I felt a fool standing by the garden wall, a heavy bag over my shoulder. Ella had insisted 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 knife set 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, maybe 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, although the poison then 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 dropped my hand and 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.
I dropped my bag to the ground and crouched next to it, pulling it open. I needed my warmer robe out and on, as soon as possible. Ella should have suggested gloves and hats, too.
The wooden box holding the carving set was too big, preventing me from rummaging beneath it, so I pulled it out and set it on the ground, letting the candlesticks slide deeper into my bag. I had just laid my hand on the heavy wool of my winter robe when Ella’s squeal turned into a scream. She dashed behind me and I looked up to see a rat charging at us.
Not just a rat, though. A big rat. A rat out of nightmares. The kind of rat that you might invoke in a scary story designed to keep children up at night, with glittering red eyes and a hairless tail lashing the air behind it, clawed feet and teeth dripping with poisoned saliva. It leaped at us, flying through the air as if propelled by demons.
I incinerated it, of course.
And with none of that fancy drama some elemental talents throw into their work, with pointing hands and mystic gestures, lines of fire extending from their eyes or balls of flame shooting out of their finger tips.
No, I just set it on fire. All of it, inside and out.
The fiery corpse was still alight when it landed on the wooden box containing the carving set.
“Oh, Lila, thank you, thank you,” Ella was saying over and over behind me, as I quickly snuffed the flames and grabbed the box. I shook off the ashes and charred bones and stared at the wood in numb horror. The surface was blackened, charred with the remnants of rat corpse.
“Oh, no.” The words were a bare breath. “Oh, no.”
“You saved us, Lila.” Ella grabbed me, trying to hug me where I still crouched. “You saved us.”
“I burned Father’s carving set.” I turned toward her, shaking off her hug, holding up the box to show her. “Look!”
“So what?” Ella shrugged off the disaster as if it were nothing.
“He’ll be livid.” I set the box down, wanting nothing more than to run away from it, but staring at it in sick fascination. I couldn’t just abandon it. If it was missing, one of the servants might get blamed. That would be unacceptable. But I couldn’t put it back in the dining room. The damage was unmistakeable. As soon as someone noticed it, all eyes would turn toward me.
“We’re not going back.” Ella reached down and grabbed the box. “He’ll never know.”
“We… we have to go back.” I hadn’t envisioned this. I’d pictured us standing by the wall for a while, long enough to get hungry, before giving up. Or, if Ella was right and the hole opened, going inside and then returning home. Yes, I’d packed, but just because Ella wanted me to. I was humoring her, not seriously intending to run away.
Ella opened the box and took out the knife, tucking the box under her arm. Clutching the knife in her hand, she jabbed it forward a few times, then reversed her hold on it, and stabbed it down. “How do you suppose one does this?”
“Does what?” I decided to defer my moment of panic until after I had my winter robe on. Pulling it out of my bag, I shook it out and shrugged into it, as Ella continued experimenting with ways to hold the knife.
“Kill things with a knife, of course,” Ella replied impatiently.
“One doesn’t.” I tucked the collar of the robe up, wishing I’d brought the scarf that should wrap around it, but any cloth was better than nothing on my bare neck. There was no wind, fortunately, but the air held the chill of a deep midwinter evening. I was surprised the hedge leaves weren’t rimmed with frost.
“You don’t, but I might need to.” She waved the knife in the air, like a painter smearing oil on a canvas.
“You cannot learn to wield a weapon all in an instant, Ella.”
“You might be right.” Ella didn’t relinquish her grip on the knife, eyes scanning the terrain. “Do you want the fork?”
“Do I —?” I gave an involuntary bark of laughter at the image of Ella and I, walking along, knife and fork in hand, ready to prepare any monsters we met for carving. “No, of course not.”
“All right, I’m leaving it behind.” Ella lifted her elbow and let the box holding the rest of the carving set drop to the ground. It landed, half open, the fork still securely wedged in the velvet sleeve.
“We can’t just…” I started, as I reached for it.
“Yes, we can,” Ella said ruthlessly, stepping forward to block my way. “I’m keeping the knife out. Just in case.”
“In case of what?” I snapped, as I finally stood up. “In case we run into a roast tenderloin?”
Ella grinned at me. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. Her momentary dismay at the rat’s presence and her jubilance at its destruction were over and she seemed her usual insouciant self. “I’m trusting you to do any roasting that needs doing.”
“This is crazy, Ella.” I shivered deeper into my robes, eyes turning to the sky. The sketchy hedge leaves loomed above us, but I could see through them to nothingness. A great, vast nothingness. “We need to go home. Right now.” I tried to make my voice firm, as befit the elder sister in charge of the younger.
“Home so you can tell Father you burned his carving set?” Ella nodded toward the box on the ground.
I felt my stomach sink. For a moment, I’d been able to let go of that grim reality. What would Father do?
“Come along.” Ella didn’t wait for my reply, but started walking, away from the garden wall and deeper into the maze.
Sighing, I picked up my bag again and followed her.