But apparently this one also had another purpose.
“It can examine a passage and inform the bearer of the destination and time period on the other side by reading its vibrations,” Cyrus said. “And whether or not the passage is stable enough to enter without collapsing.”
She turned to Nicholas, looking for confirmation. He kept his gaze on the snapping, shuddering fire as he explained. “When a traveler dies, a surge of…power…is released. The nearest passage is rendered unstable by it, and will often close. But if it collapses while you’re traveling through it, you could be tossed out to a random time, or be trapped in the passage forever.”
Etta felt a shudder work over her skin.
“There are hundreds of passages we use, but there are many more uncharted ones. Our numbers, as travelers, are dwindling,” Cyrus continued. “Every time I send a traveler through, I risk him or her never returning—stumbling onto a battlefield, being caught unawares in the wild, or by the ruling authority. Can your little mind possibly fathom the importance of finding the astrolabe to save them from that fate? Allow me to put this plainly: our numbers grow fewer and fewer. Think of all of those travelers who are…stranded… in the future, who do not know what it is they can do and who they are meant to serve. Their family requires their assistance, and, by blood or by conquest, they owe me their allegiance.”
The prickling started at the base of Etta’s spine and worked its way up over her scalp. Is that what this was really about? Her mother had taken it to save future travelers from being under his thumb?
If I found it…and if I handed it over…
Rose had wanted to protect the travelers, but if Etta knew her mother, it was more than that—lineage could be hidden, names changed, people relocated, until they were lost to the records of time.
“Wouldn’t giving it to you change my future?” Etta asked, the thought suddenly occurring to her. “Or erase it completely?”
He raised his brows, as if surprised she’d even know to ask. “Your future will be preserved. The investments I’ve made over the centuries depend on it. I merely mean to protect and find my own kin.”
“Then why not convince Rose to tell you, and leave Miss Spencer out of this?” Nicholas asked. “Trade her daughter for the location?”
“Don’t be stupid, boy,” Cyrus said. “The woman would die before giving the location up, and, in the process, lie and send members of this family off to every dangerous hell on this earth to retrieve it. We cannot sustain such losses. Therefore, this Miss Linden is the perfect candidate for retrieval—she is a blank slate. And, should she perish, she will have at least deciphered this for us to use.”
A folded sheet of notebook paper emerged from the same pocket of his robe, and he handed it to Etta with a look of keen interest. “My agent uncovered this in your home. I believe there’s a manner of reading it that’s…peculiar…to your family, and that the clues themselves pertain to the Lindens. I’ve only been able to pull a single thread from it.”
The letter itself, which began with Dear Etta, my sweet little star, was…gibberish. The phrases themselves made sense, were complete thoughts, like The trees look lovely today. But that was followed up by Ask yourself if unknown gods exist. There was no meaning behind the words, no sense to the composition of it.
With a sickening jolt, Etta knew exactly what she was looking at—she knew exactly how to read this letter, because her mom had been coding letters and messages for her this way for years. There was no second sheet to layer over it—sometimes her mom didn’t have time to cut out the shape, in which case, she’d use the clue in the first few lines.…
Dear Etta, my sweet little star…
While that was a nice sentiment, her mother had never called her something so sentimental in her entire life. Which meant, then, tracing a star over the letter would reveal the full message.
She wrote this for me.
Etta can handle this.
Etta kept her eyes on the page until she was sure she wouldn’t give herself away. Cyrus had managed to extract one meaningful phrase from the jumble of words, but the rest of it was lost to him. He didn’t know there was a key to bring the nonsense together, tie it together into the message buried beneath. Tracing a star over the letter would give her the rest of the phrases she’d need. It was only bad luck that he’d been able to pull any line out of it and recognize its connection to the Lindens.
She wants me to find the astrolabe.
She doesn’t want anyone else to.
This was what she’d meant when she said it was Etta’s time, wasn’t it? Rose didn’t just know she would travel back in time at one point, she knew she would one day travel back for this purpose, and if Etta had to guess, because Ironwood had willed it.
“As you can see, this was written for you to find. The fourth line down,” he said. There was a single phrase underlined, the words spread across one line, where, if Etta had to guess, the widest part of the star would be. “Tell tyrants, to you, their allegiance they owe—that is the one that interests me.”
“What about it?” she asked, all innocence.
“It’s a famous song in this period about the execution of Nathan Hale, the American spy,” Cyrus explained. “After a time, I finally placed where I had heard the phrase.”
Nathan Hale—the I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country Nathan Hale? He had been an American spy caught behind enemy lines during the Revolution, and was hanged for it.