“Did you…” The words caught in her throat. “Did you hire them to kill Nicholas?”
“What are you going on about?” Sophia’s nostrils flared. “If someone attacked the bastard, it wasn’t anyone here.”
It felt like a freezing hand had wiped all feeling from Etta’s face. She stared at the girl, shocked. “Were you there?”
“In the market? Of course not,” she said. “I was trying to go through the room—the one the passage opened up into—while the three of you were out. Why? What are you going on about?”
The man riding behind Etta tightened his grip around her center until it felt like one of her ribs would crack. Something sharp dug into her side, and Etta took the silent warning for what it was.
Why didn’t the man she was riding with, or the one riding just up ahead of Sophia, want her to say anything? Because they feared this Ironwood’s wrath for acting outside the scope of her orders, and it getting back to the Grand Master?
“Someone…tried to rob me,” Etta said, when she realized Sophia was still watching her. “Nicholas jumped in and got hurt. That’s why we were in the hospital.”
“What a shame,” Sophia said without a hint of pity.
“He’s your family,” Etta snapped. “And you have more in common than you think—”
The other girl reached out, gripping the reins of Etta’s horse so brutally she brought them both up short. The horse whinnied in protest, stamping its feet against the loose dust. When Sophia spoke, her voice was heavy with venom. “I will only say this once, so listen to me: the bastard is not family. If you say it again, you will regret it.”
The word she’d used, the way she’d said it—bastard. It told Etta everything she needed to know about the way Sophia felt toward herself and her family.
Thank God Nicholas hadn’t been raised by these people. She needed to find a way to ensure he’d be out of their hands forever.
“What are you doing here?” Etta demanded finally. “You said that you were here to help, but this”—she tugged at her restraints—“implies otherwise. If you were following us through the passages, why didn’t you say something? Talk to us?”
Sophia dropped the reins and turned her horse back to the road, speaking to the hired men in what Etta assumed was Arabic. She’d mentioned before that the travelers learned languages as part of their training, but this still somehow caught Etta off guard. There was no way she’d be able to understand their plan until it was too late.
“If you didn’t want to be followed, you shouldn’t have left in the middle of the night, and you shouldn’t have stolen from me,” Sophia said finally. “What did you think? He was going to just let you go, and cross his fingers that the bastard held up his end of the bargain?” The other girl gave her a mocking look of pity. “What? Didn’t you know about the deal that Nicholas made behind your back? That he’d get everything—”
“I know about the deal,” Etta snapped. And she’d understood—she had—even as the hurt had sliced through her. It was a good enough reason to align himself with the old man, and it would give him everything he wanted. But to keep it from her…“He told me about it himself.”
“Did he, now?” Sophia asked. “If he somehow manages to live through that fever, he’ll be destroyed for it. When I tried to tell Grandfather he shouldn’t be trusted, Grandfather told me that any betrayal on Nicholas’s part would ensure he’d never be able to find work on a ship again, let alone set foot on a dock. He’d be wrecked.”
“He’s not—” Etta’s whole mind ached. Had the old man really promised to destroy his future if he backed out of their deal? Her heart was still squeezed in a fist of fear when she said, “He’s not going to die.”
“Keep telling yourself that, darling.”
Etta watched the girl a moment more, trying to work through her own strategy. “So, you must be eating this up. The old man actually trusted you enough to send you after us. Or were his choices that limited?”
“You gave me the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.…I can prove myself very easily, show him how capable I really am.” Sophia eased into her horse’s pace, adjusting her position in the saddle as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Etta felt like a bag of bones being tossed around, her legs already sore from having to squeeze the sides of the horse. Sophia had to call out to be heard over the horses, and keep her face turned down to avoid getting a mouthful of dirt.
“I’m sorry your pride’s hurt that I trailed you both so easily. You made my job very simple by being on the other side of the city as I came through the passage in that charming, secret little apartment. And anyway, you should be grateful it’s me, and not one of Grandfather’s men. We’ll make quick work of finding it, won’t we? Have it back by the thirtieth. I’m rather well-versed in meeting his impossible deadlines by now.”
Etta shook her head, her fingers toying with the smooth leather of the saddle, debating whether or not to continue. Ironwood had clearly kept the whole truth from her, but Etta couldn’t predict how the other girl would actually react if she found out what was at stake for her, too, in all of this. Sophia’s loyalty was braided into the family’s success and future—everything she wanted was tied to winning the old man’s approval. Did she care about anything outside of that attention and respect?