He owed it to himself. What’s more…he owed it to Julian to finish what they’d begun, so his death wouldn’t be for nothing.
I am the one who truly owes a debt to them—not her. He’d stolen Julian. He could give the old man this, and then he’d never need to see his wicked face again.
Cyrus watched him carefully. “I see the indecision on your face,” he continued. “If it makes the offer more palatable, I will lift the ban on your traveling. Your exile here in your natural time will end. You will be free to go wherever, whenever, you like.”
Nicholas recoiled instinctively, but caught himself. “My exile is payment for the debt I owe for Julian’s life. I have no desire to return to traveling.”
It was the truth, and it made him uneasy that the man had even offered. Ironwood had raged when he’d returned, weak and wounded and without Julian, and he’d understood his fury; felt, even now, that he deserved it. Not for depriving the man of his last direct heir, but for depriving the world of the only decent soul in the family. Now all would be forgiven, as if it were nothing? As if Julian were nothing?
Nicholas had all but toasted the news that the man who had fathered him had drowned before Cyrus could come to find him; but he’d languished for years now over Julian’s death, battering himself at every turn. He tortured himself with that one question: why travel at all if nothing could be changed? Why travel if he could not save Julian, if he could not so much as warn himself not to go down that path—to stay away from Ironwood? The futility was devastating, and always would be.
Nicholas had worked hard to earn back the trust of Chase and Hall after abandoning them for false promises and hollow revelations. Hall had done everything in his power to dissuade him from leaving with Ironwood, and Nicholas had waved away his every concern like a fool.
“Why the thirtieth?” he asked again. “What is so important about that date?”
“It is merely a deadline,” Cyrus said, “to hold the girl accountable.”
The old man never did anything without a reason. There was something important here that he was withholding, but the man’s chosen currency was secrets. Nicholas wasn’t sure he was willing to trade to find out what this one was.
“Say yes, Nicholas,” Cyrus coaxed, holding out a hand.
Did it matter so much? Nicholas saw the future he’d built during all of these years, and it was resting in the old man’s calloused palm. He only had to agree. A few words to seal that fate…
Perhaps they were more alike than he’d care to admit.
“I need this in writing—a proper contract,” Nicholas heard himself say.
The old man’s eyes lit up. “I’ve already taken care of it. There’s a copy for you to keep.”
The contract was waiting in his trunk, along with a ballpoint pen for signing. It had been so long since Nicholas had used one of them, the weight felt unfamiliar in his hands as he brought the metal tip to the parchment. He felt sick to his stomach reading through the terms. The old man had known he’d be weak enough to give in—should he have put up more of a fight? Were there better terms to be had?
“Good man,” Cyrus said, taking one copy and folding it neatly into thirds, and held out his hand. Nicholas gave it a brief, firm shake, and felt the burn of it as if he’d taken the devil’s hand, still warm from the fires of hell. Cyrus continued. “You’ll leave tomorrow with the girl, just as soon as she has deciphered the next clue.”
Nicholas nodded, a stone lodged in his throat.
Forgive me, Mother, he thought, taking his leave as quickly as possible. I will do what I must.
He was not doing this to take up the Ironwood name, to stay within a family that had never wanted him in the first place. He was not doing this to take up the life of a traveler again, or to see beyond the horizon of his natural years. He was not doing this for a girl who would never truly belong to him. He was doing this for his future. For Julian’s memory.
He would master his feelings.
He would see this arrangement through.
And he would close this chapter once and for all.
For miles, heading nowhere in particular, he walked for what felt like hours, trying to force his legs to grow reacquainted with the steadiness of land. He carried only his freedom papers in his coat pocket and the money Ironwood’s man had provided for bringing Sophia and Etta to New York—neither of which he was foolish enough to leave behind at the tavern. He passed the time under an unusually cloudless sky, as night edged into the earliest morning hours and the world slowly began to lighten around him. And when those thoughts wove into a long, dangerous rumination on the color of Etta’s eyes in comparison to that same faint blue, he turned his mind back to another unwelcome task: mentally composing his letter to Chase. Dear friend, you were right. I’ll be very late seemed too short, and would give his friend far too much to crow about; but I must venture through time with the pirate queen would be met with confusion, and fear for Nicholas’s mind.
I’ve further business to attend to here in New York. I’ll be in New London by the start of November. That was better.
He felt a pang at the thought of the others sailing without him. But you’ll be sailing on your own ship soon enough, he thought. What would Hall think of him, knowing he’d thrown in his lot with Ironwood again? Nicholas couldn’t imagine better business partners than Chase and Hall—perhaps they would come to see reason once they took a look at the plantations’ ledgers?