He glanced down at the ring on his finger, avoiding her gaze. Nicholas had paid the price for it, certainly.
“Do Etta and Julian still intend to participate in the auction?” he asked carefully.
“I think I might have scared them off,” Sophia said, sinking down onto the floor in front of him. “I did something—you’re going to hate me for it.”
He found his mind stilling again, fixating on her words. His gaze narrowed slightly. “What did you do?”
She pressed her lips tight together, as if she were drowning, trying to save that last bit of precious air.
“What did you do?” he repeated.
“You won’t understand—I was so angry, so bloody furious, and I went to this place inside myself I don’t like, that I can’t help but disappear into, and I could hear myself saying all of these things, all of these lies. I wanted to kill them for ruining everything, the two of them; I hated them for shattering Li Min’s lie; but I was scared, too.”
“Of what?” he asked. “Sophia. What did you tell them?”
She pressed her hands to her face. The panic in her voice gripped him and held him there, at her next words’ mercy.
“That you were—that you were the heir now, and happily working for Ironwood. I told them that you never bothered looking for Etta, and that you were happily won over by the old man, because whatever was between you and her wasn’t real to begin with.”
Was that all? Nicholas shook his head with a dismayed laugh. “She didn’t believe you.”
The girl pulled her hands away from her face with a look of surprise.
“There is an understanding between us,” he explained. “She knows the whole of my heart. But why would you say such a thing? Why try to send them away?”
“Because,” she said, struggling to keep her voice down, “because of a hundred reasons! Because you would have reconsidered following through with the plan to destroy the astrolabe, knowing there was a chance you could be with her now. Because she would have interrupted you, distracted you, and cost you precious time when that loathsome ring could steal you at any moment and leave me to finish this all alone. And because I will be damned before I let you lie down and die without at least trying to give us the time to break the ring’s hold over you.”
Nicholas sat back, silenced by the force of her words.
“You can bloody well hate me for it, too, but I can’t be sorry,” she said, wiping at her face in disgust. “And now you have me weeping like a child! If I liked you any less, I would beat you senseless for this.”
“I’m not surrendering to the poison, Sophia,” he said. “I fight it every single day. This has been our plan—”
“This was your plan. Yours and Li Min’s. You told me I wasn’t allowed to die,” she said. “Do you remember? In the desert, in the hospital, over and over again. Each time I wanted to slip away you were there, with your annoying ‘You owe me a debt, you are not finished with your life, this is not your end’ nonsense. It made me want to die just to irritate you, but I didn’t. So why should I sit here and watch you make the same slow farewell?”
Nicholas’s left arm began to shake under the strain of holding his weight. He shifted, leaning forward with a grimace. “Then why did you agree to follow me to the auction?”
She looked at him as if he’d asked her why chickens lay eggs. “Because I’m going to find the witch and stick a bunch of knives in her until I find the one soft, fleshy spot that makes her take your blasted ring off!”
He did not want to tell her that she was in the deepest sort of denial if she truly believed she could convince the witch of anything. The stories Ironwood had told him about the woman made his skin crawl, and he had very little doubt that killing her or wounding her would only cause the poison to work faster. She was as merciless as they came, and the only way to truly get his revenge on her would be to take the astrolabe and ruin her chances of adding another secret or soul to her collection.
He wasn’t surrendering the ship; he was going down with it, and on his own terms.
“You said they…that Julian and…Etta,” Nicholas said, trying to stamp out the ember that began to glow dangerously inside him again, “that they were planning to attend the auction? Or at least apply for entry to it?”
“They were, though judging by Linden’s expression, I think I put her off the idea,” Sophia said, with one last confession. “I told them what’s going to happen when the astrolabe’s destroyed. Neither of them took it very well.”
It was amazing that, for all of their similarities, neither Etta nor Sophia could decipher each other or understand the other’s minds. Nicholas translated Etta’s reaction for her: “That only means she’ll be there to try to steal it.”
“There wasn’t enough gold left in the cache for an entry fee, anyway,” Sophia said. “I came back and checked about an hour after you’d left. And Ironwood’s cleared out the other ones Julian would know about.”
That would pose an actual problem, though he had little doubt that Etta could think her way through the situation. “Then you’re likely right, and they won’t be there. You’ve kept them safely away from any trouble we might cause.”
“Stop trying to make me feel better,” Sophia ordered. “It won’t work. I’m determined to be angry and guilty about this for at least another two days, and then again when I’m punching your corpse.”