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Around him were walls as white and pale as a tomb, ornamented lavishly with carvings. Nicholas tried to focus long enough to see what was there. A thousand suns. A thousand flowers. The atmosphere was calm and peaceful. Even the water they sponged his face with was sweetly fragranced, strewn with flowers that reminded him of Etta. But, of course, what didn’t make him think of Etta now?

Though there were beds open beside him, he was alone in this stretch of the hallway, left to watch the water spilling over the room’s fountain, to watch the young men and women who came to fill their basins from it. He was lifted, made to drink tasteless broth. Nicholas might have told them that it was pointless—his throat was swollen and raw, like he’d swallowed the whole of the sun. He knew.

The wound had not killed him.

The fever would.

Despite his weak struggling, they kept him wrapped tightly in the bedding, trapped inside his own heat until there was little choice but to sweat and suffer. All of these people tending to him, and no one would help him.

Etta will.

Etta would. Holy God—he’d seen a man try to smash her skull against the stone, and the very last chain of his control had snapped. Was she all right? Where was she? And the date…how many days had passed? Would she know to go without him?

When his eyes slid shut again, it wasn’t her face that he saw, but Hall’s—the way he had looked when he’d crouched down in front of Nicholas, when the boy was barely as high as his hip, and told him that they were leaving. He’d offered his hand—big, so big and warm—and it had closed around his.

Hall…who would tell Hall what had become of him? And Chase? Perhaps one of them might seek out Ironwood, only to find that he had no definitive answers, either.

Lost. He would be known not by what he had accomplished, but for the manner of his demise. Most sailors knew to accept the word as final, with all of its deadly simplicity. But Hall and Chase were relentlessly optimistic. Would they be able to shoulder the burden of not knowing? Sold back into slavery, food for the sharks, rotting away in prison…there were endless ways for their minds to torture them, and none would even come close to the truth.

He began to measure his hours by the calls to prayer he heard. Every time he sensed someone near him, his body instinctively tensed, trying to reach beneath his pillow for a knife that was not there.

Nicholas woke to the sound of soft humming and ripping fabric, and turned his head to the side to see who it was. A young man sat on a nearby bed, a basket of what looked to be either white linen or rough silk resting beside him. The bolts of fabric were ravaged, ruined by gaping holes and tears; perhaps they had been donated to the hospital for bandages, or perhaps they had once been old bedclothes, repurposed now and given second life. The young man didn’t struggle in the slightest as he worked, tearing each into long strips. The holes had weakened the fabric, making it vulnerable to the force of his strength.

Nicholas’s mind could not follow a straight path, navigate a single thought, without losing it to the burn of fever. But the image stayed with him, even as his eyes struggled with the weights dragging him back down. What was it about this simple task that spoke to him?


Tearing. Rending. Fabric. Time.

The reason he was here.

The reason Etta had been forced back.

Time—they were nearly out of time—Etta—

Etta. He needed to speak to Etta.

It was night before his chance arrived, and a familiar voice filled the air. Nicholas cracked an eye open, watching Hasan speak to a barrel-chested older man in pristine robes. He tried to open his mouth, but the sound that came out was a pathetic whimper. Neither heard him until he cleared his throat.

“My friend, let me bring you some water—” The older man, his hair as gray as the inside of Nicholas’s head, left with a brief look in his direction. Nicholas caught hold of Hasan’s robe before he could pull away.

“Etta,” he said, carefully forming the word. “Bring…bring me Etta.”

“It is late,” Hasan said, lightly scolding. “Would you wish for her to see you like this?”

So she hadn’t been there at all? “Now,” he said harshly. He thought twice of it and added a softer, hopefully not desperate, “Please.”

“Yes, all right,” Hasan said. He started to rise from where he had knelt beside Nicholas, only to return to his original position, leaning over his face.

“Baha’ar,” he began, his voice soft; grave. “Do not die so far from the sea.”

Nicholas closed his eyes, waiting, and did not open them again until he heard Etta’s familiar gait hurrying across the tiled floor. It was dark out now, the day edging into evening. Candles glowed around him, warming his bed with their light. He thought of their night together—the expression on her sweet face as she had gazed up at him—and felt his whole chest tighten.

Her steps slowed, and he knew that he must have looked as horrendous as he felt. Her expression tore at his heart, made him want to take her pain away. He wished he could see one last smile before he told her the truth.

“How about a kiss, hey?” he whispered.

She seemed to smile in spite of herself, and slowly lowered herself to the floor so that she could press her soft, cool lips against his. When Etta pulled back, she left her hands on his skin, easing them along his cheeks, his forehead, his scalp.

“Where?” he asked, clearing his throat again.

“Qaymair—a hospital here in Damascus,” she said quietly, curling her legs beneath her. “I wanted to take you back to the house, but Hasan was worried about bringing strangers into it. And you needed a doctor, badly.”