Stop thinking. Just go.
Her guard shifted in his chair as she slowly rose, and adjusted his own position with a soft sigh. The book was on the verge of slipping out of his hands, onto his feet. She didn’t let herself wonder at how strange that was, that the guard had felt comfortable enough to take off his shoes and curl up with a book.
It doesn’t matter. There was a literal window of opportunity, and she needed to take it now.
Its frame creaked in quiet protest as Etta pushed it open further. She leaned out to assess her options, quickly recoiling back into the room.
The moon was high overhead, illuminating the bruised remains of a city. There were no streetlights, save for a few distant lanterns, but Etta had a clear view of the hills that rolled down beneath her window, of slanted, winding streets that disappeared beneath heaping mounds of brick and wood, only to reappear again, scorched.
The air held a hint of smoke and salt. An insistent wind carried thick fog up from a distant body of water, as if the city was breathing in the clean, cool mist. Skyscrapers had whole sections of themselves scooped out, their windows knocked loose like teeth. But here and there, Etta saw buildings and structures that looked freshly built—all framework and unfinished brick faces. While many streets and patches of ground had been cleared, the sheer scale of the destruction reminded her of what she had seen in wartime London with Nicholas.
She had the ghost of an idea where she was, but it fled before she could grab onto it. The when seemed more obvious. The furniture, the expensive draperies and bedding, the hideous Victorian-doll-like nightgown someone had stuffed her into, the destruction…late nineteenth century? Early twentieth?
Well, she thought, hoping to prop up her spirits a bit, the only way out is through.
She was on the second or third story of a house, though it was difficult to tell by the steep angle of the road below. This side of the house was covered in an intricate puzzle of wood scaffolding that extended from the roof above her to where the long beams were anchored on the ground.
She stuck an arm out, testing the distance between her and the nearest support. Her fingers easily folded around the rough wood, and before she could question the decision, before she could consider all the reasons it was a very, very terrible idea, Etta climbed up onto the window frame and swung her legs around first to its ledge, then toward the nearest horizontal plank of scaffolding.
“This is insane,” she muttered, waiting to make sure the wood could at least hold some of her weight. How many times growing up had she seen news reports of scaffolding collapsing in New York City?
Eight. Exactly eight.
The blood drained from her head all at once, and she was forced to wait, heart beating an impatient rhythm, until her balance steadied again. Etta held her breath, arms trembling from the strain, as she scooted off the window ledge and onto the wood plank in front of her.
It didn’t so much as groan.
There, she thought, good job. Keep going.
In some ways it was like heading down a strangely constructed ladder. Every now and then, Etta felt the structure tremble with her added weight, and some gaps between the planks and beams were almost too wide to reach across. But she gained confidence with each step, even as the wind plucked at her back, even as she realized she had no idea where to go once she reached the ground.
The bay windows on the floor below were longer and jutted out from the house. More dangerous yet, the glass was glowing, light spilling out onto the scaffolding. Etta crawled forward to peer through her cover of darkness; if the room was occupied, she’d have to move closer to the edge of the scaffolding to avoid being seen by its occupants. But first she wanted to know who, exactly, was in the building—the enormous house—and why they’d taken her in.
The room was larger than the one she’d just climbed out of, and lined with stately, dark wood shelves that contained row upon row of books. There was a desk stationed in front of the window and a large broad-backed chair turned away from her, but the room was otherwise empty.
“Come on,” she whispered. “Move it, Spencer.”
Her lip began to bleed as she dug her teeth into it, trying to keep from crying out in pain each time she dropped down and overextended her hurt shoulder. Gripping the beam she’d been sitting on, as if she were on the monkey bars, she stretched her toes out and felt a tremor of panic deep in her gut as they barely scraped the beam below.
Too far. Her arms strained under her weight as she looked to her right, her left, trying to judge how far she’d have to shift and scoot over to reach the nearest vertical support and slide down it. No—she wasn’t going to make it, not with her shoulder on fire and her entire body shaking.
Not going to make it. She looked down again, this time to the ground below, the slant of the street, and tried not to picture what she’d look like lying there in a broken heap of gauzy white fabric and blood. If she could drop softly enough, she might be able to balance, catch herself—
A sudden movement at the window in front of her snapped her attention forward again. A bemused face stared at her through the glass. She blinked rapidly, her breath locked inside of her throat. The window creaked open, out toward her.
“Well, that’s a bit of trouble you’ve gotten yourself into, old girl—”
Arms reached for her, and Etta didn’t think, didn’t speak, just kicked. Her heel connected with something hard, and she took some satisfaction in the surprised “Cripes!” laced with pain in response.
“That was uncalled for!” came the same voice, now muffled as he clutched his nose.
The pain in her shoulder and left arm stabbed straight through her fear, and her fingers spasmed and relaxed their grip on the beam. A gasp tore out of her as she dangled there by one arm. Her jagged fingernails dug into the wood as she frantically tried to line up her footing below before she lost what grip she had.
“Take my hands—come on, don’t be a fool about this,” the young man was saying. Etta leaned back out of his reach, struggling to pull far enough away, as he climbed onto the frame. “Really? You think the better option is breaking your neck? I’m hurt.”
The wind picked up, tossing her loose hair into her eyes, lifting the hem of her nightgown.
“I can admire the intent here, but you should know that all it would take is one shout from me and you’ll be swarmed by unhappy Thorns having to climb down to fetch you. I doubt you want to die, either, so let’s have it, then—I’ll help you back inside, as easy as pie.”