“Are you calling me a coward?” Sophia asked, her words chipped from ice.
The other girl had this power, too. So what was keeping her in check, Etta wondered, when clearly she wanted so much more than what her family was offering?
“I’m saying, you’re smart. You want something better. So take back the control of your life and go.”
And you can take me back with you. Etta wove her hands together again in her lap, watching for the shift in the other girl’s expression; it wasn’t exactly manipulation, per se, but an offer to ally herself. If she could convince Sophia she did deserve better than what the past had to offer, then the girl might bring her back to the passage they’d come through. Together, they could figure out how to get off this ship. Etta was almost positive, with some creative lying on both their parts, that her mom would be willing to help the girl get back on her feet.
Sophia shut her eyes and shook her head. When she opened them again, Etta felt scorched by the fury in them.
“Save your breath,” Sophia hissed. “Our life entails order. It requires rules, and the act of blending in to ensure our survival. You don’t understand, Etta. There are less than a hundred travelers alive now. We are already dying out, without the risk of being captured or killed in an unforgiving era. We all observe the norms of the era, no matter how it might affect us.”
“Tell yourself that, if it makes you feel better about it,” Etta said.
Sophia rolled her eyes. “Could you imagine what kind of abuse we’d suffer if the right people found a way to force us into their service?”
Etta didn’t have to imagine anything. She saw the flicker of horror on the girl’s face.
“We protect ourselves by playing roles fit for the year we’re in.”
“What do you mean?” Etta asked.
“I mean exactly that—the future you know. Before Grandfather united the families, they were constantly trying to destroy each other’s natural timelines. There was no stability. Now there is. So cling to your rights, your beliefs, your future—but know that none of them will help you here. You haven’t been forced to survive in the same way as the centuries of women who came before you. You know nothing of the impossibly small weapons we must use to carve out knowledge and power.”
The many scattered scraps and pages of Sophia’s life began to assemble themselves in Etta’s mind. She felt them drawing together, saw the rigidity of the spine that held together someone seething, boiling with so much spite and cunning. Sophia’s own small weapon was finding other people’s vulnerabilities, chipping away at their fears and desires until they were exposed like raw nerves. What kind of life had her family given Sophia to make her so desperate for more, to force her to sharpen this skill?
Sophia’s voice was growing rougher the longer she spoke. “Now that our game is at an end, allow me to be perfectly clear. Society is always the same, regardless of the era. There are rules and standards, with seemingly no purpose. It’s a hateful, elaborate charade, equal parts flirtation and perceived naïveté. To men, we have the minds of children. And so you will not make eye contact with any man on this ship. You will eat slowly, carefully, and little; and, if not with me in my cabin, then alone. You will not leave your cabin unless I am there to accompany you. And you will do us both the favor and act the part of a mute, unless you have been asked a direct question and I am not there to answer it. And you will not, under any conditions, speak or associate with Carter beyond his capacity as our servant.”
Anger whipped fast and hot against her pulse; she was tired of Sophia acting as if every other living soul was beneath her. “Nicholas isn’t our servant.”
Sophia pushed herself up onto her elbows and repeated, “Nicholas?”
Etta realized her mistake a moment too late—even she knew that, in this time, it wasn’t proper to address anyone you weren’t close to, or related to, by their given name, least of all a person of the opposite sex.
“Mr. Carter,” she corrected herself. “You know what I mean. Don’t you dare treat him like—”
“Watch yourself,” Sophia cut in. “I know what you’re thinking, the conclusion you’ve just drawn, but know this: my mistrust is of a very personal nature. I have seen the rotten edges of his soul, and I know him for the deceitful swine he is.” There was no mockery, nothing false in her voice. “Stay away from him.”
Etta rose, gathering up her wet clothing to hide the way her hands shook.
I’m not wrong…I’m not. She’d bet on the person who had jumped into the ocean to save her, not the one who’d trapped her in the past against her will. Any day, any century.
“Unlike you,” she said when she reached the door, “I’ll make my own decisions.”
But as Etta gave in to the urge to look back over her shoulder, to see if her words had landed the way she’d hoped, Sophia was already on her back again, eyes closed.
“Go on,” Sophia said as the door creaked open. “Try.”
ETTA STEPPED INTO THE HALLWAY, SHUTTING THE DOOR. She leaned back against it, searching for the rhythm of the repairs happening on the deck above her, the voices drifting up from beneath her feet. A song of work, one that spoke of labor and skill. The notes floated through her ears, arranging themselves to match the tempo and drive—
Stop it, she thought, fingers tightening on the fabric in her arms.
A breeze escaped through the open hatch, and brushed by her on its way toward the forecastle at the other end of the ship. The curtains there were gone now, and she could make out hammocks, plus a small area where a few men sat scraping food off metal plates. One turned, and the whole left side of his face was covered with a blood-soaked bandage. She turned back to the other cabin door, ready to be alone.