces of memories burst through the feverish haze of heat and delirium: Damascus, astrolabe, Sophia, and—
Etta forced her eyes open, then squeezed them shut again at the intensity of the sun. That single second was enough for her to absorb the image of the bone-white world around her, the way it flickered and shimmered as heat rose up from the pale dust. It made her think of the way sunlight played on the ocean waves. It made her think of…
That was the thunder she was hearing, then. There was no storm coming—no break from the heat. She was surrounded by desert—everywhere, for miles—broken up by distant, unfamiliar plateaus instead of ancient structures and temples. Then this wasn’t—
Not Palmyra. The air smelled different here, burning her nostrils as she breathed in again. There wasn’t that hint of rotting, wet greens carried over from a nearby oasis. No camels, either.
Her chest tightened, fear and confusion knotting around her stomach.
“Nic—” Even that sliver of a name felt like broken glass in her throat; her dry lips cracked, and she tasted blood.
She shifted, pressing her palms against the rough ground to push herself up. I need to get up….
Drawing her elbows in close to her side, she got no further than lifting her neck when the dull pain in her shoulder burst like a blister. A scream finally broke loose, ragged in her throat. Etta’s arms buckled beneath her.
“Good God, shriek again a little louder this time, will you? It’s bad enough the guardian’s on his way, but by all means, bring the cavalry galloping up with him.”
A shadow fell over her. In the few seconds before the darkness reached up and dragged her back down, Etta thought she caught a glimpse of bright, almost unnaturally blue eyes that seemed to widen in recognition at the sight of her. “Well. Well, well, well. It seems like this Ironwood does have some luck left to his name, after all.”
NICHOLAS LEANED BACK AGAINST THE CHAIR, lifting the wilting corner of his hat to survey the crowded scene at the Three Crowns Tavern again. The air in the establishment was sweltering, giving its rum-soaked patrons a look of fever. The proprietor, a former ship captain by the name of Paddington, was an eager participant in the merrymaking, leaving his sturdy wife behind the bar to coordinate the drinks and meager food service.
Neither seemed to have a care for the fact that the gaudy emerald paint was curling off the wall in clumps, as if eager to get away from the overpowering stench of men deep in their cups. A defaced portrait of George III loomed over them, the eyes and sensitive bits scratched out—likely by men of the Continental Navy and Marines, who had raided the island for munitions and supplies seven months before.
Nicholas weighed the odds, as he impatiently turned his now-warm pint of ale between his hands, that the “three crowns” in the tavern’s name referred to the three vices that seemed to reign over it: avarice, gluttony, and lust.
A lone fiddler huddled over his instrument in the corner, trying in vain to raise a tune over the bawdy singing of the men nearby. The knot in his throat tightened, aided by the knot of his stained cravat.
“Jolly mortals, fill your glasses; noble deeds are done by wine. Scorn the nymph and all her graces; who’d for love or beauty pine! Fa-la-la-la-la…!”
Nicholas jerked away from the sight of the bow gliding over the strings, lest his mind start chasing memories down that unhappy trail again. Each second was chipping at his resolve, and what patience he had left seemed as insubstantial as a feather.
Steady, he coaxed himself, steady.
How very difficult, though, when the temptation to claw at the table and walls to release the bottled-up storm in him had him so close to surrender. He forced himself to focus on the men hunched over their tables, slapping down cards in perfect ignorance of the onslaught of rain pounding against the windows. The dialects and languages were as varied as the ships out in the bay. There were no uniforms present, which was a welcome surprise to him and a boon to the men at the tables around him, as they shamelessly attempted to unload their contraband.
Little wonder that Rose Linden had chosen this place to meet. He was beginning to question whether the woman courted villainy, or if she merely felt at home in it. If nothing else, her choice ensured that the Ironwood guardians watching the hidden passage on the island would not be likely to step in—their sensibilities were too delicate to risk brushing up against the scruffy charm of the seamen.
Nicholas reached up to press his fingers against the cord of leather hidden beneath his linen shirt. Against the outline of the delicate earring he’d strung through it for safekeeping. He didn’t dare take it out; he’d seen the look of pity and disgust Sophia had fired his way last evening, when she’d caught him looking at it by the light of their small fire, studying the pale pearl, the gold leaves and blue beads attached to the gold hoop.
It was a safer thing by far to keep his eyes forward, rather than fixed on the evidence of his failures.