England, July 1861
The sun was the same, but that was all.
Blindingly hot, it hung low on the horizon as if dangled there by an invisible string. Rena studied the sun's path as it settled at the base of the sky, her fingers fiddling with a tiny glass vial which hung from her neck by a cord. As she tipped the glass, the sand scrambled within, racing from one end to the other.
Sighing, Rena settled back into her seat. She wished she could have brought buckets of sand from India. She had lived in the northwest, in Jaipur, which was a considerable distance from the sprawling Thar Desert, but she and Edric had gone there on one of his leaves. She still remembered the way the sand had felt beneath her bare feet, sharp against the balls of her heels like tiny knives; she remembered the way the sand had smelled on her skin in the morning, as if she were knit together by heat and sunlight; she remembered the way her husband's hands had felt on her neck in the evenings when they had lain down in the sand together to forget themselves and the cutting remarks of their countrymen. If she clamped her eyes shut, she could nearly taste the dry summer air of home, could feel the tiny grains of sand pressing against her shoulder blades as Edric's fingers carded her hair....
But coming to England was far better, she reminded herself, reopening her eyes to glance at the seat across the compartment, where her mother-in-law still slept deeply. Nothing could grow from sand, Rena reasoned with herself. Nothing could grow from nothing.
As the train groaned tiredly along its track, she could already make out the shapes of fields and orchards, their foreign perimeters drawn jaggedly like the edges of an unfinished puzzle. Tree trunks the size of castle turrets lined the fields with a thick border of summer leaves. Beyond the trees, small buildings dotted the landscape, spread out in dark squares like a chessboard.
She looked from the fields to the unfamiliar buildings and back again. She pressed her vial of sand between two shaking fingers. Yes, she thought, redirecting her gaze to the sky. The sun is the same. But will that be enough?
"Abbotsville!" called an attendant, stepping sideways through the cramped compartment. He jostled Rena's mother-in-law, Lady Hawley, as he passed her, nudging her out of sleep.
Nell looked worn from their journey. Rena was certain she looked little better herself. The passage by sea had been brutal for both women. Half of the three-month journey was spent huddled below deck as the walls of the steamer were blasted by turbulent squalls, which had made the entire structure feel as if it were made of matchsticks. Rena had lost control of her stomach enough times that she could no longer taste her own humiliation. Somehow she had endured jarring wagon rides across sweltering Egyptian deserts, followed by cramped barges and rickety paddle steamers. If she closed her eyes, she still felt unbalanced on dry land, and she suspected she might always feel the ocean's silent sway beneath her.
The whistle blew shrill as the train slid into the station, its wheels slowing beneath them. As the train halted, Rena could hardly believe her grueling journey was finally at an end.
England awaited beyond those doors.
As the other passengers began to bustle, she once again checked the contents of her bag. She had not kept much in her haste. Two plain dresses in addition to the one on her back, a slab of hard bread, and a few stacks of henna leaves pressed between the pages of a book which had once belonged to her father. She shouldered her bag and then tucked the thin cord back beneath the neckline of her black widow's dress. The vial of sand now rested against her chest beside Edric's gold signet ring, as if she had buried him there.
"I will take care of you," whispered Nell, stepping closer. The older woman settled her hand on Rena's cheek and smiled. "I promise we will pick up these scattered pieces."
It seemed an impossible task. There were as many scattered pieces within Rena's heart as there were leaves on England's countless trees. Her husband was dead. Her family lived oceans away. Now she entered the land of those who sought to rule her people, where she was as strange to them as they would always seem to her. She glanced again at Nell and forced herself to banish these regrets. Nell had lost twice as much, Rena reminded herself. Nell had lost her husband as well as her only son, and yet she smiled at Rena with eyes as bright as Edric's had once been—those lovely, almond-shaped eyes which ran in the Hawley family.