“Did it bite you?” He took her leg in his hand, trying to see for himself, and she was right—he was shaking. “Etta! Did it bite you?”
No; but on its path to the snake, the bullet had grazed her skin, cutting close enough to leave a red, angry mark. She had been that close to getting bitten, and she hadn’t had any idea.
“Christ,” he said, pressing his hand against it. He tore the sleeve off the jacket she’d been carrying and dug through the bag for the scissors. As gently as he could, he dabbed the blood away and wrapped her leg with another, cleaner strip of fabric.
But where is the tiger? Etta wondered. When she’d spotted it, at first she had felt surprised and delighted. Its luminous eyes had tracked their progress forward with keen interest. Only then had she realized that there was no barrier between them.
Nicholas’s hands were smoothing down her wet hair, and kept moving over her shoulders, down her arms, and back up again to cup her face. He slowly came into focus, and she realized he’d been speaking to her this whole time.
“Can you stand?” he asked her. The ground had turned into a river of mud beneath them, and she was eager to get out of it. She nodded, accepting his help up, and gingerly tested whether or not she could bear to put weight on her leg. Her hands stayed on his bare shoulders as she looked up into his face.
“All right?” he asked, his voice still sounding odd to her ears. Etta nodded again. Standing was easy; speaking was not. “Do you want to walk?”
She nodded, hugging her arms to her chest.
Nicholas nudged them forward, but a thought spun in Etta’s mind, and she tugged him back. “Wait—we should take it—”
“It?” he repeated. “The snake?”
“Yeah.” Etta shook off the last bit of shock blanketing her mind. “What if…what if we need to eat it? Shouldn’t we take it with us?” Thinking about this further, she added, “Maybe not the head, though.”
Flanked by a curtain of green that glowed vibrantly, even in the silver overcast light, with rain pouring down over his face, his shoulders, the scars that crisscrossed over his chest, Nicholas blinked and started to laugh. He tilted his head back, catching the rain across his face; and when he finally leaned down to kiss her, the sweetness of it lingered on his lips.
It seemed to end before it even began. He pulled back, looking equally abashed and afraid, studying her face. Her hands itched to smooth the lines of worry away from his forehead, from around his beautiful, dark eyes. But he wasn’t the type to like being soothed—she knew that—and she also knew that this concern was more than just stupid eighteenth-century propriety. They were beyond that now.
She set her shoulders back, meeting his gaze with a challenge. “You call that a kiss?”
One corner of his mouth quirked up. “We haven’t the time for a proper one, pirate. Now tell me, where precisely are we?”
AT SOME POINT BETWEEN THE TIME WHEN NICHOLAS HAD LEFT to…to do whatever it was that required him to be shirtless…and her finding the Buddha statue’s decapitated head, a suspicion had begun to take root in the back of her mind. And as she’d walked, glimpsing the dark peaks of the temple in the distance, she’d had a single moment of relief at having been right before the anger began to pump through her again.
And now, Cambodia.
It was too much to be a coincidence. She’d taken out the letter, rereading the first clue they’d been able to ignore, as it came before the passage in New York: Rise and enter the lair, where the darkness gives you your stripes. It must mean the Taktsang Palphug Monastery in Bhutan, called the Tiger’s Lair or the Tiger’s Nest, where her mother claimed to have gone into one of the caves to meditate on what to do with her life. Which now seemed, in a word, unlikely.
Her mother had told her how to decipher the letter. She’d told her any number of times, under the guise of bedtime stories, about her life and adventures—she’d even painted the scenes, hanging them on the wall of the living room in the correct order, which made Etta feel like an idiot for not making the connection right away. Each clue had been carefully disguised to hide the reality of her life as a traveler; each was hiding in plain sight.
Now Etta was sure that the painting of the British Museum hadn’t been meant to lead her to the museum, but to the painting’s other subject: Alice. And Etta was willing to bet that, if she double-checked, she’d find that her mother’s supposed first apartment in the city, the one she’d painted to show a glimpse of the lights of Midtown East through one of the windows, was in the same location as the Dove Tavern.
Are you listening, Etta?
Etta, are you paying attention?
Let me tell you a story.…
Rose had planted the seeds, watered them again and again by repeating the stories over the years. She had given Etta what she needed to find the astrolabe; Etta only had to make the connection.
Etta had never been to the Tiger’s Nest, let alone Bhutan, but she knew someone beside her mother who had.
She and Nicholas walked side by side, her eyes trained on the ground, his on the path in front of them, until more of the dark stones and statues rose out of the foliage and marked their path forward. From her mother’s apparently half-true stories, Etta knew that both cities—Angkor Wat, and their present location, Angkor Thom—had, in her time, been largely cleared of the jungle’s ever-reaching overgrowth to allow for tourists to explore the spread of temples and structures. But whatever year or era they were in, it was clear it was after it had been abandoned by the Khmer Empire, but before it had come to the attention of Western civilization.