“I do not think Abbi would approve of this match,” he said.
“Why?” Nicholas said challengingly.
“She looks as if she desires nothing so much as to feed you to a lion,” said Hasan.
Etta managed to wriggle free. She wasn’t sure what it was—the way his expression softened, more vulnerable than she’d ever seen it, or the simple fact that Nicholas rarely did something without good reason—but she held her tongue instead of calling him out on the lie.
“Next time we’re on a ship,” she said, turning back to Hasan with a conspiratorial smile, “I’ll feed some important bit to a shark.”
“A sailor?” Hasan scoffed, turning to assess him again with this new knowledge. “A pirate, no doubt.”
“A legal pirate,” Nicholas said tiredly.
“The only pirates I know are those from the Barbary Coast,” Hasan said, eyeing Nicholas. “They are not so friendly to Europeans, you see. They trade in slaves, and their tastes are vast. They take from Africa. They take from Europe. A girl such as this would be prized: her skin, her hair, her eyes. A man would pay a price for her.”
Etta actually gasped. “What are you getting at?”
“I believe he’s trying to ask if you are my concubine,” Nicholas said with a humorless smile. “If you need rescue.”
“No!” she choked out. “Neither of us are even from this time, and the fact that you think he’s even capable of doing something like that—”
Hasan visibly relaxed, even as Nicholas put a calming hand on her shoulder. “One hears of such things—sees them—and so I worry. If Abbi is not here, then it falls to me to protect you. But if he is your husband, as he says, he shares in the responsibility.”
“I can take care of myself,” Etta muttered.
“This is the truth,” Nicholas told him, stooping down to pick up the letter. He glanced over it again. “But we’re in a hurry, you see. Ironwood has ‘sweet Rose’ at his mercy and is threatening to kill her, and very likely will, if we can’t figure out where she’s hidden something. Does this last phrase here mean anything to you? Bring jasmine to the bride who sleeps eternal beneath the sky?”
“My papa was very fond of riddles such as these, but I cannot say I have heard this one before.” Hasan’s steps were light as he made his way through the room, running his hands along each possession; all were clearly prized. He picked up the photograph of the tiger hunt and brushed the coating of dust from its glass face, continuing, “He is gone, but I have hope that I will see him again. Perhaps not as old as he was, but a young man, discovering this era for the first time. Perhaps he will not yet recognize me, but I will know him. And until that day, I will care for our family, and ask that you stay as my guests. When I am gone, you may use my home as your own.”
“Thank you,” Etta said. “But what do you mean, when you’re gone?”
They had…How many days was it now until the thirtieth? Only six?
“I must go to Baghdad to collect my wife, little cousin,” he said, an almost goofy look of happiness passing over his face. And once again, she tried to judge exactly how old he was, and came up with seventeen at the most. “Samarah will be greatly displeased to have missed you. She has gone to be with her sister and their new child. I will remain here to sell my indigo and pearls, and will fetch her as soon as the goods are gone and there is a caravan or others to travel with.”
“A merchant, then,” Nicholas clarified.
Hasan nodded, his smile slightly crooked with the swelling on his face. “It is natural. Abbi brought me many books, taught me many languages. English, Turkish, French, Greek. So you see, I cannot travel in your way, but he has helped me to go far on my own feet.”
“I’m glad we met you,” Etta said sincerely, struck all over again that he was her family; her concept of the word had changed again. “When do you think you’ll be leaving, though?”
“I would have left a week ago,” Hasan replied, “but some of the tribes make the desert a dangerous place to be alone. So, I wait—it should not be long now.”
“Indeed?” Nicholas said. “And what desert would this be?”
Hasan nearly dropped the photo, a surprised laugh tumbling out of him. “Perhaps that is where we can make another beginning? My new friends, may I be the first to humbly welcome you to the Queen of Cities, Dimashq. Damascus.”
NEITHER ETTA NOR NICHOLAS HAD KNOWN WHAT TIME IT WAS when they came through the passage, but after Hasan gently informed them that it was three o’clock in the morning, his initial hostility made more sense.
“Rest now,” he said, taking one of the candles with him. “Tomorrow, I will show you the house, the city, and we will try to understand Abbi’s riddle.”
Nicholas’s lips parted, his shoulders tightening as if he was about to protest this, but Etta put a hand on his arm and said simply, “Thank you. Good night.”
When the door shut firmly behind Hasan, Nicholas pulled away, crossing over to the bed in several rapid, stiff strides. Rather than sit down on it, he pulled the top blanket off, and without sparing even a glance at her, moved to the opposite end of the room to spread it out over a few floor cushions he gathered on the way.
Etta felt a sharp twist in the pit of her stomach. What had she thought? That they’d be sharing the bed? That they’d pick up where they left off earlier that day?