I woke slowly, reluctantly. I wanted to roll over on my side and burrow into the blankets for a few more moments of peace, but something tugged at my arm when I tried. I mumbled a protest.
“Lila?” Ella’s voice sounded breathy, cautious. And most unlike her. As you may have gathered by now, my sister was not a cautious sort of person.
I opened my eyes, blinking against the light. It was so bright that I tried to raise my arm to cover them, but was again stymied by something holding it in place. I would have complained, but my mouth was miserably dry and my throat hurt.
Was I sick? But I was never sick.
Slowly the memories began to return and despite the light, my eyes flew open.
I was lying in a narrow, tube-like structure with sides that curved up and partway around me. My left arm was restrained by bands of some soft material holding it against the side of the structure, with a wide tube entering the vein near my elbow.
“Lila?” Ella repeated, sounding more certain of herself. “Are you finally awake? They promised you were getting better and would awaken soon.”
I turned my head in her direction.
“Of course, they said that yesterday, too,” Ella continued, voice disgruntled. “And I’ve been sitting here for hours, waiting and waiting.”
My eyes met hers. She smiled at me. She looked her usual self, her flyaway dark curls in need of brushing, dimples peeking out of her golden cheeks with her smile, but her eyes were uncertain.
“What happened?” My voice rasped in my throat, the words husky. “Where am I?”
“In a machine.” Ella glanced over her shoulder, then leaned closer. “I’ve learned so much, Lila. This world is so different. They have the most amazing machines.”
A machine? The surface underneath me was soft and cushioned. It felt like a bed. But I supposed it did look more like a machine than any bed I’d ever seen. Still, I’d meant rather more by my question.
“Where are we, then?” I tried again, but it hurt to talk. My mouth felt horrible, dry and nasty-tasting. I ran my tongue around my teeth, trying to work up some saliva.
“It’s a healing room. We were right, this place is a school. But it’s a school for refugee children. Refugees from another world. It’s perfect for us. Well, sort of perfect. I mean… well…” Ella wrinkled her nose. “A few minor problems, perhaps, but mostly perfect.”
I let my eyes flutter closed. Somehow I suspected that Ella and I were going to have different standards of perfect.
“That lady in blue? Her name is Za Kestrel and she’s a teacher here,” Ella continued. “She knew we weren’t students, but she didn’t want to let the Swords take us. I think she was being practical, really. She hasn’t said as much, but there are so, so, so many children and not very many grown-ups. It’s wonderful. Sort of wonderful, anyway. Everyone has to do chores and everyone who’s old enough has to help with the littles. It’s not so bad, though. You should see what they use for diapers.”
She paused, then said tentatively, “Lila? Are you listening to me?”
I opened my eyes again. “What happened to me?” I whispered.
“Machines.” Ella raised her hand, squeezing her thumb against her forefinger. “Teeny-teeny tiny ones, called nannies. When you breathe them in, they zoom around your body.” She spread her hands, wiggling her fingers as if they were flying creatures. “And they do stuff.”
I swallowed. Ella’s enthusiasm was most disturbing, given how miserable I felt. Although, apart from my mouth and throat, I actually didn’t feel all that miserable anymore. I remembered the feel of my head wanting to split apart, but it no longer hurt. The nausea was gone and my stomach felt at worst mildly hungry.
A face appeared behind Ella’s — a man, with smooth, ageless skin, and dark hair and eyes. He might have been any age, from barely older than me to decades past my years.
“Patient doing better? Good, good. You worried us a bit, young lady. Not often we see a reaction so strong. But then you’re on the old side to be receiving System access. Generally the network build happens at a much younger age, when the brain is more malleable. Not to imply that your brain is inflexible, of course.” He chuckled.
The old side? I blinked. This world must be strange indeed if seventeen years was old.
He started fussing with the side of the bed and the bands restraining my arm slid away. With a small pinch, the tube followed suit. He placed a brown square against my skin where the tube had been, then said, “Ready to sit up?”
I lifted my arm, examining the square, first with my eyes, then with the fingers of my other hand. The material was soft, but smooth, with no weave that I could feel. And somehow it was staying in place without wrapping around my arm.
“What is this?” I asked.
The man shook his head. “You’ll have to learn our language, I’m afraid, before I can answer any question of yours.”
For the first time, I realized he was speaking the way the woman in blue had, with strange words whose meaning was still readily apparent. Even the sense of vagueness — of one word having many possible interpretations — was largely gone.
“A bandage,” Ella answered in our own language.
“A most peculiar bandage.” I let the man assist me in sitting up. I was wearing an odd garment, not the clothing I’d started out in, but a soft one-piece item, like a child’s romper, that left my legs and arms bare. Like the so-called bandage, I didn’t recognize the fabric, nor did it have a detectable weave.
Ella was wearing a deep green jumpsuit, but hers covered far more of her, with full-length pants and long sleeves.
I licked my lips. My mouth was still unpleasantly dry. The man noticed and promptly handed me a clear glass, saying, “Water?”
The glass was a relief. It was just an ordinary glass, round and clear, and the water in it tasted exactly like water always did. I drank it down in thankful gulps, feeling it ease my throat.
“That’s better now, isn’t it?” the man said cheerfully. “Now I’ll give you a few minutes to talk with your sister and then I’ll be back with some real food. But first, let’s just get you more comfortable.”
Without further warning, the tube started to move beneath me. I yelped and grabbed for its sides as my feet dropped and the area behind me rose.
The man patted my hand. “Nothing to worry about. I know Lucerne is a low-tech world, but this is just a standard med-cot.”
The bed stopped moving when it had turned into a chair. I let out my breath in a long sigh and the man disappeared through a door on the other side of the small room. The door slid shut behind him.
“Clever, isn’t it?” Ella said. She left my side to sit down on a chair against the wall. It extended beneath her, turning into something like a sloped divan. “This place is wonderful. We made such a good choice.”
“We need to go home,” I replied. The words were automatic. I was still feeling disoriented and confused, but not so much so that I didn’t remember the danger we were in.
“We can’t,” Ella said. “They closed the rift.”
In a moment, I was going to be very distressed about that, but meanwhile I was finding our surroundings quite distracting. Something was wrong with my vision. At least I thought it was my vision. Around the room, unreal lights shone in odd places. I could detect no source for them — no nearby lamps or candles, no crystals dangling in sunlit windows — and the lights themselves were uncanny, translucent but precisely shaped. A green square rested on the center of the closed door, while a small panel of colors sat next to the room’s only window. Overhead a square of amber light shone next to a much larger circle that actually emitted light in the fashion of an ordinary lamp.
As I gazed at the amber light, a symbol appeared upon it. It might have been a sigil, but it was not one I had ever seen before: one long line, with several short fine lines perpendicular to it, and a single midsized thicker band also perpendicular to the long line. The longer I looked, the darker the sigil became, while the midsized band began to pulse in a deeper amber.
Ella, seeing the direction of my stare, said helpfully, “Have you found the controls? Light, sixty percent.”
The band moved down one notch on the line and the light dimmed.
My mouth dropped open. “What?”
Ella laughed in delight. “Isn’t it amazing? You don’t even have to speak aloud. The System understands you if you just think about what you want to happen. As long as you have access, anyway. Some System functions are restricted to higher-level users.” She kept talking, but I was barely listening.
I pictured the amber band sliding back up the line. It did and the room became correspondingly brighter. I imagined it sliding down and the room grew darker. I moved it up and down, with nothing but the power of my mind, and the lights flickered on and off like lightning. At the very top of the line, the brightness was so strong that it hurt my eyes and I closed them again.
What a peculiar place.
“Discovered the System, I see,” the man’s voice spoke again. “Don’t worry, you’ll be used to it in no time.”
I opened my eyes to see him carrying a tray over to my chair. The tray held a covered plate and a tall glass of an unfamiliar yellow liquid. He glanced at the side of my chair, and a table formed out of the side of it and slid silently across my lap.
This time, I did not flinch. True, I had no experience with magical furnishings, but I was a de Winterhoffe. Magic was my heritage, even unusual magic. I refused to be shocked on general principles.
The man set the tray down. With a brush of his finger, the cover unfolded and tucked itself away, revealing several neatly arranged squares of different colors. A yellow square, two greens, a brown, and a deep blue.
Was it food? It almost had to be food, really — what else would be served on a plate?
But when he’d said “real food,” I’d anticipated the familiar. Eggs, perhaps, accompanied by toast and bacon. Oatmeal, maybe, with berries and cream.
I sniffed. The aroma rising from the plate was not unpleasant, but it was nothing I recognized.
“What is this?” I asked.
The man looked toward Ella, brows lifting in question.
She promptly stood. “She says thank you for your kindness, Za Aviv. I’ll make sure she eats it all.” She dipped her chin in a nod that came close to being a bow of dismissal.
He smiled at her. “More where that came from, if you’re hungry yourself, young one.”
“Thank you, but I broke my fast with the littles. I’ve had sufficient.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then.” The man departed.
I poked at the blue square. “No silverware?”
“Not for these.” Ella came to stand by my chair. She pointed at each square in turn. “Carbo, vito, vito, proto, sweet.”
The words were unfamiliar, except for the last. “What?”
She shrugged. “They don’t translate. But they taste all right.”
I picked up the first square, the yellow one, and took a tentative bite. It tasted vaguely like bread might taste if bread had a slippery texture. But my stomach rumbled as if to remind me that I’d been hungry for days, so I took another bite, and then another. One of the greens tasted somewhat like fresh spring peas and the other had a mildly spicy bite, while the brown reminded me of mushrooms, and the purple had the sweetness of a honey cake with a berry flavor.
Ella was right: they tasted all right. Strange, but satisfying.
Finished, I turned back to her. She’d wandered over to the window while I ate, and was leaning against the frame, forehead against the glass, looking out.
“What are you looking at?”
“One of the Shields is teaching a self-defense class in the courtyard.”
Ella was speaking our language, but I had the same sensation of words that didn’t mean what I thought they should mean. “Fencing with bucklers?” I asked doubtfully.
“No.” Ella turned back to me with a smile. Her earlier uncertainty was gone. “Come see.”
I felt a little wobbly as I stood, but the feeling quickly passed and I joined her at the window.
Below us, a man in a red uniform stood before several rows of adolescents. They were moving in unison, arms swinging forward, stepping back, turning, beginning again. It was like a dance lesson, if the dancers weren’t partnered, were all wearing matching attire, had no music, and — well, all right, it wasn’t much like a dance lesson. They kicked into the air, far higher than any formal dance of Tizai would ever allow.
“The man in red is called a Shield?” I asked. We were far enough away that we must have been on the third story of the building, and I couldn’t see his face, but his uniform looked much like the one worn by the woman we’d seen next to the rift.
“Yes. They’re the guardians of this land.”
“Who are the people in black, then?” It was perhaps not the most important question I could have asked. A dozen others — ranging from how long I’d been unconscious, to how they’d managed to close the rift, to how we were going to return home — should have been foremost in my mind. But the eyes of the man in the forest were still vivid in my memory.
“They’re called Swords.” Ella glanced behind her and dropped her voice. Almost whispering, she said, “We have to stay far away from them. If they discover us…” She shivered.
In a normal voice, I said, “Why are you whispering?” There was no one else in the room with us and if I understood correctly, no one here spoke our language, so it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been.
“If they choose to look, they can see and hear everything,” Ella whispered, barely forming the words. “And they have seers who understand unknown languages. We have to be careful.”
My brows rose. I wanted both to object and to ask more questions. How had Ella learned all this?
But she continued, still whispering. “The most important thing is to not use your talents, not any of them, when the Swords are around. Whenever they discover a child with talent, that child disappears. Forever.”
Our eyes met. Ella was as serious as I had ever seen her, her eyes intent on mine, no hint of cheer on her face.
But she knew, as well as I, the impossibility of her command. She might be able to hide her talents — even to use her Persuasion to ease any suspicions should some observer catch her levitating — but I’d spent most of my life trying to control my own unruly abilities, with only mixed success.
If I could conceal my talents, I wouldn’t have been sitting in our bedroom, available to join her in her escape. I would have been off on adventures of my own: finishing school, the appropriate travel, the social season in the capital — the standard milestones that marked the coming-of-age of a daughter of the aristocracy in Tizai.
“I’m not a child.” My mouth felt dry again.
“I don’t think that would stop them.”
“No.” I wasn’t cold, not really, but I wrapped my arms around myself as if I was, fingers closing against the bare skin of my upper arms. “We need to go home, Ella.”
“They closed the rift,” she said simply. “We’re trapped here.”