“I’d prefer you not reveal—” Nicholas began.
“How positively adorable that you think I care a whit for your preferences,” Cyrus snapped. “I recognized it, in fact, because Benjamin Linden was annoyingly fond of singing it when he was deep into his cups. Surely it couldn’t be a coincidence, given its connection to her only family. But imagine my surprise when I discovered that history didn’t have a record of the exact site of his execution. I had to make my way here to determine it for myself, and, lo, there was a previously unknown passage waiting just across the way. It is my belief that there are clues within this letter that will lead from one passage to another, connecting in a trail that culminates at the correct location and era where the astrolabe may be found.”
In other words, each clue pointed to the location of a passage that would need to be taken in order to find it. Sort of like…connecting flights, in order to arrive at a desired destination. Only she needed to find the right planes.
Etta forced herself to swallow, to keep her expression neutral, as she ran her fingers over her mother’s journal. Ironwood caught the movement, and pulled the journal out of her hands, tucking it back under his arm.
“Tomorrow is Hale’s execution,” Cyrus said. “We’ve had to wait months and come to 1776 Manhattan ourselves to search for the exact spot, as history remained uncertain about the actual location of the event. As you’ve hopefully ascertained, the hanging will take place across the way, in the Royal Artillery Park.”
The passage was still moaning, still screaming, but the wind seemed to be carrying the sound away until all that remained was a faint drumming.
“You’re not going to do anything about it?” Etta asked. “Try to save him?”
Cyrus burst out laughing. “Interfere? Change the timeline? I think not. The fool got himself caught, out of uniform, behind enemy lines. His death is on his head.”
The attitude was disgusting.
“You’ll decipher this letter before you set off to hunt for the astrolabe. We may even be able to prepare you with the right clothing and mannerisms before you begin.”
Nicholas straightened. “A few hours of tutelage won’t do anything for her.”
That pricked Etta’s pride. Wasn’t she handling this all fairly well, given the circumstances? And, not to be competitive about this, but if he could master the ins and outs of traveling, then so could she.
He must have read the fire in her expression, because Nicholas’s eyes widened slightly. “I only meant—”
“She’ll be fine,” Cyrus interrupted. “I’ve waited long enough. Here are my terms, Miss Linden. Decipher this letter and the clues it contains about where to find the necessary passages to connect through; travel through them; and bring the astrolabe back to me. Then your mother will be freed, and you’ll be returned to your home.”
Etta held his gaze for as long as she could stand it. Exhaustion bled into her, and the weight of her thoughts began to feel like too much to carry. She worked through the necessary points as quickly as she could:
Cyrus would not reveal the location of the passage back to the Met, and her time, if she didn’t do as he asked. And maybe not even then. Which might mean never saving Alice’s life.
Nicholas would not necessarily take her back, as her life was not technically in danger.
Her mother had lied to her, reshaping the truth, omitting huge chunks of the rest, inserting little riddles and clues into her life for Etta to maybe piece together one day as she tried to fend for herself. Which, wonderful parenting right there. And all to…to keep this astrolabe in the family? To give it another protector who would find it and hide it again if any other traveler should stumble upon it? Then why not train her, prepare her for this—so it wasn’t—so it wasn’t so overwhelming—so impossible—
No wonder Alice had argued she wasn’t ready—she wasn’t. But her mom believed she could do this, and she wasn’t about to let either of them down. Etta closed her eyes, breathing in deeply through her nose until her heart calmed to a steady roll of thunder in her ears.
And, soon enough, her debut. All of those things, waiting for her.
Was there a way to rewrite Alice’s fate? To make sure her mother was safe—to not give the old man what he wanted, but still save her life?
“You cannot be considering this.…” Nicholas said incredulously. “Think, Miss Spencer. This is no simple task he’s asking of you.”
“I do not recall asking you to weigh in with your opinion,” Cyrus thundered.
“What is there to consider?” Etta asked coldly, looking directly at the old man. “You’ll kill her if I don’t bring it back, won’t you?”
He smirked. “With pleasure. You should know that you’ll need to return no later than September thirtieth. If not, the deal is void.”
The thirtieth? As in…nine days away? No—eight.
“That’s not nearly enough time!” Nicholas cried. “Julian and I spent years searching. What does it matter if it takes her eighteen days instead of eight? What’s a few more days when you have the whole of time at your fingertips?”
“My reasons are my own,” Cyrus said. “She will return by the thirtieth or she will lose everything.”
Etta folded her hands in front of her, choking off the supply of blood to her fingers. Being made to work for the man who’d hurt her mother, who’d invaded their lives and stolen Alice’s…Etta felt sick.