A city her mother had painted for her.
“That’s it,” she told Nicholas. “We’ll find it there.” To Hasan, she asked, “Is there any way to narrow down which tomb it might be referring to? Are there very many?”
“Many,” Hasan said, almost apologetically. “I have not visited in many years, so I could not tell you. But Rose tells you to look for the sigil, the sign of our family. I think you will recognize it when you see it.”
Etta nodded, thinking of the tree etched into the cover of her mother’s travel journal. Her hands came up to thoughtfully twist one earring’s cool pearl.
“I worry, though,” Hasan continued. “It is a three-day ride from Damascus on horse, longer by camel. You may be able to push the horses harder, arrive in two days, but it is dangerous—water is not plenty, and if you drive them to exhaustion you will have to go on foot.”
“It’s a risk we’ll have to take, then,” Nicholas said. “We’ll need a map, a compass if you have one—water, food—can we go to the markets at once?”
“Well, yes, of course, but you will not require a map nor a compass, for I shall go with you. As your guide.”
Nicholas was rising to his feet, but at that, he stopped. “We don’t need a guide.”
Why? she wondered. Did he think navigating the ocean gave him some kind of magical insight into handling the desert? This was a gift that Hasan was offering. She wasn’t about to spit in his face.
“It would be my honor,” Hasan said. “It is not ideal to go in a group so small, but I will protect you both with my life.”
“I am perfectly capable of—” Nicholas began, stopping only when Etta put a hand on his shoulder.
“I would hope that will not be necessary,” she said, “but we accept your help. Thank you.”
One to recognize when a battle was already lost—maybe—Nicholas made his way back into the house, crossing the courtyard in long, purposeful strides. He might as well have turned back and glared at them, his posture was so rigid.
“That is a man who does not like to lose.” Hasan waited until Nicholas was well out of sight before leaning toward Etta, soft concern on his face. “I would be pleased to kill him for you.”
She was so startled by the words, it took his laughter to make her see it had been a joke. “He’s been on edge lately. It’s been a hard couple of days.”
“I am more concerned for you. You seem unhappy this morning,” he said. She knew that they were roughly the same age; that, if anything, he had only a few years on her. In that moment, though, his face was so knowing that it felt like she was being offered the opportunity to unburden herself to someone as ancient and knowing as the sun itself—someone who could make sense of what she was feeling.
“We had a bit of a fight,” Etta admitted. “We resolved it the best we could, but it’s not a permanent solution. He’s upset about it and on edge about everything happening. So am I.”
“Has he harmed you?”
“No—nothing like that,” she assured him quickly. “It was just…coming to the conclusion that the…” She didn’t want to lie to him, but she also wasn’t sure how to say it without actually saying it. “That my future might not be what I thought it was going to be.”
Not to mention a healthy dose of fear for her mom—where she was, how they were treating her, if she was hurt—
“I think perhaps…” Hasan caught himself, seeming to consider his words more carefully. “I think perhaps this thing that is between you is not so simple as he would make it sound?”
A shiver of worry passed down her spine.
“Listen well, little niece,” Hasan said, clearly sensing this. “I know his reasons. I do not judge, the way others would. Abbi and Ummi were not married—they could not be traditionally bound. It is forbidden for a woman of my faith to marry a man who is not. But Allah in all his wisdom still brought them together. When they were discovered, she was cast out most terribly from her family. He brought her here, to a foreign land, to begin a new life and try to escape the shame that others had tried and failed to cast upon her. He cared for us, provided, but we could not be seen with him without fear of condemnation, and we could not go with him. We never wanted for anything—except, at times, his presence.”
Hasan gave one last gentle pat to her hand, continuing. “It is blasphemous, I know; it goes against our teachings and beliefs, but I accept their choices. I cherish them in my heart. I cannot help but think, it matters not who you love, but only the quality of such a love. And so what I wish to say to you is…a flower is no less beautiful because it does not bloom in the expected form. Because it lasts an hour, and not days.”
Etta nodded again, somehow managing to swallow against the tightness of her throat. It was what she needed to hear, that reassurance, the echo of her own thoughts. “He is very concerned about the judgment of others. I admire the courage of your parents—I can’t imagine how difficult it was.”
“His wish is your protection; it is a good thing,” he said. “I cannot find fault in it. But Abbi described to me what it was to travel, to see the fabric of life spread out before him. He said it was ‘possibility.’ It is said that there is time enough for every purpose, and so you must continue to believe that there is a time for you.”