“Yes,” Etta said firmly.
“It’s…a relationship of sorts, a special one that certain people have had with the timeline for thousands of years. There’s no machine, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s more…natural than that. Grandfather doesn’t like the word, but it’s closer to what you think of as magic. Our ancestors had a unique ability to take advantage of tears in the fabric of time, pass through holes to emerge in a different era.”
What was the most unbelievable part of that explanation? That the timeline could be “torn,” or that she’d used the word magic with a straight face?
“They’re like the natural crevices—fissures—you find around the world. The passages have always existed, and our families have always been able to find and use them. It’s all rather simple, but do try to keep up.” Sophia shifted, trying to get more comfortable. “A passage in medieval Paris could lead to one in, say, Egypt in the time of pharaohs. You step in as you would to any tunnel, passing back and forth between the entrances.”
Etta nodded, trying to rub some feeling back into her freezing limbs, startled from her next question by a rogue thought. Sophia had said our ancestors. At first, Etta had taken it to mean Sophia’s and her grandfather’s, the Ironwoods—but were some of those faceless ancestors hers? The Lindens?
The thought filled the dark, dusty corner of her heart she’d closed off as a kid with a scorching, almost unbearable kind of hope. She’d never let herself want more people than the ones she already had; it felt too ungrateful for the amount of love her mom and Alice brought into her world. But…a family. One with roots, and dozens and dozens of branches by the sound of it—one of which she’d fallen from.
“There’s another gown for you in the trunk in the other cabin,” Sophia said, waving her hand. “God knows if you’ll fit into that any better than what I squeezed you into.”
The insult was shoved aside by the chill of sudden realization.
“Where are my things?” Etta asked. Her clothes—her mom’s earrings—
“I burned your ugly dress when we came through,” Sophia said. “It was ruined, anyway. The earrings you were wearing are in a pouch in there…somewhere.”
The grip of panic eased. “You swear you didn’t throw the earrings away?”
“I was tempted,” Sophia said. “History wouldn’t have missed one ghastly pair of earrings. But—the pearls were real. I thought perhaps you might need them one day. To sell.”
Etta pulled back in surprise. To sell?
“Just go get the damned dress—undergarments, too. You’ll find everything you need wrapped in brown parchment,” Sophia said. “And hurry, will you? I have my next question.”
Etta stood on stiff legs but stopped beside the door, listening. When she was satisfied no one was lingering nearby, she stepped out, ducking into an identical room. There was so little inside it—not even a desk—that she found the wooden trunk immediately and crouched in front of it. The heavy lid groaned as she heaved it up, and a lovely note of lavender rose with it.
There were satchels of it here and there, tucked inside the blanket at the top, even inside the leather shoes she set aside. The brown parcel was tied with rough string, cushioned at the bottom by another layer of blanket. There was little else inside the trunk: a bottle of what smelled like rosewater, a brush, and—she released the breath that was burning her lungs, and picked up the small velvet bag.
The earrings tumbled out onto her palm, and Etta lost it. The sob bubbled up from deep in her chest, ripping out of her so violently that her whole body shook. She pressed her forehead against her fist, felt the prick of the studs dig into her skin.
She shouldn’t have left Sophia’s cabin. She couldn’t keep herself together without the pressure, the need to pretend. She didn’t have to be brave now, or calm. There was nothing to prove.
Alice. Oh my God. Alice. She looked at her hands, as if expecting to see the traces of her instructor’s blood. They’d killed her to get to Etta—why hadn’t she stopped, listened to what Alice had tried to say to her in her mother’s office? Why had Alice tried to stop any of this?
She needed to find a way to keep herself together, otherwise she was never going to get out of there. She was never going to find her way back to her own time.
Breathe, duck. Count it out with me. Three beats in, and three beats out…
Alice’s voice drifted between the fractured pieces of her thoughts. She sucked the damp air deep into her lungs, focused on the way they expanded, and released the air slowly, the way she’d been taught. It had been so long since she’d been in the chokehold of panic and nerves, she’d forgotten how easy it was to slip into their grasp.
Close your eyes.
Listen only to the music.
She was listening now, to the sounds of men singing above, to the pulse throbbing fast and untamed in her ears. It was instinct to lift her hands the way she did, to mime the shape of a violin out of nothing but air and play herself back to evenness. She stopped as soon as she knew what she was doing.
Etta breathed out heavily through her nose, rubbing a finger along the bridge.
Mom wanted me to travel. Not like this, she was sure, but one day. She wanted me to know, to understand what I could do. For the first time in her life, Etta realized she had finally stumbled onto her mother’s secret heart—the core of who she was, why she guarded each and every memory of her past. Why she could close herself off so suddenly; why she drifted away into deep thought. In spite of everything else, Etta felt something inside her click into place. The icy knot their relationship had twisted into unraveled inside of her. She felt desperate with the need to find her, to make sure she was safe, to talk to her and really know her for the first time.