With a young woman.
He tucked the dagger into his belt, reaching up to touch the pendant and Etta’s earring beneath his shirt. Let the ends justify the means.
“Thank you,” he told Li Min. She had been a stranger mere days before. Now she was attempting to comfort him, when what he needed most was a voice of reason beyond the berating one in his mind. He would never forget it.
“That’s the minuet,” Sophia whispered, crawling back over the slight slant in the roof. “Do you want to wait until they’re a few more dances in?”
Ironwood’s balls always began with a minuet, during which he danced with a lady of his choosing. The focus of all of the attendees would be on the dancers congregated on the first floor of the old house, gliding around the card tables, trays of food, and hothouse flowers. Even Ironwood’s bevy of guards might be distracted long enough for Nicholas to make his entrance on the third floor.
He shook his head. The time was now, or he’d never muster the strength.
THE HOMES ALONG QUEEN STREET—SPARED BY THE FIRE TO the west of Broad Way—were tall, proud creatures that might have been transplanted from the streets of London’s gentry. The old Ironwood house, by virtue of the man’s ego, was a rose among daisies, his own palace from which to rule an empire of centuries. Its endless series of windows, and the natural attention it drew, of course, made it damned hard to creep up on if one made one’s approach from the street.
Rope, tied to the chimney of the neighboring house, tossed with a hastily procured grappling hook onto Ironwood’s roof, made the task easier—but only just. Without the use of his right hand, Nicholas had to hook his right arm and both legs over the rope, and inch forward with an agonizing, awkward slowness. Sophia followed at a determined pace, and he found his expectations disappointed when Li Min didn’t walk across the rope like a cat, but deigned to cross it like a mere mortal.
The rope was cut free, a section falling slack against the neighboring house. The remaining length was tied to Ironwood’s chimney. Li Min used it to walk down the back of the house and then along its walls, passing between the windows with practiced ease. Suddenly, Nicholas had no problem seeing her at home on a pirate ship.
She disappeared from their sight, but he heard her negotiating a window below them.
“Rather handy, isn’t she?” Sophia said with clear appreciation, leaning over the edge of the roof to watch her at work. Nicholas gripped the back of her dark jacket to keep her from tumbling off the ledge.
A tug on the rope told him it was safe to descend, but Sophia, who was to keep watch, stopped him. She seemed to be struggling to speak; her mouth twisted as though she’d tasted something bitter.
“You’ll be all right…won’t you?” she asked after a long moment.
“I’ll be quick, at least,” he said.
“Seems unfair,” she said as he began to edge down, gripping the rough rope. “He deserves a worse end than you’ll be able to give him.”
“If something happens—”
Sophia gripped him by the collar of his shirt. “Nothing is going to happen.”
Nicholas nodded. “Understood, ma’am.”
Sophia used the rope to ease him down just enough for Nicholas to swing his legs forward through the open window. Li Min reached out, pulling him the rest of the way through the frame.
His memory of the house’s layout had served him well, after all. Li Min took a candle from the wall of the servants’ staircase, leaning around the landing to ensure no one was coming. Though they were inside the house now, the staircase was so insulated, set so far apart from the house’s grandeur, that even the lively music seemed muted.
It was remarkable, he thought, how swiftly memory could cut a man. It was the air, the way it seemed to sour in his lungs, the familiar creaks of the floor, that upset his stomach. This was a house in which all things were eventually extinguished, even hope. Whatever composure he’d summoned took a lashing as he stood there; for a moment, he was too tense to think about moving, too afraid that he might see his mother’s ghost walking up the stairs toward him.
Nicholas felt Li Min’s eyes on his face, trying to take the measure of his response. He didn’t turn toward her. The bile in the back of his throat stung and burned, but he swallowed it, ashamed that standing within this house’s walls was enough for his past to begin nipping and tearing at his resolve.
He had thought he’d known hatred, but he had not realized it lived in this place like a fine coat of dust. The familiarity of it was devastating; in all the many ways he had changed, the house hadn’t. Even now, the shadows seemed to grasp at him, pulling at his skin, as if to remind him, You belong to me. You will always belong to me.
It would always claim a piece of him he would never have back.
I need to leave this place. Finish what he had come to do, and leave.
“Signal if you need assistance,” Li Min said. “If his death causes any of us to be orphaned, find your way back to Nassau in this year. We will regroup.”
He nodded, sliding the dagger she’d given him out of his belt. He couldn’t think of the consequences of this just yet. The passage they’d come through, to the north of the city, would likely collapse—but what else might? For decades, time had revolved around Ironwood himself, and there was no way to predict what might happen once the center of that control collapsed.
He began to climb the stairs. They were shorter than he remembered, but spoke to him each time he put his weight on them, reminding him why he was there, what he needed to do. For the first time, he was glad he had a blade instead of a flintlock. Perhaps he’d give the old man a cut for every year he’d stolen from her life.