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. He never answered a direct question, either. 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 think that must be a school.”
I considered, too. I’d never entertained any 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 only 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 escape.
“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 stirred 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 job?”
“Perhaps I could be a shop clerk. Or a maid. Maybe 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 could be anything.”
She gave a firm nod.“And not a prize to go to the highest bidder.”
“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.”
“Are we going to be able to fit through that window?” I measured the space with my hands. It was small, triangular in shape, and set at a peculiar slant. We would have to squat and crawl through, but with the way that it was angled, I couldn’t see what we would be crawling into.
“Of course. Here, hold this.” Ella jabbed the knife she was holding in my direction.
I took a quick step back. “Be careful with that.”
“Take it.” She gestured impatiently, turning the knife so that its blade pointed to the side.
Warily, I took the knife from her, holding it in my fingertips, rather than clutching it the way she had. “What are you going to do?”
Ella pulled her bag around to her front, clutching it like a pillow. “Just in case,” she said obscurely.
“In case what?” I asked.
Ella sat down on the ground, stuck her feet through the window, and wiggled forward in a most unladylike motion. “In case I fall on my face, of course,” she said, just before her torso reached the edge of the window. With a squeal, she slid through it.
“Ella!” I dropped to my knees and stuck my face through the window, letting the knife clatter to the ground next to me. “Ella!”
She looked up at me from the ground, about three feet below, and gave me a wobbly smile. “That didn’t work quite right. I should have dropped my bag in first.”
“Are you all right?” I demanded.
“Um, yeah, I think so.” She scrambled to her feet and rubbed her posterior, glancing around her. The ground didn’t look like the courtyard where we’d seen the children playing. It was grassy and sloped. “There’s a wall. The school must be on the other side of it.”
“All right, I’m coming through.” I swung my bag forward and dropped it through the window. For a moment, I considered the knife I’d dropped, but if I brought it with me, Ella would just keep waving it around. Someone was bound to get hurt, probably her. Besides, we didn’t want to look threatening to these new people. So I abandoned the knife and wiggled through the window.
Having seen how Ella did it, I went the other way: still feet first, but backwards, clinging to the edge of the window. My feet waved in the air, feeling for the ground, which had to be down there somewhere.
“Just drop, Lila,” Ella called up to me. “You’re close.”
But letting go felt terrifying. I should have thought this through sooner. Once I dropped in, we would be stuck. With the window so far overhead, there would be no ducking back into it should we decide that this world was no place for us.
In fact, hanging there, turning red-faced with the effort of not letting gravity have its way with me, I became quite convinced that this was a terrible idea. And entirely unwilling to let go.
But the window decided for me. It crumbled away underneath my hands. With a shriek, I landed on the ground. Before me, the tiny window had become a gaping door into the in-between.
“Oh, dear,” I murmured.
Ella was chewing on her lower lip. “That’s not good.”
Not good felt like something of an understatement. We were standing on a grassy hill, with forest and rolling landscape in front of us, the wall that must enclose the playing children behind us, and between them, a path that led to chaos.
Ella circled the window. “Interesting,” she reported from the other side. “It has no depth, and I can’t see it from the back.” She walked straight through it, appearing in front of it. “Well, that’s not so bad. No one will stumble into it by accident, anyway.”
My stomach roiled with unease. Or perhaps it was just my hunger. I pressed my hand to it.
An alarm began blaring, making me jump. It sounded like a fog horn, low and resonant, penetrating deep into my bones. It paused and a voice, inhumanly loud, began speaking. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a word it was saying. I could imagine them vividly, though.
Alien girls have torn a hole in the fabric of the world. All staff, be on the alert. Shoot to kill. Something like that, anyway.
“Perhaps we should move away from this spot?” Ella suggested. She scooped both bags off the ground and shoved mine at me with unnecessary force. I caught it, staring at the in-between. It still made my vision blurry and my head hurt to look at it too closely, but my brain was racing, trying to think of some way to close it back up again.
Fire would be useless, of course. And starting a forest fire would be disastrous. I could create an illusion to hide it, but unless I wanted to take up residence on this very spot, the illusion would fade when I moved away.
Before I could consider whether any of my other talents could be of use, Ella grabbed my hand and began tugging at me. “We don’t want to be caught here, Lila.”
“We have to fix this.” I didn’t try to break free, but I didn’t start moving either.
“It’s a dimensional rift. I’ve been researching them for years and I have no idea how to open or close one. A great many of our ancestors also worked on the question for years without discovering the answer, so I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem in the next five minutes.”
Ella pulled harder and I began stumbling after her, my eyes still on the rift.
“But we have to tell someone,” I said.
“Funnily enough, I think they might know.”
“There’s no need for sarcasm,” I said huffily, but I stopped resisting. The fog horn had started again, reverberating so loudly that it was as much a vibration as a sound. I didn’t have a hand free — Ella had one, I held my bag with the other — so I couldn’t clap them over my ears, but I would have liked to. “Where are we going?”
Instead of following the wall and searching for a door, Ella was heading straight for the forest, away from the school.
“We can hide out in the woods for a while, until the hubbub dies down,” she called over her shoulder, and then her eyes widened.
I didn’t look over my shoulder, just cast the simplest illusion possible behind me — the sight of what was ahead of us. Someone perceptive might notice that the forest had just moved fifty feet closer to the wall, but with any luck, the rift would distract them until we were well-hidden.
Ella’s view would have been immediately blocked by the trees of my illusion, but she wouldn’t have been deceived; her Truesight would see straight through them. She didn’t pause to appreciate my quick thinking, however, instead turning and running until we were among the real trees.
There was no path so anyone with eyes would see where we’d crashed through the undergrowth into the forest, but Ella kept running and I kept following. I could have passed her easily — Speed was one of my minor talents — but I wasn’t about to leave her behind.
Finally, she paused, breathing hard. She put her back against the trunk of a huge tree. I stopped next to her and leaned over, resting my hands on my knees as I also caught my breath.
A tear in the fabric of my leggings caught my eye. I must have snagged it on a branch or a bramble.
“Bother,” I said, fussing at it. “I don’t suppose you thought to bring a sewing kit?”
“A sewing kit?” Ella asked between gasps.
“It would be far more useful than silver candlesticks.” I’d caught my breath faster than Ella but then I spent more time roaming the woods at home than she did. She spent her free hours in the library.
“Really not a priority at the moment.” Ella rested her head against the bark and closed her eyes. “Your illusion was inspired.”
“Thank you.” I acknowledged the compliment with a gracious tilt of my head. Mother was very firm about the forms for polite acceptance of flattery, but I heard the truth in Ella’s words. She did believe my illusion was inspired, and I had to admit, I was pleased with my own ingenuity.
Honestly compels me to admit, however, that I’ve pulled the same trick more than once at home, when for one reason or another I haven’t wished to be discovered. It wasn’t a novel idea for me, more of an automatic reaction to the fear of being seen.
“Did you see those guards?” Ella asked.
“I didn’t look.”
Ella fanned herself. Her cheeks were flushed, I assumed from the heat generated by our brisk run. “They were…” She paused. Was the flush on her cheeks deepening?
“Ferocious?” I suggested. “Heavily armed?” That fog horn alarm, still audible, although not nearly so oppressive with a bit more distance, was foreboding.
“Beautiful.” Ella sighed.
“Beautiful?” I repeated in surprise.
“Beautiful,” Ella repeated firmly. “Just…” She waved a hand in the air, as if she couldn’t find the words, then put it over her heart. “Beautiful. There were two of them, levitating over the wall. Both dressed in black, both young. A woman, her hair…” Ella gestured, moving her hand in circles down her side, as if to indicate long ringlets. “And a boy—well, man, I suppose—with…” She sighed again.
I waited, but she seemed to have lost her ability to speak. Or perhaps her vocabulary. Her eyes were dreamy. “That doesn’t sound so bad. Perhaps we shouldn’t have run.”
“Oh, no.” Ella shook her head, the dreamy look disappearing and being replaced by her usual sharp focus. “They were terrifying. Beautiful, but stern and determined. And…” She nibbled on her lower lip.
I recognized the expression. She was considering what to tell me, and whether to tell me the truth. “This is not a time to be keeping secrets.”
“No. Well…” She swallowed. “I may have made a mistake. We might have been better off in that market world.”
“They intended to kill us.”
“Kill us?” I squeaked. And then covered my mouth, coughed, and said in a more normal voice, “Kill us? Without even talking to us? Without a trial? Or… or…” I tried to think of reasons why terrifying armed guards would hesitate to murder two innocent young girls.
Well, mostly innocent. I had ripped a hole in their world, after all.
“Kill whatever had come through the rift,” Ella corrected herself. “They were looking for monsters.”
“Your Truesight told you that?” I demanded.
Ella nodded, looking troubled. “I could see it on them. They’ve killed before. Many times.”
My throat felt like it was closing up, like I couldn’t draw air through it. Mother was going to be so angry. Father…
Ella pushed off the tree trunk. “Will your illusion be gone by now?”
Illusion-casting was not my strongest talent. Oh, don’t mistake me — my illusions are perfectly competent. Had it been my only talent — and had I been born to a different family or even to a different branch of my own family — the military would have snapped me up in a heartbeat. In preparation for my future career, I would have trained obsessively, practicing for hours a day, every day. My illusions might then last without me for several hours.
As it was, though, they faded as soon as I wasn’t there to maintain them. “Most likely.”
“We don’t have much time, then.” Ella’s eyes met mine. “We need a plan.”
“We need to go home,” I said firmly.
Ella winced, her face screwing up as if my words physically hurt her. “Oh, Lila, no.”
“Oh, Ella, yes. Can you imagine what Father would do if these people kill us?” I waved my arm in the direction we’d run from. “How many do you think would die? All of those children playing at the school or just some of them?”
The expression of pain on Ella’s face deepened.
“He’d turn this place into cinder and ashes,” I continued.
“If he found it. There are thousands of worlds. It could take him decades to track us here.”
“All the worse.” I looked back in the direction of the rift. Perhaps the hole I’d ripped was fortunate after all. The new rift touched the ground. All we needed to do was to get back to it and go through it without being seen. Perhaps we could hide in the forest until dark. Or perhaps I could create another illusion, something to hide us as we approached the rift.
Of course, we always had the option of fighting our way out. It would grieve me enormously if I had to kill some guard who was just doing their duty, but I’m sure if I had the chance to explain that they were sacrificing themselves for the well-being of their people, they would understand.
Well, perhaps not understand, exactly. One really had to know my father to appreciate the risk.
But I was not going to let my sister die. Or me, either, of course.
Ella grabbed my arm. “What about finding a new world, a safer one?”
“How could we ever be sure?”
The bark on the tree next to us began to smolder and smoke. With an aggrieved mutter, I flattened my hand against the air and stopped it.
Ella set her chin stubbornly. “I am not going home, Lila. I refuse.”
“You are going home, if I have to drag you there.” I flipped my arm over, breaking free from Ella’s grasp, and returned the favor, grabbing her arm.
It had been a long time since Ella and I had gotten into a physical tussle, and I wasn’t entirely sure my two years head start on her would be enough of an advantage to counteract our disparate shapes. Unfortunately for me, nature had kindly granted Ella curves. Not excessive curves, but the type of curves that caused the Grover boys to use words like “luscious” and “tasty” to describe her.
Obviously, they should have said nothing of the sort in our hearing and the fact that we had overheard them might have something to do with Ella’s total disdain for their company, but the point remained: I might have the advantage of two years in age and an inch in height, but Ella was no lightweight to be casually dragged back to the rift. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try.
“You can’t make me,” Ella said.
“Of course I can,” I responded, but my doubt grew.
“No, you can’t.” Ella said. Her eyes caught mine. Their dark brown seemed to hold glints of green in the shade of the trees. “I’m much too heavy.”
“You are not that heavy,” I said but my voice sounded uncertain, even to my own ears.
“I am very heavy,” Ella said deliberately. “I am much too heavy for you to move. You can’t even shift me, no matter how hard you try.”
I wasn’t even trying yet. I’d taken hold of her arm, but I hadn’t tried to pull her. But perhaps she was right. She probably was, in fact. Hadn’t I just been thinking that I might have trouble?
“You’re not strong enough to move me,” Ella said.
And that was a phrase too far. I dropped her arm as if it was electrified and drew myself up to my tallest height. “Ella Rose Marie Serafina de Winterhoffe, how dare you! To even think of using Persuasion on me!” I was spluttering in my fury.
A forest is a terrible place for a Fire talent to become enraged.
Dried leaves on the ground near us burst into flame. The bark on the tree began smoldering again. Some bushes a few feet away must have had some dead branches because they began smoking, too.
Ella shrieked, yanking the bag that she’d let rest on the ground away from the burning leaves and leaping away from the tree.
Hot tears of mingled embarrassment and rage filled my eyes. I fought to get myself under control, and the fires with me.
One at a time, I smothered each fire. The leaves were hardest. They were so dry that the fire wanted to run away from me, to escape into the undergrowth. By the time I succeeded in suffocating each little burst of flame, I was sweating and breathless.
I turned to resume my argument with Ella.
The black-clad stranger who had a firm grasp on her arm was not going to have any problem carrying her.
They’d found us.
The stranger said something. It was completely incomprehensible to me. I just stared at him.
As might have been obvious, Ella and I were somewhat sheltered. Cloistered, even. We saw our neighbors, of course, and upon occasion, Mother would host guests at the estate, usually family. And when Father was in residence — a circumstance generally as brief as it was rare — a steady stream of visitors journeyed to meet with him.
So it is entirely possible that it was simply my very limited exposure to members of the male sex in an appropriate age range that made this one seem so absolutely breathtaking.
But he was. Breathtaking, I mean.
I truly didn’t think I could breathe. I was acutely aware of the rip in my leggings and the sweat beading my forehead and probably staining my blouse, and I rued my decision to braid my hair like a little girl instead of wearing it up as befit a young lady of my years.
He repeated his previous speech, speaking more slowly.
I still understood not a word.
Ella and I really hadn’t thought this out. Of course we didn’t speak this world’s language. How could we? Like all well-educated young ladies, we spoke our own language, Tizaian, and that of our closest neighboring country and perennial enemy, Reveth. Ella, in addition, spoke a smattering of Elzbiet and Fra.
I glanced at her, to see if she understood what he was saying. She was staring at him, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed, not even trying to escape his grip.
“Ella,” I snapped at her. “Wake up.”
“Oh, yes.” She dragged her eyes away from him. “I can’t understand him.”
“What should I do?” I asked her. I had thought that I could kill a guard or two, if necessary, but that was before I’d seen him. Burning him would be a travesty, like destroying a piece of art.
Plus, and perhaps more to the point, he looked… tough. And deadly. The form-fitting black suit he wore showed off an elegantly muscular build, but it was made of some material I didn’t recognize, and I wouldn’t be surprised it if was fireproof. Nor would I be surprised if he was perfectly capable of breaking my sister’s neck the second I made an aggressive move in his direction.
I entirely understood why Ella had run and if he hadn’t been holding my sister prisoner, I would have done the same again.
Ella shrugged helplessly.
But the moment when we could have done anything was over. Two more of the black-clad guards and a woman in blue were floating down through the treetops toward us. If they were going to kill us, we were already doomed.