“What does he say?” he demanded.
Hasan’s rich complexion was ashen. “He says he saw her leave this iwan—that is, this hall—but she was met by another woman. A Westerner, he says, like herself. And she was pulled away, outside, with the assistance of two other men.”
Nicholas fixed the boy with a baleful look. “And he didn’t think to say one damn word to someone about it?”
“He thought the woman was her family,” Hasan explained, though Nicholas could see his own frustrated anger reflected in his face. As if the color of one’s skin was the telltale sign of family.
“What did she look like?” Nicholas asked.
“Young—young as you or I. Brown hair, he says—darker than hers. Eyes like—dark eyes as well. He says he saw her look at an impossibly small gold clock, the like of which he had not ever seen before.” He emphasized those last words with a meaningful look.
Fury cramped his aching stomach as he pressed his feet flat against the cool floor. Nicholas took a steadying breath. You cannot have me yet.… He would fill this weakness in his body, feed it with anger, until either he found her or his body gave out completely.
“Do you know who this is, baha’ar?”
Instead of answering, Nicholas asked a question of his own. “Do you know how to do a proper knot?”
“Yes,” Hasan said, his forehead wrinkling. “But why?”
“Because,” Nicholas said, watching the morning light spread over the tile floor, “I’m going to need you to tie me to my horse.”
IT WASN’T THE ROLLING FLOW of the horse’s gallop, or even the rope burns around her wrists, that finally brought Etta around. It was the cool mist of the morning air, and the scent of orange blossom on the breeze.
She cracked an eye open, already sick from the riot of movement and the damp, hot press of the man riding behind her. Every breath against the back of her neck made her stomach churn harder, twisting in time with the pain at her right temple. There was no way to know until she had her hands free, but Etta had a feeling that the bump there was going to rival the mountain behind them.
They left Damascus through a series of groves, weaving through the orderly rows of trees. The golden line of the horizon was ahead, and Etta suddenly understood why Hasan had called the desert a ruthless beauty. From a distance, with the sun rising over it, the dust was cast in glorious shades of gold. But the single tone of color hinted at something far more sinister—its barrenness.
Her fingers curled around the lip of the saddle as she turned slowly. Etta let her expression fall into a scowl. “Sorry.”
When she’d left Nicholas’s bedside to find a doctor, or Hasan, or anyone who could confirm that she wasn’t going crazy and that his fever really was breaking, Etta had nearly missed her standing there, leaning against the wall. Sophia had called her name, but even then she’d been so deliriously tired she was half-convinced she was hallucinating.
But no. Sophia had been wearing the entari and shalvar of the women of Damascus in shades of ivory and gold, her head inclined to the side in its usual arrogant way.
“What are you doing here?” Etta had managed.
“You’re not an idiot,” Sophia had said. “You don’t need me to answer that. I’m here to help you finish this task.”
Even then, confused, overwhelmed, Etta had known to be suspicious. Sophia could only have found them if she’d followed them—not just through Damascus, but through all of the passages. Or…if she’d managed to get her hands on the reports the guardians were no doubt sending back to Ironwood about their sightings.
“I’m not leaving,” Etta said. “Not yet.”
The other girl’s face had hardened behind her veil. “I was afraid you might say something like that.”
A sharp pain, and then…nothing.
And now, this.
“I apologize for the rough treatment,” Sophia said as she brought her horse up alongside Etta’s with ease. The pounding of the hooves kicked up enough dust in the air between them that she was momentarily shrouded.
“We simply didn’t have time,” she continued without a trace of remorse. “I could see in your face you weren’t going to leave, and in the time it took to convince you, we could have been halfway to Palmyra.”
Etta straightened, trying to throw an elbow back against the man behind her. “How do you know about Palmyra?”
“I had these guardians tail you in the market yesterday, and make inquiries. The Arab you were with mentioned your destination to the man who sold you the goatskins. Careless.” Sophia shrugged.
I had these guardians tail you in the market…
Etta twisted around in the saddle, horror tightening her stomach like a fist. The man was a mess of swelling bruises, a cut lip, glowering down at her.
These were the men who had tried to grab her—one of them had stabbed Nicholas. A wash of white-hot fury flooded beneath her skin, and she began to struggle that much harder.
“Stop it!” Sophia snapped. “I had to pay him twice as much to ride with you—he spouted something preposterous about his faith not allowing him to touch a female who wasn’t a relation. Don’t test their patience.”
Etta gritted her teeth. “You shouldn’t have put him in the position of having to do it. That wasn’t very kind of you.”
The look the man sent her was filled with so much disgust, Etta was sure she was on the verge of being struck again.