From the moment she entered the room Julia was ready. She headed directly to her bed, reaching for the bag hidden underneath. Headmistress would skin her alive if she knew she had this but, with any luck, Julia would be long gone by then.
She worked quickly, gathering the few possessions she knew would be useful – a cup, a bowl, all her clothing. Her knife. She felt a twinge of regret at leaving her hard earned books behind but she shoved it away. They would only slow her down.
A quick look over her possessions showed it was not enough. No matter how thick she layered them, her thread-bear dresses would never get her to the next town over, let alone all the way back to London.
Her eyes settled on Emily’s trunk. She had a down sweater in there, a Christmas present from her family. Julia had seen it once before.
She glanced at the door, as if Emily was about to come through it. But she, like everyone else, was in the chapel for evening prayer. Julia had at least twenty minutes before anyone came back to the dormitories. Twenty minutes before anyone noticed she was gone.
Twenty minutes to escape.
It was now or never.
Julia crossed the room and threw open Emily’s trunk. After only a few moments of searching, she found the sweater. She paused, allowing herself to finger the soft material. It had been a long time since she had held anything that was not rough and scratchy.
“Running away again?”
Julia dropped the sweater, her heart leaping at the impossibility of being caught. Of hearing a voice.
Of there being a man in her room.
She turned and saw a man she had never seen before sitting at her desk. He was older, probably around the same age as Father Leavitte, but, unlike Father Leavitte, whose short stature and permanently red face made him appear constantly flustered, this man exuded confidence. He had dark hair which was oddly styled and his clothes, which appeared to be some kind of suit, were odd as well, thinner and sleeker than any Julia had seen before. He looked incredibly out of place in her aging room.
“I’ve traced it before,” the man said, pulling a book from her shelf. Something small and silver winked on his wrist. “You make it for a week before they find you in a work-house two towns over.”
Julia’s mind raced. Her eyes flicked to the door. It was closed. She had not heard it open. There should not have been anyone here. And yet here he was, this strange man. She had no idea what he wanted.
But they always wanted something. She knew better than to think otherwise.
“Who are you?” she asked, all too aware of the open bag on her bed. Had he come to stop her? To drag her right back to Headmistress for a beating? No, it could not be that. She did not know this man’s intentions but something deep within her told her they were beyond the petty squabbles of her school, beyond even the work of her ‘family.’ Whatever this man wanted, it would be something much worse.
“Three weeks after that,” the man continued, “you run away again. This time catch you in a day.” He grabbed another book, flipping through the pages. “After that the snow really sets in. It’s another two months before you try again. This time make it all the way back to London. You get yourself a job at a factory, make a meager amount of money, and move on.” He closed the book and ran his fingers gingerly across the spine. “What a fascinating invention these were.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Of course, I always preferred digital…” he ignored her, replacing the book on the shelf. “So much more convenient.”
Julia had no idea what he was saying, but her patience was wearing thin. Her body was pushing her forward, pushing her to do something, to get out. To get her knife.
Suddenly this room seemed much too small.
“Five attempts in three years, all of them failures. But after this one, the Keatons stop trying. They let you go. After that, your records disappear,” he looked up, staring directly at her. Julia froze. His eyes were a shocking, crystal blue. She felt pinned to the spot under his gaze. “It doesn’t seem like anyone cared enough to keep them.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
He stood up and Julia took an instinctive step back, but he simply brushed himself off, clearing invisible dust from his clothes. “This era is so primitive,” he remarked. “It’s a wonder how anyone got through it.”
Era? She didn’t recognize the word. “Who are you? What are you doing here? How did you get in my room?”
“My name,” he said, focusing his impossibly bright eyes on her once again, “is Draven Augur. I’ve come here to talk to you. And whether or not I answer your last question will depend entirely on how this conversation goes.”
“To talk to me?” she repeated, inching her way along the wall. “Why?”
“You’ve had some peculiar things go on in your life, Miss Chafflin. I’m here to explain them to you.”
“What things?” she stopped next to her bed. Reaching behind her, she began searching for her knife.
“Your sister, for one. Adeline.”
Julia’s heart skipped a beat. “I’m sorry?”
“Your younger sister. She disappeared from your house three years ago. Most people think she ran away, some think you killed her. But you think she’s still out there.”
Julia felt an uneasiness in her stomach, a cold sort of excitement that appeared whenever someone mentioned her sister. Might this strange man, this Draven, know something about what happened that night? “Is she?”
The tingling fell away, replaced by a familiar hardness. “How could you know that? How could you possibly know any of that?”
“I told you,” he replied, his voice slow and enunciated, as if he was speaking to a child. “I traced you. A rather impressive feat, considering your lack of records. Do you know that your name is spelled thirteen different ways throughout twelve years?”
Somehow that did not surprise her. She had only recently learned to spell it herself.
Behind her, she felt the smooth wood of a handle. Her hand closed around it. Instantly, she felt her composure returning. “What do you mean, ‘traced’?”
He followed her movement. “You won’t be needing that.”
“I will decide that for myself,” she repeated holding the knife in front of her. The familiar stance was comforting. “Now, what do you mean you ‘traced’ me?”
He frowned but continued. “I traced your timeline. Your life. From it’s sad start in a workhouse bathroom to its rather pathetic end in a Brighton alley. There’s a strange sort of symmetry there, don’t you think?”
Julia grit her teeth, half tempted to stab him and run out, supply bag or no supply bag. But still, something kept her here. She had to ask. “You said you knew what happened to my sister.”
“What was it?”
“Absolutely nothing. She was taken.”
“By a criminal organization. A gang, actually. The Dief.”
Julia tried to place the name with one of the many groups that plagued the London streets. “I do not know them.”
“That’s because they’re from the late-25th century.”
She blinked. “What?”
“You heard correctly.”
“But that’s…” she frowned.
“Approximately 594 years, 2 months, 5 days, and 4 hours from this moment,” he nodded, unperturbed. “Yes.”
Julia studied him. His hair, his suit, his eyes – “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The man sighed, annoyed at having to repeat himself. “I told you, I’m-”
“Stop lying to me!” Julia yelled. “Who sent you here? Was it Mara? Or Houerv? Are they trying to torture me? Trying to prove I am insane?” With each question she stepped forward, knife directly in front of her.
She had spent years searching for what happened to Addie. She’d fought, clawed, struggled for every moment. She had endured taunts and threats, pity and hatred. Witch. Harlot. Murderer. You are lucky you are even alive.
“I want the truth,” she stated, her dagger inches from his throat. “And I want it now.”