“Wait—” Sophia said, backing away. “Now listen, just a moment. Do you know who I am?”
Have to destroy it—
Can’t let Mom down—
Have to save Mom—
“You are an Ironwood,” the Thorn said. “That is all I need to know about you.”
“No,” Sophia added quickly, glancing toward Etta. “I’m a gift. Anything your group wants to know about the Ironwoods, about the Grand Master himself, I can provide. But only if you take me with you.”
Nicholas was coming around on the floor, and seemed to rouse just in time to hear this. His eyes snapped open.
The Thorn holding the gun laughed. “You take me for a fool.”
“Do you honestly think I was ever going to give the Grand Master the astrolabe?” Sophia asked. “I would have laughed in his face as I tore his dreams apart. If you want to use it to do the same, then I wouldn’t stop you. I’d celebrate that. The only thing I care about is making his life as miserable as he’s made mine.”
“You bloody—” Nicholas swore, cutting himself off. “Sophia, it has to be destroyed. It doesn’t matter if you have it, if they have it—once Ironwood knows, he won’t stop until it’s in his possession. Think about this—it doesn’t read passages, it creates them—”
“I know that,” she snapped.
“Once he knows—that you went with the Thorns, that you let them have it—you won’t just be exiled. You won’t just lose your standing—he will obliterate you. And that goes for all of the Thorns,” he added. “Let me destroy it now. Put the blame on me; let the old man come after me and see your worth. He’ll make you heir, but only if he doesn’t have the astrolabe, only if he can’t use it to save his first wife and create new heirs. But this…this is the path to madness.”
Etta saw the flicker of something in Sophia’s expression, the fear of confronting that truth. Her lips parted, as if to ask something; but instead she set her shoulders back, eyeing Nicholas like a queen about to order an execution. “So be it.”
The Thorn holding Etta down against the stone floor laughed. The one with the gun motioned for him to do something, grating out a few words in Arabic. Etta watched, her mind dragging on a half-second delay, as the man grabbed Nicholas and slammed him up against the wall, ripping the sash from his waist to bind his hands. Finished with that, he punched Nicholas squarely in the jaw, sending him crashing back down onto the stone.
Etta screamed, trying to surge up off the ground, but she was off-balance; Sophia shoved her back into the wall of tombs, half-stunning her. The room blinked out of view as she dropped heavily back onto the stone, her ribs bruised and swollen beneath her skin. Without an ounce of air in her lungs, she couldn’t even yelp in pain; she could only wait until her vision pieced itself back together.
“Don’t be ridiculous, darling,” Sophia murmured, staring down at Etta.
Nicholas bellowed with rage. “I will kill you for this one day.”
“It’s charming you think that you could,” Sophia said with a dismissive flick of her hand. One of the Thorns said something in Arabic.
“It’d be a waste of ammunition,” Sophia said coldly. “Leave them for the desert. And I wouldn’t get near them with a blade. Both are trained too well. The sun will finish them off for you.”
Etta held her breath, her body straining with pain and alarm, but the men seemed to agree with Sophia’s assessment.
It was several minutes before the sound of their steps faded completely. Etta breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth, to try to keep herself from throwing up. I failed, I failed—Mom, I’m sorry—
I need to get up—
“Etta!” Nicholas said. “Etta! Wake up! Etta!”
She took in a deep breath, still trembling with pain.
You’re fine, he’s fine, you’re fine, he’s fine.… They could catch up with Sophia and the Thorns, ride hard until they could take the astrolabe back.
“Henrietta!” he barked. “Miss Spencer! Damn you, if you don’t wake up this instant—”
She heard the snap of a whip, the grumbling of the camels. Etta didn’t have to look to know that they were leading Daisy away, and whatever Nicholas had ridden in on. They were really stranding them, the bastards.
“Etta—” It was the desperate, pleading note in his voice that made Etta push herself upright, so suddenly that Nicholas let out a noise of surprise.
“Are you all right?” she said, her throat aching.
“I’ll live, but…” he said, looking away. “Damn it all—I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry, we rode as hard as we could—”
“We?” Etta said, testing the fabric tied around her wrists. The Thorn had managed a knot all right, but he’d been too rushed to make sure it was totally secure. She worked her right hand free, sliding it out of the silk binding with a relieved sigh. “Is Hasan here?”
“He came with me, but his horse lamed itself and he had to turn back to Kurietain,” Nicholas said. “I’m so bloody sorry. I swear, this isn’t the end. We’ll get back to Damascus—” His words were edged with fire, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. “I’ll walk the whole of Nassau if it means finding the passage you came through—”
“You would do that?” Etta asked.