Chapter Eleven

The doors to the carpet slid open. 

 My grip on the strap dangling from the ceiling did not loosen. I knew I didn’t need to be as scared as I was. The silence had been foreboding, but before the silence, Rye had been talking about foster families and generous stipends. Those words did not portend my doom. 

I was scared anyway. 

Harmony walked out, but Rye didn’t move. He gestured toward the door. “They’ll be waiting for us upstairs.” 

They? They who? 

Could he be more ominous?  

But I couldn’t cower in the carpet for the rest of my life, so I lifted my chin and stepped out of it. Our surroundings were simple, a room made of the same white material as the buildings at Domas, unadorned. There were no windows, but dark openings at either end were big enough for vehicles many times larger than our small carpet to come in and out. 

“We came in the back way,” Rye said, following me out of the carpet. “Usually Swords travel through the zones. It’s much faster, but we wouldn’t take a rotecionata there unless it was a real emergency. This area’s mostly used for freight.” 

Harmony was already waiting by a door that looked like it might lead to one of the giant dumbwaiters. She glanced back at us over her shoulder. “The front entrance is super posh, very elegant. But there’s always media hanging around out there, and we didn’t want to let them get any shots of you two. They’d start speculating like crazy — she’s so young and you’re so pretty — and coming in with Rye and me, well, we’re always in the feeds.” 

As usual, I understood only about half of what Harmony said. Feeds? Shots? What was she talking about? But I did catch the compliment. 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. In my entire life, had anyone ever called me pretty? Perhaps when I was a baby, too young to remember, but Ella was the pretty one. She was beautiful and charming, and I was… well, I was the scary one. Which wasn’t the worst of fates, of course. I wouldn’t have liked being known as the stupid one. 

We were in the dumbwaiter and it was moving before I decided that I felt delighted about Harmony’s compliment. Really, quite delighted. Obviously, I was not so superficial as to believe that my appearance meant anything. Being pretty was not nearly as important as being clever or brave or strong. But still, it was quite nice to know that Harmony thought I was pretty. 

“So pretty,” even. 

I stole a glance at Rye. I admit, I hoped he also thought I was pretty. He was looking straight ahead, however, a tiny line between his brows, and with the twitches that said he was engaged in conversation over the System. If he thought I was pretty, it wasn’t what he was thinking about now. 

The dumbwaiter was either slow or traveling a great distance. When the doors slid open, I knew it was the latter, because directly in front of us was a wall of glass, and the scene beyond it was immensely far away. 

My indrawn breath was sharp as a gasp. Shoshi stirred and I patted her absently while I followed Rye and Harmony out of the dumbwaiter and into a corridor, never taking my eyes off the view. 

I’d started levitating at perhaps six or seven. It wasn’t my first talent, more a minor addition to an already complicated repertoire. If I remembered correctly, in fact, the first time I levitated was in desperation after Ella clambered out of our bedroom window and onto the roof, where she promptly got stuck. Her attempt to build wings happened several years later, but her fondness for roofs started early. 

As a levitation talent, I would have said I had no fear of heights. I’d lifted myself easily thirty or forty feet in the air and I could control my rate of descent should such be necessary. 

That said, this was a height to which I had never imagined ascending. Through the wall of glass, I could see innumerable shorter buildings and a few of similar height, stretching out before me like a tapestry. In the distance, water sparkled in the morning sunlight. A harbor held ships as large or larger than the buildings nearest to them, so huge they seemed inconceivable. 

The wall of glass extended ahead of us and I surmised it went all the way around the building, but we did not proceed that far. Halfway down the corridor, Rye paused. A door slid open and Harmony and I followed him into a meeting room, smaller than the typical classroom at Domas but large enough to hold a large table surrounded by cushioned chairs as well as a smaller table against an inner wall. Three people were already seated at the table, engaged in a conversation that broke off as we entered. 

Two of them wore the black uniform of the Swords, while the other was in the red that the Shields wore. I recognized her immediately; she was the Shield I’d seen the first day, doing something with a device around the rift and laughing. 

 She leaned back in her chair, eyeing me and Shoshi appraisingly. 

“What are you doing here, Mira?” Harmony asked. 

“Way to say hello,” the woman in red answered. She nodded at each of them. “Harmony, Rye.” 

Harmony clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Sorry. I was just surprised to see you.

Rye gave a terse nod, his expression unrevealing. He might have been communicating via the System, but if so, he wasn’t making any of the telltale minor movements. 

Shoshi stirred again. She’d opened her eyes and was blinking herself awake. 

I stroked her wisps of dark hair and murmured, “Good morning, sweet girl. Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.” I spoke in Tizain, of course. 

The Sword seated closest to us cocked his head to one side. His eyes narrowed. “No linguistic matches, according to available System data.” 

“You know that doesn’t mean a thing,” Harmony said. “Lucerne has dozens of languages, and even more dialects.” 

He smiled at her. It was actually a rather nice smile, affectionate and approving, as if her impudence pleased him rather than giving him pause. 

A door in the far wall opened and two more people came in, both clad in the black of the Swords. The woman was the oldest Sword I’d ever seen, her hair silvered, her dark eyes holding the look of one who had seen everything and was not inclined to tolerate tomfoolery. She carried herself, however, with the same air of grace and strength as the younger Swords. She reminded me a tiny bit of my mother, if my mother had worn a form-fitting uniform and had looked as deadly as most people thought she actually was.

The man with her did not have the same presence, but he spoke first. “Tell us about the incursion.” 

“It was an emergent manifestation, not an incursion,” Rye replied. “An illusion. There was no rift.” 

“Ha.” The woman in red, Mira, sounded triumphant. “I told you, when I seal a rift, it stays sealed.” 

The man’s lips pursed. “You’re sure? The folks at Domas who sounded the alarm seemed far more concerned than would be warranted by an emerging illusion crafter.” 

“Quite sure.” Rye tipped his head to the side. “Review 7.43 to 7.46.” 

Everyone in the room, except for Shoshi and me, stared at the wall in their own line of sight. I watched their expressions change. Mira caught her breath, then pressed her lips together as if ashamed of her reaction. The Swords at the table frowned. The older woman lifted a single eyebrow, then smoothed out her expression. The man with the pursed lips pursed them deeper, looking displeased. 

It seemed obvious that they were watching the monster bugs Shoshi had created and I had burned. I wondered whose eyes they were looking through. Could they see my lightning? Or the fire attack that had fizzled? 

Lying to Rye about my abilities had been instinctive. Was I about to get caught? 

Shoshi started to fuss. I couldn’t blame her. I would rather like to start fussing myself. She still wore her sleeping attire, including a diaper that had undoubtedly been used hours ago, and neither of us had eaten breakfast. She was understandably cranky. 

So was I. 

Perhaps I had simply been scared for too long, but my anxiety was rapidly turning into annoyance. I didn’t like the way these people were treating me. Oh, it was better than a quick death, of course, but where were their manners? They hadn’t even introduced themselves or invited me to be seated. I wished I could consult my etiquette instructor on the appropriate response to their lack of social graces, but under the circumstances, I thought equal bluntness might be permissible. 

I turned to Rye. “Going make us stand here forever?” 

He blinked, glancing away from the wall he’d been staring at. 

“Shoshi hungry,” I continued. “Need clean clothes. Drag us away, no breakfast.” 

I think there might have been a glint of laughter in his eyes, but I might have been imagining it. His face remained impassive as he said, “Of course. We’ll try to expedite this. Perhaps—“ He glanced at the man at the table, the one who’d smiled at Harmony. 

The man jumped to his feet. “My pleasure.” He held his hands out to me. 

I had no intention whatsoever of simply passing Shoshi over to a total stranger. But a wave of warmth and comfort and reassurance washed over me. It felt like sunshine on an early spring day or the coziness of clean sheets fresh from the line. 

Shoshi crowed with laughter and leaned out, arms extended toward the man. 

“What—?“ I managed. 

“Simon’s a projective empath,” Rye murmured. 

“And fond of the little ones,” the man said, scooping Shoshi out of my arms and beaming at her. “What do you think, Button? Some fresh bread with berry jam, perhaps? Would that taste good?”  

Fresh bread with berry jam? My mouth watered at the thought and my stomach rumbled in agreement. I hadn’t eaten anything except the crumbly squares since we’d arrived on Salazie. I didn’t even realize they had real food on Salazie. 

“We’ll bring some back for you.” Simon touched my arm in passing and the sense of well-being strengthened, then diminished again as he let his hand drop away and moved toward the door with Shoshi. 

She was making no protest. She barely even seemed to notice she was leaving me behind, her eyes locked onto Simon’s face. I would have liked to object, but it was impossible. 

“Don’t worry,” Harmony said. “Simon will take good care of her. He’s a great dad.” 

I looked at her, my expression perhaps conveying my opinion of this whole business, and she smiled. “Personal experience. He was my foster father.” 

“Impressive illusions,” the older woman finally said, interrupting us. “Especially for an emergent wielder.” She looked directly at me. “Where are you from?” 

My mother did not have Truesight. Even so, only a fool would tell her a direct lie. If you wanted to convince my mother of a falsehood, it could only be done with misdirection.

I hesitated, but finally said, reluctantly, “Country named Tizai.”

She looked into space for a few seconds, checking the System. “We have no record of it. And none of your rescue. Who brought you to Domas?” 

Obviously, they only had to ask the System the right questions to learn that I had not come to Domas alone. But perhaps they wouldn’t think to ask the right questions. It was all I could hope for, the only way I could keep Ella safe.  

“Brought self,” I replied. 

“Explain.” The word was a command. She made no attempt to cushion it with any polite niceties, but as resentful as I felt, I couldn’t bring myself to not reply. 

“Walking garden home,” I said carefully. No need to explain that we’d chosen to go through the rift. “Then in other place. Confusing. Many places, all—“ I gestured with my hands, trying to convey the enormity of that cold white space. “—jumbled.” I finally finished. “Walked and walked. Then saw littles playing, fell through hole. Za Kestrel find, say go school.” 

I tried to look innocent, not at all like the kind of person who’d deliberately ripped a giant hole in the wall of their world in order to enter it. 

I was probably not successful, because the man’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you of Domas?” 

His question was completely unexpected. I’d been anticipating that they’d ask me about Ella or the rift we’d opened, and I’d worried that Rye would mention the fires I’d been smothering when he found us in the forest. 

I shook my head, no longer feeling like I needed to pretend to be innocent. “No one.” 

“You expect us to believe you wandered through the interstitial zone until you randomly happened upon a safe haven for refugee children?” the man continued scornfully. 

Obviously, that wasn’t what had happened at all. Ella’s Truesight had led us to Domas. She’d known what she was looking for and her gift had obliged. But I wasn’t going to reveal that to these strangers, so I shrugged. “Lucky, I guess.” 

The man snorted. “Luck?” 

The older woman shot him a stern glance and he fell silent. 

No one spoke. 

I waited. I couldn’t detect any of the signs that indicated they were communicating via System, but if the silence was meant to encourage me to continue revealing more information about my background, they were sadly mistaken in their audience. I was well-used to remaining silent under questioning, albeit mostly because Ella would usually have been filling any silence with her bright persuasiveness. 

The door behind the older woman slid open and another Sword entered. This one was young, female, and extremely beautiful. She could have been Rye’s twin, with similar features, more finely sculpted, and the same eyes that held streaks of gold on a deeper brown. 

She was carrying a long, thin box, made of the shiny white material most often used for objects that were not magical and would not change shape. She set it down on the end of the table. The older woman opened it and turned it to face me. 

“Is this yours?” 

It was Father’s carving knife. 

I stared at it, mind racing. 

I should lie. Who went walking in their garden carrying a carving knife? What did it say about us that we’d been armed?

But the question almost had to be rhetorical. Obviously, it was ours. We’d come through that rift, and had been discovered mere moments later. Who else would have dropped a knife there? 

Ella would have managed some beautifully complicated story about people chasing us and our desperate escape and our need for sanctuary. Everyone in the room would have been enormously sympathetic before she was halfway through. 

I could do nothing of the kind. 

“Yes,” I said flatly. 

The woman indicated the handle with a single finger. “And this symbol? What does it mean?” 

It was Father’s sigil, not the de Winterhoffe crest, but I wasn’t sure how to answer her question. As far as I was concerned, the sigil meant, “Do not touch, lest the most fearsome sorcerer on Tizai take offense,” but that would be rather hard to explain to anyone who didn’t know my father. 

The helpful translator in my head didn’t seem to be providing the appropriate vocabulary, either. Did they not have the concept of monograms on Salazie? 

“Identification mark,” I finally hazarded. 

“What does it identify?” the woman asked. 

I looked her straight in the eye and widened my own, as if the question was mystifying. 

“Knife maker?” I said as if it were a question, not at all as if I was telling a bald-faced lie. Perhaps I had learned something from Ella, after all. 

“Coincidence, then,” the man next to her murmured. 

I had the impression that she would have sighed if she’d been a different sort of person. Instead she closed the lid of the box and pushed it aside. 

“However you came to Salazie, we are pleased to welcome you,” she said formally. 

I blinked. That… was not what I’d expected her to say. 

She gestured toward a seat. “Let us now discuss your future.” 

I swallowed. I no longer believed they were going to kill me. But I strongly suspected I wasn’t going to much like whatever it was that she did have in mind. 

She surprised me, however, for the first thing she said after I sat down at the table was, “Would you like to return to your home?” 

Yes! And… no. 

I must have looked as stunned as I felt, because she continued, “You’re not the first wanderer we’ve found. Our teams can’t always return the lost to their homes, but you’re capable of describing your world to us. Indeed, with illusion-crafting you can paint a picture far more vivid than most. We have path finders, although never as many as we need, but we could spare one for a few days to search for a route to your home for you. We don’t want to keep you here against your will.” 

Reader, I am ashamed to admit that my first thought was of tea. Delicious black tea, steeped properly, with a dollop of real milk. That thought was rapidly followed by images of fresh eggs, bacon, scones with clotted cream, and crisp apples straight from the tree. 

In my defense, I was hungry. 

Also in my defense, I’m sure it was only a few seconds before I thought properly of home. My parents, the rest of the family, the servants — all the people who would have been searching for us. The villagers probably hadn’t missed us, but Father was certain to be in a foul mood. They’d be relieved and grateful to have us home, if only to ease his temper. 

Us. 

My thoughts stopped there. 

Ella. 

The woman was still talking, but I couldn’t even hear her words. My sister would not be happy to be home. She loved it here. And she had so many opportunities here that were nothing like those she had at home. No one in Tizai was suggesting she go to diplomacy school or medical school or whatever the school of the day at Domas was. No one in Tizai was delighted by her eager intelligence. No one in Tizai… no one in Tizai deserved her. 

But if I went home without her… 

I interrupted whatever the woman was saying. “No, thank you.” 

“I — what?” She looked confused. 

“I not go home, please. I stay here.” 

I was not about to explain to my parents how I’d left Ella to fend for herself on an alien world. Not that I had the faintest idea how I’d help her if she needed help, given that the Swords had swooped me away from Domas like I was yesterday’s fish, but that wasn’t the point. 

Home was not an option. 

“In that case, you’ll need to be trained,” the woman said. She seemed pleased, in a grim sort of way. 

E&L – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

Sadly for me, the scant few moments before the Swords arrived were not sufficient time to develop and execute some clever plan of escape. 

Running away to the forest had only grown more impractical as winter approached, and running away with a companion in diapers was even more unrealistic. 

Fighting was clearly futile: one of me against an unknown number of Swords and Shields was not going to end well for anyone, but most certainly not for me, and the consequences would undoubtedly rebound onto Ella. 

Hiding might be a temporary solution, but what good would it do in the long run? 

If Ella was also trying desperately to conceive of a plan, she did not share it with me. 

I’m sorry, I sent to her via the System. I’ll try to keep you out of it. Stay safe. And take care of Tycho for me. I toggled her line of communication closed. The light in the corner of my vision began blinking again, but I ignored it in favor of watching the Swords. 

They seemed to understand immediately that they were facing an illusion, not real monsters. Six of them were responding to the alarm, but four promptly levitated away, while two others dropped to the ground and began walking toward me. 

I let go of my illusion. Shoshi’s illusion was gone, too, perhaps because mine had distracted her or perhaps because she’d run out of energy. She wasn’t asleep, but she huddled against my chest in the boneless exhaustion of the very young. 

Of course, Rye was one of the two. Did the Swords have duty stations? If so, his must be near Domas, for this was the third time he’d been called to our location. His expression as he approached was inscrutable, but he looked as delicious as ever. His uniform fit him perfectly, as if it been designed to showcase his elegant musculature. Maybe it had been. I entertained myself for a moment by imagining his reaction to the formal robes he could have worn on Tizai. Would he recoil in horror from the velvet and gilt? 

The other Sword was a young woman with long, wavy dark hair. She looked vaguely familiar. She might have been one of the guards we saw on our first day. 

“Young to start illusion-casting, I’d say, but maybe that’s for the best,” the woman said cheerfully, holding out her hands. “I’ll take her now.” 

I did not let go of Shoshi. 

Instead, I glared at the Sword.

My glare was not well-practiced. I usually endeavored to avoid such expressions, as I’d learned early on that glaring at servants who already fear you might burn them alive accomplishes nothing other than ensuring cold tea while they bicker over who should deliver your tray. I’d mastered the art of the polite smile instead. 

My mother, however, has a glare so withering it can silence a crowded ballroom. I did my best to emulate her. 

“No, you not.” I jerked my chin toward the grounds. “Illusion mine.” 

The woman laughed at me. “And you’d be quite a bit too old to start with the illusion-casting.” 

I understood her words, of course, but the way she said them was subtly different than the way most of the adults at Domas spoke. They were softer around the edges somehow, even though her tone was gently mocking. 

“It’s hard, I know, but there’s no choice in the matter.” She stepped forward, hands still outstretched. “She canna stay here.” 

I did not shoot a lighting bolt at her, sorely though I was tempted. Nor did I set her ablaze, which was truly a sign that my control had improved in the weeks we’d been on Salazie. 

I did, however, muster the pettiest illusion in my repertoire — one practiced on my least favorite governess more than once in years gone by — and dangled a black, hairy spider in front of her on a strand of silken thread. 

She startled, flinching away from it, but she didn’t shriek. 

Point to her, I suppose. 

“Illusion mine,” I repeated, letting the spider disappear in a puff of sparkles. 

Somehow it pains me to admit that she was nice about it. I should probably have expected no less, but, reluctant though I am to confess this, I was scared and angry and upset. Having her smile warmly at me and say, “All right, love, that’s shown me, hasn’t it?” was almost more than I could bear. 

The corner of Rye’s mouth lifted, and he stepped forward, too. “Take them both, then, Harmony?” 

Harmony? That name I recognized. It had been a moment of disconnect in the System’s vision of the monsters, when a random word in the dialogue seemed out of place. Harmony, not a combination of musical notes, but a woman’s name. 

“Harmony?” I repeated. I dipped my chin to Shoshi, without relaxing my grip on her. “You rescue baby?” 

Her eyes widened a little. “Do you need to be rescued? Aren’t they treating you all right here?” 

“Not now. Then. When monster came Lucerne.” Not for the first time, I wished I was fluent in the language of Salazie, instead of struggling to build sentences one awkward word at a time.

“Oh. Aye, we brought them here.” She exchanged glances with Rye, her smile gone. 

How peculiar. Why rescue children if you were going to kill them when they demonstrated talents? Why not just let them die where they were? For that matter, why did she seem concerned about whether I thought I needed rescuing? Perhaps they weren’t going to kill Shoshi and me, after all. 

I wouldn’t say I relaxed exactly, but the moment of doubt was enough to let me breathe a little easier through the next interminable period of chaos and uncertainty. 

And chaos it was. Too many of the children had seen the monsters bugs, and the shortage of adults was never more noticeable than when frantic children were sobbing and hiding under tables. Other of the littles had seen the creatures burning and were over-excited, bouncing off the walls and wanting to know all the details.  

Za Reija would have liked to protest my departure, I think, but his hands were full with the littles. Za Qintha didn’t even try, although her frown when the Swords politely informed her that they’d be taking both Shoshi and me was unhappy. 

My last sight of Domas included Ella, standing outside by the doorway, with Za Kestrel’s hands on both her shoulders. She was looking pinched and dismal, holding Tycho, who was tangling both hands in her curls with delight. I would have liked to warn her that any second he’d start to pull, but if I opened a line to talk to her — well, neither one of us would want to cry before the others. 

But there was a gaping hole in my chest that the presence of Shoshi in my arms did nothing to assuage. 

The Swords had summoned a vehicle. The System translated the name to carpet, but it was nothing like the freight carpets we used at home. Our carpets chugged along, a few feet off the ground, carrying crates and barrels of goods. When people used them for transport, they usually sat on top of the cargo. I’d never ridden on one myself. We used gliders for our transport, which were far more comfortable.

This vehicle was sleek and white, but clearly not designed for comfort. We stood inside it, holding onto straps that dangled from the ceiling, as it zoomed along the ground. Shoshi had fallen asleep against my chest. She was heavy, but I didn’t dare use levitation energy, not with the Swords watching me so closely.  

“So, Lila,” Rye started. 

He remembered my name. I felt a thrill of pleasure, then promptly scolded myself for it. Of course he remembered my name; he would be a mannerless dolt if he forgot it so quickly and nothing about him said mannerless dolt. 

“There’s going to be quite a stir about you when we get back to headquarters,” he continued. “Most wielders are discovered much younger.” 

Wielders? I assumed he meant talented, although that was definitely not the word the System was using. 

“Can you do anything other than craft illusions?” His gaze was steady on my face. 

I didn’t hesitate, not even for a split second. Chin in the air, I met his eyes. “No,” I said flatly. 

He had beautiful eyes. They had golden lines in the brown, radiating out from the pupil, and a darker ring, almost black, around the iris. There were even tiny flecks of green. 

His mouth twitched. If I could read minds, I suspected his would be saying, “Liar, liar, skirts on fire.” But his expression remained impassive. 

“Rye.” Harmony elbowed him, as if he’d said something rude. She turned to me and said earnestly, “Ignore him. We don’t judge people based on how they manifest. Illusion-casting isn’t dishonorable, no matter what the Wigs say. It’s true it’s better if we find wielders young, but that’s at least in part because of the horrible messages society gives people about their abilities. There’s nothing shameful about what you can do. You should just ignore the Wigs.” 

Needless to say, I had no idea what she was talking about, but I doubted it had anything to do with hairpieces. Sometimes the System’s translation felt like it was just stringing one unrelated word after another. 

“Which pick-up were you in?” she continued. 

There was an awkward silence. Well, it felt awkward to me, anyway. What was she asking? 

Maybe it felt awkward to her, too, because she hurried on, “I don’t remember you from the first Lucerne incursion, but that was a year ago and there were a lotta young’uns. It was…” She paused, then continued. “But you would have been on the old side… well…“ 

She glanced at Rye again, looking uncertain. Then back at me. “You musta come later, anyway, or your language skills’d be…” She stopped speaking again. 

I had the impression that she kept almost saying things that she thought better of before the words escaped. I had no idea what her first few pauses meant, but I suspected her last sentence implied, “you’d be able to talk like an adult instead of a little.” 

“You’ll be from one of the recent rescues, yes?” She went on. “I remember Donovan mentioning he’d found a couple more survivors. Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to remind you of your losses.” 

My estimation of the chance that Harmony would be involved in my cold-blooded execution, much less Shoshi’s cold-blooded execution, was dropping by the second, from about fifty-fifty when we left Domas to something approaching zero now. I didn’t know where we were going or what was going to happen to us, and it might not be pleasant, but it wasn’t going to be fatal. 

My estimation of her age was dropping, too. I’d assumed the Swords were adults, but Harmony was too earnest to be much older than I was. 

“Harmony was one of the Swords’ first rescues.” Rye hadn’t looked away from my face. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased. As it was, I was wondering whether I had a smudge on my nose or if he was trying to read my mind. 

“Years ago, of course,” Harmony said. “They found me in the eye-zee.”

“The ivy?” I asked, once again not sure what she was talking about. 

“The I. Z.,” she said, pronouncing the letters more clearly. “The interstitial zone. I musta gone through a rift but I’d wandered too far away from my own R. Z. to go home again. Sometimes I look for it, but I was awful little and I don’t remember much.”

My confusion was not lessened. But before Harmony could continue confusing me, Rye said, “You might like to see where we’re headed.” He must have done something with the System, because panels in the middle of the walls slid open, revealing windows. 

Outside the windows was a city. But a city unlike anything I had ever seen before, or even conceived of. The buildings were unimaginably enormous. They towered over us like mountains, if mountains had corners and windows and sparkled with light. 

I gaped like the most veritable hayseed new come to the city. Well, I suppose I was exactly that. The largest building I had ever seen was the government building where our father had his workshop and office. It was six stories high and covered an entire city block. These buildings were so much bigger that they made our seat of government look like a country cottage. 

I tried counting windows to measure the stories, but we were moving too quickly and I lost track before I’d gotten much past twenty, far less than halfway up the building I was looking at. 

Our father was universally acknowledged to be the most terrifying sorcerer on Tizai and it had never occurred to me to doubt that if he found us here, he would retrieve us with dispatch. Now, for the first time, I wondered. 

“Where taking us?” I asked. Perhaps it was a question I should have asked an hour or two earlier, but I think then I’d been too afraid of an answer that would cause me to lose all dignity. 

Harmony’s eyes widened and her brows lifted in surprise, but Rye responded after only the tiniest flicker of a blink. “Sword Headquarters.” 

He nodded toward Shoshi. “I’m sure they’re lining up to foster the little one already. The stipend for nurturing a wielder is generous and the prestige points toward full citizenship don’t hurt. You’ll go into training. Illusion-casting isn’t a lot of use in the zones, but they’ll find a spot for you, probably on a world-walker team. Illusions sometimes come in handy when interacting with the locals.” 

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I had so many questions, I barely knew where to start. 

The corner of Rye’s mouth dented inward. His facial expressions were ridiculously subtle, but I was fairly sure he was restraining a laugh. 

Harmony leaned forward. “Don’t worry, you’ll be in training for years. Years and years, probably. No one’s gonna make you go into the zones until you’re ready.”

“The zones?” I asked. 

“The in-between?” Harmony replied, a question in her tone. “Where were you rescued from again?” Her eyes went glazed for a moment. The expression was familiar: she was reading material on the System. “Your file is —“ She stopped talking and looked at Rye. “Does this makes sense to you?” 

“It is a bit scanty,” he replied, voice dry. 

“There’s no background info at all. No team debriefing, not even the incident report. And no rescue justification. How did they get away with that? In fact…” She paused and her eyes did that thing again. 

I looked away, staring out the window. We were still in the midst of the enormous buildings, so there was plenty to look at, but I could feel heat rising in my cheeks. Shoshi stirred in the harness on my chest, perhaps feeling the tension in my shoulders, and I cradled her a little closer. 

“Kestrel? Who is that? Is that a new team lead from Albernia? But why would they bring a rescue to Domas? Don’t they have a sanctuary there?” Harmony seemed increasingly distressed. 

Rye didn’t answer her. 

Harmony didn’t speak again. 

I stared out the window, not seeing the city any longer. 

Shoshi made a fussy noise, a breathy whimper, and I gently rubbed her back, using the circular motion she liked best. She settled again with a sigh. 

I waited. 

And I waited. 

And I waited some more. 

All right, it was probably no more than two minutes before I gave in and looked back at Rye’s face, but it felt like the longest two minutes of my life. It lasted an eternity, I swear. 

He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He and Harmony were gazing at one another, their faces making the tiny muscle twitches that said they were communicating via the System. How annoying of them. 

 I looked away again. Oh, how I wished Ella were with me. She was a gifted liar. Literally. Her gifts made lying easy. But I was even less practiced with lying than I was with glaring. And I had no idea what tale would be believable and what would be simply digging a deep hole deeper. 

But Harmony asked me no further questions. We stood in complete silence until the carpet flew into a hole in the ground and along a deep tunnel, and finally came to a stop. 

E&L Ch9 – Let’s watch them burn

(Note for Tim: I added a few more lines to Ch8, to make this transition work.)

Chapter Nine

I blame the weather, to be honest. 

We’d arrived on Salazie in late summer. At the time, the grass was green and lush, the forest rich with the sounds of birds and the rustlings of busy small animal lives. The children played outside every day, both organized sports in the courtyards, supervised by the instructors, and the random games of childhood on the open grounds beyond the walls of the school building. 

But the seasons were changing as seasons were wont to do, the days growing shorter, the leaves dropping from the trees, and the weather turning colder. On my last morning at Domas, the ground was crisp with frost. 

I’d woken up at my usual time, taken care of the necessities, and hurried to the rotecionata halls, as was my daily routine. Za Reija and Za Kestrel were already there, helping the littles with their own necessities. 

“Ah, good, Lila, good to see you.” The circles under Za Reija’s eyes looked deeper than usual. He held a little on each arm. In the pack on his back, a third was sobbing, tiny fists clenched on Za Reija’s shoulders. 

The rotecionata had smaller sleeping pods, not built into the walls the way the roteciona pods were, but lined against them. Usually when I arrived in the morning, all the tops were open and most of the littles had already been moved into either the addie carriers used to transport them to the breakfast room, or to a circular enclosure on the floor which held soft toys and a central small play structure. 

On this morning, however, a solid quarter of the pods were still closed. In one of the nearest, I could see Shoshi, soundlessly crying, her face screwed up in fury, tears running down her face. 

“Bad night?” I asked, immediately crossing to her pod, and tapping the latch to open it. 

As the top slid open, the sound of her cries burst forth, a high-pitched shriek that filled the room. I saw Za Reija wince, as Za Kestrel immediately turned to check on the noise. 

Za Reija shook his head. A yellow light blinked in the corner of my vision and I acknowledged it, letting Za Reija open a line to my System. 

Terrible, his voice sounded in my head. I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ve checked and double-checked the medic alerts. Shoshi’s temp’s a little high, but nothing that should cause her serious discomfort. But she’s miserable, and it’s been contagious. They’re all upset. I’ve called for more assistance, but if you could take her, it might help. 

Just her? I asked as I lifted Shoshi out of her pod. Usually, I loaded up an addie carrier with four littles, the number it could comfortably carry, then escorted it to the breakfast room while carrying two or three more littles. While the first set of littles were being fed and supervised by one of the other instructors, I’d return for another load. 

Just her, Za Reija confirmed. 

“Shh, shhhh.” I tried to comfort Shoshi, rocking her in my arms, but she arched her back, screaming hard. 

Maybe outside? He suggested. Even his mental voice sounded tired. 

I nodded, and closed the open line. At night, the rotecionata wore soft sleepers with built-in diapers. In the morning, an adult or one of the older students would help divest them of their sleepers, then place them on a wardrobe pad in the corner of the room. Uniforms — exactly like all of the other student uniforms, except for their small size — would flow into shape around their bodies. 

But Za Kestrel was busy at the wardrobe pad with a line of littles and Shoshi was screaming so hard that joining the line seemed inadvisable. Instead, I headed straight for the door. It was not yet so cold that a few minutes in the fresh air in her sleeper would do her any harm. 

At the doorway, I almost bumped into Ella. She was yawning, her eyes only half open, her curls still tangled and sleep mussed.  

“G’morning,” she mumbled at me. “Here to help.” 

“Za Reija will be happy to see you,” I said through Shoshi’s wails. 

“Mmm.” Ella leaned into me, as if she’d fall asleep against me if I gave her the chance. 

I chuckled, adjusting Shoshi on my hip, and curving my arm around my sister. She’d never been a morning person. 

“No, no, no.” Shoshi sobbed, pushing Ella’s head away from me. 

“What’s wrong with her?” Ella straightened, opening her eyes wider. 

“I don’t know.” I patted Shoshi’s back. “Nightmare, maybe? We’re going to go for a little walk and see if some outside time helps.” 

“M’kay.” Ella moved aside to let us pass, but she frowned as she watched us go. 

When I accompanied an addie laden with littles, I used the giant dumbwaiters to reach the ground floor, but since I only had Shoshi, I took the stairs. They were hidden behind a door at the end of the hallway, but were nicely wide, suitable for the crowds of students climbing them daily. At the moment, a steady flow of roteciona was headed down them toward the breakfast room, with an occasional student moving against the flow of traffic to return to their sleeping hall for one reason or another. 

Shoshi sobbed in my ear, still inconsolable, but her cries barely penetrated the chaos of chattering voices and thudding footsteps. I returned the greetings directed my way absently, more focused on Shoshi than on my surroundings, but steered my steps toward the front of the building instead of the courtyard next to the breakfast room. It would be crowded this time of day, with students coming and going, and Shoshi needed peace. What could be distressing her so? 

“What’s wrong, sweet girl?” I murmured. “What do you need? I’m here, I’ll help you.” 

She turned her head and her eyes met mine. 

Shoshi was not the world’s prettiest child. Objectively, Tycho was far more charming, with darling round cheeks and the sweetest brown curls. Shoshi had wisps of straight black hair on a mostly bald head and pale skin that made her look sickly at the best of times. Her tears had left her eyes red and her skin blotchy, with yellow snot clogging her nose. 

None of that mattered. I loved her anyway. I’d been helping out with the littles for a solid two weeks before she smiled at me, but when she did, it was like finding the first snowdrop of spring, a tiny little miracle of Midwinter. 

“Bad,” she said to me woefully. 

“What’s bad?” I asked her as we neared the door. 

She let her head drop to the curve of my shoulder and neck. “Mama.” She whimpered, her voice so soft I could barely hear her. “Mama.” 

I stopped moving. 

No one ever spoke of the children’s parents. I still thought of my own sometimes, of course. And not always in fear of what they might do when they found us. Granted, my father was Tizai’s most fearsome sorcerer, and my mother could be both brusque and unkind to her daughters, but they were still my parents. 

Shoshi was so young, though. Could she really remember the people she’d lost? 

I started walking again. The door slid open at my approach and we stepped outside. The day was bright and clear, the air crisp on my cheeks. I thought it felt refreshing, but Shoshi disagreed. Vehemently. 

Her head lifted again, her eyes went wide, and she shrieked. “Bad! Bad!”

I was so startled, I jumped. My hold on her loosened, but I tightened my arms again before she could slip more than a bit. Then I froze and my grip turned into the vise-like bind of a drowning woman catching a far-flung rope. 

Monsters were emerging from the forest, hovering in the air across the expanse of land before us. If Ella hadn’t shown me the scene from the Swords on Lucerne, I might have thought them some strange version of a flying maintenance addie, but I recognized their bulbous eyes and protuberant spikiness. 

A rift must have opened beyond the trees. 

Domas had to have emergency procedures for such events, but no one had shared them with me. I had no idea what to do. My first instinct was the obvious: I wanted to run into the building, slamming the door behind me. But there would be children in the courtyard, lots of them, and the walls would do nothing to stop attacks from the sky. 

A great calm swept over me. Shoshi was still screaming, but the sound of my own heartbeat was so loud in my ears I could barely hear her. Without taking my eyes off the swarm of monsters, I pressed my lips against her forehead, then ordered my uniform to reshape itself into a harness. The material slid up and around her and I released my grip on her as my uniform shifted her to my back. 

Electricity or fire? Fire was my strongest talent, but always dangerous. The forest had only gotten dryer over the weeks we’d been on Domas and I’d hate to start a forest fire that could burn uncontrolled through the dry brush. 

Of course, electricity could also start a fire. But a lightning bolt might travel between the creatures, killing more than one with a single strike. I’d never had to worry about how much energy I had before — my issue was always control of my abilities, not power —  but more of the monster bugs were appearing with every passing second. It was not the time for halfway measures. Lightning would be deadlier, I decided, so lightning it was. 

I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t simply use the System to call for help. 

An excellent question. 

In retrospect, it’s certainly one I ask myself. 

But I was the product of an upbringing where “trouble” and “in trouble” were usually one and the same. When I stopped Ella from testing her flying machine, we were both confined to the schoolroom for two solid weeks. When I prevented her from swimming to the underwater caves, we weren’t allowed to go near the water for the rest of the summer. Summoning an adult was a strategy of last resort for me. 

Also, and perhaps more to the point, it simply didn’t occur to me. I spent most of my time with the rotecionata and they didn’t have the System installed, so I rarely used it for communication. 

Am I making excuses for my own stupidity? Yes, of course I am. If I’d spent a fraction of the time experimenting with the System that Ella had, I would have sent out a System-wide alert, the school would have gone into lockdown, the Shields and Swords would have appeared in mere moments to defend us, and my story… well, in point of fact, it probably would have ended exactly the same way. 

Because I shot lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the monsters and not a bloody thing happened. They continued to approach, flying over the grass in a slow glide that seemed endless. My electricity went straight through them, then fizzled out in the air with a sharp crackle and the crisp smell of stormy weather. 

It was the crackle that made me realize the monster bugs were remarkably silent. Not that I knew what a monster bug should sound like, but I was well used to the quiet hum of bees and the annoying burr of flies in the forest and gardens at home. Insects like these, huge and winged, growing ever nearer, ought to be making more noise. I ought to be able to hear them over the sound of Shoshi’s sobs. 

The fog horn alarm I’d last heard weeks ago began bellowing, ruining all possibility of hearing the monsters. But I stopped shooting electric bolts at them and focused. I would try fire, just once, on the closest bug. I stared at its iridescent eye, a bulb the size of one of the balls the older roteciona played with, and pushed with all my mental might, forcing fire energy at it. 

It should have exploded into flames. 

It didn’t. 

On my shoulder, Shoshi’s cries were softening with exhaustion. “Bad, bad, bad.” She choked out the words through her sobs. 

“Bad, yes.” I agreed with her. 

The yellow light was blinking in the corner of my vision. I accepted the communication request absently, still staring at the monsters. They’d stopped moving. 

Ella’s desperate voice sounded in my head. It’s an illusion. Don’t do anything stupid. 

It was far too late for that. 

The monsters attacked Lucerne a year ago, at the turning of the seasons. Shoshi must have seen at least the beginning of their invasion. Somehow she was rescued, but this memory had lingered in the recesses of her mind. Had she dreamed of it in the night? 

She was young for her talent to manifest, but obviously not too young. 

I told my uniform to reshape the harness holding her in place again, pulling her back to the enclosure of my arms.

Illusion was simply a reshaping of light. Most illusion casters found it vastly easier to create an image that replicated a memory, and I was no exception to that rule. But I’d seen the bugs now and I’d certainly seen enough flame in my lifetime. It was no struggle to merge the two. Taking control of the illusion was as easy as overlaying my image on top on hers. 

“Look, Shoshi.” Perhaps it was a little bloodthirsty of me to set the monsters burning. Perhaps it would have been better for her emotional well-being if I’d transformed them into flowers or butterflies or something peaceful and beautiful. But if Shoshi remembered this trauma when she was older, I hoped the utter destruction of the creatures would offer her some satisfaction. 

It was certainly satisfying for me. 

I stood there, holding Shoshi while we watched the creatures burn, until the Swords began floating down out of the sky. 

E&L – Ch 8 – Are we asleep yet?

Chapter Eight

Ella came to me in the night. 

After I recovered from having the system installed, they assigned me a room in one of the roteciona halls. Each hall held sixteen rooms, but I use the term “room” loosely. Our linen closets at home were larger than these bedrooms. They were more like pods, each containing nothing but a bed, with a storage cabinet at the head. The bed was completely enclosed, with room enough to sit up, but not to stand. Needless to say, there were no windows. When the door was shut, one could imagine that one was lying in a coffin. 

A comfortable coffin, however, one with soft cushions and blankets, and plenty of room to wiggle around and get comfortable. The System could project images on the ceiling and walls, too, which created an illusion of more space. 

I was lying awake, staring at a picture of a night sky. None of the stars were recognizable, which I tried to tell myself was simply because I’d never spent much time gazing at the stars at home. The peculiar blueish moon put the lie to that fantasy, however. I would have noticed if our moon was blue. 

I was tempted to ignore the blinking yellow light in my peripheral vision, suspecting it was another message from the System informing me that I would need to repeat the day’s lessons, having “failed to demonstrate mastery of the material.” It would not be the first time I’d received that message. But the light wouldn’t go away until I acknowledged receipt, so I sighed and did so. 

Ella’s voice sounded in my head. “I’m outside. Let me in.” 

I frowned but sat up. At my mental instruction, the door to my pod slid open and Ella scrambled through it, crawling onto the bed. I lay back down and resumed my staring at the ceiling, as the door slid closed behind her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. 

“What do you have to be sorry for?”

She lay down next to me, snuggling close. I could feel her looking at me but I didn’t change the direction of my gaze. 

“They took three children today,” she answered. “Abby was a rotecion. She was very quiet, I’m not sure you would have met her. And then Fee, he was that boy who was yelling at dinner the other night.” 

I knew the boy she was talking about. One of the bigger kids, with coppery glints in his curly hair. He’d been ranting about monsters and Za Aviv, the medico, had had to escort him from the room because he was upsetting the other children. 

“You say ‘was.’ Do you know that they killed them?” I tried to ask the question calmly, but if I hadn’t had such tight control wound around my energy, the bed linens might have started smoking. 

“You’re doing so well,” Ella answered without answering. “You’ve never gone this long at home without…”

“An incident?” I couldn’t get the bitterness out of my voice. She wasn’t wrong. My control had improved by leaps and bounds. It was astonishing how well the fear of death did as a motivator. 

“Yes.” Ella put her arm across my midsection. The weight was oddly comforting. I blinked back the tears that wanted to escape. 

“I don’t know,” she answered my previous question. “I still haven’t been able to find out what happens after the Swords take them.” 

She hesitated. 

I’m not sure how I knew it was a hesitation, not simply a pause. Maybe something about the way she was breathing? It felt like she was holding her breath, holding back something she wanted to say. 

“What is it?” 

Her arm tightened. “When I progress out of rotecion and become a contributing citizen, I’ll get access to the information, I think. But…”

I waited. I didn’t know whether I wanted to know what she didn’t want to tell me. Today had already been a horrible day. Was she going to make it worse? 

“Za Kestrel gave me information today,” she finally continued. “On my options once I become a contributing citizen.” 

I blinked. “Options?” 

Ella released a shaky breath. “Other schools, mostly. Learning tracks. I’m still behind on the science lessons. There’s so much to learn. But the science needed to pass out of rotecion is rudimentary, really. Most of the interesting classes come after you’re a contributing citizen; rotecion is just the basics. The math is nothing I haven’t done already, and I really like the language classes. Za Kestrel thinks most of the children at Domas will take the agriculture track, and I don’t think I want that, but there’s a diplomacy track she thought I might be interested in that looks fascinating. Languages and political science and history and economics — it’s a mix of lots of subjects, all of which I’d love to study.” 

She’d been getting more enthusiastic as she spoke, but her hand clenched into a fist on my blankets, and her voice was softer as she finished, “It’s at a school in Corbu.” 

“Corbu?” 

“The capital of Dalais. On the coast, about six hundred kilometers away.” 

Six hundred kilometers? 

My bed did not burst into flames. 

But a jagged bolt of blue lightning snapped free from my hands and darted around the walls of the pod, before disappearing into a square on the wall. 

“Oops,” I said. 

Ella’s arm had clamped down on my midsection as if I were a rock and she a limpet with the tide coming in, but now she relaxed. “Electricity? You never used to have a problem controlling that one.” 

I suspected it was because I’d used the ability earlier in the day, but I wasn’t going to tell Ella that. She didn’t need to know I’d been torturing small children. 

“A shock for a shock, perhaps.” I sniffed. The air had an odd smell, not the typical smoke smell to which I was accustomed, but an unusual and vaguely unpleasant, almost chemical odor. 

The door to the pod slid open. 

“Did you do that?” I asked Ella. 

“No.” She wiggled down to the end of the bed and stuck her head out the door. “All the doors have opened. I should get out of here before someone comes.” She looked back over her shoulder at me, biting her lip. “Or maybe I should stay. If they know someone’s used a talent…” 

“Go,” I ordered her. “Quickly.” I forebore to point out that I was still a roteciona and if they suspected me of anything, they could just look through my eyes and see what I was seeing, but I squeezed my eyes closed, just in case. I would let them see nothing but the blackness of my inner eyelids. 

“I’ll talk to you in the morning.” 

I heard a rustling, felt the bed compressing, and then Ella was gone. I lay still, eyes closed tight, waiting for what would happen next. It took so long that I was half-asleep by the time I heard voices murmuring in the hall. 

“…surge protection…” 

“If there was a storm, perhaps…”

“…a flaw in the electrical system…”

One of the voices belonged to Za Rhea, who oversaw the addies in change of building maintenance. I had never once seen her without a little in a pack on her back, and was half tempted to glance out and see if she was carrying one now. 

The other was Za Qintha. 

The sound of Za Qintha’s voice did something peculiar to my muscles. Everyone at Domas — and I did mean everyone, from the most senior staff to the smallest little — adored Za Qintha. She was gentle and soft-spoken, perceptive and endlessly kind. When she spoke to the children, she always did so on their level, crouching so she didn’t loom above them. She noticed everything — a tear-stained face, a scraped knee, a lost look in the eyes — and always had a thoughtful word to say. 

But she’d given Cam to the Swords. 

And I rather hated her now. 

My body was so tense it hurt. It took everything I had not to simply let go and hurl myself at her, or rather hurl my energy at her. I tried to breathe shallowly, silently, while I held myself still. 

If I revealed myself, I would endanger Ella. She had opportunities here, possibilities for her future that she would never have had at home. She’d lose those if they discovered her talents through mine. 

And they would, because if they tried to take me, Ella would use the full force of her Persuasion to try to stop them, and then we’d both be doomed. Persuasion might work on human beings but it wouldn’t work on the System and anyone observing us through the System. 

I had to keep my sister safe, which meant not using my talents. Not attacking Za Qintha, not defending Cam, not doing anything that would make us noticed. 

Pretending to be asleep had never been so hard. 

The voices moved past, down the hall, and finally I relaxed. My body hurt from the tension and I felt cold and clammy, but eventually exhaustion drew me deep into real sleep. 

The next several days passed without excitement. The most interesting thing that happened was that Za Kestrel questioned me about my rather lamentably high failure rate on my lessons, and I learned for the first time that a spinning circle in the corner of the lesson review was a timer. 

It had never occurred to me that speed of completion would be a measure of learning — the concept seemed quite ridiculous, in fact — and I had been doing the lesson reviews in bit and pieces, in the spare moments between caring for littles. Once I began completing the reviews in one fell swoop, my success rate shot up and I began progressing through the lessons at a more reasonable rate. 

The maths were by far the easiest, of course. Basic computation did not change from one world to the next; two plus two still equaled four, and so did two multiplied by two. The courses requiring written language became easier the more I became comfortable with the language, which in turn got easier as lessons offered new material. 

I didn’t start loving the classes the way Ella did, but some of them were quite interesting. Unlike our world, which included many different nations with their own languages, beliefs, and systems, Salazie had a single over-arching government, and it was most peculiar. All contributing citizens had a right to offer their opinions. Every day, they were asked to respond to a question that would guide the government’s actions. In the roteciona lessons, the questions were presented as simple matters of resource allocation: should the government invest in a museum or a sports complex? In medical research or agricultural research? 

 I had no idea how that system could work. To me, it seemed like a remarkably stupid way of managing complex matters. Why in the world would my opinion, assuming I someday managed to progress from roteciona to contributing citizen, be useful when considering subjects about which I knew nothing? How could people possibly make these decisions unless they spent all their time researching the details of the questions? 

I also wanted to know who decided which questions were asked and when. It seemed to me that the power behind the throne, albeit not a literal throne, would lie in the ability to frame and schedule the questions. This detail was not included in the roteciona lessons. Needless to say, the lessons were rather more idealistic than I was. 

But it made me wonder whether the contributing citizens of Salazie had declined to invest in Domas. It was not that the facilities were inadequate: every child was clothed, fed, and educated, with a safe place to sleep, and a roof over their head that didn’t leak when it rained. That was far more than could be said for every child of Tizai. But the food was always those crumbly squares; each student had only a single uniform; we were stacked together in the sleeping halls like logs piled for the winter fires; and there were not nearly enough adults to meet the needs of the youngest littles. Whoever determined the funding for Domas was not over-generous. 

On the other hand, if two strange girls had appeared in Tizai, not knowing the language, friendless and alone, their fates would likely have been far grimmer than mine and Ella’s at Domas. I was hardly in a position to criticize the people of Salazie, particularly not with the adults suggesting new opportunities to Ella at every turn. 

Za Aviv was encouraging her to join the medical profession, providing her with the equivalent of letters of introduction to senior professors, “just to chat.” Za Rhea had suggested she might like to explore addie development. Za Pezival, who helped the rotecionio and rotecion with their classes, was piling her with supplementary materials to help her prepare for the diplomacy track in Corbu. 

And Za Qintha, with a delicacy I found annoyingly considerate, had suggested she might want to pursue independent studies at Domas until I was ready to progress out of rotecion myself. 

I really did hate Za Qintha. 

Of course, I wanted Ella to stay with me at Domas. She was the only vestige of home I had in this strange world. She was comfort, companion, confidante — the only person I could trust, my safety in an uncertain storm. 

But I was not her safety. 

Indeed, far from it. We had been at Domas almost two months and the fact that my talents had not been discovered already was nothing short of a miracle. It was clear that talents were uncommon in Dalais, because I should have been caught a dozen times or more. I’d done a superior job of keeping my Fire talent hidden — far better than I would ever have imagined possible when sitting at home in our schoolroom — but I couldn’t say the same about my less dangerous talents. I was trying to be careful, truly I was, but levitation, telekinesis and speed were so very useful when helping with littles.

But in the end, it was none of those that did me in. 

E&L – Ch7 – Technology or magic?

Chapter Seven 

Separating reality from the System was not nearly as easy as one would expect. My eyes had become liars. At any moment, some portion of my vision existed to no one but me. I would call it the very definition of insanity, were it not that every person on Salazie was having the same experience and took it much for granted. 

Tiny dots appearing in your peripheral vision meant information awaiting your leisure. A wish for access granted a display of tiny images floating before you, each of which contained its own abilities and data. Queries brought answers, either via the voice speaking only in your mind, or in moving pictures like the one Ella had shown me, overlaid on reality but slightly transparent unless you chose to direct your gaze to a wall or blank surface. 

I hated it for the first few days, grudgingly accepted it for a few more, and then forgot about it as thoroughly as any other Salazie resident. I was much too busy to worry about anything as trivial as a machine in my brain talking to me. 

At home, I had no experience with children. It wasn’t cultural: any ordinary child in a town or with younger siblings might have been supervising the littler ones from the time he or she was old enough to be deemed responsible. But Ella and I weren’t ordinary. We lived mostly isolated, and had no regular encounters with children younger than ourselves. Plus, of course, no one would ever expect a young Fire talent to be responsible for anyone who might be vulnerable to accidental burns. 

But on Salazie, I wasn’t a young Fire talent or even a deWinterhoffe. I was just a girl with two hands, two arms, legs long enough to outrun a toddler, and a perceived ability to judge the wisdom of smearing your breakfast into your hair. 

Not wise, in my opinion. 

But Tycho, the unrepentant little in question, responded to my exasperated sigh with his usual sunshine smile. He thrust his messy hands into the air and demanded, “Up. Up, up, Lee-lee-lee-lee.” 

I pointed at those hands. “Dirty.” 

He clapped them together, scattering more of his crumbled vito onto his head. “Up!” 

The little already resting on my left hip, Shoshi, clung tighter. “My Lee-lee,” she whispered, before giving a sleepy yawn and rubbing her face against my shoulder.

I rested a hand on her back. “Two arms,” I reminded her. Two arms, a back, and occasionally a front, in fact. 

Of the four hundred children at Domas, three hundred or so were between the ages of four and ten. Roughly another forty were between ten and fourteen, and the remaining sixty were infants and toddlers. Under any circumstances, twenty adults would have been hard-pressed to meet the needs of so many children. It was only possible at Domas because of the capabilities of the Salaziean magic. 

Well, they called it technology, but it seemed like magic to me. 

No one had to cook, because food emerged from a box in the wall. Little machines called “autonomous devices” or “addies” maintained the grounds and did most of the housekeeping. The machines in our heads provided students with individualized educational programs and supervised and tracked our learning, testing, and achievement. The System also alerted the appropriate adult if a child left the grounds or a heart began racing or a temperature rose. 

There were still not nearly enough arms to go around. It was rare to see an adult without a child or three in tow. Fortunately, our uniforms — the strange jumpsuits — were willing to rearrange themselves to form handy carrying harnesses. I was a little proud of myself for not even jumping the first time my clothing reshaped itself, but once you’ve been startled by magic furniture, magic clothing is practically ho-hum. Of course, Ella claimed it wasn’t magic but more technology, but I was quite sure that was just a translation issue.

I admit, I also made life easier on myself by using a bit of deftly applied levitation to lighten the load. Otherwise I would have ended every day exhausted and sore from the exertion of lugging multiple littles around all day. One wasn’t so bad, but all of them wanted to be held and carried, and I found them hard to resist. 

“Up, up,” Tycho demanded again. He banged a hand on the table. We were among the last people left in the large breakfast room. Most of the children had already moved on to their classrooms or playtimes. 

“Clean, clean,” I mimicked him. An addie trundled over to the table and up the side of it, pausing next to Tycho’s plate. Its top slid open and a tray rose into the air, a damp cloth resting atop it. 

Tycho’s face screwed up. Before he could let loose with the inevitable wail, I snatched up the cloth and swiped it over his face, then scrubbed it over his short curls. He screamed and I ignored him  — it was an already familiar routine — but Za Reija, at the next table over, turned to check on us. 

He took in the scene with a quick glance, but before he could do more than open his mouth, I handed Tycho the cloth and said, “You do hands, then up.” 

Independence was strongly encouraged: a necessary goal, I supposed, with so many children. Still, I personally didn’t want to stand around waiting for the ten minutes it would take Tycho to get over his loathing of cleanliness and make an attempt to wash his face and hair himself. 

Za Reija’s lips curved and he walked over to us anyway. 

“Thank you for your help, Lila.” He said the same thing every morning, and it always sounded absolutely sincere. 

“My pleasure,” I said carefully. I bobbled Shoshi a little. Her head was drooping, tilting down my chest. 

“How are your lessons coming?” Za Reija asked.

I restrained my sigh. 

“Your sister’s doing incredibly well,” Za Reija continued. “Za Kestrel believes she’s going to be our first student to progress out of rotecion.” 

‘Rotecion’ was another word that the machine in my head struggled to translate to Tizaian. It didn’t mean childhood or supervision, but it meant something like both those things. Variations of the word referred to different states of being. 

The babies and toddlers were rotecionata, the most protected. Eventually, for reasons not as obvious as the turning of the year, the System would declare them roteciona. They’d enter the medical tank, inhale a dose of nannies, and have the System integrated into their brains. Then their formal education would commence, including basic instruction in the subjects the System deemed important. 

As the roteciona demonstrated required proficiencies, they became roteciono, and then rotecion. Progressing out of rotecion meant being declared a contributing citizen of Dalais. Contributing citizens could choose to continue their education, leading to further ranks, including that of full citizen, and then something known as demorsay. 

Za Qintha, the woman to whom Ella had curtsied at our first encounter, was demorsay. Demorsay did not mean royalty. It was not a hereditary position, and Za Qintha was not a queen. It was a rank that was earned. But Ella hadn’t been wrong: very few people on Salazie became demorsay, and Za Qintha was treated with the kind of deference and awe reserved for royalty in Tizai. 

I was currently a roteciona, along with most of the children aged six to ten and a few of the adolescents. 

I was not particularly happy about this. 

For one thing, roteciona had no right to privacy. At any time, their caregivers could monitor them by choosing to see out of their eyes. Indeed, a caregiver could also set the System to record, and everything the roteciona did would be logged for future review. 

I found that idea truly horrifying. If our mother could have seen out of my eyes when I was a child, I would have spent my entire life locked in our schoolroom or my bedroom. But on Salazie, the concept of “when no one is looking” was non-existent — someone could always be looking, and through my very own eyes. It was not a relaxing thought, especially given how imperative it was that I hide my talents. 

Also, though, I was apparently quite stupid. 

This was previously unbeknownst to me. While Ella was flying ahead in her coursework, I was struggling to pass the earliest set of lessons. The alphabet was different from that of Tizai and while the System interpreted spoken words for us, it did not translate the written language. Ella’s Truesight helped her understand what she looking at, but I was learning to spell the equivalent of “cat” and “dog,” while Ella was studying history and biology and the Dalasian literary classics. 

I was not jealous. 

Truly, I wasn’t. Annoyed at my own stupidity, yes. But at any given moment in time, Ella’s eyes were glazed over, her lips moving slightly, as she studied the images inside her own head. I much preferred seeing Tycho’s smile or singing a lullaby to Shoshi or listening to the earnest chatter of Cam, one of my other particular favorites. 

All of my life, people had treated me with a certain wariness that came from both my talents and my heritage as the child of my parents. But the rotecionata had no idea of either, nor would they care if they did. They just wanted attention, interaction, and love, all of which I was only too happy to give them.

Za Reija was still waiting for my answer, however. 

“Ella very good,” I said, feeling like an idiot. I could understand Dalasian perfectly well because of the System, but I still spoke like a rotecionata myself. 

“We appreciate your help, very much,” Za Reija continued. “You’re wonderful with the children. But it’s important you don’t shortchange yourself. Your needs matter, too. If you need some private time to get your studying done, that can be arranged. I know the classroom experience might feel a little awkward.” 

I refrained from snorting. I was a solid half meter taller than the average child in the group setting for my skill level. Awkward was one word for it. 

Za Reija was trying to look me in the eye, his gaze earnest, but I kept my own eyes on Tycho, who was swinging the cloth around as if it were a toy flying machine instead of a napkin. 

“Here, let me take Shoshi,” Za Reija said, apparently giving up on his academic encouragement for the moment. “She must be getting heavy. I’ll get an addie to put her down for a nap.” 

Before I could respond, he was lifting her off my hip. Swiftly, I released the bit of levitation energy I’d been using to support her.  

It wasn’t swiftly enough. 

Za Reija blinked in puzzled surprise as her body went from light to heavy in his arms. 

Oh, bother. 

I needed a distraction, and quickly. Illusion? No, that wouldn’t help. 

With a silent but profuse apology to Shoshi, I shot a tiny dart of electricity into her leg. Her body arched in shock, the jolt of pain awakening her immediately. She shrieked, as loudly as if I’d just stabbed her through the heart, and then began sobbing. 

I reached for her, apologies spilling off my lips. 

I’d just hurt a baby to protect my own secrets. What kind of monster was I? Fortunately, I was speaking Tizaian, which meant no one could understand my apologies. 

Za Reija’s puzzled look didn’t entirely disappear, but the distraction was effective in that he couldn’t ask uncomfortable questions over the sound of Shoshi’s screams. He drew her close, patting her back, and murmuring the kinds of things one says to crying littles. 

Tycho dropped the cloth. His eyes started to fill and his lower lip slid out. “Baby cry,” he announced. He drew in a shaky breath, but before he could start wailing in sympathy, I scooped him out of his seat. His hands were still sticky, but I ignored them. I’d wipe the traces of food off of both of us later. 

“Tycho not cry,” I said firmly. 

As quickly as that, his incipient storm was over, but Shoshi’s storm continued unabated. 

“I take?” I said to Za Reija, shifting Tycho to my right hip and drawing the nannie material of my uniform into a harness for him. I held out my empty arm. 

“I must have startled her.” His frown was worried, but he passed Shoshi back to me. 

“Shush, shush, shush,” I crooned to her, gently bouncing her. “Shush, shush, Shoshi, sweet girl. Sorry, sweet girl, so sorry.” I was half-humming, half-singing the words, and avoiding Za Reija’s eyes. 

I shot him a sideways glance, but he was looking beyond me now, his frown deepening. I followed his gaze.

Two black-clad Swords were standing in the doorway with Za Qintha. 

I felt a flush of heat, then a flush of cold, and my heart began racing. One of the Swords was the young man from the forest. His eyes skimmed the room, moving over the scattering of children and came to rest on me. They narrowed. 

I should probably have looked away from him, but I felt frozen. They couldn’t be here for me. Za Reija might have noticed me using levitation but he would hardly have had time to summon the Swords. Although that wasn’t actually true. With the System, he could have sent an alert the moment his suspicions were aroused. I might have shocked Shoshi for nothing. The Swords might already be here to take me away. 

Za Reija left us and crossed to the doorway. 

Shoshi’s crying was subsiding, but she was thoroughly awake now and clearly feeling cranky. She batted at Tycho’s arm. “Go ‘way. My Lee-lee.”

“My Lee-lee,” Tycho replied indignantly, shoving her hand away. 

In some other time and place, I might have found it charming to have children fighting over my attention. Here at Domas, such behavior was strongly discouraged. The adults couldn’t afford to have the rotecionata become possessive of their time. But instead of putting the littles down, as I should have, I held them both closer. 

“My Shoshi,” I said, dropping a kiss on her forehead. “And my Tycho,” I added, dropping a kiss on his forehead, too. 

I wasn’t going to look at the Swords again. If they were here to take me away… well, what could I do? I could hardly fight them, not in a room filled with littles. I could illusion-cast and turn myself something akin to invisible, but I couldn’t hide inside Domas indefinitely. If Za Qintha was turning me over to the Swords, I was already doomed. 

“We meet again.” 

I didn’t jump, but I squeezed the littles so hard that Tycho yelped in complaint while Shoshi flung her arms around my neck and buried her face against my shoulder. 

The Sword from the forest had walked across the room to me. I looked up into his eyes. He was as beautiful up close as he had seemed before — taller than me by several inches, with warm golden-brown skin, dark eyes framed with much darker lashes, and pronounced cheekbones. Really, he was absolutely the prettiest boy I’d ever seen. 

I hoped he wasn’t planning to kill me. 

“I’m Rye,” he continued. 

Rye? As in the grain? Or was he saying ‘wry,’ and telling me his state of mind? 

My confusion must have shown, because the corners of his (well-shaped, rather perfect, quite lovely) mouth lifted in a twitch too slight to be called a smile, not sly enough to be a smirk, but a definite indicator of amusement. 

“And your name?” 

I swallowed. My mouth was far too dry to speak. 

My mother would have been appalled at my lack of manners. I could almost hear her scolding me now. “Delilah Raphaella Lucretia de Veryaz de Winterhoffe, an introduction is the most basic of courtesies. Were you paying no attention at all during your etiquette instruction? Were you simply wasting the time of your tutors?” 

Fortunately, before I could open my mouth and reveal my full name — needless to say, not the one that anyone at Domas knew me by — Tycho answered for me. 

“Lee-lee. Dis Lee-lee-lee-lee-lee-leeeee. Me Tycho.” He leaned forward off my hip, extending his arms peremptorily toward the Sword. “Up.” 

This time the curve of his lips, though still not what one would call wide, was definitely a smile. “Afraid not, kiddo. We’re just here for a pick-up.” He looked over his shoulder and the curve flattened again. 

When he looked back, he was definitely not smiling. 

“Time to go. But it was nice to meet you, Tycho. And you, Lee-lee-lee-lee… “ His face was still somber, but his eyes were laughing as he said politely. “Were there a few more in there?” 

“Lila,” I said, feeling as out of breath as if I’d just been running through the forest again. “It’s Lila.” 

“Good to see you again, Lila.” He dipped his head and turned away. 

I watched him go. There seemed to be a shortage of oxygen in the room, as if he’d sucked all of it away with him and I was quite sure that if the medical team was paying attention, an alert might get called on my heartbeat at any moment. 

He’d come over to me to introduce himself. Just that. No threats, no danger, no killing, just an introduction. He was polite and had a sense of humor and was so, so beautiful.

Really, it was a good thing I was wearing a Dalaisian jumpsuit, because if I’d met him while in formal attire for a Tizaian ball — the kind of gorgeous layered dress I’d never gotten to wear, being deemed too dangerous to have a social season — I would absolutely have swooned. Those things were dazzling, but difficult to breathe in at the best of times. 

Still, I wished I was wearing clothing more flattering than the jumpsuit. And — I glanced down at myself to confirm my suspicions — yes, it would also have been nice if I hadn’t had Tycho’s vito smeared across my chest. 

His name was Rye. That name rang some bell of familiarity deep inside my head. Had I heard it before? Over the past few weeks, I’d met literally hundreds of children and most of their names blended together in my memory. Perhaps one of them shared his name? 

I stole another peek in his direction, but the sight in the doorway brought an end to my internal speculations. The other Sword, a somewhat older man who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was speaking to Za Qintha and Za Reija. But he had taken Cam by the hand. 

Cam was a rotecionata, but he was older than Shoshi and Tycho. I had no idea how to judge children’s ages — I truly hadn’t had much exposure to them in my previous life — but he seemed to me to be elongating out of true little status. His legs were longer, his cheeks slimmer than those of the others. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was almost old enough to become a roteciona. 

I found him a most delightful human being. His conversation was endless, and yet highly entertaining. He was curious about everything and loved to tell me things he’d learned. His fascination with plumbing verged on obsessive, but he had an earnest sweetness about him that was beyond charming. 

What was he doing with the Swords? 

What were the Swords doing with him? 

Za Reija rested a hand on Cam’s head for a moment. Za Qintha knelt next to him and spoke to him, words I couldn’t hear. When she stood, the Swords turned and led Cam away. 

The feeling of not being able to breathe was back, but this time it wasn’t a good feeling. It was matched by a sick churning in my stomach. 

Za Reija was returning to the children, his expression grim. 

“What — where is Cam going?” I asked, my voice higher-pitched than usual. Maybe Shoshi heard the stress in it, because she started to fuss again. 

Za Reija’s lips tightened. “Last night, the System recorded Cam levitating in his sleep. He goes to the Swords now.” He shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Such a waste,” before heaving a sigh. “Well, what can we do?” 

The question was rhetorical for he didn’t wait for an answer before turning back to the last littles left at the table and beginning to help them down. 

Not that I had an answer to give him. Argue? Fight? Scream and yell and resist with as much noise as we could bring to bear? 

A strange trembling deep in my chest might have been fear, or grief, or even fury, but all I could do was stand motionless, holding Shoshi and Tycho, and do my best to suffocate the flames that wanted to burst forth from the deepest part of my soul. 

E&L – Ch6 – Trapped

Chapter Six

Trapped was not a pleasant word. 

I stared at Ella. She met my eyes, but her lips quivered until she pressed them together. 

Finally I said, “If they know how to close a rift, do they know how to open one?” 

Ella’s eyes widened, then glazed over, unfocused as if she was looking at something I couldn’t see. 

“Ella?” 

“Give me a moment.” 

I waited. A moment passed. And then another. 

“Ella?” 

“Uh-huh.” Her eyes did not regain their focus. 

I started counting. I was going to give her thirty more seconds before I poked her, hard. Probably in the stomach, and possibly not so hard that it would hurt, but not gently either. 

But before I reached thirty, she sighed and shook herself back into awareness. “Maybe? I’m getting the access denied message, no matter how I try to phrase the question.” 

I did poke her. Hard. 

She yelped and jumped back from me. “What was that for?” 

“For being annoying. What are you talking about?” 

Ella clapped her hands together and held them before her, fingers folded as if in prayer. “Lila, it’s so wonderful. It’s so —“ She stopped as if overcome by emotion, words not sufficient to express her feelings.  Then she opened her arms wide, leaped forward, and flung them around me.

“Oof!” I gasped. 

“But I’m so glad you didn’t die. So, so, so glad. I can’t even tell you how glad I am. I’m just —“ She squeezed, her head on my shoulder, her arms tight around my own body and arms. “— So glad.” 

“Can’t breathe.” I gasped, through the quantity of dark curls covering my mouth and nose. 

She squeezed even harder for a second, then let go. 

“Sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “But I’ve been so worried. I love the System, I do, it’s the most wonderful thing ever — like a library, in your head, all the time — but it wouldn’t have been worth losing you. Really. And not just because Mother and Father would have been so angry at me when they found out. I mean that would have been bad. Really bad. I wouldn’t have liked that at all. Well, no one would, although I’m not sure they ever would find out. I mean I don’t know how they could know that we’re here. But—“ 

“Ella, stop.” I broke into her stream of babble. She always talked too much when she was nervous. “What were you doing just now and what is this System you keep talking about?” 

I will spare you Ella’s meandering explanations. The short version, if such an explanation can ever be short, is that the nannies Ella mentioned previously had built machines inside our bodies. 

These devices generated the visual artifacts I’d already noticed, allowing one to control elements of our surroundings; the doors, windows, lights, and so on. Those empty classrooms we’d walked by weren’t empty at all. The students within them were surrounded by vibrant displays invisible to people without System access. Their school books, their chalk boards, all the tools of learning, were created by the System. 

The System contained vast quantities of information, plus entertainments unlike anything we’d ever seen or experienced. It was also a tool for communicating with others; an artificial telepathy machine, if you will. Plus it could record everything you saw or heard, monitor your health, map your location, maintain your schedule, and much, much more.  

In truth, it was a miraculous device. 

Ella adored it, of course. An entire library stored in her head? It was her idea of paradise. 

I found the idea profoundly disturbing. Having machines — even tiny machines, invisible to the eye — inserted into my brain without my permission offended me. 

But no one had asked me and it was much too late to complain. I had been unconscious for six whole days while the nannies did their work. (Or their damage, depending on how you looked at it.) 

“Six days?” I said in disbelief when Ella told me that. No wonder I’d wobbled when I stood up. I’d never been sick for so long before. 

Ella nodded. “I was sick, too, for the first few days, but nothing like you. Za Kestrel and Za Aviv swore you would be all right, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe them. I could See that they thought they were telling me the truth, but…” She shrugged. 

Six days. The thought was appalling. When had our family realized we were missing? The servants would have noticed we were gone when we skipped dinner. Most likely, they would have waited to inform our mother until her return from the Grovers. Would she have sent for our father immediately? Even if she waited until after they’d searched and failed to find us, by now he would certainly know we had disappeared. 

But that was what we’d wanted. Or at least what we’d committed to when we entered this world. The sick feeling in my stomach had nothing to do with the nannies and everything to do with the thought of home, but I swallowed hard and pushed the feeling away. 

If we were trapped here, we would simply have to make the best of it. 

Perhaps the danger would enable me to gain the control over my magic that mere societal disapprobation and genteel punishments had never been sufficient to ensure. 

One could hope, anyway. 

During the six days in which I had been unconscious, Ella had been being typically Ella. Dimples, curls, and curves were potent social weapons when properly utilized. Add her Truesight and Persuasion to the mix and a stone wall would have trouble resisting Ella’s charm, much less the type of people running a school for refugee children. She’d made many friends, and had already gained a position of trust with the senior staff. 

Although that, as she pointed out to me, might have been due at least in part to the shortage of adults. The school contained four hundred children — four hundred and two, if Ella and I were included in the count — with a mere twenty adults to both manage them and meet their needs. The staff was, to put it charitably, overwhelmed. Extra hands were more than welcome.

 The situation was thus: the school was named Domas, which was a term laden with untranslatable nuances. Something like “safe haven for unfortunate souls,” perhaps, or “sanctuary for those lost in a storm.” Nothing so simple as “orphanage” or “boarding school,” although those were implied as well. 

It was located near a town named Verdun, in the country of Dalais, on a world named Salazie. But the children at the school came from another world, Lucerne. 

Unlike our world, where rifts were almost unknown, Salazie and its neighboring worlds were plagued by them. And, as had been apparent by the prompt response of the Swords to our arrival, not everything that came through the rifts was as harmless as Ella and I were. 

Lucerne had been invaded by monsters. The children at Domas were the survivors. They ranged in age from barely out of infancy to slightly younger than Ella but the majority were young, six or seven or so  — small enough to hide in cupboards and closets when the attacks began, old enough to run when they had a chance to escape. 

“Some of their stories…” Ella shivered. “Monster tales as scary as any our nurses ever told.”

“But more truthful?” I asked. It was not that I doubted the existence of monsters, but I knew how stories spread and grew along the way. At least half the tales about our father seemed highly implausible to me. Perhaps not entirely wrong, but even he acknowledged that the tidal wave he’d summoned during the siege of the island city of Mazlair had been only a few feet high, nowhere near enough to demolish the city’s well-built structures. Of course, the saltwater had contaminated their fresh water sources, which did devastate the city, forcing their complete surrender, but not as the stories would have it. 

Ella stared into space for a moment, then said, “Do you see a yellow dot in your peripheral vision?” 

I looked and I did. 

“Touch it.” 

I reached for it, hand lifting. 

“Not like that. Just think it.” 

My eyes narrowed as I tried to understand what Ella meant, but I let my hand drop and imagined myself touching the dot. A quiet voice inside my head said, Transmission from Ella Smith.

“Smith?” I said aloud. 

“An alias,” Ella replied, as if it should be obvious. And it was, of course. Not using our real name was a sensible precaution, in case our parents managed to reach this world while searching for us. 

“But Smith?” It was so mundane.

“I was on the spot. It was the first name that came to mind. It’s not important.“ Ella shook her head impatiently. “Just watch.” 

“How?” I asked the question, but the voice in my head was already responding to my intention, saying, Displaying transmission. 

Suddenly my eyes were no longer my own. I squeaked and grabbed for the nearest object, which happened to be Ella’s arm. The room around us hadn’t disappeared. I could still see the walls and the window, but they were overlaid with an entirely different reality: a dirt road, mid-winter, with barren fields on either side bordered by low hedgerows and shrubs with glossy, deep green leaves. The road was rutted, barely wide enough for two farm carts to pass. 

“Heads up,” a male voice sounded, so close it was almost as if came from my own throat.  I glanced down, but my view of the other world moved with me, the dirt road now running down my chest and torso. 

“Hot zone ahead, Rye,” a female voice replied calmly. “I’m reading red.” 

I wanted to look in the direction of the voice and see who was speaking, but I had no control over the sights I was seeing. 

“This is a major incursion,” a third voice said, this one from behind me. I couldn’t tell from the pitch whether it was male or female, but a tightness in the timbre sounded like stress. 

“Ahead and to the left, about a hundred meters, I’m getting a small patch of idezee.” The voice kept talking, but the words were nonsense to me, and Ella was speaking over it. 

“It’s easiest if you look at the wall, somewhere blank and open. You’re watching a recording made by a Sword on Lucerne. It gets… unpleasant.” 

“A what-ing?” I asked, but I was distracted by the images. They were moving now, as if I were moving, rapidly hurrying down the dirt road. I’d never seen anything like it.

I’d also never seen anything like the sight before us as the movement slowed. My eyes tried to make sense of it. The square brown shape, that had to be a farm cart. But where there should have been a horse, or at least a pony, between the traces, there was… a thing. It huddled low on the ground, and was lumpy, brown and mottled, with weird bulbous protuberances on the top and sides. 

“What is that?” The voice came from one of the invisible speakers, but I wanted to know the answer, too. And then abruptly the strange shapes shifted into meaning in my brain, and I gasped. 

It wasn’t one thing, but two. The bottom brown lump had once been a horse, but now it was a desiccated shell, crumpled in on itself. The mottled lump on top of it was an insect, with a segmented body and globular eyes like a wasp. Or perhaps a more appropriate description would be insectoid-like creature, as it was vastly larger than any insect I’d ever seen. 

“Stop, stop!” I heard Ella’s words underneath the almost incomprehensible speech of the invisible speakers, but I was too distracted to pay attention to her. The speakers’ words were still doing that strange thing in my head where meaning was assigned to them, even though the words themselves were unfamiliar, but it didn’t help: I had no idea what they were talking about. 

“Jase, take my six.” 

“Position green, Brie. Harmony, your read?” 

“Idezee nine point nine. This is fresh.”

The creature was moving, rising into the air. It pulled a serrated proboscis as large as a broadsword free from the dead horse, dripping red liquid as it hovered. 

I flexed my fingers. Where did insects hide their hearts? Did insects have hearts? 

Slap. The sound of Ella hitting my face broke my concentration a split second before the sting in my cheek would have done the same. 

“Ow!” I glared at her. 

She grabbed my wrist and yanked my hand into my line of sight. Tendrils of flame were crawling along my skin. “Tell the System to stop playing the transmission.” 

I repeated her words obediently and the world overlaid on the room disappeared. 

“You hadn’t even gotten to the awful part yet.” She shook my arm, sending the flames flickering. “You have to be more careful.” 

“It felt so real.” I closed my fists, suppressing my fire. 

“It was real, to the Sword whose eyes you were seeing through. The System records their missions and sometimes, if it’s in the public interest, they’re shared. Children don’t have access to recordings like that, but Za Kestrel let me see this one because many of the children here at Domas came from that incident.” 

“Incident? The bug?” 

“More than one. There was a swarm of them. Hundreds. They sting their prey and their poison liquifies the prey’s insides. Then they suck it out and eat it.” Ella shuddered. 

I stared at her. She seemed to be telling the truth, but it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever heard. 

“And they did this to people? The children’s parents?” 

Ella nodded. 

Not just disgusting, horrifying. 

“Ella…” I started. Our world was far from perfect, but there were no monster bugs liquifying people’s innards on it. Surely we could find a way back there. 

“Those creatures aren’t here,” she said hastily. “And the Shields and Swords protect this world. We’re in no danger. Well…” She let go of my arm, eyeing my hand. “Not from monsters, anyway.” 

They would think I was the monster, I feared. 

I put my chin up. “I will do better. It was just so real.” 

Ella’s mischievous grin flickered. “Wait until you play some of their games. Amazing! But you might not want to try any quite yet, not until you’re sure you can separate reality from the System.” 

E&L – Ch5

Chapter Five 

I woke slowly, reluctantly. I wanted to roll over on my side and burrow into the blankets for a few more moments of peace, but something tugged at my arm when I tried. I mumbled a protest. 

“Lila?” Ella’s voice sounded breathy, cautious. And most unlike her. As you may have gathered by now, my sister was not a cautious sort of person. 

I opened my eyes, blinking against the light. It was so bright that I tried to raise my arm to cover them, but was again stymied by something holding it in place. I would have complained, but my mouth was miserably dry and my throat hurt. 

Was I sick? But I was never sick. 

Slowly the memories began to return and despite the light, my eyes flew open. 

I was lying in a narrow, tube-like structure with sides that curved up and partway around me. My left arm was restrained by bands of some soft material holding it against the side of the structure, with a wide tube entering the vein near my elbow. 

“Lila?” Ella repeated, sounding more certain of herself. “Are you finally awake? They promised you were getting better and would awaken soon.”

I turned my head in her direction. 

“Of course, they said that yesterday, too,” Ella continued, voice disgruntled. “And I’ve been sitting here for hours, waiting and waiting.” 

My eyes met hers. She smiled at me. She looked her usual self, her flyaway dark curls in need of brushing, dimples peeking out of her golden cheeks with her smile, but her eyes were uncertain. 

“What happened?” My voice rasped in my throat, the words husky. “Where am I?” 

“In a machine.” Ella glanced over her shoulder, then leaned closer. “I’ve learned so much, Lila. This world is so different. They have the most amazing machines.” 

A machine? The surface underneath me was soft and cushioned. It felt like a bed. But I supposed it did look more like a machine than any bed I’d ever seen. Still, I’d meant rather more by my question.

“Where are we, then?” I tried again, but it hurt to talk. My mouth felt horrible, dry and nasty-tasting. I ran my tongue around my teeth, trying to work up some saliva. 

“It’s a healing room. We were right, this place is a school. But it’s a school for refugee children. Refugees from another world. It’s perfect for us. Well, sort of perfect. I mean… well…” Ella wrinkled her nose. “A few minor problems, perhaps, but mostly perfect.” 

I let my eyes flutter closed. Somehow I suspected that Ella and I were going to have different standards of perfect. 

“That lady in blue? Her name is Za Kestrel and she’s a teacher here,” Ella continued. “She knew we weren’t students, but she didn’t want to let the Swords take us. I think she was being practical, really. She hasn’t said as much, but there are so, so, so many children and not very many grown-ups. It’s wonderful. Sort of wonderful, anyway. Everyone has to do chores and everyone who’s old enough has to help with the littles. It’s not so bad, though. You should see what they use for diapers.” 

She paused, then said tentatively, “Lila? Are you listening to me?”

I opened my eyes again. “What happened to me?” I whispered. 

“Machines.” Ella raised her hand, squeezing her thumb against her forefinger. “Teeny-teeny tiny ones, called nannies. When you breathe them in, they zoom around your body.” She spread her hands, wiggling her fingers as if they were flying creatures. “And they do stuff.” 

I swallowed. Ella’s enthusiasm was most disturbing, given how miserable I felt. Although, apart from my mouth and throat, I actually didn’t feel all that miserable anymore. I remembered the feel of my head wanting to split apart, but it no longer hurt. The nausea was gone and my stomach felt at worst mildly hungry. 

A face appeared behind Ella’s — a man, with smooth, ageless skin, and dark hair and eyes. He might have been any age, from barely older than me to decades past my years. 

“Patient doing better? Good, good. You worried us a bit, young lady. Not often we see a reaction so strong. But then you’re on the old side to be receiving System access. Generally the network build happens at a much younger age, when the brain is more malleable. Not to imply that your brain is inflexible, of course.” He chuckled. 

The old side? I blinked. This world must be strange indeed if seventeen years was old. 

He started fussing with the side of the bed and the bands restraining my arm slid away. With a small pinch, the tube followed suit. He placed a brown square against my skin where the tube had been, then said, “Ready to sit up?” 

I lifted my arm, examining the square, first with my eyes, then with the fingers of my other hand. The material was soft, but smooth, with no weave that I could feel. And somehow it was staying in place without wrapping around my arm. 

“What is this?” I asked.  

The man shook his head. “You’ll have to learn our language, I’m afraid, before I can answer any question of yours.” 

For the first time, I realized he was speaking the way the woman in blue had, with strange words whose meaning was still readily apparent. Even the sense of vagueness — of one word having many possible interpretations — was largely gone. 

“A bandage,” Ella answered in our own language.

“A most peculiar bandage.” I let the man assist me in sitting up. I was wearing an odd garment, not the clothing I’d started out in, but a soft one-piece item, like a child’s romper, that left my legs and arms bare. Like the so-called bandage, I didn’t recognize the fabric, nor did it have a detectable weave. 

Ella was wearing a deep green jumpsuit, but hers covered far more of her, with full-length pants and long sleeves. 

I licked my lips. My mouth was still unpleasantly dry. The man noticed and promptly handed me a clear glass, saying, “Water?” 

The glass was a relief. It was just an ordinary glass, round and clear, and the water in it tasted exactly like water always did. I drank it down in thankful gulps, feeling it ease my throat. 

“That’s better now, isn’t it?” the man said cheerfully. “Now I’ll give you a few minutes to talk with your sister and then I’ll be back with some real food. But first, let’s just get you more comfortable.”  

Without further warning, the tube started to move beneath me. I yelped and grabbed for its sides as my feet dropped and the area behind me rose. 

The man patted my hand. “Nothing to worry about. I know Lucerne is a low-tech world, but this is just a standard med-cot.” 

The bed stopped moving when it had turned into a chair. I let out my breath in a long sigh and the man disappeared through a door on the other side of the small room. The door slid shut behind him. 

“Clever, isn’t it?” Ella said. She left my side to sit down on a chair against the wall. It extended beneath her, turning into something like a sloped divan. “This place is wonderful. We made such a good choice.”

“We need to go home,” I replied. The words were automatic. I was still feeling disoriented and confused, but not so much so that I didn’t remember the danger we were in. 

“We can’t,” Ella said. “They closed the rift.” 

In a moment, I was going to be very distressed about that, but meanwhile I was finding our surroundings quite distracting. Something was wrong with my vision. At least I thought it was my vision. Around the room, unreal lights shone in odd places. I could detect no source for them — no nearby lamps or candles, no crystals dangling in sunlit windows  — and the lights themselves were uncanny, translucent but precisely shaped. A green square rested on the center of the closed door, while a small panel of colors sat next to the room’s only window. Overhead a square of amber light shone next to a much larger circle that actually emitted light in the fashion of an ordinary lamp. 

As I gazed at the amber light, a symbol appeared upon it. It might have been a sigil, but it was not one I had ever seen before: one long line, with several short fine lines perpendicular to it, and a single midsized thicker band also perpendicular to the long line. The longer I looked, the darker the sigil became, while the midsized band began to pulse in a deeper amber. 

Ella, seeing the direction of my stare, said helpfully, “Have you found the controls? Light, sixty percent.” 

The band moved down one notch on the line and the light dimmed. 

My mouth dropped open. “What?” 

Ella laughed in delight. “Isn’t it amazing? You don’t even have to speak aloud. The System understands you if you just think about what you want to happen. As long as you have access, anyway. Some System functions are restricted to higher-level users.” She kept talking, but I was barely listening. 

I pictured the amber band sliding back up the line. It did and the room became correspondingly brighter. I imagined it sliding down and the room grew darker. I moved it up and down, with nothing but the power of my mind, and the lights flickered on and off like lightning. At the very top of the line, the brightness was so strong that it hurt my eyes and I closed them again. 

What a peculiar place. 

“Discovered the System, I see,” the man’s voice spoke again. “Don’t worry, you’ll be used to it in no time.” 

I opened my eyes to see him carrying a tray over to my chair. The tray held a covered plate and a tall glass of an unfamiliar yellow liquid. He glanced at the side of my chair, and a table formed out of the side of it and slid silently across my lap. 

This time, I did not flinch. True, I had no experience with magical furnishings, but I was a de Winterhoffe. Magic was my heritage, even unusual magic. I refused to be shocked on general principles. 

The man set the tray down. With a brush of his finger, the cover unfolded and tucked itself away, revealing several neatly arranged squares of different colors. A yellow square, two greens, a brown, and a deep blue.

Was it food? It almost had to be food, really — what else would be served on a plate? 

But when he’d said “real food,” I’d anticipated the familiar. Eggs, perhaps, accompanied by toast and bacon. Oatmeal, maybe, with berries and cream. 

I sniffed. The aroma rising from the plate was not unpleasant, but it was nothing I recognized. 

“What is this?” I asked. 

The man looked toward Ella, brows lifting in question.

She promptly stood. “She says thank you for your kindness, Za Aviv. I’ll make sure she eats it all.” She dipped her chin in a nod that came close to being a bow of dismissal. 

He smiled at her. “More where that came from, if you’re hungry yourself, young one.” 

“Thank you, but I broke my fast with the littles. I’ve had sufficient.” 

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” The man departed. 

I poked at the blue square. “No silverware?” 

“Not for these.” Ella came to stand by my chair. She pointed at each square in turn. “Carbo, vito, vito, proto, sweet.” 

The words were unfamiliar, except for the last. “What?” 

She shrugged. “They don’t translate. But they taste all right.”

I picked up the first square, the yellow one, and took a tentative bite. It tasted vaguely like bread might taste if bread had a slippery texture. But my stomach rumbled as if to remind me that I’d been hungry for days, so I took another bite, and then another. One of the greens tasted somewhat like fresh spring peas and the other had a mildly spicy bite, while the brown reminded me of mushrooms, and the purple had the sweetness of a honey cake with a berry flavor. 

Ella was right: they tasted all right. Strange, but satisfying. 

Finished, I turned back to her. She’d wandered over to the window while I ate, and was leaning against the frame, forehead against the glass, looking out. 

“What are you looking at?” 

“One of the Shields is teaching a self-defense class in the courtyard.” 

Ella was speaking our language, but I had the same sensation of words that didn’t mean what I thought they should mean. “Fencing with bucklers?” I asked doubtfully. 

“No.” Ella turned back to me with a smile. Her earlier uncertainty was gone. “Come see.” 

I felt a little wobbly as I stood, but the feeling quickly passed and I joined her at the window. 

Below us, a man in a red uniform stood before several rows of adolescents. They were moving in unison, arms swinging forward, stepping back, turning, beginning again. It was like a dance lesson, if the dancers weren’t partnered, were all wearing matching attire, had no music, and — well, all right, it wasn’t much like a dance lesson. They kicked into the air, far higher than any formal dance of Tizai would ever allow. 

“The man in red is called a Shield?” I asked. We were far enough away that we must have been on the third story of the building, and I couldn’t see his face, but his uniform looked much like the one worn by the woman we’d seen next to the rift. 

“Yes. They’re the guardians of this land.” 

“Who are the people in black, then?” It was perhaps not the most important question I could have asked. A dozen others — ranging from how long I’d been unconscious, to how they’d managed to close the rift, to how we were going to return home — should have been foremost in my mind. But the eyes of the man in the forest were still vivid in my memory. 

“They’re called Swords.” Ella glanced behind her and dropped her voice. Almost whispering, she said, “We have to stay far away from them. If they discover us…” She shivered. 

In a normal voice, I said, “Why are you whispering?” There was no one else in the room with us and if I understood correctly, no one here spoke our language, so it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been. 

“If they choose to look, they can see and hear everything,” Ella whispered, barely forming the words. “And they have seers who understand unknown languages. We have to be careful.” 

My brows rose. I wanted both to object and to ask more questions. How had Ella learned all this? 

But she continued, still whispering. “The most important thing is to not use your talents, not any of them, when the Swords are around. Whenever they discover a child with talent, that child disappears. Forever.” 

Our eyes met. Ella was as serious as I had ever seen her, her eyes intent on mine, no hint of cheer on her face. 

But she knew, as well as I, the impossibility of her command. She might be able to hide her talents — even to use her Persuasion to ease any suspicions should some observer catch her levitating  — but I’d spent most of my life trying to control my own unruly abilities, with only mixed success. 

If I could conceal my talents, I wouldn’t have been sitting in our bedroom, available to join her in her escape. I would have been off on adventures of my own: finishing school, the appropriate travel, the social season in the capital — the standard milestones that marked the coming-of-age of a daughter of the aristocracy in Tizai. 

“I’m not a child.” My mouth felt dry again. 

“I don’t think that would stop them.” 

“No.” I wasn’t cold, not really, but I wrapped my arms around myself as if I was, fingers closing against the bare skin of my upper arms. “We need to go home, Ella.” 

“They closed the rift,” she said simply. “We’re trapped here.” 

E&L – Ch4 – They didn’t kill us

They didn’t kill us. 

You probably already deduced that. Well, I could hardly be sharing our story with you if I was dead, could I? 

But their behavior was most mysterious. 

Mind-reading is an extremely rare talent, so precious that children displaying signs of the ability are immediately taken into service by the queen. It was not one of my talents, much to my regret. Not that I wanted to read people’s minds — no one liked a telepath — but even our father would have had difficulty resisting her majesty’s demands had I been so able. 

But these people looked like they were reading one another’s minds. They said nothing, merely glancing at one another, but their expressions changed. The woman in blue’s forehead creased, as if in concern. A corner of the mouth lifted on one of the recently arrived black-clad strangers, perhaps in wry resignation. The other’s brows rose, as if she were asking a question. 

I looked from one face to the next, trying to understand what was happening, while Ella kept her eyes locked on the face of the man holding her arm, her lips slightly parted. A charitable interpretation would have had her gazing at him in wonder, but I thought she looked like an idiot. 

The guard holding Ella’s arm shook his head, emphatically. He gestured toward me, and then toward the charred leaves next to me. It was nothing so direct as a finger-waving accusation, but the meaning felt clear: he was blaming me for the smoke slowly dissipating in the air and the fire that created it. 

Correctly, of course. 

I kept my chin high as befit a de Winterhoffe, but my legs quivered like a Latewinter fish aspic. In parts of our world less civilized than Tizai, Fire talents were routinely put to death, in order to ensure the safety of those around them. I understood the rationale, but I preferred to keep living myself. 

I had no need to fear, however. The woman in blue stepped forward. She spoke aloud for the first time, her voice brisk. She clapped twice, then made brushing gestures toward Ella and myself, as if we were a flock of chickens she wanted to chivvy along. 

The guard holding Ella pressed his lips together, restraining some comment perhaps, then dropped Ella’s arm. He took a step away from her. 

I hurried to Ella’s side and put my arm around her. 

The guard dipped his head toward us. His dark eyes were unreadable, and when he spoke his words were incomprehensible to me, but I would have wagered a week’s desserts that whatever he was saying was sarcastic. Then he and the other two in black lifted off the ground and levitated away, back in the direction from which we’d come. 

“And the same to you,” I muttered under my breath. 

Ella gave a muffled choke of laughter. For a brief moment, she leaned into me, giving me a convulsive hug, her arms tight around my waist. Then she pulled away as the woman in blue spoke again. 

“Can you understand her?” I asked. 

“Not at all,” Ella replied. “Truesight says she’s not a threat, though.” She beamed at the woman, her smile the bonfire variety she usually reserved for a delivery of new books. “Thank you,” she said fervently. 

The woman’s returning smile was much fainter. She glanced at the sky, at the receding guards, and it disappeared entirely. She took a deep breath, then blew it out in a long exhale, before gesturing again. The “come along” meaning was obvious. 

Ella and I followed her, back along the path we’d broken through the undergrowth. I eyed the forest as we went, looking for familiar plants, and wondering what our chances for survival would be should we need to take to the wilderness to hide. 

Yes, I was being ridiculous. 

No, we did not have the skills we would need to make a life in the forest. Oh, I could certainly pick an apple from a tree, should one appear in my path, but that rat in the space between the worlds was the first thing I’d ever killed in my life, bar a few inadvertently squashed insects. If circumstances necessitated a quick escape from this woman, we would need to get back to the rift and find our way home 

But when we emerged from the forest, it was immediately obvious that that would not be so easy. A dozen people, some in black, some in red, were congregated around the spot where we’d entered this world. 

With them was — well, my steps faltered and I stared in as much gape-mouthed surprise as Ella had shown for the handsome guard. 

What were those things? Not buildings, for they were surely too short. Not carriages, for they lacked wheels. If they were gliders, they were the oddest gliders I’d ever seen, with rounded tops and sleek sides. They were made of some bright material, in a red that almost matched the red of the uniforms, just a few shades deeper. 

They were beautiful. Clearly, devices of some sort, but what could their function be?

As I watched, a line of fire shot out from one of them, slowly tracing an outline in the air. It might have been the outline of the rift, although we were too far away for me to say for sure. Could the devices be weapons? 

The people surrounding it stirred in seeming reaction. A woman in red, her hair in short, equally red curls, put her hand on the device, patting it in a motion that seemed proprietary, then tossed her head back and laughed in response to something one of the others said. 

I wanted to know her. 

No, I wanted to be her. She had an air of casual confidence, a certainty of competence that radiated from her like sunshine. 

Of course, that might have just been her hair, which was really quite bright. 

But the woman leading us said something, voice sharp. Ella grabbed my hand and tugged me along. We were headed toward the wall that enclosed the school. I tossed a final yearning glance over my shoulder at the rift. 

If we could just get through it… but it was impossible. 

My mouth was dry and my throat felt tight as we followed the woman around a corner and through a doorway into the courtyard we’d first seen from the space between the worlds. 

The children were gone now, but the courtyard was still attractive — open and spacious, paved in a white stone that matched the white of the buildings. It was remarkably unworn, considering how many children had been playing on it such a short time ago. But the woman didn’t give us time to admire our surroundings, taking us straight across and into one of the white buildings. 

Ella squeezed my hand as the woman led us down a long corridor. 

“Thank you for coming with me,” she said quietly. 

We were passing door after door. Some were solid, but many of them had windows, through which I caught glimpses of groups of children, most of whom seemed to be in motion.

Ella and I had never attended school, but the rooms had to be classrooms. They held none of the accoutrements of my imagination’s vision of an academic setting, however. Where were the books? The desks? The chalkboards and stern teachers? These classrooms were white rooms, scantily furnished with simple chairs and tables, with walls barren of any decoration. 

“It will be all right,” I responded, equally quietly. If Ella felt anything like I did, there was a pit yawning in the center of her being, composed of equal parts fear and regret. But I was going to take care of my baby sister, no matter if it killed me. 

“This is going to be so much fun.” Ella gave a little skip as she tried to peer through the nearest door. 

Apparently Ella did not share my emotions. 

I was tempted to smack her, but I refrained. Mostly because of the woman with us, but also because Ella never hesitated before hitting back and now was not the moment for violence, no matter how deserved. 

We followed the woman until she finally came to one of the doors without windows. It slid open at her approach.  She stepped inside and we followed her. 

The door slid closed behind us, but the room was barely a room. It was a box. I felt the slight whoosh of movement as the box began moving and realized she’d taken us into an extremely large dumbwaiter. 

“Oh, how clever.” Ella poked at the floor with her toe as if assessing the sturdiness or perhaps the vibration. 

The woman in blue’s gaze followed her motion. She spotted Ella’s shoes and her eyes widened. She leaned in a little, as if trying to get a closer look, then straightened abruptly. She turned away, staring at the door, but biting her lip. 

I took a closer look at Ella’s shoe. She was wearing her most comfortable walking shoes, just as I was. They were perfectly nice shoes, made of the finest kidskin, with a sturdy low heel and a square toe. Completely unexceptionable in every way. What about them could have made the woman uncomfortable? 

The pit in my stomach grew larger. It didn’t diminish when the dumbwaiter door opened and the woman led us along another hallway and into a room where a second woman in blue stood by a window overlooking the lake. 

The woman turned at our approach. Her sweeping glance catalogued every inch of our beings, head to toe, pausing on our feet, and then returning more slowly to our faces. 

Ella stepped forward and sank down into her best royal curtsy, bending her head and holding the drop for the count of one-one hundred, two-one hundred, three, just as our protocol tutor had forced us to do at least ten thousand times. It would have looked much better had she been in full court regalia instead of leggings and her heavy robe, but I promptly followed suit. 

As I counted silently, I wondered what Ella had seen. I saw no discernible evidence of royalty: the woman wore no crown, the room held no throne, there weren’t even any armed guards lending her consequence. But Ella’s Truesight must have told her something about the woman’s rank. 

But when I lifted my head, the woman was looking horrified. She’d drawn back, brows raised, lips parted. 

The woman in blue stepped between us and rested a hand on each of our shoulders. She spoke aloud, the words meaningless to me, but the tone firm. 

The new woman blinked. The horror on her face faded and her brow furrowed. 

The woman in blue spoke again. 

The new woman put her hands on her hips and shook her head. 

I really hated not understanding what they were saying. 

They seemed friendly enough, though. The woman in blue was the younger of the two. She had dark hair, loose around her shoulders, and a gentleness to her features. She was attractive, but she looked tired, her eyes shadowed, mouth tight. 

The new woman was older, with silver hair and fine lines around her eyes, but undeniably beautiful. She might not have the accoutrements of royalty, but she had the bearing. 

The women fell silent, but it was not the quiet of true silence. I was watching the new woman and her face had the same small reactions — a muscle moving in her jaw, her brows shifting, the tiny dip of her head to one direction or another — as the guards in the clearing had had. As if she were talking, but without speaking.

“Are they all telepathic here?” I murmured to Ella, barely letting my lips move. That would make life rather challenging. And, as far as I was concerned, was further reason to get back to the rift and go home. 

“I don’t think so.” Ella was watching their faces, too. “I think it might be a device of some kind.” 

What kind of device would let one communicate without sound?

The older woman shook her head and, with an expression that mingled rueful dismay with concern, opened her hand to the door. 

The woman in blue squeezed our shoulders, then indicated that we should follow her. 

We did, obediently. 

Perhaps too obediently. But I don’t believe I could have brought myself to hurt the woman in blue and we’d seen that the rift was already well-guarded. We might not have managed to make it back through, even had we tried. 

But we didn’t. Instead, we followed the woman in a blue to a completely mysterious room. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The walls were shiny, made of some unknown material, and it was filled with devices — boxes with colorful lights, wires, lines. 

In one corner of the room, a circular translucent column rose from floor to ceiling. The woman walked straight to it, touched it, and one of the sides swung open. She gestured to us and then to it. 

The message was clear. 

“Oh, dear,” I murmured. She obviously wanted us to enter the column. 

“It’s all right,” Ella said absently. She had her head tipped to one side and was staring at the column, eyes narrowed. “I think it’s a…” 

“A what?” I demanded, when she didn’t continue. 

The woman was waiting, a line of worry deepening between her brows. 

“Medical,” Ella finally said. “Some sort of medical machine.”

“I’m not sick. Neither are you.” As it happened, Fire talents tended to be almost offensively healthy. Our propensity for fire burned any illness right out of us. Ella was not so fortunate, suffering from the occasional ailment or influenza, but she was healthy enough at the moment. 

“Yes. Well. That’s good, isn’t it?” Ella took a deep breath, then started forward. 

I slammed my arm out in front of her, using my enhanced speed to stop her before she’d had a chance to move more than half a step.

“Oof!” She grunted as she banged into it. 

“Me first,” I said grimly. I moved ahead of her. 

She didn’t object. 

Ella’s Truesight would have told her if the machine were clearly dangerous to us, but her lack of enthusiasm demonstrated uncertainty. If I let her enter the machine, I could destroy it if it seemed to be harming her. But what if I couldn’t detect the harm before it was too late? Better that I do it myself. 

The woman gave me an encouraging smile, and I stepped into the column. 

The door slid closed. 

I swallowed hard. 

But it was fine. From the inside, the column looked white. The air felt cool, with a mildly astringent smell, but it wasn’t unpleasant. With a quiet whirring sound, a blue light spun around me, starting at the base of the column and moving upward. When the blue light reached the top of my head, it stopped, and a chime sounded. Several seconds passed and then the blue light started again. This routine went on for several minutes, long enough for my fear to dissipate and for me to get thoroughly bored. 

My thoughts drifted, first to the woman with the red machine. What could that device have been? And who was she? But from there I found myself wondering about the man in the woods, the one who’d caught Ella. What had his parting words meant? He hadn’t sounded threatening, not exactly, but his eyes had been so compelling. And he had been so very beautiful. 

Just the memory made my cheeks feel hot. 

I suppose it was the distraction that first prevented me from noticing a faint gas filling the column, but by the time I did notice, it was too late. 

I’d already breathed it in. 

It tickled. 

I coughed, trying to clear my throat, feeling a fizziness in my nose and eyes that spread, rapidly running through my entire body. It wasn’t painful, but I didn’t like it. It itched, internally. Years ago, when I first started escaping into the forest surrounding our home, I’d inadvertently seated myself on an ant mound. I didn’t realize what I’d done until ants were crawling all over me. Fortunately, they weren’t the biting kind, but this felt much like that — bugs crawling on me, but on my insides, not my surface. 

The column door slid open and I stumbled out, still gasping and trying to clear my throat. 

“Are you all right?” Ella hurried to my side, putting her arm around me. 

I rubbed my throat, then my face, wanting to scratch but knowing it would be pointless, even as the itch started to fade. “Ugh, how unpleasant.” 

She narrowed her eyes, studying me as intently as if she could see the ants crawling through my interior. “Not medicine,” she finally said. 

“Not?” I kept my hand at my throat. 

“No.” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know what it does.” 

“Lovely.” I shook out my hand and blinked a few times. My fingertips were still tingling, and my eyes still felt odd, but the sensations had mostly diminished. “I can’t tell, either. But it doesn’t hurt.” I blinked again, unsure whether my eyes were working. “Not really.” 

The woman spoke and I drew back, startled. 

I didn’t understand a word she said, of course, except… I almost did. The sounds themselves didn’t mean anything to me — I couldn’t have repeated them — but I had the strong impression that she was telling Ella it was her turn. 

Had I somehow understood her meaning from her body language? 

“What did you say?” I asked. 

Her lips tilted into a faint smile. Speaking slowly, she said, in total gibberish, “Your companion also needs System access. Please ask her to step into the scan terminal.” 

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Somehow I was comprehending her, although not truly understanding her language. 

But I use the term “comprehending” quite loosely. 

Scan terminal? System access? Those words felt like they most closely described the concepts appearing in my mind, but she might have said “look machine” or “review interface” or “network entrance” or “structure opening.” It scarcely mattered which of those options was closer to correct, however, as none of them meant anything sensible to me. 

“How are you doing that?” I asked. I pressed a hand to my temple. My head was beginning to throb in time to my pulse. 

“Do you understand her?” Ella demanded, catching on far more quickly than I had. “Oh, I want that, too.” Before I could stop her — before I could even decide whether I should stop her — she darted into the column and the door slid closed behind her. 

“What did you do to me?” I demanded of the woman in blue. 

She opened her hands. Again, her words didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before, but I understood them to mean that she couldn’t understand me because the System was unfamiliar with my language, and therefore not capable of translating it for her. 

My questions were accumulating quickly: what sort of System was she talking about? How could I understand her language if she couldn’t understand mine? What magic was this? 

But the pounding in my head was becoming more and more intense, matched by a churning in my stomach. We’d missed dinner and luncheon had been far too long ago, so it was pure bile burning its way toward my throat. I clenched my teeth, feeling beads of perspiration springing up on the back of my neck, saliva pouring into my mouth. 

A litany of ladylike injunctions ran through my head, the voice of our first governess so loud it was as if she was in the room with us. 

Ladies do not discuss unpleasant physical sensations. 

Whilst in company, ladies never mention body parts, whether their own or those belonging to others. 

If a lady needs to take care of a necessary biological function, she excuses herself discreetly and does her business privately. 

Also, of course, ladies are always quiet, polite, and well-behaved. Ladies do not get angry. Ladies never, ever get angry. Fire talents, on the other hand, have tempers, and I was feeling mine rise. What had this woman done to me? 

Fortunately, the room we were in did not appear to contain much in the way of flammable materials. 

Also, I suppose, somewhat fortunately, my anger was no match for my growing nausea. And it is extremely hard to maintain a temper when spewing a stream of yellow muck across a spotlessly clean floor. 

Under most circumstances, I would have been horribly embarrassed, as well as dismayed about how the servants would react to the mess. They were going to hate me before they even met me. But my head was pounding so much and the taste in my mouth so unpleasant, I could barely bring myself to care. 

The woman in blue was exclaiming, but her words couldn’t penetrate my misery. Perhaps the magic she had inflicted upon me should have let me understand her meaning, but it required more from me than I had to give. I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to block out the pain along with the light. 

I felt hands on my shoulders, heard Ella’s voice, and then… nothing. 

E&L – Ch3 – Onto the new world

Chapter Three 

Ella walked with absolute certainty, as if she knew exactly where each step led. But the hedge maze soon faded out into nothingness, the skies brightened, and we entered a place of utter chaos. 

It was as if we were in a hall of mirrors where all the mirrors had been fractured, yet each reflected not our presence but a different place. So more accurately, perhaps, it was as if we were in a hall of broken windows, where each piece of glass, no matter how infinitesimally tiny, displayed a glimpse of another world. 

It quickly made my head pound with pain and my eyes go blurry. 

“Stop concentrating so hard,” Ella said over her shoulder. “It won’t help.” 

“How can you see where you’re going?” I didn’t let go of my grasp on my bag, but I raised one hand to shield my eyes. 

“I’m using Truesight.” Ella paused so abruptly that I almost walked right into her. “Not that way, I think.” She took a quick right turn and started moving perpendicular to her previous path. Still away from the hedge that led to home, but not the way she’d been going. 

“What’s that way?” I tried to look past my blurry vision to see what she had seen. 

“Danger.” She was still holding the knife in her hand as she gestured. “I can’t see it with my eyes, but my sight tells me there’s something big out there. Big and hungry.” 

“Oh, Ella.” I stopped walking. “We should go home.” 

“Don’t be silly. This is our chance.” 

“Our chance for what? To get eaten?” Ella hadn’t stopped walking so I hurried after her. 

Above me,  a cityscape of sparkling light with buildings bigger than any I had ever seen or imagined glimmered. Beside me loomed a desert, one lone barren tree rising up out of an expanse of brown. Water, water, more water… window after window opened on to ocean vistas. A tiny smidge of a window at eye level, no bigger than my palm, showed a winding trail through a deep forest. 

“Our chance to live real lives, away from our parents.” Ella hiked her bag higher on her shoulder. “We just need to find the right place.” 

She paused by a panel almost big enough to be a doorway and eyed it. It showed a fantastical market, stalls piled high with brightly-colored objects, crowds of people pushing and shoving, a food vendor with a tray of meat kebabs held above his head, lips moving as if he were calling out his wares. 

My stomach growled.

“That one?” I suggested. 

Ella shook her head and kept moving. “That might be the one Sibylla visited, but no.” 

“Why not? I’m hungry.” I couldn’t smell the meat kebabs, but they looked delicious. 

“Look at it again and tell me why not,” Ella replied, moving on. 

I rolled my eyes. She was beginning to resemble our father more than a little. He never answered a direct question, either. But I looked more closely and realized that the few women in the crowd were heavily veiled. My nose wrinkled. Not a world where Ella and I would be at home, I agreed.

Several yards ahead of me, Ella stopped again. 

“What do you think of this one?” she called. 

I hurried to catch up with her. The window by which she stood was smaller, not a full-fledged doorway, and angled oddly. If we were to fit through it, we would need to squeeze. But the scene on the other side looked quite pleasant. A crowd of children were playing some sort of game in a paved courtyard. It involved a ball and much laughing. The courtyard had a few buildings around it, made of an unfamiliar white stone, with carvings decorating the windows and doors. Farther away lay a deep blue lake. 

Most of the children had dark hair and eyes and golden skin, like our own, and they were dressed in leggings and shirts not too different from our travel attire. We might fit right in.

“As a place to live?” I asked, voice hushed as if they might hear us. 

“It looks nice.” Ella tipped her head to one side, considering. “I think that must be a school.” 

I considered, too. I’d never entertained any fantasies of running away. Where was there to go, after all? Our father would find us anywhere we went, and if he didn’t and his enemies did… well, his rage in those circumstances would be something to behold. 

Something no one sane would want to behold. 

Running away would not only be a danger to us, it would be a danger to anyone around us. But if the rift only opened up every seventeen months and if Ella was the only one who knew where and how it opened up… She might, in fact, have found the only possible way for us to escape. 

“Do you want to go to school there?” I asked doubtfully. 

“It might be fun to go to school, don’t you think?” 

“I’m too old,” I said, but a trickle of glee stirred in my chest. Once I would have wanted to go to school, but if I could do anything… “I want to get a job.” 

I leaned closer to the window. No smoke came from the buildings, so it couldn’t be too cold. No sign of roadways, so they must use gliders or carpets more than ground-powered vehicles. 

“What sort of job?” 

“Perhaps I could be a shop clerk. Or a maid. Maybe a cook.” I took a deep breath, feeling the glee begin to filter through my veins even as the sharp tang of the cold air stung my nose. I glanced at Ella. “Anything. I could be anything.” 

She gave a firm nod.“And not a prize to go to the highest bidder.”  

“Father wouldn’t sell us off. Not exactly.”  

“Not a prize to sit on a shelf, then.” 

I couldn’t argue with that. It was an apt description of our role in our parents’ lives.

“And Mother would sell us off,” Ella added darkly. 

“Not for money.” I didn’t want to argue with Ella, so I lifted my shoulder in a shrug. “Although for prestige, I suppose.”

The children were being called in, an adult standing in the middle of the courtyard beckoning them to form a circle around her. She was wearing a pink thing, like the overalls our gardeners sometimes wore, only with long sleeves. It was quite ugly. “Not a teacher, I think,” I said thoughtfully. 

Ella grinned at me. “Anything you want to be.” 

“Are we going to be able to fit through that window?” I measured the space with my hands. It was small, triangular in shape, and set at a peculiar slant. We would have to squat and crawl through, but with the way that it was angled, I couldn’t see what we would be crawling into. 

“Of course. Here, hold this.” Ella jabbed the knife she was holding in my direction. 

I took a quick step back. “Be careful with that.” 

“Take it.” She gestured impatiently, turning the knife so that its blade pointed to the side. 

Warily, I took the knife from her, holding it in my fingertips, rather than clutching it the way she had. “What are you going to do?” 

Ella pulled her bag around to her front, clutching it like a pillow. “Just in case,” she said obscurely. 

“In case what?” I asked. 

Ella sat down on the ground, stuck her feet through the window, and wiggled forward in a most unladylike motion. “In case I fall on my face, of course,” she said, just before her torso reached the edge of the window. With a squeal, she slid through it. 

“Ella!” I dropped to my knees and stuck my face through the window, letting the knife clatter to the ground next to me. “Ella!” 

She looked up at me from the ground, about three feet below, and gave me a wobbly smile. “That didn’t work quite right. I should have dropped my bag in first.” 

“Are you all right?” I demanded. 

“Um, yeah, I think so.” She scrambled to her feet and rubbed her posterior, glancing around her. The ground didn’t look like the courtyard where we’d seen the children playing. It was grassy and sloped. “There’s a wall. The school must be on the other side of it.” 

“All right, I’m coming through.” I swung my bag forward and dropped it through the window. For a moment, I considered the knife I’d dropped, but if I brought it with me, Ella would just keep waving it around. Someone was bound to get hurt, probably her. Besides, we didn’t want to look threatening to these new people. So I abandoned the knife and wiggled through the window. 

Having seen how Ella did it, I went the other way: still feet first, but backwards, clinging to the edge of the window. My feet waved in the air, feeling for the ground, which had to be down there somewhere. 

“Just drop, Lila,” Ella called up to me. “You’re close.” 

But letting go felt terrifying. I should have thought this through sooner. Once I dropped in, we would be stuck. With the window so far overhead, there would be no ducking back into it should we decide that this world was no place for us. 

In fact, hanging there, turning red-faced with the effort of not letting gravity have its way with me, I became quite convinced that this was a terrible idea. And entirely unwilling to let go. 

But the window decided for me. It crumbled away underneath my hands. With a shriek, I landed on the ground. Before me, the tiny window had become a gaping door into the in-between. 

“Oh, dear,” I murmured.  

Ella was chewing on her lower lip. “That’s not good.” 

Not good felt like something of an understatement. We were standing on a grassy hill, with forest and rolling landscape in front of us, the wall that must enclose the playing children behind us, and between them, a path that led to chaos. 

Ella circled the window. “Interesting,” she reported from the other side. “It has no depth, and I can’t see it from the back.” She walked straight through it, appearing in front of it. “Well, that’s not so bad. No one will stumble into it by accident, anyway.” 

My stomach roiled with unease. Or perhaps it was just my hunger. I pressed my hand to it. 

An alarm began blaring, making me jump. It sounded like a fog horn, low and resonant, penetrating deep into my bones. It paused and a voice, inhumanly loud, began speaking. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a word it was saying. I could imagine them vividly, though. 

Alien girls have torn a hole in the fabric of the world. All staff, be on the alert. Shoot to kill. Something like that, anyway. 

“Perhaps we should move away from this spot?” Ella suggested. She scooped both bags off the ground and shoved mine at me with unnecessary force. I caught it, staring at the in-between. It still made my vision blurry and my head hurt to look at it too closely, but my brain was racing, trying to think of some way to close it back up again. 

Fire would be useless, of course. And starting a forest fire would be disastrous. I could create an illusion to hide it, but unless I wanted to take up residence on this very spot, the illusion would fade when I moved away. 

Before I could consider whether any of my other talents could be of use, Ella grabbed my hand and began tugging at me. “We don’t want to be caught here, Lila.” 

“We have to fix this.” I didn’t try to break free, but I didn’t start moving either. 

“It’s a dimensional rift. I’ve been researching them for years and I have no idea how to open or close one. A great many of our ancestors also worked on the question for years without discovering the answer, so I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem in the next five minutes.” 

Ella pulled harder and I began stumbling after her, my eyes still on the rift.

“But we have to tell someone,” I said. 

“Funnily enough, I think they might know.” 

“There’s no need for sarcasm,” I said huffily, but I stopped resisting. The fog horn had started again, reverberating so loudly that it was as much a vibration as a sound. I didn’t have a hand free — Ella had one, I held my bag with the other — so I couldn’t clap them over my ears, but I would have liked to. “Where are we going?” 

Instead of following the wall and searching for a door, Ella was heading straight for the forest, away from the school. 

“We can hide out in the woods for a while, until the hubbub dies down,” she called over her shoulder, and then her eyes widened. 

I didn’t look over my shoulder, just cast the simplest illusion possible behind me — the sight of what was ahead of us. Someone perceptive might notice that the forest had just moved fifty feet closer to the wall, but with any luck, the rift would distract them until we were well-hidden. 

Ella’s view would have been immediately blocked by the trees of my illusion, but she wouldn’t have been deceived; her Truesight would see straight through them. She didn’t pause to appreciate my quick thinking, however, instead turning and running until we were among the real trees. 

There was no path so anyone with eyes would see where we’d crashed through the undergrowth into the forest, but Ella kept running and I kept following. I could have passed her easily — Speed was one of my minor talents —  but I wasn’t about to leave her behind. 

Finally, she paused, breathing hard. She put her back against the trunk of a huge tree. I stopped next to her and leaned over, resting my hands on my knees as I also caught my breath. 

A tear in the fabric of my leggings caught my eye. I must have snagged it on a branch or a bramble. 

“Bother,” I said, fussing at it. “I don’t suppose you thought to bring a sewing kit?” 

“A sewing kit?” Ella asked between gasps.

“It would be far more useful than silver candlesticks.” I’d caught my breath faster than Ella but then I spent more time roaming the woods at home than she did. She spent her free hours in the library. 

“Really not a priority at the moment.” Ella rested her head against the bark and closed her eyes. “Your illusion was inspired.” 

“Thank you.” I acknowledged the compliment with a gracious tilt of my head. Mother was very firm about the forms for polite acceptance of flattery, but I heard the truth in Ella’s words. She did believe my illusion was inspired, and I had to admit, I was pleased with my own ingenuity. 

Honestly compels me to admit, however, that I’ve pulled the same trick more than once at home, when for one reason or another I haven’t wished to be discovered. It wasn’t a novel idea for me, more of an automatic reaction to the fear of being seen. 

“Did you see those guards?” Ella asked. 

“I didn’t look.”

Ella fanned herself. Her cheeks were flushed, I assumed from the heat generated by our brisk run. “They were…” She paused. Was the flush on her cheeks deepening? 

“Ferocious?” I suggested. “Heavily armed?” That fog horn alarm, still audible, although not nearly so oppressive with a bit more distance, was foreboding. 

“Beautiful.” Ella sighed. 

“Beautiful?” I repeated in surprise. 

“Beautiful,” Ella repeated firmly. “Just…” She waved a hand in the air, as if she couldn’t find the words, then put it over her heart. “Beautiful. There were two of them, levitating over the wall. Both dressed in black, both young. A woman, her hair…” Ella gestured, moving her hand in circles down her side, as if to indicate long ringlets. “And a boy—well, man, I suppose—with…” She sighed again. 

I waited, but she seemed to have lost her ability to speak. Or perhaps her vocabulary. Her eyes were dreamy. “That doesn’t sound so bad. Perhaps we shouldn’t have run.” 

“Oh, no.” Ella shook her head, the dreamy look disappearing and being replaced by her usual sharp focus. “They were terrifying. Beautiful, but stern and determined. And…” She nibbled on her lower lip. 

I recognized the expression. She was considering what to tell me, and whether to tell me the truth. “This is not a time to be keeping secrets.”

“No. Well…” She swallowed. “I may have made a mistake. We might have been better off in that market world.” 

“How so?” 

“They intended to kill us.” 

“Kill us?” I squeaked. And then covered my mouth, coughed, and said in a more normal voice, “Kill us? Without even talking to us? Without a trial? Or… or…” I tried to think of reasons why terrifying armed guards would hesitate to murder two innocent young girls. 

Well, mostly innocent. I had ripped a hole in their world, after all. 

“Kill whatever had come through the rift,” Ella corrected herself. “They were looking for monsters.” 

“Your Truesight told you that?” I demanded.

Ella nodded, looking troubled. “I could see it on them. They’ve killed before. Many times.” 

My throat felt like it was closing up, like I couldn’t draw air through it. Mother was going to be so angry. Father… 

Ella pushed off the tree trunk. “Will your illusion be gone by now?”

Illusion-casting was not my strongest talent. Oh, don’t mistake me — my illusions are perfectly competent. Had it been my only talent — and had I been born to a different family or even to a different branch of my own family — the military would have snapped me up in a heartbeat. In preparation for my future career, I would have trained obsessively, practicing for hours a day, every day. My illusions might then last without me for several hours. 

As it was, though, they faded as soon as I wasn’t there to maintain them. “Most likely.” 

“We don’t have much time, then.” Ella’s eyes met mine. “We need a plan.” 

“We need to go home,” I said firmly. 

Ella winced, her face screwing up as if my words physically hurt her. “Oh, Lila, no.” 

“Oh, Ella, yes. Can you imagine what Father would do if these people kill us?” I waved my arm in the direction we’d run from. “How many do you think would die? All of those children playing at the school or just some of them?”

The expression of pain on Ella’s face deepened. 

“He’d turn this place into cinder and ashes,” I continued. 

“If he found it. There are thousands of worlds. It could take him decades to track us here.” 

“All the worse.” I looked back in the direction of the rift. Perhaps the hole I’d ripped was fortunate after all. The new rift touched the ground. All we needed to do was to get back to it and go through it without being seen. Perhaps we could hide in the forest until dark. Or perhaps I could create another illusion, something to hide us as we approached the rift. 

Of course, we always had the option of fighting our way out. It would grieve me enormously if I had to kill some guard who was just doing their duty, but I’m sure if I had the chance to explain that they were sacrificing themselves for the well-being of their people, they would understand. 

Well, perhaps not understand, exactly. One really had to know my father to appreciate the risk. 

But I was not going to let my sister die. Or me, either, of course. 

Ella grabbed my arm. “What about finding a new world, a safer one?” 

“How could we ever be sure?”

The bark on the tree next to us began to smolder and smoke. With an aggrieved mutter, I flattened my hand against the air and stopped it. 

Ella set her chin stubbornly. “I am not going home, Lila. I refuse.” 

“You are going home, if I have to drag you there.” I flipped my arm over, breaking free from Ella’s grasp, and returned the favor, grabbing her arm. 

It had been a long time since Ella and I had gotten into a physical tussle, and I wasn’t entirely sure my two years head start on her would be enough of an advantage to counteract our disparate shapes. Unfortunately for me, nature had kindly granted Ella curves. Not excessive curves, but the type of curves that caused the Grover boys to use words like “luscious” and “tasty” to describe her.

Obviously, they should have said nothing of the sort in our hearing and the fact that we had overheard them might have something to do with Ella’s total disdain for their company, but the point remained: I might have the advantage of two years in age and an inch in height, but Ella was no lightweight to be casually dragged back to the rift. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try. 

“You can’t make me,” Ella said. 

“Of course I can,” I responded, but my doubt grew. 

“No, you can’t.” Ella said. Her eyes caught mine. Their dark brown seemed to hold glints of green in the shade of the trees. “I’m much too heavy.” 

“You are not that heavy,” I said but my voice sounded uncertain, even to my own ears.

“I am very heavy,” Ella said deliberately. “I am much too heavy for you to move. You can’t even shift me, no matter how hard you try.” 

I wasn’t even trying yet. I’d taken hold of her arm, but I hadn’t tried to pull her. But perhaps she was right. She probably was, in fact. Hadn’t I just been thinking that I might have trouble? 

“You’re not strong enough to move me,” Ella said. 

And that was a phrase too far. I dropped her arm as if it was electrified and drew myself up to my tallest height. “Ella Rose Marie Serafina de Winterhoffe, how dare you! To even think of using Persuasion on me!” I was spluttering in my fury. 

A forest is a terrible place for a Fire talent to become enraged. 

Dried leaves on the ground near us burst into flame. The bark on the tree began smoldering again. Some bushes a few feet away must have had some dead branches because they began smoking, too. 

Ella shrieked, yanking the bag that she’d let rest on the ground away from the burning leaves and leaping away from the tree. 

Hot tears of mingled embarrassment and rage filled my eyes. I fought to get myself under control, and the fires with me. 

One at a time, I smothered each fire. The leaves were hardest. They were so dry that the fire wanted to run away from me, to escape into the undergrowth. By the time I succeeded in suffocating each little burst of flame, I was sweating and breathless. 

I turned to resume my argument with Ella. 

The black-clad stranger who had a firm grasp on her arm was not going to have any problem carrying her. 

They’d found us. 

The stranger said something. It was completely incomprehensible to me. I just stared at him. 

As might have been obvious, Ella and I were somewhat sheltered. Cloistered, even. We saw our neighbors, of course, and upon occasion, Mother would host guests at the estate, usually family. And when Father was in residence — a circumstance generally as brief as it was rare — a steady stream of visitors journeyed to meet with him. 

So it is entirely possible that it was simply my very limited exposure to members of the male sex in an appropriate age range that made this one seem so absolutely breathtaking. 

But he was. Breathtaking, I mean. 

I truly didn’t think I could breathe. I was acutely aware of the rip in my leggings and the sweat beading my forehead and probably staining my blouse, and I rued my decision to braid my hair like a little girl instead of wearing it up as befit a young lady of my years. 

He repeated his previous speech, speaking more slowly. 

I still understood not a word. 

Ella and I really hadn’t thought this out. Of course we didn’t speak this world’s language. How could we? Like all well-educated young ladies, we spoke our own language, Tizaian, and that of our closest neighboring country and perennial enemy, Reveth. Ella, in addition, spoke a smattering of Elzbiet and Fra.

I glanced at her, to see if she understood what he was saying. She was staring at him, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed, not even trying to escape his grip. 

“Ella,” I snapped at her. “Wake up.” 

“Oh, yes.” She dragged her eyes away from him. “I can’t understand him.” 

“What should I do?” I asked her. I had thought that I could kill a guard or two, if necessary, but that was before I’d seen him. Burning him would be a travesty, like destroying a piece of art. 

Plus, and perhaps more to the point, he looked… tough. And deadly. The form-fitting black suit he wore showed off an elegantly muscular build, but it was made of some material I didn’t recognize, and I wouldn’t be surprised it if was fireproof. Nor would I be surprised if he was perfectly capable of breaking my sister’s neck the second I made an aggressive move in his direction. 

I entirely understood why Ella had run and if he hadn’t been holding my sister prisoner, I would have done the same again. 

Ella shrugged helplessly. 

But the moment when we could have done anything was over. Two more of the black-clad guards and a woman in blue were floating down through the treetops toward us. If they were going to kill us, we were already doomed.