The road rose and fell beneath him, riddled with puddles of stale, festering water and sun-roasted mounds of animal droppings, as he passed fields of crops and country homes. It remained empty as he turned back in the direction of the Dove and the Royal Artillery Park.
He knew a hanging would take place within hours. A spy had been caught behind enemy lines, and this was the natural outcome; it was a testament to how rattled he was by Ironwood that he felt the old, foolish guilt come creeping into his heart. A man was set to die, and none of them had done a thing to stop it. If he knew them at all, both Cyrus and Sophia would take in the execution as spectators, and add it to the tally of noteworthy events they’d witnessed.
If Nicholas had not looked up from the mud, he might have missed the distant, dark streak that crossed the road as it blazed a path toward the Royal Artillery Park. A swirl of sapphire fabric, long gold hair braided like a rope down her back—
He took off at a run, cursing. Veering off the road, he followed the tracks that led into a cluster of nearby trees, behind what must have been the officers’ quarters. The air smelled of wet animals, gunpowder, men—all evidence of the camp nearby.
“Miss Spencer!” he hissed into the silence. The river rose up before him, a glimmering line of blue waiting to be lit by the sun. Where had she gone? Had it been a trick of the mind?
No—he found the trail of footprints again. Ironwood had been right after all; Etta was attempting to trick him, in this case by leaving under the cover of night without his knowledge. No doubt in possession of the actual meaning of her mother’s letter as well.
As he pushed forward, a crackle of power snapped against his skin. He knew that sensation. The passage was no longer singing in his ears, but there was a powerful hum below the quiet chatter of birds: a faint burning hiss that reminded him of the moment after a flash of lightning appeared over the sea. Of the rare white-blue lights that sometimes danced upon the masts and sails.
The entrance to the passage was a glimmering wall ahead, just at the edge of where the land met the river. It was still rippling, as if someone had only just passed through it.
“Bloody fool,” he breathed out, rubbing a hand over his head to force down the fear. For a moment, he was at a loss as to how to proceed. There wasn’t time to go back to the tavern to collect the rest of his belongings. She could fully escape, or, worse, be injured or killed in the time it took him to return to the Dove and tell Ironwood what had happened.
Nicholas shook his head. The old man had given him explicit instructions to gain the girl’s trust and return with the astrolabe by any means, both of which seemed impossible if he were to fetch her back. She would doubt his motivations when he needed her full confidence. And he couldn’t predict what punishment Ironwood might levy on her, her mother, or both, for this.
He had signed Ironwood’s contract, and both he and Ironwood knew his punishment for failure; Nicholas would have to trust that the old man would recognize the truth of what had likely happened when he woke in a few hours to find them both gone. Besides, in the end, all that mattered to the old man was that they returned with the astrolabe in hand. What was it that Julian had always said? Better to ask forgiveness than permission.
His brother was still on his mind as he took a deep breath and walked steadily toward the passage, trying to quell his wariness as he approached. How long had it been since he’d felt a passage enclose his skin, his bones, crush the air from his lungs? Longer than a year. Long enough to force him to take a deep, steadying breath.
Come on, Nick. Julian’s voice rose on the breeze at his back. We’ve a journey to make.
And, with one last breath of his world, he stepped through, surrendering himself to the pressure and the devastating blackness as time bent around him.
ETTA CRASHED DOWN INTO AWARENESS in a symphony of shattered glass, hearing it break a split second before she felt the shards slicing through her skin. Pain stole her breath and turned the world to sand around her. Just when she was sure she’d managed to get a grip on her surroundings, the images and sensations drained to nothingness again. Her body throbbed as she fought against unconsciousness. The lingering pressure from the passage didn’t ease, not even when she threw up.
Now she knew why she couldn’t remember what had happened with Sophia—how she had traveled to the ship after arriving through the passage.
Don’t—she clung to the word, forcing her burning eyes open—don’t pass out.…
Etta was caught in between charred beams and what looked like a blown-out window frame, her body cradled in it like a doll that had been dropped from above. Carefully she shifted, twisting until her feet touched the ground. Fabric tore—her right sleeve separated at the shoulder—and in the instant before her knees collapsed under her and the world blacked out again, an unnatural chill crept under her skin and turned her blood to ice. Her cheek struck the cement, and she felt nothing at all.
IT WAS THE WARMTH SHE NOTICED FIRST; THE GENTLE PRESSURE of the touch. Her legs and back ached as they came awake, but the pain on the right side of her face was scalding, raw. The air smelled of smoke—fire—but also…Through her lashes, she saw a dark head bent over her, cleaning dirt and blood away from her right hand. Nicholas’s face was drawn, stricken, as he worked, and Etta’s throat tightened as he carefully brought her hand up to his mouth as if to kiss it, his warm breath fanning over her skin. Instead, he shook his head and carefully set her hand down to rest on her stomach. In spite of the pain rattling around inside of her, the lingering pulse of the nearby passage, Etta let herself feel a pang of regret.