What do I do?
The answer came to her, ruthless and simple, a blade that sliced through her doubts: find the astrolabe, use it to find the passage in Nassau, and go find her mother. All without Cyrus Ironwood catching on to what she was doing. She and Rose could go back and save Alice, and then disappear—
And what kind of life would that be? One without a spotlight, playing the violin professionally; everything she’d worked for would be sacrificed, to stay hidden.
But if Alice and her mom were safe, it would be worth it.
“I’ll do it,” Etta said, pushing through the uneasiness; then, with a desperate hope Cyrus wouldn’t sniff out the lie, added, “It might take me some time to figure out how she coded the letter. I’ll need more than tonight.”
She’d need less than two minutes, but that wasn’t for him to know, was it?
Nicholas shook his head, muttering something beneath his breath as he swung away from her, bracing an arm against the fireplace’s mantelpiece.
“Excellent,” Cyrus said, clapping his hands together. “You may keep the original copy to decipher, and you will resume in the morning. You and Sophia will share the room beside mine.”
Etta didn’t fight her grimace. After the electric, hissing fury she’d seen on the girl’s face when she’d been sent out, sleeping on the roof during a thunderstorm would be safer. Realizing she’d been dismissed, she turned toward the door.
“Miss Linden?” Cyrus called, just as her hand gripped the knob. “Know that I have a copy of that letter, should you try to destroy it. Know, too, that it is unwise to test me.”
“I understand,” said Etta.
But I’m not afraid of you.
The noise from the tavern floated up to her on a cloud of tobacco smoke, leather, and wet dog; just before she closed the door, she took one final look at Nicholas’s profile as he stared into the glowing fire, despondent.
That would have to be enough. As soon as the tavern cleared out and its occupants wound themselves down to sleep, she would follow the lingering rattle of the passage to its entrance, the way she had in the Met. For the first time in days, she felt in control of her life again, not just an unwilling passenger at someone else’s mercy.
A hand latched onto her arm, wheeling her around. The man posted on guard raised a single black brow as Sophia hauled her the last few steps toward the next door down the hall. Once inside, she shut it gently behind them and went to stand beside the wall separating the bedchamber from the old man’s.
Cyrus Ironwood had drained what last bit of patience she had, and exhaustion was making her head throb as she surveyed the cramped room. This, again? Maybe this was the old man’s real punishment for what her mom had done: keeping her trapped in confined quarters with a furious Sophia, forced to listen to all of her rantings without strangling her. The frustration that choked her was so real, she felt her hands curl over the back of a frail-looking chair, and seriously considered smashing it against the nearby wall.
“What are you even doing?” she asked, but Sophia only held up a hand and pressed her ear to the wall.
“I can’t hear them,” she said quietly. “So, hopefully they won’t hear us.”
She sat down on the bed in a flounce of skirts, seething. “The nerve of them, making me look like a fool—shutting me out, after I was the one who retrieved you. How dare they keep this from me!”
“From you?” Etta asked pointedly.
“Yes, from me,” she said, tearing the pins out of her hair. A trunk had been left in the room, filled to the brim with cloth, glass bottles, and a silver brush. Sophia yanked the latter through her loose hair, tearing at it fiercely.
The old man was as pleasant as an enraged cat; if Etta had been in Sophia’s shoes, she would have welcomed the opportunity to spend as little time with him as possible. The man had forced Sophia to serve him, had basically barred her from going to any year that might have gifted a woman with a few real rights. Etta had to wonder how much better Sophia’s life might be if she wasn’t under Grandfather Dearest’s unyielding thumb.
“Why did you even want to be in there?” Etta asked. “If it bothered you that much that he didn’t tell you why he wanted me, couldn’t you have argued to stay?”
Sophia scoffed. “No one fights with Grandfather. Just ask the other families. They’ll tell you firsthand what you get for ignoring his wishes.”
Etta considered the situation, moving slowly to sit beside her. The girl was fuming, blowing out one harsh breath after another, and Etta couldn’t tell her anger from her humiliation.
“Tell me exactly what they said,” Sophia demanded.
Etta did, mostly. She kept the coded letter from her mother pressed against her gown’s heavy skirts, out of the other girl’s sight.
“The astrolabe?” Sophia repeated with disbelief. “He’s still looking for it after everything that happened?”
“Do you know anything else about it?” Etta asked carefully.
Sophia let out a humorless little laugh. “Of course not. Why would they tell me anything about it? You’ll have to ask your friend, Mr. Carter. He and Julian were sent out to look for it four years ago.”
The mysterious “Julian” again.
“Cyrus’s grandson, right?” Etta pressed.
“He’s…” Sophia began. “He’s dead. He was the heir after his father got himself drowned and his uncle managed to shoot himself in a hunting accident.”