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“The old man made it sound like she’d purposefully infiltrated the family and manipulated them.…” Etta trailed off, looking at him. “Is it possible that they were also trying to find the astrolabe and knew he wanted it, or that he was on its trail?”

“That’s a logical assumption.” Nicholas rubbed at his chin. “Perhaps they know where it’s hidden, too? Only…it seems the sort of thing they’d wish to use.”

The thought settled between the three of them, as heavy as a thundercloud. Etta braced herself for thunder, for the lightning bolt of dread.

“It’s been a pleasure to meet you, but…” Alice stood suddenly, gathering up the water glasses. “I’m sorry, I’ve really got to be going.”

Etta studied the girl, recognizing the evasion for what it was. “What do you know about the astrolabe?”

“Nothing,” Alice said, keeping her back to them. “I’m sorry. I don’t know anything about it.”

Not yet, not yet, please not yet. Etta felt almost desperate with panic. You can’t go yet.

“I’m just trying to get back to Rosie,” she tried. “I think this is the only way. If I find the astrolabe, I’ll find her. Please…whatever you know, however small, could help us.”

“You may be her daughter, but it feels like such…like such a betrayal,” Alice said, her voice small. “She didn’t want anyone to find it, least of all the Ironwoods.”

“Why?” Etta asked. Nicholas crossed and uncrossed his legs, as if suddenly unable to settle himself in a comfortable position. “At least tell me that.”

“She thought—God forgive me, she thought they’d use it for their own ends. That they’d damage the world irrevocably for their own gain,” Alice said. “It’s a family heirloom. It did belong to us, for whatever that’s worth, and we debated for years over what to do with it—to let it remain where the professor’s father hid it, or to move it. It was supposed to stay lost, but then Ironwood, somehow, started to get close. Rose didn’t remove it from its original hiding spot until he’d nearly found it. She and the professor should have just destroyed it, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. History is too important to them.”

Alice set the small porcelain figurine of a tiger she’d been fussing with back down on the fireplace mantelpiece, continuing. “Ironwood thought she’d be stupid enough to trick and use; and now I suppose he’s trying the same with you.”

Etta shook her head. “I won’t let him have it. I’m just trying to get home, back to her, and—back to you.”

She turned slowly. “Me?”

“Yes,” Etta said, standing up and crossing the room. “She travels to the future, and you’re there to help both her and me. You live in New York. There’s a really handsome Polish violinist in your future—”

Alice held up her hands, stopping her. “Don’t tell me any more. I mean it. I can see in your face that there’s something you want to tell me, but you can’t—I might not be able to alter the timeline, but you can, just by telling me. And I’m starting to find this story rather convenient.”

Etta looked around the room again, trying to find some proof that she knew Alice—the future Alice. Her eyes landed on the painting. “I know you bought this painting while you were walking along the Seine. You bought it because someone wrote a beautiful poem in French on the back. And I know your father loathes it, and you actually bolted it to the wall to keep him from taking it down.”

Alice reached up, pressing her fingers against the bottom of the frame. It didn’t budge. She turned back to them, shaking her head. “I want to help you, but…she’s protected me for so long, I feel that it’s my turn to do the same.”

It was so Alice. This woman had guarded them over the years like a lioness defending her cubs. It made Etta want to hug her that much more, even as Nicholas tensed beside her, frustration plain on his face.

“I’m not interested in changing the future—her future,” Etta said. “For one thing, it would completely change my life. There is no way I’m letting Ironwood have access to my time, either.”

The couch squeaked as Nicholas stood and made his way to the window. He crossed his arms over his chest and surveyed the people passing on the sidewalk below.

“All right,” Alice said, wringing her hands red. “I don’t know anything about where it is. I’m sorry, but…I suppose…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you that it’s the last of four. Long ago, each family had one. Three of them were either lost or destroyed by rivals in the other families.”

So, it was exactly as Nicholas—and Julian—had thought.

“This one is the last of its kind,” Alice said, “which is a blessing, considering what it’s capable of.”

“Reading passages, you mean?” Etta clarified.

Alice blinked. “No. Creating passages.”

“Creating them?” Etta asked, looking back toward Nicholas just as his gaze shot over to hers. Her own shock was reflected on his face. That couldn’t be right—

“Yes,” Alice said, eyes wide as she realized neither of them knew this. “My impression is that many of the passages are becoming unstable or collapsing because of traveler deaths, and—well, old age. As Rose explained it, what Ironwood and his rivals—the Thorns, as you called them—what they want is to gain access to years that have been closed to them, and affect events there. Whoever controls the astrolabe could potentially control the whole of time.”