No, he thought, rubbing the back of his hand against his forehead. Who could be satisfied with seeking out the four corners of one small world, when there was the whole of time to be had? No, indeed.
“Oh, wow…” Etta again broke into his thoughts as she knelt down beside him.
“And what is that?” he asked.
She reached for something leaning against the tiger’s hind legs. It was another creature, one that looked like a large rat or mouse; only, it seemed to be able to stand on its hindquarters, and wore red breeches with yellow buttons…and shoes…and gloves?
Etta shook the dust from it, and then inexplicably hugged it to her chest. “Something that doesn’t belong here,” he guessed.
She nodded, replacing the stuffed rodent on the floor, and moved on to the remaining sheets, tossing them to the ground while he remained sitting. Nicholas had a perfect view of the lower half of her bare legs. The women of his time kept themselves covered from the tops of their heads to their ankles, and it had taken every ounce of his will and honor not to dwell on the devastatingly smooth skin that had been revealed to him over the past two days.
The makeshift bandage was beginning to slip down her calf, revealing the edge of the blistered bullet graze. They’d need…what had he been taught about germs and disease? To…sterilize it, with alcohol of some kind. To rewrap it in clean linen, and pray to God he hadn’t scarred her.
When Etta turned toward him, leaning back against the desk, he wondered at the exhaustion and dismay he saw etched so deeply into her fine features.
“Whatever is the matter?” Nicholas asked.
Etta dismissed the question with a shrug.
“I cannot read your mind,” he said. This was another man’s home, and until they confirmed that it belonged to the Lindens and no one else would come upon it, he wouldn’t be able to shake his discomfort.
Etta managed a small smile at that. “Sometimes it feels like you can.”
Their thoughts did head in the same direction often enough, but there were times when Etta remained as mysterious as the stars in the sky. Nicholas pushed himself up off the floor and crossed that short distance to her side again.
“I don’t know why it upsets me,” she said, fiddling with the ends of the ribbon he’d tied in her hair. Nicholas caught her hand, clasping it between his own. In that moment, she looked so ruffled that he feared she might very well fly out of the window. And of course there was that heady floral scent, driving him half mad, making him think of silky night air, and the moon hanging like an opal at midnight, and—
“Are all travelers like this?” she said, using her free hand to gesture toward the space around them. “Collectors? Tourists to different eras? Going off to have a laugh and pick up souvenirs to show off? Tokens from events”—she picked up a scrap of parchment—“I mean, someone bought themselves a ticket for passage on the Titanic, and there’s a box over there labeled ‘Pompeii’ that I’m not even going to open. Is there a point to it, other than to amuse themselves? Sophia claims they protect the timeline, but it just seems like they’re protecting their interests.”
It did look as though the room was just a collection of trophies from a scattered life. They had nothing in common beyond the obvious—they belonged to different eras. Clocks made in strange, clean-lined styles; swords mounted to the walls; porcelain trinkets; silk robes and garments beyond his wildest fancies; brittle broadsheets and newspapers, dried to yellow crisps—all stood beside each other, as if the mixture was the most natural thing in the world. It was either a hoard of the family’s treasure, or their own personal museum.
“Is that so wrong?” Nicholas asked. “Amusement is a privilege few are granted. It’s hardly a crime to seek it out. Even you’ve felt the awe of traveling. Do you not qualify it as a pursuit of knowledge?”
“Right,” she said. “But I can’t help but think that that’s not what the passages were meant for. There were generations of travelers who made them, right? How did they discover how to do it, and why did they stop?”
He released her hand, his mind already at work scraping up some sort of weak segue to a safer conversation. She was too clever by half, and Nicholas knew that she would see through his deceit too clearly when he took the astrolabe out of her hands. It was obvious to him now that Etta had no plans of giving it back to Ironwood; he had a feeling the plan she was keeping to herself was as as dangerous as it was daring—that she would try to use it to return to her time, and save her mother herself. And while he could admire her courage, and lament her recklessness, Nicholas needed her to see how foolish it was to believe she could ever escape Ironwood. As it stood, the old man would know that his leaving without permission was hewing to the spirit of their agreement—following her at any cost—so long as he returned with the astrolabe. But how could Etta be so certain of his forgiveness for this act of defiance?
She would hate him for double-crossing her, and he could live with that. But he could not live with knowing she was in constant jeopardy. That Ironwood had stamped out her bloom and buried her. This was the only way he could save her, her mother, and his future that didn’t end with one or all of them dead.
Etta would see that. In time.
“Why do you think they went?” she asked, her eyes a soft, sleepy blue.
If the question had come from any other person, he might have dismissed it with a wave and carried on with his business; but it mattered to him that she sincerely desired his opinion, even knowing who he was. He recognized the want, as it mirrored his own.