He inhaled sharply through his nose as she reached out a hand to stroke its head. As promised, it did not move. It did not blink. The tiger was dead.
“What are the chances your mother killed and stuffed it herself?”
“Pretty good, I think.” Etta held up a framed photograph of an older man in the garb of an early twentieth-century explorer, who was holding a rifle. The tiger lay dead at the toes of his boots, and beside it was a grinning, tiny, blond girl—a younger version of the woman in the other photograph he’d seen. Rose.
And he’d wondered from whom Etta had inherited her casual disregard for danger.
She hesitated before reaching out to run a hand along its curved spine. The coat was orange, striped handsomely with black all the way down to its clawed paws. Having missed the tiger that Etta had seen in the jungle, Nicholas allowed himself to marvel. He’d read of Europe’s menageries, seen descriptions and etchings of the exotic beasts, but to see one for himself…
And yet, what right did a man have to take the life of such a powerful creature, to prop up his own esteem?
“I guess this explains Mom’s connection to Cambodia. And here I was, hoping Benjamin Linden was a Buddhist. I’m going to yell at her for this,” Etta vowed, giving the thing an affectionate pat on the head. “Tigers are endangered now, you know.”
“The older gentleman in this photo is likely your great-grandfather, given what we know about how your mother was raised,” he said, passing it back to her waiting hand. She squinted at it, rubbing a thumb over its dusty face.
“I can see it,” she said quietly, studying Benjamin Linden’s face. “He has her eyes. Her mouth.”
Features she had inherited herself. Etta seemed both intrigued and rattled to finally have proof of him—proof that her family existed beyond her and her mother.
“Alice is right. They should have destroyed it,” Etta said.
He hesitated a moment before clarifying. “The astrolabe?”
She nodded, and the now-familiar poison of guilt and dread worked its way through his system; he would have preferred to avoid the topic altogether rather than think about his own deceit, how it would crush her to know he had to bring it to Ironwood.
“You won’t be able to use it if you do,” he was quick to point out.
And Ironwood will never let you or your mother escape.
“I know you’re right, but I can’t see a way out of this without huge consequences. I still have a few more days…not that many, but a few. I just need to figure out how to avoid giving it to Ironwood, but save Mom.” Etta said, sensing his thoughts. “And then, I guess we’ll…disappear.”
His heart clenched at the word.
“What about the violin? Performing?”
“What about a different future, one I never could have predicted?”
He drew his legs up, bracing his arms over his knees. Some part of him knew the truth of what Chase had seen—he felt an equality between himself and Etta. But now and then, in moments like this one, when she casually tossed out ideas he didn’t understand and was too ashamed to ask about, he fully realized the differences between their upbringings—how much their worlds had been shaped by where and when they’d been born. She knew things beyond his imagining—what could he give to her, other than history lessons?
He’d lied to her, of course, about not wanting to know. Nicholas did. Even if it meant living with the knowledge of all that his life lacked. A part of himself he did not recognize, one he’d learned to silence as a boy, began to demand the attention he’d always denied it.
I want to know. I want to seek. I want to find.
For the first time since Hall had taken him from that frigid house of terror, he felt the touch of a changing wind blowing through him, pushing him toward a different path. All of these things he desired, he could have; if not on a ship, then by seeking out the passages that could carry him where he wanted to go. And he would have her: the lady with whom he wished to travel.
He spotted the leather notebook a short distance away, near the foot of the side table; it was embossed with the emblem of the Linden family, their tree, but the interior pages were blank, waiting to be filled with dates and memories. Waiting for a traveler to mark his trips through the passages.
“This must be one of your family’s homes,” he told her. “Ironwood seized all property belonging to the other families, but it’s possible that, like the passages we used, he doesn’t know that this one exists.”
Etta spun around slowly, taking in the room, breathing in its air, as if trying to become part of it.
Nicholas looked back down at the journal in his hand.
He could return to the Dove—but he doubted the old man would have left his small bag and belongings untouched, if he thought he could somehow use them to control Nicholas. No, he could seek out Chase and Hall one last time to tell them what his intentions were, and then…
He loved the rough beauty of the sea as he loved nothing else in his life, even as it punished him; even as it reminded him of his insignificance in the face of its stormy wrath. It waited, always, for men brave enough to conquer its shimmering skin; for men to use it as their tool to discover fortune, land, themselves. Surely there were places left to be discovered in his own time, islands and kingdoms of ice, routes to be charted that would close the distance between civilizations? Would that not feed the ache he felt inside him at the realization that this was the final clue—that this hunt, this small journey through fear and wonder, was nearly at its end?