He finally looked up. “You cannot fathom the distance I would travel for you.”
Despite the pain, despite everything, a small smile broke over her face. “With me.”
“Come here,” he breathed out, eyes reverent. “Come here…come here.…”
Etta didn’t trust her legs enough to stand quite yet, but she managed to crawl the short distance. A small burst of happiness lit the center of her chest and he tilted his face up, kissing her.
“Untie me, damn it,” he said. Etta snorted and reached around behind him. He leaned forward as she worked, burying his face in her neck.
The man had done a better job of binding his hands. The knot swam before her as black began to cloud the edges of her vision. She blinked, leaning back at the feeling of sudden, wet warmth down her front.
Bright blood had soaked through the front of Nicholas’s shirt. Her heartbeat throbbed in her ears. “You tore…you tore your stitches open…careful.…”
His eyes widened in alarm, going from her face to her shoulder. She looked down, raising an unsteady hand to the place where she felt a second, white-hot pulse.
Shot, she thought, dazed. When did that…
There was a spark of electricity at the base of her spine, scorching through her center, ripping her apart. Air cracked and hissed against her skin, and—
IN THAT FIRST MOMENT AFTER Etta disappeared, dissolving into a million grains of glittering dust, every last trace of blood seemed to leave his body.
It was impossible to breathe.
It was impossible to move.
Perhaps…if he only remained still enough, the moment would…Etta would…
His skin was still warm from where it had touched hers, even as the blood was cooling on his shirt. He felt the imprint of her lips against his as if they were still there. The rattling heat the air had taken on seemed to shrink the skin around his bones, to snap against his chest—and she—
She is gone.
The one clear thought his mind could scrape together from a flood of the senseless.
She is gone.
Disappeared so completely, as if she’d been dashed into nothing, as if…
God, no—God, please, no—
Nicholas slid along the plaster, unable to keep himself upright when his spine had turned to water. Some part of him was aware of the fact that he was shaking, as his shoulder collided with the stone. He choked on the sand and dirt, the disbelief. And the sound that emerged from that dark, shattered place was a thing of anguish and fury, inhuman.
Dead. He squeezed his eyes shut, his fingers curled tightly into fists behind him. She’s dead.
Sophia had taken the astrolabe, and then—
Etta is dead.
She was—holy God, it was just as it had been with Julian, from the way the light had broken her apart from the inside out, shattering her, to the thundering, rolling crack of power he felt as the passage in Damascus collapsed from the surge of her loss—
He howled. He let the fury pour out of him until he, too, was shattered. The sunlight tracked across the floor, marking each passing hour, and he could do nothing but watch it and think of the ends of her hair, matted with blood; the spectral quality of her skin as death had stolen over it.
When it no longer felt like he was frozen, Nicholas began to work at what was left of the knot around his wrists. The wound in his side pulled, his shoulder ached, and his mind carried him back, unwanted, undeterred, to that moment again. Her forehead had creased, as if she had heard something he had not. And there had been pain—he’d seen it tear across her face, felt it in the way her fingers had suddenly dug into his wrists, as if she could tether herself to him. Her eyes had rolled back, she’d gone utterly limp—
Had she known?
Did she know what was happening?
The silk unraveled under the coaxing of his thumb, slipping against his skin as it fell away. Muscles screamed in protest as he pushed himself up, leaning back against the wall again. He steadfastly avoided looking at the blood that crept across the ancient stone.
Nicholas watched the sun retreat through the window as it set, hatred hardening his core, until he was finally seized by impulse. He snatched a fragment of plaster up off the ground and drew his arm back to smash it against the stone, beat it into something unrecognizable, when he noticed something a few feet away.
He scooped it up before the blood could wash over it—clasped it hard enough to feel the shape of the pearl, the prick of the stud, as it dug into his palm—and tried to find her again in himself, to pin down the memory of her face as he’d first seen it on the Ardent.
All for nothing. All of this, everything, for nothing.
Why was he so shocked? How had he ever expected life to deliver something he wanted to him, when it had denied him at nearly every turn? And just when he’d finally decided that the risk was worth the reward—when he’d settled on one path over another—Nicholas had been ready to go with her. He would have followed her anywhere.
And he’d killed her. His shot had missed the guardian—the Thorn—in front of him, and passed through her smaller frame.
He had let her change his plans; he’d started to rearrange his future, to become open to the possibility of a different kind of freedom. She had taken all of that with her, and he’d been the one to steal her from the world. To silence her talent and charm and unstoppable, fearless heart.
This. All of this, everything, for this; the cold, unfeeling touch of death and disappointment and grief. Nicholas felt a peculiar sort of envy for his past self, the young man who still existed outside of the barbed knot of time. The one who had not yet been crushed into dust.