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.
“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.”