“It’s Hen—” Sophia began, but Nicholas gave a curt shake of the head. He would rather not have the woman turn her eye onto Etta; the darkness of this place, the way it seemed alive with its own curiosity, made him want to protect her from this stranger’s interest for as long as possible.
The older woman turned her gaze back toward Nicholas. The small silver bells sewn into her mass of hair tinkled.
“Well,” the Belladonna continued, “your desperation reeks worse than your intriguing stench. You are clearly without earthly possessions, and neither of you was close enough to Ironwood to have new, useful secrets to trade. So perhaps our business has concluded before it began.”
Sophia took a furious step forward, reaching for whatever sharp weapon she had strapped to her belt. The wolf jumped to its feet, baring its teeth as the girl came toward her, but Sophia growled back, glaring at the animal until its lips relaxed and its ears rose to their usual position.
Nicholas’s heart began to beat back against the thoughts of no running through his mind. They had not traveled through centuries of swamps and storms to arrive at a denial. This search could be simple; they wouldn’t have to chase down every passage in every century for a lead on Etta’s whereabouts.
“Is there nothing else you want in exchange from us?”
In the silence, an idea seemed to shape itself from candlelight and shadow. Nicholas noted the moment it struck the Belladonna, how her hands laced together and her veil shifted, as if masking a smile.
“Many of my auctions are for items that are priceless. They defy valuation. As you may know, I select winning bids based on what they can offer me. A secret, or a favor they’re willing to do. Here, we can negotiate—in exchange for the information you seek, I’ll ask for a favor,” the Belladonna said, her chair creaking as she leaned back. “It will be of my choosing, to be completed sometime in the future.”
“I won’t do anything…”—Nicholas struggled to find the right words—“…scandalous. Immoral.”
One eyebrow rose. “Goodness. What an imagination you have. By favor, I mean a task. Perhaps to find and retrieve something for me. Carry a message. Assist in my own travel. And so on.”
That…did not sound entirely intolerable to him.
“So he has to serve you?” Sophia demanded. “No questions asked?”
“For a time, only insofar as it pertains to the task,” the Belladonna said, flicking her long nails at the girl.
“Slavery,” he said, the dull burn inside of his chest growing. Intolerable. He should have guessed this underhanded “business” of hers would strive to bind the wings of his soul.
“Nothing so foul,” the Belladonna said, her voice sharp with offense. “It’s indentured servitude, and only a day or two’s worth. Your task pays off your debt to me. Once our business is concluded, that bond will be broken.”
Sophia grabbed his collar, yanking him down to her height and startling him out of his tangle of thoughts. “Forget this. We’ll try the Jacarandas instead, like we planned.”
And risk them not knowing? Risk running in circles long enough for this starting point to disappear? They’d failed to master time on this search, and now it was threatening to best them. Etta was hurt and alone, and the thought of taking a moment longer to debate this was intolerable. If anything, it was Sophia’s infernal pride speaking for her again, her entitlement. Nicholas hadn’t expected the answers to be handed to them. This was a business deal, and he had to believe that Rose Linden wouldn’t send him into the jaws of a literal and figurative wolf. The woman’s methods were patently ridiculous, but she was still his ally.
“Everyone has a master, whether you realize this or not,” the Belladonna said. “Luckily, I am a benevolent one. Mostly.”
How very bitter that truth was when swallowed. Some were bound by loyalty and vows, others by an obsession with wealth, and others were owned by other men through no fault of their own.
There was something else that Hall used to say—that life itself was uncertainty, and the only remedy to its madness was to act boldly. This was a risk, yes, but it was tied to a tantalizing reward. At least this was presented as a choice; at least he was retaining some measure of free will. Nicholas could tolerate this debt, so long as he felt the information he would be receiving was proportional to the work.
“There’s no we,” Nicholas told Sophia, detangling her fingers. “This is the answer.”
Find Etta. Salvage her future. Fix those things he’d ruined.
And to one day live a life of his own making, be left to his own ends, whatever shape that might take now.
“You won’t say what the task will be before we agree?”
The Belladonna’s eyes narrowed, glancing toward a grandfather clock behind him. “I haven’t yet decided. But you’ve thirty seconds to agree before the offer is rescinded and Selene escorts you out.” She reached over and used one of her grotesque nails to tap the lip of the jar containing the thin silver weapon, marking the seconds.
Nicholas’s instincts were murmuring in displeasure about the lack of time to weigh the costs of this. Perhaps if he could make the deal more tolerable, sweeter, he could find that boldness that good faith required…
“I have a single condition,” he said, meeting the Belladonna’s feline gaze. “Before I agree, I would like you to answer a different question first.”