“What if it’s already passed?” she asked.
He leaned forward, a small smile on his face. “Then perhaps you will find a way to make more time. Possibility, dear one. Possibility.”
THERE WAS AN EFFORTLESS BEAUTY TO THE CITY. ITS BONES WERE so ancient that one could just as easily imagine a Roman soldier passing through as one could a Crusader, or the brightly garbed Ottoman Janissaries who filled the city in their elaborate robes and tall, plumed hats. It was a crossroads of centuries.
Damascus gleamed white as a pearl, and seemed to fit together like a puzzle; the streets were curved, crooked, narrow, with the large exception of the aptly named Street Called Straight, which provided a firm backbone. Rooms hung out over the stone streets, some creating arches to pass under, all dripping with green plants and shade. At any point, it seemed as if they could turn off a street and escape into a second, hidden world inside of this one. The way the sunlight filtered through the city made her feel as though she were looking at the world through an old pane of glass.
Minarets of mosques stood proudly over homes and covered markets, peacefully sharing the sky with churches. The greatest of these, as Hasan explained, was the Great Mosque, built in the time of the Umayyad. It was the size of a palace, and some part of it always seemed to be visible, no matter where they stood inside the city’s walls.
In her era, Syria was in the midst of a civil war, one so destructive and burdened with death and despair that millions of refugees had been forced to flee from it. Even Damascus had not been spared. But it was comforting, in a way she hadn’t expected, to understand that the city had stood in one form or another for thousands of years. It had passed through the hands of any number of masters, had faced bloody revolts and subjugations—and it had survived.
“Come, come,” Hasan said, ushering them on. “There are Ironwood guardians who make this city their home. We must get to the souks and return home as quickly as we can.”
Etta walked on faster, searching the crowded streets and squares around them for any sign that they were being watched; beside her, Nicholas’s expression was grim as he kept a hand tucked into the folds of his entari, on a dagger of some kind.
Each souk was a covered market—a bazaar—that coincided with a different trade, each blooming with offerings. If Etta had thought that escaping from the sun for a short time would bring some relief from the heat, she was wrong—there were so many people walking the souks’ narrow lengths, admiring the fine cages and sweet chirping songbirds of the bird-sellers, testing the weight and strength of the armorers’ weapons, examining the copper wares for any flaws, that she was reminded of New York’s subways at rush hour.
Baskets hung like clouds from the ceiling, and when they passed the walls covered in lanterns—lanterns of every shape, every color of glass imaginable—she felt her feet shuffle to a stop.
The spice merchants and perfumers provided welcome relief from the less-than-savory smells of the city, especially the smells of those occupying it. Herself included. There was nothing quite like getting a lungful of a fruit vendor’s sour breath to remind you how many days had passed since you’d stopped trying to find a toothbrush.
The friendliness of the merchants and local people was unrivaled, and unlike anything she’d ever experienced. Nicholas, through Hasan, tried to negotiate for skins to hold water, as well as less conspicuous clothing. Etta watched the other women around her and hoped she didn’t look as awkward as she felt, standing away from where the men were conducting their business. Nicholas had entrusted the satchel to her, including what gold was left after London. When she handed the sack to him to buy the dried fruit, he shoved it back into her hand and allowed Hasan to carefully count out his own money.
“We’ll give him the gold,” Nicholas murmured, stooping close to her ear. “But to use raw gold and unfamiliar coins so liberally would attract the wrong kind of attention.”
Hasan had clearly come up with some viable excuse for their presence. He negotiated in whispers, with laughter, and the occasional stern look, slowly filling their baskets and arms with necessities. While he and Nicholas examined and debated the merits of several different saddles, she was caught in the path of a roving textile merchant who practically flung his silk shawls at her, extolling their virtues in a language she had no chance of understanding.
Etta didn’t know what it was, exactly. Even as the sweet-faced man draped a beautiful length of gold brocade over her shoulder, following her as she turned, she suddenly had an eerie feeling, almost like a spider walking up the back of her neck. Etta glanced around, her eyes leaping from woman to man to merchant.
There were two bearded men in black robes nearby, at a mercantile stall with cloth stacked so high on crooked shelves that it actually brushed the ceiling. One had the darker skin of the people around them, but the other was clearly a Westerner, his complexion nearly as pale as her own. They weren’t looking at the material they’d picked up and draped over their hands. Their focus wasn’t on Hasan, and it wasn’t on Nicholas. It wasn’t even on her.
They were staring at the young woman standing a few feet behind Etta, tucked against a pillar, who was very clearly watching Hasan. A small section of her golden hair spilled out from beneath the white scarf she’d wrapped around her head. Etta pulled her veil fully aside to see her—to convince herself she hadn’t been conjured out of smoke and dust.
Etta must have made a sound, because the young woman spun toward her, and her own veil fell back far enough to reveal her face. The blue eyes that stared back at her matched her own.