Wayfare the sequel to Passenger.
By Alex Bracken
Nicholas woke to a sharp complaint from his left shoulder, a badgering, insistent sting that dragged him forward again each time he tried to slip back into the darkness.
He was flat on his stomach, the side of his face pressed against the ridges of the mosaic beneath him. By the time his vision cleared and the cotton stuffing inside his skull was plucked out, Nicholas had the very real realization that someone was stabbing him repeatedly and quite literally in the back.
“You—” His attempt to surge off the ground was met with firm resistance; a hand easily pushed him back down.
“Be still while I finish,” the voice growled back. “Unless you’d like me to accidentally sew your neck to your shoulder? It might improve your looks.”
Li Min. His gaze pivoted; from his vantage point, he could just see Sophia, still prostrate on the ground. The tiny bottles, herbs, and medicines had been stowed in the bag again, but now Li Min was rummaging through it for something else, muttering to herself. When she returned, her touch was as rough and uncaring as it had been before.
“Did you . . . give me something . . . to make me pass out?” he asked, teeth gritted. He’d had at least a dozen slashes stitched up in his career at sea, and the feeling of being sewn back together like a doll never improved.
Li Min leaned forward, so he had a clear view of her face as she raised a dark brow. “No. You are weak and faltering—not only in body, it would appear, but in judgment.”
He followed her gaze to where his hand was splayed out against the dirt. The ring looked like a tattoo in the darkness.
“Nonsense,” he said, even as the band burned, tightened. The wave of nausea that passed through him momentarily stole the feeling from his lower half. Nicholas jerked, bucking like a horse.
“Settle yourself,” Li Min ordered. “Activity will only make her poison work faster. I might ask what you traded this favor for, but I already know. You were a fool, but you are even more foolish to avoid the terms of your contract. What was her task?”
“Murder,” he muttered.
“Ah,” was her reply. “A life for a life, then.”
“You might have . . . warned us,” he said, letting the bitterness bleed into his voice.
“I never thought you foolish enough to go through with it,” she said simply.
“Foolish,” he agreed, “and desperate. Where are we?”
She continued her work. “The Necropolis of the Vatican. 1499.”
He rubbed at his eyes, clearing the dust and grime. He’d been right, then, to feel as though they were descending through the levels of hell to the dark heart of the earth.
There was another sarcophagus flush against the far wall, and he wondered idly if they’d moved the poor occupant from his rest upstairs to this . . . chamber. More importantly, he wondered who “they” were.
“Is this . . . your hiding place?” he asked. If nothing else, talking was a distraction.
“Yes. It belongs to a particular line of my family—the Hemlock clan, I should say.” Li Min pressed a hand flat against his bare back, holding him steady. The last surge of pain was short, at least—she knotted the thread she’d used to patch the wound in his shoulder and gave him a pitying pat on the head.
He wasn’t feeling up to it, but he forced himself to sit up regardless, hating the disadvantage the prostrate position had put him in. The Ironwoods and Lindens had secret homes and hoards—he shouldn’t have been surprised to find the same of the Hemlock family.
Li Min made another of her disapproving noises, pushing him back down. “This was used as a place to amass treasure and documents until it was forgotten. Someone sold me itssecrets for a price.”
“Seems a rather inconvenient hiding place for you,” he noted, rubbing the back of his neck. To have to go through the hassle of Carthage to arrive here . . .
“It’s abandoned in every era, up until the twentieth century. And there are many, many passages in the Papal City, as you know. Three in this year alone.”
He didn’t, but Nicholas nodded nonetheless. “What is your plan, if not to bring us back to Ironwood?”
“She’s unconscious, and you’re as weak as a lamb,” Li Min reminded him. “You’ve trusted me thus far. I do wish to receive recompense for the gold that was stolen from me, but I am curious about this mission of yours. How it ties to the many threads that are reverberating throughout time.”
“We’ve already spent it. Your gold. There’s nothing left, and we’ve nothing else to trade you.”
“You’ve that gold.” She pointed to the leather string tied around his neck—Etta’s earring. “That is not ‘nothing’.”
His hand closed over the earring and the glass pendant. “If you think about touching this, you will lose more than a hand.”
Li Min looked doubtful at that, her dark brows lifting in pity.
“You can have this,” he said hopefully, holding up the hand with the ring. Sensation had fully returned to it; his arm felt unusually stiff, but cooperated as he tested its range of movement.
Perhaps he had simply torn a muscle, as he’d originally believed.
“I’d have to cut it off, which would only kill you faster,” she informed him.
Hell and damnation. That confirmed the Belladonna’s warning.
“Where did you come by that amulet?” she asked after a moment, pointing to the large bead he’d been given.
“A boy gave it to me,” he said.
“Yes, what of it?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. Everything. He wished you protection and good fortune. It has value. Do not part with it for anything less than your life.”
“If it’s so valuable, then why don’t you take it to cancel our debt?”
“It is not the object that holds power, but the intention behind it. The wish made when it changed hands. I could no more steal that than I could take the light from the stars.”
Something in her words rattled him to his core. I shouldn’t have accepted it. Who needed protection more than that child?
“I suppose you see yourself as ‘protection and good fortune,’ ” he said, wiping the sweat from his face.
“How you wish to see me is your choice,” she said. “For now, you should know that I am your only chance of survival.”
Neither friend nor foe, it seemed. More a temporary ally, the way Sophia had ultimately come to fit into his life. Nicholas looked around again, drawing his knees to his chest. “As long as we don’t run out of air, this will be a suitable hiding place.”
“It is convenient, too,” she said idly. “If you die, I can leave you down here.”
(c) Alexandra Bracken