Etta stepped back against a wall, making room for the others to come down. Her heel glanced off something cold, drawing her attention down, and—there, on the ground, hugging the wall, was what looked like a small butter knife. It was in her hand before she’d realized she’d gone for it, and she pressed it deep into the folds of her skirt.
What are you doing? Etta asked herself. She gripped its slight weight, pressing her fingers against the etchings on the metal handle.
I’m protecting myself.
So she didn’t know exactly how to use it—what was there to know, besides pointing the sharp end away from her? Etta focused on it, its shape, the way it warmed to her hand, with the intensity she channeled into attacking a piece of music. Only then did her breathing finally even out.
Sophia appeared next, stumbling down the last few steps, holding her stomach. A pair of leather shoes, water squelching out of them with each step, announced Nicholas’s arrival. A pair like that would be ruined by salt water, Etta knew. She wouldn’t allow herself to feel guilty about it.
“You must stay out of the forecastle,” he said, seeing that Sophia’s gaze had landed on the canvas curtains on the other end of the ship. “Unless it’s to use the heads—the, ah, lavatory. It’s the crew’s space. You’re welcome to take air whenever you wish, but only after we’ve finished refitting the ship, and only with an escort. And under no circumstances should you enter the hold where the other crew is being kept.”
“We—” Sophia struggled with the word, pausing to collect herself. When she opened her eyes again, they burned in the darkness. “We won’t have anything to do with you beyond what’s required.”
“I’d imagine not,” said Nicholas crisply as he turned. “I will make your excuses at meals.”
“You must love this,” Sophia snapped. “How quickly the worm has come to try to inch its way back in. If I had known it’d be you, I’d never have agreed to this!”
They know one another, Etta realized. She looked between their faces—the obvious hatred on Sophia’s, the careful impassivity on Nicholas’s—and wondered how it was even possible.
“If you need something from the surgery or the galley,” Nicholas continued, as if she hadn’t spoken, “please let one of the boys know. They’ll fetch it for you.”
“Not playing the servant today, are you?” Sophia taunted.
At the rear of the ship where they stood were three doors. Nicholas opened the first one on the right, and Etta recognized the cramped space as the one she’d burst out of. Rather than let the two girls walk in, he glanced around, as if checking to make sure no one was in earshot. They were alone, save for the young sailor on his knees, carefully scrubbing the deck with a stone.
“It’s my understanding,” he said, his voice low, “that you knew a ship would be intercepting yours. Is that correct?”
Etta gaped at him. No, they hadn’t known that. An hour ago—wait, how long had it been since they were in the museum?
“Grandfather is clearly losing his mind in his advanced years,” Sophia said, “to have trusted you.”
“Perhaps it was desperation that forced him to appoint you,” Nicholas said. “I have been tasked with bringing you to New York, and as far as I am concerned, that is the beginning and end of our business.” He glanced over their shoulders, toward the forecastle. “To avoid unnecessary questions, the other men should see this as nothing more than a regular prize we’ve captured. Do you take my meaning?”
New York? Etta thought. The two words teased out a tiny bit of hope from the tangled mess of the day.
“What would happen if the truth did slip out, I wonder?” Sophia asked, all sweetness. “What would the crew think of you, risking their lives for a reward they’ll never see?”
Something about those words fractured the control over his temper that he’d clearly been wrestling to maintain. Nicholas’s arm lashed out, his palm slapping against the wood beside her head. He had loomed over Sophia at his full height, but now he stooped to stare her directly in the eye. “Disparage me all you like, Miss Ironwood, spit out every vile curse you can think of at me—but if you threaten my livelihood again, know that there will be consequences.”
Sophia didn’t so much as flinch. She brushed the threat away with a smirk, sickly green face and all. Nicholas shifted back, eyes flickering with a fire that seemed to burn to his core. In the silence that followed, with only the rhythm of the creaking bones of the great ship to mark time, Etta realized what she’d just witnessed, what the girl had found: a weapon to slice open old wounds.
If this was Sophia weak from seasickness, then she was mildly terrified of what the girl would be like at full steam.
Torn between letting the conversation continue, perhaps with more useful information, and watching them spar, Etta dug the dull edge of the knife against her thigh again, and breathed in the cold, briny air.
“We understand,” Etta said finally. “Thank you.”
It had the effect she’d hoped for, drawing Nicholas’s attention back toward her.
He gave a curt nod. “I will have dinner sent to your cabins. Rest well, Miss Spencer.”
Etta nodded, keeping her eyes on the toes that peeked out from beneath her dress. Nicholas moved toward the steps, and the air and smoke around them shifted, the skin at the back of her neck prickling with awareness as his eyes combed over her one last time.