A woman with hair like spun gold.
His heart began to beat wildly in his chest, waging war against disbelief. Etta. It wasn’t a mirage, he could hear the horses breathing, smell the sweat foaming on them, only—
Closer now, steadily closer; Nicholas saw now that the face was sunburnt, but faintly lined with age, and shadowed with experience. The eyes that moved over him from beneath the scarf were sharp, cut from diamonds rather than the sky. The woman searched the empty spaces around him, glanced up toward the second floor of the tomb, and the realization unspooled in his mind.
This was Rose—the Rose that Etta had known, the one who had raised her. Somehow, impossibly, she was here; his heart began to rend itself all over again. She’d escaped Ironwood’s men. She’d traveled the desert alone. And now…
This was the same young woman who had thrown a knife with deadly accuracy in the bazaar—the very same one who had outfoxed the Ironwoods, even with all of their money and resources, for years. He was somehow both impressed and furious with her that she had taken such a risk with her life. She must have ridden through the desert nearly as hard as he had.
And all for nothing.
He watched, the earring clasped between his hands, as she made a steady approach. Dressed as a man, her horse unencumbered by anything but the bare necessities, she had the look of a survivor, a fighter, and he respected the hell out of her for it, especially when she slid the pistol out of one of her saddlebags and aimed at him.
I wish you would.
He rose slowly, so as not to startle her. Nicholas could not bring himself to speak. The quick glance he’d had of her in the bazaar, even the photograph, hadn’t been nearly enough to truly appreciate her resemblance to her daughter. Hers was a cool, collected beauty, her features sharpened by age. Etta’s appearance struck a person across all the senses at once, like the first blossom of spring. His hand shook, just that small bit, as he raised his hands up and stepped forward.
Rose’s words sliced through the air. “Don’t come any closer.”
He stopped where he was, his arms aching with the small effort it took to keep them up. She would need to come to him, approach carefully. He understood the instinct.
Rose dismounted with practiced ease. When she eyed him, Nicholas suddenly felt as though he needed to fall to his knees and beg for her forgiveness.
“I’m looking for a girl,” she began.
“Etta.” He scarcely got the name out.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Where is she?”
He swallowed, trying to clear his ravaged, dry throat. “Gone.”
It was the first time he had said the word aloud, and it gained permanence; it solidified. He choked on it.
“She used the astrolabe?” Had Rose’s eyes actually widened, or was it a trick of the light? “She didn’t destroy it?”
Nicholas shook his head. “It was taken by an Ironwood and two members of the Thorns.”
Emotions stormed across her face, disbelief whipping into fury and then to despair. Just as quickly, it was all folded away, and her feelings were neatly stowed again behind steely eyes and pursed lips. “Tell me exactly how this happened.”
He tried to fill in the pieces of the story she wouldn’t know, his throat dry and aching. Rose absorbed his words, soaking them up, until she looked like she might burst.
“How did you escape?” he asked. “Etta was terrified for your life.”
“Do you honestly believe I’m not capable of escaping a few Ironwoods?” Rose shook her head. “I fought my way free on the first night, but I couldn’t get here any sooner, not without crossing paths with myself.”
“She tried to talk to you in the souk,” he said, suddenly furious all over again. “Instead of listening, you attacked her.”
“That was me twenty years ago. I’d been running from Ironwoods and the Thorns for months. I couldn’t trust anyone,” Rose said, finally lowering her gun. “I made the connection later, once Etta began to grow.”
What could he say to that?
“Why did you not tell her the truth from the beginning? About her true family—about what she could do?”
Her whole countenance tightened, and he wondered if he had trespassed on forbidden ground. But finally she said, “Etta had to be a blank slate for this to work out the way I meant it to.”
The way I meant it to? he thought, a thrumming awareness tightening across the back of his neck.
“She wasn’t supposed to have training,” Rose explained. “Otherwise it would have affected her choices along the way. I met a traveler—one past even the future we lived in. He warned me of what would happen if I allowed anything to change. If Etta didn’t destroy the astrolabe.”
My God. “Who was that?”
“I don’t need to tell you that,” Rose said. “I don’t need to explain myself to you. Everything I did—everything I had to do, I did to ensure that Etta traveled, that she would know how to find the astrolabe. How did this happen? It was all planned out.…Everything…everything was to be as it had to be, to save us from that future. I sacrificed everything, I destroyed every complication.…” She took a shuddering breath, her hand curling into a fist over her heart. “Alice…she…I wouldn’t have gone to such lengths if I knew it would come to this. And now Alice is…”
Nicholas straightened; her words were slithering through his veins like poison. “Alice. It was you? Not an Ironwood, like Etta suspected, but you?” The words raged out of him, and he saw naked pain on the woman’s face, if only for a moment. “The one who called you Rosie—who protected you your whole life—you killed the one person who actually cared about your daughter!”