“It’s not here,” the woman replied slowly. “Wouldn’t we be able to feel it?”
“There may still be a record of it,” came the gruff reply, and the man began yanking the desk drawers out one by one. He tossed out ancient coins, papyrus, tin soldiers, old keys, scoffing, “These ingrates are collectors.”
The woman crossed in front of the bookshelf, making the floorboard squeal. Rose pressed her filthy hands against her mouth again to hold in her scream. She tried not to breathe in the smell of her own sick again, but her parents’ blood was already making her stomach churn. The dark woman’s eyes swept over the shelves, and she came to a stop directly in front of where Rose was hidden.
The moment caught in her mind like a leaf on the surface of water. It trembled.
But she didn’t want to be still.
It would be so easy, she thought, to be as brave as Mama—to break through the compartment and try to throw the woman to the floor and run. To pick up one of the swords and slash and slash and slash until she cut the darkness away, the way Papa would.
But Papa had told her to be still.
In the corner, the grandfather clock carved out the lost seconds. Tick, tick, tick…dead, dead, dead…
The hot, tangled, thorny parts of herself began to twist around her heart, tightening again and again until Rose finally closed her eyes. She imagined her veins, her ribs, her whole chest hardening like stone to protect the parts of her that hurt so very badly. She was too little to fight them now; Rose knew this. But she also knew that one day she wouldn’t be.
The woman’s eyes flicked away, toward something on the next bookcase over. Rose let her fear be ground down to pure hate.
Ironwoods. Always the Ironwoods.
“How many place settings did you see on the table?” the woman asked. She backed away from the bookshelves, holding something—a picture frame—out for the man to see. Rose’s throat squeezed as her fingers clawed at her dress. That was her papa’s photograph of the three of them.
The old house groaned around them. The masked man placed a finger to his lips, his head cocked in the direction of the bookshelves. He stepped over her papa, crossing the distance between him and the woman.
“We’ll take the child,” the man said finally. “He’ll want her—”
The bang of the front door as it cracked against the entryway’s wall carried up the flight of stairs. There was a furious bellow from below—“Linden!”—and the bones of the house trembled with the heavy footsteps that spilled up the stairs. Rose looked toward the door just as three men burst through it. The man in the front, his imposing form sweeping in like a thunderstorm, made her recoil. Her papa had shown her a photo of Cyrus Ironwood as often as he could, so she would know him by sight at any age. Know when to run and hide.
One of the men toed at her mama’s face. “Well, now we know why that passage closed behind us.”
Rose nearly threw herself out from behind the shelf to shove him away, but she realized something suddenly: the masked man and woman were gone. She hadn’t seen or heard the window open, nor had she heard the flutter of cloth or their footsteps. It was as if the masked ones had melted into the shadows.
From the shadows they come, to give you a fright.
From the shadows they come, to steal you this night….
“The scum got nothing more than what they deserved,” Cyrus Ironwood snarled as he leaned down and yanked the sword up out of her papa’s arm, only to shove it down again through his chest. Rose jumped at the sound as the tip of the blade struck bone and wood, felt the soft growl leave her throat.
“This is one bounty I’ll relish paying,” Ironwood said. “I knew it would be the only motivation needed to put this into motion. It’s only a damn shame Benjamin wasn’t with them—what are you standing there for? Start searching!”
Ten thousand pieces of gold. Rose wasn’t supposed to have seen the notice Grandpapa had brought home in a fit of rage. She wasn’t supposed to know that Ironwood had put a price on the value of their lives, but Papa didn’t—hadn’t always locked his desk drawer.
The youngest man picked up the same gilded picture frame the masked woman had, only this time from the corner of the desk. He pointed at the picture of Rose sitting primly between her mama and papa. “And her?”
Ironwood spat on her papa’s face before he took the photograph. Rose’s vision washed over with black, the temperature beneath her skin boiling until she was clawing at her soiled dress to keep herself still. His eyes swept around the room; she could make them out from where she crouched, the color as bright and burning as a lightning bolt. Then, without a word, he returned to her papa’s side, crouching down to study something—his ear?
“Boss?” the other young man queried.
“We should leave this place at once,” Ironwood said, sounding distracted by his own thoughts. “Take the bodies. We can’t risk a change if they’re discovered.”
“But what about the astro—”
Ironwood spun, throwing the picture frame at the man behind the desk, forcing him to duck. “If the bloody thing was here, it isn’t any longer. Now take the bodies. I’ll be in the car.”
He took his poisonous rage with him as he left. Rose let herself breathe for the first time, watching as one man retrieved the pink sheets from her nearby bedroom and, with the other man, went about the business of covering and wrapping first her mama, and then her papa.
The rug was carried out last, leaving nothing but scars in the wood. Rose waited until the front door shut and then counted to ten, listening for something to stir in the shadows. When nothing—and no one—did, she shoved the bookshelf forward and scrambled down the stairs, out the back door. Her eyes stung as she opened the gate, swung her leg over the bicycle that was propped against the fence, and began to pedal.
Rose felt nothing. She pedaled and pedaled and pedaled.
Her vision blurred, hot tears slipping past her lashes onto her cheeks, but it was only because it was so very cold and damp out.
Ironwood’s lorry gleamed like the shell of a beetle under the streetlights as she trailed after it, staying back at a distance. All along the way, she remembered one of the fairy tales Grandpapa had read to her, about the man transformed into a monster by his own ugly heart, and she understood it for the first time. Rose imagined her nails turning to claws, her skin to a knight’s armor, her teeth sharpening like a tiger’s.