When he opened them, a single tear had escaped down her cheek, dripping off her chin like rainwater.
“What’s happened?” he asked, gutted. “Sophia, please; tell me what’s happened.”
“She’s alive,” Sophia managed to squeeze out. “But I wish—I wish I had killed her myself. She’s been lying to us the whole bloody time. She was working for the Thorns.”
Li Min was a mercenary, and he could not say that he was surprised to hear she’d been on a job when they’d first crossed paths. “What does that have to do with us?”
Sophia gave him one of her humorless smiles, the one that curved with self-loathing. “We were her job. She was supposed to—to follow us. Keep us from finding the astrolabe before them.”
“What?” Nicholas took her by the shoulder, forcing her to turn toward him fully. “She told you this?”
Her lips pressed into a tight line, her breath harsh as it wove in and out of her. He put his hand over the place where her hands were curling, tearing at the fabric of her coat.
Sophia turned her face up toward the ceiling, but to her credit, she was looking him in the eye when she said, “Yes, while you were on the beach in Iceland. That’s also when I found Julian. And Etta.”
“What does—” Nicholas heard her, but it was only several moments later that her explanation landed. It exploded through him like a mortar round, and the damage it caused was mortal. He could not move. He could scarcely gather the wherewithal to remember to breathe.
“They were both with the Thorns this whole time,” she whispered. “Julian must have been caught by them or gone willingly in the hope they’d hide him, maybe. And they found Etta first—her father put out the false death notice to protect her, I guess. Etta was the one who recognized Li Min. Because they saw each other, just a week ago. And she still lied to our faces, she kept up their ruse that Etta was dead, even though she saw how you suffered from it. If we had gone after the astrolabe, she would have taken it out of our hands before we could have ever decided what to do with it.”
Etta was the one who recognized her.
Etta was…Etta is alive.
But how—how was Julian with her?
“Are you listening?” Sophia was saying. “Do you even care?”
She was seething, her anger holding her hostage. Her face blurred in his vision, but he was not crying. That would have required feeling something at all. This swift churning of expectations, of reality, left him hurtling toward the barbed edges of horror and fury. But he never landed. With nothing solid to grasp, he could not seem to break out of the free fall. He fell back, sitting on the ground in a bid to get the world to stop tearing around him in a blur of darkness and rain.
Alive. Impossibly, beautifully alive. If there was ever a moment he might have pulled Etta from thin air, it was this one, when he felt so illuminated, so bold with the knowledge of her, that he could have reached through the darkness of the centuries and fetched her to him.
“Why were they in Iceland?” Nicholas asked with urgency. So close, damn it all. They had been so close to him. “Were they all right?”
“They were there for the same reason you were,” Sophia said, her voice flat. “Only, the Ironwoods beat them down to the cave.”
If only the fog had delayed the longship even one hour…No.
He shook his head. It was too dangerous, too seductive a thought. Nicholas would have seen them for himself, yes, but Ironwood would have done so as well. They’d have been reunited under the worst of circumstances, and his plan to destroy Ironwood would have unraveled the instant he saw her.
“They wanted the entry fee for the auction?” To attend with the Thorns, he presumed. But the thought did not seem to follow through logically. Sophia would have met with a larger party than just the two of them. And given what Ironwood had said of Henry Hemlock’s personal wealth, it did not seem like they’d need to skim from Ironwood’s holdings.
Etta’s father’s wealth.
The man had clearly known what Nicholas had known from the very moment he and Etta had come to terms with needing to destroy the astrolabe: Ironwood would never cease hunting her if she took what he wanted from him. He would never stop until she was dead by his hand, or someone else’s.
But did the old man believe she was dead, with the bloodied clothes as his only proof? His anxieties about double agents in his family ran deep, and with good reason. Perhaps some of his men were truly in Hemlock’s pocket, and had claimed responsibility for the death to perpetuate the lie.
That, or the old man had known she was alive all along and had decided to use the pain of it to turn Nicholas to his side, dropping the hollow promises of wealth and respect as additional lures. He thought he knew his grandson’s heart so very well, didn’t he?
“That’s the third time,” he said softly to himself, shaking his head. Seeing her inquisitive look, he clarified, “That I’ve allowed myself to be deceived. It’s remarkable we’ve made it this far, given what a fool I’ve been.”
“If you’re guilty of being a fool, it’s only because you expect the rest of us to be as honorable as you are,” Sophia said.
“I actually expect the world to be fairly miserable in its handling of me,” he said. “Over the past week, I’ve allowed desperation to speak louder than my better judgment. It’s had me on a leash this entire time.”