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“You’re considering this, aren’t you?” Sophia asked. “I can see it in your face. Before, you were afraid. Now you’re curious.”

“It doesn’t matter if I’m curious,” Etta said. “I’m going home.”

“You won’t be going back until Grandfather allows it, and if he’s demanding your presence, he must have a good reason for it. I’d like to know what that is.”

Etta forced her shoulders to relax. “You and me both.”

“Unlace me,” said Sophia. I’d like to rest now.”

But this game isn’t over. And her last question…Etta had spent so much of her life sorting through critiques and assessments of her playing, she felt fairly confident in her ability to pick out the truth from an exaggeration, a preference, or a lie. What Sophia said had been the truth, but not the whole truth.

“So now you won’t return the favor?” Sophia huffed. “I knew I should have brought a maid.”

Etta pushed herself up as the ship began to rock. Sophia turned green again as Etta’s nimble fingers worked down the row of tiny buttons.

The fabric, some kind of damask, was warm and damp from the girl’s sweat; the stays were heavy with it, the shift beneath translucent and reeking sourly. In spite of everything, an aching kind of sympathy made Etta turn and retrieve a fresh one from the nearby trunk. In the instant before she looked away, Etta saw the deep, angry grooves the corset had left behind in the girl’s skin. Sophia let out a small sigh of relief as she slipped into the fresh undergarment. If they were in agreement over one thing, it was the not-so-insignificant fact that this wasn’t a stellar era for women.

“How are we supposed to move in these?” Etta said, tossing the stays onto the desk.

“…They don’t expect women to do much of anything,” Sophia said. “Well,” she added, “at least not women of any station. I’m sure the peasants of this era are glad for some support when they’re hunched over cleaning their homes, or doing whatever it is peasants do. Makes running and fighting bloody hard, though.”

Etta rubbed her forehead, not sure where to start with that.

“For now, your role here is wallpaper,” Sophia said. “Decoration. Until we get to New York. And then it’ll be whatever Grandfather asks of you.”

Etta recoiled at the thought. If her mom had been here, the mere idea would have sent her on a tirade that blistered ears and scorched hearts across the entire ocean. Wallpaper. Decoration. Her whole life and person, whittled down to nothing.

“I don’t accept that,” Etta said. “I’m neither of those things. And, for the record, neither are you.”

At that, Sophia’s expression changed, and the softness of exhaustion was pulled back by keen interest. “You’ve been spoilt, you know. You and your voting, your schooling, your independence…it’s been wasted on you.”

Etta bristled, as Sophia clearly wanted. Like any girl, she still felt the echoes from earlier eras of repression. She’d been raised by a mother who’d fought hard to get a wage she deserved, to have access to education when she lacked every advantage, to travel on her own terms. The idea that she was being asked—that she was expected to simply play along—made the blood throb in her veins. She was already in the damn stays. Wasn’t that enough?

“Why stay here, if you can go anywhere in time?” Etta asked. “You can come back with me—I mean, travel forward again. Or go into the past and try to alter the laws—”

Sophia let out a single, flat laugh. “I’ve no choice. This is the year all travelers are forced to travel from, where our family is currently based. Grandfather chooses, and we follow. Regardless of where and when we’re born, we all meet there. We all offer our services to the head of the family. We play the roles each era demands of us, and we do not meddle with laws or society. At least not anymore.”

Wasn’t that convenient, thinking that this was some kind of role? That they were playing parts, like this was all one great big play and they’d been cast as the leads? It was an easy way to wash their hands of responsibility for fixing things, to sit back as wars were waged and people were oppressed. Etta was protective of her future, the life she’d known; but the idea of doing nothing when there was the power to act made her uncomfortable, and more than that, angry.

“What’s the purpose of traveling, then?” Etta demanded, impatient with all of these non-answers. “If you won’t try to fix anything, make the world a better place, why bother traveling?”

“To serve Grandfather’s will,” Sophia said, sounding tired by it all. “Protect the family’s interests. To tour what an era has to offer and enjoy it.”

Wonderful. They had the rarest, most bewildering power in the world, and how did her family choose to use this incredible gift? To line their pockets with cash and go sightseeing.

“That’s it?” Etta sputtered. “Seriously?”

“We protect our timeline. We defend it from attacks by enemies of our family—remnants of the other three traveling families that refused to be absorbed into our own.”

“You do have a choice, you know,” Etta told her after a moment. “There is always a choice. You know where the passage is to my time. You could choose to leave. But you don’t. So what’s really keeping you here, other than loyalty and fear?”