“No!” she said quickly. It was true that he’d agreed to work for Cyrus, to bring her to New York, but he stood apart from them, didn’t he? He’d been badly wronged by them, hadn’t he? She didn’t want to get him tangled any deeper in the family, or give them another reason to make his life miserable.
“You do,” he said. “After everything I’ve told you?”
Etta dropped her head back against the wall. He could take her apart with a single look, couldn’t he? But she wanted to tell him this; she wanted him to understand that she wasn’t just being a reckless idiot. She wanted him to be on her side.
She needed what he knew about the Ironwoods. About traveling. But how mercenary did that make her, to see if he’d come with her—and then leave him to deal with the fallout?
“Can I trust you?” Etta asked. “Will you trust me?”
Nicholas gave a curt nod.
She took a deep breath.
“I do know how to read the letter,” she admitted. “And I think the old man’s lying, or at least not giving us the full truth.”
His lips parted, the only slip in his mask. She’d surprised him.
“What brought you to that conclusion?” Nicholas asked.
“My mom isn’t a thief,” Etta said. “I don’t care what he says. I think this thing, the astrolabe, it belonged to the Lindens.” Her family—the one that had been whittled down to her and her mother alone. “They, or at least my mom, felt responsible for protecting it.”
“It might have truly belonged to them,” Nicholas conceded after mulling this over. “My understanding from Julian is that there was an astrolabe for each of the four families—Ironwood, Jacaranda, Linden, and Hemlock—but three were lost, or destroyed outright, a century ago. Ironwood feels that because he is the Grand Master of all of these families, they all belong to him, regardless of the original owner.”
Etta nodded, wondering what else had been stolen from her family—what heirlooms, secrets, and history had been absorbed into the Ironwood clan. Maybe her mom would be able to tell her.
Maybe they could reclaim some of that together.
After you somehow outsmart the old man, save your mom, save Alice, and perform at the debut next month.
“And this letter—she must have known something was going to happen, otherwise why write it?” Etta said.
Nicholas braced his arms on his knees. “Well, you can ask her once we have the astrolabe back in Ironwood’s hands and he frees her.”
Etta blinked. “You want to come with me?”
She saw a flash of sharp emotion pass quickly over his face, but couldn’t decode it. He glanced away. After a moment, Nicholas scoffed. “As if I’d ever feel comfortable letting you attempt this without any kind of aid—I can see in your face that you’re unhappy, but I trained for years to be able to travel. You’ve only just begun. It’s not weakness to require help, or a protector.”
“I don’t need a protector,” Etta said. “I need a partner.”
Nicholas’s gaze had been skimming the destruction around them, over the glimmering wall of air that was the entrance to the passage, but at her words, he met her eyes. His lips parted, as if the idea had startled him. “What are…the terms of this?”
Didn’t you travel with Julian? she wanted to ask. But…Sophia had called him little more than Julian’s servant, a kind of valet; and, while Etta had initially taken it as the girl being cruel and dismissive, she now had the evidence right in front of her. Her heart cracked and cracked again—at the role they’d thrust him into, at how he’d assumed it would be the same with her.
“We watch each other’s backs,” she said. “You call me Etta. And we don’t keep secrets.” Except, of course, that she’d never give the astrolabe to Ironwood if she could help it. “And—”
“We continue our mutual disdain of Ironwood?”
She grinned, even as doubt began to cloud her thoughts.
What if returning it is the only way he won’t punish Nicholas for this?
She couldn’t think about that now. It was a question for when, and if, they actually found the astrolabe. But accepting his help had consequences. He would be risking the old man’s wrath.
As if he’d leaned over and peered into her thoughts, he said quietly, “It’s my choice. What I do, I decide for myself.”
“All right.” Whatever invisible string had been tied so tightly around her heart loosened. “Before we find out where we’re going, do you have any idea where we are?”
He climbed to his knees, giving her a dry look. “I was rather distracted by you lying in a pool of your own blood.”
“There isn’t a pool,” she protested, rubbing at her swelling cheek. He reached over, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and pulled her hand away to hold.
“Don’t fuss with it,” he said. He ran a featherlight finger over the scrape. She didn’t breathe until he let his hand fall away.
“Now you’ve the look of a real pirate,” he told her, with a small, quiet smile. “But I’ll need to purchase clothing and supplies. Will you be all right if I leave you here for a few moments? I won’t be long, I promise.”
Etta opened the bag she’d hastily packed, and rooted around inside of it until her hands closed on the small velvet sack of gold. She handed it to him. “My mom might not be a thief, but I don’t particularly care if I am.”