“Told you about the astrolabe, did he?” Etta said. “I doubt he told you the real reason he wants it.”
“Be quiet!” Sophia barked, her eyes darting to the man behind Etta in the saddle.
Etta had to try to appeal to her reason. “The astrolabe doesn’t read passages, it creates them—”
“Do shut up, Linden!”
Does she already know? And—what—she doesn’t care? Sophia had no personal attachment to the future, no one to love or who loved her, no home or place she fit in. Maybe that was what made it so easy.
Etta was jolted, and bit the inside of her mouth as the horse began to gallop again. The man behind her grunted something unintelligible, but she wasn’t fooled—not only did he understand English, but there was more here than what any of them were letting on. The men had attacked them in the souk without Sophia’s orders, or at the very least, without informing her of what had happened. Maybe they only felt true loyalty to the old man?
And maybe Sophia knew this, and that was the real reason she didn’t want Etta flapping her gums about the astrolabe for them to hear. She hadn’t forgotten what Nicholas had said in the souk—how gold, or the promise of treasure, attracted unwanted attention. If Sophia didn’t want these men to fully appreciate the magnitude of what they were after, did that mean she was afraid they might decide they wanted it for themselves? But what could guardians actually do with the astrolabe, aside from hold it for ransom?
It was a loose string on a sweater, and Etta was tempted—if she could unravel whatever thin bonds of loyalty they felt for the girl, maybe Etta could slip away in the chaos, get ahead of them, and—
Wander off into the desert?
Leave the other girl for dead?
Etta shook her head slowly. She was a lot of things, and was capable of handling a great deal more than she’d ever known, but that was cold-blooded. That was an absolute last resort if nothing else worked.
“I can almost picture it, you know,” Sophia began, laughing. “Grandfather’s face. His surprise when I complete the impossible task.”
“Surprise?” Etta felt the same feeling trickling through her. “You mean…”
Ironwood didn’t know she’d followed them. She’d come by herself, on her own volition.
“Now you’ve got the shape of things,” Sophia said. “I owe it to you, of course. Remember what you said about taking control of my life? If he won’t give me the honor of being the heir, then I’ll damn well prove to him I’m the right choice.”
And it was then that Etta knew she’d need to sort out a different plan, to prepare herself for the absolute worst. Because all the strategies in the world couldn’t guard you from the lengths a hungry young girl would go to, to get what she thought she deserved.
HOURS LATER, AFTER THE SUN HAD PASSED OVER THEIR HEADS and was setting at their backs, after the green oasis of Damascus had become a distant memory, Etta realized she had imagined this desert all wrong.
She’d expected piles of sand—dunes they’d sink down into. It was pure ignorance about this part of the world. The land that spread out before them was one of two things: flat, or mountainous. The mountains seemed always to be in the distance, shrouded by a gray haze. The wind whipped around enough to play with the pale, packed dirt underfoot, teasing whatever the horses had kicked up. Its shrieking had a kind of cadence to it. It whispered, coaxed, like it was trying to lead them astray.
The horses devoured the few spots of shriveled shrubbery into the earth when they stopped to rest. Their lungs were heaving, and Etta’s horse’s body radiated heat until her legs were damp with both its sweet, pungent sweat and her own. She wasn’t cut free until it came time to walk the animals.
One of the guardians located a rough well that had been dug into the hard ground. Sophia translated what he said: that it had likely been left by the Romans who’d used this road to travel to Palmyra, and was still in use by the few Bedouin tribes inhabiting the desert. The water was stale and sickly-looking, collected from weeks-old rain, but the horses drank until there was nothing left, and then it was time to continue on.
There was no shade, no water, absolutely nothing save the occasional ancient crumbling structure in the distance. When the dirt settled, Etta could see a hundred miles in every direction; the heat toyed with the air, making it dance like the entrance to a passage. After a while, the thought of looking for a passage became too depressing, and Etta was too sore and tired to try. Even with the protection of the robe and veil, the sun baked her inside out.
Just as Etta thought Sophia would force them to ride through the night, a cluster of pale, low buildings appeared in the distance.
“Kurietain,” Sophia said, clearly relieved, as she wiped the sweat from her face with her sleeve.
“How far do we have till Palmyra?” Etta asked, sliding down off the bedraggled horse. The poor thing could barely keep its head up, and shuddered as she and the guardian removed their weight for the duration of the short walk to the village.
“About another day’s journey north,” Sophia said. “I want to keep pushing after we get water, but our illustrious guardians seem to think we should try to trade the horses for camels.”
Switching to camels—animals capable of surviving days without water in the desert—sounded pretty reasonable to Etta.
“What are their names?”
“The camels? How the hell should I know?”