And, Nicholas thought, that was really all one had to know about the man. He wouldn’t shatter the sanctity of his rules, and he would not compromise his position or riches, not even for a woman whose memory continued to haunt him. Cyrus Ironwood’s heart had hardened into flint, capable only of being sparked into fiery anger. It allowed him to scheme without mercy—to steal a young woman from her home, thrust her into a decades-long search that amounted to little more than madness.
“You cannot be serious with this request,” Nicholas ground out. Fighting the urge to clench his jaw, he added, “She could lose her life. You’re asking her to take a number of enormous risks, with only your word that she’ll be returned to her home.”
Etta of the twenty-first century. Etta of the distant, unforeseeable future. Etta with the pirate heart. This astrolabe had already cost three lives, and now he was demanding that she sacrifice hers, as well?
Cyrus eyed him. “Has she proven herself to be spectacularly unsuited to this task? She has the motivation and the means to see this through, and she won’t run the risk of crossing paths with herself, unlike almost every other traveler. I hardly require more, beyond her discretion about our family, and that is easily maintained by notifying the guardians across time to watch for her appearances, to note her arrivals and departures through the passages.”
Etta would think she was working independently, none the wiser that the old man was like the mythical Argus, eyes scattered across the whole body of time. Would it be better or worse, he wondered, for Rose to have used other uncharted and unknown passages aside from the one across the road in the Royal Artillery Park? She would be able to travel without the interference of guardians stationed nearby to watch the passages, but if something were to happen—if she were to become hurt, or worse—who could help her?
“This is a task for your family—”
“Our family,” Cyrus corrected.
This was a man who had hit him across the face so many times when he was a child that Nicholas had learned to listen for his voice and avoid his path entirely. Of course, the spineless sop had never raised a hand to Augustus, his monster of a son, even as he terrorized everyone around him with his maliciousness.
“Julian was all you had in life, and, still, you sent him to his death—”
Cyrus slammed his fist down on the table, and Nicholas jumped at the bang. “I gave him to you to protect—I live with the consequences of your failure every day.”
Hardly. Nicholas’s bitterness turned inward, until it frosted his heart. He often dreamt of it: the last look of trust on Julian’s face before the glove slipped off his hand and he fell through the curtain of rain to the rocks below; the bursts of light reflected in the white haze; the cracking boom from the nearby passage, as it absorbed the surge of power that marked the end of a traveler’s life. He dreamt of it in rushes of panic and ice, just as he thought Cyrus must only dream in fire and blood.
The last time he’d stood before this man, he’d been weak with hunger and exhaustion, burdened by guilt. He’d been made to stand there for hours and report what had happened. Julian’s death collapsed the passage they had taken to Bhutan, forcing Nicholas to use his brother’s rambling travel journal to find another passage in that year to use, and connect to another one, and then another, until he finally found his way back to the year the old man was residing in. It had taken months, and, even if he’d had the strength left in him, Nicholas hadn’t had the heart to stop the words and fists that knocked him around until he was mute and suffocating on his apologies.
He wouldn’t be silent again.
“Miss Spencer is my passenger. I’m honor-bound to ensure her safety.”
“You’re honor-bound to me,” Cyrus reminded him, “and me alone.”
“I answer to no one but myself,” Nicholas said sharply.
This man would not take him in again. A snake could shed its skin, but never change its colors.
The old man studied him, resting his hands on his knees.
“When I heard the rumors that you possessed our ability—when I tracked you and Hall to the docks all those years ago—do you know what my first thought was upon seeing you?”
“I thought you had the bearing of an Ironwood, for all that you were a knob-kneed stick of a thing. I was impressed by how quickly you agreed to be trained and work beside Julian.”
It was the greatest shame of Nicholas’s life that he had given in to the wonder of what Ironwood had offered. Adventure beyond reckoning. Status beyond imagination. And…“You promised me compensation, and information on who had purchased my mother,” he said flatly. “You provided neither in the end.”
Four years of his life, wasted. And when he’d been exiled to this—his natural time—as punishment for failing Cyrus and allowing Julian to die, he’d been cut to the bone with a second blow. By the time he’d discovered what had become of her on his own, his mother had died of fever—alone, among strangers—as he and Julian had merrily drunk themselves into a stupor in 1921 New Orleans, chasing another fruitless lead for the astrolabe.
The lingering call of the passage filled the silence between them, a low murmur beneath the fire’s snaps and pops.
“I warn you,” Nicholas said, “if you attempt to do the same to me now—deny me that which I’ve earned for bringing the ladies here—I’ll kill you where you stand, and gladly be hanged for it.”