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Sophia’s expression shadowed, but she didn’t disagree. Etta heard the girl’s hands tightening around the leather reins. They plodded forward through the ruins in a silence as oppressive as the heat.

THE VALLEY OF TOMBS WAS LOCATED PAST WHAT HAD LIKELY BEEN the vibrant, beating heart of Palmyra’s city center, tucked into the city’s shadows. Had they been alone, without the knowledge of the guardians, Etta wasn’t sure she would have ever thought to investigate the buildings. They’d passed right by them on the way in, and she hadn’t given them a second look. They seemed almost like defense posts, or watchtowers.

Despite the grand name, the valley consisted of little more than these towers sticking out of the sand like slightly crooked fingers; some of the tombs weren’t towers at all, but instead carved out of the earthen hills. If there had been other, more elaborate tombs, they were long gone or buried beneath a thousand years of sandstorms.

They dismounted from the camels and left them tied to a nearby crop of pillars that had fallen onto themselves.

“You think it’s safe to go inside?” Etta asked, eyeing the first one. The comparison to fingers hadn’t been a bad one—some of the towers were short, only a story high, and wide, the way you’d expect a thumb to be. Others stretched up several dozen feet higher, casting long shadows onto the loose sand and dirt. One looked as though there might have been a balcony of some kind attached to it. Small slits had been left in their imposing sides, likely to allow air and light inside of them.

Still…they were tombs. And as eager as Etta was to finish this, just as much anxiety raced through her. She was never going to feel right about trespassing.

“Does it matter?” Sophia snapped with her usual sensitivity. “Let’s go get this over with. It’s blazing hot out here.”

They began with one of the less imposing tombs at the far left; this one was built into the side of the hill, its entrance half buried in the sand. Sophia scattered the sand with her foot as she ducked inside, searching the stone beneath it for something. A sign that there was something buried, maybe?

But Etta couldn’t stop looking up.

The walls were covered in frescoes, murals still clinging to the plaster, still showing their faded colors. All around were the faces of men and women draped in robes. Some of their expressions had worn away, leaving them literally defaced; all that remained were the outlines of their bodies and the decorative embellishments beneath. Painted grapevines, their leaves still a vivid green, climbed the support pillars. Gods or angels, or both, seemed to fly across the walls, soar up to the ceiling, which had been painted to look as though it was covered in green-and-red tile. Or…Etta squinted. Were they tiles?

You’re not here to go sightseeing, she reminded herself. Stop wasting time.

Spaced in between the frescoes were rectangular holes, cut into the walls almost like shelves. Some were covered, blocked by solid pieces of stone. Others had been left open.

“What were these for?” she asked Sophia, touching one of the covers. It dwarfed her hand.

The other girl turned, presumably to repeat the question to one of the guardians. She listened to the soft, quick explanation before turning to offer it to Etta.

“That’s where they’d place the coffins and bodies, in those openings,” she answered. “It would all normally be covered by some sort of faèade, but clearly it’s been moved. Tomb raiders and grave robbers, most likely.”

This seemed to be a unifying problem in all of the tombs—there was hardly anything left to be seen, let alone taken. What low, bench-like sarcophagi they found were broken, their lids removed to reveal absolutely nothing inside but withered bones. One or two were still whole enough that Sophia and the guardians were convinced it would be worth the effort to use brute force and slide the lids off.

“They’ve already been picked clean,” Sophia complained, punctuating the words with a frustrated kick to the side of one of the tombs. “Your mother was a fool to stash it here where anyone could find it!”

“I would call her many things,” Etta said evenly, “but I wouldn’t call her an idiot. She wouldn’t have left it here if she thought there was a chance it could be taken.”

But even as she said it, she found herself doubting. They’d wasted nearly two hours crawling around in the dark with a single torch between them, trying to find hidden compartments and passages that didn’t exist. The guardians even led them down to a series of caves between the main section of Palmyra and the towers, where they found—unsurprisingly—more sarcophagi and no astrolabe.

She rubbed at her forehead, blowing out a long sigh. One of the guardians said something to Sophia, who snapped back in irritation.

“What now?” Etta asked.

“He said that there are more tombs a little ways west of here,” Sophia translated, “or we can look around the temples in the city.”

Etta didn’t think her mother would have left anything in the city proper—not with the small settlements still clinging to the fringes of it.

“Let’s check the tombs,” she suggested.

“We should have had it by now,” Sophia grumbled, heading back toward the camels.

“We’ll find it,” Etta told her. “She wouldn’t have made it impossible, just difficult.”

Etta took a deep breath in, trying to get Daisy to remain still long enough for her to climb up onto her back. The others simply struck their camels, either on the head or snout, and got them to kneel. Daisy was as bad-tempered as always, but at least this time she didn’t try to shake Etta off like a fly.