Julian released a relieved sigh, leaning back to look up at the snow falling on them. No matter what he did, he always seemed to be posing and waiting for someone to compliment him on it.
“You’re rather handy, Linden-Hemlock-Spencer,” he said. “That was some brilliant teamwork, if I do say so myself.”
“I’m not sure you know what that word means,” Etta managed, her teeth clenched. She tried to mine the small bit of gold out of this situation—she was alive, and the rowing was at least warming her stiff muscles—but she could already feel the rising urge to take one of the oars and whack Julian into the freezing water.
“You’re the brawn, I’m the brains, kiddo,” he told her. “You don’t need my help with this.”
Etta was beginning to think that the real reason he’d gone to the Thorns was that he was at least self-aware enough to know he wouldn’t be able to survive on his own.
“Call me kiddo again…” She felt the words growl out of her throat, too low for her to even hear over the splash of water and the painful ringing.
“Your ears still giving you a spot of trouble?” he asked. “It’s a good sign you can hear at all—it means it might heal completely. Lesser explosions have destroyed people’s eardrums, from what I understand.”
Etta grunted, putting the full force of her anxiety into the next pull of the oars. Beethoven could compose and play instruments when he was mostly deaf. But she wasn’t Beethoven, and the thought of never hearing music again left her feeling as if her chest had been hollowed out.
Stop thinking, just row.
“What happened at dinner, exactly?” Julian asked. “One minute I was being berated by the Thorn guard for innocently inquiring about his mother’s species, and the next, the whole place started rocking on its bones.”
Etta looked down at her lap, avoiding his gaze. She might as well tell him—though it seemed unlikely, Julian might have the answer to the question that had been nagging at her since she’d been jolted back into consciousness.
“We had…we had just started the last course, when one of the waiters brought out a wine bottle to serve the tsar. He shouted something and slammed it down onto the table. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground and half the floor was gone. Henry was hurt badly, and the others…”
Julian’s brows shot up. “Was there liquid in the bottle?”
She nodded, pulling the next stroke.
“Based on the year, it was probably nitroglycerine. It explodes on impact. Very volatile. Even Grandfather didn’t like using the stuff.” His expression turned thoughtful. “How on God’s green earth did you manage to survive that?”
A good question. “Jenkins—the other guard, I mean—he jumped on it, I think, just before it hit the table. And Henry, he…”
I left him there to die.
I left him.
Etta wiped the sweat from her forehead with her tattered sleeve. “It was an Ironwood—both Jenkins and Henry recognized him. But he shouted something before he threw down the explosive—” She tried to repeat it the best she could.
“Revolyutzia, maybe? That’s revolution,” Julian said, his voice oddly quiet. “Pretending to play the part of a revolutionary for the assassination. Evil, Grandpops, but rather elegant. There is a rather unfortunate tradition of tsars being assassinated, so no one would question it.”
Etta took a breath, trying to wipe the blood from her face against her shoulder. Her stiff knees ached as she tried to stretch them out in the cramped boat. “So we’re back to your grandfather’s timeline?”
“Hell if I know, kid,” Julian said, briskly rubbing his arms to try to bring some warmth back into them. “I don’t intend to find out, and neither should you. Your opportunity to escape has presented itself, and you are hereby invited to join me in Bora Bora for as long as it takes them to sort this out.”
Etta dragged the oars through the dark water again. “I’m not going to Bora Bora.”
“Oh? I wasn’t aware that this escape involved a real plan, but do share.”
“If the Thorn, Kadir, was found dead, it means your grandfather got to the astrolabe, which means I need to find him,” Etta said, explaining it to him slowly, as if he were a small child. His mouth twitched, trying to hide a smile. “As far as I know, he’s still in 1776, in New York. How do I get back there from this point?”
“No,” Julian said, throwing his hands up in the air. “No. Because this is absurd. You should just come with me. This doesn’t have to be on your shoulders. You don’t need the weight of it—it’ll just smother you. Come with me to Bora Bora and let the devils have their hell.”
“It’s always that easy for you, isn’t it?” Etta said, shaking her head. “Let everyone else risk their lives to try to fix what your grandfather has done. Don’t take any responsibility for your family.”
He gave her a pitying look that set her teeth on edge. “Christ, you sound like Nick, with all of this talk of responsibility. Morality is a bore, kiddo. And if you think any one person can stop Grandfather, you’re mistaken. He was born out of a cloud of sulfur and his bones are brimstone.”
“Imagine what you could accomplish with your life,” she said, “if you weren’t so damn afraid all the time.”
The gentle thud of the broken ice against their boat and the splash of the oars in the water was the only conversation for several moments.