She ran a hand back through her thick, dark hair, her doll-like face bleak and empty. “He was my intended.”
Intended. As in…“You were engaged?”
Despite everything, Etta felt a flush of sympathy. She fumbled for a way to cool her emotions, regain some of the distance she felt toward the other girl.
“From the time we were children,” Sophia said. “It was a perfect match. Do you know how rare it is for travelers to be able to marry each other? It was only because I was born to a distant cousin. It was my—”
“Your what?” Etta prompted. The way Sophia said it, barely catching herself, made her wonder if maybe the other girl did want to talk about this—if there was no one else she could discuss it with.
“My father was no one in this family,” Sophia said, raking a hand through the ends of her hair. “A distant cousin of Grandfather’s who forced himself on some unsuspecting harlot and came back for seconds, only to find the woman dead and me all alone. He drank himself to death a few years later, and only Grandfather was willing to raise me. Said he couldn’t allow a true traveler to slip through the cracks. Most people only have one shadow, but I feel as though I have two. My past trails me every day, every second, and I can’t shake it off. Marrying Julian might have finally stopped the whispers from the other travelers. It might have finally earned me a measure of respect.”
Marrying up was the only way that any number of women in history had escaped their pasts and whatever stations they’d been born into. They couldn’t work to improve their lives the way men did, and live by their own means. It was grossly unfair to them—and it was especially unfair that Sophia, someone who should have had a future, access to opportunities, was trapped inside of this cage the family had thrown over her.
Etta finally released her last trace of anger and pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to process this. Sophia pushed herself up onto her feet and began to tug at the strings of her stays and gown.
After a moment, Etta stood to help her. “If you are related to the old man, and there are so few travelers left, why aren’t you Cyrus’s heir?”
Sophia rolled her eyes. “Because an infant born a few months ago, who’s so distantly related to Grandfather as to only share a drop of blood—somehow that child is more eligible, simply by virtue of having been born a boy. Little Marcus Ironwood is the heir. For now. I’ll have to wait until he’s old enough for everyone to discern whether he’s a traveler or a guardian. If it’s the latter—well, perhaps Grandfather will be desperate enough to reconsider the rule.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Etta said. The idea of Sophia leading the family and subjecting them to her will was mildly terrifying, but she could hardly be worse than the old man. She was ambitious, and Etta still wasn’t convinced she had been an innocent party to Alice’s death, but Sophia shouldn’t have been denied simply for being a girl. No woman should.
“That’s—” Sophia cut herself off, surprised. “You agree? It’s simply the way it’s done, and has been done forever, but the older cousins renounced their claim by marrying outside of Grandfather’s wishes. I’m the only one of my generation tied closely enough to his bloodline to have a true claim, and I’m certainly the only traveler left alive who’s been under his direct tutelage.”
“Maybe it is really time for a change, then,” Etta said. “Can you make your case?”
“Women are not allowed to attend the family meetings, so how can I? How can I get Grandfather to see what’s been in front of him all along?” Sophia shook her head. “How do you fight against a mountain? How do you move it when you don’t even have a shovel?”
“Maybe you don’t have to move it,” Etta said, folding the gown over the lid of the trunk. “Maybe you have to climb it.”
Sophia studied her, her face still flushed from the heat of her words. “I don’t know if there ever will be a better choice than Julian. He was…he was perfect.”
“No one is perfect. Not even you.”
The other girl snorted, climbing into bed and shifting so she faced the far wall—making room for Etta. After a moment’s hesitation, Etta climbed in after her, scooting as far as she could to the edge without falling off. The mattress felt strange, like it’d been stuffed with straw—it smelled that way, too. The frame creaked, but there was another sound beneath it—the ropes supporting the mattress. They scraped against each other, and sounded like the lines had on the ship when the men were adjusting the sails. Her mind shifted back to Nicholas, wondering where he’d sleep.
Sophia leaned over her, blowing out the candle on the bedside table. The smoke trailed out into the darkness like a silver chain.
“Was Augustus Nicholas’s father?” Etta whispered into the night.
“Yes.” The whole bed shifted as Sophia turned over. The silence stretched out for a few beats, punctuated only by her sigh. “I don’t know much about this, truthfully—most of it is gossip. But Augustus was madly, madly in love with Rose. Your mother. Everyone knew it, just like they all knew that he wasn’t the same after she disappeared. He was…troubled.”
What had the letter said? But I also hope that this helps you put it all to rest, and eases your bedeviled mind.
“He spent years searching for her, even after Grandfather tried to force him to stop. Eventually he had to do his duty and provide an heir, so he married, and Julian came into the picture. But Augustus was…not pleasant. Never faithful. Never loving. An absolute beast. He took what he wanted from whomever he wanted. Do you understand?”