His words continued to ring in her mind over and over again as she lay on her side on the bed and stared through the curtains, past the dust drifting down from the heavy canopy. One candle was left burning near where he had stretched out across the floor, his back to her; the flickering glow illuminated the long, strong lines of his silhouette. She knew by the cadence of his breathing that he wasn’t asleep, either.
They were afraid of what could happen; their sights were set on the future. And there would be time for that. There was work they had to do to maintain the timeline, and one last riddle to solve. But she wondered if, in moving outside of the natural flow of time, they had forgotten the most crucial point of life—that it wasn’t meant to be lived for the past, or even the future, but for each present moment.
Etta had lived through a sea battle. She’d survived the scheming of old, power-hungry men; the Blitz; a tiger; a cobra; and a gunshot—and she was denying herself this, out of fear that it might hurt later?
What would hurt worse: the regret that she tried, or the regret that she didn’t?
She was protected. She cared so deeply for him that he seemed to live like a second heart inside of her. She wanted him, and he wanted her. To hell with forever. This moment was theirs, and she’d steal it if she had to.
She slipped out from under the quilt, working her fingers down the row of buttons on the back of her dress until it slipped down her front and pooled at her feet with a whisper of sound. Her shadow moved against the wall, blending with his own. His breathing caught as she lifted the blanket and slipped in behind him, curling around the heat of him; her hand slipped over his side, along the muscles of his stomach, until he caught it and turned over slowly, taking in the sight of her.
“Etta…” he whispered against her cheek. Are you certain?
She tilted her head back, pressing her lips against his square jaw, letting her fingers follow. “Forever isn’t right now. It’s not even tomorrow.”
Etta propped herself up, leaning over his shoulder to extinguish the stub of the candle before it could burn itself out. A bright happiness spread through her as she lay back and his solid weight settled over her. He ducked down, kissing her, and she moved against him, urging him to touch her, to find the secret self that only ever seemed to exist with him. Etta felt him come alive in his own skin, felt the sheer strength of him as he moved over her, with her, and she let herself fall into it, dissolving into him. And what she found in that soft, warm darkness had no beginning and no end, for this time was their own, and it created its own eternity.
“I HAVE BEEN THINKING OF YOUR RIDDLE,” Hasan called as they descended the stairs and stepped out into the warm, glowing afternoon air of the courtyard. “I may have an answer for you.”
He was set up at a table near a shallow pool, in the shadow of a tree that jutted out just far enough over the water to drop its enormous waxy leaves into the still waters. The walls were tiled in intricate patterns that mimicked the natural, curling growth of the nearby plants. Chimes and bursts of green leaves were interspersed among them, including the source of the fragrance that perfumed the entire house.
The small white blossoms were scattered across the ground, and dropped like tears onto her hair and shoulders from the ledges lining each of the second-story windows that looked down at them. The outside of the house was incredibly ornate, and last night they had discovered the inside was just as beautiful. As soon as there had been natural light and they could open the shutters, the room had revealed itself in a riot of color and pattern that ran along the walls, through the carpets, and even to the bundle of clothing that had been left outside of the door.
The careful consideration that had gone into crafting the courtyard was staggering; everything was in brilliant balance. There had been no hesitation to invite nature into the heart of the house. Instead, nature had been given a place of honor, a patch of sunlight to thrive, and a perch on which it could be admired. The effect was breathtaking.
The sun warmed Etta’s back as she walked toward Hasan. He stood and busied himself with piling bread and fruit on two plates, and poured steaming cups of sweet-smelling tea from a gleaming silver pot.
Nicholas’s hand finally released hers as he moved to sit at the opposite end of the table, still lost in the winding paths of his own mind. Etta had woken that morning to find him sitting in front of the tiger, staring into its face. She had sat beside him, smiling as he pressed a kiss to her bare shoulder. His skin smelled sweet, like milk and honey, and he’d shaved and trimmed his hair. Etta ran a hand over it.
“You’re looking especially clean this morning,” she said.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said, “so I brought water up for a bath, and then more for you. The water should still be warm.”
Pure joy exploded in her. “I could kiss you for that!”
“By all means,” he said coyly. “Don’t hold yourself back on my account.”
Etta kissed him soundly, then followed him to the next room, where a porcelain claw-foot tub squatted, completely at odds with its surroundings. Nicholas washed her back in comfortable silence until she asked, “What are you wearing?”
A white undershirt was partly hidden by what was either a luxurious gold vest or snugly fitting jacket, over which was another long patterned crimson coat that hung down over silky, loose pants. A gold sash had been knotted around his waist.
“According to Hasan, shalvar,” he said, pointing to the pants, “a kusak,” gesturing to the sash, “and an entari,” landing finally on the robe-like overcoat.