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Circumstances prevent me from waiting the month out, as discussed. We will meet on October 13th in Nassau or not at all.

At some point during her ride back to Damascus from Palmyra, where they had agreed to their original meeting, something had clearly changed in Rose’s evaluation of these “circumstances.” Without details, however, Nicholas hadn’t the slightest idea if he should be afraid, or merely irritated she expected them to be able to travel so far, so quickly. As sympathetic as he was to Sophia’s wounds, the idea that her injuries might cause them to miss their opportunity to discover the last common year had ignited a sickening panic, and no small amount of resentment, in him.

But her bruises and cuts had faded over the nearly two weeks since her beating, until, three days past, she’d been strong enough to begin to navigate them through a series of passages. And, finally, after one short chartered voyage from Florida, they had arrived to find Rose…nowhere.

“She’s not bringing Etta with her, if that’s what’s got you looking like a puppy about to piddle on the floor,” Sophia said. “Don’t you think we would have seen them by now if that were the case?”

He hadn’t expected Rose to arrive with Etta, safe and healing from her own wound, in tow…at least, not since that morning. Hope, as it turned out, dwindled like sand through an hourglass.

Nicholas forced himself to take a steadying breath. Her hatred of him minced the air between them, and, over the past weeks, her feelings had scarred into something far uglier than he’d known before. It made sleeping near her at night somewhat…uncomfortable…to say the least.

But he…How bitter the word the word needed was, when it was attached to Sophia. He needed her assistance to find passages, and, in exchange, had promised to help her disappear from Ironwood’s reach once their ill-fated adventure was at an end. It seemed obvious enough to him that the true reason Sophia remained with him was because she had not fully given up her designs on the accursed object.

And he had to live with the knowledge of this, because he, God help him, needed her. Damn his pitiful scraps of a traveler’s education. Damn his luck. And damn all Ironwoods.

“So eager to go back out in this weather?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. She narrowed her one eye right back, then scowled, turning toward the tavern.

Nicholas ran his fingers along the edge of the table, feeling each groove in the wood. Even two days ago, the idea of abandoning his deal with Rose had been inconceivable. Yet, if she couldn’t honor their agreement, what tied him to it?

You know what, he thought. Discovering the last common year between the previous version of the timeline and whichever this one might be. Etta would have been shoved through the passages, through decades or centuries, until they’d ultimately tossed her out somewhere in that year, stranding her there hurt and alone. He should have fought to flip their aims, so Rose was searching for the astrolabe, and he Etta, but it had struck him, even exhausted and raw with emotion, that Rose would have the contacts needed to quickly sort out the timeline changes.

Nicholas was already preparing for her cold fury when she found out that he had not spent the two weeks searching for the blasted astrolabe, as she’d asked him to. He could start in earnest, once his mind was no longer haunted by his fears for Etta’s life. Until then, he would never be able to fully concentrate on the task at hand.

As much as he had, in the privacy of his own heart, toyed with the idea of playing the selfish bastard and disappearing from this story, his whole soul railed against the dishonor of it. Once the astrolabe was found and destroyed, and Etta’s future mended, he would be happy to leave Ironwood to his hell of knowing he’d never have it.

But more than honor, more than responsibility, was Etta. Finding her, helping her, sorting this disaster out with her, the way they were meant to. His partner.

My heart.

He would finish this, and make his own life, as he’d always intended. The traveler’s world had never belonged to him. He’d never been granted access to its secrets, or allowed to explore its depth. He’d never been anything other than a servant.

Even Etta’s future had been like a distant star to him; he’d marveled at what she’d told him of its progress and wars and discoveries, but it had remained too far away for him to seize, to hold in his heart as something truly real, not wild fiction. Never mind something he could lay claim to. But whether or not they’d go there, or find a home elsewhere, he wanted to restore that world she had known and loved.

The merrymaking in the tavern was occasionally punctuated by the bang of the door, battered both by the force of the storm’s winds and the poor wayward souls who stumbled in for shelter. Nicholas returned his gaze to that spot, waiting for the telltale flash of golden hair, the pale blue eyes.

“Can you at least make yourself useful and dispose of the degenerate in the corner?” Sophia grumbled, crossing her arms on the table and resting her head on them. “If he keeps staring at me, I’m going to start charging him by the minute.”

Nicholas blinked, swinging his gaze around to each corner in turn, then back at the girl in front of him. “What the devil are you talking about?”

The scorn rose from her like a tide of fire as Sophia sat up from her slouch, nodding toward the far side of the tavern, at a table in their direct line of sight. A man sat there, dressed in a dark cloak, a cocked hat jammed down over his wet wig, as if prepared to bolt out into the storm again at the first opportunity. Catching Nicholas’s gaze, he quickly turned back to stare at his pint, his fingers rapidly drumming on the table. It was only then that Nicholas noticed the sigil of the familiar tree stitched in gold thread on the back of his glove.

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