Her stomach rolled. “What do you mean?”
Rose had escaped from Ironwood’s men? She was safe—but they’d already missed her?
Nicholas put a calming hand on her wrist and asked Hasan, “Rose—was she young, or was she older than you remember her?”
“Young,” Hasan said, suspicion edging back into his voice. “Too young to have had a child your age. She had come here with a special purpose, but she would not tell me what this was.”
Nicholas glanced at her, clearly taking in her startled reaction. It wasn’t her mother—the mother who had raised her. Because of the way the passages worked, they’d nearly bumped into the younger Rose as she’d come here to hide the astrolabe in the first place.
“Why didn’t you go with her?” Etta asked, curious.
“Because I cannot. Some would call me a…a guardian, but I do not perform a duty beyond the care and keeping of this home,” Hasan said. “I do not answer to the Grand Master’s call. I will not be an Ironwood.”
“Did Rose leave something here?” Etta asked, her words toppling over each other.
Until that moment, Etta hadn’t thought to anticipate this problem. Had her mom or Benjamin Linden warned Hasan of the other families, or told him to only trust Rose with the location of the astrolabe?
Nicholas grabbed the collar of Hasan’s robe, tightening his grip.
Because, yes, obviously what they needed was more violence.
Hasan wet his lips, his eyes flickering around the room. The water from the cloth ran down the side of his face like sweat.
“Answer the lady,” Nicholas grated out.
“I vowed on my life,” Hasan said, dropping the cloth back into the basin. “I cannot simply take your word. You may not be who you say you are. There are many who would trick me—who would trick those of us still sworn to the Linden family and to its secrets.”
Etta’s mind reached for that one last, real chance.…
“The only reason I knew to come here was because my mom told me a story.…She told me many stories about her travels that were true and false at the same time. The last one I heard from her was about a woman who sold her these earrings in a marketplace here in Damascus.” Etta unhooked one from her ear and handed it to him. “She said a woman named Samarah sold them to her.”
Hasan’s hand was shaking as he took it from her, running a light finger over the curve of the hoop. The silence between them seemed to stretch into an hour, until he finally said, “Samarah did not sell them to her. She gave them to her. I know this, for Samarah is my wife, my love, and I was there to see it.”
Hasan moved to the desk. Reaching into the open neck of his robe, he gripped a long, silver chain, brandishing the thin silver key dangling from it.
“We could have just broken it open,” Nicholas muttered, staring at the drawer, but Hasan slid the key not into the lock on the face of the drawer, but beneath it—into a lock they hadn’t seen at all.
The drawer gave a satisfying click as the tumblers turned, and it slid open on its track.
Nicholas immediately tried to use his height to lean over Hasan and see what was inside. Hasan gave him a cold glance before rifling through its contents. Finding whatever it was, he stood and slammed the drawer shut with his foot.
“You remind me…” He held out a small, cream-colored envelope. She unfolded its flap, letting its contents spill out in her hand. The first thing was another black-and-white photograph, again of her mother, only so much younger. She had a sweet smile on her face, and was dressed in some kind of school uniform; her hair was curled and pinned back, her hands resting in her lap. There was a secret tucked into her smile.
On the back someone had written: Rose, age 13.
The other piece of paper in the envelope was a letter addressed to: Etta, my dear heart.
“You had that all this time, and you still questioned her?” Nicholas asked, outraged.
“Stop being so unreasonable,” Etta said. “How could he have known for sure?”
“I am a protector of this family,” Hasan said, his chest puffing out. “Rose is the cherished daughter of Abbi’s son, beloved by all of us. So I think, when I see this girl, she looks like Rose. She looks like my faraway English papa. She has his sky colors. But so do many from his country. On his last visit, Abbi seemed as old as the desert, the bàdiyat ash-shàm. He was confused in the mind, very frightened about what was happening to the other families. I would not risk her life for anything less than a certainty.”
“I understand,” Etta said, grateful and touched by how much passion he had invested into protecting the person she loved. “Thank you.”
She smoothed the letter out on her knee, looking around for some kind of pen. My dear heart…another sweet nickname her mother had never used for her before. Nicholas dutifully retrieved a fountain pen from a cup on the desk.
“Rather dangerous to keep all of this out,” he noted.
Hasan shrugged. “In the event it is discovered, the house and its contents will be burned.”
Etta shook her head at that, roughly sketching out the shape of a heart over the run-on sentences and non sequiturs, until she had isolated what she thought was the true message:
I am so sorry. I wish there was another way. I tried to protect you from this, but if you find this I’ve failed. Trust no one save those who share our blood. Ironwood will destroy your future, he will erase everyone and everything to save one life, and the Thorns mean to do the same. It must be destroyed. No one can decide what is or what should be. Bring jasmine to the bride who sleeps eternal beneath the sky, and look for the sigil. I will find you there as soon as I can. Forgive me. I love you.