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“Get on with it, Linden,” Sophia barked.

“With pleasure,” Etta said, and before the other girl could even think to move, brought the rock down against the astrolabe’s gilded face.

The fire that raced through her was instantly extinguished as the rock broke against it, leaving scratches and dents, but with the device still in one piece. Etta scrambled to pick the astrolabe up and bash it against the floor, until it hopefully fell to pieces.

“You rat!” Sophia shrieked, hauling her back by the hair. She turned toward one of the guardians. “Give me your dagger!”

The man lifted it out of its hilt at his side.

It happened so quickly. The man flicked his wrist, flipping the dagger around to slice against Sophia’s outstretched palm. The girl gasped in pain as blood sprayed across the stone.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she snarled. “How dare you! By our family’s laws, I could have you killed for this—”

“Yes, if we were Ironwoods,” the man said, reaching into his robes for another dagger. The other guardian did the same, holding its razor-sharp tip out in the direction of Etta’s throat. “But, sadly for you, we are not.”

Not Ironwood? Etta detangled herself from Sophia’s grip, and tried to scramble back toward the wall. Then—

“Is that so?” Sophia said, clutching her hand, a thunderous expression on her face. “Is that why you were living in our family’s home, using our family’s money?”

The guardian laughed, a deep sound that welled up from a belly full of venom and malice.

“Your guardians were easy enough to dispose of,” he continued. “How very unsurprising you have never bothered to meet them in your life, let alone learn their faces. And yet, how very fortunate for us.”

Etta began to sidestep slowly toward Sophia, the blood thundering through her. She started to lean down to pick up the astrolabe, only to find the dagger’s blade a hair away from her throat.

“Step back, girl,” the other man snarled. “Hand the astrolabe to me slowly…slowly…”

Fury lanced her, piercing the cloud of confusion and fear. “Get it yourself!”

The man backhanded her so hard, Etta’s vision blacked out as she hit the stone floor and dust exploded into her lungs.

“If you’re not Ironwoods, then who the hell are you?” Sophia demanded.

“Dead men,” came a deep voice from behind them.

NICHOLAS STOOD AT THE EDGE OF THE LANDING, ONE FOOT STILL on the step below, Sophia’s small pistol in his hands—aimed directly at the man hovering over Etta.

She wanted to drink in the sight of him, to study the way he seemed just slightly unsteady on his feet. The glow of his skin had dimmed. Sweat dripped off his jaw. He was panting, harder than he would have been if he hadn’t just crossed a desert with a serious knife wound in a body that had clearly just narrowly escaped a fatal fever.

Now, she thought, now, now, now—

Etta threw herself at the man’s feet, sending him slamming back with a startled cry. She scrambled to grab the astrolabe from the ground, even as he grabbed her legs and yanked her back. A heavy set of arms locked around her neck.

“Etta!” Nicholas shouted, just before the deafening crack ripped through the air and she felt a sharp, hot pain in her shoulder. She fell forward again under the hot, limp weight of the Thorn, who coughed and sputtered, even as he got the curve of his dagger around Etta’s throat, letting it kiss her skin. The hot stench of blood filled her nose, her lungs.

The second man charged Nicholas, knocking him back against the wall, and the gun fell to the ground. Nicholas swung wildly at his face, but only clipped him. The whole world swung beneath Etta as she stood. He wasn’t going to be any good in this fight, not in his condition—she needed to get the gun—

The second man already had it in his hands, and was thrashing Nicholas across the face with it. Etta screamed as he stumbled back and slumped against the wall. The man spun back toward Sophia, leveling the revolver at her heart.

“Thorns,” she spat, blood spilling out of her palm as she watched him kneel and pick up the astrolabe. “Isn’t that right?”

The man gave a mocking little bow that made Etta’s stomach tighten to the point of pain.

I have to do this, I have to destroy it, Mom—

I can handle this—

It’s my time—

The Thorn holding her pressed the blade so tightly against her throat, she felt a line of her own blood drip down the front of her faded, sandy robes.

“At your service,” the first one said.

“Who sold us out?” Sophia demanded.

“Not a soul, though there are many in your so-called family who would if given the opportunity for retribution. You left a trail for us to find—you made it exceptionally easy, in fact, when our leader saw what occurred at the museum. He put out a call for any Thorn guardian or traveler to watch your movements through the passage, to see if you might lead us directly to the astrolabe. And rather than force us to continue to search for you, we set a trap for you to come to us. How well it all worked out.” He glanced at the Thorn holding Etta and said, “Tie her up. The desert will deal out its punishment.”

The Thorn shifted his weight back, and Etta found herself jerked forward onto her knees. He pinned her hands behind her back, winding something—his sash?—around her wrists.

“The other one as well—”