“Serious about this in particular,” he told her. “Any help would be gratefully accepted—please, I only mean to—”
She held up her hand. “If I could pinpoint it for you, I would. The only things left are to correct whatever small event it was that caused the timeline to adjust—the astrolabe being in Ironwood hands, likely—and to search for evidence of where the timeline might have thrown Etta. I can be of help with the latter, but can I trust you with the former? I imagine you know where to start looking.”
“Will it be enough to take the astrolabe out of Ironwood hands?” Nicholas asked.
“Only if you get to it before they use it,” she said. “Tell me once and for all that you can do this—otherwise you’re wasting my time.”
“I’ll find it,” he said quickly. Somehow…Sophia was bound to slip up, leave a small trail he could sniff out and track. “Thank you.”
Rose swung up onto her horse’s back. “Then this is where we’ll part.”
“How shall I get a message to you?” he asked. “After I retrieve the astrolabe, how will I know where to start looking for Etta herself? She won’t just be restored to this time, will she?”
“Of course not,” Rose said, unknotting the lead on the other horse and tossing him the reins. After casting an exasperated look at his lack of bags and supplies, she untied one of her saddlebags and gave that to him as well. Nicholas felt his pride take a small knock, but stood up straighter.
“I need to return to my present,” Rose said, “or Etta’s present, at least, in order to see which events have shifted, and I’ll try to pinpoint the last common event between the old timeline and the new from there. Can you meet me in Nassau in 1776 in…shall we say a week’s time?”
It would be easy enough to follow the passages he and Etta had gone through back to 1776, but accounting for the time they would both need to travel to the island from New York…He swallowed down his frustration. “Better make it nearer to a month.”
If he did not find her sooner himself.
I will tell Etta the truth, he thought, about what her mother has done. And, likely, destroy her world all over again in the process. But she deserved to know. She needed to be at the helm of her life—not a passenger, constantly at her mother’s mercy.
Rose nodded in agreement, turning her horse back toward the city. “There’s one more thing you should know. I have a feeling we won’t be the only ones looking for her.”
“I know this,” Nicholas said. “If Sophia doesn’t bring the astrolabe directly to him, Ironwood will assume Etta has absconded with it.”
“That’s true,” Rose said, “but I was talking about the Thorns. The leader, a man named Henry Hemlock, might attempt to look for her again.”
Christ—this was getting muddier by the moment. “I understand.”
Rose’s face twisted into a sad smile. “I doubt you do. He’s a powerful figure, far wealthier and more cunning than you’re likely to give him credit for. He’s also her father.”
Every thought flew out of his head, scattered to the winds.
“Good luck, Nicholas Carter. Don’t you dare disappoint me,” she called back over her shoulder. “I’ll see you in one month’s time. Nassau—the Three Crowns tavern.”
Nicholas nodded, clenching his reins in his hands as he watched her kick her bedraggled horse into a canter, and then a gallop. He waited until she was well out of sight before the dammed-up air rushed from his lungs and he dropped to his hands and knees. Tears and sweat dripped from his face, and he shook, coughing, laughing, as he pressed his forehead to the earth, trying to master the wild currents inside of him.
“You’re alive,” he rasped out. “You are alive.”
Both of them? Both Julian and Etta? He could scarcely fathom the hope that billowed up inside him, bowing his back like a sail. If Julian were only lost, too, then he would only need to be found.
The horse Rose had left behind just watched him, a picture of serene disinterest. He moved toward it, holding out a hand, until the animal felt comfortable enough to press its nose into his palm. Nicholas ran a hand down its long nose, stroking its dark hair, his thoughts shaken loose again from the ice that had encased them.
Etta was alive, but she wasn’t safe. She didn’t have anyone or anything now—she was entirely alone.
Not for long.
A surge of purpose worked through him as he hoisted himself up into the horse’s saddle. He would bring the exhausted creature to the oasis, give it a moment to rest and water itself, before setting off to locate Hasan. The man might know something of the other passages in this era, and from there…well, he would meet those challenges when they arose.
Nicholas had only just emerged from the hills when he spotted another rider weaving through the ruins of the fallen city. The red robe was unmistakable, even at a distance, and yet another burst of pressure left his chest, which no longer felt as tight as a drum.
“Hasan!” he called. The wind aided him, carrying his voice over to where the other man was perched on an unfamiliar horse.
“Baha’ar!” Nicholas was mildly touched that the man sounded equally thrilled to see him. It wasn’t until they were within a stone’s throw of each other that Hasan seemed to realize Nicholas was alone.
“But where…?” he began, eyes wide with horror.