Our. Our ranks. Of course, to Ironwood, Nicholas’s acceptance was a given.
“I’ve had a great rival for the astrolabe these many years—”
“The Thorns,” Nicholas said, interrupting him.
“No,” the old man said. “He who has no name, but has lived generations. I believe him to be one of the original time travelers, for there has never been record of him apart from legend. He has found the other copies of the astrolabe, drained them of their power. He cannot have this one, too.”
Nicholas, again, listened to the tale of the alchemist and his children, forcing his face to remain as stone. On his hand, the ring burned.
“Why does this…Ancient One seek it?” Nicholas asked at the end. “And why should it matter beyond your personal gain that he take it?”
Ironwood lowered himself onto his bed, staring into the fire. “There is an incantation, a spell of sorts, I’m sure of it, that bleeds the power of the astrolabes and feeds him, extending his life beyond its natural years. But it must destroy the astrolabe itself, leave it as an empty shell. And that cannot happen.”
“Why is that?” This was in line with what Remus Jacaranda had explained to them, but there was a thread of worry in the old man’s voice now that made him wonder if there was something more to this. Something worse.
“Because, if the legends passed down within our family hold true,” he said, “destroying the astrolabe will not just revert the timeline back to its original state…but it will also return every traveler to their natural time, and seal the passages forever.”
The dagger slipped from Nicholas’s hand. His mind was adrift in the storm of possibilities that tore through it.
He lies. He lies with every breath. He wants you to help him. He will do anything to have it.
But the fear—the slick, sweaty coating of it over the old man’s words—that painted a portrait of truth, because if there was one thing the old man had never been in Nicholas’s eyes, it was afraid. Or vulnerable.
Late at night, while at sea, Hall would sometimes wake Chase and Nicholas and bring them up on deck to learn to read the stars and navigate by them. Once, while he’d been stretched on his back, the sails flapping sweetly above them, the sea rolling beneath them, he’d seen a star fall from the sky, scorching the air with its speed and brilliance.
His next thought occurred to him in much the same way. He does not want the astrolabe destroyed, because it would dismantle the traveler life. It would ruin him. Break his rule.
It wasn’t enough to take this man’s life. This was the problem with these traveler families, their history. Another cruel man or woman would step up their own savagery to fill the void he left behind, and they would all be thrown into further chaos. Better to end this, once and for all—to spare the families, the world, the kind of grief he felt now.
And then I can rest. He could die knowing that he had finally broken the last chain binding him to this man. But Etta…
Love. Sacrifice. Release.
He could not save her and still destroy Ironwood. Even if he had the time to steal the astrolabe and escape—the shallow flutter of his heart, the labor it took to stay on his feet, spoke the truth: if he did not kill Ironwood, he was not long for this world.
And he would not kill Ironwood.
This was all he could do, and still live as he chose. It would be a good death, an honorable one. And, in this way, he could tolerate the surrender.
He would see them again. His mother. Friends lost at sea. Etta.
Wait for me, wait for me, wait for me. He would follow, as he had before, into the unknown; into whatever adventure awaited them there.
The man began to pace, his hands clasped behind his back. His words ebbed and flowed, disappearing into nonsensical muttering as Ironwood worked through his plan. If he had stripped out of his attire, Nicholas was not sure he would have seen the man as naked as this. The veneer of steel was gone, and it was deeply, deeply unsettling to him to see Ironwood’s desperation rise to a pitch of such barely restrained frenzy.
“Say yes, Nicholas,” Ironwood said. “She’s not lost to you. This is your inheritance. This is what you deserve.”
A sureness took his heart, lightening it enough for him to breathe for the first time in days. With each thud of his pulse, he felt the poison inch through his system. He moved toward the window, looking down into the garden where the candlelight from the ball seeped out, highlighting where Sophia was hiding in the bushes. Her face was turned up like a stargazer’s in the darkness, searching for his.
When their eyes met, he gave the slightest shake of his head and pulled the curtains shut on her confusion. I’m sorry.
“I accept your offer as given,” he said, turning back. “But I would ask for ink and paper, so that I might write a letter to Captain Hall, and assure him I am well.”
Cyrus Ironwood looked up, eyes gleaming. He moved to his own secretary desk, retrieving the necessities.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course. You’ll come to find you have a great deal of paper and ink now, as much as your heart desires. My man will search him out to deliver it. I’ll have him bring a physician to repair whatever it is you’ve done to your arm. Better yet, you’ll join me in the twentieth century. Medicine is remarkably improved by then.”
“No, it’s not necessary,” Nicholas said, his voice loud to his own ears. “I am already healing.”
“Good,” he said, “good. There’s a bed for you down the hall. Rest. We’ll discuss plans to retrieve the funds necessary to enter the auction in the morning.