Etta raised her eyebrows at that—from her unscientific survey, less than half of the Thorns she’d met had been willing to look her in the eye.
“She did what she had to do,” Etta said. “Mom, I mean.”
“She did what she was told to do,” Henry said, rising again to his feet. He was tall, but not imposingly so. Yet, when he moved, he took command over every inch of the space around him. “How can you not be angry with her? How can you defend her after everything she’s subjected you to?”
There were so many ways she would have answered that, even a few days ago, but now Etta felt all of her explanations crumbling, slipping through her fingers like the hot dust of Palmyra.
“She didn’t come for you when you needed her most.” His face was strained as he spoke. “She let you fall into Ironwood’s trap.”
She had…Etta had taken care of herself the best she could, tried to wrest some control from the situation, but it didn’t change that simple fact.
“He’s holding her prisoner,” Etta explained. “There was nothing she could do. He might have…” Already killed her.
Henry made a noise of disgust, waving the thought away. “Your mother was free of Ironwood’s men within days. I had numerous reports of her scampering about, staying well clear of you.”
“She’s alive?” Etta breathed out. The fear released like a sigh, blowing hot, then icy as what he didn’t say finally set in. She’s alive and she didn’t come to help me.
“I can forgive her for what she did to us. She betrayed the trust of this group by lying and saying her family no longer had the astrolabe. The Thorns loved her, cared for her, and she took the key to everything we hoped to accomplish.” He raked his hand back through his hair again, mussing it further. “We’ve known each other since we were children, Rose and I. For a time, I truly believed I understood her better than I knew myself. I’m not proud to admit it, but I did not see just how ruthless and hopelessly misguided she had become. She is no stranger to using people, Thorns or Ironwoods, but for you to bear the brunt of it is cruel, even by her standards.”
Etta didn’t like that line of thought, the way it worked her stomach into disarray. She wanted to argue in her mother’s defense, to call his own bias into question, but when she reached into her memories, she found she’d already run through what little evidence to the contrary she had.
Making his way to the window, Henry looked out, keeping his face from her. “There’s so much darkness to this story, there are times I feel suffocated by it. Our lives became a tapestry of family and revenge and devastation, and it wove around us all so tightly, none of us escaped its knots, not even you. I should have seen the signs, but I wanted to believe she was beyond it. You have to know that if I had known she was with child when she left, I never would have stopped looking for you. I would have gone to the very edges of time to save you from this.”
“What are you talking about?” Etta pressed. Her fingers twisted around each other in her lap. She could almost hear the way her thoughts were swelling, racing through the beats of lies and secrets to one final, crashing crescendo. She didn’t want to hear.
She had to.
His gaze met hers over his shoulder. “All of this—this journey she’s sent you on—is rooted in nothing more than delusion and lies.”
RATHER THAN STAY SEATED AND speak to his back, Etta pushed the chair from the desk and padded over to him. Sunrise edged ever closer with each second, adding to the unrelenting pressing of time’s swift march away from her. The sky near the horizon had lightened to a soft violet and, in the gentle light, she saw what wasn’t there: the footprints of the decimated buildings and streets hidden by rubble, streetlights that had been twisted and snapped like dry long grass.
“I—” she began. But the story wasn’t about her, not yet.
“I don’t know what you know of the Thorns, of us,” he said, giving her a sidelong glance as he clasped his hands behind his back. “I cannot claim we are without fault and failures. Many of us lost everything in the war against Ironwood. Families, fortunes, homes, a sense of safety and independence. But the people here are good and decent, and want do something meaningful. We want to protect each other. It was your mother, you know, who came up with the name. It was something she used to say, that she could no longer be a rose without thorns. She nearly destroyed every hope we had of succeeding when she disappeared. Rose turned our castle to glass and left us exposed and one strike away from shattering.”
“I know about all of that,” Etta said. Rose had infiltrated the Ironwoods for a time to keep them from finding the astrolabe. She knew now she’d come back to the Thorns briefly before leaving for the future, with child. “I want to know what you meant by delusion. That’s a strong word.”
“I’ve never told anyone this, the more fool I,” he murmured. The reluctance in his tone made Etta step forward, as if to seize the secret he was offering. “After her parents were murdered, Rose claimed she was visited by a traveler, one who warned that if Ironwood were to possess the astrolabe, it would result in some sort of endless, vicious war, which could destroy everything and everyone.”
Etta made a sharp noise of surprise. Henry glanced over at her again, and seemed to be measuring her response. “You have to understand that she was deeply, deeply unwell after their deaths. She witnessed them herself as a young child, and they were so gruesome I feel I must spare you the details.”