Etta would find this place agreeable. He could not catch the thought before it escaped, nor could he stop himself from picturing her here. She would have delighted in watching the room, soliciting whatever stories she could about the island’s sordid history as a pirate kingdom. He might have lost her, even, to an ill-fated treasure hunt or a smuggler’s crew.
Lost her all the same. Nicholas exhaled slowly, packing the ache away again.
On the worst of days, when the restlessness and fear turned his blood to squirming spiders and his inaction became unbearable, his thoughts turned to nightmares. Hurt. Gone. Dead. But the very simple truth, the one that remained when every doubt swirled around him, was that Etta was simply too clever and stubborn to die.
He’d purposefully extinguished the lantern hanging on the wall beside them, and he’d ordered just enough small plates of food and ale to allow them to keep their table without question. But his pockets had lightened as the hours wound down, and Nicholas knew that what little pay he’d scraped together from a morning’s work unloading cargo on the docks wouldn’t keep for much longer.
“She’s not showing,” Sophia growled at him from across the table.
Nicholas pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to tamp down the swell of frustration before it carried him off.
“Patience,” he growled. The night wasn’t over yet. “We aren’t finished here.”
Sophia huffed, downing whatever was left in her pint before reaching over and snatching his, drawing appreciative looks from the next table over as she gulped the remainder of the ale.
“There,” she said, slamming the tankard down. “Now we can go.”
In his twenty-odd years of life, Nicholas never could have dreamt he’d see the day when an Ironwood looked so utterly disreputable. Owing to the presence of Ironwoods on the island, and owing even more greatly to the fact that the Grand Master himself had likely put a bounty on his and Sophia’s heads large enough to purchase said island, they were in disguise.
Sophia had sullenly—but willingly—sheared her long, dark, curling locks to her shoulders, and braided the remainder into a neat queue. He’d secured clothing from a sailor who shared, approximately, her small stature, and she wore it as comfortably as she did her own skin—unexpected, given her past proclivity for silk and lace.
Most surprising, however, was the leather patch over the now-empty socket of her left eye.
Nicholas’s fears of her losing her eye after the brutal beating she’d suffered in Palmyra had been well founded. By the time he and Hasan had brought her back to a hospital in Damascus, the wound had become infected, and her sight in that eye was already gone. Sophia had elected for slow death by rot and fever rather than willingly let any of the physicians remove it, no doubt for vanity’s sake.
Yet, when they at last had been forced to remove it, some part of her must have wanted to survive, because she had not retreated from life even in the fiercest clutches of agony. In fact, she had healed quickly, and he had to begrudgingly admit her force of will, once she had made a decision, was something to be feared.
It was a lucky thing, too. While she recovered in Damascus, Nicholas received an unexpected note from Rose, left inside Hasan’s home for him to find.
Circumstances prevent me from waiting the month out, as discussed. We will meet on October 13th in Nassau or not at all.
At some point during her ride back to Damascus from Palmyra, where they had agreed to their original meeting, something had clearly changed in Rose’s evaluation of these “circumstances.” Without details, however, Nicholas hadn’t the slightest idea if he should be afraid, or merely irritated she expected them to be able to travel so far, so quickly. As sympathetic as he was to Sophia’s wounds, the idea that her injuries might cause them to miss their opportunity to discover the last common year had ignited a sickening panic, and no small amount of resentment, in him.
But her bruises and cuts had faded over the nearly two weeks since her beating, until, three days past, she’d been strong enough to begin to navigate them through a series of passages. And, finally, after one short chartered voyage from Florida, they had arrived to find Rose…nowhere.
“She’s not bringing Etta with her, if that’s what’s got you looking like a puppy about to piddle on the floor,” Sophia said. “Don’t you think we would have seen them by now if that were the case?”
He hadn’t expected Rose to arrive with Etta, safe and healing from her own wound, in tow…at least, not since that morning. Hope, as it turned out, dwindled like sand through an hourglass.
Nicholas forced himself to take a steadying breath. Her hatred of him minced the air between them, and, over the past weeks, her feelings had scarred into something far uglier than he’d known before. It made sleeping near her at night somewhat…uncomfortable…to say the least.
But he…How bitter the word the word needed was, when it was attached to Sophia. He needed her assistance to find passages, and, in exchange, had promised to help her disappear from Ironwood’s reach once their ill-fated adventure was at an end. It seemed obvious enough to him that the true reason Sophia remained with him was because she had not fully given up her designs on the accursed object.
And he had to live with the knowledge of this, because he, God help him, needed her. Damn his pitiful scraps of a traveler’s education. Damn his luck. And damn all Ironwoods.
“So eager to go back out in this weather?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. She narrowed her one eye right back, then scowled, turning toward the tavern.
Nicholas ran his fingers along the edge of the table, feeling each groove in the wood. Even two days ago, the idea of abandoning his deal with Rose had been inconceivable. Yet, if she couldn’t honor their agreement, what tied him to it?
You know what, he thought. Discovering the last common year between the previous version of the timeline and whichever this one might be. Etta would have been shoved through the passages, through decades or centuries, until they’d ultimately tossed her out somewhere in that year, stranding her there hurt and alone. He should have fought to flip their aims, so Rose was searching for the astrolabe, and he Etta, but it had struck him, even exhausted and raw with emotion, that Rose would have the contacts needed to quickly sort out the timeline changes.
Nicholas was already preparing for her cold fury when she found out that he had not spent the two weeks searching for the blasted astrolabe, as she’d asked him to. He could start in earnest, once his mind was no longer haunted by his fears for Etta’s life. Until then, he would never be able to fully concentrate on the task at hand.