He did not care. He didn’t care a single whit about them. Nicholas had taken stock of himself and found, in the aftermath, he was a selfish sort after all. He wanted Etta beside him. On a ship, in a home, in a city, in the jungle—he didn’t care, so long as her small hand had possession of his own, and he could lean down and kiss her whenever he damned well pleased, which would be often, and always.
He’d been quick to scorn the sickly poets and playwrights who wrote of dying from love, but he saw now that this was a form of grief. A loss that stole some small bit of gladness from him every day until what was left of his heart was as cold and hard as flint.
As cold and hard as Ironwood’s.
One could survive without a heart, but a life like that was stunted, like an unopened flower, never receiving the necessary sunshine in order to bloom.
And it was not just Etta. There was Julian, there was Sophia, there was even Li Min, who now owed him two farewells. That was a family of sorts, wasn’t it? Perhaps not the most graceful example, but it bore all the necessary ingredients of one: care, concern, friendship, guidance, love.
“I used to dream of traveling, of what it might mean to me—that I might master skills enough to find a place for myself in the world beyond what this time was willing to give me.” Nicholas stopped, testing Hall’s reaction, afraid of the disappointment or hurt he might see there.
Instead, the captain nodded.
“There is good in it, Nick,” he said. “There is wonder. You can sit and ponder the nature of morality and corruption, like all the old, moldy philosophers. But it was never the passages themselves that were evil. It was the way they were used.”
“But that’s my point. The fact that they exist—that they existed—and that some of us have this ability…it does not mean we have to travel,” Nicholas said. “We do not have to risk causing further instability.”
“You’re thinking aloud,” Hall noted, “but you’re dancing around the heart of the matter. You recognize that there is an inherent threat in their existence, that just by being used, they open the timeline up to change. And yet…?”
“These are families,” Nicholas said. Etta’s words that night on the mountain had never left him; they’d only crystallized in his mind. “You did not see the massacre. I don’t know how many of us survive now, but it seems a crueler thing to keep apart those of us who did. I never felt the Ironwoods were my own, but I have people now I consider near enough to be my own blood. If others are stranded in their natural times, trapped there…How do they go about living their lives, knowing they will never again see the ones they love?”
“I suppose Miss Spencer is included in these ponderings,” Hall said, innocently enough. “Perhaps you might make one more passage, to her time? It would allow easy access to return when you feel the call of the sea, or wish to see this old man.”
But as soon as that warm thought settled, guilt rose to dash it to pieces. “I cannot. It’s…Isn’t it self-serving? And in truth, I’m not sure I’d be able to reach her at all. To create a passage, I would need something from her time. She is not just from the future—she is from the far future.”
There was nothing in his possession that had originated in that place, not even Etta’s earring. The Lindens seemed to be collectors of the first order, if the home in Damascus had been any indication. There might be something there he could use. So there were two passages needed, at least. How quickly this could spiral beyond his control.
Hall’s brows rose sharply as he stroked his beard, considering this. “If there are as few travelers left as you say, then would it not be easy to establish rules and hold others accountable? It was always my understanding that the greater portion of traveling was done innocently, for the experience of it, or to see the guardians who had to remain in their natural times.”
“What you’re speaking of is a new system of order,” Nicholas said. “Simply considering it is overwhelming. The judgment about where and when to open a passage would fall to me, time and time again.”
“And I’m grateful for that,” Hall said. “For there is no traveler alive who would torture himself and labor over each decision the way you will. There will be sacrifices, no matter what you decide. You may spend your days tunneling through the years to link travelers to their families, and never know the life of a captain. You may risk persecution for what they’ll discover you can now accomplish for them. Or you may choose the dream of your youth, and one day, perhaps, learn to live with knowing your choice has affected more than just your life.”
Nicholas took a sharp breath in. “I did not ask for this. I never desired it—I only wanted to live my life as any man would.”
It was too much power for any one person to hold. Was this not the exact reason he had fought so hard to keep Ironwood from seizing control of the bloody thing? To make a decision to act in his own self-interest, to save only Etta—how was that different from the selfish ends Cyrus Ironwood would have used the astrolabe to pursue?
He would not simply be able to stop after searching for the other travelers. He knew his heart too well, and thanks to Hall’s searching, he knew where his mother had been sent after she’d been sold from Ironwood’s service. He knew where she was buried. He had been gone, traveling with Julian, the very year she wasted away and went to her reward.
I can save her.