Page 126

They rode deeper into the hills surrounding the city; knowing what to expect this time, Etta’s eyes picked out the towering tombs immediately. Many seemed in worse shape than the ones they’d already seen, but there was one in particular that looked almost perfect from the outside. It kept drawing her attention, even as Sophia was hauling Etta to a closer one.

“That one,” Etta said, a strange twinge moving down her spine.

“Fine,” Sophia said, whistling to get the men’s attention.

Etta was right about one thing—this tomb was in much better shape than any of the others. The main chamber was long, leading to the opposite wall, and lined with five busts of men and women. These overlooked more shelves like the ones they had seen in the other tombs, where the bodies or coffins were sealed. Seeing these were all open and there was nothing left inside but loose dust, Sophia took the narrow stairs just to the left of the entryway, nearly cracking her head against the painted stone ceiling. Etta followed, bracing a hand against the wall as she climbed.

Sophia cast one short glance at the second floor before continuing up to the third, her lip curling in disgust—why? Because the astrolabe of untold value and power wasn’t just sitting out, waiting for her to trip over it?

Etta stepped off onto the second floor, letting the guardians pass by on their way up. The stones bounced their quiet voices back to her, and she felt another burst of unease shift in the pit of her stomach. Sophia seemed to trust them implicitly, but Etta wished that she had ordered them to stay outside with the camels.

A small window allowed a stream of warm light to wash into the small space. Etta walked into it and took a moment to settle the rioting pace of her pulse. She leaned out the window, searching for some sign of her mother.

And when she turned, she was face-to-face with a tree.

The startled laugh burst out of her too fast to smother it. And of course, with nothing to catch it, the sound carried straight up to Sophia, who was still pounding around overhead, shaking loose plaster from the ceiling. She came charging down the steps again, nearly breathless.

“What is it?” Sophia demanded.

The second level was lined on either side with the same towering shelves as the chamber below—the only real difference was that many of them still had their coverings, and the busts of their occupants were still in place. While many of the faces were smashed in, or had missing noses, hands, whole sections of skulls, the one in front of Etta was nearly flawless, depicting the familiar outline of a tree. The stone was a shade lighter than the others—a close but imperfect match to those around it.

Everything about it—from the way the branches angled down, to the scattering of leaves across them, to the slight curve of the trunk—matched the sigil she’d seen on her mother’s travel journal.

“It’s—nothing,” Etta tried. “A bird flew by and—”

Sophia ignored her, sharp eyes scanning the room, and, of course, landing on the carved tree. “There! The Linden family sigil.” Sophia’s whole demeanor changed, a lightning-fast shift from agitation to excitement. Etta finally understood what people meant when they said that eyes could gleam with emotion. Sophia looked ready to tear the cover off with her bare hands.

The guardians used knives—daggers, really, Etta thought—to carve around the edges of the relief and pry it out enough to hold. It crashed to the floor, the symbol of her family smashing into pieces with a deafening crash. There wasn’t a stone block behind it; that much was clear when Sophia had the guardians start to wiggle it free. There was a backing, mostly to hold it in place, but nothing so heavy that Etta couldn’t have pulled it out herself.

Both girls peered inside, and Etta spotted a lump of something at the back right corner.

“You get it,” Sophia ordered. “If someone’s hand is going to get burned or chopped off with a booby trap your devil of a mother set, it isn’t going to be mine.”

Etta rolled her eyes, and with a single, silent prayer, thrust her arm into the opening, stretching as far as she could, fingers closing around the tattered end of the cloth. She dragged it forward to the opening, sucking in a sharp breath between her teeth as she drew out a dusty bundle of faded linen and unwrapped it.

Sophia shouldered her out of the way, breaking Etta’s concentration long enough to snatch the thing out of Etta’s hands and clutch it between her own.

The astrolabe was bigger than she’d expected; twice the size of her small, clenched fist. Age hadn’t dulled its gold sheen in the slightest. The flat disc caught the light from the window and warmed the whole room. There seemed to be markings running along the edge of it, almost like a dial. Etta moved, trying to get a better look at the beautifully etched design on the back.

The other girl seemed so stunned by the fact that it was there—that she had found it after all—there was a long moment where Sophia didn’t seem to breathe.

Etta couldn’t, either.

An ending must be final.

And this one might just kill her.

“Here,” she said. “Give it to me. I’ll show you how it works.”

The twinge she’d felt outside was back, moving through her veins. The air seemed to vibrate with its power, the buzz racing along her skin until every hair stood on end, until her nerves sang at the same pitch.

“All of that, for this…” Sophia shook her head, placing it in Etta’s outstretched hand. “Go on, then, make it work.”

Etta nodded, her jaw clenched as she assessed her options. Finally, she carefully, slowly, set it down in the stream of sunlight on the stone ground, kneeling beside it. Under the cover of her robes, her fingers curled around a jagged piece of rock.