For all those history has forgotten.
Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
SHE’D HAD A DOLL ONCE, with a painted-on smile, and pale hair and eyes like her own. For a long while, it had been her constant companion—a friend for tea when Alice was traveling with her papa, a confidant when she overheard her parents whispering secrets, someone who had to listen to her when no one else would. Her name was Zenobia, after the desert warrior queen Grandpapa had told her about. But one day, while Henry Hemlock chased her around the garden, the doll had fallen, and she’d stepped on her neck, shattering the fragile porcelain. The dreadful sound it made had sent her heart up into her throat.
Now, the sound of her mama’s neck breaking under the heel of the man’s boot made her vomit into her hands.
A pulse of fiery power washed through the room like an errant wave, carrying with it all the crushing chaos of the nearby passage as it collapsed. Rose was thrown back against the compartment’s wall. The trembling air made her bones shiver, her teeth ache.
Rose held her breath, clenching her eyes shut as her papa howled from where the shadowed man had him pinned to the floor, a sword driven through his shoulder. She knew better than to scream with him, to try to reach for her mama the way he was reaching now. The hidden cupboard built into the wall behind the bookshelf would protect her, just as Grandpapa had promised, but only if she stayed silent, stayed still. The thin crack between the backing of the shelf and its frame was just enough to see through and not be seen.
Somehow the afternoon had slipped into night. Their dinner sat downstairs at the table, nearly untouched—their only warning of the intrusion had been the growls and whimpering of their neighbor’s dog before it was quickly silenced. Her papa had just had enough time to light the office’s lamps and fireplace, her mama to stow her away, before footsteps fell on the stairs. Now the lingering warmth and glow made the darkness in the room feel as though it was breathing.
“I told you to cooperate.” The man wore a fine black overcoat with silver buttons, engraved with some symbol she could not quite make out. A thin black scarf had been pulled up to cover the lower half of his face, but it did nothing to muffle the silky tones of his voice. “It need not be this way. Relinquish your claim to it, give the astrolabe to me, and our business here will conclude.”
Broken glass and scattered papers crunched beneath his boots as he circled around her mama…her mama’s…
No. Grandpapa would be back soon from his meeting. He had said he would tuck her in, and he didn’t break promises. He would make everything right again. This was…it was all a nightmare. It was her silly little mind, dreaming up all those stories about the shadows that came for traveler children. All of this would be over soon, and she would wake up.
“Bloody—monsters—the whole lot of you!” Papa tried to pull the sword out of himself by the blade, leaving a smear of blood. The man hovering above him only leaned onto the ornate golden hilt, driving it down further. Her papa thrashed, his legs kicking at nothing but air.
Mama did not move.
The sharp, hot edge of Rose’s scream began to tear up her throat. The river of stinking blood had soaked through the rug and was beginning to creep toward her mama’s bright hair.
Her father tried to surge up again, one hand gripping a stone paperweight that had fallen from his nearby desk in the initial scuffle. With a yell that ripped from his lungs, he swung the stone toward the masked man’s head. The man caught it easily and, in turn, retrieved another thin-bladed sword from the second masked man standing guard at the door. With a grunt, he stabbed it through her father’s arm, keeping that in place, too. When her papa let out his bellow of pain, it was not nearly loud enough to drown out the masked man’s laughter.
You must watch, Rose thought, curling her knees up toward her chin. You must tell Grandpapa what happened.
Stay silent, stay still.
“You—you tell Ironwood that he can die knowing—he’ll never—he’ll never have it—”
Ironwood. Always the Ironwoods. The name was hissed in her family, always edging into their lives like a shadow. Grandpapa had said they would be safe here, but she should have known. They had never been safe, not since her aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother had been stolen, one by one, across the centuries and continents.
And now Mama…and Papa…
Rose bit her lip again, this time tasting blood.
The other man kicked off from where he’d been leaning against the door. “Finish this. We’ll search the floors and walls unhindered.” And then, as the figure prowled forward, Rose saw that it wasn’t a man at all, but a tall woman.
Her mama had once said that Ironwood liked to collect the girls in his family and keep them on shelves like glass figurines, never taking them down, not even to be dusted. He must have seen this one as unbreakable.
Mama was unbreakable, too.
The first masked man reached into the inner pocket of his coat and affixed a long silver blade to his index finger. It curved like a gleaming claw, pricked at the air.
Rose’s eyes shifted away from the weapon, back to her papa’s face, only to find him looking at the bookshelf—at her—his lips moving soundlessly. Be still, be still, be still….
She wanted to scream, to tell him to fight, to tell him that she would fight, if he wouldn’t. She had the bumps and scrapes on her hands and knees from tussling with Henry to prove it. This was not Papa. Papa was brave; he was the strongest person in the whole world, and so very—
The masked man leaned down and slid the blade into her papa’s ear. His body jerked once more.
His lips stopped moving.
In the distance, false thunder broke against London’s sky as another passage crumbled. It was fainter this time, but it still made every inch of her skin feel rubbed raw.
Papa was still there in his suit that smelled of tobacco and cologne, but Rose saw him disappear all the same.
“You start with the bedroom,” the masked man said as he wiped the blade and stowed it back in its place.