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.
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.