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. Never answering a question directly was his style, as well. 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 considered, too. I’d never entertained many 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 just 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 run away.
“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 started to stir 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 a job?”
“Perhaps I could be a shop clerk. Or a maid. Perhaps 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 said. “I could be anything.”
“And not a prize to go to the highest bidder.” She gave a firm nod of her head.
“You know 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.”
I grinned back at her.