Julian let out a dramatic sigh and dipped a hand into his jacket, pulling out a small leather notebook.
“I suppose I’m going to have to be the lesser person in this situation and allow you to take the title of bigger,” he said, thumbing through the pages. It must have been his traveler’s journal, with notations of where and when he’d been, so he didn’t cross paths with an older or younger version of himself.
“Here we are,” he said. “There are three passages in this year and city. The one we’re headed to will take us to Alexandria, 203 A.D. From there, there’s a passage through the Vatican, and from there, you can connect to New York in…1939. Little Italy, on Mulberry and Grand.”
Etta’s grip on the oars tightened. “How does that help me?”
“You’ll just need to get to where Whitehall Dock used to be. There’s a passage to 1776, in Boston,” he said. “That’s the most direct route to that year.”
She could find a way from Boston to Manhattan. If nothing else, she could turn herself over to the Ironwood guardian who would inevitably be watching the passage, and let him or her bring her to Ironwood for her punishment.
“Why is everyone still banging on about that damn astrolabe?” Julian complained. “It’s always been more trouble than it’s worth. No one is ever satisfied with life, are they? What more does he have to sacrifice at this point? He’s gone and killed his entire family over it.”
“I had it….” She could hear the pain in her voice. “But it was taken by the Thorns—the ones who went missing. It’s my responsibility to find it and finish what I started.”
“Why? The timeline’s already changed again, and it’ll only get worse from here.”
Etta leaned forward. “You’re sure it changed?”
“You didn’t feel it?” Julian shook his head. “I suppose not. It’s not that different from the pressure of an explosion. The whole world blurs for a moment, and the sound is deafening. It’s unmistakable. Whatever this new timeline is, it’s bound to be bad.”
“More reason to find the astrolabe,” Etta said, through gritted teeth. “And destroy it in order to reset it back to its original state.”
Julian wore a strange expression. “Is Grandpops’s timeline really that bad? I wasn’t around to see the original one, and neither were you. Who’s to say he didn’t improve on a few things?”
Etta shook her head. This was the trouble with meddling at all—who decided what was considered more peaceful, or improved? A benefit to one part of the world might be a detriment to the other. You could stop a war, and it might inadvertently cause another. You could change the outcome of a battle, and it would just be the other side who experienced the losses.
“It doesn’t matter. No one should have tampered with it in the first place, least of all Cyrus Ironwood.” And even though she already knew what his answer would be, she tried anyway: “You could help me…find Nicholas and Sophia and the rest of your family. Apologize for tricking them into grieving for you.”
“Appealing to a sense of honor only works if a person has one,” Julian informed her. “I’ll go with you as far as the Vatican, but—”
She heard the crack of the gunshot and its echo as the bullet slammed into the water, sending up a spray of freezing water at them and rocking the boat. Both Etta and Julian ducked instinctively.
The next bullet splashed down on the other side of the boat.
“Can’t you row any faster?” Julian complained.
“Can you try helping?” she fired back, but Julian had already turned around to shout something at them in Russian.
The next shot from the embankment hit the rim of the boat, splintering it so close to his hand that Julian yelped in alarm, and made as if to dive into the freezing river. Through the curtain of snow, Etta could just barely make out the men gathered there, one of whom was climbing down toward the other boat.
“Why are they chasing us?” he complained.
“Thorn!” one of them bellowed in an American accent. An Ironwood. “Come back at once and you will be shown a measure of mercy!”
Julian groaned, sinking back against the boat in dismay. Etta’s arms worked faster, the oars beating at the water as the other embankment finally came within a few dozen yards.
“It’s just not fair. How did you get us into this mess? What kind of bad-luck charm are you?”
“Can you please shut up?” she snapped. “Reach for the embankment when you can and pull us in—”
The next two gunshots splintered the floating ice, spraying water across her face. Etta’s heart felt like it was about to unhook from her chest and pass up her throat. Rather than wait for Julian, she used one of the oars to catch the lip of the embankment and pull them over to it. She felt the slice of a bullet across the back of her exposed neck before she heard it explode through the air. Etta gasped in shock more than pain.
Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think—hard to ignore a literal brush with death, but Etta slithered up onto the snow-dusted embankment, trying to get her bearings. She clung to her last shreds of focus, swinging her gaze around. Most of the embankment’s walls were high—too high to climb up from the water. But just in front of the building—which she hoped was the Imperial Academy of Arts that Julian had mentioned—were steps that led down to the water’s edge, guarded by two enormous stone sphinxes facing inward, as if squaring off against each other.