“What happened?” she asked softly.
He took a steadying breath, looking out over the water again. “I thought that woman…I caught a glimpse of her as she was hurrying across the park, and for an instant, I truly believed she was my mother.”
Etta felt the world shrink around them painfully, tighten around her shoulders, until it hurt even to breathe.
“I know it sounds mad, that it was bloody reckless, but the resemblance was uncanny. Of course it wasn’t her. She’s long dead by this year. I know it, but it was as if—” He folded his hands in his lap, shaking his head. “It was as if, for a moment, the clouds of the past cleared and gave her back to me.”
Etta leaned against his shoulder, wishing there was something she could say. “Did you ever find out what happened to her?”
He nodded. “While I was gallivanting with Julian, Hall finished the work I’d begun in searching for her—she died in South Carolina, in 1773, of a fever.” Nicholas managed to choke out one last word. “Alone. I’m not even sure where they buried her. Hall thought that, even with my papers, it was too dangerous to attempt to find the grave.”
“I’m so sorry,” she breathed out.
He rested his face against her hair.
“I haven’t many regrets in my life,” Nicholas said, “and I suppose I should be grateful that there’s just the one. As much as I do blame Ironwood, I can’t divide myself from the guilt. I should not have accepted Ironwood’s offer, and left the sea to travel. Then, perhaps, I might have found her in time, and purchased her freedom. Julian would not have fallen; I’d be free of every shackle this family has tried to place on me.”
Etta understood all too well what this kind of regret felt like as it burrowed deep inside of you. She would do just about anything to relive those last few moments with Alice, but even traveling was out of the question. She couldn’t exist in the same place—the same year—twice.
But Nicholas hadn’t been in 1773. At least not all of it. She was almost afraid to ask.
“Isn’t there a passage you could take to that year? I know you can’t save Julian, that it would change too much. And if she was sick, not even you could have kept her alive. But maybe…maybe it would bring you both some peace?”
He shook his head. “There isn’t a passage to that year. I’ve thought this through a thousand times—I’ve considered how I could get a message to Hall in the past, to keep myself from going. But as much as I wish I’d made a different choice, I can’t bring myself to be quite that selfish. To risk all of those changes rippling out.”
“When you told me I couldn’t save Alice, you spoke from experience.”
“I should have told you the whole of it,” he murmured.
This memory was clearly something he kept buried deep, a dagger he kept wrapped in layer upon layer of distraction, to avoid cutting himself by brushing up against it. She understood and respected that.
“That’s an easy fix, though,” Etta said. “Before, you didn’t have the astrolabe.”
He sat up, pulling away. She’d managed to shock him again. “Etta—”
“No—don’t shake your head like it’s impossible. It isn’t. We could take the time to create a passage for you, before we…”
“Before we give it to Ironwood?” he prompted, with obvious suspicion in his eyes.
She nodded, hating the lie. “This is all simpler than you want to think it is.”
His lips compressed into a tight, unhappy line. Why couldn’t he believe that this was a true possibility, that he could have everything he wanted? Why was he reluctant? Nicholas didn’t want to continue traveling; but one last trip to see his mother, to be with her and ease his mind—wouldn’t that be worth it?
“Regardless, we need to find the bloody thing first, which means that it’s especially lucky that I’ve figured out the clue.” Nicholas spread his hand out on the stone banister that ran along the water’s edge. “You brought us right to it.”
“You mean…” Etta followed his gaze back to the fountain. “Bring a coin to the widowed queen.”
“This is the Medici Fountain, built by Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry the Fourth of France, isn’t it?” Nicholas gestured to the fountain. “Julian brought me here to chase the skirt of some girl he’d seen on the street. If there’s one thing that’s true of all Ironwoods, they love to lecture and give unsolicited history lessons.”
Etta nodded. The stone on the fountain had been carefully worked; two figures sat atop columns that were interspersed with more sculptures. At the very center were three more statues: Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea, with the hulking bronze cyclops, Polyphemus, peering over a boulder, and the ill-fated lovers carved out of white marble. Her mother loved and specialized in the conservation of works from the Italian Renaissance, and this fountain had used elements of that in its classic grotto style. To Etta, it was an obvious connection.
Nicholas blew out another ragged breath, burying his face in his palms. Etta reached over, stroking his hair in reassurance. She wasn’t sure what was upsetting him more: that he had drawn so much unwanted attention to himself, or that he’d let himself get his hopes up. When he still seemed distraught, his muscles tensed, she took his hand and threaded their fingers together. He returned her soft squeeze with one of his own.