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“The guardians!” Etta gestured to the two men, conversing quietly ahead of them.

“Why? Do you want to write them thank-you notes?”

“You know what?” Etta gritted her teeth. “Never mind.”

She had more important things to think about: Her mom. The astrolabe. Getting back to Nicholas. Even the debut. That familiar fire lit in her heart when she thought of it now, burning through the dread and apprehension she’d felt about living a life on the run with her mother. She wanted to play—for Alice, yes; so Nicholas could hear her, yes; but even more than that, to take control of her future again, on her own terms.

In Kurietain, men were out talking amongst themselves, smoking water pipes, watching the sunset. They drew a few interested eyes as one of the guardians led them through the maze of sun-bleached streets, heading to what Sophia called a caravanserai, but the others referred to as khan—some sort of lodgings for weary travelers and their beasts.

And water. Clean, cool water. Etta licked her cracked lips. Her goatskin had gone dry an hour before.

“I overheard men talking about hot springs. I can smell the sulfur, can’t you?” Sophia said, taking a deep breath of the evening air.

“Oh,” Etta said sweetly, “I just assumed that was you.”

Sophia’s own smile would have melted the face off a lesser person. “It’s a shame you won’t be able to clean up. It looks like we rode you here.”

Her arms felt like she’d tied hundred-pound weights to each wrist, but Etta did summon the energy to flip off the other girl when she turned back to the road.

The caravanserai was a simple square structure, almost like a fortress. Its exterior was lined with columns and more arches than Etta could count, broken up by a large entryway. Right now, a group of men was walking through it with an unruly herd of camels.

Two young boys were sent out to retrieve the horses and guide them inside, where they were met by a portly, swollen-faced man in fine red robes. He spoke first to the guardians, who must have told him that Sophia was the one with the gold, for the man fumbled for an apology in three separate languages before Sophia deigned to reply in Arabic.

The caravanserai was split between two levels—the upper rooms, where the men slept, and the lower rooms where their camels, horses, and goods were tucked in for the night.

The caravan that had arrived before them had just finished unloading and bedding down its animals. Finished with their sunset prayer, the men began mingling with the other travelers, showing off wares, sharing food.

“In you go,” Sophia said, when they reached their room on the second level. Their escorts moved to the next door down and disappeared inside. She heard the sound of them dropping their bags, and the rustle of fabric as they rolled out their bedding.

Etta stepped into the room to find it was a good ten degrees cooler than outside. At that point, she was so used to the artistry that went into even the simplest of these homes, Etta was surprised to see that the room was as bare as a cave. There wasn’t a door, only a curtain that fell in place after her.

“Right. Here’s a blanket.” Sophia tossed her a rolled bundle of cloth.

Unsurprisingly, after spending the day tied to a horse’s back, it smelled as bad as Etta did.

She spread it out over the floor, trying to psych herself up for the special agony of settling her already-sore body down onto what basically amounted to flat, packed earth.

At least we’re safe for now, she thought, then amended, I think.

“There’s food in that bag,” Sophia said, indicating the cloth sack she’d dumped against the wall on her side of the small space. “I need to see about trading out the horses.”

Her eyes flashed with unspoken warning. Etta merely waved her away.

She waited until the other girl disappeared through the curtain before dragging herself over to the bag. Etta pulled out a handful of figs and tore off a chunk of bread as big as her fist before going back for seconds. Next door, she could hear one of the guardians stand up when Sophia called and, grumbling, make his way down the stairs.

Etta eyed the other bags.

The girl had left all of her supplies there, including but not limited to a small pistol, money, her travel log, a gold pocket watch, and a Swiss Army knife.

The compass she’d seen Sophia use earlier in the day had fallen to the very bottom of the smallest sack. She stared at its face, turning herself around the room until it pointed to true north.

Over the last few hours, Etta had imagined five different variations of the same escape plan. While the others slept, she would creep out, take what few supplies she needed, and ride off ahead of them, beating them to Palmyra and the astrolabe by hours. In every version, Etta was long gone before they ever arrived.

But the longer she stared at the compass, the more those plans seemed to slip through her fingers like dust.

Hasan had warned her and Nicholas that the desert wasn’t a place to travel alone. Even with a compass, she could still find herself off track, lost, dehydrated, or hungry—and she would wander until someone found her or she collapsed. Etta was a true city kid—wilderness survival wasn’t exactly her forte. She needed Sophia and the guardians for their knowledge, and their supplies.

It was getting too close to the thirtieth to waste even a second debating this. All along, she’d been banking on being able to figure out how to use the astrolabe to create a passage back to her own time, to surprise the Ironwoods holding her mother hostage and get her out of there, but now, none of it seemed so simple.