Nicholas’s mother had been the family’s slave, and Augustus had assaulted her, abused her, and in the end had never freed her. Etta’s fury sprouted a new head, this one with knives for teeth. She thought, just then, that she could tear down the walls of the inn with only her bare hands.
“Julian wasn’t like that,” Sophia continued softly. “Not at all. He was kind.”
“Did you love him?” Etta asked. There was a careful reservation in Sophia’s voice when she spoke about him; either the grief was still too new and intense to touch, or there hadn’t been a great, smoldering kind of love between them.
“I was…content,” Sophia said. “He deserved to live, not the bastard. It’s Nicholas’s fault Julian died, you know, and he readily admits it—like that could somehow absolve him of some of the guilt. They never should have taken that path through the Himalayas, not in the rainy season. He was there to take care of Julian, to see to his needs, keep him from harm; to sacrifice his life, if need be. He should have forced them to turn around and take a different route.”
Etta turned over to face her, almost too afraid to ask. Nicholas had stopped traveling for a reason. He’d implied he was trapped in this era, and she had a feeling she was on the verge of finding out why. “What happened?”
“They were going to search the Taktsang Palphug Monastery for something Grandfather wanted—”
The astrolabe? Etta wondered. Nicholas hadn’t seemed surprised to hear of it.…
“The monastery is high in the mountains, built into a cliff with sheer walls. If you believe the rat’s story, there was a storm, and Julian slipped and fell. How could they have been standing so close to one another, and Nicholas not have been able to catch him?”
“Oh my God,” Etta whispered.
Sophia turned to face the wall, the column of her spine rigid. “One brother lived, one brother died. And if you ask me, he did it on purpose.”
Etta felt her jaw set as she hugged her arms over her stomach. “Why would he ever do that? Julian was his half brother—and more than that, Nicholas is honorable—”
“What good is honor when greed eats away at its foundations?” Sophia continued. “You’re right, though; it all comes down to the blood they shared between them. With Julian out of the picture, he had the next best claim. He is in Grandfather’s direct bloodline.”
“No,” Etta whispered, closing her eyes at the image. Not him. The thought ate away at her picture of him, dissolving it completely. He was her anchor here, the one reliable person who she could count on for the truth, for decency. She couldn’t let Sophia take that away from her, too; not until she’d heard Nicholas’s side of this. “No way.…”
“And you know what the truly sad thing is, Etta?” Sophia whispered. “If he’d asked, if he’d put his case forward, Grandfather would have considered it. I know he would have. Because being born a bastard in this family is still preferable to being born a girl.”
“Leave, Sophia,” Etta urged. “Run away if you have to—if there’s really nothing you can do to fix things in this family, get out the way my mom did, and start over!”
It was a long while before the answer drifted back to her.
“If I’m not an Ironwood, then I am no one,” Sophia said in a thin voice. “And I have nothing.”
“That’s not true,” Etta said, shocked by the defeat in the girl’s voice.
But only the passage answered back, in a rolling murmur, a growling whisper of lies—one that spoke of freedom, of discovery, of reclaiming what was lost, but delivered only a cage of lies and disappointment.
NICHOLAS CAST HIS GAZE TOWARD the fire, watching the dance of light. He’d felt the weight of Etta’s eyes on him, but had kept still until the door shut behind her, and he heard the wet rattle of Cyrus’s breath as he moved toward the bedside table to light a candle. Nicholas watched the steady movement of his fingers as they ran over the gold frame of a small, oval-shaped portrait he’d seen many times before.
His first wife, Minerva. Not his second, the sorry shrew of a woman who’d borne him two sons and died in the process of giving him yet another. Not Augustus, nor Virgil, whom he clearly had no desire to honor even in memory—not even Julian, who’d done everything the man had ever asked of him, superbly and without question. A love match by all accounts, and with another traveler.
For Cyrus, there was only Minerva, with her golden hair, green eyes, and uncommon beauty—a true Helen of Troy. When they’d wed, Cyrus had been at the center of a conspiracy to control the travelers’ fates.
He had hidden her, but it had not saved her in the end. And when Cyrus’s rival, Roman Jacaranda, murdered the woman, the four families had been flung into all-out war, and the last vestiges of the man’s humanity were torn away. Julian had told him stories of the old man’s vengeful rampage, harrowing tales of how he’d outmaneuvered all of his enemies, until he alone had become the Grand Master, ruling over all of their descendants.
None of it would bring Minerva back. His rivals had been strategic, choosing a rare year to which no passage led, so that Cyrus could not return to her hiding place and intervene. He could not travel to the years leading up to it to wait out the days, not without crossing paths with himself; nor could he warn anyone, or even himself, in sufficient time without altering his future control of the other families.