He stood, his vision flooding with pops of light and color. His skull felt light enough to float away from his body, to drift off into the night. Was it so wrong to wish it would? If only to escape this…this…
Nicholas felt his way down the stairs, taking slow, measured steps in the cool darkness, until he reached the lower chamber and stepped outside. As he’d expected, his horse was gone, along with the supply of food and water he’d carried with him.
Rage once again replaced the numbness, flooding his body with a kind of fury that made him unrecognizable to himself. Sophia hadn’t fired the gun, but she was partially to blame for this. Together, the three of them might have been able to overcome the two Thorns, but she’d turned on him and Etta, just when it had mattered most. He would kill his cousin, woman or not. When the time was right, when he found her, he would call her out, and he would kill her. Even as a sailor, he’d known how to hunt. He would not stop until he found Sophia.
Nicholas sat at the entrance, leaning his shoulder against the stone, breathing in the night air; it was as dry and harsh as it had been when he and Hasan had camped for a few short hours the night before.
God. He would need to explain this to Hasan. The other young man would know to come looking for them—for Nicholas—when they didn’t meet on the road.
He shut his eyes. His cracked lip began to bleed as he drew in another steadying breath.
There was nothing to do but wait for Hasan, to try to find a way to save the mother, if he could not save the daughter. His helpless anger spread like a blot of fresh ink on paper until it absorbed her mother, too. She should have protected Etta in the first place. If she had, Etta would be playing in her debut; she would be safe, hundreds of years away from the sweltering, wasting reach of this desert.
The moon was full and bright above him, but he closed his eyes, unwilling to look again. Sleep stole upon him quickly, silently, leaving him confused and disoriented when he woke at the first touch of sunlight.
And then of course he remembered where he was, and he was hollowed out all over again. He could not move, so he did not try. He could not think, so he did not try. He watched the play of light on the sandy hills, the tombs, and felt as wooden and slow as if he had crawled out of one himself.
A few hours into the morning, a small family ambled by on camels. Their presence was so sudden, Nicholas was not quite certain they weren’t a mirage until the elder man riding at the front called out to him. Nicholas kept his gaze low, his hands hanging between his knees, and the other man’s foreign words rolled off him. The young son, after a brief consultation with his father, slid down the side of the camel and brought a small offering of dried meat and water.
Shocked by the small act of kindness, Nicholas managed a brief nod of thanks. The father lifted his hand in acknowledgment, and called the boy back to him.
Neither hungry nor thirsty, he ate and drank anyway, and was unsurprised to find that it did nothing to fill the emptiness at his core. It occurred to him in the hours that followed that he had misjudged Hall’s behavior after Anne’s death. The endless nights of drinking and joyless merrymaking hadn’t been to dull his senses, or even to numb his pain, but were only fruitless attempts to fill the gnawing nothingness left inside of him, devouring every last feeling.
His back grew stiff from holding the same position, finally forcing him to stretch to reduce the aching in his joints.
I will never hear her play, he thought, and pressed a hand against his chest, hard, trying to dislodge whatever it was that was slowly squeezing his heart.
Or…might he? If he found the astrolabe…The thought made his skin feel as if there were a hive of bees trapped beneath it. Somehow, he could go back—or rather, forward. Could he warn Etta to be wary of Sophia and not enter the passage?
He’d told her he couldn’t save Alice, but damn if he didn’t understand now why she refused to believe him at first. Etta must truly have wanted to save the woman with her whole heart.
She would want you to just destroy it.
Could any of it be done? If he prevented Etta from traveling that first time, then he would never have been in the position to find the astrolabe. Would that undo everything, leave them at the place where they started? Had time already played this story through with them before—an endless, self-fulfilling loop of misery?
Or would it just make him Cyrus Ironwood?
How would the old man do it—change the past without preventing Etta from finding the one thing that would have allowed him to pursue that course of action? What was it that he was missing—what piece of this logic?
He settled down again for the night, wrapping his arms around the stabbing pain in his side. Nicholas needed to think of what he would tell Hasan, how he could ever beg the young man’s forgiveness for failing the Linden family, the timeline, so enormously.
But night fell over him and the desert again, and still Hasan did not come, and Nicholas was left with nothing but the suspicion that he’d cost the world two lives instead of one.
THE FIGURE ROSE ON THE HORIZON LIKE THE SUN THE VERY NEXT morning—a distant speck of white that grew larger as it threaded through the hills. For the first time in days, he felt something stir inside of him, rousing the part of him that he had carefully pressed back so as not to suffocate on it. Hasan. Finally.
Another horse followed the first on a line. His gaze was so fixated on it, it was a considerable amount of time before he squinted, shading his eyes from the haze of the sun, and realized that the rider coming toward him was no man, but a woman.