I felt a fool standing by the garden wall, a heavy bag over my shoulder. Ella had insisted that I bring along three changes of clothing, including a heavy woolen robe that I wore only in the depths of Midwinter, and the entire contents of my jewelry chest. At the last minute, as we’d passed through the dining room on our way to the French doors that led to the back patio, she’d stuffed a wooden box containing the carving knives used on special occasions and two silver candlesticks on top of the bag.
“You never know,” she’d said cheerfully. Fortunately, we’d heard the rumble of Mother’s conveyance departing before we ventured downstairs, but I knew that if we were to encounter any of the servants before we made it safely back to our room, I’d be trying to explain this to her before morning. That was not a pleasant thought.
The location that Ella claimed was the right place was at the outer edge of the kitchen gardens. I could well imagine that a hole could open up in this spot and no one would see it, especially at this time of day. The gardeners would be long gone for their dinners, and no random passersby should be strolling back with the rutabagas. At least, I thought those ragged green leaves belonged to rutabagas. They might be turnips but I had no inclination to pull one up to confirm.
“You’d think that Amelia or Sibylla or one of them would have noted the spot,” I remarked idly, lowering my bag to rest on my booted toes.
Ella and I were both dressed as if for a journey in comfortable walking shoes, sturdy leggings and sleeved blouses topped with close-fitting tunics. But Ella already wore her heavy robe. Sweat was beading along the edges of her forehead, curling the fine threads of hair.
She shot a glance at me, her lips quirking. She gestured toward the wall. “Do you recall what lies on the other side?”
I tried to envision the layout of the grounds. Given my lifetime on the estate, I ought to know them like the back of my hand, but how often did one really stare at the back of one’s hands? I knew the front gardens well, the walking trails through the forest even better, but I didn’t often ramble about the working areas of the estate. I hazarded a guess. “The rose garden?”
“The maze,” she told me. “Built by Revel de Winterhoffe.”
“How interesting.” I regarded Ella’s section of wall with a bit more care. The maze was hundreds of years old and a nightmare. No pleasant strolls down sandy paths between gentle green shrubs for de Winterhoffes, no. Our maze had brambles, thick and ancient, that would tear at your skin if you brushed against them, and the hedges met overhead, making for dank tunnels populated by spiders and probably rats.
Well, probably not rats. Or at least there was no particular reason to think that rats would care for the maze. But spiders, definitely. We avoided the maze unless we had an unpleasant visitor who needed to be shown a miserable time, and that hadn’t happened since our cousin Georgia visited when I was twelve and Ella was ten. Georgia was from the de Verayz side of the family and she was the kind of sugar-and-light that barely disguised poison. She slithered. Less so after she made it out of the maze, though, although the poison became much more obvious.
“So how long do we wait?” I asked Ella.
“It’s not time yet.” Ella chewed on her lip, a sign of her nerves, and kept her eyes on the wall.
“Yes, but I’m hungry. And since Cook expected us to dine with the Grovers, she’ll have nothing planned. Perhaps she’ll let us fend for ourselves. We could make omelettes.”
“Nonsense.” Ella didn’t blink. “You know she won’t let you in the kitchen.”
“She might.” I tugged the bag higher on my feet, wiggling my toes. They were growing numb from the weight. I should let the bag rest on the ground, but I didn’t know where Ella had found it or how much trouble she’d get in if it were dirtied when she returned it.
I sighed. Ella was undoubtedly right. Even if I could assure Cook that I wouldn’t set fire to her kitchen, she would fear Father’s wrath should anything untoward happen and he hear about it.
“You could ask her,” I suggested.
“Persuade her, you mean?” Ella shifted the bag slung over her shoulder to the other side. It, too, must be getting heavy.
“No, of course not.” I defended myself, but without much force behind the words. Ella was not allowed to use her persuasion ability on the servants. But if she phrased the question the right way, it would take barely any persuasion at all to convince Cook to let us in the kitchen. Something like, “Wouldn’t you like help preparing dinner?” would have Cook nodding yes before she even thought of resisting.
“It’s not going to matter,” Ella said. She grabbed my hand. I had just enough time to grab the bag off my feet and swing it up into the air before Ella dragged me straight into the wall.
Into the wall and out the other side.
I gasped. My breath formed vapor on the air.
“I did it, I did it!” Ella began jumping up and down, squealing with delight, while I tried to look in all directions at once.
We were in the space between worlds. It looked remarkably like my memories of the hedge maze, except not finished, as if we’d entered a painting with most of the structure merely sketched in. The colors were missing and the details. And the leaves faded off into nothingness, a black empty space that reminded me of nothing so much as the endless expanse of a midwinter sky on an overcast night.
It was terrifying.
I was terrified.
Or perhaps I was just cold. “It’s freezing,” I said, between shivering lips.
“It is, rather.” Ella puffed out a white cloud and laughed with delight.