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.
My thoughts stopped there.
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.